An experiment with street workouts

by Ryan Wagner

If you’re looking to kill some time hop on Pinterest and search for street workout or calisthenic boards. It’ll take about 2 seconds for you to start thinking that maybe you aren’t as strong as you thought. There is an elite handful of guys and girls that can do some really amazing things using only their bodyweight. Using only the ground and a pull-up bar they seem to mold enviable physiques and make it look easy.

In the gym we are all too good at training along planes and in particular directions. It’s no secret that machines can be somewhat limiting because despite the designers’ best efforts, they often do not let your body move as it was intended.

For some of you, this may be just fine. Nautilus, for instance, has done an excellent job of developing workout machines that optimally load your muscles as a function of your muscles unique force curve. Have you ever noticed that during a bicep curl you feel strongest after you get the weight moving a bit? It’s because your muscles get stronger and can output more force when they pass through a certain range of motion. Well designed workout machines can match the weight to this force curve in a near perfect way.

So if your goal is to purely lose some pounds and improve your overall fitness then building muscle is your best bet. Muscle tissue is more metabolically demanding and will help your body to burn fat. And if you’re new to weightlifting, then yes, I think machines certainly have a place in your program.

But what if you’re an advanced lifter? Maybe you’ve plateaued and are looking for something new or maybe you would just rather be outside during the warm days of summer instead of in the iron palace as usual?

Or, if you’re like me, you’ve spent too much time on Pinterest and YouTube watching the amazing feats of strength with calisthenics and street workouts. I promptly went to the park and tried a few simple exercises only to discover that I wasn’t nearly as strong as I had always thought.

Frank Medrano, a vegan athlete, is one of the foremost calisthenics gurus and has built quite a name for himself using only his bodyweight:

I can do a near perfect pull-up. I can also manage a messy muscle-up. But a human flag seems damn near impossible.

It was my first attempt at a human flag that I realized my shoulders simply don’t have the strength I thought they always had. And that my core is weak! What?!

True, it’s all relative. Put me in a nice safe gym and I can handle myself just fine, but pluck me from that nice and familiar sanctuary and put me up against the true street artists and I’m suddenly out of my league.

So what’s the big idea with the whole street workout thing? Who are the people that do this sort of thing? To find out I’ve decided to devote my summer to focusing on just that. My goal is to get a better understanding of how a street workout can help advanced lifters.

Here are my rather ambitious goals to achieve by Labor Day:

1. Human flag

The human flag is the ultimate measure of strength. I even put it on the podium above a muscle-up. It demands some serious shoulder strength, grip strength, core, well, let’s just say it, your whole body needs to be almost super human.


2. A controlled muscle-up (on a bar)

As I mentioned above, I can perform a muscle-up, but it’s messy. I need to tuck my knees like my life depends on it and even then I have to finish with a relatively deep, compensating dip. But to perform a muscle-up slowly and methodically is what Ido Portal has coined ‘self dominance’ in its purest form. That’s my goal.

3. A handstand

This is surely the easiest of the three goals and I’ll likely check this box first. I can do a handstand right now, but from a hundred yards away it’s obvious that I’m not comfortable in this possible. I teeter and after about 3 seconds if I’m lucky I come crashing down. I want to be able to hold a handstand with the same confidence that I hold a simple plank.

There you have it, (3) simple goals for the summer.

Can’t be that hard, right? After all, it’s just bodyweight :).

So how do these guys get so big? It’s just bodyweight!

Any strength coach worth his mettle is going to tell you that in order to get stronger you need to put more weight on the bar. And that’s true. To gain strength you need a barbell and some plates.

But then how do these gurus of the bar get so ripped? Are they augmenting their training with Olympic weightlifting? Some other program?

That’s what I hope to learn.

In my opinion, much of the stimulus from a street workout is derived from the volume. Unless you have a weighted vest, it will be very challenging to add any extra weight on top of your own bodyweight. But by playing with the frequency and intensity of workouts, it may be that this is all the variability one needs to grow new muscle without wrecking your central nervous system (CNS).


Something that was immediately apparent to me with my first workout at the park last week was that,

This could really hurt if I fall.

Whenever you are swinging from a bar seven or eight feet off the ground, yes, you are putting yourself at an elevated level of risk. So be it. But I’m going to be safe. How do I know when my workout is over? When my grip starts to fatigue. Simple as that.

Otherwise, I may find myself falling face first on to the ground and even if I managed to get that tiger paw of mine in front of me just in time to help break my fall, it will probably do just that, break. And you can’t get your upper body any stronger with a broken wrist.

So if you’re considering a street workout variation this summer, take it easy and listen to your body. When you’re feeling fatigued it’s time to go home. Or, spend some time with your ground work, but your bar work for the day is over.

But what about my bench press?

I know, I know. There’s nothing like throwing on the big plates to a barbell. The sound of the weight hitting against one another can be a meathead’s orchestra. But loading plates to a barbell is also a safety net for those of us that consider ourselves to be well tenured lifters. We’ve trained the groove and gotten good at it. But it’s takes courage to step outside, get down on the ground and try a front lever.

It’s only your bodyweight. Probably less weight than what was on that barbell. But it’s humbling.

Even CT Fletcher is in awe of what a guy like Medrano can do.

So, stayed tuned. More to come. I’ll keep you aware of my progress and what I learn this summer. 

Do you have experience with impressive calisthenics? Do you know a good progression? Drop me a note and let me know what your thoughts are.

Further Reading

There are plenty of great sources out there for finding your starting point for your calisthenics, but I’ve grown to enjoy the content of Gold Medal Bodies. Great tutorials and progression that works.

By Ryan Wagner

An experiment with street workouts by