When thinking of calisthenics, if you have a mental picture of the military performing jumping jacks to cadence, you’re not far off. The truth is, though, that calisthenics exercises are rooted much deeper in history, dating all the way back to ancient Greece. (More on that later, interesting stuff.)
When it comes to your personal history, you probably first experienced calisthenics workouts in elementary school gym class in the form of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and other bodyweight exercises. Calisthenics, when performed vigorously, actually help people gain muscle and serves as an aerobic form of exercise at the same time. Talk about a timesaver.
Speaking of that, with people’s time-crunched schedules, fitness programs seem to be largely focused on how to get the benefits of exercise in the least amount of time. (That’s right, one-minute workouts are a thing.) Packing a lot of exercise, including lots of bodyweight training, into a short amount of time, has become quite popular, as evident with CrossFit and Tabata workouts.
These workouts all feature calisthenics to some degree. Now learn about the classic Calisthenics workout and exercises.
What Is a Calisthenics Workout?
Simply put, the calisthenics definition is using your bodyweight and gravity to perform exercises (some of which are pretty intense) using good form. What’s great is that it does not require a gym membership and could include various activities such as plyometric exercises, gymnastics, Pilates, running, squats, lunges for great legs, crunches, jumping and walking, just to name a few calisthenics workout ideas.
A more common term for calisthenics today is bodyweight training. Regardless of what you call it, this type of training can be the core of a fitness plan or used in conjunction with other training programs, including cardio workouts, HIIT workouts, marathon or triathlon training, weight training, even yoga. Mixing it up is a great way to ensure that you are working all of your muscles and can provide a healthier way to fitness.
Calisthenics has been around for a very long time originating from the ancient Greek words kálos, which means “beauty,” and sthénos, meaning “strength.” It is defined as the use of body weight and “qualities of inertia” to help develop the physique. It may have been named after the Greek historian, Callisthenes, who was tutored by Alexander the Great.
Best Calisthenics Exercises
There are many types of calisthenics exercises, with push-ups and pull-ups being the most common.
Push-ups are a favorite calisthenics exercises because they build strength in numerous areas of the body and can be done anywhere. You can achieve great muscle development, as it’s one of the great chest exercises, without lifting a single weight.
Performing push-ups, for instance, strengthens the muscles in your chest, shoulders and triceps while also strengthening your core. You can add variety by doing push ups on a medicine ball or adding a clap between each one. An advanced version is the Spiderman push-up, which works the obliques by bringing the knee up towards the arm as you lower into the push-up. (Check out a push-up in a TRX workout.)
Pull-ups are great for working your back and biceps. In fact, it’s one of the best exercises for your latissimus dorsi. The most popular style is with the palms facing forward; however, the chin-up, palms facing towards you, is a great challenge, too. While you can do these using a pull-up bar at the gym, you can also perform them with a sturdy tree branch or find a bar at a nearby park. There are some options available for installation in doorways of your home, as well.
Can’t do a pull-up with your own bodyweight? Many cannot, so instead use a chair at home to give an assist. Or at the gym, use a lat pulldown machine or a pull-up machine that gives assistance.
3. Abdominal exercises
Ab exercises are calisthenics exercises as well. For many, having a six-pack is the ultimate goal. While having a six-pack can be awesome, it’s really more about losing abdominal fat for an overall healthier body.
There are various ab exercises that you can do to contract the muscles and work towards strengthening them. Even the push-ups mentioned above can help do this if you focus on contracting the muscles while performing the push-up.
There are lots of exercises that are amazing for the abdominal area such as the plank, crunches, and hip raises — all of which can be done with your body weight, making these types of exercises great for a calisthenics workout on their own or combined with incorporated into your routine.
4. Jumping jacks
Jumping jacks are great because they get the heart pumping — not only offering fat-burning benefits, but keeps the heart healthy. The full body movement combined with jumping gives the body a great overall cardio burn, and they also serve as a great leg exercise.
If you are not able to jump at this time or need to work up to it, you can do a low impact version by extending one leg at time as the arms go overhead in the traditional jumping jack form.
