Imagine getting fitter, stronger, and better-looking all from home, avoiding the gym.
This process takes time, but it is totally possible with Calisthenics, and you can perform some amazing feats of strength along the way.
Gymnastic movements and calisthenics are a great alternative: moving your own bodyweight in challenging ways, building strength, and developing a great physique.
This can be achieved with a few bars and your own body, and we’re going to show you how calisthenics can build a strong body.
What are Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is an umbrella term for any exercise that involves moving your own body to produce an adaptation or effect.
These exercises develop strength, fitness, and flexibility by using pushing, pulling, bending, and swinging movements as well as static holds.
For the body, Calisthenics will mean more muscle size and strength, improved agility, balance, and endurance.
Calisthenics and gymnastic exercises are great for developing these basic characteristics of athleticism and fitness.
The common ground between these exercises is that they use bodyweight as the main source of resistance, providing options for scaling and progressing by adjusting the leverage.
Consider how the push-up is easier when your knees are on the floor: this is an example of how leverage and bodyweight can make simple exercises more difficult.
Calisthenics are a great way to introduce yourself to strength, conditioning, and fitness.
These movements require very little equipment and time, making them easy to learn and master, with effort and consistent practice.
If you need to exercise at home, calisthenics provide some of the best choices for simple strength and conditioning circuits.
However, Calisthenics exercises are not just for new trainees, and they don’t have to replace weight training exercises: you can perform calisthenics in combination with your weight training regime, and see progress no matter how much experience you have.
Calisthenics provide a great alternative, or simply a change of focus, when you’ve become stagnant in the weight room or want to develop other athletic qualities like balance, body-awareness, or static (isometric) strength.
The term Calisthenics is an Ancient Greek term combining Kalos (meaning beauty) and Sthenos (meaning strength), to represent the difficulty and artistic beauty of exercises we would call “gymnastic” today.
History Of Calisthenics?
The term Calisthenics is an Ancient Greek term combining Kalos (meaning beauty) and Sthenos (meaning strength), to represent the difficulty and artistic beauty of exercises we would call “gymnastic” today.
The term gymnastic has similar results, referring to the gymnos, the name for a training area where athletes would perform calisthenics to develop strength and performance.
For as long as soldiers have trained the craft of making war, Calisthenics have been a large part of the training regiment to improve strength, endurance, and control of the body.
If we look at the training regimen of some of the most impressive militaries from the time – such as the Spartans – would train using simple bodyweight training exercise as a compliment to their weapon training, discus, hurdling, javelin, wrestling, boxing, and other combat sports.
Throwing may have developed strength and whole-body power, but the vast majority of their strength was developed using bodyweight exercises and 1-1 grappling.
These early training methods were the basis for the original Olympics, which tested the abilities of warriors to perform feats of strength, endurance, and athletic ability.
This is linked to the reason that the most common practice of calisthenics in the Olympics is “artistic gymnastics” – derived from the term calisthenics and its focus on a combination of strength and beauty.
Modern gymnastics were born during the 1810s in Germany, but migrated to the United States, becoming a staple of the physical education programs for women that were conceived by Catherine Beecher and Dio Lewis.
The health benefits of Calisthenics and gymnastic exercise were recognised in the 20th century, gaining popularity as a method for training children and developing strength, co-ordination, and athletic characteristics without the need for, or risk associated with, resistance training equipment.
Calisthenics are a common tool for the development of foundational strength and muscular endurance in many military organisations.
Many boot camps are designed to improve fitness using calisthenics, but also push the limits of mental toughness and endurance.
The gruelling physical conditioning processes associated with boot camps are synonymous with Calisthenics movements like push ups.
For example, if someone says: “drop and give me 20”, you already know exactly what you need to do!
The use of calisthenics for military training has been a staple for thousands of years – with examples at least as early as 1300 B.C, but it’s likely that they have been well-regarded as a method of physical training for even longer.
In the modern era, Calisthenics is seeing a resurgence of popularity with “street workout” revolutionising the public idea of bodyweight training.
This style of rough, street gymnastics introduces new, exciting movements and routines, and has even organised a world-level organisation (the World Street Workout & Calisthenics Federation) which operates competitions in at least 50 countries.
