What are calisthenics? The medical dictionary defines calisthenics as systematic rhythmic bodily exercises performed usually without apparatus.1 A more practical calisthenics definition is a collection of large body movements that develop the natural human physique without the aid of equipment. Large body movements are those that depend on thigh, bicep, back and abdominal muscles. Examples include jumping and lifting.
On the rare occasion, you might see the term “calisthenic exercise” but this is generally considered incorrect.
The concept of calisthenics began in the times of ancient Greece and have gone in and out of popularity ever since.
In 1856, Catharine Beecher, an American education pioneer published Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families. In the book, Beecher promoted the inclusion of calisthenics, “a system that contains all either sex needs for the perfect development of the body”, in daily activity, especially in schools and hospitals.2
That set the stage for calisthenics to become part of modern military training as well as physical education in schools.
In the late part of the 20th century, fast-paced “aerobics” and machine-aided exercise became popular. Calisthenics was often considered boring during that era, even though most aerobics class routines relied on the concepts of calisthenics.
Today, calisthenics training is regaining popularity. Many are drawn to the simplicity of not needing equipment and being able to do the exercises anywhere. But low cost and ease of access are only the start of the benefits of calisthenics, as we discuss in the next section.
Calisthenics Workout Benefits
Calisthenics workouts are excellent for fitness and health. No matter your physical condition when you start, calisthenics can be a great option for achieving your health and fitness goals. With calisthenics, everyday physical activities can get easier and more enjoyable.
The greatest of all calisthenics benefits is compound exercise. Compound exercise engages more than one muscle group to perform an action. By contrast, using resistance machines isolates the exercise to a single muscle or group.
Compound exercise is valuable because it works your whole body at one time. Not only does that make it more natural exercise, it helps you build strength throughout your body. Compound exercises are sometimes characterized as simple. But that doesn’t make them easy.
Take push-ups as an example. You primarily use your deltoid, triceps, and pectoral muscles. But you can’t do a proper and safe push-up without engaging other muscles for stability. With every rep, you also use your biceps, abs, obliques, quadriceps, and back muscles. It’s a simple – but not easy – up and down movement that exerts several muscles.
Up and down movements are a big part of calisthenics. You might hear this motion called “dynamic”. Whether doing pull-ups, sit-ups, push-ups, lunges, calf raises, or squats, you’re moving your entire body against gravity. That natural resistance helps build strength in the most direct and natural way.
Calisthenics can also help with weight loss. Regular calisthenics workouts increase muscle mass, which in turn boosts the body’s metabolic rate. The higher your metabolic rate, the more calories you burn even at rest.
There is also aerobic value to calisthenics. Each of the exercises keeps your heart rate up, and revs up the use of fat as fuel.
One of the least talked about benefits of calisthenics is endurance. Workouts require you to move from exercise to exercise without stopping. If you perform calisthenics regularly, you build muscular, cardiovascular, and respiratory endurance.
Of course, the endurance doesn’t apply only during workouts. It gives you greater stamina for everyday activities, allowing you to enjoy them longer.
The variability of calisthenics is a subtle but important benefit. Any kind of workout gets boring once you’re familiar with it and perform it without thinking. But mixing up your calisthenics workout is easy because there are infinite combinations of exercises, reps, and sets.
Finally, calisthenics is great for building mass and toning muscle. Regular calisthenics workouts can lead to the “calisthenics physique”, identified by ripped back, abdominal, arm, and leg muscles in natural proportions. With calisthenics, body transformation is common.
It’s difficult to find another form of exercise that builds muscle mass and strength as effectively without using equipment.
Calisthenics for Mass
If building muscle mass through calisthenics is your goal, pay attention to reps, exertion, and sets.
Reps means repetitions, or the number of times you do each motion before stopping or switching to another exercise.
Low reps (generally categorized as less than 10) will work your muscles but not build them.
