If you follow the latest fitness crazes, you are probably hearing lots of people talking about calisthenics.
You might also have seen them posting videos of themselves doing some impressive moves, like gravity-defying handstand push-ups and human flags on any upright object that they can find.
But calisthenics should not be relegated to the category of fad workouts or considered only for the superhuman.
Calisthenics was developed in the 19th century by German and Swedish fitness experts that wanted to popularize some of the benefits of gymnastics training. They developed calisthenics as a complete body workout that you can do with minimal equipment and just your own bodyweight.
It involves some pretty impressive gymnastics movements for more advanced practitioners, but the heart of calisthenics is having complete understanding and control of your body in order to enjoy the freedom of movement.
So, today we are going to look at how to get into calisthenics. We’ll go into more detail about calisthenics and how it works, and why it is an extremely beneficial form of exercise.
We will then look at some of the best online programs out there that are ideal for kickstarting your journey. There are options for complete beginners, and for fit folks who want to learn more about this particular approach to fitness.
We’ll also go through some of the basic exercises that you should aim to master at the start of your calisthenics journey and point to some of the more impressive calisthenics movements that these can build into.
What is Calisthenics?
You can be forgiven for not knowing what exactly calisthenics is. It was actually very popular in the 1980s, which means that it is also associated with some of the more questionable fashion choices of the era.
But Calisthenics is basically just bodyweight training, which aims to give you a full-body workout using pretty much only the weight of your own body and minimal equipment.
But it is also so much more than that.
Calisthenics is about gaining complete control of your body. So, as well as building strength, endurance, mobility, flexibility, and coordination, calisthenics training is designed to let you take mental control of your body.
It is this mental understanding and control of the body that allows some calisthenics practitioners to do incredible things such as human flag holds and backflips with ease.
But while those movements might be the poster images for calisthenics, just like perfect splits and extreme backbends are often used to represent yoga, that is just the tip of the iceberg.
The ability to do those movements is built on a foundation of strength, mobility, and ability training that is accessible to everyone, just as some of the more body twisting yoga moves are built on more simple yoga exercises that are just as beneficial t the body and mind.
Benefits of Calisthenics
But haven’t we all been told for years that we need to lift heavy things? Yes! And no one is suggesting that you should never lift heavy weights at the gym again. The two types of exercises serve different purposes.
Weightlifting, with external weights, is good for building the strength and size of certain muscle groups. Calisthenics is ideal for developing muscle tone, promoting weight loss, and increasing and maintaining mobility.
Let’s take a look at some of the other benefits of calisthenics.
1. You can do calisthenics pretty much anywhere. It is a great way to stay fit when you don’t have access to gym equipment, or even a lot of space.
2. You develop full-body strength, as most of the moves in calisthenics require you to use your whole body at the same time. With some exercises, such as weightlifting, it can be easy to neglect certain muscle groups – there is a reason we joke about people skipping leg day.
3. Calisthenics not only strengthens your muscles but improves muscle coordination and cuts down your muscle response time. So, as well as getting ripped, you might feel a little bit more coordinated on the dance floor the next time you are forced to dance at a wedding.
4. Mobility and flexibility are also at the heart of calisthenics, and this can make moving around in your day-to-day life easier, and reduce your chances of injury when playing sports or doing other forms of exercise, such as weight lifting.
5. Calisthenics improves your brain-body connection as you develop the fine motor skills required to achieve many of the movements.
6. It is easier on your joints and connective tissue than lifting heavyweights. This also makes calisthenics a great form of exercise when recuperating after an injury.
Best Online Calisthenics Programs
Well, if we have convinced you to give calisthenics a try but you don’t know where to start, not to worry. Calisthenics has made a comeback in a serious way in the last few years, and lots of experts have taken their programs online (one of the few benefits of COVID).
There are scores of really good calisthenics programs online that can teach you the basics, and take you through progressive routines from knowing nothing and not being able to do a single pull up to doing the human flag in all of your Instagram posts (though, of course, as with all these things, you only get out as much as you put in).
Of all the many excellent programs currently available online, these are our top six picks.
Calisthenics Movement offers a great online program whether you are a beginner, or you have got the basics down and you are looking to challenge yourself.