This surge in popularity and public interest is a great sign for public health, but is also great for the image and application of Calisthenics, but it all comes down to the amazing physical and psychological effects.
How Doing Calisthenics
Benefits Your Mind And Body?
There are 3 major areas where Calisthenics can improve both your mind and body: Looking good, feeling good, and gaining the ability to perform advanced, specialist body-movements.
These are the 3 areas where exercise has some of the greatest positive effects, and they’re probably some of the most important things that you’re looking to achieve by performing exercise.
Gymnasts and Calisthenics practitioners have some of the most sought-after physiques.
The main muscles and movements associated with progress and success in Calisthenics contribute to classical ideals about what sort of human body is attractive and functional.
Calisthenics – mainly pull-ups, push-ups, and dips – contribute to a strong V-taper.
This is all about a narrow waist, wide shoulders and a strong “V” shape for the upper back, all supported by a strong and defined core.
Whilst many people have different ideas about how bodybuilders or ultra-marathoners look, the physique of an Olympic gymnast is almost universally considered attractive.
Just look at the USA men's Olympic gymnastics team:
All it takes is a healthy diet to ensure that the muscles remain defined.
Developing special physical abilities
The acquisition of skills and strength are key parts of an effective Calisthenics or gymnastic routine.
When you build strength, you must also develop technical abilities to improve your performance, requiring time, effort, and attention to detail.
This process is an amazing thing by itself, but consider the benefits that it provides to health, wellbeing, and your life overall: Calisthenics exercises are functional, which means they carry over well to your everyday life.
Whether you spend your time training for fun, as part of a complete training routine, or compete in a Calisthenics-sport (either street workout or artistic gymnastics), being in control of your body will improve the way you feel by reducing anxiety and stress, as well as making you more effective at all movements, reducing the chance of serious injury.
The improvements in your physique and the improvements in your athletic and physical capabilities won’t just improve your appearance and ability to move your body well.
They also contribute to your overall sense of self, your self-esteem, and the main ways that you think about yourself in relation to the world.
Being more physically-attractive improves confidence and your relationship with others.
Being more athletically-capable improves your ability to approach challenges with a “can-do” attitude, and equips you with the skills and strategies you need to achieve any goal in life.
All exercise contributes to improved mood, combats stress, and protects against both mental and physical disease, but the combined effects and challenges of Calisthenics provide you with a system of self-mastery and goal-setting/achieving that build your character.
The regular practice of exercise, especially exercise with defined goals, systems, and ways to measure progress, all contribute to the reduction of anxiety.
We’ve all had awful work weeks, bad break-ups, and family tragedy.
Exercise like Calisthenics will give you a way of relieving stress, releasing the “pressure valve” to improve your mental health and chase meaningful goals in a safe, constructive environment.
This means less emotional distress, better mental health, and the kind of confidence and self-assurance that will radiate as you walk down the street.
Best Calisthenics Diet
Diet is a big part of Calisthenics, but it is also very challenging.
The balance of strength and definition is the real challenge for Calisthenics: weighing more makes movements more difficult, but you need to build muscle to get stronger and improve your performance.
As such, the goal of a diet for Calisthenics is to gain muscle whilst staying as lean as possible.
If you’re a skinny beginner, you may want to focus on building muscle, but if you’re looking to lose weight, it will be better to focus on losing weight.
Dieting should focus on the correct number of calories first and foremost (if you want to gain muscle, eat more calories, but if you want to lose fat you will need to reduce your calorie intake).
A high-protein diet will also have huge benefits to both muscle gains and fat-loss, which means that fatty fish, lean poultry, and high-protein dairy (such as eggs and cottage cheese) should play a large role in your diet.
Dietary fats are necessary for health, and carbohydrates are the main source of energy for the body – the best approach to balancing these two (after all, they compete for your daily calories!) is to get a baseline of fats from healthy sources (fatty fish, eggs, cultured dairy, plant foods, fruit and vegetables) and eat carbohydrates in proportion to the amount of endurance exercise you perform.
Carbs come as sugars (should be limited in the diet, but a great choice during exercise), starches (as found in sweet potatoes, couscous, rice, and legumes like red kidney beans), and fiber (found exclusively in plant products, like fruit and vegetables, such as kale, spinach, broccoli, and wholegrains).
