Health

Calisthenics: The Complete Beginner’s Guide

If you have seen videos of athletic guys performing gravity-defying moves while scrolling through your social media feed, odds are that they were calisthenics enthusiasts. These are athletes who have honed their skills through bodyweight training, without weights or fancy equipment in a gym.

Thanks to social media, videos of ripped people pulling off moves like the muscle-up, human flag, front lever, and back lever have made calisthenics more popular than ever. Understandably, people may be a little timid about giving it a go. After all, who in their right mind thinks they can levitate their body sideways on a pole with only their arms for support?

But these incredible calisthenics athletes had to start somewhere. At one point, they were as trained (or untrained) as you are at this very moment.

Want to know where to get started with calisthenics? Follow along as I, Pat Chadwick, head calisthenics instructor at Gymless.org, go over all the basic elements of calisthenics, including how to set up your very first calisthenics training regime.

What is Calisthenics?

When you imagine“calisthenics”, your mind might instantly drift to the more intense side of the spectrum, to extraordinary feats like the front lever and the human flag. But, at its elementary level, calisthenics refers to bodyweight exercises where you utilize gravity as resistance. This includes much less intimidating exercises like pull-ups, push-ups, and squats.

The word “calisthenics” is derived from ancient Greek words “kallos”, meaning beauty, and “stenos”, which stands for strength. It is a combination of aesthetic performances from the human body that is displayed through strength and determination.

Calisthenics is also a method of honing one’s health and fitness by using one’s body weight as resistance. Another quirky name for this is “street workout” because you can practice this in outdoor parks and public facilities.

The 5 Benefits of Calisthenics Workouts

  1. Convenient And Easy To Get Started

Most calisthenics exercises do not require any fancy equipment or a gym membership. These exercises can be done either at home or at the park nearby your home, which makes this one of the most cost-effective ways to get fit. The most basic equipment you’d need for calisthenics is a pull-up bar, which is inexpensive compared to a gym setup.

On top of this point, you can do bodyweight exercises anywhere. This will remove any kind of excuses not to work out because you don’t need anything elaborate in your surroundings. You can use tables and chairs in your workouts and get the job done. For instance, incorporate decline push-ups and bench dips as a part of your chest and tricep routine. 

  1. Improve Functional Strength

There is nothing more athletic than a good old bodyweight workout because most of the exercises are compound movements. They allow us to move multiple joints at once and coordinate that movement together and let us transfer that power throughout the kinetic chain. Which will lead us to burn more fat and build lean muscle simultaneously. However, this can only be supported with a proper calisthenics diet.

Callisthenics will activate different muscle groups and mimic real-world movement patterns

Think about when you’re walking, running, skipping, or swimming; these movements involve many muscles working together in unison. Compound exercises will increase our functional strength, which would allow us to move more athletically in space.

  1. Burn More Calories and Increase Fat Loss

Callisthenics is great for conditioning and fat loss because of the flexibility in the way that you can program your training and the compound movements that are derived from it. For instance, you could do HIIT or circuit-style training with your body weight, which could produce better results than a fixed, plain single-joint exercise such as bicep curls.

Compound movements will enable you to burn more calories in a shorter period of time. Think about it; pull-ups or bicep curls, which one requires more energy to perform? As you would expect, pull-ups burn more calories because it targets your back, arms, shoulders, and core. While bicep curls only isolate your biceps.

A 2015 research paper has found that callisthenics leads to greater total energy expenditure and heart rate response compared to standing or walking, which in the long run may help with weight control.

  1. Build Impressive Strength

Think about the cool things you can do with callisthenics; muscle-ups, handstands, handstand push-ups, front levers, back levers, human flag, and planche. The supreme control you’d receive over your body would be impressive, and the reaction you give when you see these feats is what you would get from onlookers if you practice calisthenics.

  1. Improve Self Image and Confidence

The byproduct of bodyweight training is lower body fat, higher muscle definition, and a chiselled lean body that looks visibly toned. According to a 2016 study, exercise has a positive impact on self-esteem, and this is an important factor for a successful and satisfying life both physically and physiologically.

