“Gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.”
This is the definition of calisthenics, one of the best options for styling your workouts.
There are many benefits to doing calisthenics over other forms of exercise.
In this full guide, we’ll show you how calisthenics can help you reach your goals, how to start a calisthenics routine, and how to structure your diet in combination with your workouts for maximum effect.
- 1 What Are Calisthenics?
- 2 Benefits of Doing Calisthenics
- 3 Calisthenics For Fat Loss
- 4 Calisthenics For Building Muscle
- 5 Calisthenics VS. Weights
- 6 How To Start Calisthenics
- 7 Basic Calisthenics Equipment
- 8 List of Calisthenics Exercises For Beginners
- 9 Calisthenics Sets and Reps
- 10 Beginners Calisthenics Workout
- 11 Calisthenics Diet
- 12 Conclusion
What Are Calisthenics?
As I said before, they are exercises to achieve fitness and grace.
Not only do calisthenics help you create the body you want, but they help in other areas of fitness too, such as flexibility, cardiovascular, and muscular endurance.
While most workouts and physique exercises focus on one or two of these areas, calisthenics enables you to become a well-rounded, healthy individual who can do some cool stuff as well.
Simplicity is a good word to describe calisthenics.
I’m talking about your classic exercises – air squats, push-ups, pull-ups – done with both increased intensity and advanced positions.
They usually involve just your bodyweight, which turns out is definitely enough. Variations add to the difficulty, so progressing is doable or you can always add some additional weight with a vest.
Once you have good comprehension of these movements and their variations, you can structure your workouts to develop all of your body parts while experiencing a wide range of benefits.
Benefits of Doing Calisthenics
- You can do them…even if you’ve never worked out before. The beauty of calisthenic movements is no matter your athletic ability, you can do a variation of them. Maybe regular push-ups are too difficult; you can start on your knees, or inclined with a chair. Perhaps they’re too easy; go with a decline, add weights, switch up hand placement.
- You can do them…anywhere, anytime. The weather turned nasty today, it was a long day at work and now it’s 9 PM and you’re sitting on your couch, the gym or the park is too far away. Now, none of these are legitimate excuses! With calisthenics, you need only a few pieces of equipment, if that. Doing sets of dips and fire hydrant leg raises involve only your body, while pull-ups and other movements require a simple bar.
- You can do them…cheaper than any other fitness regimen. Gym memberships, classes, special equipment, instructional videos…all of the materials you need to workout is enough to make your head spin (and keep you from working out). Calisthenics enables you to use your body as the equipment. The Internet is your instructionals and classes (hello, right here). As for gym memberships, as the previous bullet point explained, you can work out from home, at a park, wherever you can find some parallel bars.
Essentially, with calisthenics, you’re no longer beholden to anything to get a good workout in. Get on the floor and get going is the gist of rudimentary gymnastics.
Calisthenics For Fat Loss
The cool thing about calisthenics is, once you understand basic movements and progressions, you can create whatever type of workout you want with these exercises.
If your main goal is fat loss or leaning down, you can do just that!
Both cardiovascular motions – getting your heart rate up into a “fat burning zone” – and strength training are awesome ways to burn calories and, once your glycogen stores are used up, body fat.
A combination is best. Structures like tabata and HIIT are perfect to compliment calisthenics because these are quick, one after the other workouts where you can’t necessarily move from machine to machine (or worse, involve heavy free weights).
It’s safe to go fast and hard with calisthenics exercises.
For fat loss, you’re looking to burn the most amount of calories in the least amount of time.
This drains your glucose stores and starts to target your stored body fat (more on this later).
The more fatigued you get, the more blood you get pumping, the more fat will be burned. Of course, this is coupled with a tremendous diet, but we’ll cover that in a few sections.
Calisthenics For Building Muscle
This one is hard to believe. I mean, bodyweight exercises for adding muscle? Sounds almost too good to be true.
Well, it is…sort of. Calisthenics are good for building solid muscle relative to your body weight, but they are not the optimal way to gain muscle.
Other kinds of strength training, like Olympic lifting or bodybuilding, are the best for that.
But if you’re a beginner, or you’ve stalled hard in adding weight to the bar, then maybe calisthenics is just the thing for you.
Not only will calisthenics help you build decent muscle, it will be full muscle.
For example, if you were to rep out on the bench press, your hands go only so far – the bar touches your chest and you go back up.
However, if you were to do a decline push-up with parallel bars (which can be done) and went down, you can surpass your chest and go as far as possible.
This allows for added flexibility and stronger muscles. With weightlifting, you usually target certain parts of the muscle; calisthenics ensures you get not only the head of the muscle but all of the little fibers on the ends too.
As long as you keep progressing with your movements, your body will be getting stronger. If you’re getting stronger, you’re going to build muscle to take on the increased load.
