How to Build Muscle and Strength With Calisthenics Training – Fitnessnacks


Calisthenics is a timeless style of exercise. It comes from the ancient Greek words kállos and sthenos, meaning beauty and strength. The beauty of strength training throughout history is that it’s always been possible to do with your body weight alone. Any movement you can train in the gym, you can train with calisthenics.

Calisthenics training is often used interchangeably with bodyweight training (although there are some key differences). The principle is that you don’t need heavy weights to build functional strength. Instead, you’ll use compound movements that hit all your major muscle groups to build full-body strength, muscle mass, and stability. 

Man doing pull-up outsideCredit: UfaBizPhoto /Shutterstock

Doing powerful bodyweight movements outside on the ground and on a pull-up bar will translate into long-term strength and mobility gains. Whether you want to build kallós sthenos like the Greek gods or are looking for a quick and dirty workout you can do outside of the gym, let’s dive into calisthenics — where to begin, and where to go from there.

Editor’s Note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. When starting a new training regimen and/or diet, it is always a good idea to consult with a trusted medical professional. We are not a medical resource. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems. They are not substitutes for consulting a qualified medical professional.

What Is Calisthenics Training?

Calisthenics training is resistance training using only your body weight. Resistance training refers to exercising while putting additional stress on your muscles with external weight or your body weight. A resistance training program with progressive overload will help your muscles grow and become stronger. (1) 

Resistance training typically includes external load, and as you lift heavier, you can build more muscle and strength. Calisthenics is limited to only your body weight but can still be progressed by changing your base of support and doing more volume. Since calisthenics never uses more than your weight it may be optimal for joint health, but more research is needed. (2)

Calisthenics exercises recruit multiple muscle groups for stabilization and balance. While basic exercises may look simple at first, you’re still going to be working your whole body. (2)

The Best Calisthenics Exercises

Calisthenic exercises start with the same fundamental movement patterns that are key to a balanced training program with or without weights. You can push, pull, squat, hinge, lunge, and work your core using only your body weight.

Man doing dips outsideCredit: UfaBizPhoto /Shutterstock

While it may be difficult to isolate your muscles in calisthenics, you can still work your upper body, lower body, and core to accommodate all kinds of training splits. The best calisthenics exercises to efficiently tax your body are compound movements that cover multi-joint actions.

Upper Body Calisthenics Exercises

Upper body calisthenics exercises are going to hit your major muscle groups: chest, back, arms, and shoulders. They can all be regressed for beginners and progressed and combined for advanced athletes. If you’ve maxed out your push-ups, start training handstand push-ups.

While calisthenics exercises technically don’t require equipment, you will need to grab onto something for your pull-ups, dips, and rows. Calisthenics is sometimes referred to as a street workout and you can do these movements with objects that can be found outside.

Lower Body Calisthenics Exercises

Lower body calisthenics exercises start with the basics of daily movement — squatting, hinging, and lunging. You can progress these movement patterns can by turning them into unilateral exercises, adding deficits (to increase the range of motion), and utilizing explosive jumps. 

Core Calisthenics Exercises

Many core exercises are already calisthenics. You can train your core by learning to resist movement — such as anti-rotation exercises — and choosing both isometric and dynamic exercises. Some of the more advanced movements you may have seen involve your full body, but core strength and stability are major factors in exercises like the human flag.

Calisthenics Vs. Bodyweight Training

Since calisthenics uses your body weight, it may sound like it’s the same thing as bodyweight training. Let’s look at a few differences and similarities between the two styles of training.

Not All Bodyweight Training Is Calisthenics

Calisthenics is a form of resistance training that uses your body weight. Resistance training adds external load — not necessarily weights — to challenge your muscles to get stronger and grow. Calisthenics can be put in a program with progressive overload to help you reach goals of increased strength. Some research shows it can help build muscle as well. (2)

While all calisthenics exercises are bodyweight exercises, not all bodyweight exercises are calisthenics. For example, yoga, dancing, and running are all technically bodyweight exercises that serve different purposes and produce different outcomes — but, they’re not resistance-based calisthenics training.

