Calisthenics For Beginners: What It Is & How To Start

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March 6, 2020

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Whether you’re a seasoned gym-goer or you’re just starting out on your fitness journey, you’ve probably heard of calisthenics. 

It’s has been around for centuries, is incredibly beneficial for your overall strength and fitness, and chances are, it’s already part of your routine! 

Calisthenics exercises are great for beginners and will be invaluable if you’re learning how to start working out and there are plenty of advanced exercises to challenge your strength if you’ve already got some fitness experience up your sleeve. Read on to learn more about what it is, the benefits, misconceptions and how to get started.

What is calisthenics?

Calisthenics is a form of strength training that uses the resistance of your body and gravity to help strengthen your muscles and improve your coordination, endurance and mobility. In fact, almost all common bodyweight exercises are calisthenics exercises such as squats, push-ups, lunges and crunches! 

Calisthenics exercises range from simple movements like squats that don’t require any equipment, to advanced movements that require a bar such as pull-ups and muscle-ups (the same as a pull-up, except you pull your entire torso above the bar), and even more complex exercises similar to gymnastics.

These exercises can complement different training styles, or you can focus on calisthenics alone. 

The best part about this versatile workout style is that you can do the exercises anytime, anywhere — from your at-home workout space to the gym, a hotel room, or even outdoors!

Calisthenics equipment

One of the many benefits of this training style is you can get started without any equipment, which makes it a great form of strength training for beginners, perfect for at-home workouts and a great way to stay active on holiday.

If you’re looking to learn new skills, change up your routine or challenge yourself further, some simple pieces of equipment can take your training up a level. These include:

  • Parallettes: two bars on stands that sit parallel to one another

  • Pull-up bar: a horizontal pole you can use for exercises such as hanging knee raises, pull-ups and muscle ups 

  • Resistance band: the variable resistance in a thick elastic band can be used to make exercises more challenging

Calisthenics vs weight training

Calisthenics uses your bodyweight as resistance, whereas weight training builds your strength using external weights like dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, kettlebells or gym machines. 

Calisthenics and weight training are both amazing ways to build your strength and can be performed on their own or to complement one another. The best way to structure your workout schedule will depend on your fitness goals, what equipment and space you have, and of course, what type of exercise you actually enjoy!

Making progress (aka *gains*) with weight training involves using progressive overload to gradually increase the amount of weight you can lift, while making progress with calisthenics involves working towards advanced exercises or variations. Once you’ve mastered push-ups on your toes, you can challenge yourself with options like spider push-ups, decline push-ups, travelling push-ups or even plyo push-ups!

The benefits of calisthenics

Including a calisthenics practice in your routine can benefit your body while complementing your lifestyle in different ways! Here are six amazing benefits of calisthenics.

You can do it anywhere

Because calisthenics exercises use your bodyweight and don’t require much equipment, you can do them virtually anywhere! Believe it or not, you can see amazing fitness results with a very simple (not to mention affordable) set-up. 

According to a 2017 study published in Isokinetics and Exercise Science, calisthenics can help to improve posture, strength and body composition without the use of major training equipment.

It’s great for beginners

Many calisthenics exercises are easy enough for beginners to master and don’t have a high risk of injury, such as bodyweight squats and push-ups. If you’re new to fitness, calisthenics can help you learn the correct form and build your confidence before progressing to more advanced variations or adding weights.

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It works your whole body

Calisthenics training can easily be a full-body workout if you incorporate a range of upper and lower body exercises. You’ll need to engage your core throughout many calisthenics movements to maintain your balance and good technique.

It helps you move better in everyday life

The 2017 study we previously mentioned also found that after eight weeks of training, participants had improved their posture, strength and body composition. 

Another 2015 study published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology Online investigated the effects of calisthenic strength exercises in Physical Education classes in school children. It found incorporating bodyweight calisthenics exercises (such as push-ups, squats and lunges) increased their strength, compared to recreational sports activities alone, ultimately recommending calisthenics should be part of a well-rounded fitness program for children! It’s a great way to support athletic performance, overall health, movement and quality of life.

It makes you stronger

Calisthenics exercises help you build full-body strength and increase your muscle mass over time, and as your strength improves,  you can continue to make the exercises more challenging! 

Alongside the many push-up variations, you can increase the difficulty of a squat by adding pulses or trying single-leg squats. You can also slow down or hold exercises to dial up your time under tension (this is where those muscle shakes start!), or make them faster to increase explosive muscular power and athleticism. 

It’s fun!

Whether you’re learning squat basics, are trying to master movements on a pull-up bar, or you’re trying to improve your balance with single-leg or arm exercises, there are so many ways to keep your training fun and exciting as you build strength and flexibility.

Common misconceptions about calisthenics

Contrary to popular belief, calisthenics is suitable for all experience levels! Yes, it’s the style of training that’s commonly associated with gymnastics movements on bars and rings, but that’s the advanced level. Let’s debunk some of those common myths!

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You can’t build muscle

As so many of the strong women in the Sweat Community know, bodyweight exercises can definitely help you build strength and muscle! Just like any strength training routine, it takes consistent effort to see results. 

According to Harvard Health, research has found bodyweight exercise helps build muscular strength and endurance, independent of an external load. A small 2016 study also confirmed contracting muscle through a full range of motion with no external load increases muscle size similar to high load training.

