Gymnasts do it. School Kids do it. Navy Seals do it. Jason Statham does it. American Ninja Warriors do it. Even Prison inmates do it!
Calisthenics, of course!
But why, you ask?
Calisthenics requires very little or NO equipment, can be done anywhere, by anyone, builds muscle, and helps shed pounds and more which I will cover in a minute.
This calisthenics guide will show you what calisthenics is, the moves, sample routines, benefits and pitfalls and more.
Ready to get started?
Let’s get to it!
- Calisthenics 411: What is Calisthenics Training and Does it Work?
- The Good, the Bad & the Studly: 4 Best Benefits of Calisthenics
- Basic Training: How You Can Get Started Doing Calisthenics Today
- Calisthenics Workouts
- How to Do Calisthenics at Home?
- FAQ About Calisthenics
- What About the Others? How Calisthenics Stacks up to Other Types of Exercise?
- OK Athletes, that’s a Wrap!
Calisthenics 411: What is Calisthenics Training and Does it Work?
Calisthenics are a powerful mode of exercise capable of assisting you in growing muscle, shedding unwanted pounds, getting stronger and feeling more alive.
All you need to do calisthenics is yourself and a bar, although you can fit in other equipment, extra equipment is not required.
Calisthenics are effective for building muscle, losing weight, gaining coordination and simply being more prepared for the physical challenges life will inevitably throw at you.
Calisthenics use a bar and your own bodyweight for resistance. Think schoolyard playground equipment type bars, and you have the idea. The fact that calisthenics uses bodyweight leads me to say this:
Calisthenics are also known by another term: “Bodyweight Training”.
Pull-ups, chin-ups, push-ups, sprinting, squats and handstands are all popular calisthenics exercises.
If you want to do calisthenics at home, I got you covered. Check out chapter 5 and find out how to get started at home today!
Are Calisthenics Effective?
If your goal is to slim down, muscle up, get in shape, gain strength and be a badass, then YES, calisthenics are effective as a tool, providing you put in the work.
If you want to learn a little Greek, listen to this. The word “Calisthenics” comes from two Greek works. “Kalos” means beauty and “stenos” means strength in Greek.
So, it looks like calisthenics was designed to make one both beautiful and strong, like a proper Greek God ought to be.
Explainer video covering calisthenics and these Greek words.
Want an in-depth look at the pros and cons of calisthenics? Great! Find what you are looking for in chapter 2.
See how calisthenics stack up against other popular sports like CrossFit and yoga in chapter 7.
The Good, the Bad & the Studly: 4 Best Benefits of Calisthenics
What’s in it for me?
The benefits of Calisthenics
Calisthenics Ups Your Mental Game
Calisthenics requires you to improve both physical and neural learning.
Let’s say you are struggling to do a muscle up – a common calisthenics move. OK. Your muscles, sure, they need to get stronger.
But did you know, your mind is involved in a muscle up, just as much as the strength of your muscles is?
Your mind has to make the neural connections and reinforce the movements and the steps you take to accomplish the muscle up.
The whole “mind-body” connection thing. We must, or our brain must, build the neural network that contains the instructions on how we accomplish the muscle up – just like our muscles must learn the move, as we increase strength at the same time.
Calisthenics strengthens the mind!
You must use mental power to become good at calisthenics. You may have a lot of strength, maybe enough to do a chin up or muscle up, or handstand push up.
If you have the strength, but lack the mind-muscle connection to get it done, the strength alone is not enough.
Want more evidence that calisthenics is good for the mind?
The landmark SMART trial showed conclusively that resistance training significantly improved global cognitive function.
Nothing is Done in Isolation. Calisthenics Focuses on the Big Picture
Calisthenics moves are never done in isolation. Even an L-sit, which is technically an isometric exercise, requires you to first lift your legs into the L position before holding the position (isometrics).
Many calisthenics requires you, or your body and mind, to learn a series of moves that either get you in position or complete the move.
If you are weak somewhere in your body, calisthenics will show you pretty quickly where your weaknesses lie. It is up to you to honor the lesson calisthenics gives you regarding your own weaknesses and work on those areas, instead of cherry picking exercises based only on what you are able to do.
