You can get all the benefits weight training gives you, including improving your body composition — more muscle, less fat — and improving your cardiovascular health without using weights. That’s right. No fancy-dancy equipment is needed! With just your body weight, you can make massive improvements in your physique by losing body fat, building muscle, and increasing your strength. This is known as calisthenics.
Deadlifting 400 pounds is impressive, but it pales in comparison when you’re capable of doing one-arm chin-ups. That requires immense strength, and if you’re able to do those, you’ll undoubtedly have a jaw-dropping physique.
Keep reading to learn the benefits of calisthenics training and popular calisthenics exercises you can start doing today, no matter what fitness level you’re at.
What is Calisthenics Training?
Calisthenics training is working out with just your body weight. Instead of using weights or resistance bands to apply force and tension to your muscles, you’ll use the weight of your body. Depending on where you’re at in your fitness training can determine how challenging calisthenics training can be. Although whether you’re a beginner or advanced fitness guru, you can find a way to use your body weight and stimulate new muscle growth.
Benefits of Calisthenics Exercises
Resistance training, in general, has many benefits for your body. That said, calisthenics training has some benefits that weightlifting doesn’t.
Workout From Anywhere
First and foremost, since all you need access to is your body weight, you can work out from anywhere when you’re performing calisthenics. No more excuses to skip workouts because you’re traveling or don’t have access to a gym!
Using weights can place a lot of stress on your joints and bones. Well, with the use of your body weight, you can work your muscles without placing the same strain on your bones and joints that barbells and dumbbells do. This will keep your joints strong and healthy so that you can continue to work out and move well throughout your life.
Strong Relative Strength
Since you’re relying on your ability to lift your body weight during bodyweight movements, you’ll be building some serious relative strength — your strength to weight ratio. If you’re able to do a one-arm chin-up, one-arm push-ups, and pistol squats, then you’ll be a master at maneuvering your weight, meaning you’ll be powerful for your size. And the more relative strength you have, the more of a well-developed physique you’ll have. That’s because you have less body fat and more muscle. For instance, think of a powerlifter. These guys are exponentially strong for their size, which is why they look ripped.
Better Functional Strength
Functional strength is your ability to conqueror real-life tasks. Whether that involves carrying groceries, walking up a flight of stairs, or picking up your kid, it all requires your aptitude for moving your entire body for the task at hand. Having a strong foundation with calisthenics and improving your bodyweight strength and ability to do pull-ups, push-ups, jumping squats, and various core exercises will make everyday tasks easier.
Build Strength and Muscle
Just because you don’t have access to weight doesn’t mean that you can’t build incredible strength and bigger muscles. At the end of the day, your muscles grow from providing enough resistance to them to trigger growth. Whether you do this through weights or your body weight, the progressive overload principle still applies and is your secret to building muscle. As long as you’re increasing the amount of weight you’re using or the volume you’re doing, your muscles will grow.
That’s why this 2017 study demonstrated that calisthenics training improves your strength and body composition. (1)
Of course, you won’t be using weight through bodyweight training, so you’ll need to increase the number of total reps you do per exercise. Although when you progress to pistol squats and one-arm push-ups, you’re naturally increasing the weight you’re using on your muscles since you’re relying on just one side to do the lifting for you. However, you can always start adding weight to your body weight to give your muscles more resistance to work with. This is known as weighted calisthenics. For example, instead of using just your weight for chin-ups, you can wear a weighted vest for your workouts.
Mixes Up Your Workouts
Doing the same workout routines and same types of workouts can not only get redundant and dull, but they can cause you to plateau in the gym. Mixing in bodyweight workouts will be a fun way to mix up your workouts and give your body a different angle of resistance training to help push you past any plateaus you may be having.
Increases Balance and Mobility
Calisthenics requires a lot of stability from your core, hips, and knees, especially during advanced single-leg movements, such as pistol squats. This will greatly increase your balance. And since bodyweight exercises allow you complete control to do each exercise for its full range of motion without worrying about hyperextending any joint with the brute force of weight, you’ll improve your mobility as well.
How to Program Calisthenics Training
Programing calisthenics into your training regimen can be a bit different than with weights. You’ll have to consider that you won’t have weights or machines to use, which means you won’t have the luxury of increasing the weight you use to stimulate muscle growth. Also, depending on what level you’re at with your fitness, will determine which exercises you can do and which ones you should start with.
Advanced athletes who have good strength and low body fat levels will be able to do many sets with their body weight without the risk of overtraining. Furthermore, they’ll be able to do advanced bodyweight movements or at least work their way up to them much quicker, too, such as pistol squats, muscle-ups, and one-arm chin-ups. In contrast, beginners may need to start with less volume and beginner movements, including bodyweight marches and knee push-ups.
