Completely new to this whole calisthenics thing? No problem, let’s dive right in with this quick getting started guide.
What is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is a type of fitness exercise that uses only your own bodyweight and minimal equipment. Calisthenics employ your body’s natural motions, such as pulling, pushing and jumping, to workout your muscles and cardiovascular endurance. Examples of calisthenics include pull-ups, push-ups, dips, squats, and crunches.
Calisthenics has been performed for thousands of years – interestingly enough, the word itself comes from the Greek kallos (meaning beauty) and sthenos (meaning strength) – which kind of hints at its long history.
Calisthenics exercises are one of the most efficient ways to improve all of your body’s natural capabilities – your strength, muscle size, flexibility, balance, and overall health. Furthermore, most bodyweight exercises require no equipment, and can be done almost anywhere, which saves you both time and money.
What are your goals?
Goals are an important part of working out with calisthenics. Are you looking to lose weight? Gain strength? Increase muscle size? Improve overall health & endurance? The ability to do a specific exercise (like the human flag)? Different goals will require different approaches.
The 3 most common goals of calisthenics enthusiasts are: hypertrophy (increasing muscle size), strength (making your muscles as strong as possible), and endurance (being able to do lots of repetitive bodyweight movements).
These do overlap; training for strength will certainly also increase your muscle size and endurance, but not as much as if you were to train specifically for those things.
It is important to identify what exactly you’re looking to do because different goals need different approaches in how you work out. The major distinctions between different goals is the number of reps, sets, and rest periods:
- For Strength training, you want to keep reps and sets low, with long rest times – typical recommendations are 3-5 reps for 3 sets, with 2-5 minutes of rest between sets
- For Hypertrophy training, typical recommendations are 6-12 reps for 3-5 sets, with 30-90 sec of rest between sets
- For Endurance training, typical recommendations are 12+ reps for 3-5 sets, with less than less than 30 seconds of rest between sets
Keep in mind that these numbers are just general approximations that are based on how you should stress your body for each goal. Also, you don’t need to worry about this until you’ve been working out for at least a couple of months. I will expand more on these concepts in the future.
If you are really serious about improving your health and getting the most out of your workouts, you will need to follow a healthy, wholesome diet.
And if you’re looking for big, strong muscles, you will also wait to get plenty of protein; ideally about 0.6 grams per 1lb of bodyweight. Check out the diet page for more information.
Calisthenics can be done virtually anywhere, although some exercises will require outside equipment. For example, you can do push-ups anywhere where there is a relatively flat, solid surface. But for pull-ups, you will need a bar or a ledge to hold on to, in which case you will have to either purchase/make one yourself at home, or find one elsewhere.
I usually do my workouts at one of three places – at home, at the local playground, or anywhere else where I find myself with some extra time.
Playgrounds may seem like a strange place for a grown person to hang around, but they provide us calisthenics enthusiasts with all of the equipment we need. In particular, most playgrounds usually have lots of metal bars that you can use to perform different kinds of pull-ups and other exercises.
You certainly don’t have to go to a playground to get a good calisthenics workout – you can buy and set up your own pull-up bars at home.
Hell, you can even BUILD your own pull-up bar if you’re a real handyman. But if you’re on a budget, or simply looking for the most versatile way to workout, then playgrounds really can’t be beat. So suck up your pride and go scare some children. It may also be a good idea to shave your beard so the parents don’t call the police on you.
I try to squeeze in my workouts either in the morning or the evening, but there is no set time that is best for working out. Just figure out when you have free time and what works best for you – if you have trouble falling asleep even hours after working out, then evening may be a bad idea. Similarly, if you find that you’re way too groggy in the morning, then pushing the workout to later in the day is a good idea.
The only rule I would keep in regards to time is that you workout consistently – that is, try to keep a regular schedule, let’s say every two days. For beginner and intermediate calisthenics, working out 3 days a week with a break day between every workout day is a good plan. The break-day allows your muscles to recuperate after every workout.
Warming up is often overlooked by many people, but that is a grave mistake, especially when you’re just starting out. Your muscles will NOT be ready for the sudden strain that you’re putting on them, so it is imperative to do at least a simple warm-up before you start to avoid injury.