When you have a calorie-controlled, high-protein diet, with a balance of carbohydrates and fats from unprocessed sources, the main focus should be on eating as much fruit and veg as possible.
If you’re hungry after you’ve eaten high-quality proteins, carbs and fats, you need to increase the amount of plant foods in your diet.
They’re rich in vitamins and minerals, curb cravings, protect the metabolism and digestive system, promote regular bowel movements, and even protect you from heart disease.
See, eating your vegetables really will help you grow big and strong (as well as lean and defined!).
The Paleo diet is popular lately and is a great “introduction” diet for losing weight, as it is an easy way to cut out processed foods and start to lose weight.
This isn’t the only diet, but it does provide some very basic guidelines that can help to curb cravings for junk food, improve heart health, and improve endurance (although this is at the cost of maximum strength and power).
This makes it one of the best choices for starting with Calisthenics, but we recommend continuing to eat beans and other legumes, as they are a great source of Iron, B vitamins and dietary fiber.
What Equipment Do You Need
For Maximum Results?
Calisthenics is great for not needing much training equipment, but there are some items that will add huge value to your experience and develop maximal strength and flexibility.
Each of these pieces of equipment will add a new dimension to your training, with their own challenges and ways of altering leverage.
Consider using this equipment to improve the effectiveness of your training.
The power tower is the kind of thing you’ll find in a lot of gyms, primarily because it provides a variety of options for some of the most common and effective Calisthenics exercises.
The power tower includes dip bars, a back support, and bars for pull/chin-ups.
If you’re looking to perform Calisthenics as a compliment to weight training, or are already training at a gym with one of these, it’s a great way to work on your foundational strength movements.
With as little as a power tower and a weighted vest, you can get seriously strong on the dip, pull-up, and L-sit.
The tower might not be a great choice if you’re looking to develop more advanced movements for gymnastics or street workout, however, as the structure can get in the way.
If you’re looking to perform these movements, it will still be necessary to get strong, however, and this is what the power tower excels at: a complete tool for simple, strengthening exercises.
The pull-up bar is the simplest piece of equipment in gymnastics, as it is necessary for the most foundational exercises in Calisthenics and gymnastics.
The pull-up, chin-up, hanging leg raise, and other variations of pulling and hinging movements all depend on being able to suspend yourself off the floor.
Many of the most important, impressive calisthenics movements seen in street workout can be performed and practiced on the pull-up bar.
From chin-ups and muscle-ups to front levers, and even bar dips, a single pull-up bar can provide you with options for a complete, well-rounded upper body training.
This can also provide a way to perform variations with the use of suspension boots.
With these boots, you can attach your feet to the pull-up bar to perform a variety of sit up movements, or simply hang upside down to decompress the spine and improve back health.
Dip stands are a great way to, unsurprisingly, perform dips!
Dips are some of the most important upper body exercises, and should form the basis of your chest and tricep training.
The dip stand is a great piece of equipment to perform dips on, including all the variations and progressions that will help you build a strong set of “pushing” muscles.
The dip stand is also a great piece of equipment to practice leg raises on – especially if it includes arm supports or a pad for the back.
For beginners, this back support is a great way to work on the leg raise, windscreen wiper, or other hip-hinging movements.
The back support stabilises the back and prevents swinging, which is often considered to be a common way of cheating the movement, decreasing the effectiveness whilst also increasing the risk of injury.
American gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer once said that “Rings are the single greatest ever made for developing upper body strength”.
This is definitely true: if you know how to use them and make the best of them, gymnastic rings provide you with a variety of amazing bodyweight exercises to strengthen the muscles of the upper body, including some you might have forgotten about.
With a single pair of gymnastic rings, you will have the ability to perform pull-ups, dips, muscle-ups, levers, inverted rows, and a variety of other movements from beginner to incredibly advanced (such as the iron cross or maltese).
You can keep a pair of gymnastic rings in your own house, or train with them elsewhere – all you need is a stable place to hang them from and enough room to move without bumping into anything.
Decreasing leverage through a position is not the only way to increase resistance with Calisthenics and bodyweight training – the alternative is to increase your bodyweight.
The weighted vest is a great tool for doing just this – some brands even have individual weight pouches so that you can adjust the weight that you’re adding to the body.
