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 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.
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.
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.
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
Get into push-up position. Dip down until chest touches the floor. Push back up.
Get into a handstand. Dip down until head touches the floor. Push back up.
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
Grab the bar, rings, a tree branch, or any similar object. Pull yourself up. Keep your shoulders in their sockets.
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
Squat down. Stand up. Push through your heels, not toes.
Squat down and stand up, but with one leg only. Push through your heels, not toes.
Lie down on the floor on your back. Push up with your hands and legs. Hold.
Hold your body on your elbows only. The body should be parallel to the ground.
Hold your body parallel to the ground with straight arms.
Get on the bar (or rings) and hold yourself parallel to the ground with your hands behind you.
Get on the bar (or rings) and hold yourself parallel to the ground with your hands in front of you.
Hanging Leg Raises
Get on the bar. Raise your legs without bending them.
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:
A) Handstand Push-Ups – 3 x 6
B) Pull-Ups – 3 x 6
C) Single-Leg Squat – 3 x 6
A) Dips – 3 x 8
B) Horizontal Rows – 3 x 8
C) Bridges – 3 x 8
A) Push-Ups – 3 x 12
B) Elbow Levers – 3 x maximum
C) Leg Raises – 3 x 12
Saturday & Sunday
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.
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.
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