While a Westernized vinyasa yoga class is often used as exercise, it is not progressive overload-oriented calisthenics training. According to the principle of specificity, you will get better at what you are training. You will get stronger at holding certain poses. You can incorporate yoga poses into a calisthenics session, but yoga itself is not calisthenics.

Calisthenics exercises like handstands and push-ups are often found in advanced yoga classes. Similarly, moves like these may be found in styles of dancing. Dance is a form of bodyweight exercise, but it is not resistance training. Running and sprinting are also exercises using your body weight, and while you can get stronger and better at them, they’re not calisthenics.

All Calisthenics Is Bodyweight Training

Not all bodyweight training is calisthenics, but all calisthenics is bodyweight training. All calisthenics exercises only use your body weight to engage your muscles and perform repetitions of resistance exercises.

There is some equipment that can be used to assist in calisthenics exercises. Some examples are pull-up bars, rings, parallettes, and TRX suspension trainers. You can also use resistance bands to increase the difficulty of bodyweight squats and good mornings. All of these aids will create more tension and difficulty but still don’t increase your body weight.

Both Have Cardio Benefits

Cardiovascular exercise is associated with lower blood pressure and resting heart rate and a decreased risk of CV diseases. Regular cardio exercise can also increase nitric oxide bioavailability, which can improve vasodilation or blood flow. (3)

Both calisthenics and other forms of bodyweight training can be used as cardiovascular exercises. A continuously moving vinyasa yoga or dance class can be a form of steady-state cardio. Sprints can be used as part of a HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workout. Jogging or running can be manipulated by many variables to become short or long cardio workouts. 

A person jogging on a treadmill.Credit: Prostock-studio / Shutterstock

Calisthenics is often characterized as rhythmic — even with rest breaks, you’re continually moving. All resistance exercise is technically cardio since you are working at a higher heart rate. You can structure your calisthenics workouts as sports-specific conditioning to get other cardio gains by using different formats like EMOM (every minute on the minute), AMRAP (as many reps or rounds as possible), or HIIT. 

Calisthenics Vs. Weight Training

While calisthenics is an effective style of training that can be done outside of the gym, it depends on what effective means to you. There are some things you can only achieve with added weight. Let’s take a look at what calisthenics and weight training have in common, where they differ, and how they can work to supplement each other.

Both Can Help You Build Strength And Muscle

Lifting heavy weights with progressive overload will of course help you continue to lift heavier. You will get stronger and the amount of weight you can lift will continue to increase. If you are following a hypertrophy program in conjunction with proper nutrition, you will also build muscle. 

Calisthenics will also make you stronger to an extent. As a beginner, learning to engage your muscles and build tension to support your joints and body weight is key. As you repeat the movements you will get stronger. Although you can’t add more weight to your calisthenics exercises, you can progress them to continue building strength.

One study was done comparing the effect of progressive push-up training to bench pressing on the ability to build muscle strength and thickness. The study found that in the short term, push-ups and bench presses were equally effective at building upper body strength and muscle. (2) 

This study indicates that previous studies on calisthenics failed to show that calisthenics is effective at building strength and muscle — because the previous studies only increased intensity by increasing the number of repetitions. (2)(4) This study progressed the push-up using strength training principles: keeping the repetitions low but varying the exercise by changing hand and body position. (2)

The study points out that increasing repetitions is effective at building muscular endurance — so doing more push-ups will help your muscles endure more push-ups before reaching fatigue. But varying and progressing the exercise, as done in this study, is effective at providing training intensity to increase muscle strength. (2) 

That is the key to building strength and muscle through calisthenics — adapting progressive overload principles in ways other than simply adding more reps.

However, this study concludes by stating that although short-term effects were similar, the bench press is more effective at building long-term upper body strength and muscle than the push-up. As you reach the most intense push-up variations, you will max out on how much muscle strength you can build. (2) 

Weight Training Will Help You Lift More Than Your Bodyweight

In calisthenics, you are limited by your body weight as to how much you can lift. You can progress with calisthenics exercises by changing your base of support and body position. But if you are a powerlifter or working on your one-rep max for your deadlift, calisthenics isn’t going to do all the heavy lifting for you.

