Calisthenics

Rough Strength Rings

Despite all the efforts to popularize them, calisthenics are still one of the most under-appreciated strength training tools out there. I think this fact is connected to the common thought that to obtain strength, you must attend a gym. As experience shows, this thought is wrong, and you can get results even with as little as your own bodyweight.

Number one benefit of calisthenics is the fact that you are your own gym. It is very convenient, huh? Additionally, most of the time you do not use any external resistance. It feels much different and opens new horizons for you.

The Main Difference

Let’s face it. Barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags. They all are different, but the rules remain the same. You lift weights. With bodyweight training, you lift your own body. It is a bit tricky at first because you project the force not against some external object but your own body. In addition, there are lots of bodyweight exercises that require understanding of your position in space. You have to get used to this.

Working weight in pure calisthenics is always fixed. So what to do when exercise becomes too easy? Progress to more difficult variation and/or decrease the leverage, and/or add weight. Here comes the fun. Once regular Push-Ups become easy, work on Close-Grip Push-Ups. Once Close-Grip Push-Ups become easy, work on Handstand Push-Ups etc. Strategies vary slightly from individual to individual, but you should always strive for the most difficult exercise.

Hand Balancing and Static Exercises

Handstand and various levers (Back Lever, Planche, Front Lever, etc.) are unique bodyweight exercises. No weighted drills can provide analogues of this specific static load. Once you try them, you will be amazed how weak you really are. I am sure that if you add these positions to your training routine, you will experience solid gains in strength and muscle.

In addition, I believe that you MUST become proficient with your bodyweight for complete strength and muscle development. It is a no-brainer, but some people are still obsessed with their Bench Press numbers, while struggling to perform even 5-10 push-ups. This is ridiculous.

The Environment

The environment can help you big time in your bodyweight training. Playgrounds, schoolyards, tree branches, steps, whatever you can find. With their help, you can do Dips, Pull-Ups, Muscle-Ups, Human Flags etc. Use anything helpful.

This was my ghetto dipping station when I lived in Cherkassy. A table to the right and a stack of boxes to the left.

Bodyweight Training and Joints

Despite what other people say, bodyweight training is easier on joints. It can be a fair alternative to weight training if you have an existing injury. A couple of weeks of exclusively calisthenics can give you a break from weights, and can be some sort of a de-load. You will feel fresher and more powerful when you return weights to your training regimen.

Rings

Gymnastic rings are the easiest way to supercharge your bodyweight training. Their potential is huge. I am brave enough to state that you will never outgrow the rings. There will ALWAYS be a harder exercise. When you reach decent proficiency with gymnastic rings, you will have serious upper body strength and muscular development to match it. I will go even further and say that if you are committed enough, then you will need no more training implements to develop your upper body to its limit.

How such a simple training tool has so much potential? Rings are very unstable by their nature, so it is much harder to perform same movements on them comparing to the floor, bar or parallel bars. For example, the first time I tried ring training, I was able to do approximately 30 bodyweight dips on parallel bars. On the rings, I was able to do only 5. That’s the potential.

Sustainability

Finally, what is really cool about calisthenics is the fact that you need literally nothing to sustain this type of training to your old age. Just imagine that all the gyms are closed and all the iron is gone. If you know how to use your own body as a gym, then you simply do not give a shit about such situation. Additionally, there will be no need in constant gym-search if you travel or move a lot.

Basic Bodyweight Exercises

I divided them into categories:

1. Upper Body Push

Push-Ups

Push-UpsPush-Ups

Get into push-up position. Dip down until chest touches the floor. Push back up.

Handstand Push-Ups

Handstand Push-UpsHandstand Push-Ups

Get into a handstand. Dip down until head touches the floor. Push back up.

Dips

DipsDips

Get on the dip bars, rings or any sturdy objects. Dip down at least until your upper arm is parallel to the ground. Push back up.

2. Upper Body Pull

Pull-Ups

Pull-UpsPull-Ups

Grab the bar, rings, a tree branch, or any similar object. Pull yourself up. Keep your shoulders in their sockets.

Horizontal Rows

Horizontal RowsHorizontal Rows

This is a little bit easier variation of the Pull-Up. In Ukraine, it is called “pull-ups for girls”.

3. Legs and Lower Back

Squats

SquatsSquats

Squat down. Stand up. Push through your heels, not toes.

