The Ultimate Calisthenics Guide (Training Principles & Workout Routine)
DEFINITION: Calisthenics workouts are a form of exercise consisting of a variety of movements which exercise large muscle groups. These exercises are often performed with minimal equipment, as bodyweight exercises.
All exercises that you do with your own bodyweight are great.
Have you ever seen Chris Heria, Simon Ata, or Daniel Vadnal do their magic?
They are part of the elite calisthenics community and have insane strength, mobility, skills, and body awareness.
And this article will put you on a fast lane to reach that level of proficiency with calisthenics, if that is what you are aiming for.
We will give you the principles and tell you exactly how you can train to achieve that.
However, it is going to take effort.
Be ready to step into the realm of bodyweight exercises as a beginner and see yourself develop into a well-rounded, purpose-driven athlete.
This article will be split into training principles, a calisthenics workout routine, and information on how to break through plateaus and avoid injuries. Use the quick navigation below to go to your desired topic.
What is calisthenics?
The majority of exercises you’ve learned in gym class can be regarded as calisthenics exercises.
These only use the weight of your body as resistance.
They have been around for thousands of years.
Warriors throughout history didn't have access to a gym, so they had to rely on their own bodies to build strength.
Fitness was a matter of life and death, so it could not be taken lightly.
Even now, calisthenics is a well-known form of training in armies all around the world.
Take the admission test for any military force and it will involve lots and lots of:
That goes to show just how effective calisthenics workouts really are.
There are lots of goals you can aim towards with calisthenics.
You may train to become a part of the military, police, or to look good without a shirt on.
Whatever your end goal may be, there is enough room for you in this sport. You just have to give it the time of the day to prove that bodyweight exercises are not a waste of time.
However, before we jump to the actual calisthenics workout plan, we first have to see what are the actual benefits of calisthenics.
The benefits of calisthenics
A good calisthenics workout can give you tons of benefits, especially if it’s performed consistently.
Let’s go ahead and find out what bodyweight exercises have to offer.
Most calisthenics exercises are compound movements.
Therefore, when you are performing that exercise more than one joint and several muscle groups are being engaged.
When performing biceps curls the only joint that should move is the elbow joint, and you are primarily engaging the biceps muscle.
This is an isolation exercise. It involves one muscle group and one joint.
Now think about a pull up in which the elbow and shoulder joints are moving. In terms of muscles, the primary workers are the latissimus dorsi, back muscles, and biceps.
This is a compound exercise. It involves multiple muscle groups and joints.
Imagine that there are lots of exercises in a calisthenics workout that have the same effect – they engage more than one muscle group in your body.
Since most of the exercises are compound movements, you will eventually need to use weights for your arms - especially the posterior and lateral deltoid (shoulder muscle), biceps, and triceps.
Being that most exercises are compound movements and more muscles are involved, they require more energy.
As the energy expenditure increases, your body has to adapt and use some of its energy sources – i.e. fat.
Furthermore, your heart rate will increase faster...
... and increased heart rate means increased cardiovascular activity, which promotes weight loss.
If you do 3 sets of 10 repetitions of bicep curls your heart rate will increase slightly but not dramatically.
If you do the same amount of push-ups or dips your heart rate will increase drastically compared to the curls.
Once you progress with calisthenics you will need more mobility to perform the harder exercises.
Take for example a stalder press to handstand. Not only is that movement really impressive but it requires a great amount of hip mobility and straight arm strength.
Straight arm strength is the strength you are able to exert while your elbows are completely locked. It is used in skills like the front lever, planche, L-sit, etc.
If you want to achieve some of the more difficult skills you will have to develop mobility, balance, and flexibility.
Most calisthenics athletes who are serious about this way of training are proficient with handstands.
Which is great, because hand balancing increases your proprioception, making you feel more in-tune with your body.
So if you want to get to advanced levels, you are more or less forced to get into hand balancing as well.
A by-product of calisthenics is that you will smoothen out your movements and no longer feel limited by your own body, thanks to an increase in mobility, flexibility, and proprioception.
Bodyweight exercises require a great amount of core stabilization. This in turn tightens your core and fixes imbalances produced by too much sitting.
Lower back pain can be ameliorated by doing correct form push-ups.
Of course, posture issues such as the anterior pelvic tilt or goose neck should be worked on directly. However, exercises like push-ups reinforce the correct position your body should be in.
Pros and cons of calisthenics
A healthy way of looking at life is using the idea of partnerships.
Every single partnership in your life will bring something to you and will take something away from you.
That is generally true whether we’re talking about the food you eat, the way you train, the relationships you have and so on.
