Three years ago, I made a lifechanging decision – I threw the general fitness training aboard and started calisthenics.
This decision took me some courage and I was full of doubts:
Bodyweight Training? Can you even build muscle like that? Isn’t Calisthenics training pole dancing for guys that can’t get big?
Just Pullups, pushups, and leg raises?! – seems to be boring in the long run!
Despite these doubts, I started anyways and fell quickly in love with this new kind of training.
A lot happened in these few years – the sport established itself as my lifestyle and I learned that all my worries were just insecurities.
My goal with this post is to motivate you to give calisthenics a try. To give you all the basic information that you get a general overview of this broad topic. It definitely changed my life for the better. Maybe it will change your life, too!
This post will take us both for a fairly long ride, covering everything basic you need to know about Calisthenics. Feel free to jump the section that interests you, using the table down below!
Calisthenics is nothing less than the grandfather of all workouts -bodyweight training – and much older than gymnastics. Just dressed in a stylish name. Originally it comes from Greek and means the beauty of strength.
Ancient warriors used it to keep their bodies in shape for – killing season.
The army heavily utilizes bodyweight strength exercises for a long time now. Recruits in 1900 did pushups, as recruits still do them nowadays.
Calisthenics got a hype a few years ago. Originally it evolved as #streetworkout in the USA’s metropolises.
Totally reasonable, because to start with Calisthenics, you don’t need anything. Maybe a few bars at your local playground. That’s it. No expensive gym membership or equipment. And anyone can achieve anything.
But don’t be fooled of its complexity at the first glimpse. Everybody can start somewhere. And unlike squatting 200kg in the beginning, you won’t planche overnight.
The benefits of calisthenics are manifold. We’ll look in more detail at them later on. First off, we’ll look at the main ideas behind calisthenics – right into its soul!
What are Calisthenics main ideas?
Kinetics: Train movements – not muscles
One foundational rule of calisthenics is to train movement patterns and no isolated muscles.1
Of course, you can structure your body into push/pull or back/chest sessions and isolated exercises can make sense. But if you wanna get good at pullups, you have to train pullups to learn the movement. No amount of pulldowns and curls can substitute training the actual movement.
You’ll get the muscles on top of strong movements. As the literal cherry on top.
To have a great workout you don’t need much – a thing to pull up to*, as well as some space and you are good to go.
This minimalism offers great benefits, especially in times of #coronalockdownmadness2020 or when you are traveling and out of reach of your local gym.
Bodyweight: Everyone can start somewhere
The range of exercises to choose goes from doable for nearly anyone, to advanced movements, up until really superhuman stuff. Really stop right here and have a look at this video. I couldn’t fucking believe my eyes.
Alright – back on the track after that mindnuke? Fortunately, besides that there are the basics. Every one of these basic movements can easily be made harder or easier. For every exercise, there are many progressions, you can utilize:
If you are not able to do a pushup you can alleviate your upper body and work towards doing it on the flat ground.
On the other hand, if pushups get too easy you can start your journey to the one-arm pushup.
The gap between two levels is by any means not linear and harder to measure than to put 2,5kg more weight onto the bar. BUT – challenges motivate! That’s at least my POV 🙂
Ask yourself the following question: Which achievement would you be more proud of? A decent pulldown of 52,5kg or your first pullup?
If these basic ideas cling to you, and you wanna try it out, check out my calisthenics program ‘Laying your Foundation‘. It covers basic strength acquisition, for people who can do the basic movements. For everyone else, not able to perform the basics yet, I created a free program ‘From Zero‘ which shall guide you towards this point.
What is strength worth, if it isn’t put into action and movement?
Calisthenics is strongly about functional movement and has many overlaps with gymnastics. Over the course of your practice, you will definitely learn how to use your body in a variety of ways.
Plus, strong and well-controllable joints are one of the best aids against aches and pains, as you age.
You have to be mindful
Each one’s Calisthenics practice is different and very individual. But what all have in common is their ability to quickly set one into the present moment. Because if you’re not there, working on challenging skills will be not very productive.
