I remember when I first saw some guys doing calisthenics on YouTube, I was like, HolyShit How is that even possible!?
Like you I wanted to find something different to the regular old gym stuff. I wanted something more interesting, more engaging, more rewarding.
I instantly knew how I wanted to train, I wanted to do calisthenics! But I had no idea how to start . . .
This page is going to walk you through everything you need to get started with calisthenics training, so you can get up now and have a solid idea of how it works, and I have a bonus FREE workout for you to use at your next session!
What Is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is bodyweight training. Training without weights, instead just your body, using complex movements to increase the difficulty of an exercise.
Calisthenics is simply bodyweight training. You use your body as leverage to develop strength instead of a barbell or cable machine.
You will see guys all over the internet doing insane moves like the front lever or planche. But to get there you need to develop your body progressively, starting with much easier exercises and moving up the scale as you get stronger.
Calisthenics is all about progressive training. You will only reach the most extreme level of bodyweight exercise if you work up to it. No one starts on the planche.
Why Do Calisthenics?
When I first started training, I went to the gym, just like everyone else.
I went every other day, I did the same few exercises, every now and then I was able to increase the weight and do the same exercise again.
Was that really achieving anything? All I wanted to do was the same exercise with a bigger weight.
Naturally I got bored of it.
When my friend Greg introduced me to calisthenics, that was it.
Calisthenics is great because it allows room for creativity, it is engaging and fun.
As you learn a skill you start to find ways you can do it differently, make it harder, you unlock new skills to train.
I don’t do the same stuff all the time, not anymore. Not unless I want to.
There are a few simple principles you can follow that just keep your training balanced . . .
But other than that, you can go NUTS!
How Does Calisthenics Training Work?
Calisthenics uses simple exercises based on movement patterns. From these basic movements you can start using different ways to make them harder.
Take Push Ups For Example:
First you have regular push ups.
Then Diamond and Wide push ups.
Then you can lift a leg, or put your feet on a bench,
Then you can do spiderman push ups.
You see how this goes . . .
Before you know it, you can do one arm push ups, you’re working towards handstand push ups!
As you train and progress, you will find you can learn other exercises, more crazy and interesting ones.
The further down the rabbit hole you go, the more creative you can be, learning methods of progressions and working towards certain skills.
Because of this your training day-to-day can look pretty crazy compared to most people’s.
EVERYONE at the gym has the same kind of workout.
With calisthenics, everyone starts at the same place, everyone's workouts are the same . . .
But once you get past the foundation, everyone heads in a different direction.
You can pick and choose exercises to fit YOUR style. Based on what you find enjoyable, what you want to work on, and how deep down the rabbit hole you want to go.
Where To Train Calisthenics
Gym, Home Or Outdoors, You Have Plenty Of Places To Exercise
The great thing about bodyweight training is that all it takes is your body.
You don’t need an expensive gym membership or loads of weights in your house.
That being said, you can do it down the gym if you want, no worries.
Calisthenics At The Gym
Training at the gym is great because it is a place to go just for training.
You can do basically everything on a pull up / dipping frame (you know the ones I mean)
And a lot of gyms now have a little bodyweight section with monkey bars or something similar.
So it isn’t like you cant use the gym because you aren’t using weights. And sometimes you might want to use some weights!
Another great thing about training at the gym is you don’t need to get any equipment, but the number 1 reason to have a gym membership is the sauna and steam room!
In parks all over the place there are adult play areas being built – or at least that’s what they look like.
These are great and FREE. They usually have a minimalist feel without overcomplicated shaped objects.
A few pull up bars, 2 or 3 parallel bars.
Everything you need!
Sometimes they are arranged in a circuit around a park, but recently they have just been put in their own little section.
You have probably seen people using these calisthenics parks on the internet and I would seek one out near by if you live in a city.
If you have one of these local to you I highly recommend using them. If not, don’t worry, I use a set of goal posts down the park, or some railings or whatever.
Finding obstacles you can do exercises on is another fun little thing about calisthenics. From bike racks to lampposts there are obstacles all over the place that you can use to train.
This is something I really like about the parkour scene. Its just about going wild and jumping about all over the place.
And if you are willing to get creative, you can do it with bodyweight training too.
Calisthenics At Home
Being able to train at home is important for a lot of people. And a lot of people use it as an excuse to not be training.
Luckily you don’t need anything to train with so there goes those excuses!
Being able to train at home allows you to fit you training into your life a lot easier than trying to find 2 hours to go to the gym.
With or without a few small pieces of equipment you can get a great workout in your house, flat, garden, bedroom . . . Whatever!
Training at home opens up opportunities to work on unusual isometric exercises, yoga based stability and strength work too, which people may be uncomfortable with at the gym.
