Calisthenics: Who said you always need a gym?

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Calisthenics: Who said you always need a gym?

As a direct result of the popularity of our Bodyweight and Weight Training article, we’ve enlisted the help of Ashvin, J. in order to  give you a very detailed understanding of calisthenics and how to apply it in order to achieve your fitness goals. Many people have the misconception that building a great body involves hitting the weights. However, the efficient and most common method of sculpting your physique does not come at the exclusion of other opportunities. Calisthenics is that dirty little secret many have not been exposed to. See how it can help you achieving your goals by allowing you hit your body from all angles.

Author name: Ashvin, J.

Qualifications in: Gym instructing, Personal training, Circuit training, Group indoor cycling, Outdoor personal training, GP referral.

Mention doing push ups to a modern day bodybuilder, and you will likely be greeted with a cynical huff. “Those are for sissy’s man, the bench press is where it’s at! So how much do you bench?” Now, brag about curling a 50lb dumbbell to an old school boxing coach and you could expect the same cynical huff, but probably followed by a smack and a “ Your 50lb curl couldn’t help you there now could it?!”

It’s time to talk a little about calisthenics. For the unaware, calisthenics is another form of saying ‘bodyweight training’, where you basically train for strength, endurance, and agility (among other things). This is done without the help of external resistance such as dumbbells, barbells, resistance machines and such. Calisthenics were very popular back in the day, and while it is still widely used today it is largely shunned by the fitness community in favour of traditional weight training. Now while there has been continuous debate on which is the better form of training, what I don’t seem to understand is why does one method have to be more superior? Can’t they both be equally effective? In the example of the bodybuilder and the boxing coach, the bodybuilder has trained with weights and developed an impressive physique. The boxing coach on the other hand, likely focused his training methods around calisthenics and managed to train fighters that developed impressive physiques too. Take a look at some of the fighters back in the day; you will no doubt agree that they are in top shape. Clearly, both methods can provide results.

Now let’s take a look at some of the benefits of calisthenics training and how it can be used either in conjunction with a weight training program or as a standalone form of training, if you have no access to a gym or you’re just looking to try something new and different.

Benefits of calisthenics

The first thing we want to look at is how calisthenics can benefit us. Here’s some pretty obvious facts:

-          It can be done almost anywhere, at anytime.

-          You do not require a gym membership.

-          You do not require expensive equipment.

-          You can play around with different workouts and have fun with it.

-          You can incorporate training styles like circuits and pyramids without having to run from one machine to another or waste time setting up the weights for the next exercise.

With that said, let’s take a look at how calisthenics can be useful in terms of fat loss and/or muscle building.

-          Your muscles respond to the presence of resistance. Place resistance on them and they will be forced to adapt and develop (known as progressive overload). Now bear in mind that the resistance can come from ANYTHING. It doesn’t matter if you are doing a dumbbell bench press, a push up, or you’re doing a bench press with 2 blocks of concrete. Resistance is resistance! Provide enough of it and your muscles will respond.

-          Calisthenics consist of compound movements for the most part. Almost every bodyweight exercise that I can think of involves more than one muscle group, despite it being primarily targeted for a particular one. Let’s take the dip for example. The dip is a fantastic exercise to develop the triceps. Yet when doing it, you will likely also feel the burn in your chest, as well as your shoulders, and maybe even your upper back (depending on your hand placement). This is good because you are working multiple muscles, and compound moves are known to greatly improve strength and have been shown to possibly release more growth hormones in the body.

-          Calisthenics also work to strengthen the core. Your core will be engaged automatically when doing moves such as the dive bomber push up, pull-ups, or one legged squats.

-          Calisthenics moves such as the burpee, grasshopper, mountain climber, and squat thrust can be an invaluable tool for fat loss. Use the moves as part of a HIIT or Tabata style workout and the fat will be melting off your body. These interval workouts are short and painful, and it increases your post-workout energy expenditure by leaving your metabolism in an elevated state for hours afterward. Besides, it’s more challenging and fun then jogging in a monotonous pace on the treadmill for an hour with some weak song channel as your only form of entertainment.

Calisthenics used in conjunction with weight training.