Therefore, we should dive into the pros and cons of calisthenics so that you know exactly what to expect in terms of advantages and disadvantages.
1. Almost no equipment needed
A decent calisthenics workout routine needs close to no equipment.
Frankly, it would be ideal to have a few resistance bands, a weight vest, a dipping belt, and a few weight plates.
However, if that is not an option, you can get away with the bare minimum:
- Pull-up bar
- Parallel bars
This is the very, very, bare minimum if you are a beginner...
...because you will need the parallel bars for dips.
If you are a bit experienced, you can get away with only using a pull-up bar (because you will be able to do straight bar dips), or just gymnastics rings.
2. It is not boring
A lot of people stop going to the gym because they grow bored with it.
Truth be told, there is only so much weight you can add to your bench press until you finally realize that it is basically the same move over and over.
The fantasy fades and boredom sets in with every single day you spend lifting weights.
That is how we've felt at some point in our fitness journey too.
And we are sure others feel the same way.
However, with calisthenics it is different.
Every workout brings a variety of movement patterns, increases in mobility and flexibility, and new progressions.
Every progression that you clear brings you closer to your goals and that feels just amazing.
3. Increased grip strength
Grip strength will naturally improve if you start training calisthenics.
You will need a strong grip to perform multiple pull-ups and dips; not to mention more advanced exercises such as one arm pull-up and planche.
The best thing about it is that grip strength will increase as you go.
For those who don’t know, a powerful grip is directly correlated with strong forearms.
And you will train your forearms in most calisthenics workouts you’ll go through.
1. Harder to build muscle mass
When the only resistance is your own bodyweight there is only so much you can grow until you hit a plateau.
Generally, the only way to break through those plateaus is to start adding weight to your workouts.
We recommend you to either increase the weight or start increasing the time under tension (i.e. perform the exercises slower).
Both these approaches will work and there certainly are athletes who have never used weights for their upper body and look great.
We are referring to plateaus in muscle mass gains. However, lack of muscle mass can lead to plateaus in progressions to advanced exercises. For example, lack of strength and muscle mass in your shoulders can slow down your progress with the planche.
2. Limited leg muscles development
Even though calisthenics fanboys feel a weird sense of achievement when they are not using weights...
(weird flex but ok)
Your lower body needs external weight for growth.
Legs muscles are used to a lot of strain.
They've been holding and moving around the entire weight of your body for quite some years now.
Even if you do 3 sets of 50 squats that doesn’t mean that your leg muscles will get bigger.
And even if they do, wouldn’t it be easier to just add a couple weight plates and do less reps?
That is time efficient and also more hypertrophy-oriented*, rather than endurance oriented.
*the term "hypertrophy" means an increase in muscle size
For this very reason, when it comes to leg training, we do not recommend solely relying on your bodyweight. Use barbell training and you won't stop progressing.
3. Limited by mobility
Some exercises do not require mobility.
Others will require it for good form, but you can live without it.
However, there are some exercises that are impossible to perform if you don't have mobility. Lack of mobility in calisthenics will drastically increase the strength demands.
Lack of mobility in calisthenics will drastically increase the strength demands.
Some people may see this as a bad thing. Others may see it as a good thing.
At the end of the day, you are forced to develop in more areas – not just strength. That leads to overall athleticism.
Is that even a bad thing after all?
This section is packed with information that you will need to know if you want to keep progressing, or at the very least know what you’re doing.
When I started, I didn’t know what I was doing.
That coupled with my know-it-all attitude prevented me from progressing with my workouts.
I ended up wasting close to two years training without any progress.
For this reason we want to make it easy for you and give you the information needed when starting out.
Let's discuss some terms that you will stumble upon in your journey:
- Repetition (reps): how many repetitions you perform in a single set. If you perform 10 pull-ups, that counts as 10 reps.
- Sets: how many repetitions you perform of an exercise, with a rest break in between. If you perform 10 pull-ups, then take a period of rest, then perform 10 pull-ups again, you've performed two sets of ten (2x10).
- Rest: the amount of time you take to rest between sets. Short rests (30 seconds) are best for endurance training, longer breaks (3-5 minutes) for strength, while hypertrophy (muscle building) is in the middle (1-2 minutes).
- Repetition maximum (RM): the most weight you can lift for a given number of repetitions. For example, a 1RM means the most weight you can lift for a single repetition, while 5RM means the most weight you can lift for no more no less than 5 repetitions.