Do I Need Any Equipment?
No you don’t NEED any equipoment to do calisthenics training. But I encourage my clients, and now you, to get one or two things as and when needed.
This gives you the flexibility to work otherwise difficult movements at home without having any large upfront costs – if any at all.
To be honest, with the availability of equipment thanks to Amazon, you can have an entire home gym set up for under £100 / $150 and it could all pack away into a cupboard. But don’t worry about that right now.
There is one big win in terms of training gear and that is the Door Frame Pull Up Bar.
Pull ups are the biggest obstacle to train at home.
Most people don’t have something to hang off, but with one of these things (at about £15) you can have one delivered Tomorrow from Amazon.
How To Train Calisthenics
A Simple Approach To Calisthenics Exercise For Beginners
With all the skills and tricks you see online, its hard to actually work out where to start.
All you really need to do is stick to a few simple principles and you’re good to go.
Calisthenics has one really big difference from weight training:
You don’t do much isolated exercise.
By this I mean you aren’t doing bicep curls, to work your biceps on ‘Arms Day’
Instead you do compound exercises that work multiple muscle groups at the same time.
These compound exercises are grouped into movement patterns.
Training these movement patterns help to keep your body well balanced and build muscle all over your body at the same time.
Basic Movement Types
There are 3 Basic movement types that form the main functions of movement.
There are other types of movement but if you are focusing on these 3 main types, mixed with the exercise variations, you're well covered so don’t worry.
The first one is push movements. These are exercises that focus on moving something away from your body.
Examples are things like push ups and dips.
Push movements primarily work the Triceps and Pectorals and Top & Front part of your shoulders.
Pull movements are the opposite of push movements. So you are moving something into your body rather than away.
Examples are Inverted Rows and Pull Ups
Pull movements mainly work your Back and Biceps and Back & Lower shoulders.
Isometric (Hold) Movements
Isometrics are holds. Holding your body in place can be very difficult and it is an often overlooked aspect of strength training.
Examples are things like Handstands and Front Lever.
Isometrics come in all shapes and sizes and will work most if not ALL of your body.
When you first get started, there is a handful of exercises used to test yourself.
You need to find out what kind of level you are starting at.
So there are 2 initial levels to start from:
1 – Can Do Pull Ups
2 – Can’t Do Pull Ups
I use pull ups because they are usually harder than dips, for people.
If you can do pull ups, you can start with the Foundation.
If you can’t then you start with a few simple progression exercises to build up to that level:
Push Ups are an age old exercise we all know. A lot of people who do heavy lifting might not think push ups are very effective exercise. But they are actually awesome!
There are loads of variations from the basic old push up, to one arm push ups, to handstand push ups. And there are plenty in between as well.
Push Ups are actually one of the best examples of how progressive exercise works. To really get first hand experience in skill development.
So don’t skip out and don’t overlook them!
Inverted Rows, Body weight Rows and Aussie Pull Ups are all the same thing, it’s the step before pull ups.
Just like Push Ups are the step before Dips, you will need to get good at aussies before you can tackle a pull up.
You are simply hanging under a low bar, with your feet out in front of you – like an upside down push up. Then pulling up to the bar for reps.
Flutter Kicks are awesome - they are probably my favourite exercise!
Do you want to shred your core? forget crunches, get on the flutter kicks.
Lay on the floor, or a bench, lift your feet up off the floor and start oscillating them as if you were doing backstroke.
If you do this on a bench, have your legs right off so you have a greater Range Of Motion available to you.
To get a complete upper body workout for beginner's, check out the Beginner's Triset
Once you get past the initial strength barrier, it is time to step it up to the Foundation. These are the basic variations of the main exercises.
The foundation is really the starting point of everything. Once you can do these few exercises you will be strong enough to start going crazy with your training - I'm talking lever progressions, muscle ups, flags, all sorts.
These exercises build the foundation for your bodyweight progressions - hence the name.
Getting on pull ups is rewarding, and just like the push ups, there is a whole host of variations you can do to progress, so get them down and keep pushing yourself to get better at them.
But pull ups are hard work when you first start out so make sure to get your inverted rows - ^Above^ - to build up the strength to take them on.
Dips are the next level Push exercise. Single Bar or Parallel are great, but parallel are more common.
That being said, you want to get on a single bar when you can because it requires more stability and will prepare you for the Muscle Up!
Leg Raises are a great core exercise. They don't just work your Abs, but the whole of your trunk, front and back.
They will also help build strong shoulders as well so don't skip out on them just because they are difficult.
These are a killer but you will get great benefits from doing them. Try and keep your legs straight and your upper body as still as possible.
You will find that you inevitably swing so don’t worry too much about it but still try and focus on the most minimal movement possible to avoid bad form.