Besides the bench press and push-up study, there hasn’t been much research done comparing other weighted and calisthenic lifts. It points out that lifts such as the squat and deadlift may not have comparable calisthenics alternatives. The single-leg pistol squat progressions may be an alternative to the back squat, but there hasn’t been enough one-to-one research on it. (2) 

You can pistol squat from a deficit or an unstable surface, but you will theoretically reach a point where you max out on how much strength and muscle you can build without adding weight.

Calisthenics Can Help Prepare for Heavier Lifts

Calisthenics and weight training both call for you to know how to engage your muscles and build tension to perform controlled, resistance-based movements. There are skills involved in weight training that you can only learn by lifting weights, but some of the strength you build in calisthenics may be able to carry over to heavy lifts.

If you’re an advanced calisthenics athlete who can do a freestanding handstand and handstand push-ups, you may succeed quickly at learning to do an overhead press and increase your weight. Although you will need to learn proper form and engagement, you already have a lot of overhead strength from learning to control your body upside down. 

On the contrary, if you’re able to do a heavy overhead press but have never done a handstand, there are more prerequisites you will need to learn to handstand, including mobility. That’s one benefit of calisthenics training — it requires a lot of mobility, and you’ll increase it by working on these exercises.

Similarly, if you can do pull-ups and muscle-ups, you’ll probably be able to do a pretty heavy seated lat pulldown. But if you primarily train heavy seated lat pulldowns, while you may be able to pull heavier than your body weight, it’s not the same skill as doing an unassisted pull-up.

In both examples, if your goal is building muscle and strength, you’ll be able to progress more doing a heavy overhead press than a handstand and a heavy lat pulldown than a pull-up. 

None of this is good or bad — it’s just different. Calisthenics can help you prepare to learn to lift heavier by using your mobility and strength to control your body weight. On the other hand, it can’t permanently replace lifting heavy weights if your goal is ultimately to max out lifts.

How to Start Calisthenics Training

If you’ve done any resistance training at all, you’ve probably already done some calisthenics. If you are new and want to learn some advanced skills, let’s start with the basics to help you learn how to do empowering bodyweight movements like the push-up, pull-up, and handstand.

Build Up to a Push-Up

If you’re ready to learn a push-up, first, get comfortable in the top of the position — the straight-arm plank. This is a great isometric core exercise that will help you build the strength and control to support your body on your hands and feet.

You can then practice a series of exercises as you build up the strength to do a full push-up. After you master each one on the list, move on to the next

The progression will take your body from vertical in the wall push-up, to diagonal in the incline push-up, to horizontal on the floor. Once you reach the floor, you’ll practice push-ups with your knees down. Then you’ll lift your knees up but only lower down halfway. Finally, you’ll complete a full push-up to the floor. 

  • Straight-Arm Plank
  • Wall Push-Up
  • Incline Push-Up
  • Kneeling Push-Up
  • Half Push-Up
  • Full Push-Up

Build Up to a Pull-Up

When you want to achieve a pull-up, there are two main things you need to work on: pulling your body weight and the ability to hang on to a bar. Below are a few exercises to help you get started.

The inverted row can be done from any angle and teaches you to pull your body weight up from the floor. The more upright you are, the easier it will be. Get more horizontal to increase the difficulty. If you have access to a bar, start training your dead hang. This is going to build your grip strength and endurance to hold your body weight in the air.

You’ll progress to doing scapular shrugs to help you start to pull some of your weight a short distance and develop your ability to hang on. You can add long resistance bands to your bar to start doing assisted pull-ups, so the band takes away some of your body weight. 

Chin-ups may be a bit easier than a strict pull-up and it’s another exercise you can work on to help you progress. Start with a band on those as well. 

Build Up to a Handstand

Ready to do a handstand? Strength aside, let’s start with mobility. You’ll need enough shoulder flexion to reach your arms up by your ears without overly extending your spine. You need enough wrist extension to comfortably support yourself with your wrists bent at 90 degrees. Hamstring mobility is going to be key to helping you kick up and hold your legs straight in the air.

