Calisthenics is far more than just an option for when you go on vacation and don’t have access to the gym. While some hardcore gym-goers may scoff at the idea of doing bodyweight training, it’s a proven and challenging method of exercise. 

The best calisthenics workout might not feel the same as lifting heavy weights, and might not be enough for you just on its own. But it’s worth adding a calisthenic workout into your routine if you’re looking for something extra to add to your workouts. 

Calisthenics training is highly helpful for building flexibility, endurance, and coordination. Don’t expect to master it immediately, though. While your own bodyweight may be less than what you’re lifting in the gym, calisthenics relies on correct form, negatives, and ranges of motion you may not have dealt with before. 

Why Choose Calisthenics? 

You may wonder why calisthenic workouts would be any better than what you’re already doing in the gym. While it’s a good idea to incorporate both, learning how to train calisthenics has some advantages over normal weight lifting:

  • You can do it anywhere—home, on vacation, in the park. 
  • You can do it any time—having a bout of insomnia? Do some calisthenics. 
  • Very little equipment is required. 
  • It’s cost-effective. 
  • Learn to master control of your own body. 
  • Build strength in different planes of movement. 
  • You get a full body workout. 
  • Improves your range of motion. 
  • It’s a form of functional fitness
  • Builds endurance. 
  • Improves form. 
  • It’s a balance between aerobic and anaerobic fitness. 

While starting off your fitness journey with calisthenics is great, it’s not just for beginners. Bodyweight training is hardcore if you do it properly, so give it a try before you make your mind up about whether or not it’s beneficial to you. 

Can You Build Muscle With Only Calisthenics? 

The short answer is yes—you can build muscle with only calisthenics. Despite the fact that your bodyweight remains relatively similar—which may make you feel like you won’t be able to progress in terms of weight lifted—there are ways to up the intensity of your calisthenics workout to keep your muscles growing. 

Although a bodyweight workout is full body, the one area in which you may not see a lot of muscle growth is the legs. Often, bodyweight leg exercises aren’t quite enough to build a great set of legs. So, while you can definitely grow muscle with calisthenics alone—especially if you’re a beginner—you may want to consider keeping some weightlifting sessions in your routine. 

Here’s how calisthenics trainers up the intensity to build muscle: 

Shift the Angle 

You can add resistance by changing the angle of your exercise. For example, if your push ups are getting a bit easy, try them on a decline for more of an overload (1).

If changing the angle isn’t possible, you can simply extend your range of motion. Doing handstand push ups can be intensified by using a set of parallettes. These allow for a deeper range of motion to stimulate muscle fibers more intensely and increase muscle growth (2). 

Slow the Movement Down

Churning out as many reps as possible in a workout may not be the best way to gain muscle mass. Research suggests that slowing your movements down can increase muscle gain (3). 

It’s tempting to push through quickly and move onto the next exercise, but something as simple as slowing your reps down to really feel the muscles moving can have a significant impact on your muscle growth. 

Negatives 

Negatives are an underutilized way of improving strength and muscle gains in a workout. They’re basically doing half the rep, at a slowed-down pace, and then restarting without finishing out the full exercise. 

They’re especially good for those new to calisthenics who may not be able to lift their own weight in some bodyweight exercises, such as dips. Dip negatives are a great way to build the strength necessary to move forward and are also worthwhile doing even if you can do the full rep. 

For dip negatives, begin at the top of the motion and lower yourself slowly, focusing on the stretch in the muscle as you go down. This movement should take 6 to 8 seconds. Hold it for 1 to 3 seconds when you reach the lowest point before placing your feet down and going back to the starting point. 

Negatives can be done on many exercises, including dips, push ups, chin ups, and pull ups. 

Additional Tips 

Use a Weight Vest 

Some may not consider this to be true calisthenics as it’s weighted and not just bodyweight exercises. But if you’ve mastered your angles, negatives, and slowing reps down, it could be the next step in supercharging your calisthenics workout routine. 

A weight vest is helpful for upper body exercises, and you can add as much weight as you feel is right. From here, you can scale up your workout routine very well in terms of increasing weight lifted. 

Weight belts are another option if you’d prefer that. With the help of one of these tools, calisthenics can become a mix of bodyweight and weighted exercise. They can be used with virtually any exercise. 

Add a Weighted Leg Day 

Yes—calisthenics is superb for building upper body strength. But it’s recommended to add some weighted training for legs. Bodyweight squats and lunges may keep you toned, but they’re unlikely to contribute much to muscle growth. 

Adding a day of deadlifts, barbell squats, leg extensions, leg presses, and whatever other exercises you enjoy and find effective is a good idea. 

Best calisthenics workout  infographic

Which Calisthenics Program Is Best? 

There are a ton of calisthenics programs out there when you start searching. The best calisthenics workout for you will depend on your goals. 

You can create your own based around your weightlifting routine, or you can select a pre-created one online to follow. If you’ve been doing gym workouts for any length of time, it won’t be hard for you to adjust to body weight and get your form right. 

