How To Start Calisthenics: A Beginners Guide

If you search “Calisthenics workout” or “How to start calisthenics” you’ll find a lot of results which are lacking in depth.

Sure, you may get a workout plan that you can follow for 1 week, but at the end of that week, you’ll be no more confused and frustrated than when you first started.

That’s why in this guide, I’m going to cover everything you need to know to get started with calisthenics, and I’ll provide you with further reading material for anything you wish to dig into in more detail.

The goal of this guide is to help you understand the principles of bodyweight fitness and calisthenics workouts, that way you can learn how to put structure your own calisthenics workouts to help you progress with your personal goals.

The guide is also structured in a way that walks through all the different topics for those of you just starting calisthenics, but more advanced readers may wish to use the table of contents below to jump to a specific section.

Tip: This guide is very comprehensive and will link to a lot of further reading, some of which you may wish to come back to later. I highly recommend bookmarking this guide so you can come back and continue reading specific areas as they become more relevant to your progress.

What is Calisthenics and Understanding if Calisthenics is Right For You

Calisthenics, also known as bodyweight fitness or even ‘street workout’, is a form of exercise that relies on the use of your own body weight, as opposed to using weights or resistance machines.

There are many reasons people choose calisthenics over other types of exercise, and some of them may be of no concern to you, but I want to stress that it’s crucial that you find your own reason for pursuing calisthenics.

There are different ‘disciplines’ within calisthenics, and finding which one motivates you will ensure you keep focused and allow you to set goals that you want to achieve.

I’ve been training calisthenics for over 5 years now, and I believe the reason I have found success with calisthenics is that I always look forward to an upcoming workout. If you don’t find what motivates you, your workouts will feel like a chore, and you’ll inevitably not make the desired progress.

Before you go any further, I think it’s important to say that calisthenics isn’t the best choice for everyone. Bodyweight fitness is excellent for building functional strength, muscle endurance, and learning new skills, but it isn’t the most efficient training technique for building muscle size. If your only goal is to get bigger, then I suggest you look elsewhere for a more efficient solution.

Different Calisthenics Disciplines and Defining Your Goals

I mentioned in the previous section that there are various reasons people choose calisthenics over conventional exercises and that there are different ‘disciplines’ that you may gravitate towards to find what suits you.

Calisthenics workouts are ideal for some people as they enjoy having the freedom to work out wherever they want, or are time-poor and struggle to make it to the gym. Having the option to workout at home or in your local park can is a huge advantage, and this can also help you save money by not subscribing to expensive gym fees.

But my favourite thing about calisthenics is that there are so many different skills you can work towards achieving, and there’s no better feeling than ‘unlocking’ a new skill.

For most people, these different skills would probably fit into one of the following categories: statics, dynamics, exercises that require a high level of functional strength, handstands, and flexibility work.

Let me talk briefly about each of those.

Static holds (Statics)

Ricky Warren performing L-Sit hold on Gravity Fitness wooden rings

Otherwise known as ‘isometric holds’, static holds are where you hold your body still in a specific position. In a static hold, your muscles are working hard and contracting against a force, but the length of the muscle remains the same, which is what keeps you in a specific position.

A simple static hold would be a seated wall squat, but some of the most sought after advanced static holds in calisthenics include the human flag, planche, front and back lever, and v-sit.

People love statics as they are a true display of your strength, relative to your bodyweight. Some of the advanced moves I have just listed can take people years to master, and may require a specific workout program to achieve them, but can be extremely rewarding when you have achieved them.

Dynamics

Better known as ‘Freestyle Calisthenics’ or ‘Bar Flow’, dynamics is all about using power, momentum and self-expression to perform tricks around a bar.

Freestyle calisthenics is also the format used in calisthenics competitions all around the world.

Watch this video to get a taste of the different tricks you may learn in freestyle calisthenics.

I love freestyle calisthenics because it brings a lot of adrenaline and excitement, but in my experience, that same factor can also put some people off.

If you don’t feel comfortable learning freestyle moves, then don’t put yourself down as you’re not alone.

Advanced Bodyweight Exercises

There are many bodyweight exercises that require plenty of strength and skill to achieve, and training for them can be highly rewarding.