You can get away repping out pushups while thinking about what to cook for lunch – but try to hold a handstand while doing so, will result in not much work done.
The journey from skill to skill
To acquire certain skills one can spend years, depending on the starting point. While this could sound strongly repelling, it is actually an awesome thing to see your progress that clearly.
You can’t cheat a skill – either you put in the work and will move closer towards it or you won’t progress. It’s easy as that.
You don’t need much equipment
As previously mentioned, Calisthenics is very minimalistic. You can do most exercises solely with your body in a space of 2×2. Some things come handy, like a pullup bar, gymnastic rings, chalk, or some parallettes.
But if shove comes to push you solely need your body – nothing else. 2
Around Calisthenics exists an awesome worldwide community. There are big ones on Reddit, Instagram, and many other sites. Even local, mostly focussed around parks where parallel bars and monkey bars are available, exist communities of like-minded individuals.
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I always found it refreshing to meet other folks, share tips, success stories, and simply socialize. Also many people walking by are positively open to people celebrating movement that freely in public places.
Calisthenics can be a lonely activity – or a very community based one – depending on how you want it.
It can be a very competitive or purely recreational sport.
With the journey towards each skill come many skills on life that can be learned. 4
You can’t cheat or force progress. While you can cheat a solid body, a skill like an iron cross can hardly be forced by nutjob doses of roids.
In the end, Calisthenics is what you make of it. It is a very individual practice that grows aside, as you do.
What do I need to start with Calisthenics?
A well-organized program
You can debate on which program is the best5. One thing you can’t debate on is that a program is better than none.
You should have at least a rough plan, if you wanna embark on a journey.
But, not knowing anything about a matter, never hindered people to do it anyways. Pushing boundaries is kind of our inner frontier spirit.
The issue is, that if you can’t measure where you are at, and what you are doing, how can you see if you are moving in the right direction?
That’s why success starts with good programming.
Good programming is art. It is also very individual and falls with many variables.
If that sounds way beyond your capacities in the beginning – that’s totally cool. I got you also covered in this particular case – feel free to check out my programs, some of them cost a few bucks, others completely free, too:
But, there are some really cool pieces of equipment, which can open up new worlds to your training:
First, there are the gymnastic rings*. Rings are such an awesome tool and a totally different stimulus for your body – they’re unstable. If you wanna know more about them – here we go.
Second, a good pair of Parallettes*. Parallettes can save your wrists, especially when starting out, you still feel yesterday’s workout, or generally tend to do a lot of work with your wrists flat on the ground.
For anyone into yoga or handbalancing, handstand blocks* can be another game-changing piece of equipment to own!
Even better all of the three above are easy to transport and fit in every backpack. That’s why you can take them with you on vacation easily.
Other pieces of equipment make your calisthenics life a lot easier are:
Working out is easy. The knowledge behind that is vast. Don’t get me wrong it is mostly easy to follow, but there are many things to set into perspective simultaneously to make sense out of something.
Fortunately, you don’t have to know anything about it, if you wanna get gud. Many are doing many things right intuitively without overthinking it. Nonetheless, I strongly believe that knowledge that is put into action is power.
And who doesn’t like a bit of additional power?
Check out these books, if you are serious about it and want to understand what’s all behind this ‘working-out-thing’. My favorite books, I have read until now on this topic are:
Not to say that isolated training is nonsense. But unlike bodybuilding where the goal is to get a big biceps, calisthenics goals are more skill focussed
There is no need to always pull, too. Training wholly pushing movements for a prolonged period of time is totally fine, too. This depends strongly on your desired goals.
Try this out! Preferably in front of a 5* all-inclusive bunker, where everyone celebrates their sloth and hedonism. First off, the location will be awesome. And if it gets too hot – the ocean is right beside you. ;-) Second and even better – the horrified looks of other people are hilarious!
In fact, much of the views I nowadays on life came related to sports – work ethic, values, goal setting and acquisition, setbacks, resilience, and many more.
None – the best one is the one you are doing reliably.
I don’t know when you are reading this – it was a mild spring morning. Not too hot and not too cold, but perfect.