Calisthenics Diet Guide: Step by Step From Skinny To Shredded

If you are looking for a calisthenics diet that will help you build lean muscle mass, make you stronger, and speed up recovery, then you are in the right spot.

A good calisthenics diet consists of whole foods, lean meat, fruits and vegetables, and lots of water. Furthermore, cutting out on sugars and processed food will help you lean out without much effort. In this article you will learn how you can achieve all of this without becoming a slave of food.

Let’s look into the specifics and what you should start implementing in your lifestyle for optimal results.

The basic dietary terminology

Before presenting the diet plan for calisthenics, I will lay down the most fundamental information about nutrition. To keep it simple, I will only stick to the things you must know. If you want more information regarding this topic, I have written a more in-depth post about nutrition.

Below you will finally learn what the following are and what is their role:

  • Calories
  • Macronutrients & Micronutrients
  • Protein
  • Carbohydrates
  • Fats

Calories

The calorie is a unit of energy. Everything we consume has a calorie count; a measure of how much energy the item stores. The calories we consume are spent in the following way:

  • 10% digestion
  • 20% physical activity
  • 70% the functions of our organs and tissues

However, not all the calories you ingest will be expended (used) by your body.

There is something called the basal metabolic rate (BMR), which is the number of calories your body needs to sustain the most basic functions for your survival.

To the BMR you add the number of calories expended during a workout and you have your TDEE (total daily energy expenditure). So the TDEE is the total amount of calories your body expends in a day, including physical activity.

If you eat more calories than you burn, those calories will be stored as fat. You gain weight.

If you burn more calories than you eat, your fat reserves will be used for energy. You lose weight.

Macronutrients & Micronutrients

Macronutrients are the nutrients your body needs in large quantities in order to function properly. Micronutrients are vitamins and minerals - nutrients your body needs to function properly, but in way smaller quantities.

There are four macronutrients, each having its own number of calories per gram:

  • Protein - 4 calories
  • Carbohydrates - 4 calories
  • Fats - 9 calories
  • Alcohol - 7 calories

For the purpose of this article, we will discuss below the function of each macronutrient (except for alcohol) in the context of working out.

As far as micronutrients are concerned, eat your fruits and vegetables, and go out in the sun (for vitamin D) and you are good. No need to overthink it.

Protein

Image of grilled chicken breast, one of the main sources of protein for calisthenics athletes

Protein is made up of organic compounds called amino acids. If you were to subtract the water in your body, 75% of what is left is made up of amino acids. This may help you understand why protein is so important.

Among the functions of protein a few notable roles are:

  • Growth and maintenance of tissues
  • Helps in digestion of food
  • Construct structures, like nails and hair

In the context of training, you need protein to build muscle mass.

Whenever you work out, your muscles experience microscopic damage. Think about little cuts in the muscle fiber. With the help of protein the muscle is repaired and made stronger and larger - thus leading to increases in strength and muscle mass.

The best sources of protein are:

  • Lean meat, eggs, milk, cheese, dairy, and other animal produce
  • Chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils (also rich in carbohydrates)
  • Nuts and seed (also rich in fats)

Carbohydrates

Oven baked potatoes, a good source of starchy carbohydrates

When you eat carbohydrates, they are broken down into glucose - your body’s preferred source of fuel for cells. Once the cells are full of fuel, the remaining glucose is converted to glycogen which goes into your muscles and liver.

The glycogen in the muscles can only be used to fuel your muscles.

The glycogen in the liver is converted back to glucose to fuel the cells when needed.

My favorite carbohydrates are:

  • Potatoes and sweet potatoes
  • Quinoa, oats, and other grains
  • Brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and whole wheat bread
  • Fruits and vegetables

Now let’s look at carbohydrates in the context of working out.

Some people prefer to stop eating carbohydrates altogether. The ketogenic diet. Their argument is that fats can be used as a source of fuel as well. Which is true. However, depending on your goals, this approach may or may not be beneficial for you.