Calisthenics will make you feel better about your physical self, your ability, and your physique. In the long-term, you’d get a sense of accomplishment that would boost your confidence.

Calisthenics vs Weight Lifting

Let’s start defining both types of training. As mentioned earlier, calisthenics is a form of training to use your body weight as resistance. Whereas weight training uses external force for resistance, it uses equipment such as weights, barbells, kettlebells, and so forth. Both can be your partner in crime to grow strong, and they’re also great compliments for each other.

Calisthenics focuses more on body control and body engagement. This will improve your relative strength; how strong you are relative to your body weight. Weight lifting focuses more on muscle isolation, specifically your maximum strength; how much force you can exert on external resistance.

The Major Benefits of Calisthenics

  1. Convenient and affordable
  2. Compound workouts (improve functional strength)
  3. Burn more calories
  4. Develop impressive skills
  5. Improve self-esteem

The Major Cons of Calisthenics

  1. Progress can be slow and difficult
  2. Leg exercises are limited compared to upper body
  3. Knowledge is required for progress

The Major Benefits of Weight Lifting

  1. Easy to progress (simply increase weight load)
  2. Easier to isolate specific muscle groups
  3. Easier to build muscle
  4. Maximize muscular strength
  5. Improve self-esteem

The Major Cons of Weight Lifting

  1. Poor form increases the risks of injury
  2. Requires gym equipment or gym membership (more expensive)
  3. Not as functional as calisthenics

Calisthenics or Weight Lifting – Which Works Better?

Both options are great for developing your health and fitness levels, and which is better all comes down to what your fitness goals are. For example, if your goal is to develop muscular strength and endurance, both methods are great, however, weight lifting will take you a step further when it comes to building mass and targeting specific muscles.

When it comes to strength transfer, calisthenics wins. For instance, take weight lifters that can bench 400lbs, row 350lbs, or deadlift over 500lbs. This group will have high power and raw strength. But, if you were to ask them to do 15 pull-ups or 50 push-ups, they might not be able to because weight training is not transferable into calisthenics.

On the other hand, calisthenics athletes have higher body awareness, also known as proprioception, and better core engagement. Compound movements will utilize your core more than isolating a muscle group on a weight machine. This is why a weight lifter does not have as much proprioception as a calisthenics person has.

In calisthenics, you will have higher leverage in accessing other muscles in the body to assist you with weight lifting such as your core due to better body awareness. Moreover, there is a higher degree of motor unit recruitment involved in the planche, or handstand push-ups. This explains why Yan Mingyong, a gymnast who weighs 50kg, is capable of benching 130kg.  

Calisthenics Vs Weight Lifting
BenefitsCalisthenicsWeight Lifting
Cost-Effectiveness
Ease of Progression
Flexibility
Functional Strength
Losing Weight
Building Muscle
Muscle Isolation

Beginner Calisthenics Workouts and Exercises

If the above benefits of calisthenics vs weight lifting have persuaded you to give bodyweight training a go, then there’s no time better than now to get started. Below, I’ve listed some simple bodyweight exercises you can try. Remember, for each exercise, follow these rules:

  • Follow the recommended reps range
  • 45 seconds rest in between exercises
  • 2 minutes rest in between cycles
  • Do 4 cycles

Australian Pull-Ups

Australian pull-ups strengthen your back muscles, biceps, as well as your core.

  1. Position yourself under a low bar with your waist being underneath the bar. Grip the bar tightly using an overhand grip at shoulder-width apart, and arms fully locked out. Engage your core and glutes to form a straight line from head to feet. Your body should be at an inclined slope.
  2. Inhale as you pull down the bar to your chest by contracting your back and bicep muscles. Pull up as high as you possibly can while keeping your body in a straight line.
  3. Exhale and lower yourself back to the starting position by lowering your chest away from the bar.
  4. Repeat this between 6-12 reps.

Bench Dips

Bench dips will develop your pushing strength and it primarily targets your triceps, pecs, front shoulders, and core.