- Intensity/Load: the difficulty of the exercise relative to your 1RM (repetition maximum). The closer you are to your 1RM, the less repetitions you will be able to do. A set with 90% RM intensity will allow you to do 3-5 repetitions.
- Volume: this term refers to the total amount of work you do. If intensity is how heavy you lift, volume is how much (as in how many total repetitions).
- Frequency: means how often you perform an exercise or a workout.
The central nervous system (CNS)
Most beginners believe that more is better.
Just as with muscles, the CNS has a set amount of stress required to bring about adaptations. Crossing that threshold without proper recovery will lead to overreaching/overtraining - meaning plateaus, loss of progress, or even injuries.
Think of the nervous system as a finite resource.
There are athletes able to perform hours at a time multiple days in a row.
However, as a beginner, you will not be able to do this.
Your central nervous system is not used to such strain.
Think of it [the CNS] like a swimming pool. Every time you exercise, you take out some water. Conversely, every time you sleep, take a rest day, eat well, and engage in relaxation or recovery methods not only do you put a little water back in, but you also make it a little deeper and a little further across. Over time, the size of your pool and, therefore, your capacity for water [read capacity to exercise more] will increase.
Steven Low, author of Overcoming Gravity
You have to let your body adapt to training gradually.
Keep the pool analogy in mind. As a beginner start slow, only using a couple of exercises per muscle group.
If you notice that your training hits a plateau or that it’s stalling then you know that you have taken too much water out of the pool and you need to refill it.
The three muscle contractions
There are three types of muscle contractions:
Knowing how they work and their properties will help you with setting your goals, breaking through plateaus, and structuring your workout.
These contractions occur when the muscle is shortened while gradually going under tension.
In the concentric phase you are moving weight (whether it's your own or external) against gravity.
- The chest muscles tightening when pressing up in a push-up
- The biceps shortening while lifting the dumbbell in a curl
Aside from the shortening of the muscle, there is also a change in the joint angle.
The joint angle decreases as the muscle contracts.
- The elbow joint closes when performing a curl
Sometimes you may find the concentric phase of an exercise difficult. If you can't do the concentric yet, you should start training the eccentric.
Most muscle breakdown happens in the eccentric phase.
In this phase the muscle lengthens under tension and the joint's angle increases.
- When you lower your body to the ground in a push-up
- When you go from the top of the bar to a dead hang during a pull-up
Muscles exert the most power in this position, acting like a breaking system against the weight and force of gravity.
You will see a lot of people just dropping the weight in the eccentric position, instead of controlling it back down.
This will not only waste the muscle building properties of the contraction but it can also lead to connective tissue injury. (if, for example, you drop into your joints from the top of a pull up to a hanging position).
In this contraction tension builds in the muscle but its length and the joint angle remain unchanged.
This contraction is very beneficial to your training – especially in a calisthenics workout.
There are lots of skills in the world of calisthenics that are virtually isometric only. Think about the front lever, planche, and handstand. These are only a few of the isometric skills you can aim to achieve.
Even though its name is "handstand", you are not just standing. In a handstand, you are actively pushing the ground away from you. In our opinion, this is also an isometric hold.
Now that we know about the CNS and the three contractions, let's talk about supramaximal training.
Supramaximal training is an advanced technique that implies using weights/progressions much more heavy/difficult than your current level allows.
We've already concluded that most strength is exerted not during the concentric phase, but during the eccentric.
Therefore, since you can't do the concentric part of an exercise, you do the eccentric instead.
Let's imagine that you can't do a single pull-up.
- Pulling your chest to the bar (concentric)
- Holding the position (isometric)
- Lowering back to the dead hang (eccentric)
You start with your chin above the bar and lower to the dead hang as slow as you can.
With time these will build the strength needed to perform a full repetition.
Remember how we said that the CNS gets fatigued too?
This will happen faster than if you would perform an exercise you could easily do.
The downside of this technique is that it puts a lot of strain on your CNS. After all, you are working with an exercise you shouldn’t be able to perform in the first place.
Therefore, more rest, proper nutrition, and relaxing is needed.
If you’ve been training for 4-8 weeks and you’ve hit a plateau, your progress is stalling, or your connective tissue is sore – while having proper nutrition and good sleeping habits – then it’s time for a deload week.
A deload is a planned period of recovery.
As mentioned above, every 4 to 8 weeks you will need to do a deload week.
After a deload week you return stronger, faster, and pretty much better in all areas you had trained up to that point.
Because you give your body the time to adapt to the stimuli, and allow your muscles and soft tissues (joints, ligaments, etc.) to recover.
A deload week should be taken after 4-8 weeks of training.