Anaerobic exercises (i.e. high intensity like sprinting, strength training, HIIT, etc.) require glucose. So if you are doing very intense workouts, keto may not be your best option.

However, if you consider doing aerobic exercises (i.e. low intensity, more geared towards endurance) the lack of carbohydrates will most likely not harm your progress.

Fats

Image of almonds on a plate. Nuts are one of the best sources of fat for a calisthenics diet

Photo by Kafeel Ahmed from Pexels

As opposed to popular opinion, fats are not harmful - not all of them, at least. On the contrary, they are an essential part of your diet and should be consumed regularly for your body to function properly.

There are several functions fats have, the most notable being:

  • Insulation
  • Protection of your organs
  • Energy production (backup when carbohydrates are not available)
  • Vitamin absorption (vitamins A, E, D, and K can only be absorbed with the help of fat)

As you can see, fats are not the monstrous products that increase your weight and prevent you from getting thin. In moderation, they will keep you healthy, not get you fat.

Our favorite fat sources are:

  • Fatty fish, especially wild salmon
  • Olive oil, avocado, and olives
  • Nuts and seeds

The 5 dietary principles for an effective calisthenics diet

There are certain dietary principles that, if applied, will get you to your dream physique. This is true whether your goal is to gain weight, lose weight, put on muscle mass, or lean out.

These principles are:

  1. 1
    Eat mostly whole foods
  2. 2
    Cut out on junk food and sugary drinks
  3. 3
    Prioritise protein consumption
  4. 4
    Drink enough water
  5. 5
    Include something tasty with every meal

In the following lines we will discuss each principle in detail. If you can be consistent with these guidelines, you will be surprised at how much your body composition can change within a short period of time.

Eat mostly whole foods

The term whole foods refers to food that has been refined or processed as little as possible. Think about lean meat, vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.

With whole foods, what you see is what you get. Processed foods, on the other hand, have added ingredients and preservatives, and then are packaged so that they can sit on a shelf for a while. My favorite whole foods, sorted on a macronutrients basis are:

  • Fatty fish, especially wild salmon
  • Olive oil, avocado, and olives
  • Nuts and seeds

Cut out on junk food and sugary drinks

The fastest way to lean out and have a visible six-pack is to cut out on junk food, sugary drinks, sweets, and candy. Although this may seem difficult, you don’t have to stop eating these products for good. You just have to tone it down a little.

Unfortunately, all these tasty products have empty calories. These are calories derived from food that contains virtually no nutrients and do more harm than good.

Having said that, there are certain products that may be perceived as healthy but are not.

Therefore, we recommend you to avoid the following:

  • White rice, white flour products
  • Fruit juice

The issue with the “white” products is the fact that they are refined. Both white rice, as well as white flour, have the most nutritious parts of the grain - the bran and the germ - removed. This process removes most of the nutrients in the grains.

Fruit juice is certainly better than soda. However, when you are juicing a fruit, you are throwing away the fiber (pulp) and only consuming the sugar.

Prioritise protein consumption

In today’s day and age, it is very easy to (over)consume carbohydrates. All the tasty snacks, sweets, and most beverages are filled with carbohydrates. However, it is not as easy to consume protein so we have to make a conscious effort to include it in every meal we get.

Most protein sources are boring foods, in comparison to what I mentioned above.

As a recap, the main sources are:

  • Meat, eggs, milk, cheese, yoghurt (animal products)
  • Chickpeas, beans, lentils
  • Nuts and seeds

An actionable step that you could take into your life right now would be to prioritise the consumption of protein every day, then think about the other nutrients.

Start your day with a protein rich breakfast.

Plan your meals starting with the protein in mind.

Prepare protein snacks in advance so you will always have something nutritious to munch on. Don’t worry; unless you gulp down lots of protein shakes and bars during the day, you will not over consume protein.

Drink enough water

People underestimate how important proper hydration is for health and competitive success. Water is the single most critical nutrient in our body, and I am not even exaggerating.

Here are some interesting facts...

  • The brain is composed of 95% water
  • The lungs are composed of almost 90% water
  • The blood is composed of 82% water

But since this is an article regarding a calisthenics diet, we care about athletic performance.

