Calisthenics Workout (Training Principles & Beginner Workout Plan)

If you are looking for a beginner calisthenics workout, then you are in the right place.

In this guide we will dissect everything calisthenics related and give you a proven workout plan to build a lean muscular body and strength.

And the best part?

We will give you the fundamental information needed to reach advanced levels and prevent injury.

Be ready to step into the realm of bodyweight exercises as a beginner and see yourself develop into a well-rounded athlete.

What is calisthenics?

All exercises that you do with your own bodyweight are great.

Arnold Schwarzenegger

Calisthenics exercises are simply exercises that you do with your own body weight.

They have been around for thousands of years.

Back in the day warriors 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 of military forces all around the world.

That goes to show just how effective calisthenics exercises 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 it is, our beginner calisthenics workout plan is a great starting place.

Before we jump to the routine, let's see what are the 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.

  • A full body workout

Most calisthenics exercises are compound movements.

Therefore, when you are performing that exercise, more than one joint and several muscle groups are engaged.

Example:

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.

When performing pull ups, 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 joints and muscle groups.

Since most calisthenics exercises are compound, you get a nice muscle building effect throughout your entire body.

  • Promotes fat burning

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 fuel the muscles using its energy sources – i.e. stored fat.

Furthermore, with compound movements 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.

  • Improves flexibility, mobility, and balance

Once you progress with calisthenics you will need more mobility to perform the harder exercises. 

Take for example a stalder press to handstand.

Aside from straight arm strength, it also requires a great amount of hip mobility and compression strength.

Straight arm strength represents the strength that you are able to exert with you arms completely straight. This is important for front lever, planche, iron cross, etc.

Compression strength represents the ability to bring your legs up to your face while seated. This is important for any press to handstand, L-Sit, V-Sit, and manna.

If you want to achieve some of the more difficult skills you will have to develop mobility, balance, and flexibility.

For example...

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.

  • Better posture
Picture showing how a calisthenics workout can help fix imbalances in the body

Bodyweight exercises require good core stabilization.

This in turn tightens your core and helps with imbalances produced by too much sitting.

Lower back pain can be ameliorated by doing correct form push-ups.

How?

By reteaching your body the correct position of the pelvis and lower back.

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 not only benefits, but shortcomings too.

Pros

  • Almost no equipment needed
  • It is not boring
  • Effortlessly increase grip strength

Cons

  • Harder to build muscle mass
  • Limited legs development
  • Limited by mobility

Pros

  • Almost no equipment needed

You can have a decent calisthenics workout routine with 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 (Amazon links).

However, we don't live in an idea world, so you can get away with the minimum:

  1. Pull-up bar (we recommend this or this)
  2. Parallel bars (we recommend this)

As a beginner, you must have 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.

The gymnastics rings can be used for pull-ups, dips, push-ups, core workout, etc. We believe they are the most reliable and versatile piece of calisthenics equipment.

  • It is not boring

A lot of people stop going to the gym because they grow bored with it.

That is how we've felt at some point.

And we are sure others feel the same way.

However, with calisthenics it is different.

Every workout brings a variety of movement patterns, increased mobility, flexibility, and new progressions.

Every progression that you clear brings you closer to your goals and that feels great.

  • Effortlessly increase 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 the human flag.

The best thing about it is that grip strength will increase as you go.

A powerful grip is directly correlated with strong forearms.

And you will train your forearms in most calisthenics workouts you’ll go through.

Cons

  • 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 1) increase the weight or 2) 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.

  • Limited legs 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.

Why?

The muscles of your legs are used to a lot of work.

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 it doesn’t mean 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.

  • 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.

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?

Training concepts you must know before you start training

This section is packed with information that you 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 all the necessary information from the get-go.

Training concepts & Terminology:

Let's discuss some terms that you will stumble upon in your journey:

  • Repetitions (reps): how many repetitions of an exercise you perform in a single set. If you do 10 pull ups, that counts as 10 reps.
  • Sets: how many repetitions of an exercise you perform, 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 (or 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 (per week): refers to how often you perform an exercise or workout in a week. For example, a frequency of three means that you will perform said exercise or workout three times in a week.

Progressive overload

Three instances of a man carrying gradually greater weight and gradually becoming more muscular, showing the concept of progressive overload in calisthenics workouts

Specific adaptations to imposed demands (SAID).