It also depends on what equipment you have, and if you’d be willing to get equipment to do calisthenics training. Some programs use things like: 

  • Gymnastics rings. 
  • Pullup bars. 
  • Parallettes. 

So, which would be the best calisthenics workout for you? Let’s check out the options. 

Pre-Created Online Program

There are some superb online programs available that will get you ahead in a short period of time. Some are free, some are paid, but they’re all created by top-notch guys in the field. Some programs that get the thumbs-up include: 

If you’re planning on choosing an online program to follow, it’s important to check them out and make sure they’re appropriate for your level of experience. 

Pros: 

  • Easy access. 
  • Can use them any time. 
  • You can find good free options. 

Cons: 

  • Some may be pricey. 
  • May not be geared towards your personal goals. 

Trainer-Created Program 

If online programs aren’t for you and you like the feeling of being accountable to someone, you could find a calisthenics personal trainer and get them to create a program for you. 

It would be more specific to your goals, and the extra motivation of having your trainer in the room and not on a computer screen could be helpful. 

Pros: 

  • Accountability. 
  • Ability to cater to your personal goals. 

Cons: 

  • Could be expensive. 

Self-Created Program 

If you aren’t keen on either of the above options, you could structure your own program according to what your goals are. This could be the way to go if you’re already an experienced weightlifter, as you can pinpoint areas you wish to work on while keeping your weightlifting routine where you feel necessary. 

To build your own calisthenics workout, be sure to incorporate the following: 

  • Static hangs and holds. 
  • Push exercises. 
  • Pull exercises. 
  • Core exercises. 
  • Leg exercises.

Here are some calisthenics staples that the best calisthenics workout should incorporate, no matter your level of experience: 

Static Hangs and Holds 

Static holds and hangs—also known as isometric holds—should not be neglected. 

These are single-position holds that aren’t a through-and-through rep, but they have some serious benefits. They work wonders for grip strength and improve endurance. 

  • Dead hang. 
  • L-sit hold. 
  • L-hang. 
  • Plank. 

These can eventually work up to some pretty intense holds, such as the planche, front lever, and back lever. 

Push Exercises 

  • Push ups 

There’s a wide range of push up variations out there, so don’t be put off by the thought of this being a “basic” exercise. Try Archer push ups, Bulgarian push ups, or one-handed push ups for the chest. For extra tricep involvement, do some diamond push ups. 

Pike push ups are fantastic for the shoulders. They’re a variation that replicates a shoulder press. 

  • Dips 

Both chest and tricep dips are highly efficient. They can be done on countertops, chair backs, parallettes, bars, or anywhere else you can fit. 

Dip negatives are a good place to start. If you’re at the point where you need to increase the intensity, ring dips are an intense and challenging variation that can be adapted into Bulgarian dips for an extra challenge. 

  • Tricep Extensions 

These can be done on the ground, using a bar, or using rings. It’s easy to adjust the intensity by changing the angle. 

Pull Exercises 

  • Chin ups 

Chin ups and pull ups aren’t quite the same thing. Their mechanics are slightly different, and chin ups work the biceps and the upper back well. 

You can do them on any bar, ledge, or handles above your head. If they’re difficult to start, begin with chin up negatives. Jump to the top and lower yourself down in 6 to 8 seconds, feeling the muscles engage all the way down. 

  • Pull ups 

Pull ups replicate the lat pulldown machine that most of us have used in the gym before. They focus on the wider area of the back, down into the middle and include the traps. There’s a bit of bicep activation too, but not as much as chin ups.

This is another exercise that may need some negative work to be done before full pull ups can be achieved. It’s essential not to swing yourself into a pull up—known as a kipping pull up—instead of actually pulling up using your lats. 

This not only increases the chance of injury, but you won’t be engaging those muscles. There’s no use getting to the top of the bar or rings if you aren’t using the right muscles to get there. 

Make sure to stick to the correct form. 

  • Rows 

Rows are another staple that can be done on bars, rings, countertops, or anything else you can get under. Make sure you keep a straight line from neck to ankles when rowing—otherwise, your chance of neck injury increases. They’re great for the lower back. 

Core Exercises 

A strong core is a huge part of calisthenics. It’s essential for stability and keeping your form throughout movements, and helps reduce the chances of injury. 

Some superb core exercises—that cover all parts of the core—that should be included in the best calisthenics workout are: 

  • Knee or leg raises (lying/hanging). 
  • Hollow rocks. 
  • Plank variations. 
  • Glute bridges. 
  • Russian twists. 
  • Bicycle crunches. 
  • Cable crunches. 

Any ab exercises that can be done weighted should be! Just like anything else, the addition of extra resistance increases intensity and ups the chance of muscle growth and strength gain. 

Weighted leg raises can be done using ankle weights, or a dumbbell can be held in the hand while doing sit up variations. 

Leg Exercises 

If you’re interested in incorporating some bodyweight legwork, here are the top leg-busting moves: 

  • Bulgarian split squats. 
  • Pistol squats. 
  • Plyometric jump squats (front to back or side to side). 
  • Explosive switching lunges (focusing on negatives). 
  • Wall sits. 