Squat and jumping movements are also great butt exercises, and they can be part of an overall butt workout.
1. You Can Do Calisthenics Anywhere
Because calisthenics can be done using only your bodyweight, this type of training can be performed anywhere. What a beautiful thing. (Read between the lines: No excuses!) You can do an entire routine in the privacy of your home, at the gym or in a nearby park. I’ve even done short workouts at the airport.
There are numerous ways to perform calisthenics exercises at different levels. For example, a push up can be performed on the knees for beginners. Over time, you can work up to the toes and eventually add in claps or side knee tucks. The options are many and will build muscle and stamina.
2. Calisthenics Can Help Provide Improved Coordination
The Journal of Sports Rehabilitation published a study investigating how Pilates and calisthenics impact a person’s coordination. The participants included healthy females ages 25 to 50.
The results indicated that calisthenic exercises were more likely to improve coordination after three and six months of training compared to Pilates. Pilates is great, but if you’re looking to increase coordination, you may benefit more from calisthenics-type exercises.
3. You Gain All-Over Muscle Tone
Calisthenics offers the ability to build amazing muscle tone, and you can pretty much take it as far as you want. Using your own bodyweight can allow you to focus on specific muscle groups and overall body tone at the same time.
Typically, when lifting your own body weight, it requires focus and engagement of many more muscles to ensure proper form. That means that all of these muscles are getting work which will result in a more evenly distributed physique (rather than an overbuilt one).
4. Provides Support for Other Sports and Fitness Goals
Calisthenics-type exercises are a safe choice because it puts less strain on the muscles and joints of the body. It is considered a “natural” form of training because you are using your own bodyweight to perform the exercises. This is not an injury-free guarantee, but with proper form and gradual increase in intensity, it can definitely provide a safer option for an effective workout.
Calisthenics workouts are perfect for adding strength without adding bulk. This is often needed to become more efficient at other sports as well as helping to prevent injury.
Endurance runners often need to strengthen the hips in order to be more efficient at running while minimizing the risk of injury. A study tested athletes by increasing their strength training but decreasing their overall volume of training. The group that increased their strength training resulted in improved performance through improved muscle development.
Another study found that “explosive strength training” improved results by improving endurance due to improved neuromuscular efficiency. This occurs when the nervous system uses the correct muscles to produce or reduce force while stabilizing the body in all three planes of motion.
5. Reduces Blood Sugar in Type 2 Diabetics
A 2022 study analyzed the effect of calisthenics on hypoglycemic in diabetic patients. Among 210 patients with type 2 diabetes, half (control group) were given drug therapy and diet management while the trial group received the same plus regular calisthenics workouts.
The patient’s blood glucose levels, body mass index (BMI), quality of life and blood lipid index were compared. Compared with before treatment, fasting blood glucose levels, two-hour post glucose levels and average blood sugar levels over the past three months were all significantly reduced for both groups after treatment.
While that was welcome news, for the trial group with additional calisthenics, all of these blood sugar levels “were significantly lower than those in the control group.” In addition, after treatment, BMI of the trial group was also significantly lower than that of the control group.
Researchers concluded that using calisthenics to treat blood sugar was very effective, making the patient’s self-care ability greatly improved and worthy of active promotion in any clinical setting.
6. It’s Perfect for Beginners to Advanced
Calisthenics is perfect for anyone just starting a physical fitness plan or someone who is advanced, but wants a more shredded physique. By starting slow, a beginner can begin a smart program that will provide amazing benefits, especially if consistent; however, make sure to choose a program that offers modifications so that you can have options that are right for you and at your level. Starting at a too advanced level puts you at an increased risk of injury.
In terms of frequency, two to four days per week for about 20 minutes each session is a good place to start. Over time, you can work more exercises and longer time periods into your training schedule. An advanced exerciser can develop amazing overall body tone, muscle development and strength by performing more intense variations of calisthenics.