Set up by friends Sven Kohl and Alex Lorenz, it is clear that they have put a lot of personal passion into this course.
They offer multiple entry levels, so you can get started even if you are a complete beginner, but you don’t need to go through the basics if you already have a good foundation.
The course suggests that you workout for 45-90 minutes three times a week, following their videos and PDF guides. There is good variety in the exercises that are available, though like many programs there is a greater focus on the upper body than the legs. It starts with basic movements like push-ups, dips, and body-rows, and moves onto advanced movements such as the human flag and handstand push-up.
The whole program is complemented by a mobility course designed to build the flexibility needed to tackle some of the more challenging moves and to support injury prevention and recovery.
They offer both monthly and annual payment options, and you can get complete lifetime access to their program for USD200. There are also active communities on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube to help you on your journey.
If you prefer a bit of “flow” and fluid movement in your training to doing endless pull-ups and plank holds, this workout will appeal. It mixes the principles of calisthenics with elements of martial arts, dance, gymnastics, and yoga.
It is a relatively expensive program, with lifetime access costing a little over USD500, but you get a lot of bang for your buck.
The course includes:
- 53 movement flows
- 30 strength exercises
- 30 mobility drills
- 4 static strength skills
- 6 active flexibility drills
- 11 flow routines
All the instructional videos are in full HD and offer clear step-by-step guidance so you can be sure that you are approaching the movements with the right technique. It also suggests strategies for scheduling your workouts and tracking your progress.
The course is designed to be completed over a period of six months, though obviously, you can do it at your own pace.
If you are already pretty strong and you are looking at calisthenics to diversity and intensify your routine, then the Thenx app might appeal.
The app has been put together by a team of calisthenics athletes including Chris Heria, Osvaldo Lugones, Stefan Heria, Zay Tiggs, and John Oslager, all of which have respectable followings on Instagram.
Choose different programs depending on what you are looking for. For example, start with basics, follow the weight loss program, or get into weighted calisthenics for an intense strength boost.
There is also a library of technique guides that deep dive into some of the more complex calisthenics movements, such as the human flag.
Prefer to build your own workouts? There is also a complete exercise library so that you can work on whatever it is that you are interested in.
The team has their own fitness space, and they do use quite a bit of equipment to enhance their exercises. This can be frustrating when you are trying to replicate it at home. But anyone serious about calisthenics might want to invest in some of this equipment.
Full access to the app will set you back USD9.99 per month. This comes with a selection of eight-week programs, each with five workouts per week that can kickstart your calisthenics journey.
If you are looking for an online program that is easy to personalize to your particular starting point and pace of progress, you will be very happy with Fitbod.
You will also enjoy Fitbod if you like your workout to be techy.
Some people might think that Fitbod is cheating as it is not limited to calisthenics, but all equipment use is optional, and you can choose to focus exclusively on bodyweight training if you want.
But it is also true that Fitbod focuses more on building muscle and shedding fat than mastering some of the more challenging movements within calisthenics.
Fitbod lets you easily record when you exercised, which muscles you worked, and what your results or gains were. It then uses its smart algorithm to recommend what you should do during your next workout. This helps you to stretch yourself just a little further each time you work out, so that you get constant and consistent progression.
No falling into the trap and not doing enough and plateauing, or doing too much and potentially injuring yourself and setting yourself back.
The program is tied to the app, which won’t appeal to some users, but does make it easy to use. You can also integrate the app with your smartwatch if you prefer.
If you haven’t fully committed to calisthenics as being your next fitness challenge, you might be thinking that some of these options come with a pretty steep price-tag. But Calisthenics Vault is much more accessible at just USD30 for full access to the program, which is still very comprehensive.
But rather than being a comprehensive course that takes you through progressions or suggests which muscle groups to work on different days, Calisthenics Vault is more “build your own”.
It is a comprehensive database of videos demonstrating how to do all the important calisthenics exercises, but it is up to you to decide which exercises you need to do to progress.
This will suit anybody with a good knowledge of fitness who wants to incorporate calisthenics into their existing workouts, but beginners might struggle to know what exactly they should be doing.