Other 

  • Muscle ups.

Muscle ups are the holy grail of those new to calisthenics. In order to get it right, though, you’ll need to be adept at a regular pull up—without kipping—and dips. 

Before Every Exercise

Getting into the right position is important to ensure your form stays correct. Take a moment before leaping into any exercise to: 

  • Tighten your core as though you were about to be punched. 
  • Straighten your lower back—fix your pelvic tilt (4). 
  • Put your shoulders back—as though you’re clenching a coin between your shoulder blades. 
  • Create a straight line from top to toe. 
  • No swinging! 

Can You Do Calisthenics Every Day? 

Sure you can. But whether or not you should depends on your routine, the intensity of your workout, your rest and recovery time, and how you feel in between. 

It also depends on whether your goal is strength building or skill building. These are two distinct schools within calisthenics—if you’re training to gain muscle or build strength you’ll need to give your muscles adequate time to rest in between heavy workouts. Research suggests that 72 hours is the minimum time one should rest muscle groups between gym sessions (5). 

If you’re training particular skills—for example, the muscle up, or specialized moves like the iron cross—training every day can be beneficial. This is because these skills generally already have the strength behind them, but training focuses on the more basic elements such as balance, mobility, and form. 

When Should I Take a Break? 

Regardless of how much you love working out, it’s key to listen to your body. Overworking yourself can have detrimental effects, including fatigue, increased chance of injury, and depression of the immune system. 

You should give yourself a day or two off if you: 

  • Have unexplained muscle aches or pains. 
  • Feel under the weather. 
  • Haven’t had a good night’s rest. 
  • Have lost motivation. 
  • Every 6 to 8 weeks, regardless of how you’re feeling. 

What Can I Expect From Adding Calisthenics to My Weightlifting? 

The addition of some bodyweight training may sound like a step backwards, but in reality it’s a superb supplemental practice. 

Weights are designed to overload the muscles and cause hypertrophy. Obviously, calisthenics is slightly different in mechanics—although there’s still great potential to gain muscle mass—but the real draw here is that you’ll gain in terms of: 

  • Flexibility. 
  • Mobility. 
  • Grip strength. 
  • Endurance. 
  • Form. 

You may be surprised at how the improvements in these areas carry over into your weightlifting. You’ll likely find yourself lifting heavier, keeping stricter form, and increasing that 1RM faster than you thought you could. 

Summary

The best calisthenics workout is a very individual thing. Bodyweight training is beneficial to everyone, regardless of level of experience or if you’ve ever done it before. 

Understanding your own workout goals and knowing what exercises are effective are two key points. Whether you’re a hardcore gym-goer or a functional fitness boff, calisthenics exercises have a place in your workout regime. 

The most important part of making sure you’re doing the best calisthenics workouts for your level is to not compromise on form and take it slow. It may be frustrating to start slower when you’re used to heavy weights, but if you put in the effort and have a bit of patience, you’ll soon start realizing how beneficial a supplemental calisthenics routine can be to your fitness and muscle gain. 

References: 

Kotarsky, Christopher. EFFECT OF PROGRESSIVE CALISTHENIC PUSH-UP TRAINING ON MUSCLE STRENGTH & THICKNESS. 2016 https://library.ndsu.edu/ir/bitstream/handle/10365/28060/Effect%20of%20Progressive%20Calisthenic%20Push-up%20Training%20on%20Muscle%20Strength%20and%20Thickness.pdf;jsessionid=AAF64C6094E20F9528F0629F3DD4B214?sequence=1

Schoenfeld, Brad J, and Jozo Grgic. “Effects of Range of Motion on Muscle Development during Resistance Training Interventions: A Systematic Review.” SAGE Open Medicine, vol. 8, Jan. 2020, p. 205031212090155, 10.1177/2050312120901559. Accessed 13 Apr. 2020. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6977096/

Watanabe, Yuya, et al. “Increased Muscle Size and Strength From Slow-Movement, Low-Intensity Resistance Exercise and Tonic Force Generation.” Journal of Aging and Physical Activity, vol. 21, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 71–84, 10.1123/japa.21.1.71. Accessed 21 Feb. 2020. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/234042658_Increased_Muscle_Size_and_Strength_From_Slow-Movement_Low-Intensity_Resistance_Exercise_and_Tonic_Force_Generation

https://www.healthline.com/health/posterior-pelvic-tilt

Boivin, Alexander. The Effects of Resistance Training Frequency On Muscle The Effects of Resistance Training Frequency On Muscle Hypertrophy And Strength In Healthy Trained Individuals: Hypertrophy And Strength In Healthy Trained Individuals: Literature Review Literature Review. https://stars.library.ucf.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1109&context=honorstheses#:~:text=Recovery%20of%20the%20muscle%20may,synthesis%20and%20physiological%20anabolic%20hormones.

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Johnny Gallagher

Johnny Gallagher is a certified personal trainer and nutritionist.

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