If you can't break a plateau, your progress is stalling, your soft tissues are sore, or feel repulsion towards the idea of training, then you may need a deload week.
There are multiple ways of deloading, but there are two particular ways that we use and recommend.
- Reduce the intensity by 40-60% of you what you are usually lifting.
If you are benching 220 pounds (100 kgs) you would drop the intensity to anywhere between 90 lbs (40 kgs) and 130 lbs (60 kgs).
Now you can tell why this is an issue when it comes to a calisthenics workout.
So what do you do in this case?
- Decrease the volume by 50%
That’s why the second option is the go-to in the case of bodyweight training.
Instead of doing 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, you would do 1-2 sets of 8-12 reps or 2-3 sets of 4-6 reps.
A 50% decrease in volume should be enough for a deload week.
Strength, hypertrophy, and endurance
What I’m going to say now will piss some people off. Others may not be pissed but they will stubbornly try to prove this point wrong – just as I did.
You cannot build muscle mass (hypertrophy), increase strength, and increase endurance all at the same time.
It’s a hard pill to swallow, but the faster you get over it, the better it will be.
If you are looking to maximize strength building you should do a high number of sets with a low number of reps, high intensity, and enough rest in between.
The weight will be close to your maximum one repetition.
To maximize muscle growth you will do a medium number of sets with a medium number of reps and a medium amount of rest.
The intensity (weight/difficulty of the exercise) will be medium to high to allow you to complete enough reps. Training this way will also build strength but won't maximize it.
Endurance training is done with lower number of sets, high number of reps and low amount of rest.
The purpose of training in this manner is to get your muscles used to sustain strain for a prolonged period of time.
It may lead to slight increases in muscle mass; however it won't maximize neither strength nor hypertrophy adaptations.
And how do you apply this to bodyweight exercises?
If you want to build strength, train a progression of an exercise that you can only perform for 3-6 repetitions. If you want hypertrophy use a progression that allows you do to 8-12 reps. For endurance, use a progression with 15 reps+
A word on goals
Specificity in training is key.
Before starting with your calisthenics workout plan, you should know what your end goal is.
This will help you keep track of your progress and keep you focused on the things you want to achieve.
You should make a list of goals that are specific.
Specificity in training is key.
Here are some questions that may help you with this:
- Do you want to lose or gain weight? If so, how much and what is the deadline?
- Do you want to maximize muscle mass, strength, or endurance?
- What skills would you like to achieve? How many reps/How much hold time?
- Would you like to hold a handstand? For how long?
As you can see, every question is specific.
Having the goal of getting better at pull-ups is not good enough.
Having the goal of being able to do 15 pull-ups in a row with good form is a great goal.
Calisthenics workout structure
Now that we are done with the preliminary lessons, let’s see how to structure a calisthenics workout.
This is where you’ll see how a workout should look like.
There is more to it than this but for a beginner it is more than enough. What matters is to get started.
The rest comes with time and experience.
We believe that a good workout routine is split into four sections as follows:
- Skill work
- Strength work
- Addressing weak links (isolation), flexibility, and cool down
We do not advise you to skip any of them.
If you are under a time constraint you can do the skill work and flexibility on your rest days. These can be done on a rest day because they do not impact your recovery.
We’ll get to that in a moment.
One of the most important parts of a workout session is the warm-up.
While you can leave skill work and some of the cool down exercises for rest days, this portion cannot be ignored. It is something that too many people do too little of.
The result of a body that is not properly warmed up is injury – if not in the short term, then in the long term.
The purpose of the warm-up is simple:
Increase your heart rate to get your body ready for exercise, as well as getting your joints and muscles ready for the strength work to come.
Whether we’re talking about jogging, sprinting, or bench pressing, you still need a good warm-up.
A huge misconception is that stretching should be done during the warm-up, before starting your workout.
Stretching relieves your muscles from the fatigue accumulated during your workout. It should be done during the warm-up only if it’s beneficial for an exercise that you are going to perform in the strength phase.
Example: you can go into a deep squat stretch before working on loaded squats.
Your warm-up should take around 10-15 minutes and should include the following elements:
- Light cardio to get your hear rate up (jumping jacks; light jogging; etc.)
- Joints warm-up (arms, shoulders, elbows, and wrist rotations; shoulder dislocates with a band or bar; wrist rocks; etc.)
- 10 x Scapula depression, retraction, protraction, elevation
If you do this warm-up, your muscles and joints should be ready for the workout to come.
There are lots of people who skip warm-ups.
Please don’t do that.
A shoulder injury will set you back a lot.