To build muscle through calisthenics, you need to do high reps (twenty, thirty, a hundred). The number will depend on you, but the general rule is to do enough reps to fatigue the primary muscles used but not exhaust yourself.
This brings us to exertion. When you use your muscles to point of feeling the “burn”, they respond by adding more “fuel cells”. It’s like they don’t want to get fooled again and not have enough energy to do the work.
When you work out but don’t tire yourself, you still gain benefits, but you won’t gain muscle mass. At the end of muscle-building calisthenics, you want to be dead tired.
Exertion during calisthenics comes from reps but also the lack of rest between sets.
Sets are the number of times you repeat a sequence of exercises. There are two schools of thought about calisthenics sets.
One philosophy is to only do one set. The idea is that if you know you only have one set, you can push yourself to the max.
The other philosophy says that by doing 3-5 sets, you can build capacity as you progress through the workout.
Either approach will lead to building muscle mass. The right choice is the one that will keep you working out. And there’s no rule against taking the one-set approach one workout and the multi-set approach during the next.
15 minute Calisthenics Workout Routine
Over time, you will likely develop your own calisthenics workout plan that suits your goals.
Until then, here is a 15-minute calisthenics routine suitable for all fitness levels to help get started.
Do 3 sets of this sequence of exercises. Correct form is more important than speed.
- 10 push-ups
- 10 squats
- 10 crunches
- 10 lunges (right leg)
- 10 lunges (left leg)
- 10 calf raises x 10
- Plank for 60 seconds
You can do these calisthenics exercises at home, at the gym, or even in the park!
Can You Do Calisthenics Every Day?
Rest and recovery are critical to any exercise plan. They give your body a chance to refuel, repair and prepare for the next workout.
Rest comes from sleep. Recovery comes from allowing time between exerting muscles.
If you are looking to build muscle mass through calisthenics, you should allow 24-48 hours between intense workouts. That’s the typical timeframe for full muscle recovery. Re-exerting muscles too soon can lead to injury.
That doesn’t necessarily mean you can’t do calisthenics every day. You could divide your workouts into upper and lower body. For example, one day only go all out on pull-ups, push-ups, and dips. The next focus on lunges, squats, and leg raises. Even though all those exercises use back and abdominal muscles for stability, they don’t necessarily exert them to the point of fatigue.
There is also likely no harm in doing bodyweight calisthenics several days in a row if you aren’t pushing yourself to the limit each time.
Still, you will want to have rest days. They not only protect against injury and results plateauing, but help protect against boredom. You’ll discover your own ideal pattern for rest days, but at the start, allow one day of rest between calisthenics workouts.
Keep in mind that rest days can still involve activity. The idea is to not exert muscles that need rest, not necessarily be idle.
Think of rest days as opportunities to improve or maintain mobility and flexibility. Mobility exercise can be as simple as walking or playing a casual game of soccer. Flexibility exercises include yoga, Pilates, and activities such as gardening and yard work.
Calisthenics Exercises List
Calisthenics exercises are characterized as using large muscle groups to lift or move your own bodyweight.
Here are common exercises by body part.
Calisthenics Shoulder Workout
Try these shoulder calisthenics exercises to work the deltoids, triceps, trapezius, and pectoral muscles.
- Push-ups (To put the focus on front shoulder muscles, elevate your feet on a secure step, block, or bench. The higher your feet, the harder the exercise will be.)
- Side plank
- Hand-stand (This is an advanced exercise that can be done against a wall or freestyle.)
There are several effective bicep calisthenics.
Be creative when looking for calisthenics bars for doing pull-ups and chin-ups outside the gym. Playgrounds are one place to find secure, horizontal bars. You might also have some in your home, but do a thorough safety assessment before using it to hold your bodyweight.
Calisthenics Leg Workout
For a good leg calisthenics workout, try a combination of these exercises:
- Squat jumps
- High steps
- Calf raises
- Lunges – side and front
- Jumping jacks
Calisthenics Chest Workout
The most popular chest calisthenics are dips and push-ups.
