Calisthenic workouts involve many different movements.

Best Calisthenics Workout Plan for Beginners

By: Liz Lotts, RDN; NASM-CPT

Scientifically Reviewed By: Michael A. Smith, MD

Have you ever seen someone hanging sideways from a flagpole or hovering in a high plank above monkey bars at the park? These are classic calisthenics exercises. But so are push-ups and sit-ups—and other relics from your school P.E. class like lunges and squats.

Whether basic or advanced, calisthenics workouts have big benefits—burning fat and building muscle among them. Calisthenics combines muscle-strengthening exercises with a non-stop, heart-pumping tempo…without the use of any equipment other than your own body weight.

This beginner's guide to calisthenics has everything you need—including a calisthenics workout plan you can do anytime and some fitness supplement recommendations to help fuel your bodyweight exercises.

What are calisthenics?

The term "calisthenics" is derived from two Greek words: "kalos" (beautiful) and "sthenos" (strength). And who doesn't want a beautiful, strong body? Indeed, this type of workout is designed to create a strong physique with an optimal body composition.

Unlike other strength-building fitness programs, calisthenics does not build strength with heavy dumbbells or fancy machines. Instead, it uses your bodyweight. Calisthenics exercises can be complex, like the planche, or simple, like a push-up, pull-up or squat. Others involve explosive movements like you see in any high-intensity interval training session.

In fact, calisthenics exercises can also include highly skilled moves, like "Skin the Cat" or the "Victorian Cross," which seem more like gymnastic maneuvers. While these are full-body movements you can work toward if you're so inclined, they aren't necessary. In fact, you can enjoy calisthenics without ever flipping, hanging or contorting.

What are the benefits of calisthenics exercises?

Using your body weight to work out has many benefits:

  1. Increased strength and endurance

    —While weight training offers muscle gains, research has shown the merit of bodyweight workouts involving calisthenics, too. In one study of young Polish women who engaged in a 10-week bodyweight exercise routine, improvements were found in seven of nine physical fitness tests, including significant increases in lower body explosive strength and increased aerobic capacity.

    For greater gains, researchers recommend working through bodyweight calisthenics exercises with a full range of motion, meaning that you bend and extend to the highest degree. Contracting a muscle through full range of motion without any external weight can produce muscle growth similar to that of high-load training.

  2. Better body composition

    —Knowing your total body mass is insightful, but the number on a scale doesn't mean nearly as much as the composition of your weight. More lean muscle mass makes your body more metabolically efficient—in fact, 10 pounds of muscle burns about 50 calories a day at rest! Compare that to 10 pounds of fat, which only burns 20 calories at rest per day. Studies have shown calisthenics can help improve body composition, increase strength and even improve posture after only eight weeks of training.
  3. Improved balance and coordination

    —You've relied on balance and coordination all your life and never thought twice about it—but you do have to maintain these things as you age. While you can't turn back time, you can follow a calisthenics program to support your healthy aging and how you function in your daily life. In fact, compared with Pilates, calisthenic exercises are more likely to improve coordination of the lower body after several months of training.
  4. Adaptable to all fitness levels and routines

    —Beginner or elite athlete, it doesn't matter! Calisthenics exercises can be modified to suit your individual fitness level. Plus, they can be performed anytime, anywhere. All you need is your body and some wiggle room. This means even a busy professional can squeeze a 20-minute circuit into their day.

How Do Beginners Start Calisthenics?

You may be excited and want to jump right into a heart-pumping calisthenics workout. After all, hanging sideways from a pole like a human flag looks like an incredible feat—and that's because it is! But to master these advanced calisthenics moves, you need to start with the basics. Basic calisthenics exercises focus on six movement patterns:

  • Squat
  • Hinge
  • Lunge
  • Push
  • Pull
  • Stabilize

Beginners should perform basic calisthenics exercises using bodyweight or light resistance and learn the proper form of each movement before gradually progressing the exercises.

And remember to set realistic progress goals. For example, if you want to nail a single-arm handstand, you'll need to build shoulder strength and core stability, making push-ups a good starting point. By gradually progressing the push-up to a decline push-up, the movement will eventually become a wall handstand hold, a handstand push-up and, finally, mastery of the one-arm handstand hold.

Best calisthenics workout plan for beginners

The best workout plan is one you can commit to, enjoy and use to further your fitness goals—calisthenics or otherwise! To guarantee you hit all the right targets, follow the steps below.

Start with a dynamic warm-up

—For an active warm-up, you'll want to choose stretches and exercises that require slow, purposeful movement. Some of our favorite warm-up exercises include the Cossack squat, the inchworm, high plank wide steps, bear plank lateral walks and high knees. There are a lot of options, just remember to save static stretches for your cool-down.

Select your exercises

—Be mindful of what you want to achieve, and the movement patterns you want to prioritize when choosing your daily exercises. It's a good idea to organize your exercises into a circuit routine, which involves non-stop work with little to no breaks between exercises, to help develop your muscle endurance. When developing the order of your circuit, alternate your exercises between upper-body and lower-body movements (like pairing a push-up with a squat) or explosive exercises and slower tempo movements (like a jump squat with a close-grip pull-up).

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Sample calisthenics workout routine

Here's a sample no-equipment circuit to get you started with calisthenics—note the number of repetitions recommended can be altered according to your fitness level.

1. Alternating transverse squats x 20

Stand with feet hip-distance apart. Keeping the right foot planted and toes pointed forward, step your left foot out to the side. With hips open, drop down into a seated position until knees are bent 90-degrees. Drive up through the heels and reset with both feet pointed forward. Repeat on the other side.

