The age old MYTH of calisthenics exercises being inferior to weight lifting for muscle building has virtually died a well deserved death, with so many great transformation stories floating around courtesy of calisthenics.
The hardest part of using calisthenics as your main strength & muscle building tool is silencing the unjust voice in your head, telling you you’ll lose strength and size with this new style of training. Sometimes the sheer boredom of weight training leaves you immune to this fear………which is a powerful position because you’re hungry for change and usually ready to go all in with something new!
If you’ve always wanted to get started with calisthenics training but don’t know how, this post will be just for you. I’ll give you practical tips to introduce more bodyweight exercises into your routine without the confusing BS that’s so prominent online.
Step 1 – Getting started with movement patterns substitutes
Break down your current routine into movement patterns and you can instantly start looking at the calisthenic equivalent to weight exercises.
- Vertical pull (pull downs for weights, pull up variations for calisthenics)
- Vertical (upward) push (Overhead pressing for weights, handstand/pike push up variations for calisthenics)
- Vertical (downward) push (Decline bench press/dip machines for weights, bodyweight/weighted dip variations for calisthenics)
- Horizontal pull (dumbell rows, bent over rows, cable rows etc for weights, inverted row/front lever progressions for calisthenics)
- Horizontal push (bench press variations/machine presses for weights, push up variations/planche work for calisthenics)
What about the lower body?!
For the sake of simplicity I haven’t included leg training in this article. Before you scream at me that no calisthenics guys have legs or even train legs, I’m not saying legs mustn’t be trained. I’m saying the best combo (in my opinion) is weighted compounds for the lower body and calisthenics for the upper body. This is the approach I use and my athleticism is as good as it’s ever been.
So does this mean to say weighted lower body exercises are superior to calisthenics lower body exercises? No, it’s more that weighted exercises are simpler to progress and keep track of. If you want a more detailed look at calisthenics vs weighted training for the lower body, read this: (LEG DEVELOPMENT: Barbells vs bodyweight exercises – THE ULTIMATE SHOWDOWN).
Adding weight to calisthenics….is it still ‘calisthenics’?
The purists will protest that adding weight to moves like pull ups and dips isn’t strictly calisthenics anymore. Technically speaking they’re correct but I think weighted calisthenics is a great way to get started! If pull ups and dips with bodyweight only are easy for 10-20 reps respectively, add some weight and make it harder once more!
Another benefit to this approach is the base layer of strength it builds. Simply put, if you get your weighted pull ups strong enough, your front lever journey becomes exponentially faster. Likewise, if your weighted dips are strong enough, planche training and other rings pressing elements become way more accessible by default – not to mention the hypertrophy (muscle building) properties of this move. I personally believe the dip to be the finest chest builder around and in particular, the ring dip variations.
So generally speaking, if you can hit sets of 6-12 on your dips and pull ups with the finest form, you can begin adding weight progressively.
But you want to do purely bodyweight training instead?
That’s cool too. The easiest way to do this from a beginner standpoint is by investing in a set of gymnastic rings. They cost around £20-£30 for a decent wooden set (for more on why I advocate a wooden set, read this: Wooden VS Plastic Gymnastics Rings – Which To Buy?). The instability of the rings will immediately make dips and push ups on them way harder. Initially this alone will be enough for a new stimulus to the body and moving forward, there are an inordinate amount of options for progression within these moves and more.
Building reps and more importantly, quality reps will be the biggest key in building muscle and strength with just your bodyweight. I realise it can be tricky to get started without a guide of sorts so at the end of the post, I will lay out a hypothetical structure/progression order for each of the main movement patterns we touched on earlier.
Sets & reps – do they have to change?
People seem to wrongly assume sets and reps need to be different with calisthenics as opposed to weights. Not true at all. Fundamentally, tension is tension and resistance is resistance. The body doesn’t really differentiate with how the resistance comes about. I suppose the only slight difference is with calisthenics, the body must work more as a unit; as bodyweight exercises are ‘closed chain’ exercises.
(A technical breakdown of the science behind open/closed chain exercises)
So there really isn’t a need to change much other than the exercise itself, providing your program with weighted work is reasonably balanced and sensible and not written by a monkey.
Without getting really complicated, a nice rule of thumb is to do 3-5 sets of 5-8 reps on the vertical pulling pattern (pull ups/chin ups) & vertical pushing pattern (either dips or handstand push ups), and 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps on the horizontal pulling (row variations) & horizontal pushing (push up progressions) patterns.
The list of options……..
Bodyweight Only: Plyometric pull ups, muscle ups, L-sit pull ups, chest to bar pull ups and sternum pull ups – even one arm chin/pull up work.
Weighted: Add 1.25-5 kg each time a given set/rep scheme becomes comfortable.
Bodyweight only: ring dip variations (Bulgarian dips pictured below), plyo dips, paused dips……
Weighted: Add 1.25-5kg each time a given set/rep scheme becomes comfortable.
Row pattern (Will be purely bodyweight for this one)
Ring row, feet elevated ring row…..
Wide ring rows, archer ring rows, tucked front lever rows (shown below)……..
Push up pattern
Bodyweight only: Parallette push ups, archer push ups, ring push ups, wide ring push ups
Weighted: Standard push up with weight on back or weight vest, weighted ring push up (a phenomenally underknown gem of a move). Add 2-2.5 kg each time a given set/rep scheme becomes comfortable.
Overhead pressing pattern (will be bodyweight only)
Pike push ups, pike push ups on parallettes, feet elevated pike push ups (& on parallettes), wall handstand push ups, freestanding handstand push ups
Without feet elevation (easiest):
With feet elevation (harder):
In handstand (harder still):
This list is by no means exhaustive as we’ve only really looked at basic bent arm strength, as opposed to delving into skills like handstand shapes, front/back levers, human flags/planches etc….Those skills are more specific, BUT the moves covered here will build an amazing base layer of strength on which to build upon. And incidentally, many people (myself included) have reported success within those skills from merely working basic patterns and getting them to a high level.
Let me know if this article helped you? Need more clarification? Drop me a comment blow or email for business inquiries (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Further resources –
Also, be sure to check out Nickolas McKeever of UnmeasuredFitness‘ amazing guest post on this site from last summer for an EPIC beginner’s plan to get started with calisthenics: Start Calisthenics This Summer & Master Your Bodyweight (Beginner’s Program)
The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.