If you’ve never done calisthenics before, watching people rep out muscle ups, press up to handstands, or hold back levers might have you thinking, “how does one even begin to do that?!” Well, I’ll have you know that I’ve been in that very same place.
Less than two years ago, I didn’t even know what calisthenics was, and when I first saw videos of people performing incredible feats of strength on bars, I would just laugh and say, “in my dreams…” How wrong I was!
Today, I am now able to perform many of the skills that I had deemed impossible for me at the start of my fitness journey. However, I didn’t just wake up one day and magically be able to perform the skills that I dreamt about doing. The road to building the strength I have today was a long one, and along the road, I’ve learned quite a few things about becoming stronger. Since so many people ask me for advice for people who are just starting in calisthenics, here is what I have to say to all of you who are embarking on your calisthenics journey:
1. Start wherever you are.
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. Well, I’m here to tell you that you can!
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. One of my favorite quotes about training is, “you don’t have to be great in order to start, but you have to start in order to be great.” I certainly wasn’t great when I started, but that didn’t stop me from starting anyway. So stop making excuses as to why you can’t, and just start!
2. Start with the basics.
For those who don’t know where to start your calisthenics training: always start with the basics! All of those fancy tricks you see 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; just focus on building your strength and muscular endurance and on 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.
3. Be consistent with your training.
One hard training session every once in a while is not an effective way to build strength and improve your skills, but a short training session every day is! When it comes to progressing, consistency is key. One of the greatest benefits of calisthenics is that it can be done virtually anywhere; just because you can’t make it to the gym doesn’t mean you can’t get a good training session in.
Even if it’s only 10 or 20 minutes, doing something is always better than doing nothing. The person who trains a little bit every day will ultimately accumulate much more training time and progress much more quickly than the person who has a long session once in a blue moon.
4. Strive to be better than you were the last time.
If you’re no stranger to strength training, you may be familiar with a concept called progressive overload. If you’re not, allow me to explain: “progressive overload” means that, over time, you gradually increase stimulus on the body during training, forcing it to make adaptations and become stronger. This increase in stimulus can be done one of two ways: either by increasing the load (the amount of resistance your body is working against during an exercise) or by increasing the number of repetitions you perform of a given exercise.
The reason that I’ve been able to make as much progress as I have in my past 2 years of training is that during every training session, I strive to be better than I was the last session. Whether that means doing more sets or reps of an exercise or performing the exercise under a greater load, I am always striving to improve in some way. If there’s one enemy of progress, it’s complacency.
So whenever you train (provided that you’re not feeling excessively tired or sore), aim to be just a little bit better than you were the time before. As time goes by, those little improvements will accumulate and you will see tremendous progress!
5. Set several small, realistic goals.
I think we can all agree that nothing is more motivating than achieving your own goals. However, the problem that many people run into is that they set large goals that are out of reach, then become discouraged when they aren’t able to achieve them as quickly as they want to. In order 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 simply as just moving your body and enjoying yourself! Keeping your goals small and realistic will ensure that you’re consistently experiencing successes, which will further 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.
6. Embrace your failures.
When learning new skills, my usual process is to try and fail until I eventually succeed. Sometimes, that means failing only once or twice, and other times it means failing literally hundreds of times. In the past, failures were a source of frustration for me, and while I admit that I do still get frustrated with myself from time to time, I now see failures as an essential part of the learning process. I laugh them off and use them as a reminder that I’m human, and thereby imperfect by definition. Even the best of the best fail, and in fact, behind every amazing skill or trick you see on social media, there are likely tons of failed attempts that no one sees. Besides, the more you fail, the more satisfying and fulfilling it will be when you finally do succeed!
7. Focus on your own progress – not anyone else’s.
Something that many people – and even I, myself – struggle with is comparison. I often catch myself scrolling through Instagram, watching others do things I wish I could do, and getting down on myself for not being as strong or as skilled. If you ever catch yourself doing the same, remember that everyone is at a different point in their journey, and that the super-skilled person you wish you could be was once a complete beginner as well. Comparing your skills or progress to that of others is futile; every individual has different natural strengths and abilities, and while someone else may be strong with certain skills that are difficult for you, they may struggle with other skills that come more easily to you. Fitness is not a competition, and training isn’t about proving yourself or being the best at anything. So rather than comparing your progress to that of others, focus only on trying to be the best version of you that you can be.
8. Surround yourself with like-minded people.
Perhaps the greatest thing about being involved in fitness and calisthenics (besides becoming stronger, healthier, and more confident, of course) is the people that I’ve met through it. Shared passion is the perfect basis for connection and friendship, and meeting others who are passionate about training will keep you feeling motivated and supported throughout your journey. If you have access to a local gym or calisthenics park, this is an ideal place to meet others and establish a supportive training community. And if you don’t, not to worry! Social media has made it possible to find like-minded people and create a supportive community no matter where you are.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to others online or in person; having friends to motivate you and share your successes with will not only make training feel easier, but it’ll also make it much more fun!
9. Listen to your body.
You can learn as much as you want about training, but at the end of the day, your greatest teacher is your own body. Through calisthenics training, you will develop a unique sense of body awareness and will feel more in-tune with the signals that your body sends you on a daily basis. For example, you’ll start to notice when your muscles feel sore or tight or when your body feels tired or run-down.
It’s important that you learn to listen to the signals that your body sends you. When you’re feeling tight, stretch and foam roll your muscles out. When you’re feeling extremely tired and run-down, it may be a sign that your body needs more time to recover. When you’re feeling like you can’t sit still or focus, your body may be itching for a training session! By listening to your body, you’ll automatically be taking better care of your health, which, in turn, will positively impact your training.
10. Have fun with it!
I say it all the time: the key to creating a lifestyle that supports optimal health and fitness is genuinely enjoying what you do. You should never have to force yourself to train; it should be something you look forward to doing! Of course, foundational strength work isn’t always the most fun thing in the world, but there are ways to make it more exciting! Train with friends, train in new places, train to your favorite music, and be creative! Calisthenics, by nature, is a freeform and creative style of training; there are infinite ways you can move and strengthen your body, so don’t be afraid to explore!
You don’t always have to stick to a plan when you train; my most fun sessions involve doing whatever my body feels like doing and just enjoying movement, knowing that I’m making myself stronger in the process. Once you start to see moving and strengthening your body as something enjoyable, “working out” becomes much less work and a lot more play.