Warming up for 10-15 minutes will be a breeze in comparison to the rehabilitation work and time off that you will have to go through if you get injured.
In this section of the workout you should set a timer for ten minutes and start working on your L-sit, handstands, or any other skill you’d like to develop.
In this phase you can also do easier progressions of exercises that you are going to train in the strength work.
If your calisthenics workout plan has full front lever in the strength part, you can do the advanced tuck front lever in this part of the training.
If your strength work has handstand push-ups, you can do a few freestanding handstand holds.
This section should be mainly used for exercises that require balance or the body to get used to a specific movement pattern.
Most athletes train their handstand in the skill work phase of their workout.
If you want proficiency with the handstand, you should consider training it in your rest days as well. Handstands do not require strength but balance. Training this skill in your off-days will not hinder your recovery in any manner.
Again, you can take the skill work on rest days instead of workout days.
In this phase you will train to attain all your strength related goals.
- Front lever
- Back lever
- Press to handstand
There are two types of training:
- Full body workouts
- Split workouts
1. Full body workouts
This is the best type of workout for a beginner.
These routines are ideal for beginners for two reasons: increased frequency and rest.
- Monday, Wednesday & Friday: full body workout
- Tuesday, Thursday & weekend: rest
Frequency represents how often you perform an exercise or workout.
Since you'll be doing the same routine three times a week, you will be training each exercise in the routine three times a week.
This will help your body get used to that exercise and adapt to it through increased strength, hypertrophy, and better muscle engagement.
Rest is an advantage in a full body routine because you can rest well while still keeping a high enough frequency.
In contrast, with a split you train an exercise only once or twice a week and don't get four days of rest.
2. Split workouts
Splits are good starting from the intermediate level onward.
The main splits in the calisthenics community are:
- Push, pull, legs (PPL)
Below we'll discuss more about which are the pushing and pulling exercises.
PPL means that you'll be training as follows:
- Monday: Pushing
- Tuesday: Pulling
- Wednesday: Legs
- Thursday: Pushing
- Friday: Pulling
- Saturday: Legs or rest
- Sunday: rest
This type of split is not good for a beginner because you have to train four days a week for any adaptations to occur. Ideally though, you will be training six days.
However, your body is not ready for that much volume if you are a beginner.
Bent-arm/straight-arm is ideal when you reach an intermediate stage and want to start focusing on strength skills.
- Monday: Straight arm + core
- Tuesday: Bent arm + legs
- Wednesday: rest
- Thursday: Straight arm + core
- Friday: rest
- Saturday: Bent arm + legs
- Sunday: rest
The straight-arm day will only consist of exercises done with your elbows completely locked, such as: planche, front lever, press to handstand, etc.
The bent-arm day will only consist of dynamic exercises in which you bend at the elbow, such as pull-ups, dips, push-ups, etc.
Upper/lower is, in our opinion, the most beginner friendly split.
- Monday: Upper body
- Tuesday: Lower body
- Wednesday: Upper body
- Thursday: rest
- Friday: Upper body
- Saturday: Lower body or rest
- Sunday: rest
All your upper body exercises will be done in a certain day, and the lower body exercises will be trained in another day.
The exercises can be classified into two sections:
Additionally, these exercises can be further broken down into two planes of motion:
Vertical pushing exercises have another plane of motion, called overhead.
A regular vertical pushing exercise is the dip, and an overhead pushing exercise is the handstand push-up. In the overhead plane, your arms are over your head, instead of next to your body.
In order to develop a balanced body, we’ll need to hit both the vertical and the horizontal planes of motion. That goes for both pushing and pulling exercises.
An exercise in which the center of gravity is moving away from the hands is a pushing exercise.
These exercises mainly develop your chest, shoulders, and triceps.
Your calisthenics workout should have two pushing exercises to start with.
One will be vertical and the other horizontal.
- Horizontal pushing: push-ups, planche
- Vertical pushing: dips, L-sit
- Overhead: handstand push-ups (and its progressions)
An exercise in which the center of gravity is moving towards the hands is a pulling exercise.
These mainly develop your back muscles, latissimus dorsi, and biceps.
You should have two pulling exercises in your workout routine; one horizontal and one vertical.
- Horizontal pulling: pull-up progressions
- Vertical pulling: bodyweight rows, front & back lever progressions
A lack of balance between pushing and pulling exercises or between the vertical and horizontal planes of motion can lead to a hunched back. Keeping your exercises balanced will help you keep a good posture.
Having a six-pack does not mean that you have a strong core.
The core is the area starting from your sternum down to your pelvis and all around that.