Calisthenics VS. Weights
As we’ve briefly touched upon, calisthenics and weight training each have their pros and cons.
On one side, there’s weightlifting.
A traditional way to get in shape, and the second most popular thing to do at the gym (right behind the fun-as-hell treadmill).
Here are a few benefits of slinging around free weights and using multiple machines:
- You get stronger and build muscle faster.
- At a gym, you get access to a wide range of exercises.
- It’s easy to track progress – it’s the weight itself!
- You know which exercise targets which muscle, making it very specific and isolated.
Then on the other side, you have calisthenics. You know of the benefits of these bodyweight exercises, but compared to weightlifting:
- You still build muscle, but at a slower pace.
- The world is your gym, with 24-hour access!
- It’s a little tougher to track your progress, but as long as you know the variations, you can keep moving forward without a hitch.
- Almost all of the exercises are compound, so you work multiple muscles at the same time.
So they each have their advantages. Take these into consideration when you decide which is right for you.
It might result that you involve both in your workout strategy, or it’s simply one or the other.
Whatever you decide, make sure it coincides with what you enjoy doing, in order to make it a consistent, sustainable habit.
How To Start Calisthenics
The way to begin your bodyweight journey is to learn the basics.
Of course, you have push-ups, pull-ups, air squats, hamstring curls, handstand push-ups or pike push-ups, dips, and Australian pulls, and sprints.
(Don’t worry, these will be covered in depth later.) With a few key movements, you can create a workout plan based on those and their respective variations.
For the first week or so, familiarize yourself with these bodyweight movements.
Some of them might be a bit awkward when you’re just starting out, but that’s only because there’s zero muscle memory.
Once you get the hang of the classics, up the reps and challenge yourself until it’s time to learn a new, harder variation.
The best way to structure a calisthenics workout schedule is to group together similar body parts.
When I say that, I’m talking push muscles, pull muscles, and leg muscles. You can work these as often as you want, put two of them together on the same day, or go full body three times a week.
An example workout routine might look like this:
- A Day (Monday/Friday): Push Day (chest, triceps, shoulders)
- B Day (Tuesday/Saturday): Pull Day (back, biceps, traps)
- C Day (Wednesday/Sunday): Leg Day (Quads, Glutes, Hamstrings, Calves)
- Thursday: Off
You can throw core or ab exercises in there too, but surprisingly most if not all of these exercises should involve you contracting your core.
Direct abdominal movements have the same effects as indirect movements.
Basic Calisthenics Equipment
A great reason to go with calisthenics as your workout of choice is the equipment needed. What you need is:
- Your own body
- The ground
- A horizontal bar that’s just out of reach above you
- A set of parallel bars at hip height
That’s it…at least for the basics.
With the ground – which is free in most places – and your body, you have all of your push exercises and abdominal movements, as well as most legwork.
The horizontal bar is needed for both pulling work and hanging ab exercises.
And the short parallel bars are mainly used for dips and Australian pulls.
These items can be found at any local park, school gymnasium, or you could even make your own set in your backyard!
The fact that you can find a monkey bar setup and parallel bars for free in your neighborhood is a wonderful way calisthenics can give you the gift of fitness on the cheap.
List of Calisthenics Exercises For Beginners
The original. With your hands and legs on the ground, your body in a plank position, bend your elbows and lower your body down. Be sure to keep your elbows tucked into your sides and your butt is down. Once you are about an inch above the ground, rise back up to complete the rep.
Variations: Push-ups on knees, incline/decline push-ups, wide stance push-ups, archer push-ups, Bulgarian push-ups, planche hold, planche push-ups, one-hand push-ups, etc.
Severely underutilized, these are actually known for being better for developing your chest than push-ups. Start with your hands gripping a pair of parallel bars and suspending your body in the air. Lower yourself towards the ground, bending your elbows until they make a 90-degree angle. Then push back up.
Variations: Leaning forward helps target the chest more than the triceps. Other than that, you can add weight for a combination of weights and calisthenics, as well as upping the difficulty, which is the name of the game.
Like a regular push-up, but this time you are in a downward dog position, forming an upside-down V. The up and down motion is shallower, using your shoulders to carry and lift the load. For best results, place your hands on the ground facing each other, so that your elbows flare out during the descending part of the movement.
Variations: Continue to elevate your legs, putting them on a bench, in rings, etc. Basically put more and more of your body weight above your body, adding to the weight your shoulders are carrying. Wall-assisted handstand, wall-assisted handstand push-ups, free handstand, free handstand push-ups.
Grab a horizontal bar above you so that you hang, with your hands at shoulder width and facing away from you. Make sure you shift your shoulders up and back, flexing your traps. Pull your body up towards the bar, reaching your chin above the bar. Slowly lower your body back down for one full rep. (If you are unable to do pull-ups, here are some alternative back exercises you can do to build the strength up for pull-ups.)