Push-ups can be modified to shift the exertion to different parts of the chest.
- Upper chest: Raise your feet on a step, bench, etc.
- Lower chest: Place your hands on a chair, handrail, etc.
- Outer chest: Place your hands wider apart
- Inner chest: Place your hands closer together
Calisthenics Back Workout
There are many back calisthenics exercises, including:
- Leg raises
- Superman (Lie face down, neck straight. Extended arms in front, palms inward. Simultaneously lift head, arms, and legs as if “flying”.)
Practically every calisthenics exercise engages the abs. But these put a particular emphasis on that muscle group:
- Side crunches
- Leg raises
- Overhead kicking
Calisthenics for Beginners
There are a variety of ways to learn how to start calisthenics. From personal trainers to DIY YouTube videos, beginner calisthenics generally have one thing in common: basic exercises. This helps people learn the basics, and to overcome hesitation and prevent injury.
Look for a routine clearly identified as “beginner calisthenics workout” to increase the chances you won’t be overwhelmed and give up.
You will likely find workouts labelled as “calisthenics for women” or “female calisthenics”. These labels may provide some comfort but the truth about calisthenics is that it’s suitable for men and women. It may be that a calisthenics workout routine for men includes more reps for exercises such as chin-ups and pull-ups. But if you’re a woman wanting to build arm, chest, and shoulder muscles, there’s no reason to not follow that workout as well.
No matter if you join a group or do it alone, these tips can help you get better results and enjoy the experience:
- Focus on learning proper form and technique. Most workout injuries are the result of doing the exercise incorrectly. Remember that it’s better to do a few reps the right way than many reps the wrong way.
- Think strength, not speed. Put your energy into pushing yourself through as many reps as possible, not how many you can do per minute.
- Be patient with yourself. It takes time to build strength and endurance. Doing one more push-up than you could do the day before is progress.
- Don’t rest between exercises. Part of the key to calisthenics, no matter your fitness or health goal, is maintaining a high heart rate.
- Take a small break between sets. Most calisthenics workout routines call for a 1- or 2-minute rest between sets. When you’re new to the experience, it’s okay to extend that to 3 minutes but not longer.
- Plan for rest days. When starting out, alternate days you do calisthenics with days you rest.
- Find your way to stay motivated. Some people find a workout buddy to keep them motivated. Others take their workout outside. Many people use log books to record reps and sets as well as stats like weight or body measurement to make success more tangible.
- Stay hydrated between sets. Drinking water during a calisthenics set is inadvisable. But having a small amount between sets can help keep your energy up. Always be sure to drink plenty of water after each workout.
- Mix it up. Don’t do the same routine every workout. Even if you want to do the same exercises, change the sequence, number of reps or sets. It keeps your brain and muscles guessing as to what comes next.
Even though you don’t use equipment with calisthenics, there are a few things you might want to get to improve the experience and your calisthenics results.
- Timer. Some exercises, like plank, require you to hold the position for a certain amount of time. You don’t want to focus on counting one-Mississippi, two-Mississippi. You want to focus on using your muscles, especially when they start to get tired.
- Water bottle. It’s always a good idea to have water close at hand when exercising. This is especially true when doing calisthenics outdoors.
- Small notebook. Paper notebooks tend to make keeping track of reps and sets easier than electronic notes. But either way, keep the list of required exercises, reps, and sets handy for easy reference. Be sure to record your sets as soon as you complete them for more accurate tracking.
- Calisthenics gloves. Even as a beginner, getting calisthenics gloves is a good idea. They are designed to provide grip and cushioning to remove some of the hand discomfort that can come from doing pull-ups and chin-ups.
- Music. Unlike aerobics, calisthenics is usually not done to music. The beat of most workout music can be counterproductive to the focus of calisthenics. But if a soundtrack is going to keep you moving and pushing to achieve your goals, then go for it!