Go to any gym, and you’ll see people lifting weights or using resistance training machines to overload their muscles and get fitter, bigger and stronger. That’s because it’s only when your muscles are exposed to more stress than they can comfortably handle that they’re forced to adapt.
However, while your body is an amazingly complex machine capable of many impressive physical and cognitive feats, it’s also kinda dumb.
The reality is that your body cannot differentiate between working out in a state-of-the-art gym and using a $20,000 leg press and training at home lifting nothing but your own bodyweight.
That means it doesn’t really matter if you train with freeweights, kettlebells, cable machines, hydraulic resistance machines, or lift rocks, logs, or sandbags, or use something like resistance bands.
Providing you work out hard and often enough, your body will adapt, and you will get more muscular and stronger.
In this article, we take a look at another type of strength training – calisthenics – and discuss the benefits of calisthenics training.
What Are Calisthenics?
In simple terms, calisthenics is another term for bodyweight exercises.
Calisthenics is a popular form of training used all around the world. You’ll often see calisthenics in so-called urban and playground workouts, and they feature heavily in things like CrossFit, gymnastic training, and military workouts.
The word calisthenics comes from the Greek language and basically means beautiful strength, which is a great way to describe this traditional form of exercise.
You can use calisthenics to achieve almost any training goal, including building muscle, increasing strength, burning fat, getting fit, and just staying active and healthy.
Your results will depend on which exercises you choose, how you arrange them into a workout, and how often you train.
Calisthenics might be an old form of exercise, but it’s a proven training method that has stood the test of time. Unlike some more recent training methods (Shake Weights!), calisthenics are effective and here to stay.
Benefits of Calisthenics
While you don’t have to quit lifting barbells and dumbbells, calisthenics offers several advantages and benefits which may mean they’re a better workout for some people:
Convenience – you can do calisthenic workouts anywhere you’ve got space to move. While you may need a pull-up bar, dip bars, or gymnastic rings for some exercises, there are lots you can do without any equipment at all.
Being able to work out anywhere and anytime means you’ve got no excuse for skipping your workouts.
Economics – you don’t need to join a gym or buy much equipment to do calisthenics.
You don’t even need much in the way or workout clothing. If you want to exercise but don’t want to spend any money, calisthenics could be the way ahead.
Joint-friendly – any exercise has the potential to cause joint pain, but calisthenics tends to be more joint-friendly than the same movements done with freeweights or machines.
That’s because you can easily adjust your workout to match your height and limb length.
More functional – most calisthenic exercises involve your entire body. You might be training your legs, back, or chest, but the rest of your body is working too. It’s impossible to do simple calisthenic exercises without using your whole body, which is how it works in nature.
In contrast, many gym-based exercises work one body part at a time. Others support your body so that you use fewer muscle groups. This could mean you develop a very specialized type of strength that does not translate to life outside the gym.
Combine calisthenics with other forms of training – while you can choose one type of training and use it exclusively if you wish, you may get better results if you combine training methods to create a more holistic workout. Calisthenics work well with all other types of training, such as freeweight and machine exercises. There is no need to go all calisthenics, all the time, but you can if you wish.
Progressions and regressions – you can make most calisthenic exercises harder or easier instantly by changing your hand or foot position, angling your body differently, or changing lever length. As such, calisthenics are suitable for beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercisers.
Drawbacks of Calisthenics
Calisthenics are largely safe and healthful, but there are a couple of disadvantages to consider before starting this popular training method:
You are what you weigh – the intensity of your workout will be dictated by your body weight. If you are very light, you may find that some exercises are too easy to be effective.However, if you are a little on the heavy side, there may be some calisthenic exercises that you just cannot do. There are no such issues with freeweight and machine-based exercises, where the weight is easy to change.
More, more, more reps! – with some calisthenic exercises, the only way to make your workout more demanding is to do more reps.
That’s okay initially, but as you get fitter, it means your workouts are going to get longer. If you want to build muscle and get strong, you’ll need to find a way to make your chosen calisthenic exercises harder without resorting to doing hundreds of reps.
No isolation – most calisthenic exercises are compound, which means they work several muscles and joints at the same time. While that’s not necessarily a bad thing, isolating muscles can be helpful for hypertrophy and fixing weak kinetic links.
The best way to isolate muscles is to use weights or resistance bands. Calisthenic exercises are rarely any good for isolation training.
