Ask Stew: Why Weights and Calisthenics Don't Have to Be Mutually Exclusive

A participant in a new combat fitness class prepares to lift kettlebells.
A participant of a new combat fitness class prepares to perform kettlebell exercises, April 2, 2014, at Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, N.C. (Senior Airman John Nieves Camacho/U.S. Air Force photo)

Here is an email I get often from people seeking to improve calisthenics scores in PT tests. Either they ask to do pull-ups, push-ups, dips, etc., every day or how to mix them into a weightlifting program. Here is what I recommend:

Hi Stew -- I really enjoy weightlifting three times a week. I was wondering if I can do a pull-up/push-up workout the day after weightlifting and not overwork myself. Right now, I'm at 96 push-ups in two minutes but only 13 solid pull-ups. Thanks for the email access.

Your PT scores are pretty good, and I would keep up the calisthenics workouts -- especially if you are seeking employment into the military or law enforcement careers. I have no issues with lifting weights. As a former powerlifting football player, I love lifting weights, but calisthenics also should be considered "weight training;" it still provides significant resistance to your bones, joints, muscles.

For instance, if you do a pull-up, you are pulling your entire body weight over a bar. Now try to do the same amount of weight on a lat pulldown machine. If you have never tried body weight pull-downs, let me warn you: They are heavy. So consider pull-ups a heavy weightlifting exercise as far as recovery is concerned. Your lats, biceps and grip muscles will require up to 48 hours of rest to recover fully.

Push-ups -- These exercises are a bit different as a push-up is about 50%-60% of your body weight placed on your chest, shoulders and triceps. This is like a 200-pound man doing a bench press with 100-120 pounds. This is not that tough, but if your volume of repetitions is significant (greater than 200-300 reps) in a push-up workout, you will need at least 48 hours to recover from high-repetition workouts.

How about dips? Dips are tougher on the shoulders, chest, triceps than push-ups, as you are placing your full body weight on that joint. Proper form is recommended. Usually I advise not to go down where your shoulders are lower than your elbows, so you don't  stress your most versatile joints and avoid potential injury. Once again, recovery is needed after a PT workout that involves parallel bar dips as well.

So if you like to lift weights, add the calisthenics exercises to the end of your workout to burn them out fully or start with body-weight exercises like pull-ups, push-ups and dips to warm up before lifting weights. Both types of resistance training will develop muscle growth, strength and stamina if you use a moderate high-repetition workout program.

Don't forget your cardio. Especially if you are seeking a military or law enforcement profession and training for an indoctrination or academy program, you will be running -- a lot. So build up your running accordingly over a reasonable period of time. Do not just start out one day and hit a five-mile run out of nowhere. If you are just starting out on running, only add 10% of time and distance per week (starting at one mile of running a day) as long as you are not experiencing any pain while or after running. If you are overweight and need to lose 30-40 pounds, consider a non-impact aerobic activity like biking, rowing, swimming, elliptical gliding or just walking to avoid the added stress on your knees, shins, heels, and lower back.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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