Since you’ll need to stick with the same movements long enough to maximize strength and muscle growth, instead of randomly performing calisthenics into your program, it’s recommended that you set aside six to eight weeks to focus solely on calisthenics training outside of weightlifting. If you decide to follow a more hybrid approach, you’ll want to follow at least the same bodyweight exercises mixed into your workout program for a few weeks before switching up your movements. If you switch up your bodyweight exercises too often, you’ll never fully master one of them to take your bodyweight strength up a notch truly.
Below, we’ve created a sample beginner, intermediate, and advanced calisthenics workout you can try out that includes popular calisthenics exercises any fitness level can partake in, depending on where you fall on the spectrum. Do each of these workouts two to three times per week, depending on your skill level.
Example Beginner Calisthenics Workout
- Knee push-up: 3 x 8
- Bench squat: 3 x 10
- Static lunge: 3 x 6
- Bench dip: 3 x 10
- Knee front plank: 2 x 30 seconds
Example Intermediate Calisthenics Workout
- Push-up: 3 x 20
- Pull-up: 3 x 12
- Forward lunge: 3 x 20
- Close-grip push-up: 2 x 20
- Side plank: 2 x 30 seconds
Example Advanced Calisthenics Workout
- One-arm chin-up: 3 x 4
- Pistol Squat: 3 x 10
- Jumping lunge: 3 x 12
- Plyometric push-up: 3 x 10
- One-arm push-up: 3 x 8
How to Progress With Calisthenics Training
Since you don’t have heavier weights you can use with calisthenics (unless you’re doing weighted calisthenics), you’ll need to focus on increasing the difficulty of the exercise you’re doing, muscle’s time under tension, or the amount of volume via reps and sets you’re doing for you to see similar improvements in your physique that you would in a gym. That’s because, for your muscles to grow, you’ll need to increase the stimulus you place on them — the progressive overload principle.
Each week, aim to either add one rep to the set and rep schemes above or choose a more challenging variation.
Calisthenic Training Tips for Beginners
Don’t Be Intimidated
The phrase “just start” sounds so simple, yet to so many people, it seems so difficult. Many put off starting because they have no idea how to or because they think that, for some reason, they can’t.
There is no “right” time or place to begin calisthenics; anybody anywhere can start calisthenics right now (seriously, you can start immediately after you finish reading this). You don’t need any equipment, you don’t need a personal trainer, and you don’t need any prior training background to get yourself started.
Calisthenics is for everyone regardless of size, age, gender, experience, or ability level.
Start With the Basics
For those who don’t know where to start your calisthenics training: always start with the basics! All of those models you see pulling off fancy tricks on Instagram have their foundations in basic bodyweight skills: push-ups, pull-ups, dips, hanging leg lifts, squats, and the like. Don’t worry about getting fancy; focus on building your strength and muscular endurance and using good form.
Using proper form is especially important for beginners, as the habits you develop early on will stick with you as you progress. So make sure those habits are good ones! Even if you can’t do a single push-up or pull-up by yourself yet, don’t be discouraged. There are ways to scale any bodyweight exercise to fit your level — perform push-ups at an incline or from your knees, use resistance bands for pull-ups, practice dips with your feet on the ground, and do handstands against a wall. Once you master the basic skills of calisthenics, the fancier stuff will all start to seem much more realistic.
Set Small and Realistic Goals
It’s not unusual for people to set goals that are out of reach, then become discouraged when they cannot achieve them as quickly as they want to. To keep motivation high and prevent excessive frustration, set small, realistic goals for each session.
That could entail doing a certain number of reps of a skill, doing a slightly more challenging variation of a skill that you’re working on, or even something as simple as just moving your body and enjoying yourself! Keeping your goals small and realistic will ensure that you’re consistently experiencing successes, which will motivate you to train and achieve more. It’s perfectly fine to set long-term goals, but limit these to just a few and focus on attainable goals that will provide you with a consistent feeling of pride and fulfillment.
You can build an amazing physique with no equipment at all. Calisthenics is a way to work out using just your body weight, and it will get you stronger, build you more muscle, help you lose body fat, and increase your mobility. If you’re a beginner, start with some of the beginner exercises mentioned in this article and work your way up to more advanced movements, and pretty soon, you’ll be doing one-arm pushups!
- Thomas, Ewan & Bianco, Antonino & Mancuso, Esamuela & Patti, Antonino & Tabacchi, Garden & Paoli, Antonio & Messina, Giuseppe & Palma, Antonio. (2017). The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength, and body composition. Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 25. 1-8. 10.3233/IES-170001.
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