Variety – while there are hundreds of calisthenic exercises, many of them require gymnastic skills that take years to develop, such as front lever raises and handstand push-ups.
That could mean that you are very limited for exercises, and your workouts lack variety. Some exercisers may find this demotivating. In contrast, there are dozens of accessible exercises per muscle group when you use weights.
Five Great Calisthenic Exercises
There are so many calisthenic exercises that you’d need a whole book to list them all, and even then, some would need to be missed out because of limited space. In this section, we’re going to list just five calisthenic exercises to get you started. Do a few sets of each one in the order below to create a short but effective full-body workout.
The humble push-up is the world’s favorite calisthenic exercise. It works your chest, shoulders, and triceps and involves your anterior core too.
There are lots of different push-up variations, but the basic push-up needs to be mastered first.
How to do it:
- Squat down and place your hands flat on the floor, roughly shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet back until your body is straight. Brace your abs and lengthen your neck.
- Bend your arms and lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Keep your body straight.
- Push yourself back up and repeat.
- Make push-ups easier by bending your legs and resting on your knees and harder by raising your feet to put more weight on your hands and arms.
Pull-ups work your back and biceps. A real test of upper body strength, some people find pull-ups incredibly hard but, with time and dedication, most exercisers should be able to do at least five and maybe even ten reps. Losing weight usually makes pull-ups easier.
How to do it:
- Hang from a pull-up bar with an overhand, slightly wider than shoulder-width grip.
- Without kicking your legs, bend your arms and pull your chin up to and over the bar. Keep your wrists straight and focus on driving your elbows down and back.
- Lower yourself smoothly back down to the starting position (don’t drop like a stone!) and repeat.
- For variety, switch your hands to an underhand, shoulder-width grip, which turns pull-ups into chin-ups.
Squats are more than just an exercise; they’re a fundamental movement pattern too. Most people do many squats every day, for example, when sitting down and then standing up or getting in and out of a car. They’re also a great lower body exercise.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly outward.
- Bend your legs and push your hips back.
- Descend until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Do not round your lower back.
- Stand back up and repeat.
- Use a wider stance to emphasize your inner thighs and a narrower stance to emphasize your quadriceps.
4. Incline rows
Also known as body rows and Australian pull-ups, this exercise works your upper back and biceps and is a good alternative for anyone who can’t do full pull-ups or chin-ups. It’s also a good postural and muscle-building exercise in its own right.
How to do it:
- Set a bar or gymnastic rings to about waist height.
- Sit on the floor below the bar/rings and take a firm grip. Extend your legs out in front of you.
- Keeping your legs straight, lift your hips off the floor, so your body is straight.
- Bend your arms and pull your chest up to your hands. Squeeze your shoulders down and back.
- Extend your arms and repeat.
- Raise your feet to make this exercise harder, or raise your hands to make it easier.
Lunges work the same muscles as squats but one leg at a time. They’re good for finding and fixing left-to-right strength imbalances.
Lunges also work your legs a little harder than squats and are better for hip mobility and lower body flexibility.
How to do it:
- Stand with your feet together, arms by your sides.
- Take a large step forward, bend your legs, and lower your rearmost knee down to within an inch of the floor. Keep your torso upright and look straight ahead.
- Push off your front leg and return to the starting position.
- Do your next rep leading with the other leg.
- You can also reverse lunges or walking lunges for variety.
There are lots of reasons to try calisthenics. It’s a cost-effective workout that could save you from having to commute to or joining a gym.
You can work out at home or while you are traveling and, with no heavy weights to drop, you can train alone and in safety; spotters are not required.
You can also work out for free, especially if you go to the park do exercises like pull-ups and dips using playground equipment.
That doesn’t mean that barbells and resistance machines are redundant or that bodyweight training is better than other types of workout. Instead, calisthenic exercises are just another tool you can use to get fit, get stronger, and build muscle.
And, as any smart tradesman knows, the difference between success and failure often comes down to choosing the best tool for the job.
While calisthenics offers some great advantages, there are drawbacks too. You may find that your body weight makes some exercises too easy or too hard, and you could get bored of doing the same exercises over and over again.
However, if you want a time-efficient, economical, convenient workout that’s easy on your joints, calisthenics are well worth considering. Visit the Fitness Equipment Reviews homepage for more expert advice and information.