“Calisthenics” refers to resistance exercises that primarily use your body weight for resistance. Many of the movements used in calisthenics are similar to those used in conventional gym workouts that use free weights or machines. The main difference is that with calisthenics, you have to learn how to use your body weight to produce different intensity levels for each muscle group.
A calisthenic workout is an excellent alternative for people who don’t have access to a gym but want to improve their coordination, endurance, and muscle strength. There is a misconception that calisthenics isn’t an effective way to work out, but that is simply not true.
Military organizations globally typically put recruits through rigorous boot camp training programs that consist primarily of calisthenics and aerobic exercises like running. Some would even argue that calisthenic exercises are a more effective way to increase functional strength.
Prison inmates in the U.S. have a stereotypical image of being big and muscular, yet free weights are banned in most U.S. prisons since weights can be turned into weapons. These inmates are restricted to only calisthenics for exercises, yet that doesn’t stop them from looking almost as big as bodybuilders.
Anyone serious about their personal fitness should incorporate calisthenics into their workout routines. Once you know enough exercises to give yourself a full-body workout without using any equipment, you’ll be able to exercise anywhere, regardless whether you have access to free weights or a gym. The whole world becomes your gym, and you’ll always be able to keep your body in tip-top condition wherever you find yourself.
Understanding How Calisthenic Workouts Work
The first thing you must learn when you’re first starting with calisthenics is how to target each of your major muscle groups using only your bodyweight as resistance. You also want to start with more basic movements better suited to your experienced level. All the major calisthenic movements have many regressions and progression, so there’s always a version of each exercise that suits your fitness goals and experience levels.
There are three basic types of calisthenic movements:
- Push Exercises: These movements mainly engage the anterior muscles in the upper body, like your shoulders, triceps, and chest muscles. The most basic calisthenic push exercise is the push-up. Some of the more complex push exercises include handstands.
- Pull Exercises: These movements typically target muscles in the posterior chain of the upper body, like your rear shoulder muscles, lats, rhomboids, trapezius, and biceps. The caveat about these exercises is that you typically need equipment like gymnastics rings or pull-up bars. The most basic examples of calisthenic pull exercises are bodyweight rows and pull-ups.
- Leg Exercises: These movements target muscles in your legs, as you might have guessed, like the gluteal muscles, hamstrings, calves, and quadriceps. The main issue with using bodyweight exercises as the primary way you target muscles in your legs is that you will eventually outgrow these exercises due to how powerful your legs are. However, that will take some time since exercises like pistol squats force you to carry your body weight with only one leg. By the time you outgrow such exercises, you’d already have very defined and muscular legs.
Full Body Calisthenic Workout Anyone Can Perform At Home
The key to creating full-body workout routines with calisthenics is adding at least one pull, push, and leg exercise. You should also perform at least one exercise that targets muscles in your core to keep your workout sessions balanced.
Now that we’ve gone through the basics of how calisthenics works, let’s go over a basic calisthenic workout that targets every muscle in your body:
Your workout sessions should always start with a warm-up. Warming up prepares your body for strenuous exercise and gets your blood pumping. This makes your workouts more efficient and speeds up your post-workout recovery.
Warm-ups can be anything that gets your heart pumping, like jogging, cycling, jumping jacks, sit-ups, crunches, and arm circles.
Let’s dive into our first calisthenics full-body workout and explain how to perform the exercises. Add these exercises to your workout to target most of the muscles in your body:
- Three sets of push-ups;
- Three sets of inverted rows;
- Three sets of bodyweight squats;
- Three sets of crunches, and;
- Three sets of leg raises.
The number of reps you aim for during each exercise depends on your fitness goals. Aim for four to ten reps if building muscles and increasing your strength is your priority. Aim for 12 to 20 reps if you’re more interested in toning your existing muscles and improving your muscle endurance. Use variations of each exercise to make it easier or more challenging based on your goals.
Let’s take a closer look at all of the exercises that make up our full-body callisthenic workout.
Push-ups are a compound calisthenic exercise that targets your chest, shoulders, and triceps. It’s the most effective exercise for your anterior upper body, and there are many variations you can use to make it more challenging or easier. Here’s how you perform a basic push-up:
- Get into a high plank position with your hands a bit more than shoulder-width apart. You can keep your feet apart or bring them closer together based on what feels more stable for you. Keep your elbows close to your body.
- Keep your body straight in the high plank position. You should be able to draw a straight line from your head to your feet.
- Tighten your core and glutes and inhale as you lower your body towards the floor until you can’t go any lower.
- Exhale as you push yourself back to the starting position using your triceps, chest, and shoulder muscles.
Pull-ups aren’t the only calisthenic exercises for muscles in your back. Don’t let inverted rows being easier than pull-ups fool you into thinking they are less effective. Inverted rows are a highly effective way to add more muscle to your posterior. They can also help prepare your body for pull-ups if you find them too challenging.