Variations: To start, you can do either chin-ups (with your palms facing you and closer together). Then you can work your way up to archer pull-ups, assisted one hand pull-ups, and even muscle-ups.
Get underneath one of the lower parallel bars, with your upper body hanging beneath. Hands are gripping the bar at about shoulder width. Pull your body towards the bar, flaring your elbows out and flexing your upper back. Be sure your entire body stays straight and rigid. Slowly lower back down for a complete rep.
Variations: Front lever w/ knee tuck, front lever w/ one leg tucked, front levers, front levers w/ pull.
Stand on the ground with your feet just past shoulder width. Remaining up and back, with your weight on your heels, lower your entire upper body towards your feet. Go as far as you can – that familiar “ass to the grass” saying – and drive back up by contracting your quads and glutes.
Variations: One-legged squats (pistols), shrimp squats (a version of pistols), jump squats, jump tuck squats. These are great for high volume.
With your feet under a low horizontal bar, on your knees, you slowly lower your upper body and midsection towards the ground. Embrace the impact with your hands, then continue to go until you’re laying on your front. Help push yourself back up, with the top of the movement being dictated by only your hamstrings. This is killer and does not need a variation.
Hanging Knee Tucks
The one abdominal exercise that hits the main muscle groups, start by hanging from the high horizontal bar. Point your toes down, and lift your knees to your chest while also tucking your tailbone under you. The tuck is important – this is how you feel the burn within the transverse abdominal muscle (TVA), or your deep core.
…I’m going to assume you’ve got this one.
So, for a sample workout structure and sticking with our three-day split, we have:
- Monday/Friday: Push-ups, Dips, Pike Push-ups
- Tuesday/Saturday: Pull-ups, Australian Pulls, Hanging Knee Tucks
- Wednesday/Sunday: Air Squats, Hamstring Curls, Sprints
- Thursday: Off
Calisthenics Sets and Reps
The amount of sets you do depends on your energy levels for the day.
A good range to stay in is 3-4 sets.
You can make your sets one exercise at a time, or do them one after the other as a circuit and repeat the lineup 3 or 4 times.
For reps, there is science behind this. There are three ranges, each developing something different:
- 1-4 reps = Maxing out or power
- 5-8 reps = Strength and conditioning the movement
- 8-15 reps = Muscular growth or muscular hypertrophy
So, for gaining size and remaining lean, a good way to progress is to start a new exercise in the 5-8 rep range, and then, once you’re confident in the motions, go up to the 8-15 rep range.
You don’t need the 1-4 rep range unless you’re going for a max in something; in calisthenics, what exactly would that be?
Once you max out the range – 3 or 4 sets of 15 reps each – move to the next hardest variation. For example, once you can perform Australian pulls 4×15, switch to front lever raises with your knees tucked, and go back to a 3×5-8 set/rep setup.
Beginners Calisthenics Workout
A Day (twice per week):
- Push-ups: 3×5-15
- Dips: 3×5-15
- Pike Push-ups: 3×5-1
B Day (twice per week):
- Pull-ups or Chin-ups: 3×5-15
- Australian Pulls: 3×5-15
- Hanging Knee Tucks: 3×5-15
C Day (once or twice per week):
- Air Squats: 3×5-15
- Hamstring Curls: 3×5-15
- Sprints: 3×40 yards
This may seem simple, but if you limit resting time between sets and go as hard as you can, you will start to feel the burn and you’ll see why calisthenics are tremendous for both building muscle and burning body fat.
A solid diet is pivotal for the fat burning aspect of calisthenics.
To burn body fat, you have to use your fat for energy. To do that, you can’t have glucose, the primary energy source for your body, stored.
Glucose is stored when you eat enough food and your body doesn’t need all of it at that moment; it stores the extra glucose – body sugar – for later.
Before you eat at the beginning of your day, your glucose stores are low, probably even depleted.
With no glucose in your body, getting out of bed, getting dressed, and coming down the stairs is being fueled by your body fat. This is why fasting has become such a trend lately.
Plants, such as vegetables, fruits, legumes, and some starches, should be the focal point of your diet.
Healthy fats and healthy protein sources are also important. If you can fast, workout, and break your fast with 80% plants, you’re well on your way to a healthy lifestyle and a body built by bodyweight exercises and nutrition.
Calisthenics are wonderful for creating the physique of your dreams.
While they might not build muscle as fast as traditional weightlifting, they can still help you develop muscle.
They can also help burn body fat, so long as you workout quick and use intermittent fasting and nutritious fuel.
The benefits are nearly endless, and starting is incredibly easy.
Use the sample workout as a template; build off of it, create HIIT elements, learn new moves, advance to cool exercises with practical application in the real world.
Calisthenics are the ultimate bodybuilder if you’re on a budget or in a time crunch or wanting to practice amazing skills.
It’s a collection of universal movements; master them, and you will be unstoppable.