This is the most important concept/principle in training!

If you could only get one concept from this whole guide to help you progress in training, this is it.

Basically, your body will adapt to specifically meet the demands you place on it.

Therefore...

If you only train twice a week, or always use the exact same weight, or don't push yourself to do more repetitions or to take shorter breaks...

Your body will adapt to meet only those demands and nothing more.

Therefore, you should try to improve from workout to workout, or at least from week to week.

Example:

Let's say you are trying to get better with pull ups.

If you train in this manner:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 3 reps with 2 minutes rest
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 3 reps with 2 minutes rest
  • Week 3: 3 sets of 3 reps with 2 minutes rest

Nothing will change. You will make progress to meet the 3 sets of 3 reps, but not more.

However, if you train in this manner:

  • Week 1: 3 sets of 3 reps with 2 minutes rest
  • Week 2: 3 sets of 4 reps with 2 minutes rest
  • Week 3: 3 sets of 6 reps with 2 minutes rest
  • Week 4: 3 sets of 8 reps with 2 minutes rest

Your body will adapt to meet these demands.

Gym bros keep telling you to constantly change your routine; otherwise your body gets used to the same workout and "you won't make gainz brah".

This is what they are referring to.

While there is some value in switching up your exercises, there is great value in keeping your exercises the same too!

You would never be able to achieve a skill like the planche if you'd keep on changing your routine.

Keep the same routine but always strive to do more work within the routine.

And once your routine no longer serves your goals, or if you can tweak it to further support your goals, only then change it.

More on goals later.

Ways to progressively overload:

  • Do more repetitions
  • Do more sets
  • Take shorter rest
  • Increase the range of motion
  • Do the exercises slower (increase time under tension - explained later)

You should to do one of the above every workout, or at least every week.

The central nervous system (CNS)

Most beginners believe that more is better.

That is not true.

Just as with muscles, the CNS must be placed under a certain amount of stress to bring about adaptations.

Crossing that threshold without proper recovery may lead to 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. Think Olympic athletes.

However, as a beginner, you will not be able to do this.

Your central nervous system is not used to this amount of stress.

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

Diagram showing the concentric, eccentric, and isometric muscle contractions

There are three types of muscle contractions:

  1. Concentric
  2. Eccentric
  3. Isometric

Knowing how they work and their properties will help you with setting your goals, breaking through plateaus, and structuring your workout.

Concentric
Diagram of a concentric muscle contraction

These contractions occur when the muscle shortens while gradually going under tension.

In the concentric phase you are moving weight against gravity.

Example:

  • The chest muscles tightening when pressing up in a push-up
  • The biceps shortening while lifting the dumbbell in a curl

Furthermore, there is also a change in the joint angle: the joint angle decreases as the muscle contracts.

Example:

  • 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.

Eccentric (negative)
Diagram of an eccentric muscle contraction

Most muscle breakdown happens in the eccentric phase.

In this phase the muscle lengthens under tension as the angle of the joint increases.

Example:

  • Lowering your body to the ground in a push-up
  • Going 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.

Unfortunately...

You will see a lot of people just dropping the weight in the eccentric phase, 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).

Isometric
Diagram of an isometric muscle contraction, one of the most important in a calisthenics workout

In this contraction tension builds in the muscle but its length and the joint angle remain unchanged.

Example:

  • Plank
  • Wall-sit

This contraction is very beneficial to your training – especially in a calisthenics workout.

Why?

There are lots of skills in the world of calisthenics that are isometric only.

Think about the front lever, planche, and the human flag. These are only a few of the isometric skills you can aim to achieve.

Supramaximal training

Let's talk about supramaximal training.

You will stumble upon it on level 2 of our beginner calisthenics workout plan below.

Its purpose is to help you break through plateaus and will come in handy if you can't do push-ups, pull ups, etc.

Supramaximal training is an advanced technique that implies using weights/progressions much more heavy/difficult than your current level allows.

How?

Let's recap: 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.

Example:

Let's imagine that you can't do a single pull-up.

Instead of:

  1. Pulling your chest to the bar (concentric)
  2. Holding the position (isometric)
  3. Lowering back to the dead hang (eccentric)

You start with your chin above the bar (by jumping or using a stool, box, etc) and lower to the dead hang as slow as you can.

