Calisthenics: What It Is & How To Incorporate It Into Your Workouts
Calisthenics is an incredibly beneficial (and common) part of any exercise routine and forms the basis of many exercises you might already be doing — it’s been around for centuries and it continues to gain popularity today!
Calisthenics exercises are great for beginners and will be invaluable to you if you’re learning how to start working out.
What is calisthenics?
Put simply, calisthenics is a form of bodyweight resistance training. In fact, almost all of the bodyweight exercises that you’ve probably done before are calisthenics exercises (think: squats, push-ups, lunges and crunches). Calisthenics exercises use your bodyweight and gravity as resistance to help strengthen your coordination, endurance, and mobility.
Calisthenics exercises range from very simple movements (like squats) to advanced movements such as muscle-ups (the same as a pull-up, except you pull your entire torso above the bar), and more complex exercises similar to gymnastics – where you’ll use an apparatus like a pull-up bar to do flips.
Calisthenics 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 — including outdoors!
One of the many benefits of calisthenics is that it does not require equipment which makes it a great form of strength training for at-home workouts.
Still, there are some basic items that can be used in your calisthenics routine to take your training to another level. These include:
- Parallettes: two bars on stands that sit parallel to one another
- Pull up bar: a horizontal pole that you can use to “pull up” your bodyweight
- Resistance band: a thick elastic band that can be used to accommodate variable resistance.
Calisthenics vs weight training
Calisthenics and weight training can be performed on their own or in conjunction with one another. Both forms of strength training promote a range of benefits, depending on your fitness goals.
Calisthenics uses your own bodyweight as resistance, whereas weight training uses an external weight.
Weight training gives you the option of continually increasing the amount of weight you can lift to help increase your strength.
Calisthenics is convenient as it doesn’t require equipment and is a great starting point for beginners to learn the correct form for all kinds of exercises.
According to a 2017 study published on Isokinetics and Exercise Science, calisthenics can help to improve posture, strength and body composition without the use of major training equipment.
The benefits of calisthenics
Practising calisthenics has many advantages — for your body, convenience and lifestyle!
Here are six amazing benefits of calisthenics.
You can do it anywhere
Calisthenics exercises use your bodyweight as resistance which means you can do them virtually anywhere: at home, in the park, or even in your hotel room while you’re on holiday or travelling for work.
It’s great for beginners
Many calisthenics exercises are simple. If you’re new to fitness, beginning with calisthenics exercises can help you learn the correct form safely before progressing to weighted exercises.
It uses your whole body
You need to stabilise your core throughout many calisthenics movements to remain balanced, maintain good technique and coordination. Having good technique will help to increase strength across your entire body.
It helps you move better in everyday life
A 2014 article published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy defines “functional” movement as fundamental aspects of human movement. Functional movements occur throughout many athletic activities, including calisthenics, and help with coordination, strength, stability, and mobility in your everyday life.
A 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 that incorporating bodyweight calisthenics exercises (such as push-ups, squats and lunges) increased their strength, compared to recreational sports activities alone.
The study concluded that calisthenics should be included in a well-rounded fitness program for children, to assist in sports performance, health, quality of life and functional independence.
It makes you stronger
Calisthenics exercises help you to build full-body strength over time, in a sustainable way. As your strength improves, you can make the exercises more challenging to increase resistance. For example, placing your feet on an elevated surface can make push-ups harder and single-leg squats can intensify regular squats. You can also slow down exercises to increase time under tension, or make them faster to increase muscular power and athleticism.
Once you’ve mastered the basics, calisthenics can help you build strength and flexibility so that you can progress onto challenging your body with more complex movements — muscle-ups, anyone?!
Common misconceptions about calisthenics
Contrary to popular belief, calisthenics is suitable for all experience levels!
Here’s how you can progress your calisthenics training — plus, some common misconceptions about calisthenics that might surprise you.
You can’t build muscle
Bodyweight exercises can help you build muscle through muscle engagement and using full range of motion.
A 2020 journal article published on MDPI discussed that “resistance training with no external load has been shown to promote [...] significant increases in muscle mass and strength.” A small 2016 study also confirmed that “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 results found that both exercises induced significant increases in muscle thickness, with no significant difference between both groups.
Calisthenics is therefore a great option for anyone who has been physically inactive as it can help to promote physical and health benefits without the intimidation of using weights.
It’s not for women
Generally speaking, women possess less strength and muscle volume than men, particularly in the upper body, as a 2016 study published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology reports. Because many calisthenics exercises like pull-ups require upper-body strength, there’s a common myth that women don’t, or shouldn’t do it.
While women may not have the same muscle size as men, it has been proven that both men and women demonstrate similar strength gains when training consistently over a period of time.
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 protocols for men and women.
You can’t increase resistance
There are different ways you can progress your calisthenics training, including increasing resistance. Here are some ideas you can try:
- Use a resistance band
- Increase your reps
- Increase the difficulty of the movements (for example, progressing from pull-ups to chest-to-bar pull-ups, and eventually muscle-ups)
- Add a weight vest or dumbbells
- Do plyometric (“jumping”) versions of the exercises to increase your heart rate (for example, traditional squats to jump squats).
Best calisthenics exercises
The best calisthenics exercises depend on your level of experience. A beginner will likely need to start with the basics, while someone who has been working out for some time may be able to progress to more complex, challenging calisthenics exercises.
Calisthenics exercises for beginners
If you’re just starting out with calisthenics, here are some simple bodyweight exercises you can try:
Bodyweight squats are a simple and effective exercise you can do as a calisthenics beginner. These can be done on their own, or with a resistance band placed around your thighs for more of a challenge.
Bodyweight lunges can either be done as a static exercise, alternating your legs as you step forward, or you can try “walking lunges”. You can even increase the intensity and do these as jump lunges for more of a challenge.
Bent-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 bent-leg raises holding onto a bar.
Planks are a simple yet challenging exercise great for stability, balance, and core strength.
You can start by doing push-ups on your knees, or standing with your hands up against a wall, and eventually progress on to different variations on your feet to challenge your strength. This exercise is great for building upper-body and core strength.
Advanced calisthenics exercises
Once you become more confident with calisthenics, you can increase your training complexity and intensity with these exercises:
Burpees are a great high-intensity exercise for building full-body strength and muscular endurance.
Pull-ups are challenging, so if you’re new to this exercise you can practise 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.
Similar to pull-ups, chin-ups are performed with an underhand grip (imagine your fingernails facing towards you on the bar rather than away from you). 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 are a great way to build strong and stable shoulders. You can 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 can be done to build strength in your core and upper body.
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 getting started.
Whether you’re working out at home, or you go to a gym, calisthenics can easily be incorporated into your routine with just a few basic movements.
Not sure where to start? Give these bodyweight workouts a go — they incorporate simple calisthenics exercises you can do at home.
Have you tried calisthenics? Let us know in the comments!
* 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.