Self-mastery and Full Body Control
Calisthenics training holds the potential to help you create a body where every muscle is firing on all cylinders with precision, beauty and control.
This is self-mastery, the mastery of the body.
Of course, no one begins calisthenics with this kind of control.
It is this type of self-mastery that calisthenics can help you achieve. You must hold on to a positive mental attitude and never say ”I can’t”.
Everyone starts somewhere, including you and I. Maybe it is true that we cannot do a particular move right now, but instead tell yourself “I am working towards achieving that move” and visualize yourself doing it.
Any type of resistance training will allow you to get stronger. I am not talking big muscles here, necessarily. I am talking about strength.
Bruce Lee in Way of the Dragon. Do you know the fight scene where he is battling Chuck Norris? If we are being honest, Bruce Lee is NOT huge. For sure he is ripped and very well defined, but I would not say he has large bulging muscles.
But you know what?
Bruce Lee was STRONG. If I had to bet, I believe he was stronger than any bodybuilder of his day. And he kicked Chuck Norris butt, even though Chuck Norris is bigger.
The relative strength, that is, the amount of strength he had relative to his size was likely higher than most athletes.
I would like to add that Bruce Lee incorporated a martial arts style of calisthenics into his fitness routine, as do many martial artists.
Even Chuck Norris has been known to use Calisthenics in his training when he is not too busy promoting the Total Gym.
Isolation Training vs Calisthenics
Strength, or getting stronger, is a central part of calisthenics.
I would like to argue that the strength gained while bodyweight training is superior to machine weights lifted in isolation.
Because calisthenics, or bodyweight training, is holistic, strengthening not only the target muscle, like an isolation machine does, but the whole kinetic chain involved in the movement.
You cannot cheat with calisthenics. You have to strengthen all supporting muscles at the same time.
With machine weights the focus stays on just one or two muscles.
Finding Freedom and Tailoring Your Experience to Your Needs
There are endless bodyweight training routines out there. In fact, if you want to see some, check out chapter 4.
Here’s the deal:
Bodyweight training allows you to tailor a routine to your specific needs.
But don’t take it from me!
Jason Statham, a bodyweight fitness champion puts it like this:
…I did so many years of set things: cardio this day, weights this day …Some people need structure, and to write everything down. For me, I’ve been there and done that, so I’m happy to make up my workouts depending on how I feel each day.
I’ve learned that the body is like an adaptation machine: whatever you throw at it, it finds a way to do that particular thing and you never make any more gains from that.
Doing my own thing in the gym each day gives me variety. I’m always trying new things. And it’s a way for me to figure out how to fix those old ailments that I’ve gathered over the course of my silly career.Jason Statham
The TL: DR Pros and Cons of Calisthenics
- Does NOT require perfection, but instead calls for PROGRESS
- No peer pressure, awkwardness or BORDOM that comes with a gym environment
- Unlimited VARIETY of moves
- Freedom to work out ANYTIME
- Can be done by someone at ANY LEVEL of fitness
- Can be used pretty much ANYWHERE
- Must come up with your own routine
- Must be self-directed, unless you join a class
- Probably need a pull-up bar or find a park that has one
- Cannot multitask – Calisthenics requires your full attention
- Calisthenics tend to favor work on the upper body
Basic Training: How You Can Get Started Doing Calisthenics Today
Are you ready to get started with bodyweight training? There are literally endless exercises you could do, so it’s totally understandable if you don’t know where to start.
How about you start by getting familiar with the 7 calisthenics exercise groups?
Later, in the next few chapters, I will cover specific routines and point you in the direction of some awesome resources to too.
7 Calisthenics Exercises Groups
Group 1 Vertical Pulls
A vertical Pull exercise is one where you are pulling your bodyweight up, from a vertical position, from overhead.
Think: Pull-up, and you get the idea.
- Pull-ups – a regular pull-up
- Behind the neck pull-up – a pull up where your head ends up in front of the bar.