With time these will build the strength needed to perform a full repetition.

However...

Remember how we said that the CNS gets fatigued too?

With supramaximal training this will happen faster.

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, being mindful of how well you rest, eat, and manage stress is very important.

We can easily "refill" a "depleted" CNS and help it adapt to all these demands:

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.

Deloading

A deload is a planned period of recovery.

As mentioned above, every 4 to 8 weeks you will need to have 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.

Why?

Because you give your body the time to adapt to the stimuli, allow your muscles and joints to recover, and fatigue to dissipate.

  • When should you deload?

If you can't break a plateau, your progress is stalling, your joints are sore, or feel repulsion towards the idea of training, then you may need a deload week.

  • How should you deload?

There are multiple ways of deloading, but there are two particular ways that we use and recommend.

  • 1. Reduce the intensity by 40-60% of you what you are usually lifting.

Therefore...

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?

  • 2. Decrease the volume by 50%

That’s why the second option is the go-to in the case of calisthenics workouts.

While you can't lose 50% of your weight in a week, you can play around with the volume.

Therefore, instead of doing 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps, you would do 1-2 sets of 8-12 reps or 3-4 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.

General guidelines:

STRENGTH

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.

  • Intensity: 80-90% (100% being the heaviest weight you can lift for one repetition) 
  • Sets: 5-7
  • Reps: 3-6
  • Rest: 3-5 minutes between sets

HYPERTROPHY

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.

  • Intensity: 70-80% (100% being the heaviest weight you can lift for only one repetition) 
  • Sets: 3-6 (most commonly 3-4)
  • Reps: 8-12
  • Rest: 1-2 minutes between sets

ENDURANCE

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.

  • Intensity: 50-70% (100% being the heaviest weight you can lift for only one repetition) 
  • Sets: 2-3
  • Reps: 15+
  • Rest: 30-60 seconds between sets

And how do you apply this to bodyweight exercises?

Easy.

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 more than 15 reps.

A word on goals

Picture of a workout log; a notebook on which you write down your workouts

Specificity in training is key.

Before starting with your beginner 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.

Here are some questions that may help you with this:

  • 1. Do you want to lose or gain weight? If so, how much and what is the deadline?
  • 2. Do you want to maximize muscle mass, strength, or endurance?
  • 3. What skills would you like to achieve? How many reps/How much hold time?
  • 4. Would you like to hold a handstand? For how long?

As you can see, every question requires a specific answer.

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 breakdown

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:

  • Warm-up
  • Skill work
  • Strength work
  • Addressing weak links, flexibility, and cooldown

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.

They can be done on a rest day because they do not impact your recovery.

We’ll get to that in a moment.

Warm-up

Man doing calisthenics exercises to warm up

The warm-up is one of the most important parts of a workout.

And, unfortunately, it is something that too many people do too little of.

The result of a body that is not properly warmed up is decreased performance and, eventually, injury.

The warm-up has a simple purpose:

Increase your heart rate and getting your joints and muscles ready for the exercise 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.

Partly true.

Dynamic stretching is fine.

Static stretching, on the other hand, 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: jumping jacks, light jogging, high knees
  • Joints warm-up: arms, shoulders, elbows, and wrist rotations; shoulder dislocates with a band or bar
  • Active mobility: wrist rocks, shoulder openers

We will give you an actual warm-up in the next chapter. Also note that this is upper-body focused.

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.

Skill work

Picture of Gabo Saturno doing a V-Sit, a calisthenics workout skill

V-Sit by Gabo Saturno.

In this section of the workout you should set a timer for ten minutes and start working on handstands or any other skill you’d like to develop.

Here you can also do easier progressions of exercises that you are going to train in the strength work.

Example:

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 require you to reinforce a certain body alignment.

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. You need to train the handstand daily if you want good progress with it.

Again, you can take the skill work on rest days instead of workout days.

Strength work

Athlete doing a full planche, one of the most difficult calisthenics elements

In this phase you will train to attain all your strength related goals, such as:

  • Muscle up
  • Planche
  • Front lever
  • One arm pull up
  • The human flag

Exercise classification:

We can easily classify exercises into four sections:

  • 1. Pushing
  • 2. Pulling
  • 3. Core
  • 4. Legs

Pushing and pulling exercises are then classified into vertical and horizontal

In order to develop a balanced body, we’ll need to hit both the vertical and the horizontal planes of motion.