So how does water, or better yet lack of it, affect your athletic performance?

A loss of 5% water of your body weight during physical activities can lead to a decrease in work capacity of up to 30% (study). That is a loss of 30% just because you didn’t hydrate properly.

Consuming liquids replenishes the ones lost during the workout. It is essential to restore the fluids to maintain normal muscle function, reduce the risk of heat stress, and prevent a decrease in performance.

Include something tasty with every meal

This has to be my favorite advice, and you will most likely like it too. Contrary to popular opinion, it is okay - even recommended - to eat junk food, sweets, and whatever else floats your boat. The keyword, however, is moderation.

I for one eat and drink something sweet like ice cream, chocolate, or diet coke every single day.

Is this the best approach?

Depends how you look at it.

Whenever I eat a dried out chicken breast with rice and broccoli, I have a diet coke with it. It helps me go through it without feeling miserable. It helps me with being consistent and eating the same meal again tomorrow.

Here are some guidelines to abide by to keep yourself in check:

  • Over 90% of what you eat should be comprised of whole foods
  • If you want to drink soda or eat sweets, at least choose the 0-sugar option
  • Learn to cook healthy and tasty snacks, like these baked apple chips

If your friends and family are going out for dinner and having pizza, have one too. Drink some beer. If you don’t plan on becoming a high level gymnast or take part in a bodybuilding competition, live your life.

Trust me, you will look lean and muscular and will be able to do the front lever and planche even if you have some chocolate every once in a while.

The simple yet effective diet plan for calisthenics

Picture of tupperware containers filled with rice, falafel, veggies and sweet potatoes for a complete nutritious calisthenics meal

Photo by Ella Olsson from Pexels

Having all these out of the way, it is time to see what a day with a calisthenics diet looks like. In this section we will take a look at what you should eat for every meal and also include examples.

We will take a look at:

  • Breakfast, lunch, dinner, and snacks
  • Pre and post workout meals

Below you will see what a typical day of eating looks like for me. I will get into the thought process for every single meal and tell you some guidelines you should follow when it comes to your pre workout meal and post workout meal.

Note: you will see that I will present some products in grams. I personally do not weigh my food. I used to do it and I know roughly how much I am eating. 

Breakfast

For breakfast I try to get a big part of my protein intake for the day. As mentioned above, it is smart to prioritize protein and get it as early as possible. The earlier you start eating your protein, the less you have to squeeze at the end of the day.

I also eat carbohydrates and fats. This is something you will see in all of my meals.

Example meal 1:

  • 4 egg whites & 2 whole eggs omelette
  • 100gr turkey bacon or chicken breast ham
  • Oatmeal consisting of 100gr oats, 200ml milk, 30gr peanut butter, cinnamon
  • Tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper

Example meal 2:

  • 4 hard-boiled eggs
  • 100gr turkey bacon or chicken breast ham
  • Milk and cereal as much as I want (common sense applies)
  • Tomato, cucumber, and bell pepper

Example meal 3:

  • 2 scoop whey protein powder
  • 100gr oats
  • 30gr peanut butter
  • 1 banana
  • 150gr greek yoghurt
  • 200ml milk
  • 200ml water
  • Mix it all together in blender

I prefer to have the first or second meals when I have enough time on my hands to cook. That happens pretty often because I prioritize getting breakfast. If I don’t have enough time or if I don’t feel like cooking, then I will have the third meal option which is some sort of shake.

Snack (pre workout)

I only have one snack during the day, two hours after having breakfast. It consists of some fast absorbing carbohydrates (fruits) and, as with every meal, protein.

Example meal 1:

  • 300gr greek yoghurt
  • 30gr frozen berries

Example meal 2:

  • 100gr hummus
  • Carrot sticks

As I mentioned, this is my pre workout meal. Personally, I tried all kinds of meals and I found that eating a bit just before working out works the best with me. This way I am not hungry but at the same time I don’t feel bloated.