Next, you can practice a series of exercises to help you get comfortable being upside down. Try the downward-facing dog yoga pose to start. This is technically an inversion because your heart is above your head. This pose will also clue you in on the state of your shoulder and hamstring mobility.

Just like the push-up, you want to be sure you can hold a straight-arm plank before attempting a handstand. This will help you build the strength to support your body weight with your wrists extended at 90 degrees. The next step is to elevate your feet away from the ground in your plank and play with transferring more weight into your hands.

People stretching before doing calisthenics.Credit: Drazen Zigic / Shutterstock

Then, you’ll want to elevate your feet higher so your legs can be perpendicular to the ground. You’ll essentially be in a handstand but with your legs at 90 degrees instead of up in the air. Your body will be in an L shape.

When you’re ready to kick up, use a wall or tree for support. After you’ve got that down, try it with your chest facing the wall. When wall-supported handstands feel doable, you can play with taking one foot off of the wall and then the other. 

  • Downward Facing Dog
  • Straight-Arm Plank
  • Elevated Plank
  • Elevated Plank With L Shape
  • Wall Handstand (back against wall)
  • Wall Handstand (chest facing wall)

It’s best to have someone spot you on these exercises.

Sample Calisthenics Workout For Beginners

For beginners looking to start calisthenics or any type of resistance training, it can be helpful to start with a full-body workout. You’ll do a balanced amount of volume on your upper body, lower body, and core.

This sample workout includes bilateral and unilateral knee-dominant movements as well as upper-body pushing and pulling. You will have two isometric core exercises as well. Each of the movements will prepare you to do more advanced variations as you progress.

The Workout

Perform these three exercises as a circuit and rest for one minute in between rounds.

*To progress with incline push-ups, decrease the incline until you get closer to the ground.

Perform these three exercises as a circuit and rest for one minute in between rounds.

  • Reverse Lunge: 3 x 12
  • Inverted Row: 3 x 12
  • Straight-Arm Plank: 3 x 30 seconds

For intermediate athletes, you can progress your workout with more advanced variations on your exercises. With calisthenics, it’s hard to get a training effect by splitting your workouts up by upper or lower body. This intermediate workout is full-body, with more advanced compound movements and new skills to learn.

This workout incorporates box jumps as a progression from squats and Bulgarian split squats as a new unilateral leg movement.

The Workout

Perform the Bulgarian split squats and push-ups as a superset.

  • Box Jump: 3 x 10
  • Pull-Up*: 3 x 10
  • Bulgarian Split Squat + Push-Up: 4 x 10
  • Wall Handstand Hold: 3 x 30 seconds

*If you can’t do a set of 10 pull-ups, do as many as you can for each set, or try band-assisted pull-ups or jumping pull-ups.

Sample Calisthenics Workout For Advanced Athletes

As you get more advanced at calisthenics, progress your leg training by choosing unilateral lower body exercises. These are going to tax your body more than bilateral movements. 

Your upper body exercises will progress by incorporating more complex and difficult movements. A muscle-up starts with a pull-up and a handstand push-up starts with just a handstand.

There are a lot of advanced calisthenics exercises you can begin learning. This advanced workout includes a mix of five advanced upper and lower body exercises. You may also want to learn new skills like the human flag and dragon flag.

The Workout

Perform the exercises in order.

Benefits of Calisthenics Training

You already have everything you need to start calisthenics — your body weight. Calisthenics has its limitations as to how much strength and muscle you can build when compared to weight training. But it’s free, adaptable, and may be beneficial to your body in other ways. 

No Equipment Needed

One of the biggest benefits of calisthenics is that it can be done anywhere and you don’t need any equipment. You’ll need a pull-up bar for more advanced moves, but you can start it today with just yourself.

You can soak up some vitamin D by taking your workout outdoors. You can use trees as walls and inclines and street curbs or park benches to create deficits. If you want some protection from the ground, bring a towel or yoga mat to throw down.

If you normally prefer weight training, calisthenics is a great option for a workout you can do while traveling and away from your routine. You can do it in a hotel room and bring resistance bands to up the intensity.