Don't worry if it sounds too complicated. It is not and we will explain everything and provide examples.

Pushing exercises
Picture of two men doing push-ups as part of their calisthenics workout

An exercise in which the center of gravity is moving away from the hands is a pushing exercise.

Imagine a push-up: you are pushing the center of gravity away from your hands.

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 is the movement that involves moving weight away from your chest.

Examples:

  • Pushing the ground away from your chest in a push-up
  • Pushing the bar away from your chest in a bench press

Vertical pushing is the movement that involves moving weight vertically in relation to your torso.

Examples:

  • Pushing your body upwards in a dip
  • Pushing your body upwards in a handstand push-up
  • Pushing the bar upwards in an overhead press

Exercises:

  • Horizontal pushing: push-ups, all planche progressions
  • Vertical pushing: dips, all L-sit progressions
  • Overhead (vertical): all handstand push-ups progressions

Vertical pushing exercises have another plane of motion, called overhead.

In the overhead plane, your arms are pushing over your head, instead of next to your body.

A regular vertical pushing exercise is the dip, and an overhead pushing exercise is the handstand push-up.

As mentioned, a beginner only needs two exercises for pushing. But there are three planes of motion - horizontal, vertical, and overhead.

How do you choose?

Easy.

You choose a horizontal exercise, and a regular vertical exercise.

You will train the overhead plane in the skill work session with handstands.

Therefore, as a beginner, between dips and handstand push-up, you will choose the dips to build a foundation of strength.

Pulling exercises
Marcus Bondi doing a calisthenics skill - the front lever

An exercise in which the center of gravity is moving towards the hands is a pulling exercise.

Think about a pull up: you are pulling your center of gravity towards your hands.

Pulling exercises 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 is the action of pulling a weight towards your torso horizontally from straight in front of you. It can also mean pulling your torso towards a weight.

Examples:

  • Pulling the barbell towards your torso in a barbell row
  • Pulling your torso towards the bar in an bodyweight row

Vertical pulling is the action of pulling a weight down in relation to your torso. It can also mean pulling a weight up, vertically, towards your arms.

Examples:

  • Pulling the weight down in a lat pulldown
  • Pulling your body up in a pull up or chin up

Exercises:

  • Horizontal pulling: bodyweight rows, front & back lever progressions
  • Vertical pulling: pull-up 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.

Core
Man doing a side plank for his calisthenics core workout

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.

We'll address one common misconception from the get-go:

Having a six-pack does not mean that you have a strong core.

Anyone can have a good looking six-pack with the right diet and average genetics.

However, a strong core is not easily attainable.

Legs
Man doing a squat using a heavy barbell using the best workout shoes for weightlifting

If you are looking for hypertrophy (muscle gains) in the legs, you will have to use barbell exercises.

Even though you can get a good looking upper body only using your own weight as resistance...

...it is a totally different story when it comes to leg training because these muscles are used to a lot of effort.

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.

Types of workouts:

There are two types of workouts:

  • Full body workouts
  • Split workouts
Full body workouts

This is the best type of beginner calisthenics workout.

These routines are ideal for beginners for two reasons: increased frequency and more rest.

  • Workout: Monday, Wednesday & Friday
  • Rest: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday & Sunday

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. You have three to four off-days 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.

Split workouts

Splits are good starting from the intermediate level onward.

The main splits in the calisthenics community are:

  • Push, pull, legs (PPL)
  • Bent-arm/Straight-arm
  • Upper/Lower
  • Push, pull, legs (PPL)

PPL is a split in which you have three workouts: one for your pushing muscles, one for your pulling muscles, and another one for legs.

This is what a PPL split would look like in your week:

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thu

Fri

Sat

Sun

Push

Legs

Pull

Rest

Push

Pull

Rest

In our opinion, this type of split is not good for a beginner because you have to train four days a week for any adaptations to occur.

Five if you want to train legs too.

Unfortunately, if you are just starting, your body is not ready for that much volume.

  • Bent-arm/Straight arm (BA/SA)

BA/SA is ideal when you reach the intermediate stage and want to start focusing on strength skills.

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thu

Fri

Sat

Sun

SA + Core

BA + Legs

Rest

SA + Core

Rest

BA + Legs

Rest

The straight-arm day will only consist of exercises done with your elbows completely locked: planche, front lever, press to handstand, etc.