Unlike using dip belts or other forms of adding weight, the vest doesn’t change the centre of gravity and can be used for a variety of different movements, from pull ups and dips to planches and more advanced techniques.
This is important to continue to overload different movements that might not support a regular plate-loading, such as the planchet or L-sit.
Adding the vest to other, lighter movements also provides a great way to condition the muscles and joints in a fairly gentle way.
For example, performing handstands (or handstand walks) with the weighted vest is a great way to develop static strength and condition the core.
Gymnastic parallel bars (or P-bars) are an amazing tool for advanced training movements, but they’re incredibly large and difficult pieces of equipment to get your hands on (literally!).
Parallettes are the small, portable version of parallel bars that you might have seen in a gymnastics gym or open-air gym.
These are a great alternative to full parallel bars and can be kept in the home, taking up relatively little space.
Parallettes can also be purchased or made inexpensively, making them a great choice for beginners or those who are aiming to workout at home.
Parallettes are primarily used for L-sits and other hinging movements, but can also be used for suspended planches and other more advanced movements, as well as providing variations for movements like push-ups.
By simply providing space between the body and the floor, and a neutral hand position, the parallettes introduce a wide variety of new exercises and variations into your training.
If you want to develop serious core strength, the ab wheel is a great way to really challenge yourself and perform a gruelling ab workout at home.
This is simply a wheel with handles, which you place your hands on, and roll forwards until the body is parallel to the floor, and then (attempt to) return to the starting position.
Despite sounding simple, the ab wheel is notoriously difficult and standing (or even deficit) roll-outs are a great way to develop and demonstrate amazing core strength.
The main benefit of the ab wheel is that it adds a whole new set of movements that aren’t normally available, and is practical and mobile enough to be placed in a gym bag without any real issues.
This makes it a great tool for home workouts, or simply carrying with you to be performed after a street workout.
If you’re looking for the simplest way to improve your aerobic conditioning and endurance, the jump rope is a classic example.
There’s a reason jumping rope is a staple in the training of boxers: skipping is a great way to get your heart rate up, condition the ankles, and practice light-footed movements.
Skipping is also a great home conditioning exercise: whilst running and cycling may rely on the weather, or the condition of your bike, skipping just requires your body and the rope.
The conditioning of the ankles during skipping shouldn’t be overlooked, either: the ankles are susceptible to injury and skipping is a great way to strengthen the muscles and connective tissues, preventing injury.
A good speed rope is cheap and will last for ages: look for a rope with a metallic wire (rather than the cheap plastic variety) and take good care of it – this will quickly be one your best friend when it comes to serious conditioning.
The exercise ball has some great applications for Calisthenics and there are some fantastic options available.
The basic idea of the exercise ball is to be used to replace a seat for postural purposes.
This is obviously equally useful for those who are concerned with Calisthenic training, but far from the main use.
If you’re looking to develop strength through Calisthenics, the exercise ball provides a great portable tool for elevating the feet during exercises like ring pull ups (for progressions to muscle-ups, for example), push-ups, or for entirely new exercises like pikes.
The exercise ball also helps with the development of balance, whether you’re elevating the hands or feet during the push-up, for example.
We definitely still recommend using the exercise ball for its intended purpose, as posture is important for health and optimum performance, and sitting is awful for your health.
This is a great investment for seating posture, but provides even more options for your Calisthenics training.
Resistance bands have become more popular over the past few years, and provide a fantastic training tool for a wide variety of exercises.
The resistance band is basically a giant elastic band for the body, which means that it provides elastic resistance.
This makes it amazing for conditioning work, “prehab” exercises (exercises intended to improve the strength and health of joints to prevent injuries), stretching, and assisting with progressions for bodyweight exercises.
If you’re a beginner, the resistance band is a useful tool for making certain Calisthenics exercises easier as it can be used to take some of the weight off of the bottom of movements like the dip or pull-up.
It also makes for a great way to train the lower back, with movements like banded good mornings giving you options for well-rounded physical development (since gymnastic and Calisthenic exercises tend to focus on the upper body and core).
How To Start With Calisthenics?
Starting with Calisthenics requires a serious approach to flexibility and mobility.
Stretching and “body conditioning” will take up a considerably amount of time for the new trainee, as some of the more advanced gymnastic movements will require a large degree of flexibility and strength.