For more information, check out the Foundation Triset - The template for your bodyweight training.
Once you get good with the foundation, you should already have seen some great results.
Pretty soon though, you will want to move on. There is only so many times you can do sets of pull ups.
So instead, you start experimenting with different types of pull ups.
You start with grip changes, then you start moving towards more advanced skills like archer pulls, tuck lever pulls and more.
Each time you master one thing, you will find the next thing to try, to make it even harder.
Check out the Full Article on Progressive Calisthenics Training to see all of the progression templates in detail
One Workout Framework Breakdown
How To Structure Your Workouts For Maximum Results
One thing that most people try when they start training down the gym is splitting muscle groups.
With calisthenics, the exercises are working lots of muscle groups in one go.
For this reason you can work your whole body in one training session without spending hours and hours training.
This makes every single workout more effective because it has huge benefits across your whole body.
This frees up more time to work on the fun stuff like skills.
The problem with training skills is they take a lot of energy and you will fatigue fast.
This One Workout Framework is a simple template you can use to structure your own workouts.
The Basic Training Framework
The basic framework is structured in a way that allows you to work your skills and strength at the same time. This may create complex looking workouts if you don’t know what is happening, but it is actually quite simple.
This structure is not the one-size-fits-all solution for all of your training goals, but it is a great way to progress on from the foundation and beginner workouts.
Obviously When you are training you need to warm up, this is common knowledge, we all know we should be doing it. Simple dynamic movements and some foam rolling
Here you are going to work towards your main skill targets.
Are you developing your handstand? Are you working on your front lever?
Whatever you're working on, you front load this while you have the most energy.
This is where you do your usual movement patterns.
Your Push, your Pull, your Core work – probably leg raises.
Now finishers are interesting.
Right at the start of your workout you have loads of energy and plenty of muscle power at your disposal.
By the end, you shouldn’t.
Finishers are exactly what they sound like. They finish you off.
You will take a low level skill like push ups and do it to the death. That is complete failure.
The point of finishers is to really squeeze out that last bit of muscle you have left so you cant open the door or lift up a pencil without shaking it out of your hand.
Your cool down is a bit of gentle stretching and foam rolling to help improve your mobility and flexibility.
It will also help with DOMS because it will reduce blood pooling.
That means you can train tomorrow too 😛
So I wont just give you the structure, lets have a look at a real example of what I have described . . .
Warm Up – 10 Min
Total Body Stretch & dynamic movements
Skills – 10 Min
- Bunny hops
- Roll outs
- Handstand walking
Strength – 3 Cycles / 15 Min
Total Body Fundamentals
- 10 x Pull Ups
- 10 x Dips
- 10 x Hanging Leg Raises
- 10 x Pistol Squats (Per Leg)
Finishers – 1 Set To The DEATH
- Inverted Rows
- Push Ups
- Flutter Kicks
Stretch & Foam Roll
Check out the One Workout Framework for more details and examples of how this template works.
What Is Skill Training? And Why Does It Matter?
So I have spoken a little bit about it, but what actually IS Skills Training!?
I mean learning complex movements and holds, things that go beyond the basics.
A lot of these skills are isometric exercises, things like the Human Flag, or Planche. But there are dynamic ones like Handstand Push Ups.
Skills come in all kinds of shapes and degrees of difficulty.
There isn’t a 100% perfect way of progressing through them, because it varies depending on the individual and their own strengths/weaknesses.
What you can do is a kind of ‘choose your own adventure’ type progression where you learn and progress as different skills come up, or you find you have the strength to hit a progression.
I am not going to stand here and say everyone needs to learn a planche, or a front lever. They are tools, skills that you can develop, which will create unlock new exercises and variations to take your skills to the NEXT Next Level!
3 Pillars Of Skill Development
Training Your skills isn’t just about reps. They start off as isometric exercises then develop into more dynamic ones.
To build these skills there are 3 pillars of movement for you to develop:
Every exercise requires these for coordination. Some less than others, but ultimately you will need to train all 3 at some point.
As you can see here strength is only a third of your development. If you aren’t training the others you will eventually plateau and have to work backwards a little bit.
However if you are consistently developing all three pillars then you will progress quickly and you will get great results.
How To Train Skills
Training new skills is similar to increasing the weight on the barbell. You start at low level and build up over time.
There are some very basic progressions that are almost universal across the skills and they are all based around increasing the length of the lever over time.
The basic isometric lever progression formula:
At each stage of the progression the thing you are changing is leg position.
For example, moving from advanced tuck to single leg is a case of extending one leg out and probably pulling the other knee back in a little.
This increases the length of the lever by fully extending one leg, but only by half the weight because the other leg stays right in.