The most popular exercise most people want to learn is the muscle-up, but other advanced exercises also include one-arm pull-ups, dragon flags, pistol squats etc.

For some people, simply achieving their first unassisted pull-up may be a huge celebration.

One thing that can be addictive about calisthenics is that learning and performing a new exercise for the first time feels much more rewarding than anything that can happen in the conventional gym.

Sure, as you get stronger, you may bench press 100kg for the first time, but that feeling isn’t the same as performing an unassisted muscle-up for the first time since the outcome is much more tangible.

Hand Balancing / Handstands

Woman performing handstand with spotter

Holding a handstand requires a high level of control over your own body weight. Therefore it should be no surprise that handstands have such a strong association with calisthenics.

You’ll find handstands are part of many calisthenics workout programs as they are great for improving your balance, posture and shoulder strength.

Handstands are a considerable part of my own calisthenics training, and they are something I spend a lot of time working on outside of regular calisthenics workouts. In fact, many people fall in love with handstands and actually make them their primary workout goal!

Having a skill such as handstands to focus on outside of your workout plan keeps you active and can be a welcoming alternative if you wish to skip a regular workout due to tiredness or muscle fatigue.

Calisthenics Paths: Summary

To conclude this section, I want to come back to my original point, that is to find what you enjoy and set your own goals around that.

You aren’t limited to any one path in calisthenics, and I recommend trying a little bit of everything and find what excites you.

There is no better feeling than unlocking a new skill in calisthenics, and you will find that as you improve, you will likely change direction and focus on different exercises and skills.

Find what works for you and ensure you follow a workout plan that works towards your goals and trains specific skills that you wish to work towards.

What Equipment You Will Need For Calisthenics

Calisthenics Equipment: Everything a Beginner Needs For Home Workouts

Although the beauty of bodyweight fitness is that you should be able to do it with just your bodyweight, you will still need (or need access too) a few items of equipment.

Calisthenics 101 maintains a list of recommended equipment here.

The most important item you will need is a pull-up bar. Many pushing exercises are easy to do using your own body weight, but it is much harder to perform pulling exercises without any equipment, which makes buying a pull-up bar vital.

The only other item I’d strongly recommend when starting out is a set of resistance bands, which are (more about those shortly). All other items on our recommended list are useful, but you may not need them straight away.

Calisthenics Workout Plans That Match Your Goals

Calisthenics working out with app

Following a workout plan that is relevant to you is the most crucial factor to progress in calisthenics.

If you are lucky enough to have access to calisthenics classes nearby, then I would highly recommend signing up and training with other like-minded people.

Unfortunately, most people don’t have this luxury, but there are many online programs to choose from.

You can see our round-up of the best calisthenics apps and workouts here.

Remember, when following a workout plan, it is vital to track and measure your progress so you can see results and stay motivated. Don’t forget you are also tracking your own improvements, so don’t try and compare your progress to others. Everybody progresses at different paces.

If you find yourself plateauing, then you may also wish to mix up your workout or try a different plan, to prevent your workouts from becoming stale.

In addition to following a calisthenics workout plan, I would also advise all newcomers to put a small amount of effort each week into improving their flexibility.

A couple of my favourite flexibility follow along videos on YouTube are:

Understanding Exercise Progressions to Help You Achieve Harder Skills and Work Out Efficiently

The most important thing I’ve learnt in calisthenics is not to try and run before you can walk. Be patient.

Many exercises and skills are hard, and progressing slowly with a focus on the correct technique is actually the fastest way to reach your goals.

Let’s put that theory into practice; how do you go from not being able to do a pull-up to performing a muscle-up?

The answer is by using progressions.

In the weightlifting world, most people wouldn’t bench presses 100kg on their first attempt. They’d start with a lower weight, and add 5kg on over a number of weeks, months (or even years), as their strength improves.

With bodyweight exercises, we can’t simply ‘reduce the weight’, since it’s your bodyweight that acts as the resistance. Instead, we find easier variations of the exercise (progressions) or use a resistance band as assistance, and slowly work through these progressions until we can perform the full version of the exercise.