Compound Movements

Calisthenics exercises are mostly compound, multi-joint movements that work multiple muscle groups at the same time. You’ll be taxing your whole body during each exercise, which will increase your heart rate and raise the intensity.

If you’re short on time that you can dedicate to training, compound movements are a great way to get the most bang for your buck

Performing full-body exercises also requires your muscles to stabilize and balance your joints. This can help build core strength and stability. This extra work may also help to proportionally develop your muscles. (2)

Adaptable to Every Skill Level

Every calisthenics exercise can be broken down into its most simple form for beginners. You can use progressive overload principles to increase the difficulty for advanced athletes, and you can learn how to do amazing things with your body. 

It’s adaptable for people of all levels and ages, but basic calisthenics movements are also functional and can be beneficial for older adults. Calisthenics can help perform activities of daily living, decrease the risk of falls, improve bone health, and slow the process of natural muscle loss due to aging. (5) 

Older adults can also benefit from lifting weights. But for those who may be homebound or otherwise unable to lift, calisthenics works well.

Improve Mobility

Due to the nature of calisthenics exercises, you’re going to be actively using your range of motion in your joints. Increasing your range of motion — to a safe degree — is one way to progress calisthenics exercises as well. 

An exercise like a half squat can be a great option for training a shorter range of motion in weight training. But without the option of adding an external weight to progress a squat in calisthenics, learning to go deeper can help you make progress.

Handstands, pull-ups, and muscle-ups build and require shoulder and overhead mobility. Pistol squats and Bulgarian split squats reinforce hip mobility. Planches and push-up progressions involve strong wrist mobility. as well.

While having mobility can help you feel better and move better, it’s also been shown to potentially increase power and sports performance. (6)

How to Progress Calisthenics Training

Progressive overload refers to gradually increasing the intensity of your workout — often by increasing the load — over time to make you a better lifter. (7) This way, you won’t slap on extra intensity too quickly without your body being ready. But you’ll also always be improving through heavier loads, tempo training, manipulating your range of motion, rest times, or other intensity-boosting factors.

In calisthenics, there’s no external weight, but you can still adapt the principle of making workouts more challenging over time to make progress. Let’s look at a few options.

Change the Exercise Angle

One variable to manipulate in calisthenics is the exercise angle. With many exercises, try adding a deficit. In a reverse lunge, you can increase the height of your platform to make it more challenging. You can progressively box jump up to a higher surface. Elevating your feet in a push-up will recruit more muscles in your chest, arms, and back.

To progress inverted rows, get your body closer to the ground or more horizontal, and you’ll have more distance to pull. You can also elevate your heels in a bodyweight squat if you’re not able to get to full depth otherwise. 

Change the Base of Support

According to biomechanics, changing your base of support will make an exercise less stable and call for more muscle recruitment. That will correspondingly increase the difficulty. 

One way to do this is to go from bilateral exercises to unilateral exercises. You can progress from a bodyweight squat to a pistol squat, and squatting your entire body weight on one leg is going to be much more taxing.

If you want to even the playing field between your bench press and push-up, for example, perform increasingly difficult variations of push-ups. One example of a variation is the one-armed push-up. (2) Taking one arm out of your push-up puts a lot of the work onto your remaining arm and will also work your core and chest more.

A person doing single arm push-ups.Credit: Kzenon / Shutterstock

Similarly, if you max out on pull-ups, you can remove one hand and learn one-armed pull-ups. Planks can be progressed to planches by removing your feet from the ground. All of that extra work goes into your arms and core.

Taking away some of your base of support will cause the rest of your body to work harder. Over time, this can build some serious strength adaptations.

Try Tempo Training

Tempo training is a way of moving slowly through an exercise and focusing on the eccentric (lowering) and concentric (contracting) phases. You might also hold isometrically at the top or bottom of the movement. All of these manipulations increase your time under tension.

Adjusting the movement speed during the eccentric and concentric phases can help a lifter get a lot stronger. Repeatedly focusing during tempo training throughout a training cycle can lead to adaptations in strength and hypertrophy. (8)

So when you’ve maxed out on how complicated you can make a push-up, try lowering down for five seconds and holding at the bottom for five seconds. Feel the burn and relish the sensation of getting stronger.