- Wide arms pull up – a normal pull-up with your hands placed a little wider on the bar, a little more than shoulder distance apart.
- Mixed grip pull-up – a pull-up where one hand is palm facing you (underhand grip) and the other hand is palm facing away from you (overhand grip).
- Kipping pull up – a pull up where you swing a bit, leading with the shoulders, which adds a bit of momentum to your body, making the pull up easier and allowing you to do more pull-ups.
- Muscle up – a pull-up where, once your head is above the bar, you continue to lift yourself up until your arms are fully extended. It’s hard!
- Chin ups – a pull up with your hands in an underhand grip position, where you get your chin over the bar.
- Typewriters – a pull up where you alternate arms, with one arm extended horizontally grasping the bar, and the other hand flexing at the elbow. It’s REALLY hard!
Group 2 Vertical Pushes
A vertical push bodyweight exercise is one where you are pushing up from a vertical position, like when you do dips.
- Straight bar dips – a dip done on a pull-up bar. This dip looks like the second half of a muscle up. Pretty challenging!
- Parallel bar dip – done on standard width and height parallel bars, where there is enough room for your legs to hang freely.
- Low bar dip – dip done on low bars where you have the added challenge of holding your knees up or behind you so they don’t hit the ground.
- Perpendicular bar dips – this dip is done on bars that come together in a corner, or are perpendicular. You can sometimes find bars like this on a playground, park or rail of some sort. If you’re lucky enough to encounter perpendicular bars, take the opportunity to work perpendicular dips into your bodyweight routine. They really work the chest since they push your elbows out.
- Chest dip – a deeper dip with a wider arm stance, focused on the shoulders.
- HeSPU or handstand push-ups. Do a handstand against a wall then lower and raise your body. It’s about 1000 times harder than I make it sound here so take some advice from Chris Heria here and master these 5 moves to progress to a real handstand push up by starting with easier exercises and working your way up.
Group 3 Horizontal Pulls
Horizontal pull exercises are challenging because it can be hard to find a place to do them. If you have a TRX suspension trainer system, those incorporate a lot of horizontal pull moves like rows and levers.
If not, you can get a towel or bed sheet and hang it over a bar or even a door to get into a horizontal position.
You are going to have to get creative, but these exercises are totally do-able once you find the right place or set-up.
- Skin the cat this can be done using gym rings, a pull-up bar, or even a set of monkey bars at the park. This move starts in a dead hand, as you bring your knees up and rotate up and around, then rotate back to your starting position.
- Front lever pulls from a horizontal position, pull yourself up on a pull-up bar. For most folks this is pretty challenging. The good news is you can progress to this exercise using the inverted rows.
- Inverted rows or incline rows can be done on a pull-up bar, low bar or gym rings. Variations include straight leg, with both feet on the ground, or with legs bent. You can progress to one leg inverted rows and then to inverted rows with knees tucked.
Group 4 Horizontal Pushes
Push ups get in a plank position on the floor with hands shoulder width apart, and feet together.
Bend at the elbow, lowering your chest to the ground and push back up.
- Pseudo planche push up and planche push up a planche push up is serious business. It is a push up where all weight is placed on the palm of your hand. That means you lift your body, including feet, off the ground. A pseudo planche push up is one where you push or lean your body forward so your palms are nearly under your hips. Your tip toes touch the ground and you do an incredibly challenging push up while maintaining this forward-leaning tiptoe position. Good luck!
- One arm push up – just what it sounds like, a push up with only one arm on the ground.
- Wide arms push up – a push up with your palms wider than shoulder width.
- Decline or feet up push up – a push up done with your feet elevated on a bench or step of some type.
Group 5 Core Moves
- Crunches – lie on the floor, support the head with your fingertips and place feet on floor shoulder width apart. Lift up until shoulders are off the floor and return.
- Bridges – lie with feet flat on the floor. Lift hips up until you are balanced on your shoulders and feet. Hold for 20 seconds and return to lying position.
- Harop curl – place your feet under something sturdy like a low rail with your knees bent. Bend from the waist till your face is close to the ground and return back up to the starting position.