7. It’s an Option Even If You’ve Got Health Issues
Calisthenics isn’t just for people who are already in shape. If you’re living with chronic disease, check with your doctor to see if it’s right for you. But in 2016, Turkish researchers published a study showing that calisthenics is as safe and effective as even cycling for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
Full-Body Calisthenics Workout
If you are looking to get great muscle tone, consider a calisthenics workout a few times a week. If you want to get results, create a routine that you can commit to doing and stay consistent. Here is a great workout to put into your routine.
The Warm Up
Repeat sequence 2 to 3 times:
- Jog in place for 1 minute — Modification: march in place
- Jumping Jacks x 20 — Low impact option: leave out the jump; stepping one foot out to the side each time the arms go overhead
- Push-Ups x 10 — Place your hands on the floor with your legs extended. Toes on the floor. Hands should be wider than shoulder width to work the chest. While engaging the abdominals, lower down into a push up, then return to start. Repeat. (Modification: Place your knees on a mat on the floor, then lower and lift back to start.)
- Shallow Squats x 10 — With feet hip-distance apart, lower half way down into a squat sticking the butt back behind you as if sitting in a chair, then raise back up while engaging the glutes. We are just warming up, so a half-squat works for this exercise.
- Repeat 2 to 3 time
- Take a 15-second rest between each exercise
Do as many as you can.
If you have access to a pull up bar, try this. If you are not ready for the pull up, start by doing what is called an iso-eccentric pull up.
To do this, grab onto a bar and jump up so that your chest touches it. Try to hold that position for three to five seconds. Then lower yourself slowly and with control.
8-10 reps? Time to try a regular pull up!
2. Deep Squats x 25
With feet hip-distance apart, lower down into a deep squat, sticking the butt back behind you as if sitting in a chair, then raise back up while engaging the glutes.
Keep the chest upright. As you get stronger, hold the squat for 5–10 seconds before raising back up.
3. Crunches x 20 (center, left and right for a total of 60)
Lie face up on a mat on the floor. Place your hands behind your head but do not use them for support. Keep elbows wide.
With knees bent, keep feet close to your butt and crunch up, looking up towards the sky while squeezing the abdominals. Slowly lower back down.
Crunch up again, but this time, twist towards your left knee. Slowly lower. Crunch up again, but twisting to the right knee and lower. That’s one rep.
Repeat 20 times.
4. Push-Ups x 20
Place hands on the floor, legs extended with toes on the floor. Arms should be wide with hands on the floor. While engaging the abdominals, lower down into a push up and hold for 3–5 seconds, then return to start. Repeat.
Modification: Place your knees on a mat on the floor, then lower and lift back to start.
5. Lunges x 15 (per leg)
Place your feet in a split stance with the right foot forward and the left foot way back with hips facing forward. Lower into a deep lunge, tucking the hips and keeping the weight on the right heel.
Push up through the right foot. Repeat 15 times, then perform the exercise on the other leg.
6. Plank: One minute (work up to 2 minutes)
In push-up position, arms extended, with the neck and head aligned with the spine all the way down through heels, squeeze the abs and glutes. Hold for one minute, while the hips are slightly tucked to help maintain a alignment with the body.
Modification: Place your knees on the mat and work up to performing the exercise on your toes. You can advance this exercise by raising your right arm and left leg at the same time. Hold for 10 seconds and repeat on the other side.
7. Cardio for 10 Minutes
Choose the cardio that works for you based on what is available and what you like to do. For example, you can run for 10 minutes or do 10 x 30 second sprints with 30 seconds easy, then take a 1–2 minute break and repeat your next set.
Like all new exercises programs, please check with your healthcare professional prior to performing these exercises. Start slowly and work your way into more advanced moves over time.
If anything causes unusual discomfort or injury, or if you feel dizzy or dehydrated, stop immediately and consult your healthcare professional.
- Calisthenics is an amazing way to start your fitness journey (or to dive deeper into the path you’re already on). What’s great is you can take it with you wherever you go, even when traveling.
- Consider preparing a notebook of workouts you like or check out some of the great workout apps available today.
- Make fitness a priority in your life and results will follow, especially when combined with a healthy eating plan.