  1. Sit down on a bench with your hands next to your thighs, gripping tightly on the edge of the bench (fingers facing forward).
  2. Simultaneously walk your feet out while straightening your arms until your bottom clears the bench and your arms are fully extended. Keep your feet together and heels digging into the ground.
  3. Inhale and bend the elbows to lower down until your arms are at 90 degrees while keeping your core tight.
  4. Exhale as you contract your triceps and chest muscles to extend your arms and return to the starting position.
  5. Repeat this between 8-12 reps.

Knee Push-Ups

Knee push-ups are great for building the upper body and core strength. It targets your chest, triceps, core, and front shoulders.

  1. Begin on all fours with your wrists underneath your shoulders. Step your knees back until they’re in a straight line through your body from your knees up to your head.
  2. Inhale as you bend the elbows to lower your body towards the ground while keeping your core and glutes tight to maintain a straight line.
  3. Exhale and push your hands into the ground, keeping your body engaged and returning to the starting position.
  4. Repeat this between 8-12 reps.

Lying Knee Raises

This exercise can be performed while lying on your back to improve your core strength and stability in your lower back.

  1. Lie on your back with your legs extended, feet together, and arms by your sides with your palms pressed into the ground. Engage your core to press your lower back flat into the ground (it should not be arched at all times)
  2. Inhale as you slowly lift both knees and draw them as close as you can to your chest.
  3. Exhale and gradually extend your legs to the starting position without letting your heels touch the ground.
  4. Repeat this between 10-12 reps.

Squats

The bodyweight squat is a simple and effective exercise that will develop your lower body strength. It targets your quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, and core.

  1. Stand tall with feet hip-width apart and toes pointing slightly outwards.
  2. Inhale as you bend your knees and drive your hips back as if you’re sitting on a chair while keeping your heels on the ground and torso upright. Lower down until your knees are at 90 degrees. Keep your core tight throughout this movement.
  3. Exhale and press into your heels to extend your legs to return to the starting position.
  4. Repeat this between 10-12 reps.

Advanced Calisthenics Workouts and Exercises

Once you are comfortable with the workout above, you can increase the intensity by progressing on to more challenging variations to prescribe progressive overload, following the same workout guidelines as the beginner’s workout plan:

  • Pull-ups (8-10 reps)
  • Dips (8-10 reps)
  • Push-ups (10-20 reps)
  • Lying leg raises (10-12 reps)
  • Goblet squats (10-12 reps)
  • Bulgarian split squats (10 reps on each leg)

Anyone can start callisthenics, regardless of age, gender, availability, or fitness level. You don’t need gym equipment, a personal trainer, or any previous training background. The key to achieving your fitness goals is to get started.

Whether you are working out at home, at your local park, at the gym, or in a hotel whilst travelling, calisthenics can be easily incorporated into your routine with just a few simple compound movements. If you’re still unsure where to start, try this follow-along chest and back routine with Pat Chadwick.

Callisthenics Exercises per Muscle Group

To target a specific muscle group and body area, you have to select the exercises that give you the most muscle activation. Here is a list of workouts per muscle group that you shouldn’t miss when creating your calisthenics routine.

Biceps – Chin-ups

Chin-ups are great for building big biceps. The underhand grip used in chin-ups isolates the biceps and upper back muscles which would overload your muscles causing them to grow. If you can’t do much, do as many as you can following by switching to negative chin-ups (lower down at a count of 3-5 seconds). You can add resistance to chin-ups by doing isometric holds for 3-5 seconds before lowering down, or you could add more weights.

Back – Pull-ups

This is one of the best exercises that target your back muscles, primarily your latissimus dorsi, trapezius, teres minor, teres major, and rhomboids. Pull-ups will give you wings, but only if you do them correctly with a full range of motion. Alternatively, you can do negative pull-ups if you find pull-ups difficult, and to make this harder, you can progress on to weighted pull-ups and muscle-ups.

Chest – Push ups

The standard push ups work wonders for your chest. It strengthens your pectoralis major and anterior deltoids. The form is key so make sure you are keeping constant tension in your core and glutes to ensure that your lower back is not arched. When this gets too easy, you can progress on to decline push-ups and archer push-ups. Or simply adjust the tempo when doing push-ups, 3 seconds down, 3 seconds up.