You may be able to develop the technique without strength, but attempting advanced techniques requires both technical and physical preparation: you will injure yourself if you don’t spend enough time on these basics.
It is important to start Calisthenics with realistic expectations about your abilities and how quickly you can progress.
Calisthenics might provide a great way to develop huge upper body strength through bodyweight movements, but it must be treated with the respect you’d afford any other sport.
You wouldn’t attempt to squat 200 kilos without ever having stepped into a gym, and you shouldn’t attempt a back lever before you have spent years training to do so.
Your body will require time to adapt to the training, strengthen the joints, and have the necessary flexibility to hold these positions without injury.
Be sure to commit some time to a thorough warm-up before each workout or training session – you’ll reduce the chance of injury and develop long-term flexibility more effectively.
With calisthenics exercises, the main focus of a good warm-up are the wrists and shoulders.
Obviously, you will also need to warm up the hips, knees, and ankles for lower body exercises.
There are many stretching and warm-up routines available, but be sure to pick one that aims at a combination of general movement and stretching: these are both key parts of an effective warm-up.
Basic Calisthenics Exercises
When we talk about “basic” Calisthenics exercises, this is not the same as easy exercises – pull-ups and dips are notoriously challenging for beginners.
Rather, they’re called basic exercises because they’re foundational to all the movements you will ever perform.
If you can’t perform a pull-up, you’ll never get a muscle-up.
Mastery of the basics is the best way to ensure success, and developing a foundation of strength, technique, and understanding will make it possible – and perhaps even “easy” – to progress to advanced movements.
The pull-up is possibly the best Calisthenics exercise: it is the squat or deadlift of the upper body, working countless important postural, and physique, muscles. The pull-up is a great way of strengthening the upper back, biceps, rear delts, and grip strength.
- Approach the pull-up bar (or other piece of equipment), taking a wide grip, and hang with the core tight and the legs together.
- Pull yourself to the bar, pulling the shoulder blades down and squeezing the biceps until your chin is level with the bar.
- Slowly lower yourself to the starting position, allowing the arms to relax before performing another repetition.
Where to begin?
Pull-ups are hard, and harder still for those who are just getting into Calisthenics as a way to get fit and lose weight.
Fortunately, you can make the pull-up easier by jumping into it and finishing the movement with your upper body, or other scaling options exist.
You can also perform ring rows, where you hold onto the gymnastic rings and row your chest to them, like an upside-down pull-up.
If you have a resistance band, you can loop this around the bar and place your feet/knees in it to make the movement easier.
These will all build the strength and co-ordination necessary to perform real pull-ups, when you’re ready.
Calisthenics focus on the upper body, but lower body strength and power are important. Squats – and squat variations – are the best way to develop strength, whereas jumps are necessary for improving power.
Calisthenics is all about bodyweight movement, so the bodyweight or “air” squat is the place to start. This is a very simple movement, and can be learned easily:
- Stand tall, with your feet positioned between hip- and shoulder-width (experiment with your stance as you practice).
- Keep your weight in the rear 2/3 of the foot,
- Bend at the knees and hips. The hips should come back and then down as you descend.
- Coming as low as possible without losing position (if your back rounds, heels come off the floor, or knees cave in, you need to improve your positions or reduce depth).
- Myth busting: it is totally fine for the knees to go past the toes in a deep squat, as long as the heels remain on the floor and the knees are in-line with the toes (not caving in).
- Reaching the bottom position, push with the legs and hips to return to the starting position. The hips should come up and in as you ascend.
Where to begin?
If you can’t do a squat from the start, there are two great tools we recommend for leaning.
First, the “sissy” squat. This is similar to the regular squat, but it is far easier, can teach you the correct positions, and is a great way to develop mobility and balance.
Simply hold onto a stable object (such as a post and perform a squat as described above, with a pause in the bottom position. This is going to make the movement easier and help you learn to squat unassisted.
Another beginner variation is the box squat, which can be performed to any stable object.
The box squat is like the squat described above, but you squat onto an object, such as a box or chair.
Slowly decrease the height of the object you’re squatting to until you are able to perform full-depth squats with no support.