Single-Leg Squats

Single-Leg SquatsSingle-Leg Squats

Squat down and stand up, but with one leg only. Push through your heels, not toes.

Bridges

BridgeBridge

Lie down on the floor on your back. Push up with your hands and legs. Hold.

4. Levers

Elbow Lever

Elbow Lever in the Wood

Hold your body on your elbows only. The body should be parallel to the ground.

Planche

Planche

Hold your body parallel to the ground with straight arms.

Back Lever

Back Lever in the Woods

Get on the bar (or rings) and hold yourself parallel to the ground with your hands behind you.

Front Lever

Front Lever

Get on the bar (or rings) and hold yourself parallel to the ground with your hands in front of you.

5. Core

Hanging Leg Raises

Hanging Leg RaisesHanging Leg Raises

Get on the bar. Raise your legs without bending them.

Sit-Ups

Sit-UpsSit-Ups

This exercise is so old that you should probably know it.

NOTE: this is just a brief description of exercises, not an actual instruction. You should consult a professional for the proper technique.

Example Calisthenics Routine

Here is an example bodyweight-only full-body routine:

Monday

A) Handstand Push-Ups – 3 x 6

B) Pull-Ups – 3 x 6

C) Single-Leg Squat – 3 x 6

Tuesday

Off.

Wednesday

A) Dips – 3 x 8

B) Horizontal Rows – 3 x 8

C) Bridges – 3 x 8

Thursday

Off.

Friday

A) Push-Ups – 3 x 12

B) Elbow Levers – 3 x maximum

C) Leg Raises – 3 x 12

Saturday & Sunday

Off.

NOTE: this routine is presented here only for example purposes. It may or may not work for you depending on your individual capabilities and conditions.

Closing Thoughts

Some people can find it hard to gain muscle with bodyweight training, especially skinny guys. However, with a right approach and a calorie surplus, it is possible. In addition, strength gained with calisthenics will definitely carry over to the real life and any sport you participate in.

Bodyweight is not the ultimate training tool, but it is so different, natural and fun that it would be a big mistake to neglect this unique training approach.

Play rough!

Alex

Every time you don’t like and share this article, you upset a kitten somewhere.

Do you have any additional thoughts? Let’s chat in comments.

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39 thoughts on “Calisthenics

  1. Joe

    “NOTE: this is just a brief description of exercises, not an actual instruction. You should consult a professional for the proper technique.”

    Ha- are you not a professional? ;)

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      You can’t teach proper technique in a couple of photos. It requires individual approach. There is no recipe for all except “arch your lower back”, and still there will be some trainees who should not follow this advice. That’s what I meant.

      – Alex

      Reply
  2. TC

    Generally a good basic guide, I feel the need to mention however that most Calisthenics movements have a much more beneficial effect on strength and growth of muscles/tendons/ligaments if they are performed slowly and controlled. I follow the 2 seconds down/1 second hold/2 seconds up timer on every rep of most exercises. This becomes impossible on some of the hardest exercises, i.e on the way up of a one armed pushup but it is a good rule of thumb.

    I gave up weights 2 years ago and have been purely on a mix of calisthenics strength and conditioning training since and have never looked better or felt stronger.

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Fair addition, TC. Nevertheless, taking tempo into account is a good idea only after you have mastered “non-tempo” version of a certain skill. Otherwise, most likely you will fail with the advanced stuff.

      – Alex

      Reply
  3. Nikolai Kovalev

    Hi Alex, I would like to combine ring training with kettlebells. I like split training: upper body on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays and lower body on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I want to figure what exercises to do to combine both calisthenics and kettlebells. I tried to find a routine in your book, but I couldn’t find it. Can you suggest a sample workout rouitine? Thank you, Nikolai

    Reply
  4. Nikolai Kovalev

    Hi Alex, thank you! Now it make much more sense for me. Classification of exercises and substituting exercises is easy. Would you recommend mixing kettlebell and ring exercises in one day or you think it would be better to focus on kettlebell exercises in one day and doing rings in another? Spasibo! Nikolai

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Nikolai,

      Implements doesn’t matter that much. Use a template that works for you and pick skills that you want to develop. That’s it.

      – Alex

      Reply
  5. zaji

    how do i gain enough strength to advance onto harder exercises like planche fl human flag
    i also want to put on a bit of size – all through calisthenics – would u recommend weighted dips and chins ?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Zaji,

      You can gain strength implementing the principle of progressive overload. Check this article out.