- Hanging leg raise – hold yourself arms extended up using a pull-up bar. Raise your feet up toward your chest, hold for
- Hanging knee raise – same as the leg raise, except it’s your knees you pull towards your chest instead of your feet. Hanging knee raises are a step in the progression towards a hanging leg raise.
- Hanging bicycle kicks – hang from a pull up bar raising one knee to your chest at a time, alternating them, as if you were riding a bicycle. This makes for one seriously tough bike ride.
- Windshield wipers – this ab workout starts with you lying on the ground, arms stretched out. Bring your knees up till your legs are perpendicular to the floor. Move your legs, knees together, toward the floor without touching the floor, and then return up and lower your knees to the other side. Rinse and repeat as many times as you like.
- Plank – balance on your elbows/forearms, and toes, keeping your body in a straight line. Hold for 60 seconds.
- Kneeling planks – a plank done while balanced on your elbows/forearm and knees, instead of toes.
- Side planks – a plank where your body is on its side and you are balanced on one foot and one forearm.
- Decline plank – a plank where your forearms are balanced on the floor and your feet are perched on a raised surface, like a plyo box or step.
- Leg lift plank arm lift plank – a plank where your feet and forearms are on the ground, but you lift one foot toward the ceiling, and raise the opposite side hand toward the ceiling and HOLD the position. Very challenging.
- Wall plank – a very challenging plank where you balance on your forearms with your feet against a wall. It’s way harder than it sounds, trust me.
Group 6 Legs
Standard Squats stand with your feet shoulder width apart, lower your bottom as if you were going to sit in a chair. Get your thighs parallel to the ground and your knees over your ankles.
Focus on your bodyweight and consciously shift it to your heels. Lift back up to the starting position, concentrating on keeping your weight on your heels.
- Bulgarian split squat – this squat focuses on quads and is great for building leg muscles. It forces you to develop balance and is probably one of the BEST calisthenics moves for legs, in my opinion.
- One leg squats – stand with feet shoulder-width apart. Lift one leg and lower yourself on the other leg while keeping your knees over your ankles. Once your leg is parallel to the floor, push back up, being mindful to keep your weight centered on the heel.
- Full dragon pistol squat – this advanced squat will really challenge you. It requires squatting with one leg while bringing the other leg behind, around, and to the front, all the while maintaining your balance. Good luck!
- Bodyweight leg extensions – this simple but not easy leg extension starts with you kneeling on the floor or pad, knees together. From the kneeling position, cross your arms over your chest and lean back, as far as you can, then return to upright. Whoever said you needed gym equipment or weights to work legs?
- Box jump – jump up on a plyo box, landing with both feet flat on the top at the same time.
- Walking lunges kneel down, as if you were going to tie your shoe, with one knee towards the ground. Step forward with the other leg, keeping the knee bent, and leg parallel to the floor.
Group 7 Cardio
Burpee – one of my favorite bodyweight fitness cardio moves. I heard that each burpee burns one calorie. I am not sure if this is completely accurate, but it sure feels like it when you are trying to do 50 in a row.
Sprints, Running, Jogging these are all great calisthenics cardio options.
Good for shedding unwanted pounds and keeping your heart healthy.
Calisthenics Workouts for Beginners
- Pull up bar
- Parallel bars
- Resistance band
Info about this beginners Calisthenics workout
This workout is designed to allow the newcomer to progress at their own pace and prescribes the progression of exercises for 4 main areas, Push, Pull, Squat and Hinge.
The athlete chooses one exercise from each of these 4 categories that is in line with their fitness level. They do each of the 4 exercises for the prescribed number of reps.
Each set of 4 exercises is a circuit. The routine calls for 4 to 5 circuits for each session.
Calisthenics Workouts for Abs
Info about the Calisthenics Bodyweight AB Core workout
This awesome no equipment needed core and abs workout will have you sporting a strong core quick.
It is just 3 to four rounds of six exercises and you are done. It includes planks, bicycles, side planks, V sit-ups, crunches and knees to elbows.
Calisthenics Workouts for Back
Info about the Calisthenics Bodyweight Back workout
This no equipment needed back workout hits upper, mid and lower back for a strong, defined look.