The bent-arm day will only consist of dynamic exercises in which you bend the elbow: pull-ups, dips, push-ups, etc.

  • Upper/Lower

Upper/lower is, in our opinion, the most beginner friendly split.

Mon

Tue

Wed

Thu

Fri

Sat

Sun

Upper

Lower

Upper

Rest

Upper

Lower/Rest

Rest

All your upper body exercises will be done in a certain day, and the lower body exercises will be trained in another day.

On Saturday you have the option to do another leg workout or take a rest day.

Onward...

Addressing weak links, flexibility, and cool down

Woman rolling her yoga mat

After the strength phase, you can do a few more things.

You can work on your flexibility and strengthen any weak links you may have now or that could hinder your progress down the road.

This is the last phase breakdown.

In the next section, we will build a couple calisthenics beginner workout plans so that you can have a head start in your training.

Weak links

In calisthenics, the three most common weak links are:

  • The writs
  • Biceps
  • Anterior deltoid

As you go about your journey with bodyweight fitness, you will find more weak links, depending on your goals.

However, it would be wise to address the above areas before they actually become weak links.

We believe that the most important is the wrist strength.

  • Wrists

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.

Diagram showing dorsal wrist impingement due to handstand training

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.

  • Biceps

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.

  • 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.

Example:

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 180 degrees of shoulder flexion flexibility, you will not be able to properly stack your joints on top of each other.

The result is a banana handstand.

Cool down

The whole idea behind this section is to return your heart rate to its normal values.

Light cardio exercises work best here.

Focus on deep breathing.

Beginner calisthenics workout routine

Time to workout.

Below you will find a beginner calisthenics workout plan.

As mentioned, beginners do better with full body workouts.

They are at a point in their training where they can safely do only a few exercises for a particular muscle group in a single day.

Doing too much, too soon can lead to overuse injuries.

This routine is for beginners.

However, advanced routines can be created using the information in this article.

Warm-up:

  • Light cardio: 30s Jumping jacks, 30s High Knees30s x High knees
  • Mobility: 15 x Shoulders, Arms, Elbows, Wrist rotations, 10 x Wall shoulder openers, 10 x Wrist Rocks every direction (as seen in this short video)

If you have never trained before, start with the first workout below.

Most people who write beginner calisthenics guides or make videos assume you can already do push-ups, pull-ups, dips, etc.

If you can do them, more power to you. Move on to the next workouts.

If not, start with the first table.

Workout:

Below the tables you will find the explanation for each column.

You will find a DELOAD workout as well.

Remember, you do that for an entire week, every 4 to 8 weeks.

Our beginner calisthenics workout level 1
Our beginner calisthenics workout level 1 - deload
Our beginner calisthenics workout level 2
Our beginner calisthenics workout level 2 - deload
Our beginner calisthenics workout level 3
Our beginner calisthenics workout level 3 - deload

The type represents the type of exercise you will do - upper body, lower body, or core.

Letter shows the order of the exercises.

In the first workout you will find exercises starting from A1 to F1.

In this case finish all the sets for exercise A1, then get to B1, and so on.

In the third workout some exercises are noted as C1-C2, and D1-D2.

In that case, you will do 1 and 2 in a superset - meaning that you will do the first exercise and, without rest, do the second.

The exercises column shows the exercises that you are going to perform.

In the intensity column you will find certain guidelines that change the intensity of the exercises.

For example, in the first workout, for the first two exercises, you should use a medium band.

This is subjective. Just make sure it's a band that won't help you too much, or on the other hand, assist you too little.

Sets, reps, and rest columns are pretty straight forward.

Do the provided sets of each exercise.

Your goal is to eventually do the maximum amount of sets with the maximum amount of repetitions of every single exercise.

Therefore, the numbers you see in the reps column are ranges. Aim to reach the upper range with time.

Tempo is something we have not discussed yet.

Tempo, also known as time under tension (TUT), represents the speed with which you do an exercise.