Lunges (and Split Squats)
The lunge and Bulgarian split squat are two amazing ways to develop leg and glute strength without any equipment. For the lunge:
- From a standing position, move the front foot approximately 2 foot-lengths forwards and the rear foot 1 foot-length back. Make sure both feet are perfectly straight forwards, with the back heel off the floor.
- Keeping the chest high, bend both legs so that the hips move down in a straight line.
- Reverse the movement, pushing the floor away (think about pushing the head through the ceiling on the way up).
The Bulgarian split squat is basically the same movement, except that you elevate the rear foot on a bench, raised surface, or even exercise ball. This makes the movement longer, more difficult, and thus more effective.
You’ve probably performed a push-up before; the push-up is te single most commonly-practiced Calisthenic exercise, and for good reason.
The push-up is a great exercise for developing basic strength in the chest and triceps, and contributes to progression towards more complicated exercises, such as advanced push-up variations, dips, and handstand push-ups.
To perform a basic, perfect push-up:
- Begin with the arms locked at shoulder width, with the toes on the floor.
- Keep the body perfectly straight, clenching the buttocks and keeping the shoulder blades down (imagine putting them in your back pockets).
- Bend the arms until your chest touches the floor.
- Keeping the whole body perfectly straight, as from the start, push the floor away until your arms are locked once more.
Where to begin?
Many people can’t perform enough push-ups to make them an effective exercise.
If you’re one of these people, your best bet is to perform kneeling push-ups. This is like the regular push-up but you keep your knees on the floor.
To make this movement progressively harder (and progress to a full push-up), move the hands further from the knees before you start the movement.
This is a great example of using leverage to progress and overload.
Dips are a more advanced exercise for the shoulders, chest, and triceps. This movement requires a dip station, power tower, or parallel bars. You can add weight to the dip for additional resistance, or make it more difficult by performing the exercise on gymnastic rings.
To perform the dip
- Take position on the bars, with the arms locked out. To focus on the triceps, take a narrower grips, or to focus on the chest, take a wider grip.
- Keeping the upper back and core tight, lower your body by bending the elbows.
- Go as low as you comfortably can, or until you feel a stretch through the shoulders/chest.
- From the bottom position, push with the arms and squeeze the chest, thinking about pushing your head through the ceiling.
Dip positions and techniques may vary to target the chest or triceps more heavily, and different types of equipment may change the movement (for example, the parallel bars have a set position, which will determine your grip width).
Where to begin?
Bench dips are the kind of dips that you perform with your hands on a couch, box, chair, or other elevated surface.
These are less difficult and less injury-prone than full dips, making them a great place to start building shoulder and tricep strength.
Just sit in front of a raised surface with your hands at a comfortable width and your heels on the floor, lower yourself as far as is comfortable, and push back up.
You can raise the feet, too, to make this movement more difficult and transition towards a full dip on bars.
The sit-up is one of the most common calisthenics exercises, as almost everyone can do them and they develop basic core strength.
This is one of the most common ways that we train the core, and it can be a great place to start, before advancing to more effective, challenging gymnastic core training.
- Lay flat on the floor (or with an ab mat), with the knees up. You can secure the feet under a heavy object, implement (like a plate/dumbbell), or fixture.
- Keeping the arms relaxed, squeeze through the core to bring the head up towards the knees.
- From the top of the movement, slowly lower yourself until you are nearly back in the starting position.
- Do not touch the floor between repetitions – keep the core tight and link your reps for maximum core strength and growth!
People have been performing planks forever, and they’ve been doing them wrong the whole time!
The regular plank is easy to hold, but it doesn’t challenge the core as effectively as it should – this 8-point plank variation is a great way to build huge core strength and stability in a way that transfers to Calisthenics, street workout, and gymnastics.
- Lay on the floor with the knees and toes in contact with the floor.
- Place the hands and elbows on the floor at eye level.
- “Tuck” the hips. Imagine pulling the hips and ribcage into the belly button.
- During this exercise, think about squeezing the knees and elbows “through” the floor to pull them together.
- Make this exercise more difficult by moving the elbows and hands further forwards, but be sure to keep the core tight and the hips tucked.
We told you to imagine a world where you could get fitter, healthier, and better looking all from home.
This guide gives you the tools to do that, with a basic introduction to Calisthenics and bodyweight training.
Let us know what you found the most challenging about Calisthenics exercises, or how you incorporate them into your routine, in the comments!