Table of Contents
WHETHER YOU GO to a gym or work out at home, you’ll be faced with a tough choice: what type of gear do you use to get and stay fit? There are so many machines, free weights, resistance bands, and more—not to mention the high-tech fitness tools possibly at your disposal—that you’d be forgiven if you feel overwhelmed by all of the options at your disposal. But the truth is, you have everything you need for an effective and efficient workout right now: your body.
Calisthenics, or bodyweight training, is so much more than just what you resort to as an emergency option when you’re traveling, short on gear, or looking to take it easy on yourself. “It’s essential to be able to control, move, and build strength with just your bodyweight to build a well rounded functional physique,” says Jay Maryniak, trainer and functional fitness expert.
Let’s break down more about exactly what calisthenics entails, the benefits of this type of bodyweight training, and learn some calisthenics for beginners exercises.
What Are Calisthenics?
“Calisthenics are movements and workouts that use only your bodyweight as resistance,” explains Maryniak. So, yes, the terms calisthenics and bodyweight training can be used synonymously. However, in practice, some people talk about bodyweight training only in the context of exercises that spike your heart rate. Calisthenics, on the other hand, can sometimes “focus on mastering more advanced strength and balance movements like handstands, muscleups, and front levers,” he adds.
Don’t worry about the level of difficulty preventing you from giving this type of training a try—these types of advanced movements aren’t a requirement for practicing calisthenics, as the modality is really a one-size-fits all technique and can be modified or progressed to meet your individual goals and fitness level. In fact, beginners will especially benefit from calisthenics, as the practice sets you up for success as your strength develops. “If you cannot do basic calisthenic [or] bodyweight movements, you’re going to struggle adding any kind of resistance to your training routines,” says Maryniak, since calisthenics can help you become very aware of how to control your body through every rep.
Benefits of Calisthenics for Beginners
While beginners will find lots of reasons for practicing calisthenics, athletes of all levels can benefit from this type of training. “Calisthenics are all-inclusive—literally anyone can reap the benefits of calisthenics training and see amazing results,” says Maryniak. Here, just a few of the biggest reasons to add calisthenics to your regular workout routine, according to the trainer.
You Don’t Need Equipment
While some calisthenics exercises, such as pullups, may require some form of equipment or a safe alternative, most calisthenics workouts can be done with no equipment at all since you’re working with your own bodyweight as resistance. “Anyone, especially beginners, can get started anywhere and at any time from the comfort of your own home,” says Maryniak. “This removes a lot of the intimidation of going to a gym and not knowing what to do once you get there.”
You Can Train for Free
There are no expensive gym memberships or app services required to get started with calisthenics. Once you have a few workouts under your belt, you just might start to rethink that pricey boutique fitness class and realize you can get an amazing workout done and dusted in your own home or at a public park for free.
Bodyweight Training Builds Functional Strength
Calisthenics are a great form of functional fitness, which are essentially workouts that focus on moving your body in ways that mimic everyday life. Think: squatting, lunging, pushing, and pulling. Having solid functional strength and body control can help you move through life more easily, and improve your risk for injury during daily tasks. “Calisthenics exercises build full-body strength, stability, and control using functional compound movement patterns like squats, pullups, lunges, pushups, and more,” says Maryniak.
Less Joint Stress Than Other Resistance Training
As calisthenics training only uses your bodyweight as resistance, it’s less stressful on your joints and connective tissues than strength training with external loads. This is the case for moves you’ll do as a beginner; as you progress, some higher-level exercises might change that. As with any type of exercise though, proper technique and necessary modifications or progressions are still critical.
Build Strength and Endurance
Calisthenics exercises can be a great way to ramp up the volume—essentially a combination of intensity, reps, and time under tension—to your workouts, a key metric when looking to increase muscle mass or size. You can also improve muscular endurance during these workouts due to the generally high number of consecutive reps, adds Maryniak.
How to Add Calisthenics to Your Workout Routine
Not sure how to start incorporating bodyweight training into your schedule or looking to build a schedule from the ground up? “A great place to start would be three full-body workouts per week,” says Maryniak. “Each workout session should be at least 15 to 20 minutes going all the way up to 60 minutes. While longer workouts certainly have their benefits, a fast and effective bodyweight workout can still have massive benefits and deliver great results.”
