Calisthenics For Beginners: [Full Guide + Free Workout Plan]

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This is a complete guide on calisthenics for beginners.

Specifically, we will show you how you can use your bodyweight to start exercising, build muscles, and get fit from anywhere.

We will also provide you a free calisthenics workout plan PDF to get started today.

So if you are ready, let’s dive right in.

What Is Calisthenics?

Calisthenics is a type of training in which you use your own bodyweight as a form of resistance.

This is in contrast to traditional weight training, where you lift external weights like barbells and dumbbells.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages.

The nice thing about calisthenics is that it focuses on developing fundamental human movement patterns such as push-ups, pull-ups, and squats.

As you become more advanced, calisthenics also teaches you skill-based movements such as handstands and levers.

calisthenics-exercises
The Front Lever

Benefits of Calisthenics

Calisthenics provides a unique set of benefits that weight training exercises do not.

The first is that you can do calisthenics at home.

Working out at home has several advantages because it eliminates several barriers to entry.

You don’t need a gym membership, you don’t need to commute back and forth to the gym, and you don’t need to deal with crowded rush hours.

Your house, your rules.

The second benefit of calisthenics is that you do not need fancy equipment to get started.

Gym equipment is expensive and often not portable. 

By eliminating your reliance on equipment, you are free to exercise any time, anywhere.

If you happen to be traveling, or at an unfamiliar gym, it really doesn’t matter. 

Your body is all you need.

The third major benefit of calisthenics is that almost every bodyweight exercise is highly functional.

What do I mean by this?

First off, it is important to note that some exercises are a poor investment of your time.

In general, these include several isolated single-joint exercises you see most people doing at commercial gyms. A common example is the tricep kickback.

That’s not to say these exercises do not have benefits.  Instead, you should be spending your time on much better exercises.

In general, calisthenic exercises tend to mimic natural human movement patterns. As such, they are highly applicable and translate into real-world strength.

Also, calisthenic exercises tend to be compound in nature. This means that you will train multiple muscle groups at once as you move your body in space.

Compound exercises save time and induce greater muscular activation than single-joint exercises.

Lastly, calisthenic exercises are a lot of fun.

There are dozens of variations of each exercise that you can do. You will be able to find a variation that is suitable for your skill level.

Push-ups are too easy for you? You can do close grip push-ups or archer push-ups.

Are push-ups too difficult? You can do push-ups against an incline or against a wall.

Calisthenics vs Weights

So how do calisthenics fair against weights?

You will be happy to hear that both are extremely effective at building muscle, increasing your strength, and improving your fitness.

Almost every major exercise you can do with weights, you can do with your bodyweight.

The biggest disadvantage of calisthenics is that you cannot train your legs as hard as you could train your upper body, and you cannot isolate very specific muscles using bodyweight exercises.

calisthenics-vs-weights
You Cannot Mimic A Deadlift With Calisthenics

With that said, calisthenics is an excellent way to get started on your fitness journey, as its advantages far outweigh its disadvantages.

Still unsure if it’s right for you?

We have a comprehensive post on how to decide if you should do calisthenics or weights right here.

How to Get Started With Calisthenics

In this next section, we will cover everything you need to know to start calisthenics. 

It all starts with…

Learning The Fundamentals

The most important thing that you need to know are the fundamentals of kinesiology (aka human movment.) These are the same fundamentals across all exercise programs, calisthenics or not.

In general, you need to learn the differences between the 6 basic patterns of human movement.

We have discussed these at length before.

They include

  • The horizontal push
  • The horizontal pull
  • The vertical push
  • The vertical pull
  • The squat
  • The hip hinge

We go over each one in detail in our post here, and we will cover them here in just a bit.

You must train each one of these patterns on a weekly basis.

But, if you’re like most people you probably have tight and overactive chest muscles, low back muscles, and hip flexor muscles.

This means you likely have one of the four common dysfunctional postures, and could benefit from training the horizontal pull and hip hinge exercises more frequently.

Check out if you have any of these postures and take note of which patterns you need to improve.

I personally dealt with lordosis and internally rounded shoulders.

Proper Form

Alright, now you know the exercises you should use. The next thing you need to focus on is proper form.

It is extremely important that you do every exercise with intent. Don’t just go through the motions. 

Know why you are doing each exercise, and how to do each exercise.

Proper form is essential to:

  • Ensure you are training the proper muscles 
  • Ensure that your joints are stacked and lined up to move in their appropriate ranges of motion
  • Produce the most amount of force 
  • Decrease your risk of musculoskeletal injuries

The vast majority of musculoskeletal injuries that happen at the gym are due to repetitive movements with bad form.