Pro tip: Make sure your knees don't pass your toes! Consciously push your knees open as you squat and stand so they don't cave in.

2. Push-up x 10

Starting in a high plank position with your core braced, lower your body toward the ground in one motion. Press into your hands to reset. If you need to modify your push-up, place your knees on the ground to start.

3. Straight leg raise x 15

Lie on your back with legs straight. Lift them up, keeping them straight so that they are perpendicular to the ground. Brace your core while slowly lowering your legs down. To modify this exercise, bend your knees as you lift and lower.

4. Walking lunges with rotation x 20

Start in a standing position with feet hip-distance apart. Step your right foot forward and bend both knees to drop into a lunge. With knees bent 90 degrees, twist your torso toward the front leg and then return to center. Press into your front foot and back toes to launch the back leg forward into the next rep.

5. Lying flat pulldown x 10

Lie face down on the ground with arms and legs extended. With your toes on the ground, lift your chest up as high as you can. Pull your arms backward into a goal post position, squeezing shoulder blades together. Hold for a second before straightening arms and lowering chest to reset.

6. Side plank leg lift x 10 each side

Place your forearm on the ground and form a straight line from head to toe with your feet, hips and shoulders stacked. While keeping hips lifted, kick the top leg straight up as high as you can. Lower leg to reset but maintain side plank position. Do 10 reps, then flip to the other side and repeat.

7. Burpee x 10

From a standing position, squat down and place your hands on the ground in front of you. Quickly jump your feet back into a high plank position. Jump feet forward, making sure to land with heels down and hips low. Explode up through your heels to jump as high as possible.

Pro tip: Adding a push-up to the bottom of the burpee is a great way to advance the exercise and increase strength in your upper body.

Complete 3-6 rounds of this circuit. Perform the exercises back-to-back. Take a 2-minute rest between each round (1 round = all seven exercises). If you need to take a break between exercises, keep it to 30 seconds or less.

Cooling down

The recovery process starts as soon as your calisthenics workout ends. The first thing you need to do is lower your heart rate through deep breathing or a slow walk. Once your heart rate has gone down, spend a few minutes on mobility work. Your muscles are still warm from the workout, which means they are primed for stretching. Stretching helps increase range of motion, among many other benefits. So, whatever you do, don't skip the cool-down!

Some great cool-down options to get the most out of your stretching period are the alternating step and reach, kneeling hip flexor stretch with a rotation, child's pose with a lateral stretch, and the seated quad stretch.

Where can you do calisthenics exercises?

Similar to at-home CrossFit workouts, you don't need any equipment for calisthenics. You can perform this bodyweight workout just about anywhere. All you need is square footage—and not very much of it. If you're following a no-equipment calisthenics program, utilize indoor spaces like a living room or garage, or outdoor spaces like the park or beach.

At some point, you may want to add weight to make a certain exercise more advanced. If you choose to add equipment—such as pull-up bars, gymnastic rings, resistance bands and weighted vests—most of these can be found at indoor gyms, rec centers and sports training facilities.

How can you get the most out of a calisthenics workout?

When you book a hotel for vacation, you review all of its amenities and services, right? You want to know that it can offer everything you need for a comfortable, relaxing stay. Naturally, you'd do the same before starting a new exercise routine. You want to make sure you're going to get the most out of it. Consider these tips for a well-rounded, highly effective calisthenics workout program:

  • Invest in comfortable clothes

    —It's not frivolous to think about what to wear for your workout. Workout clothes can fuel your confidence or completely shake it. When you're hanging upside down, twisting your torso and jumping all around, you want to feel secure in your clothes—literally and figuratively.
  • Never skip your warm-up

    —This portion of your workout is meant to help lubricate your joints and warm your muscles for optimal range of motion. A good warm-up will also wake up the central nervous system, so you're firing on all cylinders from head to toe. The key to getting the most out of your warm-up is making it specific to your workout of the day.
  • Incorporate equipment

    —The science says bodyweight exercises are equally as effective at increasing strength as traditional weightlifting, but some exercises you simply cannot do without some piece of equipment. Even though pull-ups are not a highly technical exercise, they do require a pull-up bar. The best part is the pull-up bar can also be used for a variety of other upper body exercises. Investing in such a versatile piece of equipment will go a long way.
  • Supplement your diet

    —A balanced diet with regularly scheduled mealtimes will supply the energy you need to sustain a challenging workout routine. But you can take it a step further with the right supplements. Nutrients like the combination of vitamin D3 and HMB promote muscle growth and function when paired with resistance exercise.
  • Take rest days

    —Doing calisthenics workouts on consecutive days is fine, but only to a certain degree. Even if you follow a program that works different muscle groups each day, you're still putting stress on your body. After about three days of consecutive workouts, it's time for a rest—especially if you're a beginner. Don't be afraid to take the break, because it will allow your body to recover all your muscle groups.
  • Write down your goals

    —It's important to set goals for yourself! Having a visual reminder of what you're working toward will help you stay focused. Jot down your goal and your "why" on a sticky note, and then place it in a prominent place at home or at work. Make your goals SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and timely.

The most important thing is to have a solid commitment to your new calisthenics program!

Pro tip: Take a supplement quiz for more personalized recommendations for active adults.

About the Author: Liz Lotts is a registered dietitian nutritionist and certified personal trainer. She has a passion for helping people achieve their health goals through personalized nutrition and effective fitness programs. In her free time, Liz enjoys running, lifting weights, watching live sports with her husband and traveling to new places.

Credentials/Degrees: RDN; NASM-CPT; Certified Orangetheory Fitness Coach; TRX Qualified Coach; Bachelor’s in Advertising, Marketing & Communications; Master of Science in Dietetics.

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