Calisthenics: What It Is and How to Get Started
For most of us, the word “calisthenics” conjures memories of high school gym class: butt kicks, jumping jacks, and smelly gym-issued tracksuits. But calisthenics is making a new-school comeback.
The bedrock of functional fitness, calisthenics has graduated from grade-school to encompass a broader range of moves from the plyometric to the straight-up gymnastic. Whether it’s muscle-ups or just push-ups, calisthenics is trending among competitive CrossFit athletes, gymnasts, triathletes — anyone who wants to fit in a great workout whenever, wherever. No gear needed.
What Is Calisthenics?
Broadly defined, calisthenics involves any exercise in which resistance is provided solely by bodyweight. But what truly propels calisthenics above more isolating movements is its functionality. “Calisthenics is a form of bodyweight training that requires full-body control using functional movement patterns,” says Openfit fitness expert Cody Braun.
For example, calisthenics workout routines often use squat, push-up, lunge, pull-up, and plank variations. All of these exercises challenge multiple muscle groups at once, recruiting smaller stabilizing muscles, and honing neuromuscular communication (the mind-body connection) to control the body and its natural movement patterns. “One of the main functions of calisthenics is to gain full-body control, which is essential to living a healthy active lifestyle,” Braun says.
The simplicity of calisthenics makes it critical to hitting your fitness goals virtually anywhere and any time. It also helps neutralize many of the roadblocks to a more active lifestyle, the most common of which include time constraints, heavy equipment, and costly gym memberships, according the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Can you build muscle doing calisthenics alone?
With its focus on large, compound movements, calisthenics training is an efficient way to build strength and muscle as well as burn calories. But just as with traditional strength training routines that incorporate free weights, maximizing a calisthenics workout routine requires using a challenging load. That load in this case, of course, is your own body weight. And that can be a pro or a con, Braun says.
For people who have poor relative strength (how strong you are in relation to your bodyweight), calisthenics can sufficiently challenge the body to build muscle and lose fat. With time, of course, you’ll have to increase the challenge to continue progressing. That could involve either increasing reps, changing the tempo, adding a plyometric component, or trying more challenging variations.
For example, when progressing bodyweight squats, you can perform more reps; slow down the eccentric (lowering) phase of the movement; add a jump; or perform it on one rather than two legs. All of these tweaks will increase the amount your legs have to work and keep your body challenged.
On the other hand, the strength-to-weight requirements of some foundational calisthenics exercises, such as push-ups and pull-ups, can make them incredibly challenging or impossible for both beginners and those with greater body masses. By performing regressions of such exercises, such as hands-elevated push-ups or band-assisted pull-ups, you can work up to these moves and beyond.
“As you advance from the basic movement patterns to the more advanced exercises, you gain better body control and strength, which is the foundation of bodyweight training,” Braun says. To build a calisthenics body, the key is pushing yourself. By tailoring your calisthenics exercises to your current strength levels and performing them to fatigue, you can easily build muscle and strength using only the weight of your body.
How to Craft a Calisthenics Routine
When drawing up a calisthenics workout plan, the first consideration is individual exercise selection. “If you’re new to calisthenics, I recommend starting with bilateral movements (training both legs or arms simultaneously) to improve your form and range of motion first,” Braun says. “Once you’re comfortably getting through these exercises you can start to add variations. Because your bodyweight is the only resistance, it’s a good idea to wait until you can complete at least 15 reps before progressing.”
Next, it’s important to understand that calisthenics exercises work multiple muscle groups at once. Therefore, instead of dividing your routine into isolated splits (triceps, biceps, quads, glutes, etc.), it’s advisable to either plan total-body workouts, or to organize your training days by general movement groupings (e.g. pushing, pulling, and lowering) or body zone (upper or lower, front or back).
By following the latter strategy, you may be better able to exercise nearly every day without risking overtraining any one muscle group. For example, if you’re separating your calisthenics routine into push, pull, and lower days, you could perform push-ups and dips one day, pull-ups and chin-ups another day, and squats and lunges on the third day.
Foundational Calisthenics Exercises (and Variations) to Get You Started
These basic bodyweight moves can be made more or less challenging to fit your unique needs.