This is preventable!

Once you establish bad form, it is extremely difficult to unlearn. Learn proper form right from the start.

You can find instructional videos and fully detailed descriptions of several exercises in our tutorials section.

If you cannot get into the proper position for an exercise – DONT DO IT.  Instead, focus your time on improve your mobility in any tight or restricted areas.

Which leads us to our next point…

Warm-Up & Mobility Exercises

The last prerequisite that you need to know is how to warm-up for exercise.

A proper warm-up serves three major purposes:

  • It increases your body temperature
  • It increases blood flow to your muscles and joints
  • It Improves the range of motion of tight or restricted muscles

You should always dedicate 5 minutes before your workout to warm up properly.

Focus on choosing warm-up exercises for muscle groups that you are training that day, and ones that promote mobility- (particularly in the hips, shoulders, and thoracic spine.)

We have an entire post on warming up which you can find here.

You can also use this time to target any problem areas you may have.  

Alright, now let’s get on to the actual exercises you need to master.

The Basic Calisthenic Exercises

In this next section, we will cover the basic calisthenic exercises you need to master. These exercises will train every major muscle group in the body while improving your functional strength.

Remember, there are 6 of them.  The horizontal push and pull, the vertical push and pull, the squat, and the hip hinge.

the horizontal push

For the horizontal push, you need to master the push-up and its variations.

The push-up trains the horizontal pressing muscles which includes the chest, triceps, and anterior shoulders.

This movements is important because it will teach you how to maintain a stable shoulder position while reaching out in front of you.

the horizontal pull

For the horizontal pull, you need to master the bodyweight row (aka inverted row, or australian pull-ups).

This exercise will require some piece of equipment to do it properly. You can do it with a fixed barbell, a pair of Olympic Rings, a suspension trainer, or a sturdy table.

The bodyweight row trains the pulling muscles of the upper body including the rhomboids, the lats, the middle traps, and the biceps.

In general, most people have tight and overactive chest muscles from everyday activities and repetitive motions.

This movement will help balance out your training and help maintain neutral shoulder and thoracic spine position.

the vertical push

For the vertical push, you must master the pike push-up and its variations.

The pike push-up will train your shoulder muscles and triceps, which will improve your overhead strength.

This exercise is a lot harder than it looks if done correctly.

This movmement is important because it strengthens and develops your shoulders in a dynamic range of motion.

the vertical pull

For the vertical pull, you need to master the pull-up and its variations.

This is the one calisthenic exercise that you cannot do without a specific piece of equipment.

There is no substitute to having a pull-up bar.

But there’s good news.

There are several options you can choose from, such as 

  • Bars that you can screw into the wall 
  • Bars that rest on your door frame
  • Pull-up towers
  • Or you can find a pull-up bar in almost every playground.

The pull-up trains the lats, the upper back, the posterior shoulders, and the biceps.

The vertical pull is an important movement because it mimics one of the most fundamental human patterns known to man- the ability to pull yourself up in any situation.

the squat pattern

For the squat pattern, you need to master, well, the squat.

There is no exercise that is more fundamental to human existence than the squat.

There are many ways to do this exercise incorrectly- make sure to focus on form first!

The squat trains the quadriceps, the adductors, and the glute muscles.

I don’t think I need to explain why squatting is important.

You only do it everybody single day when you sit, stand, bend down, and poop.

the hip hinge

Lastly, for the hip hinge, you need to master the glute bridge and the Romanian deadlift.

The hamstring is a unique muscle group in that it crosses both the knee and the hip joint. As a result, it is best to train your hamstrings with exercises that involve flexion of the hip and exercises that involve flexion of the knee.

best-calisthenic-exercises

The hamstring/glute Complex is a neglected muscle group.

They are important in helping you maintain a neutral pelvic and spinal position. Also, they are the main drivers in a lot of strength exercises that involve the lowering body.

To find a complete list of all of these calisthenics exercises as well as ways to progress or regress them, check out this article.

Okay, now that we’ve covered the fundamental 6, it’s time to cover a few other points.

No-Equipment Exercises

What if you only want to do exercises that involve no equipment at all?

Well, I have good news.

The calisthenic exercise library is so vast, that there are several exercises you can do that do not require any equipment.

First up, you can train both of the pushing movements with no equipment- the push-up and the pike push-up/handstand complex.

Second of all, you can also train the two major lower body movements (squats and hip hinges) with just your body as well. 

Where it gets challenging is training your back muscles without any equipment at all.

You do have a few options.