Below we'll find a tempo and how to interpret it:

11X1

  • First number is the eccentric (or negative) phase of the exercise
  • Second number is the pause after the negative, when the muscle is stretched
  • Third number is the concentric phase
  • Fourth number is the isometric after the muscle has been stretched

Explanation #1: every digit represents a number of seconds

Explanation #2: the X in the concentric phase represents an explosive movement, meaning as fast as possible

Explanation #3: when there is a 0, you don't take any pause

Let's do another one that may be confusing:

5000

This is the tempo of the eccentric pull ups and dips in the level 2 workout.

Since you know they are eccentric exercises (with the tempo reflecting that), you know you only have to do the negative..

Therefore, you start at the top of the position, do the eccentric phase over a period of 5 seconds, and then you reset. 

You don't have to do the concentric part (pushing or pulling back up). Just start over.

Do it for the set number of reps and sets.

Cooldown:

  • 3 x 30s Pike stretch
  • 60s deep breathing

What to eat before and after a calisthenics workout?

Man making a green smoothie in a blender

CAUTION: We are not dietitians. If you suffer from diabetes or any other condition that is influenced by your nutrition, please consult a specialist.

With that said, the advice in this section applies to the large majority of the population.

Most people don't know what to eat before or after a calisthenics workout.

Without getting too much into science, the main focus of a pre-workout meal is to give you energy for the workout to come.

(example meals below)

Carbohydrates are a great choice if your routine is going to be fairly short and intense.

Glycogen, which is synthesized from glucose (a part of carbohydrates), is found in muscles and liver cells and acts as our main source of energy.

Research shows that glycogen may in fact be the only source of energy used during short and intense workouts - study.

Protein is recommended too.

Some studies came to the conclusion that pre-workout protein consumption increases muscle protein synthesis - study, study, and study, helps with muscle growth - study, and increases strength and muscle mass - study.

Fats seem to be a good choice if your workout is going to be long and low to moderate intensity - study

Pre-workout meal:

If you have enough time (i.e. eat about 2 hours prior to your workout) we recommend a complete meal with all the macronutrients.

Therefore, a meal consisting of protein, carbs, and fats.

Examples:

  • Grilled chicken breast, oven baked potatoes, and mixed vegetables drizzled with olive oil
  • Omelette and avocado spread on whole-wheat toast
  • Grilled or baked tuna and sweet potatoes

If you only have 45 minutes or less, then fast absorbing carbohydrates and some protein would be your best choice (fats are optional):

Examples:

  • Greek yoghurt & piece of fruit
  • A banana
  • Apple with peanut butter

Post-workout meal:

During a workout session the glycogen in your muscles gets depleted.

Furthermore, some of the protein in your muscles gets broken down and damaged.

There is a huge misconception in the fitness community that the first and utmost important thing after a workout is to take your protein.

Source: trust me brah

The first thing you should eat after a workout is a piece of fruit (fast absorbing carbs) to replenish your glycogen reserves - study.

In his book, Periodization, Tudor O. Bompa notes that "if carbohydrates are consumed within 2 hr of the completion of exercise, muscle glycogen storage can increase 45%" - exact quote.

However, that will only replenish the energy sources.

To repair the muscle fibers you also need protein intake.

Protein will repair damaged muscle cells and lay the foundation to build new muscle tissue - study, and study.

Therefore, a meal consisting of fast absorbing carbs and protein is ideal.

Examples:

  • Banana & protein shake
  • 1-2 hard boiled eggs & 1 cup of chocolate milk
  • Tuna & canned corn salad

How to avoid injury

Man in the gym showing signs of pain in his shoulder and lower back

Bear in mind that none of us at StrengthGang is a physiotherapist.

However, there are some pretty simple ‘rules’ to help you avoid injury and be able to perform for an extended period of time.

1. Proper warm-up

Again, warming up properly is crucial for longevity in training.

There are lots of people in the gym that rotate their shoulders a few times then do some curls and call it a warm-up.

If you are one of the people who does that, do yourself a favor and stop it.

Aside from highly increasing your chances of getting injured, you are also setting yourself up to perform poorly.

People who haven’t warmed up properly perform poorer than those who do.

2. Patience

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 training, as well as 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 training.

Not only does it take longer time to adapt, but if you’d like to have healthy joints you should train 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.

4. Improve 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 taken 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 10-15 pull-ups.

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, the L-pull-up, or archer pull-ups.

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.

Conclusion

This article should give you a good idea on how to structure your calisthenics workout.

Furthermore, you have a beginner calisthenics workout plan to get 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.