Another small 2017 study published in the Journal of Exercise & Fitness investigated the effect of push-up training compared to low-load bench press in two groups of subjects who performed them twice per week over eight weeks. The resultsfound both exercises induced significant increases in muscle thickness, with no significant difference between both groups.

So if you’re looking to build strength and muscle, regardless of your fitness level or equipment, calisthenics can make a great training option 

It’s not for women

As explained in an article from Princeton University, the average man tends to be considerably stronger than the average woman, especially when it comes to upper body strength. This is largely due to differences in body composition, but because many calisthenics exercises like pull-ups or advanced push-up variations require significant upper-body strength, there’s a common belief it’s more of a men’s training style. Is this a myth? Absolutely!

While women may not have the same strength or size as their male counterparts, it has been proven both men and women demonstrate similar strength gains when training consistently over a period of time, and there’s no reason why women should shy away from calisthenics exercises. 

A 2016 study published online by the National Institutes of Health tracked upper-body strength gains between men and women after 10 weeks of resistance training. Researchers found no significant differences in strength gains between sexes and therefore concluded that there should be no need to design different resistance training programs for men and women.

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You can’t increase resistance

It’s common to think it’s hard to increase the difficulty of some of these popular movements without adding weights to your workout. This isn’t true! Here are a few ways you can progress your calisthenics training and increase resistance when performing bodyweight exercises:

  • Use a resistance band

  • Increase your reps or speed

  • Adjust the pace of each rep to spend more time under tension, for example by taking 3-5 seconds to lower into a squat and one second to power up!

  • Add small pulses to your movements, such as squat pulses, pulses at the bottom of a push-up, or pulsing lunges

  • Try advanced exercise variations (for example, progressing from banded or assisted pull-ups to unassisted pull-ups, chest-to-bar pull-ups, and eventually muscle-ups)

  • Add a weight vest 

  • Do plyometric (“jumping”) versions of exercises such as jump squats to increase your heart rate and build explosive power

Best calisthenics exercises

Finding the best exercises for you will depend on your level of strength and experience. If you’re a beginner, it’s best to start with the basics, but if you’ve been working out for some time and are looking for a more advanced workout, you could dive straight into some more challenging calisthenics exercises.

Calisthenics exercises for beginners

If you’re just starting out, here are some simple bodyweight exercises to try:

Exercise: Squat - Kelsey Wells

Squats

Bodyweight squats are a simple and effective exercise you can do either on their own, or with a resistance band placed around your thighs for more of a challenge.

Exercise: Alternating Lunge - Ania Tippkemper

Lunges

Bodyweight lunges can either be done on the spot by stepping forward or backwards, or you can try walking lunges where instead of bringing your feet back together, you take another lunging step forwards. You can even increase the intensity and do these as jump lunges for more of a challenge.

Exercise: Bent And Straight Leg Raises - Kayla Itsines

Bent and straight leg raises

Leg raises can be performed lying on the ground to improve stability in your lower back. As your strength improves you can try using a bench or progress to hanging leg raises holding onto a bar or rings.

Exercise: Plank - Ania Tippkemper

Planks

Planks are a simple yet challenging exercise and are great for stability, balance and core strength. For a more difficult variation, try commandos. This is where you push up to a high plank one hand at a time, then lower back down.

Exercise: Push-Up (Knees) - Ania Tippkemper

Push-ups Start by doing push-ups on your knees, or standing with your hands up against a wall, and eventually progress to push-ups on your toes. This exercise is great for building upper-body and core strength.

Advanced calisthenics exercises

Once you become more confident, you can increase your training complexity and intensity with these exercises:

Exercise: Burpee - Kelsey Wells

Burpees

Burpees are a great high-intensity exercise that work multiple muscle groups at the same time, making them a great movement for building full-body strength and muscular endurance.

Exercise: Pull-Up - Chontel Duncan

Pull-ups

Pull-ups are challenging, so if you’re a beginner you can practice your technique by using a resistance band to support your bodyweight — simply wrap the band around the pull-up bar and place your feet into the loop before you get started.

Exercise: Pull Up - Cass Olholm

Chin-ups

Chin-ups are similar to pull-ups but are performed with an underhand grip (palms facing towards your body). Chin-ups will engage more of your biceps and the front of the shoulders compared to pull-ups. 

If you can’t do a chin-up, try using a resistance band to support your weight as you build your strength, or use an assisted chin-up machine at the gym.

Handstands

These are a great way to build strong and stable shoulders. Start by doing a handstand hold with your feet resting on top of a box, or by leaning your legs up against a wall.

L-sits

L-sits can be done to build strength in your core and upper body, either on the floor or holding onto two bars.

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Getting started with calisthenics

Anyone can try calisthenics — you don’t need gym equipment, a personal trainer, or any prior training background. The key to success is simply getting started.

Whether you’re working out at home, in the gym, or a mix of both, calisthenics can easily be incorporated into your routine! Want to try a workout? Give one of these bodyweight workouts a go! 

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* Disclaimer: This blog post is not intended to replace the advice of a medical professional. The above information should not be used to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease or medical condition. Please consult your doctor before making any changes to your diet, sleep methods, daily activity, or fitness routine. Sweat assumes no responsibility for any personal injury or damage sustained by any recommendations, opinions, or advice given in this article.

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