In this video by Athlean X, he gives alternatives to the horizontal pull and vertical pull which you can do just about anywhere.

It’s all about getting creative.

With that said, I highly recommend you get access to a pull-up bar as pull-ups have no alternative.

Which leads me to equipment.

The Basic Calisthenics Equipment

While your bodyweight is great all by itself, it is ideal if you have certain pieces of equipment to get the best calisthenics workout. These are by no means obligatory, but they will enhance your workouts!

Here are the best calisthenic items you need to maximize your workouts.

Parallettes

Parallettes are little bars that you can use to keep your wrists neutral when performing pressing exercises.

If you are someone who’s wrists bother them when doing push-ups or you have limited wrist flexibility, parallettes are great for you.

In addition, you can use them to increase the range of motion of pressing exercises. This can help to increase the difficulty once you begin to master the basic variations.

I have two pairs from Amazon, including these short portable versions.

Pull-Up Bar

This one is pretty obvious. There are hundreds of different products you can choose from.

Just read the reviews and go with one that fits best in your household.

I personally went with a pull-up tower. The advantage is that it is not near a wall or a door which can interfere with the movement. In addition, you can also attach Olympic Rings to the tower as I did, to further increase the functionality of your home gym.

Lastly, the tower allows you to train more advanced movements like front levers and back levers.

The downsides of the tower include instability and portability. Unless your form is spot on, you will notice a little bit of shaking of the tower. 

This isn’t a big deal unless you are swinging around and doing kipping pull-ups which I would not recommend.

Also, the tower isn’t super tall. You will have to bend your knees to do pull-ups – which is an issue with the door frame pull-up bars too.

Lastly, it is heavy and takes up a decent amount of space, making it a piece of equipment that shouldn’t be moved around much.

This is the one I have from Amazon.

best-calisthenics-equipment

Olympic Rings

The rings are an advanced piece of equipment that adds a ton of variety to your exercises.

You can do just about every single upper body exercise you can think of with them.

These include 

  • pulling exercises like pull-ups and bodyweight rows
  • pressing exercises like pushups and dips
  • Core exercises like planks and rollouts
  • And isolated exercises like bicep curls and tricep extensions

Similarly to Rings, you can also use a suspension trainer which can serve a very similar purpose.  You won’t be able to do dips on them, but you can do just about everything else with a little creativity.

I prefer the rings. You can go with wood (better material, more durable) or plastic. I have both.

Weight Vest

Because you are limited to lifting whatever your current bodyweight is, a weight vest is a simple way to add intensity.

A good weight vest will allow you to increase your body weight from 2.5-60 lbs.

This is the easiest way to make your workouts more challenging.

Weight vests are also highly portable. All you have to do is wear it!

I have a 60 lbs vest which can be adjusted by 2.5 lbs increments.

How To Design Your Calisthenic Workouts

Ok, now let’s talk about designing your workouts. What are the necessary components in a calisthenic routine?

You already know the exercises you are going to perform. Now it’s time to put them into an intelligent program.  Let’s start with the number of exercises you should do.

How Many Exercises Should I Do In My Calisthenics Workout

You should only do 3-4 exercises per workout. 

I am a big fan of concise workouts.  By doing 3-4 exercises, you have to be very selective about the exercises you are going to perform. If you didn’t already know, some exercises are much better than others.

Pick the best ones and move on.

There is very little benefit to doing 5+ exercises in one day. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be in the gym for hours.

You can read more on my reasoning for this in our article discussing exercise number here.

Which brings us to our next point.

How Long Should A Calisthenics Workout Be

I am also a big fan of short workouts.  There is no reason to work out beyond 30-60 minutes a day.  In fact, the shorter the workout the better. 

If you are a beginner, your workout should last 30 minutes.  If you are an intermediate athlete, your workout should last 45 minutes max.  Only advanced athletes should do workouts that approach 60 minutes.

In general, the more advanced you are, the more time you will need warming up for each exercise, and the more specificity you will have to add to your training.

But if you’re like most people, you are super busy. The gym doesn’t have to be a huge time suck.

30 minutes is all you need.

You can read more about how long your workout should be in our article here.

How Many Sets And Reps Of Each Exercise Should You Do?

In general, there are 4 different rep ranges you can work in.

GoalSetsReps
Endurance2-3 sets12-20 reps
Hypertrophy3 sets7-12 reps
Strength3-4 sets4-6 reps
Max Strength3-5 sets1-3 reps

In the endurance zone, you will do 12-20 repetitions per set, and do 2-3 total working sets. The endurance zone is for you if want to improve the capacity of your muscles and/or you want to improve the stability of a specific exercise.  