Triceps – Diamond Push-ups

The diamond push-up variation will leave your triceps feeling used and burned. The close grip hand position will put more isolation on your triceps. You can make this harder by elevating your feet on a bench. If you get wrist pains you can use a pair of parallettes instead.

Abs – Hanging leg raises

The hanging leg raise will elevate your core routine and give sculpted and chiselled six-pack abs. If your goal is to improve core strength and hip flexor mobility. Try to keep your legs as straight as possible, and if this is too hard, bend your knees to do knee raises until you get stronger. Raise your legs 45 degrees on each side to target your obliques too.

Shoulders – Pike push-ups

The pike push-up is a great exercise for increasing shoulder strength and a good conditioning exercise for the handstand. This exercise works the deltoids, triceps, chest, upper back, and ribs. The higher your feet are, the more load will be put on your shoulders and the more burn you will feel. Try your best to keep your elbows close to your torso, don’t flare them out.

Trapezius – Handstand

Build a solid upper back with handstand training. This will make your upper body look and feel stronger and it will increase your proprioception. Start by doing wall-assisted handstands and gradually ease off towards a freestanding handstand.

Quadriceps and Glutes – Lunges

Lunges are tough, and there are many variations in this exercise that will work your entire lower body muscles. If done with the correct form, your legs will be left feeling pumped. Once this becomes easy, progress on to Bulgarian split squats to increase the gains.

Calves – Calf raises

Calves can be a difficult muscle to develop, that’s why calf raises must be done regularly. To train them for optimal results: stand on the end of the stair.

Lower your heels down as low as you can to feel a stretch in and calves and hold this for 3 seconds, followed by pushing through the balls of your feet to raise your heels until you are standing on your toes, hold this for 3 seconds. Or you can try doing single-leg calf raises to increase resistance.

What is a Typical Calisthenics Workout?

As a beginner, you should prioritize mastering the fundamentals with good form. The great thing about this is, that you can practice different progressions or regressions for all calisthenics exercises to suit your current fitness level and goals.

In general, the fundamental calisthenics exercises are:

  • Pull exercises
  • Push exercises
  • Core exercises
  • Leg exercises

Below is a calisthenics workout plan that is based on an upper body/lower body training split. As a beginner, it is good to train 4 times a week for around an hour long. A 2016 study suggests that training a muscle group twice a week promotes greater hypertrophic outcomes than once a week. Hence why the bodyweight workout below is based on the goal of increasing muscle size. See the table below on the workout schedule:

DayTraining Split
Monday Upper Body
Tuesday Lower Body
Wednesday Rest
Thursday Upper Body
Friday Lower Body
Saturday Rest
Sunday Rest

Beginners workout schedule for beginners (weekly routine)

Beginner’s Calisthenics Workout

The workout below will require minimal equipment and all you need is:

  • Your body
  • Small space
  • A pull-up bar
  • A set of parallel bars

There are the basics that will cover the push, pull, core, and legs fundamentals. These items can be found at your local park, or you can even make your own set in your backyard. Before you begin your sessions make sure to prime your muscles by following a warm-up routine.

2015 study suggests that doing both dynamic and static stretches reduce the risk of injuries and enable you to attain optimal performance.

There is a science behind the reps ranges below:

  1. 1-5 reps develop dense muscle strength and power.
  2. 6-12 reps are ideal for hypertrophy which develops your muscular power, size, and strength.
  3. 12+ reps primarily increase your muscular endurance, size, and cardiovascular health.
Monday
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Triset: Australian pull-ups, parallel dips, and push-ups48-12 reps120 seconds
Triset: Negative pull-ups, bench dips, inclined push-ups and48-12 reps120 seconds
Superset: Lying knee raises and Russian twists  410-12 reps90 seconds
Superset: Reverse crunches and flutter kicks410-12 reps90 seconds

Tuesday
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Bodyweight squats410-20 reps90seconds
Forward lunges  410-20 reps90 seconds
Bulgarian split squats48-12 reps90 seconds
Calf raises410-20 reps90 seconds