Beginners looking for a low-cost entry to calisthenics might want to start with Reddit Recommended Routine, which is a free online Wiki with easy-to-follow routines, as well as some pretty good supporting content to help beginners understand the fundamental principles.
The course is designed for progression, with three 45-60 minute workouts a week. It also offers modification exercises for anyone who can’t do some of the fundamental moves yet, such as pull-ups. It also has ways to make the exercises more challenging as you build strength.
This is a great introduction to calisthenics, but it is the type of course that you are likely to outgrow quickly within a few months. But that’s fine, you will have more knowledge to find a good paid-for program to follow.
Essential Calisthenics Moves
If you are worried that you aren’t cut out for calisthenics, don’t be. You are probably already doing calisthenics as part of your workouts, even if you don’t think of the movements in that way.
Let’s take a look at some of the most fundamental calisthenics moves that will form part of any calisthenics program you choose to do.
The simple push-up is the most fundamental calisthenic move when it comes to working your chest area. But you will find that that there are lots of different variations. As well as straight push-ups (with excellent form), you’ll be doing:
- Wide-handed push-ups
- Close-handed push=ups (diamond push-ups)
- Incline push-ups
- Decline push-ups
- Chest dips
Pull-ups are the classic calisthenics move for working your back, and essential for good muscle stability as you need to pull just as much as you push when you work out. Related exercises include:
- Close-handed pull-ups
- Wide-handed pull-ups
- Inverted rows
Mastering handstands is pretty fundamental to calisthenics, and it is a great way to exercise your shoulders. Variations on the handstand for great shoulders include:
- Pike push-ups
- Handstand push-ups
- Dive bomber push-ups
Yes, even the simple sit-up is a calisthenic exercise, but it is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the options you have to work your abs and develop your core strength. You will also be doing:
- Side plank
- Hanging knee-raises
- Hanging leg-raises
- Front levers
- Flutter kicks
- Dragon flags
- Windshield wipers
- Leg holds
Goodbye bingo wings and hello sleek, toned arms with the array of exercises to work your biceps triceps, and everything in between. As well as dips you will be doing:
- Dip holds
- Inverted rows
- Close-grip chin-ups
- Bench dips
- Diamond push-ups
No, you can’t afford to skip leg day in calisthenics either, and there are lots of great ways to develop proportionally muscular legs. As well as the classic squat you will be doing:
- Pistol squats
- Squat jumps
- Box jumps
- Calf raises
- Wall sits
OK, that’s great, but what about the impressive moves that you see in all the marketing for calisthenics?
Typewriter pull-ups – this is that pull-up where you pull all of your weight over one shoulder, basically doing a one handed pull-up with the other hand just there for support.
Muscle-ups – this is the kind of pull-up that once you get your chin to the pull-up bar, you just keep going until your hips are all the way up at the bar.
Front lever – hold onto that pull up bar and then pull your body up until it is completely straight and rigid, horizontal underneath the bar.
One-handed push-ups – yep, you only need one hand to lift your entire body weight.
Clapping push-ups – this is when you have so much strength and momentum in your push up that you have time to clap once or twice in the air before catching yourself to return to the ground.
Clapping pull-ups – yep, apparently, you can get enough strength and momentum to find time to clap at the top of your pull-up as well.
Planches – you know about the plank, well the planch is the same thing, except that you use your core strength to lift your legs up off the ground as well.
Human flag – this one needs little introduction, this is where you can grab onto something like a pole, and pull your weight up off the ground to form a human flag.
Handstand push-ups – while you might not be lifting more weight than in a normal push-up, the body control needed to maintain the handstand makes this a real challenge.
Calisthenics is a great form of exercise to add to your routine if you are looking for something that builds strength, defines muscles, boosts weight loss, improves mobility and flexibility, and enhances coordination.
While calisthenics looks very impressive, the moves that we usually see in advertising are expert advanced skills that are built on a foundation or more basic skills, many of which you are probably already doing as part of your exercise programs, such as squats, sit-ups, and pull-ups.
But if you want to get serious about calisthenics and work your way up to these impressive moves, there are lots of fantastic resources online to take you through the skills that you need to learn, from basic to advanced.
We have recommended our top six online calisthenic programs, but there are many more out there, as well as some great experts offering live training.