Bodyweight Training to Improve Fitness: Your Guide to Calisthenics Workouts

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Last Updated:
March 1, 2024

Calisthenics, often called bodyweight training, is a timeless and effective way to build strength, flexibility, and endurance. With minimal equipment requirements, calisthenics is accessible to anyone, anywhere. 

Calisthenics emphasizes natural movements that improve overall fitness and athletic performance. In this article, you’ll learn the principles of calisthenics, its benefits, and how to seamlessly integrate it into your fitness routine.

What is Calisthenics?

Calisthenics is a form of exercise that relies solely on gravity and your own body weight, so you don’t need additional equipment or technology for a challenging workout. Many calisthenics movements mimic resistance training exercises, establishing your base strength, coordination, and mobility. 

Calisthenics comes from the Greek words  ‘Kalos,’ meaning beauty, and ‘Stenos,’ meaning strength—a workout fit for the likes of Greek Gods (and Goddesses). Like most other forms of strength training, it was a popular exercise for various militaries throughout history as a gymnastics-like activity. 

Modern-day calisthenics benefits all ages and ability levels, making it a highly versatile and accessible option. Whether you’re just starting out in your fitness journey or an advanced lifter, calisthenics is an excellent addition to any routine—this guide provides everything you need to know. 

The Basics of Calisthenics

With every step you take, you’re moving against gravity, which means you’re developing a force that helps to maintain your body’s position in the space around you. Bodyweight exercise has unique benefits and is a crucial stepping stone to advanced lifting techniques. 

In one study, participants who participated in an 8-week calisthenics intervention improved their posture, increased their push-up and pull-up performance by 16.4% and 39.2%, respectively, and saw a 24% decrease in fat mass (1). Compared to traditional bench press, a push-up routine of the same volume significantly improved bench press strength with minimal difference between groups, suggesting your calisthenics workouts may transfer to strength gains under the bar (2)

Calisthenics workouts are also effective in improving glycemic control in patients with type 2 diabetes, with some evidence showing superiority over other bodyweight exercise programs, like Pilates (3). Suppose you spend much time sitting during the day (which increases your risk of cardiovascular disease). In that case, calisthenics is an excellent way to break up sedentary time, showing higher energy expenditure than standing or walking on a treadmill (4)

With improvements in strength, endurance, posture, body fat percentage, heart health, and metabolic function, the benefits of calisthenics are an easy choice to add to your regimen. Workouts can be done wherever and whenever you choose and include a variety of lower body, upper body, plyometric, and core exercises.   

Fundamental Calisthenics Exercises

Your body can move in infinite ways, so choosing the right exercises for you can be a challenge. 

Here are some of the most popular calisthenics exercises you’ll see in most workout programs and how to perform them safely and effectively from home:

Fundamental Calisthenics Exercises

Your body can move in infinite ways, so choosing the right exercises for you can be a challenge. 

Here are some of the most popular calisthenics exercises you’ll see in most workout programs and how to perform them safely and effectively from home: 

1. Squat: With feet hip distance apart, sit the hips back like you’re sitting in a chair with knees tracking slightly over toes and body maintained upright. 

  • Variation: jump squat
  • Modification: sit to stand in a chair
  • Progression: split squat (one leg elevated behind), pistol squat, or jump squat

2. Plank: Place hands or elbows under shoulders with toes hip distance apart (or together for a challenge), and maintain hips in alignment with shoulders and feet (one straight line) without dipping your lower back and neck. 

  • Variation: side plank 
  • Modification: elevate hands/ elbows or place knees on the floor
  • Progression: lift one hand and opposite leg off the ground to balance 

3. Lunges: Step forward with front foot flat on the ground and back heel off the ground, lower down so both knees form a 90° angle, and the upper body remains upright. 

  • Variation: walking lunges, side lunges, alternating lunges 
  • Modification: static lunges, step-back lunges
  • Progression: static jump lunges, alternating jump lunges 

4. Pull-ups: Stand facing a pull-up bar with hands slightly farther than shoulder-width apart, slide your shoulder blades down your back as you bring your chin above the bar

  • Variation: chin-ups
  • Modification: scapular pull-ups, eccentric-only pull-ups, banded pull-ups, inverted rows using a racked bar
  • Progression: muscle-ups

5. Dips: Place hands on dip bars with wrists straight and shoulders down, and bend the elbows back to a 90° angle with your feet off the ground. 

