Everyone can do calisthenics
Before you start calisthenics it’s a good idea to understand what it’s all about so you can decide if it’s something for you. Calisthenics is an over two thousand years old discipline, founded in Greece. It was used to train the ancient Greek and Spartan militaries. Much later it got adopted by the European, then the American cultures, and it still forms the basis for military training around the world.
Calisthenics is however great for all age groups and fitness levels, for both women and men. It’s a form of bodyweight training that is based on natural movement. Includes exercises like push up, pull up and squats, as well as more advanced movements like muscle up, front lever, back lever, and handstand push up. Calisthenics improves our functional strength and ability to hold, push and pull. Most exercises can be performed at home with no or minimal equipment.
What beginners should know about calisthenics?
The beauty of calisthenics is that there are so many ways one can practice it. There are some who train to be able to swing and jump on bars. While others just want to get more flexible and stronger to improve their functional fitness so they can enjoy everyday life more. Calisthenics is also great as supplementary training to improve performance in other sports disciplines.
Regardless of your goal and current fitness level, even the most impressive athletes started out without being able to do a single pull up. You just have to decide that you want to do it and make a plan. Once you know the basics, you are ready to start your first full-body calisthenics workout for beginners or create your own calisthenics workout plan from scratch.
In order to safely start calisthenics it’s important to build solid foundational strength and to understand some of the basics concepts of bodyweight training:
Form over volume
Correct execution of movements is always more important than the number of repetitions you are able to do. Aim to do every exercise in a good form in order to maximize muscle engagement and minimize the risk of injury.
It’s always better to do 5 repetitions correctly than trying to pump out 8 reps in a bad form. Why? Because this way you will stimulate optimal muscle recruitment while at the same time increasing time under tension.
If you can only do 1 rep from a certain exercise, it’s still OK. Make it part of your strength routine and increase the number of sets and the rest time. For example, you do 10 sets of 1 rep and rest 2 minutes in between. If your goal is to work on muscle growth, you will need to decrease the difficulty of the exercise by moving down on the progression chart so you can perform at least 5 reps in a set.
Focus on strict movements
Try to perform each exercise in a slow and controlled manner. Using momentum like kipping, bouncing, and swinging increases efficiency thus you will be able to do more reps however you will sacrifice muscular development and increase the risk of injury.
Use a full range of motion (ROM)
Do the exercises in a manner that uses the full functional range of the target muscle group and continuously engages it. During the learning phase, it’s fine to do partial range or “half reps” but the goal is to progress toward full ROM.
Master the basic exercises first
You may have been drawn to calisthenics by seeing some impressive-looking exercises. In the beginning, don’t overcomplicate your workouts with creative moves you see on social media. First, learn the essential movements like push up, pull up, dip, and squat along with the core and shoulder isolation exercises. This will build a foundational strength that will help you with the next-level exercises. Stick to the basics.
Master one skill at a time
If you are interested in practicing skills like handstand and front lever it is a good idea to pick one or maximum two to focus on at the same time. As you gain strength you will also improve in your skill practice. Don’t spread too thin by trying to do too much. It also takes months or years to master a skill, be patient.
Progressive overload is the essence of growth
This is the basis for increasing strength and muscle mass. It basically means that as our body gets used to a certain load we gradually increase the stress on the muscular and nervous system which results in adaptation aka. growth of muscle and increase in strength. In calisthenics terms, it would mean that after mastering a certain form of exercise we move on to a harder version of that exercise.
Adjusting difficulty in calisthenics is a bit more complicated compared to weight training. Instead of adding a plate or two on the bar you need to learn to leverage gravity. Changing your body’s position will also make the same exercise more challenging.
Take for example a simple push-up where you perform the exercise by putting your hands on an elevated surface – the higher your hands are the easier the exercise will become. If you want to make the regular push-up more difficult, you will elevate your feet – the higher the feet are compared to your hand position, the more difficult it will get.
Do full-body workouts
For beginners, it’s recommended to prioritize full-body workouts over say split training. If you are just starting out, chances are that your muscles, connective tissue, and joints are unbalanced and unprepared for a large impact. But we usually don’t know where these imbalances are exactly. The first objective should be to develop overall strength and flexibility so the body gets used to the increased demand.
In addition, when you do full-body workouts you will target the same muscle groups more frequently. This way they will get stronger at a faster rate given enough rest time. It is because the rate of progress is usually faster and more visible for beginners.
Train 3-4 times per week
As elaborated in the previous point, the higher frequency will promote faster progress. Make sure you rest one day after each workout.
Focus on optimal recovery
The most important components of recovery are rest, sleep, and nutrition.
- Rest: After each training day try to allow one rest day. You can still do some low-intensity exercise (e.g. walking, cycling) or mobility work on these days too.
- Sleep: The most important part of the recovery. Try to sleep at least 7 hours.
- Nutrition: it will depend on whether you want to lose weight or gain muscle. In general, having a diet high in protein and fiber and low in sugar will be beneficial in most cases.
Increase volume before increasing intensity
First, increase the number of reps per set and the sets per exercise before increasing the difficulty of the exercise or adding weight. Once you are able to do 10 repetitions in a single set you can move on to the next progression.
Use negatives (eccentric movements)
This is the lowering phase of the exercise. It will be the key to progressing from an easier to a more difficult variation of the same exercise.
Work on your shoulder strength
Shoulders are one of the most complex joints in our body and in calisthenics, they are often under heavy strain. To avoid injury make sure to incorporate shoulder blade exercises such as scapula pull ups and scapula push up into your routine.
Work on your core strength
Core stability is the basis for many calisthenics exercises. To master this practice body line drills.
Practice mobility regularly
Find your weak points and incorporate regular mobility exercises into your routine. This will help perform the exercises in a good form with full ROM thus maximizing muscle engagement and avoiding injury.
The whole point of bodyweight strength training is to enhance the body’s natural abilities. By acquiring strong foundations you will be able to avoid injuries and build a strong physique. Don’t forget that the key to success is consistency so make sure you never skip a workout because of laziness!