Strengthening this area of your body is crucial to bodyweight training success.
Anyone can have a good looking six-pack with the right diet and genetics in their favor.
However, a strong core is not easily attainable.
If you are looking for hypertrophy (muscle gains) in the legs, you will have to use barbell exercises.
While you can get a good looking upper body with only using your own weight as resistance, it is a totally different story when it comes to leg training.
You have to work both the anterior chain – quads -, and the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, and calves.
The best two exercises that can be performed for these areas are the squat and the deadlift.
Additionally, you can add one or two calf exercises at the end of your workout.
More on that in the isolation section of this article.
Addressing weak links, flexibility, and cool down
After the strength phase, you will start what we call the cool down.
Here you will work on your flexibility and strengthen any weak links you may have now or that could hinder your progress down the road.
In the next section, we will build a couple calisthenics beginner workout plans so that you can have a head start in your training.
These are meant to get you started with bodyweight fitness.
However, as with everything in life, you will have to keep learning to progress.
In calisthenics, the three most common weak links are: the wrists, biceps, and anterior deltoid.
As you go about your journey with bodyweight fitness, you will find more weak links...
However, it would be wise to address these areas before they actually become weak links.
We believe that the most important is the wrist strength.
Whether we are training calisthenics or free weights, there is a lot of pressure on our wrists.
Let's take the example with the handstand, which is a must at advanced level calisthenics:
Our wrists are not meant to hold our entire weight.
That doesn’t mean that we won’t have the necessary strength to hold that position...
BUT if we don't strengthen the wrists we may get an injury sooner or later.
When improving the strength of our wrists we automatically improve our grip strength, as well as our forearm muscles – because those are the muscles that work to keep our wrists stable.
We are telling you this from experience: once you irritate your wrist it will take a long time for that pain/discomfort to go away.
Start slow, build mobility and strength while progressing with your training and you will be fine.
In calisthenics there are no isolation exercises, so the biceps may become a weak link with time.
Having a weak biceps will slow or even kill your progress with skills like the one arm chin-up.
If this skill is among your goals, you may want to consider adding isolation work for it.
People may also choose to isolate the biceps for aesthetic purposes - just as I do.
Ultimately, it all boils down to your goals.
3. Anterior deltoid
Lastly, the anterior deltoid is one of the most commonly stumbled upon weak links.
You need a generous amount of muscle mass and strength in this area if you are planning to do a planche.
The best way to address weak links is through isolation exercises.
How can you strengthen weak links in your typical calisthenics workout routine?
We recommend doing isolation exercises at the end of the workout.
If time is a constraint, keep isolation exercises for the end of the workout and do mobility/flexibility on rest days.
Mobility, flexibility, and skill training are usually light enough that they can be done without interfering with your recovery period.
Flexibility and mobility
As you progress with your calisthenics workout, flexibility may become a sticking point.
This is one of the mistakes I’ve done myself.
Focusing on only getting stronger is not good enough.
Focusing on only being mobile is not good enough either.
Ideally, you want to concentrate on both for increased performance and lowered risk of injury.
Think about the press to handstand.
It may look like a basic skill but if you try and do it right now you may find it impossible.
The most common mistake people make with this skill is focusing on strength.
A combination of both strength and mobility is necessary for this movement.
There are five main points for attaining the press to handstand:
- Shoulder stability
- Compression strength
- Hamstring flexibility
- Shoulder flexibility
- Wrist extension flexibility
As you can see, three of the five points are flexibility related.
Another example is the handstand.
If you don’t have a good degree of shoulder flexion (at least 180 degrees), you will not be able to properly stack your joints on top of each other.
The result is a banana handstand.
For this part of the workout light cardio exercises work best.
Focus on deep breathing.
It is advised that you lightly stretch the muscles that you've just been working out and, again, very important, breathe deeply.
The whole idea behind this section is to return your heart rate to normal.
Calisthenics workout routine
Time to workout.
Below you will find a full body routine and an upper/lower split.
As mentioned, beginners do better with full body workouts.
They are at a point in their training where they can only do a few exercises for a particular muscle group in a single day.
Doing too much, too soon can lead to overuse injuries.
These routines are for beginners; however, advanced routines can be created using the information in this article.
Full body routine
A full body workout is generally superior to a split because you can train the same exercises three or more times a week.
Our bodies have to adapt not only in strength but also to get used to the cues of the exercise (form, body position, etc.).
The more you practice a certain exercise, the faster you will progress.
As you progress in training you will see that frequency is highly important.