      For size, I recommend the simplest exercises, but with enough resistance. For example, weighted dips and weighted chin-ups for 3 sets of 5-8 reps.

      – Alex

      Reply
      1. kingston

        i currently weigh 60kg and only do calisthenics – with weight vest if needed. i want to stay at 60kg but be as strong as someone who weighs 80kg or close to as strong.(by strong i mean real life situations and be able to lift or bench their nnumbers) what do you recommend? thanks

        Reply
          1. kingston

            thanks, but if i weigh 60kg and only do advanced calisthenics such as 1 armed chins etc will i ever be as strong as some who is 80kg and lifts weights?

          2. Alex Zinchenko Post author

            Maybe or maybe not. If you need someone’s approval to do calisthenics, maybe this type of training is not for you.

            – Alex

  6. P

    I find kingston’s question interesting in that it would be cool to see what the corelations were between bodyweight (and weighted versions) exercises and weigth/exercise machine PRs amongst a large sample size.Perhaps not that it means much but when I weighed not much more than kingston, I could easily lat pulldown (hell you can use your abs!) whatever the entire stack was but couldn’t do even 3 regular pullups.

    Reply
  7. Peter

    Hi Alex im wondering how should i begin with calishenics? im a total beginner (have trained in the gym before) but im wondering what should i do cycles or sets/rounds? like i’m more focused on strength and body control more than muscle mass and so on.. But i have recently downloaded the app MadBarz and it says that i need to do 4 cycles.. but it seems like this app is more for muscle. i want strength, what should i train/do?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Peter,

      To gain strength with calisthenics, you need to progress to harder exercises in low to moderate volume and rep range. My advice would be to pick skills you want to develop and to attack them through progressions. Check this and this articles out.

      – Alex

      Reply
  8. Fer

    Hi Alex! Im 48 years old, still soccer player and full day job. Two days of strength trainning works whith two days of cardio. Do full body WO?
    Best regards from Colombia!!!

    Reply
  9. Ashley

    Hi Alex,
    I’ve been weight training for the past 4 months or so, and have seen significant progress in my body shape and strength. I decided to switch to mostly calisthenics style workouts because the benefits appeal to me (functionality, endurance, coordination, strength). That and I’ve always wanted to be able to perform the incredible movements seen in body weight training. Athletes like Frank Medrano are huge inspirations. I find calisthenics much harder than weight lifting and right now I max out at 15 regular push-ups and am working towards being able to do just one unassisted pull up and dip. The only weight training I plan on incorporating are barbell squats and deadlifts. I’m focused on losing 25 more lbs right now, but I would like to eventually increase my macro intake and develop some size in muscles such as my delts, triceps, back, and abs. As a female, would I be able to get that athletic, built look (Christmas Abbott’s physique comes to mind) through what would mostly be calisthenics?

    Reply
  10. EternalGreatness.com

    Awesome article! Thanks for recommending those core movements and laying out an easy-to-follow routine too, calisthenics is definitely a topic we want to learn more about and this has helped a lot – appreciate it Alex!

    Reply
  11. jamal

    Hi, I was wondering if I could do bodyweight workouts everyday, or would it more beneficial if I did it every other day to get more rest?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Jamal,

      You can try and see. I had no success so far with doing anything literally every day. You need rest as much as you need training.

      – Alex

      Reply
  12. Mike

    I am a example of the skinny guy. When ever I work out I tend to get to skinny (to the point i was losing muscle mass)and never bulk. Is it best to mix it up and add weight to all excersise or just split it up? I haven’t tried yet and I tend to get lazy or forgetful with weight lifting. Any thoughts are helpful thanks.

    Reply
  13. Tony

    Totally, Totally agree! As a Professional Coach I have my clients learn how to be very proficient with their own body weight! Simple. GREAT article Coach Rough! :-)

    Reply
  14. Natan

    Hi Alex.

    When you write Handstand Push-Ups 3 x 6, which number is the set number and which the rep number?

    I’m also looking for one or more calisthenics programmes tailored to gain strength since I do not yet have the knowledge to lay out one myself (I know I could just start laying out one and then see what works but I just don’t want to waste months until I figure out what works and what not). Do you guys have any idea where I can find such programmes?

    Reply
    1. Alex Zinchenko Post author

      Natan,

      3 sets of 6 reps.

      > I just don’t want to waste months until I figure out what works and what not

      There is no other way around.

      – Alex

      Reply

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