  • Variation: perform off a chair or household surface 
  • Modification: kickstand your feet behind you to add more support
  • Progression: use rings for more instability

6. Squat-thrusts: Start at the bottom of a squat position, place hands on the floor shoulder-width apart, and jump the feet back into a push-up position, then back into the squat position, release the hands from the floor

  • Variation: burpees 
  • Modification: step the feet back and in instead of jumping

7. Push-ups (see chart below)

Level Push-up Variation Directions
1 Wall Push-up Stand facing the wall with arms raised perpendicular to the body, lean forward until palms are flat against the wall and elbows are in line with the sides of the body.
2 Incline Push-up Place hands on a box or racked bar to complete the push-up, progressively lowering the surface over time.
3 Kneeling Push-up With hands and knees on the floor and lower legs flexed to 90°, shift your weight into your hips so your body forms a straight line as you perform the push-up.
4 Half Push-up Hands and toes are on the floor, with a medicine ball under the hips to reduce the range of motion in the push-up. 
5 Full Push-up Do a full range of motion push-up with your shoulders away from your ears and elbows at a 45° angle in the frontal plane.
6 Close Push-up Same as level 5 but with hands placed under the chest and thumbs touching, targeting the triceps brachii.
7 Feet Elevated Push-up Same as level 5 with feet elevated on a box or bench.
8 Uneven Push-up First single-arm exercise. Place your dominant hand on top of a medicine ball, restricting the range of motion on one side to add more resistance to the other.
9 ½ One-Arm Push-up Place a medicine ball under your hips. Once properly aligned, lift one arm off the floor and place it palm up on the lower back.
10 Archer Push-up Same setup as level 8, but with your dominant arm extended perpendicular to the body and fingertips on a medicine ball. During the push-up, the medicine ball rolls to the palm. The medicine ball returns to the fingertips as you return to the starting position.
11 One-Arm Push-up Once properly aligned, lift one arm off the floor and place it palm up on the lower back.

Building a Calisthenics Workout Routine

Like most resistance training exercise programs, the best calisthenics workout is the one you’ll actually do. The exercise selection, order, and variables (like sets, reps, and rest) can be based on your fitness level, preferences, goals, and schedule. That might mean only a few calisthenics exercises cycled through a circuit or an extensive full-body workout. 

Implementing modifications and progressions helps you match the workout to your desired intensity—proof that calisthenics suits all ages and abilities. Below are two different workouts that work the same muscle groups and two different levels: 

Beginner calisthenics workout: 

  • Bodyweight squat 
  • Incline push-up
  • Step back alternating lunge
  • Inverted row 
  • Step back squat thrusts 
  • Plank with knees on the floor
  • Crunches

Advanced calisthenics workout:

  • Squat jump
  • Feet-elevated push-up
  • Walking lunge
  • Pull-up
  • Burpees 
  • Plank with alternating arm and leg lifts
  • Double-leg lifts

If your heart is set on mastering the most advanced movements, like muscle ups, a handstand, or the human flag, progress slowly, consider asking for help from a personal trainer, and practice consistently. There is a limitation in building maximal strength gain and hypertrophy without external stimuli from traditional weight training. However, calisthenics is a powerful way to build muscle and proper form as a beginner, and when combined with some weight training, you can continue to build max strength.

Calisthenics complements any program well, given the reduced strain on the muscle fibers (unlike heavy resistance training). You can break up long sitting breaks with sets of body weight exercises, combine them with a cardio workout, or work calisthenics in with your traditional strength training workout. 

Conclusion

Build muscle mass, strength, and endurance without a gym membership or specialized equipment. You can perform bodyweight training at any time and from anywhere; you’ll even benefit from short bouts throughout the day. 

A consistent calisthenics program can enhance your physical performance and improve your health, posture, mobility, and body composition. The versatility of calisthenics means you can tailor the program to your needs and preferences, making it an effective way to improve your fitness, regardless of your age or abilities.

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  1. The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition
  2. Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness
  3. Calisthenics versus Pilates training on glycemic control and body fat in overweight individuals with type 2 diabetes mellitus
  4. Energy expenditure and heart rate response to breaking up sedentary time with three different physical activity interventions

Contents
For further analysis, we broke down the data:
Cite this page:

Reiner, S. “Bodyweight Training to Improve Fitness: Your Guide to Calisthenics Workouts” AIM7.com, March 1, 2024, www.aim7.com/exercise/warm-up

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