Depending on how much time you have before your workout you can eat a small snack or a complete meal.

  • Quick snack: banana and peanut butter on whole wheat bread (30 minutes before workout)
  • Complete meal: grilled chicken breast, oven baked potatoes, and mixed vegetables drizzled with olive oil (2 hours before workout)

Lunch (post workout meal)

Lunch is my post workout meal and I like to go all in with a big plate consisting of lean meat, carbohydrates, vegetables and some dessert. I do not believe in the concept of anabolic window; therefore, I do not get a protein shake in as soon as I finish my workout.

Example meal 1:

  • 1 oven baked chicken breast
  • 1 oven baked sweet potato
  • Mixed vegetables drizzled with olive oil
  • Low calorie ice cream

Example meal 1:

  • 1 wild salmon fillet
  • 50-80gr cooked brown rice
  • Caramelized broccoli with garlic
  • 1 can of diet coke

Dinner

This is my last meal of the day and the same principles apply. I focus on eating a whole foods based meal, and also adding something “unhealthy” and tasty. Again, the name of the game is moderation.

Example meal 1:

  • Chicken stir fry
  • Low calorie ice cream

Example meal 2:

  • 2 cans of tuna
  • Canned corn
  • Onion, tomato, romaine salad
  • Mix them all together with some lemon juice

As far as dinner is concerned, I like to keep my meal pretty light. I found stir-frys or tuna salads to be enough to satisfy my needs.

How to reach your goals without counting macronutrients

A scale presenting one of the ways to gain weight through a diet and calisthenics

One of the most grueling thoughts for a beginner is counting macronutrients and weighing your food. Thankfully, there is an easier way to track your progress. Calorie and macronutrient tracking is ideal; however, if you do not plan on getting on stage, then it is most likely overkill.

The method I am talking about goes like this:

  1. 1
    Weigh yourself every single day on an empty stomach.
  2. 2
    Write down your weight daily. You can use a notebook or the notes app on your phone.
  3. 3
    At the end of the week, get the sum of your weight throughout the week and divide it by seven. This is your average.
  4. 4
    In the following week’s average, you will see if you gained or lost weight with your current eating habits.

If your goal is to lose weight

Let’s say your goal is to lose weight. You notice that in the second week your average weight is higher or the same as in the first week. This means you are gaining weight instead of losing it. Remove something small from your daily diet. It could be a snack you eat on a daily basis.

If you do not want to do that, you can alter the serving size of your carbohydrates and fats.

Remember that you should remove items from your diet gradually, not drastically. Losing weight too fast can lead to health issues.

Step by step:

  1. 1
    Get your average weight for your second week.
  2. 2
    If you notice you gained weight, remove a snack or eat less carbs or fats.
  3. 3
    Get your third week average. If you weigh less than in the second week, keep it up. If you weigh the same or more, keep tweaking.

You will reach a point where you will know how much to tweak to lose weight.

If your goal is to gain weight

Let’s say your goal is to gain weight. You notice that in the second week, your average weight is lower or the same as in the first week. That means you are losing weight. Add something to your diet. Something small. A little snack you are eating on a daily basis.

You can also increase the serving size for carbohydrates and/or fats just a little.

Remember to add items to your diet gradually, not drastically. If you gain weight too fast, you will increase your body fat percentage. The purpose is to gain lean muscle mass, not any type of mass.

Step by step:

  1. 1
    Get your average weight for your second week.
  2. 2
    If you notice you lost or maintained weight, add a snack or eat more carbs or fats.
  3. 3
    Get your third week average. If you weigh more than in the second week, keep it up. If you weigh the same or less, keep tweaking.

This is the easiest way to track whether you are gaining or losing weight.

What supplements to take for calisthenics and why

Before thinking about supplements, make sure that your nutrition is on point. The whole idea with supplements is to… supplement an already good diet. Protein shakes and other powders should not make up for a poor diet but rather enhance a good one.

With that being said, there are three supplements I recommend you to add to your calisthenics diet:

  • Pre-workout
  • Protein powder
  • Creatine

As far as I am concerned, these are the only ones I take. I found them to be more than enough for my training regiment and nutritional needs.