It includes some pretty novel moves like the black widow, whole body drag and reverse superman lift, which work your back muscles in very unique ways you may not have seen before.
I love the ingenuity of this workout, the fact that it uses NO equipment, and can be done anywhere.
Calisthenics Workout for Weight Loss
Info about the Calisthenics Weight Loss workout
This 30-minute fat burning calisthenics workout can be done from the comfort of your home because it requires NO equipment.
The cardio heavy routine rotates through three circuits, plus an AB focused circuit. You can follow along and work out along with the instructor.
Best Calisthenics Routine if You are in Prison or on Lockdown
As if prison was not punishment enough, this tough routine can be done from the comfort of your prison cell and includes ample amount of Burpees.
In all seriousness, if you need to work out in closed or confined quarters like a dorm room, Navy ship, military barracks, or even a prison cell, this workout is for you.
This is the best calisthenics routine for small spaces.
How to Do Calisthenics at Home?
The beauty of calisthenics and Bodyweight training is it can be done just about anywhere, including your garage or home gym.
You do not NEED equipment, however, a good pull up bar is usually recommended because it is extremely versatile and is one of the best pieces of callisthenic workout equipment you can get for your home gym.
Calisthenics workout routine you can do at home:
Don’t be fooled.
Just because you can do this workout from home, does not mean it’s easy.
This challenging at home calisthenics workout can be done with minimal equipment. It’s ideal to have a pull up bar for this routine.
Calisthenics Equipment for Home Gym
While it’s true that you don’t need any equipment to take advantage of calisthenics or bodyweight training, most athletes do use a few pieces of gym equipment.
Some of the most often used equipment includes:
The Pull Up Bar
This is probably the most necessary piece of equipment.
If you do not have space or desire to own a power rack, a pull-up bar installed in a doorway is a good option.
A pair of quality gym rings will really expand your bodyweight training repertoire by allowing exercises like the Bulgarian Pull-up or the front level, using rings, just like a gymnast would.
Gym rings can improve stabilizer and secondary muscles in a completely different, yet complementary way to pull up bars.
Dip belts are necessary when dips using just your own bodyweight get less challenging.
You can add significant weight, and muscle and strength gains faster with a weighted dip belt.
Ab wheels are a truly budget way to add variety to an ab workout. They are so inexpensive you might as well pick one up.
Don’t be surprised to see a barbell on my list.
Lots of bodyweight training proponents swear by a barbell, especially for leg work. Deadlifts and weighted squats will get your legs strong quick.
The Rogue Echo bar is a popular barbell with a fair price. Check it out.
TRX Suspension Trainer
Suspension trainers are a great choice for the home gym. They are relatively inexpensive and allow for a huge range of Push and Pull moves.
You can use the TRX suspension trainer for inverted rows, to assist in and work up to a one leg squat or for suspended leg planks.
Really, the possibilities are limitless.
Parallel or Dip Bars
If you plan to add dips to your routine you will need some parallel bars.
FAQ About Calisthenics
Can You do Calisthenics Every Day?
According to Calisthenics expert Al Kavadlo it is not a good idea to train using the same exercises each day, especially if you push your muscles to that point of fatigue. Mr. Kavadlo suggests a split routine which works different muscle groups each day.
Fatigued and sore muscles are your bodies’ way of saying it needs a break, at least from using those sore muscles.
One exception is if you are working on a new skill, where you practice the exercise, but are not necessarily working to exhaustion. In this case, it’s OK to practice the new skill every day if you want.
Can You Build Muscle with Calisthenics? How to Build Mass with Calisthenics?
YES, you can build muscle using calisthenics and bodyweight training IF you know how.
Elliot Hulse of “YO ELLIOT!” Fame puts it this way:
“Time under tension is going to elicit a hypertrophy effect”
In other words, banging out moves as fast as you can will NOT build as much muscle as doing the exercise slowly, putting your muscles under high tension for longer.
If you are mindful and conscious, and purposefully go slow during the move, you will build muscle faster using calisthenics.