Thursday
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Triset: Chin-ups, parallel dips, and push-ups48-12 reps120 seconds
Triset: Australian pull-ups, bench dips, inclined push-ups and48-12 reps120 seconds
Superset: Mountain climbers and Russian twists410-12 reps90 seconds
Superset: Plank and flutter kicks410-20 seconds90 seconds
Friday
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Superset: Bodyweight squats and forward lunges410-12 reps120 seconds
Goblet squats410-20 reps90 seconds
Superset: Bulgarian split squats and reverse lunges48-12 reps120 seconds
Calf raises410-20 reps90 seconds

As you can see, the majority of these exercises are compound movements which means multiple muscle groups are being worked with each rep performed. This will especially recruit your core muscles and train your proprioceptors which increases your body awareness.

Calisthenics Equipment Needed

Calisthenics equipment can be great tools for your home workouts, even so, take it with you to the local gym, calisthenics park, or while travelling. This equipment will increase the range of exercises that you can practice, and therefore help you to progress towards your fitness goals much faster. Here are 6 pieces of equipment that will elevate your calisthenics training.

Pull up bar

A pull up bar is a vital piece of equipment for developing your pulling strength, you can practice pulling work, hanging abs exercises, and levers. The most basic form is the door frame bar which you can mount in your door frame.

Parallettes

This equipment comes in all shapes and sizes and is used for different purposes. A small wooden parallettes is great for training push exercises, such as push-up variations and core workouts such as L-sits. Advanced users would practice handstands on them. This is ideal if you have poor wrist flexibility and get wrist pains when doing push-ups on your hands. They are small and portable, and you can squeeze them into your backpack and bring it with you anywhere.

Dip Bars

Dip bars are an extended family of parallettes. The difference is that dip bars are bigger and taller which is suitable for developing your pushing strength. These are used for parallel dips, straight bar dips, L-sits, and even practice your pull-ups and levers on a single side of the dip bar.

Resistance Bands

Resistance bands are a must-have! They are great for beginners to use as they can take the load away from your body and decrease resistance for movements that you are not strong enough to do yet, such as pull-ups, and dips. For more advanced users, bands are utilized in levers and planche training to reduce body weight and allow them to work on harder progressions.

These bands come in different thicknesses. Larger bands provide more resistance and are harder to pull apart and they make exercises much more difficult. For example, while doing banded squats.

However, resistance bands can also allow band-assisted exercises. These make movements easier as they can offer support and take away some of the weight load on your body. In this sense, resistance bands are extremely versatile in that they can make movements easier or more difficult depending on your needs.

Chalk

Some people can’t work out without chalk because they get sweaty hands and would lose grip when hanging from a pull-up bar or doing dips. The solution to this is to use either chalk blocks or liquid chalk. Some people prefer liquid chalk because it is less messy and you won’t get chalk dusting everywhere when you put them on, but it can be a pain to wash off and give your hand a sticky feeling.

Gymnastic Rings

Gymnastic rings are the most versatile piece of calisthenic equipment there is, they can be utilized for a variety of different bodyweight exercises, from pulling, pushing and core movements which allows you to have a well-rounded calisthenics workout.

You can practice the following exercises on a pair of gymnastics rings:

  • Pull-ups
  • Dips
  • Push-ups
  • Muscle-ups
  • L-sits
  • Front levers and back levers

Rings come in two types – wooden and plastic. The wooden ones generally give you a more natural feel and a better grip, especially when you’re using chalk, but, if they’re left outside they will rot. Whereas, plastic rings are more durable. In general, if you’re travelling, this would be a good piece to take with you because they’re small and portable.