For example, you cannot train the planche once a week and expect to attain that skill. It is just not going to happen.
Having said that...
The routine with which we have started our journey was put together by Ed, the founder of BarStarzz.
The video is linked below and for the sake of your time, here is the outline:
- 10 x Chin-ups
- 8-10 x Dips
- 10 x Lying leg raises
- 10 x Squats
- Max Push-ups
Do all these exercises with a minute of rest in between. After you have finished the first round, do two more for a total of three rounds (circuits).
For every chin-up that you cannot do, you have to do an Australian pull-up (a.k.a. bodyweight row). For example, if you can only do 6/10 chin-ups, you would do four Australian pull-ups before taking a break and moving on to the dips.
Little did I know at that time that the routine was actually pretty solid.
You have the horizontal and vertical pulling - in the form of bodyweight rows and chin-ups; horizontal and vertical pushing - in the form of push-ups and dips; core, and legs training.
This is how we would create a full body routine for someone who is just getting started.
We consider that he or she wants to get started with handstand training too.
Warm-up (10-15 minutes)
- 30 x Jumping jacks
- 30 x High knees
- 15 x Arms, shoulders, elbows, wrist rotations
- 10 x Wrist rocks / side
- 5 - 10 x scapula depression, retraction, protraction, elevation (do the four exercises in the video below)
It may seem like a lot but don’t get discouraged.
You will finish most of the above exercises in about 30 seconds.
The idea is to properly warm-up your body so that it is ready for the heavier lifting that you’re about to do.
Skill work (10 minutes)
- 10 min Handstand progression
Given that this may be your first ever encounter with handstands, you would start slow.
You may be starting with a support hold (top position of the dip) so that you learn to stabilize your shoulders, a pike handstand on a box to build shoulder strength, or a handstand with you back against the wall.
Whatever it is, start slow and build up to it.
Remember that this can also be taken to rest days.
So set a timer for 10 minutes and do as much as you can without exhausting yourself.
Strength work (45-60 minutes)
In this section you will start with eccentric exercises if you can't do a full repetition.
For example: if you can't do pull-ups yet, you will do eccentric pull-ups to build up your strength. And keep on doing them until you can reach 3x12 (3 sets of 12 repetitions) of each exercise.
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Pull-ups or Pull-ups
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Dips or Dips
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Inverted rows or Inverted rows
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Push-ups or Push-ups
- 3 x (8-12) Squats / One leg bodyweight deadlifts
- 3 x (8-12) Lunges / Reverse hyperextensions
- 3 x (8-12) Knee raises or Hanging knee raises
The squats and lunges would be changed with deadlifts and hyperextensions every workout.
That means that in a week you would have Monday and Friday with squats and lunges, Wednesday with deadlifts and hyperextensions.
The next week you would have it the other way around.
Doing so will allow you to keep a balanced body without having to do dozens of exercises.
Flexibility, mobility, weak links, and cool down (10-15 minutes)
- 3 x (8-12) Biceps curls
- 3 x (10-15) Calves raises
- 3 x (8-12) Wrist curls and reverse wrist curls
- 1 x 60s Rice bucket for wrists (if you have access to one)
- 3 x 60s Splits or pancake hold
- 1-3 minutes of light cardio focusing on deep breathing
In this example we are addressing some of the possible weak links, as well as beginning to work on splits.
You can change these according to your goals.
Remember that both this section as well as the skill work section can be taken on your rest days (although we would avoid biceps curls on rest days to let the muscles recover).
While for beginners full body workouts are superior to split workouts, the upper/lower split can be an exception.
This split will offer you the benefits of increased frequency of the upper body exercises, while at the same time allowing you to emphasize the hypertrophy and strength gains of your leg muscles.
It will also shorten your workouts.
The leg exercises will be moved on completely separate days.
- Warm-up same as above (for upper body days)
- Skill work same as above
- Flexibility, mobility, weak links, and cool down same as above
Strength work: upper body
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Pull-ups or Pull-ups
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Dips or Dips
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Inverted rows or Inverted rows
- 3 x (8-12) Eccentric Push-ups or Push-ups
- 3 x (8-12) Knee raises or Hanging knee raises
Strength work: lower body (bodyweight)
- 3 x (8-12) Step ups
- 3 x (12-15) Squats
- 3 x (8-12) Single leg deadlift
- 4 x (10-15) Calf raises
- 4 x (10-15) Squat calf raises
Strength work: lower body (barbell)
- 3 x (8-12) Barbell squats
- 3 x (8-12) Romanian deadlifts
- 3 x (12-15) Lunges
- 4 x (10-15) Calf raises
- 4 x (10-15) Squat calf raises
How to avoid injury
Bare in mind that none of us at StrengthGang is a physiotherapist.