In the hypertrophy zone, you will do 7-12 repetitions per set, and about 3 total working sets. The hypertrophy zone is meant to help develop and strengthen your muscles and joint tissue.

In the strength zone, you will do 4-6 repetitions per set, and about 3-4 working sets. The strength zone builds on the strength developed in the hypertrophy zone and improves your neuromuscular connections.

In the maximal strength zone, you will do 1-3 repetitions per set, and about 3-5 working sets. This zone is reserved for pure strength athletes like powerlifters and strongmen.

I recommend that you use the hypertrophy zone for the majority of your training.

Once you feel comfortable enough, feel free to use the strength zone from time to time.

You can read more in our in-depth discussion of sets and reps here.

The Best Calisthenics Workout Splits – Upper Lower & Push Pull Legs Split

Ok, now you have your exercises and your training parameters. Now it’s time to actually set up the workout.  In general, I recommend that you choose between one of two workout splits.

You can choose the upper-lower split – in which you train the major muscle groups in the upper body on one day, and then the major muscle groups of the lower body in the next.

Or you can choose the push-pull legs split.  In this split, you train only the pushing exercises on one day, only the pulling exercises on the next day, and then lower body exercises on the third day.

The upper-lower split works best if you can work out 4 days a week.

The push-pull legs split works best if you can work out 3 days a week.

In fact, I have created two different Calisthenics Workout Plan PDFs that you can download to get started.  

The WCT Calisthenics Workout Tempates

Included you will recieve two different templates
A 4 Day/Week Upper Lower Workout Template
A 3 Day/Week Push Pull Legs Template
DOWNLOAD YOUR FREE TEMPLATES TODAY

The first is a PDF workout of a 4 day/week upper-lower split.

The second is a PDF workout of a 3 day/week push-pull leg splits.

How To Progress On The Calisthenic Workouts

Now that you have your workouts outlined – let’s talk about how you are going to progress on the template.

But first, a few ground rules.

Always start nice and easy. Focus on your form, and make sure that you feel the appropriate muscles being stimulated.

Choose a variation of each exercise in which you can do 8-12 repetitions without difficulty.

Continue with the same variation for at least 4 weeks and make every single session better than the one before it. What do I mean by this?

  • Add one more repetition to each set
  • Or add one more repetition to the first set (followed by one more repetition to the second set as well the following week)
  • Or add 5 lbs to your body and do the same number of sets and reps
  • Or move on to a more challenging progression

It doesn’t matter what you do, just as long as there is some measurable difference from workout to workout.

That’s is the definition of progressive overload. 

Keep the difference small, to give your body the appropriate time to adapt.  

Add Variety Every 4-8 Weeks

Once you have mastered the particular variation that you are training, (i.e. you have done it for 4-8 weeks and you can easily do 12 reps per set) feel free to move onto a more challenging progression.

It doesn’t matter which progression you choose, so long as it is still training the specific goal that is outlined in the template. Don’t forget, the goal is to stick to the hypertrophy rep range.

Every once in awhile, feel free to use the strength rep range too.  Just be sure that you have established a strong foundation and your technique is excellent.

Add A Bonus HIIT Day

Last but not least, you can also add a High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) session into your calisthenics workout routine.  This is by no means necessary, but an excellent way to further improve your aerobic capacity and fitness.

This article by Healthline goes over all of the benefits of HIIT training.

A HIIT session should last anywhere from 10-15 minutes and should get your heart rate up throughout the entire duration.

You can use bodyweight exercises such as burpees, sprints, and squats just to name a few.  We have an entire article on HIIT which you can check out here.

I recommend only doing this once a week.

Go Start Your Calisthenic Workout Today

Okay you are now armed with everything you need to get started with calisthenics.

You have no more excuses.

Start Training from home and see your strength and lean muscle mass increase.

Come on, all you need is 30 minutes a day.

Wrap Up

So here’s everything you learned today.

To recap: 

* Start by learning what the 6 fundamental human movement patterns

* Select 3-4 exercises to do per workout and arrange them according to the workout split you have chosen

* Focus on the Hypertrophy rep range for the majority of your training 

* Progress slowly by creating small measurable progressions to each exercise 

* Always strive to improve your form

Oh, I almost forgot.

If you would like to check out our ready-made program that incorporates all of these factors be sure to check out The WCT Home Workout Program here!

calisthenics-workout-plan-pdf

Alright good luck.

Anything you would like to add to the post? Anything you would take away?

Let us know by leaving a comment below? 

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, a NASM CPT, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer, a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy individuals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

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