                If you choose to design a program with both calisthenics AND weights, you may be looking for ways to merge the 2 together. There are a number of ways to do this. We will take a look at 2 of my personal favourites (they can be quite intense). Just a side note, as with all training plans; be sure to train toward your goals. If you are looking to gain muscle, then keep your rep range between 8-12 for hypertrophy. For strength, it is recommended to stay between 4-6 reps. Anything above 15 reps is generally for endurance. If you can knock out 50 push ups with ease then please don’t use them for hypertrophy. Instead, try a one arm push up/Decline push up/ Push up with one leg elevated off the floor/ Push up between 2 blocks, etc. There are MANY variations out there. Think outside the box.

Pre/Post exhaustion

For this method, you pick one isolation move and one compound move and you superset them. For example, you will do a set of cable crossovers or dumbbell flyes (isolation), then immediately go into a set of push ups. The isolation move will prime up the pectorals and you will then IMMEDIATELY blast them with the push up. Rest 30-45 seconds and repeat. Another way is to begin with a push up and then go into the isolation move to specifically target and work on the pecs (Mind Muscle Connection). This type of training would serve to reduce the amount of involvement of the supporting muscle groups, and allows you to work the targeted muscle almost directly. You could also combine a single arm dumbbell row and a pull-up, or a Pike push up and a lateral flye. A quick example of how a Chest and Back routine would look:

1)      Superset Incline Dumbell flyes and Divebomber push ups

2)      Superset Single arm dumbbell rows and Pull-ups

3)      Superset Towel flyes (Get into a push up position with your hands on 2 small towels directly underneath you, and with a slight bend in the elbows slowly extend your arms outward and back in mimicking a flye movement) and Flat Bench Press

4)      Superset Upright rows with chin ups

You can use the same concept to combine exercises for any other muscle group.


This is another intense way to incorporate calisthenics and weight training. It was made popular by Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson. What you would do is pick 3 exercises that work the SAME muscle group and then do a set of each back to back. Rest for a minute then repeat for a total of 3-4 sets. If you are using this method, I would suggest doing full body workouts with it rather than doing a split, because the workouts are over fairly quickly. By performing a triset, not only will you get 3-4 sets of 3 exercises done in a short period of time, but you will also be knackered by the time you’re done with each bodypart. Here’s an example of exercises to pair up:

1)      Barbell squats, One legged bodyweight squats, Jumping lunges. (Legs)

2)      Pike push up, dumbbell lateral raise, dumbbell front raise. (Shoulders/Triceps)

3)      Wide grip decline push up, Knuckle push up, Incline bench press (Chest/Shoulders/Triceps)

4)      Pull-up, Chin-up, Reverse grip Lat pulldown. (Back/Biceps)

5)      Diamond push ups, Dips, Skull Crushers. (Triceps)

6)      Hammer curls, concentration curls, chin ups (Biceps)

Again, I would suggest using full body workouts when training with this method. On your off days you can opt for cardio or abs.

To summarize this section, if you wish to blend weight training with calisthenics there are many ways you can do it. The above examples can be applied, you can also choose to do the standard straight sets of 3-4 exercises per body part but you can make 2 of them bodyweight moves instead. Just be sure to get adequate rest in between each training day because while overtraining is rare, you still do not want to risk it.

Calisthenics as a standalone.

                Calisthenics can also be used as a standalone form of training, either when you have no access to a gym or if you just decided you have had enough of having to adjust your schedule to commute to a gym (and the time hassles that come with it). It should be clear by now that calisthenics can produce similar results to weight training, so you can give up your gym membership to have an effective workout in your house/room/garage/backyard/roof. (Ok maybe not the roof). You can also choose to train in some old clothes, or even your boxers (keep the curtains drawn though). After all, you are training in private so what’s the use of having the latest range of Nike workout gear?

Now once again there are many methods of training you can use and tons of exercises to choose from. You can do your regular straight sets, or incorporate the methods I have listed above, but substitute the weight exercises with something else. I would suggest though that you invest some money into getting a pull-up bar, as they are dirt cheap and most of them are really long lasting. If that is inconvenient, then try getting some resistance bands that come with door attachments (with a high amount of resistance). Ripcords have some good ones. The reason for this is mainly to make doing back and biceps exercises easier. While there are alternatives to using this equipment, the moves would be harder and you will need time to work up to it. Besides, if you’re saving money on gym fees already, what is wrong with spending $30-$50 on a pull-up bar and some bands that will last ages? I got a set of 3 Ripcords bands with 2 door attachments (you only need one) for under £30 in the UK.

Now, I will give you 2 methods of training with calisthenics alone. One of them is a pyramid, and the other is a circuit. These are 2 highly effective styles of training, not to mention, incredibly intense. Lets get into it.