Increase Volume

For beginners, you can progress calisthenics by simply adding more reps and sets and decreasing rest time. If your goal is muscular endurance, this will work as well. Try increasing the volume by doing an EMOM of different bodyweight exercises. This can work for conditioning at the end of a workout, too. 

If your goal is strength or hypertrophy, it’s more beneficial to play with other variables. Simply doing more reps may not get you there. (2) 

A person doing a hangin leg raise.Credit: tsyhun / Shutterstock

When adding volume starts to plateau and it’s just not efficient to add more, start manipulating other variables. Reduce the volume again and sprinkle in some angle changes or tempo training. Then, build the volume back up with these changes. You’ll break through plateaus in no time.

Your Takeaways

Calisthenics is strength training using only your body. You have everything you need to start. When you’re ready, get outside and get moving.

  • Calisthenics is a style of resistance training using only your body weight.
  • All calisthenics is bodyweight training, but not all bodyweight training is calisthenics.
  • You can get very strong with calisthenics training, but you need weight training for maximum strength and hypertrophy gains.
  • To start calisthenics training, start with simplified versions of movements push-ups, pull-ups, and core work.
  • A beginner calisthenics workout can be a full-body session of circuits with compound movements.
  • Intermediate athletes can progress the foundational movements and begin learning new skills.
  • An advanced calisthenics workout can be a mix of explosiveness and high-skill isometric movements.
  • Calisthenics training has many benefits: it can be done anywhere; works all your major muscle groups in compound movements; can be regressed and progressed for all levels; and may improve your mobility at the same time. 
  • You can adapt progressive overload principles without adding external weight to your calisthenics program by changing the exercise angle, decreasing your base of support, trying tempo training, and increasing your volume.

Get Physical

Deadlifting isn’t the only way to get stronger. Calisthenics training might not lead you to a one-rep max pull, but it can foster the strength, mobility, and sheer athleticism you need to conquer all manner of fitness challenges. 

From learning pull-ups and handstand push-ups to muscle-ups and even human flags, the art of calisthenics training just requires you and your body weight. (And maybe a pull-up bar.) You can start as a beginner or as an advanced athlete. Whatever your experience level, give calisthenics a try. The gains will speak for themselves.

References

  1. Phillips SM, Winett RA. Uncomplicated resistance training and health-related outcomes: evidence for a public health mandate. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2010 Jul-Aug;9(4):208-13. 
  2. Kotarsky CJ, Christensen BK, Miller JS, Hackney KJ. Effect of Progressive Calisthenic Push-up Training on Muscle Strength and Thickness. J Strength Cond Res. 2018 Mar;32(3):651-659. 
  3. Nystoriak MA, Bhatnagar A. Cardiovascular Effects and Benefits of Exercise. Front Cardiovasc Med. 2018 Sep 28;5:135.
  4. Tsourlou T, Gerodimos V, Kellis E, Stavropoulos N, Kellis S. The effects of a calisthenics and a light strength training program on lower limb muscle strength and body composition in mature women. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Aug;17(3):590-8. 
  5. Syed-Abdul MM. Benefits of Resistance Training in Older Adults. Curr Aging Sci. 2021;14(1):5-9. 
  6. Micheo W, Baerga L, Miranda G. Basic principles regarding strength, flexibility, and stability exercises. PM R. 2012 Nov;4(11):805-11. 
  7. Plotkin D, Coleman M, Van Every D, Maldonado J, Oberlin D, Israetel M, Feather J, Alto A, Vigotsky AD, Schoenfeld BJ. Progressive overload without progressing load? The effects of load or repetition progression on muscular adaptations. PeerJ. 2022 Sep 30;10:e14142.
  8. Wilk M, Zajac A, Tufano JJ. The Influence of Movement Tempo During Resistance Training on Muscular Strength and Hypertrophy Responses: A Review. Sports Med. 2021 Aug;51(8):1629-1650. 

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