Each stage will take a little training before you are able to move to the next stage, but it will mostly be a smooth process over a few weeks.
Next thing you know, you can planche!
Playful & Creative Development
Its training skills like this where your physical pursuit gets really fun. At first you will probably just be getting to the foundation level, but once you are there training can be as creative as you want.
Training should be engaging, training should not be boring.
If you find your training boring chances are you wont stick to it for very long. Having a fun and almost playful way to train is going to make it an enjoyable experience for you and you will not only get in great shape, but you will forget about that result and start looking to learning and acquiring new skills.
This pursuit of skills is a much better form of feedback and way of measuring your development because you don’t have the stress of stepping on the scales every session, seeing little to no result and getting disheartened by it.
On this site and everywhere you find me or MoreThanLifting, you will be constantly reminded of making your fitness or strength discipline into a game.
You physical health is important so it is probably best if it isn't a chore, and instead is something you enjoy and find fun in.
I always encourage people to take up a class or sport to help keep their fitness pursuit alive.
This is just as important out of the class though. If you are just going down the gym and not taking part in a sport, martial art w/e, then your training needs to become a creative and playful part of your life. If you aren’t having fun then you aren’t going to stick at it.
The Calisthenics Roadmap
The calisthenics Roadmap is a progression tree I have developed to give you an idea of how the progressions work and how they unlock new skills.
Think of it like a Role Play Game, each time your character does his reps or challenges he get experience and acquires skill points. These skill points are used to unlock new skills, attacks and eventually super powers.
Calisthenics is exactly the same. You do your reps and you unlock new skills in the progression tree – The calisthenics roadmap!
So this is a simple guide for your reference, and it is by no means complete, but feel free to download it and check it out. It will give you some ideas on variations and different skills you can progress towards.
To give you one example:
You are trying to learn leg raises.
You need to learn Scapula Pulls
Then Knee Raises
Then Tuck Leg Raises
Then Leg Raises
At each point of this skill progression, you unlock a handful of different variations you can try out, or follow a completely different path altogether!
I have created a flow of exercise progressions to map out the calisthenics journey from push ups to planche, to help you understand the levels of development and how they work together.
Different Training Methods
Training Goals, Cycles & Progressions
There are plenty of different training methods you can apply to your training program. Each with their own ups and downs.
What you need to do first is work out what you actually want to achieve . . . what is your goal?
Setting goals can be a difficult process. When I first started training I just wanted to get in shape.
What goal do I set for that exactly?
It isn’t particularly specific but I didn’t know what to aim for.
If you are looking to get in shape, really you probably need to lose a bit of fat and put on a bit of muscle.
Whatever your goal is, you need to make sure your training is aligned with your goal.
Most of my training is about this skill development, because I do gymnastics and learning these tricks is important for competition time.
But developing skills comes in 2 forms:
- Building the strength for the skill
- Developing to coordination and control
It isn’t always as easy of doing one day on strength and another on skill, and that is where my secret weapon comes in . . .
You have probably heard of some types of training cycles from the bodybuilding world:
Bulking & Cutting
Well this is similar except the focus is completely different.
You cycle is a period of dedicated and focused training for a particular result.
Often when I am trying to tackle a new skill I need to get stronger, so I start with a Strength Cycle
Then as I get stronger I can transition into dedicated kill development where I will train the other pillar – control.
So after my Strength Cycle, I have a little break and then start my Skill Cycle.
This isn’t as limiting as it sounds and is actually a great way to split up your training so you don’t get bored and you keep progressing – that progress is the name of the game.
Your cycles are only short periods, you will spend 4-6 weeks on a particular focus and then switch to another.
Switching cycles allows you to change the type of stress your body is under so that it is constantly adapting and you aren’t hitting a plateau.
How many times have you heard someone say they are at a plateau in the gym.
Everyone is stuck somewhere.
With the calisthenics roadmap, skill development and training cycles, you can push straight past any potential plateaus as you can always be developing something new.
People in the gym get stuck because the only result they have, the only feedback they get, is adding another kilo to the bar. This is very superficial feedback and doesn’t mean as much in real life as it does in the gym.
Using skill development and calisthenics progressions for feedback mean you stop thinking about how big you are and start focusing on the acquisition of skills as the feedback.
Last week you couldn’t handstand, now you are walking around on your hands. That is progress, that is real life feedback.
And it is more encouraging because it is fun and REAL.
What is a 70Kg Bench Press? How does it feel to try and add 20 Kg to a bar?
When you learn a skill you can do something NEW, not the same thing with MORE resistance.
So don’t get stuck focusing on MORE, start focusing on learning something NEW and stop worrying about plateaus. Throw that barbell down for the last time and start doing something engaging, something interesting with your training time.
It is much more rewarding!
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