Inverted rows target your biceps, lats, forearms, and other muscles in your back. Here’s what the exercise looks like:
- Get under a barbell, sturdy table, or pull-up bar that has been set low. You want to be able to grab the bar while most of your lower body lies on the floor. Your chest should be right under the bar in the correct position, and your arms should be fully extended.
- Grab the bar with a wide grip, with your palms facing away from you. Raise your hips off the ground a little, so your body forms a straight line from your head to your toes.
- Exhale as you pull yourself towards the bar with your arms and squeeze your shoulder blades together as you bring your chest towards the bar.
- Inhales as you slowly lower yourself back to the starting position to complete a rep.
Bodyweight squats are a simple yet effective bodyweight exercise that targets most of the muscles in your legs, like your glutes, hamstrings, calves, and quads. It also works muscles in your abs and lower back.
The main downside of bodyweight squats is that you will outgrow them quickly if you train consistently. However, you make the exercise more challenging by adding a barbell or kettlebell. You can also perform pistol squats which involve squatting with only one leg.
Here’s what the exercise looks like:
- Get into the starting position with your feet a little more than shoulder-width apart and your feet flat on the ground. Your knees should be slightly bent, and your chest should be pointing forward.
- Inhale and tighten your core as you drop into a squat. Go down until your thighs are at least parallel to the ground. Go lower if your flexibility allows it.
- Exhale as you bring yourself back to the starting position by pushing your feet on the ground to complete a rep. You can make the exercise more challenging by jumping off the ground after completing each rep.
The crunch is one of the classic calisthenic exercises that target your core. It mainly targets muscles in your abdominal region. Crunches are a great way to isolate your ab muscles, so make them part of your workout routine if you’re aiming for six-pack abs.
Crunches are one of the most straightforward movements to learn, and you can add them to your warm-up routine. Here’s how to perform crunches:
- Lay down on the floor with your feet planted on the floor about hip-width apart. Your knees should be bent in this position.
- Exhale as your lift your upper body towards your knees by contracting your abdominal muscles. Keep your neck and head relaxed to avoid straining them.
- Inhale as you return your body to the starting position to complete the rep. Keep your movements slow throughout the exercise to get the most out of it.
Leg raises are another effective core exercise that does not require any equipment. It also helps to prepare your body for more advanced core exercises like dragon flags and dead bugs.
Here’s what the exercise looks like:
- Lay down flat on your back with your legs extended. Keep your arms extended and place them by your sides. Lightly press your hands into the ground. This will help you to stay balanced when performing the exercise.
- Exhale as you bring your legs towards your chest by contracting your core and pushing your lower back against the floor. Bring your legs up until your lower back is about to come off the ground.
- Exhale as your lower your legs back to the starting position. Maintain control of your legs throughout the negative movement of the exercise since it forces your core to work harder.
Building Full-Body Calisthenics Workouts
As we mentioned earlier, the key to building full-body calisthenics workouts is combining push, pull, core, and leg exercises. However, you don’t have to perform full-body calisthenic workouts every day. The secret to building muscle is to target each muscle group at least once a week. That is enough stimulation for your muscles to grow.
For example, if you plan on working out three days a week, you can perform about three pull exercises on day 1, three push exercises on day two, and three leg exercises on day three. You can incorporate core exercises into your warm-ups on all three days.
Examples of calisthenic pull exercises you can add to your training include:
- Ring rows
- Wall pulls
- Inverted row
- Muscles up
- Pull up
- Weighted pull-ups
- L pull up
- Negative pull up
Examples of push exercises you can add to your training include:
- Handstand push-ups
- Weighted dips
- Diamond push-ups
- Triceps extensions
- Wall handstand push-ups
Examples of bodyweight leg exercises include:
- Bodyweight squats
- One-leg/ pistol squats
- Jump squats
- Box jumps
- Side squats
- Glute bridges
- Calf raises
Examples of calisthenic movements that target your core muscles include:
- Leg lifts
- Hanging knee raises
- Hollow body crunch
- Reverse crunches
- Dragon flag
- Bicycle crunches
- One-arm plank
- Scissor crunch
You can build full-body workouts by selecting one to five exercises from each group listed above. Stick to the lower end if you’re new to calisthenics and gradually build yourself up to performing three to five types of each exercise as your body grows stronger.
Remember to use variations of each exercise to make them more or less challenging based on your needs, and aim to perform 4 to 10 reps to build muscles and 12 to 20 reps to improve muscle tone and endurance. When you can perform more than 20 reps of an exercise, switch to a more challenging variation of any exercise.
For example, if you can perform more than 20 conventional push-ups, switch to a more challenging variation like the one-handed push-up or the clapping push-up. Make adjustments as needed so you can barely get your targeted number of reps for each exercise.
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