                To do a pyramid, you will basically perform an exercise in a ladder fashion. Lets take a pike press for example. You would get into position and perform one rep. Then immediately perform 2 more, then three more and so on until you reach a number. (I would say 10 but that would be pretty challenging). Bear in mind you can do this for ALL exercises, be it push ups/pull-ups/dips/lunges/etc. Your reps will go like this : 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10. That is 55 reps in total, and that’s one set. Now believe me, it is pretty intense. If, however, you feel like you still have some energy at the top of the pyramid, just work your way back down in reverse. Effectively, your set will look like this: 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1. If it gets too difficult, take a 20 second rest in between reps. The pyramid serves as a great way to shock your system from the usual 8-12 reps or other rep schemes that you use and you will see gains in terms of increased strength, increased lean mass, and a better post workout pump. To do a split with this, you can train with 2 or 3 muscle groups a day. Pick 2 exercises for each and do 2 sets of pyramids. That’s all you will need. A sample for back and legs is as follows:

1)      Pull up pyramid to 10, Inverted row pyramid to 10

2)      Single leg squats pyramid to 10, Bulgarian split squat pyramid to 12

How you plan to split up the routine is up to you. You can do a pyramid to 10 for all exercises, then reverse the pyramid back down for the second set and again go through the moves or you can do them in straight sets i.e: finish the whole pyramid twice for each exercise before moving on.


                I am sure many of you are familiar with circuit training. For those who aren’t, it basically involves choosing a number of exercises (between 6 and 8 is good). You will then perform a set of each exercise WITHOUT rest in between, until you have done all the exercises. You can then rest for a minute and repeat the circuit for the desired amount of sets. Calisthenics is an effective way to train circuits, primarily because there is minimal time wasted between exercises. You do not have to re-adjust any weights or move from one machine to the next. You can immediately go from one exercise to another, which will in turn, make your body work harder. Circuit training is excellent for fat loss as it keeps the heart rate elevated.

When doing circuits I have found it best to train your whole body in each session, instead of splitting up the muscle groups. It is also good to have an exercise included that will serve to tire you out more (burpees, mountain climbers or grasshoppers, for example). Next, you can either choose to perform a set number of reps for each exercise or you can crank it up a notch and train for time, as is commonly used by boxers as a form of ‘roadwork’ (The boxing coach will be proud). To do that, you will simply perform each exercise for 30 seconds to 1 minute before moving to the next. Here is a sample workout that you can do:

1)      Decline push ups

2)      Inverted rows

3)       Step ups

4)      Pike push ups/ Decline pike push ups

5)      Jumping lunges

6)      Regular push ups

7)      Assisted chin ups

8)      Mountain climbers

Do those exercises for 30 seconds each, then rest for one minute and repeat the circuit 4-5 times. You can finish off with some ab work.

Concluding thoughts

In this article I have highlighted many things about calisthenics and frankly I could go on for much, much longer (I have spent close to 7 years of my life researching all forms of body weight training). However, I don’t believe reaching an end is possible. Now I do hope this article sheds some light on the effectiveness of calisthenics, and it would be great if some of you reading this would try incorporating these sample plans into your workout schedules. I am certain you will notice some solid improvements.

Also, I am aware that many of you are going to be skeptical and have a million questions about what has been written, or you may also find ways to dispel the effectiveness of bodyweight training. I cannot answer all your questions as we do not have a Q&A session, but I will tell you to forget everything you think you know and just give this a shot. If you only look for faults in something, that is what you will find. You must not forget that traditional weight training is not without its fair share of flaws. Not only, but I am not advocating that you focus solely on calisthenics. You can do that, but you can also incorporate it with your weight training, or even alternate.

Some exercises I have described here may seem unfamiliar to you, and for that I would suggest doing a quick Youtube tutorial. It would be simpler than me having to explain each exercise and confuse you. I will give you some things to look for though: Dive bomber push ups, Inverted rows, Towel rows, Assisted pull up with a chair, Upper back push ups, Floor pull ups, Pike push ups, pistol squats, Burpees, Grasshoppers, Spider push up. If Youtube does not turn out to be helpful for all of them, I am sure a Google search will serve you well. In any case, I would say the exercises that would be tricky to perform are back exercises if you do not have access to a pull up bar or resistance bands. I would recommend you get some, as mentioned it will not cost much and it will serve you well.

That is all from me, I hope you learned something new here and are looking to give calisthenics a try. Good Luck!

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