- Stand tall with your hands by your sides, feet shoulder-width apart, and toes pointed forward.
- Keeping your back flat, your heels on the ground, and your abs engaged, push your hips back and bend your knees, lowering your body until your thighs are parallel to the floor.
- Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position.
Tips for perfect form: You want to “sit” into the exercise, pushing your butt back like you’re lowering yourself onto a chair or bench. Never bend forward at your waist — that will only increase the stress on your spine and throw you off balance. Also, your knee caps should maintain alignment with your middle toes throughout the movement.
Make it easier: Lower onto and off of a bench or chair. Allow yourself to pause on the bench between descent and ascent, making sure not to lean forward when getting up.
Make it harder: Perform a pistol squat by extending one leg out in front of you, and then lowering toward the floor as far as possible without sacrificing form. Making sure to maintain tension on the extended leg throughout the movement, press through your planted foot to return to start. Another option is the jump squat, exploding up out of the bottom of each squat to jump as high as possible.
- Get on all fours with your feet together, your body straight from head to heels, and your hands in line with (but slightly wider than) your shoulders. Clench your glutes and brace your core to lock your body into position.
- Keeping your head down and your upper arms at no more than a 45-degree angle from your body, lower your torso until your chest is within a few inches of the floor.
- Pause, and then push yourself back up to the starting position as quickly as possible.
Make it easier: Place your hands on a counter, bench, or low step to reduce the load.
Make it harder: Perform one-handed push-ups or plyometric push-ups, pushing forcefully through each rep so that your hands briefly leave the floor. To increase the load you press with each rep, place your feet on a low step, or bench. Then gradually increase the incline angle.
- Stand tall with your hands clasped in front of your chest or on your hips, and your feet hip-width apart.
- Keeping your chest up, shoulders back, core braced (imagine someone is about to poke you in the gut), and back flat, take a large step forward with your right foot. Lower your body until your front thigh is parallel to the ground and your rear knee is bent 90 degrees (it should hover a couple of inches above the floor).
- Pause, and then reverse the movement to return to the starting position. Repeat, this time stepping forward with your left foot. Continue alternating legs with each rep.
Make it easier: Don’t descend quite as far toward the floor, or perform a rear lunge, stepping back into the move instead of forward.
Make it harder: Lower more slowly into each lunge or pause at the bottom to increase difficulty. You can also spring out of the bottom of each rep to perform plyo lunges.
- Grab a pull-up bar with an overhand grip that’s slightly beyond shoulder-width. Hang at arm’s length with your arms and legs straight (a position known as a dead hang).
- Without swinging or kipping (using momentum to propel you upward), squeeze your shoulder blades together as you pull your chest to the bar (or at least your chin above it).
- Pause, and then lower yourself back to a dead hang.
Make it easier: Try band-assisted pull-ups. Loop a resistance band over the bar and put your feet in the sling for assistance. You can also perform jumping pull-ups, jumping up as you pull yourself to the bar and then lowering back to the floor as slowly as possible. Chin-ups, with your palms facing toward your body, are also slightly easier for most people than pull-ups.
Make it harder: Challenge your body in the eccentric, or lengthening, phase of the move. With each rep, lower from the bar slowly and under control over the course of four seconds. Or perform a muscle-up by pressing your body above the bar at the top of each pull-up.
- Assume a push-up position: Get on all fours with your feet together and your body straight from head to heels.
- Make sure your wrists are directly beneath your shoulders.
- Squeeze your glutes and brace your core by drawing your belly button into the spine to lock your body into position. (To achieve this, it helps to imagine that someone is about to poke you in the gut.)
Make it easier: Add further incline by placing your hands on a low bench or step.
Make it harder: Briefly raise one arm and the opposite leg off the floor.
- Lie on your left side propped up on your left elbow and forearm, shoulders stacked over your elbow, legs stacked on top of each other, with your right hand on your right hip.
- Engage your core and lift your hips so that your body forms a straight line from your head to your heels.
- Hold for an amount of time that’s challenging for you, then switch sides and repeat.
Make it easier: Add further incline by placing your hand on a low bench or step.
Make it harder: Place your feet on a low step or bench, briefly raise your top arm and leg off the floor.