I would suggest stretching your arms and legs in some basic stretches like arm circles, wrist rotations, and touching your toes, and running for a couple minutes to really get the blood flowing.
There are literally hundreds of ways to warm up, but just make sure that 1) you stretch so your muscles are ready and 2) you get your blood pumping. All in all it should take you a couple of minutes to warm-up effectively.
Types of Workouts
There are two basic types of calisthenics/bodyweight workouts – normal, and circuit. The difference between these lies in rest times and in how you structure exercises. For a normal workout, you do one exercise for a set number of repetitions (let’s say 10) and a specific number of sets (let’s say 3), with a few minutes of rest in between every set. You then go on to the next exercise in your workout and do the same.
Circuit workouts, on the other hand, combine multiple exercises into a continuous circuit with little to no rest between exercises.
An example of a circuit is 10 push-ups, then 10 chin-ups, then 10 crunches, then 10 lunges, with 0-30 seconds of rest between every exercise. When you’ve done all of the exercises in a circuit once, you’ve completed a circuit set/cycle. At this point, you can rest for a few minutes, and then do the whole circuit again.
Circuits are great for beginners because they take less time, typically work out the whole body, and also give you a serious cardiovascular workout in addition to training your muscles. However, do keep in mind that circuits are not ideal for strength and hypertrophy training. They will still work well when you’re a total beginner, but if hypertrophy and/or strength are your goals, you will want to switch to normal workouts.
Complete Beginner Exercises
The holy grail of calisthenics is push-ups and pull-ups, so mastering these two versatile exercises will always be the focus of your workouts. Can’t do a push-up or a pull-up? Or only a couple? No worries, we’ve got calisthenics routines to get you started. If you can already do some basic push-ups and pull-ups/chin-ups, then continue on to the more advanced beginner workouts.
The brilliant thing about bodyweight exercises is that they have hundreds of variations, which allows us to either make them more difficult, OR easier. If you’re struggling with push-ups for example, you can start out with wall or counter push-ups. If you’re struggling with pull-ups, you can start with bodyweight rows. So let’s get right into it.
Wall and counter push-ups are the first step in getting your body ready for normal push-ups. Just find a wall or a counter in your home and perform the typical push-up motion. The counter push-up is slightly more difficult than the wall push-up, because the angle of your body is lower so you are lifting more of your body weight.
You can also use other sturdy objects like benches. Keep in mind, the LOWER you position your body, the more difficult the push-up is going to be. So try to find an angle that works best for your fitness level. Here’s a quick video to visualize.
Bodyweight /Inverted Row
This is a great exercise to transition to doing pull-ups, and the best part is you can do it at home, as long as you have a sturdy table. Simply lie down below the table with your chest just above the edge of the table, grab on with your hands, and pull your body up.
You can also reverse this movement to work slightly different muscles. Check out the video below for a nice demonstration. If you do have a park/playground nearby however, I would recommend to use the metal bars there to perform the same movement.
All-Around Beginner Routine
Now that you know how to do wall /counter push-ups and bodyweight rows at home, you can start your basic calisthenics routine. Here is a great beginner workout that works your whole body – legs, back, arms, chest, abs and etc. You should ideally repeat this circuit 3 times.
- 12-15 counter or wall push-ups
- 6-8 bodyweight rows
- 8-10 squats
- 8-10 crunches
Rest: 30-60 seconds between each set. 1-2 minutes between cycles.
Cycles (this number will indicate how many times you repeat the whole routine): 1-3
If you find that you can’t do the full reps, do not worry, just do as MANY AS YOU CAN. Muscle exhaustion is KEY for growing muscles – if you tell your body that it simply can’t do anymore of something, it has to adjust by growing muscle and getting stronger. If you don’t train hard, your body won’t feel the need to adjust.
Similarly, if you don’t make yourself sweat and work up your heart, your body won’t feel the need to shed the fat that it is storing.
Note: if your primary goal with calisthenics is to lose weight, then try to reduce your rest times to the bare minimum. Doing circuit workouts with low rest times will get you sweating just as if you were running, but with the added benefit of growing muscle, increasing strength, and improving your flexibility and balance.
This should be enough to get you started. If you’re looking for more routines and exercises, check out the workout routines page.