How to Incorporate Calisthenics with Weights?
According to Red Delta Project, one way you can combine weights with calisthenics is to create a list of exercises for bodyweight training, and next to each bodyweight move you plan to incorporate in your routine, write a weight based exercise that is a rough equivalent of the bodyweight exercise.
If you have push-up as your bodyweight exercise, next to that you can write bench press, since that works similar muscles.
Then, once you have your list complete, create a routine that mixes bodyweight exercises with weight-based exercises, being careful to select just one exercise for each muscle group.
How Often Should I do Calisthenics to Build Muscle?
Remember, if your muscles are sore, you should rest that muscle group.
You get bigger during rest and recovery.
If your muscles feel OK, it’s fine to train. How often you train each muscle group depends on your body, how hard you trained last time, and how your muscles feel.
There is no hard and fast answer since it varies for each athlete.
How to Progress in Calisthenics?
Assuming you want to progress to the point where you can do more challenging moves like the muscle up, you need to find the prescribed progression path to that move.
Start here, to read more about progressions and how they work.
Another great resource is the Progressions App for android. This is one of the best calisthenics apps I know of.
It assigned calisthenics routines, shows progressive moves and allows you to select which exercise you want to do based on your level.
Does calisthenics help lose weight?
Calisthenics can help you lose fat, but remember, what you eat has a greater effect on body fat than exercise.
Diet is the most important fat loss tool.
Exercise is also very important but takes second place when it comes to how much fat you store on your body.
For more on this topic check out our Losing the Love handles article here.
What About the Others? How Calisthenics Stacks up to Other Types of Exercise?
Calisthenics vs CrossFit
Calisthenics and CrossFit actually have a lot in common. Both have a touch of gymnastics and include many exercises that use just bodyweight or bodyweight and a pull-up bar.
Exercises they have in common are burpees, push-ups, pull-ups, chin ups, muscle ups, lunges, squats and about a thousand more.
Check out this article of the best CrossFit workouts to do from home. At the bottom of the list there are 7 workouts that use NO equipment.
The exercises in this equipment free list are used in both CrossFit and Calisthenics.
Having said that, there are differences too. CrossFit uses considerably more equipment, includes more barbell work, and is way more structured with assigned WODs and Group classes.
Calisthenics vs Yoga
Yoga is quite different from Calisthenics. Yoga has elements of strength training, similar to calisthenics, but also includes stretching, meditation, spiritual or even religious elements, depending on what style you practice.
Here in the US, yoga is generally practiced in a group setting, very often indoors and includes a lot of mat work, which is not common in calisthenics, which uses the bar and bodyweight to increase strength.
I think the best way to illustrate the difference is the origin of these two disciplines.
Yoga is said to originate from Hindu and Buddhist spiritual practices. See our Yoga guide for more details.
Calisthenics is said to originate from the ancient Greeks, and the name calisthenics actually means beauty + strength in the Greek.
Today Calisthenics is known as a “street exercise” and is used by military and sports teams to enhance fitness.
Calisthenics vs HIIT
HIIT training is high intensity, and often uses no equipment, similar to calisthenics. The two disciplines have some overlap, in terms of exercises used, however you likely won’t see pull-up bars used in HIIT.
If you want to learn more about HIIT, check out our HIIT guide.
Calisthenics vs Weights
Some folks who practice calisthenics do use some weights, so there is some crossover here. Both weight training and calisthenics focus on muscle building and getting stronger.
But they are not equal. Generally, calisthenics use little to NO equipment, besides a pull-up bar.
If you want to really dig into the differenced read calisthenics vs weight lifting here.
Calisthenics vs Bodyweight Training
Calisthenics is often referred to as bodyweight training and as far as I am concerned they are one in the same.
Today, the more popular term is Bodyweight training.
OK Athletes, that’s a Wrap!
I hope you have the info you need to get started to construct your own calisthenics routine and build the body you have been dreaming of.
Get started today. No excuses.
You can do this anywhere, literally. Home, park, dorm room, Navy ship. Wherever. So give it a shot.
As always, feel free to leave a comment and be sure to subscribe!