Let’s say you were inspired to start calisthenics because you saw somebody hold full-planche, and you’re now making it your mission to learn that skill. Unfortunately, it takes people years to achieve the full planche, but to get there, you would work up through a number of progressions until you reach that point.

Gymnast Planche - Bodyweight Strength Training
A gymnast holding the Straddle Planche position

Those progressions may be:

  • Planche lean on the floor
  • Hanging knee raises
  • Planche tuck hold
  • Planche hold using a resistance band for support
  • Straddle planche
  • Full planche

Understanding and using progressions will ensure you improve efficiently, keep you motivated as you see tangible progress, and will also minimise the chance of injuring yourself.

Common Beginner Problems

It’s easy to make mistakes as a beginner, especially if you are working out by yourself without a professional instructor to critic or help you.

Here’s a bunch of tips that are valuable to anybody who is just starting calisthenics:

  • Always remember to warm up. The goal of the warmup is to increase blood flow and activate muscles. Not only will this prevent injury, but it will prepare your body and mind for the harder exercises to come.
  • Film yourself and analyse your technique. You can pick up a handy tripod for around £10 and use that to film yourself when exercising. Often it may feel like your technique is correct, but watching back the footage of yourself proves otherwise!
  • Always strive for proper form. Remember, this is calisthenics, not CrossFit. It’s not a competition. Proper form will get you much further than hitting record rep numbers with poor technique.
  • Try and find local, like-minded people, where possible. If you’ve got calisthenics bars or a park nearby, you may find other people training calisthenics there regularly. There’s a lot of energy and passion in the calisthenics community, and training alongside can be fantastic for motivation, even if everybody sticks to their own workouts.
  • Quality recovery can be just as important as the workout. Avoid overtraining the same muscles too regularly, ensure you get enough sleep, drink plenty of water, and make sure you eat right to promote quality recovery. Don’t underestimate the importance of rest!

A Vital Lesson In Scapula Positioning

There’s a whole section on calisthenics terminology in the final part of this guide, but ‘scapula positioning’ is something that is frequently mentioned during bodyweight exercises and is a concept that a lot of beginners struggle to grasp.

For this reason, I figured scapula positioning deserved its own section. Get your head around it early, and it will pay off in the long run!

The scapula is the technical term used for your shoulder blades, and scapula positioning refers to how you position your shoulder blades during an exercise.

Understanding the different positions is key to proper form, and will make a huge difference with many bodyweight exercises.

Here are the four key positions:

Scapula Retraction – This is when the scapula come together. Imagine rowing a boat, and at the end of each row, your arms are pulled back, and you’re squeezing your shoulder blades together. This technique is vital to improve your pull-ups.

Scapula Protraction – This is when the scapula moves apart and is also referred to as ‘hollow body’. If you get into a push-up position, then push your spine up to the ceiling while making your chest hollow, you will be protracting the scapula.

Scapula Elevation – This is when the scapula moves upwards to the ears, such as when shrugging the shoulders.

Scapula Depression – This is when the scapula moves down. To understand this movement, sit on the floor with your legs together in front of you and your hands flat on the floor down by your sides. Now try to push up from your hands to lift your butt off the floor. This is your scapula depressing.

When trying new exercises, be mindful of your scapula positioning to get the technique correct. As a general rule of thumb, your scapula should be moving away from whichever way gravity is trying to take you.

Mixing Other Sports and Targeting all Muscle Groups with Calisthenics

Calisthenics is great for getting fit and building functional strength, but if your training plan only consists of calisthenics, then you may suffer in other areas of fitness.

Most calisthenics workouts are based around strength training, so it’s important that you include some cardio in your training plan to keep a well-rounded level of fitness.

You should be free to mix other cardio-heavy sports alongside your training, such as jogging, football, squash, badminton etc. If you’re worried about overtraining, then the general rule of thumb is to listen to your body. Rest is vital for muscle growth, and if you feel tired and are struggling to recover, then chances are you’re either training too much, not resting enough, or not getting a good amount of sleep.