Just don’t go easy on your workouts because you’re not using any gear. Maryniak advises that you should err toward sets with as many reps as it takes to bring your muscles close to failure—meaning, you couldn’t do one more rep without sacrificing proper form—to get the best results with calisthenics. “While the number of reps that bring someone close to failure will vary from person to person, it’s important to bring your body to that point to build true strength, build muscle, and master calisthenics training,” he says.
Calisthenics for Beginners Exercises
Now that you’ve got a better understanding of what calisthenics is all about, the benefits of calisthenics, and how to start building this technique into your workout schedule, you’re ready to sweat. Below, Maryniak shares six foundational calisthenics exercises that are perfect for beginners.
This is one of the most basic movements in your calisthenics arsenal. Having a hard time nailing a rep? Don’t go on your knees. Try elevating your hands with incline pushups to start.
How to Do It:
- Start in a strong high plank position with palms under shoulders, glutes engaged and shoulders down and back.
- Bend your elbows out at about a 45-degree angle from the body, as you lower your chest to the ground.
- Push through your palms, maintaining engagement through entire body to press back up to plank.
Pullups are a staple of calisthenic routines, from park playgrounds to the bar in your bedroom. If you’re not ready to add the movement to your routine, build a base of strength first. In the meantime, swap in inverted rows as a substitute bodyweight back builder.
How to Do It:
- Standing beneath a pullup bar, grab the bar with hands slightly further than shoulder-width apart using an overhand grip. Release your feet from the ground to hang.
- Engage your core, and pull to raise yourself toward hands, allowing your chin to reach just above the bar.
- Slowly lower to the hanging position with control.
The air squat or bodyweight squat builds legs muscle and strength without adding a load. You can add high-volume rounds to ramp up your conditioning, too.
How to Do It:
- Begin standing with feet slightly wider than hip-width. Hands can be clasped in front of you or out in front if you need more counterbalance.
- Push your butt back, then bend your knees beginning thighs parallel to the ground (or deeper, if you have the mobility), keeping chest upright.
- Push through soles of the feet to return to standing, squeezing glutes at the top.
Shift your focus to unilateral (single-side) work with the lunge. Focus on controlling your movements—you don’t want to slam your knee to the floor.
How to Do It:
- Begin standing with feet hip-distance apart. Hands can be at your hips or down by your sides.
- Take a step forward with one foot, bending both knees to come to a 90-degree position on both sides (without slamming your knee onto the ground). Your chest should remain tall.
- Push through sole of front foot to return to starting position. Repeat on other side.
You’ll need a sturdy platform like a weight bench to do this single-leg bodyweight exercise. Don’t think of moving quickly here; your focus should be on driving up on your working leg.
How to Do It:
- Stand in front the bench or platform. Place one foot on bench in front of you, ensuring full foot contact with the bench.
- Press through the sole of your foot to come to single-leg standing position on bench. The other foot should be hovering to maintain tension on the working leg.
- Slowly lower back down to the starting position, being careful not to put your full weight back on the inactive leg between reps.
Hollow Body Hold
This bodyweight abs exercise offers a valuable bracing challenge, which won’t just pay off for your six-pack—moves like the pullup will be stronger, too. If holding the position is too difficult for you to start, just shorten your levers by shifting your arm position forward or bending your knees.
How to Do It:
- Lie on your back on the floor, driving your lower back down.
- Squeeze your abs. Raise your legs up off the floor and hold your feet an inch or two above the floor.
- Extend your arms over your head, raising your head and shoulders off the floor.
- Hold for the prescribed period, maintaining full-body tension.
Alyssa Sparacino is an ACE-certified personal trainer, former Shape editorial director, as well as an editor, and writer with a focus on fitness, health, and wellness. Her work has been published online and in print for brands including Shape, Health, Fortune, What to Expect, Men’s Journal, Ask Men, Travel & Leisure, Chewy, and more. When she’s not writing or lifting weights, you can find her hiking, exploring, and eating with her husband and rescue dog.