However, there are some pretty common sense ‘rules’ to help you avoid injury and be able to perform for an extended period of time.
Some of these rules you might have heard before, while others may be new information.
Let's get to it.
1. Proper warm-up
Again, properly warming up is crucial.
There are lots of people in the gym that rotate their shoulders a few times then do some curls and that’s it with the warm-up.
If you are one of the people who does that, do yourself a favor and stop it.
If the idea of getting injured doesn’t scare you, then at least think about your performance.
What do we mean?
People who haven’t warmed up properly perform poorer than those who do.
On the other hand, if saving time is your concern, you will lose a lot of time in the long run if you get injured.
Not only will you have to stop working out but obviously, once you return, you will have to build up to the strength you used to have.
Even if you have enough strength to progress with your training, doing too much, too soon can lead to injury.
Soft tissue (tendons, ligaments, etc.) take more time to adapt to strain and more time to recover.
Progress slowly and incrementally.
Patience is very important in training and lack of it can cost you months of progress.
3. More reps
As stated above, soft tissue takes longer to adapt to strain.
Not only does it take longer time to adapt, but if you’d like to have healthy joints you should do reps in the 10-15 range.
That does not mean that you shouldn’t train high intensity low repetition sets.
However, when starting out, it’s better to keep the reps range high until your joints get used to the work load.
As you progress you can decrease the number of reps and increase the intensity of the exercise.
You can do it by adding weight or going through the progressions of each exercise.
More on that later.
4. Improved mobility
If you’ve ever sprained your ankle then you know what lack of mobility can do to you.
Taking the ankle out of its range of motion with speed produces damage to the tendon that attaches the muscles in the ankle to bone.
Theoretically, that can happen to any joint or muscle in your body that is take out of its range of motion.
Improving your mobility means improving the force your muscle can exert in a given range of motion.
The more mobile you are, the harder it will be for your body to get caught off guard by sudden changes in the movement pattern.
5. Proper rest
Doing more is not always better.
Whenever we are training, we are tearing the muscle tissue at a micro level.
If you don’t rest, your muscles will not repair and during your next training session, more damage will be done to them.
Damaging the muscle is not an issue, as long as you give it time to recover.
However, if you damage it faster than it repairs, then one of the following two things may happen:
- Your performance will decrease
- You get an overuse injury
Remember that it’s all about training hard and smart.
You can train hard or you can train daily.
You can't do both.
How to progress
This is a beginner’s guide to calisthenics workouts.
But if you are no longer a beginner or you simply want to know how to progress before you start working out, there are several options.
It is highly dependent on your goals but here are some guidelines:
1. Go through the exercise progressions
Let’s take the pull-up as an example.
You are now very good at doing pull-ups and you can do several sets of more than 12-15 pull-ups.
That is a very good achievement!
You can easily take it to the next level from here by training with a more difficult progression.
You may want to start working on the wide grip pull-up or the L-pull-up.
There are so many progressions you can choose from that you won’t find it hard to increase the demands on your muscles.
2. Increase the weight
Gradually increasing the weight in your training will help you break through plateaus.
Additionally, it will help you increase your strength and hypertrophy.
Let's take the above example with the pull-up:
The next step, if you don’t want to start a new progression, would be to add 11 lbs (5 kg) or even 22 lbs (10 kg) on your body.
You can do that by using a weight belt or a weighted vest.
You will feel the difference even with only an extra 11 lbs on you.
From that point, all you have to do is reach anywhere between 5-8 reps for 3-4 sets then you can increase the weight once more.
3. Set new goals
If one of your goals was to achieve the muscle up and you have done it, congratulations!
Now you may want to increase the number of reps you can do, or go work on another skill instead.
Constantly working towards achieving a new skill or improving on the ones you already have is a great way to get better at calisthenics.
Do not be afraid of pushing yourself to do more. Just do it in a smart way.
More reps, more skills, better flexibility, or more coordination in your handstands – the possibilities are endless.
As long as you don't hurry and take it one step at a time.
This article should give you a good idea on how to structure your calisthenics workout.
Furthermore, you have two workout routines to get you started.
Remember that this is only scratching the surface and that there is more to training than just this.
Don’t worry too much about the things you don’t know.
Just start doing.
You will see that with time you will encounter issues regarding progressions, balance, strength, etc.
Or you will just become passionate about this way of training.
That is when you will start researching more.
Until then… over to you.