Another weak point in calisthenics is that it lacks quality exercises for training legs. There are bodyweight alternatives to squats and deadlifts, but if you are serious about building muscle, then you may wish to mix in some leg exercises using weights where possible.

Nutrition and Eating Right For Calisthenics

Healthy proteins

Like many different forms of fitness, most people getting into calisthenics will inevitably be looking to lose weight and get into better shape.

And since your bodyweight acts as the resistance in calisthenics exercises, it should be no surprise that losing excess fat will make most bodyweight exercises easier.

Think of it this way – the effort needed for a person weighing 100kg to perform a pull-up is the same as another person weighing 80kg and wearing a 20kg weighted vest.

There is no such thing as a ‘calisthenics diet’. Just like any other sport, the key is to eat healthily and manage your calories. The hard work takes place in the kitchen.

We suggest the following resources if you want to read more about what food is recommended as part of a nutritional diet and what supplements you may wish to take to support your diet:

Calisthenics Terminology

You will hear of many new terms when starting calisthenics (even more so if any type of resistance workout is new to you), but don’t worry, we have you covered with our calisthenics glossary.

Repetitions (Reps) and Sets – These are the basic counters of exercise. Performing 30 push-ups would be completing 30 reps, and if you broke that down into 10, 10, 10, then you would be performing 3 sets of 10 push-ups.

Rep range – This refers to the desired range you should aim to achieve within the set, rather than an exact number, e.g. 5-8 reps. You should look to make the exercise easier if you are unable to complete the minimum amount of reps, or make it harder if you can complete many more reps than the state range.

Rest time – This is the amount of time you are recommended to rest for between each set.

AMRAP – Stands for ‘as many reps as possible’. When this term is used there would not be a standard rep range within each set; instead, you would perform reps until failure to complete the set.

‘For Time’ – Similar to AMRAP but is used for static exercises, meaning you are required to hold the position for as long as you can until failure.

Tabata – A specific workout that lasts 4 minutes and consists of 8 rounds. Each round requires 20 seconds of work at maximum effort, followed by 10 seconds of rest.

Pyramid – Refers to an increasing or decreasing rep range over a number of sets. For example, a ’10 to 1′ pyramid requires you to perform 10 reps, rest, 9 reps, rest, 8 reps, rest…. continuing until you have got down to 1 rep. The rep range may go from low to high (1-10), high to low (10-1), or even combining both such as going from low to high and then back to low (1-10-1).

Circuit – A workout where several exercises are completed one set at a time. For example, rather than performing 3 sets of push-ups, 3 sets of pull-ups, then 3 sets of squats, you would perform a single set of each exercise, then repeat 3x until you have completed 3 sets of each exercise.

P-Bars – A more commonly used term for Parallel Bars.

High bar / low bar – On a callisthenics rig, anything high enough to perform a pull-up from would be called a high bar, and any bars positioned around waist height would be called a low bar

Flow – Performing several exercises in sequence to develop a routine or ‘flow’.

Narrow / Wide – This can refer to hand positioning on the floor or where you grip a pull-up bar. A regular grip would be hands placed shoulder-width apart, for reference.

Underhand / Overhand – Refer to how you grip a pull-up bar. Palms facing away from you with thumbs pointing inwards is an overhand grip, palms facing towards you with thumbs pointing outwards is an underhand grip.

Full repetition / full range of motion – This refers to completing the exercise in its fullest form to ensure all required muscles are being worked in the exercise. Anything else would be considered a partial repetition. A well-known example of a partial repetition is people who perform push-ups, but don’t get their chest all the way down to the floor at the bottom of each rep.

Progression – A simpler version of an exercise that is used to help you to progress to the full exercise. Performing push-ups with your knees on the floor is a great example of a progression for anybody who is unable to perform regular push-ups.

Dead Hang – A passive exercise where you are hanging from the bar. This exercise is excellent for building up grip and forearm strength. Proper pull-up technique requires you to complete each pull-up in dead hang position, with your back and shoulders disengaged.

Explosive rep – Focusing on power by performing the hardest part of the exercise as fast as possible. For example, and explosive pull-up would be putting everything you have into the rep to pull yourself up as quickly as possible.

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