How To Progress In Calisthenics as a Beginner

To progress as a beginner in callisthenics, you would add more stimulus and resistance to your training over a slow and gradual period of time. This can be done in many ways, such as:

  • Increase repetition and sets
  • Decrease rest time
  • Add weight
  • Practice harder exercise progressions
  • Change your body position and angel
  • Increase range of motion

Hybrid Calisthenics Beginner’s Routine

What if you still like weight lifting and you don’t want to completely switch to doing purely calisthenics? Well, you can practice hybrid calisthenics which is a workout regimen that combines both bodyweight and weight lifting. This is a good option if your goal is to gain mass and build strength. Below are the benefits of doing hybrid calisthenics:

  • Maximize strength and hypertrophy
  • Higher exercise variety
  • More potential for lower body training
  • Increase flexibility and strength

Here’s what a beginner’s hybrid calisthenics session would look like based on an upper body/lower body split with a goal of building muscle:

Hybrid Calisthenics
ExerciseSetsRepsRest
Triset: Pull-ups, parallel dips, and push-ups48-12 reps120 seconds
Cable rows (65lbs)48-12 reps120 seconds
Bench press (65lbs)410-12 reps120 seconds
Superset: Hanging knee raises and sit-ups410-12 reps90 seconds

Calisthenics FAQs

Can you Build Muscle With Only Calisthenics?

Yes, you definitely can. Building muscle requires three things: stimulus, recovery, and adaptation. To grow, you must apply your muscles with enough resistance to stimulate hypertrophy.

In weight lifting, you’d simply increase weight. Whereas, for callisthenics, you’d do more reps, and do new and harder variations to change your body angle. This would be more than enough to get you ripped.

How Many Times a Week Should I Train?

A good place to start for beginners is a minimum of 3 times a week of training for at least 45 minutes per session. Gradually, you can work your way up to training 6-7 days a week once your body is adapted to the training intensity. Rest days are also important – You grow when you rest!

Which Burn More Calories: Calisthenics or Weight Lifting?

Both types of training are great for burning calories, no doubt, but generally, calisthenics would burn more calories because most of the exercises are compound movements, which means that multiple muscle groups are working together. This requires more calories in comparison to doing isolated movements in weight lifting.

Will Calisthenics Help Improve Performance in Other Sports?

Yes! It will give you a special kind of functional strength because of the compound movements, which are used in everyday life. Calisthenics will improve your athletic ability, strength, endurance, and better your body control.

Is Calisthenics Better Than Weight Lifting?

It depends. Both disciplines have their respective benefits and disadvantages, but you could combine the two to form a hybrid training, this way you can have the best of both worlds.

When building raw strength and muscle mass, weight lifting may be better for you. Whereas, if you want to increase your functional strength and body awareness, and be free to work out wherever you are, then calisthenics could be the one for you. Ask yourself what your long-term goals are and this will help you to decide.

Is it OK to Do Calisthenics Every Day?

Yes, it is okay to do calisthenics every day, just make sure to split up your training to work different regions of the body or muscle groups to allow time for your muscles to recover. You could try an upper body/lower body split or a push/pull/legs split.

Of course, you should listen to your body and take a rest when you need it, especially as a beginner or novice athlete. Overtraining can lead to injuries and set you back from making consistent progress.

How Long Does it Take To See Results From Calisthenics?

In any kind of resistance training, if you are a beginner, it is possible to see results within the first two weeks of training. This is because newbies are more hyper-responsive to resistance training. You will gain strength and endurance much faster as a beginner than you would in the later phase of your journey. Also, an optimal calisthenics diet combined with a consistent workout routine will yield the most results.

What Equipment Do I Need For My Calisthenics Training?

If you don’t have access to an outdoor calisthenics park or a gym and you’ll train at home, then you will need a pull-up bar (stick in between your door frame) and dip bars.

How Do I Start Calisthenics?

You can start by reading the free content that Gymless Fitness has created and practice the 4 fundamentals which are pulling exercises, pushing exercises, core exercises, and lower body exercises.

Check out our YouTube channel and read our blog posts and expand your knowledge. If this is not enough, you can book a consultation with one of our coaches.

What Is The Ideal Age To Start Calisthenics?

There is really no age limit for calisthenics. As it is a bodyweight workout, it does not require any special equipment. A 3-4-year-old child could very well practice callisthenics under proper provision and guidance. Callisthenics is also great for those who are over 65 years old because of the flexibility in the way you can program your workouts.

You could start with easy exercises such as wall pull-ups, wall push-ups, jackknife squats, and dead hang. Of course, consult your physician before you start.

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