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!
What is Calisthenics about?
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.
There are a lot of basic movement patterns that you should train. Very briefly these are:
- Horizontal Pushing (Pushups, Planches)
- Vertical Pushing (Dips, Inverted Presses)
- Horizontal Pull (Rows, Front Levers and more Rows)
- Vertical Pull (Pullups, Chinups)
- Squat (Jumps, Squat Variations)
- Hinge (Deadlifts)
- And complex moves that don’t fit in any of these narrow categories
The goal of your programming should be to train every movement pattern and get strong in them. For every movement pattern, there are 100+ exercises that you can utilize.
I promise you – the journey won’t get boring!
- How should workout programming for Calisthenics look like?
- Check out the basic movements – such as pushups, pullups, dips and hanging leg raises
- A great book that covers these different movements, how to program them, and which exercises exist is Overcoming Gravity by Steven Low.*
Minimalism: You don’t need much
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.
Why should I try out Calisthenics?
The Benefits of Calisthenics Training
You learn how to use and control your body
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
Who the heck enjoys going to the crowded gym anyways?
Above said, you can do your workout anywhere:
- A gym will be fine or local park will work out.
- Also, your flat has everything it takes.
- Or the palm tree at the beach right in front of your hostel is sufficient, too! 3
- If you wanna improve your whole functional movement check out my post about mobility. Dan van Zandt also did a great Job in explaining this rather complex topic easy to understand in his awesome podcast.
- To get a good idea of what equipment I use check out my list.
- A good place to find places around you, as well as and worldwide, where to train is calisthenics parks.
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.
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.
The greatest books on this topic are:
- Steven Low’s ‘Overcoming Gravity’* – this covers calisthenics specific programming and progressions for each movement
- Thomas Kurz’s ‘Stretching Scientifically’* – This book covers, how to program the different methods of stretching and is one of the best books written on this topic.
- Thomas Kurz’s ‘Science of Sports Training’* – This book covers how to program your sessions well throughout the week and other various cycles.
- Eric Helm’s ‘The Muscle and Strength Pyramid’* – This book teaches you the basics you need to know about how to control training.
- Haff & Triplett’s ‘The Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning’* – it covers a broad range of information about these topics and is one of the basic reads.
Did anyone say ‘guide’?!
I’ve written a complete guide, on how you can build your own program. It’s in-depth and fairly long. But in these three posts, you will learn anything you need to know in the beginning.
The first one covers the absolute basics, the second one goes more in-depth relating to calisthenics and the last one is an easy comprehensive to-do-list, to work through.
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:
The right location to work out
As previously said, a good location can mean many places. A park, a playground, your local gym, your own lawn, or the branch of a tree. This flexibility is one of the biggest benefits!
- If you are in the mood you can train outdoors on a sunny day.
- If it’s pouring outside, like you are seriously thinking about building an arch, you can train indoors.
- You can meet up with some friends to train together in your local park, or train in solitude in your own garden.
The perfect equipment
Besides some space, something to pull yourself up to* is the bare minimum you should own.
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:
- Liquid Chalk. Chalk up your game*, mate! Nobody likes slipping away.
- Resistance bands* and tubes* make for great warmups and can aid you in working towards a more difficult progression.
The knowledge about how to work out
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:
- Introduction to Anatomy and Physiology: The Body: A Guide for Occupants* by Bill Bryson
- Anatomy Coloring Book: Anatomy Coloring Book* by Wynn Kapit
- Calisthenics specific Programming: Overcoming Gravity* by Steven Low
- Programming Strength: The Essentials of Strength and Conditioning* by Taff and Triplett
- Basic Manipulations: The Muscle and Strength Pyramid* by Eric Helms
- Programming Flexibility: Stretching Scientifically* by Thomas Kurz
Freebie: If you wanna try calisthenics!
I hope this post could give you a quick overview of what calisthenics is and whatnot. Maybe you got some motivation now and are curious to give it a shot. I truly think you won’t regret it!
I’ve written a complete program for you! For free. Really. It is a five-posts long series and consists of two warmups (upper + lower body), a push workout, a pull workout, and a leg workout.
I know how overwhelming everything can be when starting out. So give it a try.
I started calisthenics right after I got my first pullup down and knew nothing at this point. Really. I was totally dumb. I chased every trend. And that’s fine. Everyone sucks when starting out.
But now you can learn from my experience – and maybe you don’t suck as long as I did.
You can get my calisthenics for beginners program even more comprehensive as an ebook when you subscribe to my newsletter. As a little thank you, for being part of my mail-tribe. 🙂
Just yesterday I’ve been working out outdoors and really enjoyed it after the long winter. It’s really refreshing to get out and spent some time in nature.6
I think now, after this quite long post, you got everything you need to take action.
Stay active, thanks for reading until here and as always have a great day!,
Check out these Guys, too:
- I can fully recommend following Tom Merrick on YouTube – he put out valuable content for ages and his approach to calisthenics is down to earth.
- Another great YouTuber more into movement and handstands, but very clear in his method of teaching, is Yuri Marmerstein.
- If you are into handstands – check out Mikael Kristiansen and Handstandfactory, as well as their Handstandcast. They offer great content around these topics.
- If mobility is the name of your game, check out the Flexibility Research Podcast, as well as Emmet Louis.
- 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.