Pre-workout

The purpose of a pre-workout supplement is to give you the energy to power through your calisthenics workout. The previous sentence should help you understand whether you need to use pre-workout.

Ask yourself these questions:

  1. 1
    Do I have my nutrition and hydration sorted?
  2. 2
    Do I sleep enough?
  3. 3
    Do I do everything I can to optimize my energy levels?

If the answer to these questions is yes and you still find yourself lacking energy during workouts, then a pre-workout powder may be a good choice.

Protein powder

The purpose of protein powder is to help you reach your needed protein consumption for the day. If you are already ingesting enough protein through your diet, you do not need protein shakes.

The most common protein powders are:

  • Whey protein powder
  • Casein protein powder
  • Vegan protein powder

Whey protein

Whey is a protein source naturally found in milk. Once you decide to supplement your diet with whey protein, you may find yourself asking which one to get: concentrate or isolate?

Whey concentrate is made by concentrating the milk proteins in whey. The final result is:

  • 80% protein by weight
  • 20% milk sugars, fats, flavoring

One of the milk sugars is lactose. Therefore, if you are lactose intolerant then whey concentrate may not be the best option for you.

Whey isolate isolates the milk proteins even further. The final result is:

  • 90% or more protein by weight
  • 10% flavoring and other residue

With whey isolate most of the fats are gone and lactose is removed or almost entirely removed.

This is the only difference really. If you are lactose intolerant or you want to get the most of your protein, then we recommend you to go with the whey isolate. If you do not care much about such matters, and only want a “casual” protein powder, then whey concentrate would do just fine.

Casein protein powder

Whey and casein are derived from curdled milk: the liquid from curdling is whey and the curds are casein. Casein became popular in the fitness industry because it is absorbed by the system at a slower rate.

  • Whey protein: releases protein in the bloodstream for about three hours
  • Casein protein: releases protein in the bloodstream for up to eight hours

For this reason, people who take casein protein have a protein shake right before bed.

Personally, I like to stick to whey protein. Eating a whole meal digests as fast as having casein. However, the added carbohydrates and fats from a whole meal provide additional nutrients.

Vegan protein

I will be honest: plant-based protein powders are not as good as animal based protein. However, if you follow a plant-based diet, then they are a good investment.

The three most popular vegan protein supplements are:

  • Soy protein powder
  • Rice protein powder
  • Pea protein powder

Based on scientific literature, they all seem to be very effective. They have all proven to help with muscle growth quite significantly. If compared with whey protein powder, you need twice as much plant-based protein powder to reach the same results.

However, if you are plant based, you only care about comparing them to each other.

Out of all three, the soy protein powder is the best option, because it has the highest digestibility.

However, if you are to compare them to mix-blends, the clear winner is 70/30 pea/rice protein

  • High digestibility
  • Have all the essential amino acids
  • Pea protein and rice protein make up for each other in places where they “slack”

However, getting into that is above the purpose of this article. Check our article on the best protein powders for more information.

Creatine

Creatine is an organic acid naturally produced in the pancreas, liver, and kidneys of humans and other animals. In short, creatine helps muscles produce energy during high-intensity exercise and heavy lifting.

There are several benefits of taking creatine, but the athletic performance ones are:

  • Increased short and long-term muscle growth
  • Improves strength and power
  • Improves endurance

Before supplementing with creatine, make sure that your hydration routine is on point. Creatine is insoluble, therefore it may harm your kidneys if you do not drink enough liquids.

Conclusion

As you could see, having a good diet is not difficult. As with almost everything, you have to employ common sense and decide what is good for you: eating whole foods, cutting down on processed foods, and drinking enough water.

To lose or gain weight with your calisthenics diet keep an eye on your own weight, rather than the weight of your food.

Tweak things as you go and you will find losing or gaining weight pretty straight-forward.

Lastly, remember to only take supplements once they enhance your diet, not make up for the lack of it.

Over to you.