What Are Calisthenics?

woman doing jumping jacks outside

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When you think of calisthenics, images of military boot camps or physical education classes may come to mind. But the usefulness and health benefits of calisthenics are not limited to these two scenarios. In fact, because calisthenics are easily adaptable to any fitness level, require little to no equipment, and are great for beginners as well as experienced exercise enthusiasts, you might want to give them a second look.

"Calisthenics not only help to develop strength, but also flexibility, balance, and coordination," explains John Landry, RRT, a registered respiratory therapist and the founder and CEO of Respiratory Therapy Zone. "It is a fantastic full-body workout and an excellent way to build strength and muscle. In addition, it is a low-impact form of exercise, which makes it accessible to people of all ages and fitness levels."

Whether you are considering adding calisthenics to your fitness routine or want to know more about what they are, keep reading. Below you will discover what calisthenics consist of, their health benefits, and how to get started.

What Is a Calisthenics Workout?

In simple terms, calisthenics are a form of resistance training using your own body weight. They also are an effective way to build strength, agility, and cardiovascular health, as well as improve balance, coordination, and flexibility.

While calisthenics are similar to bodyweight training, Landry says some minor distinctions exist. For instance, bodyweight training is a broader term that encompasses any exercise that uses a person's body weight as resistance, such as a yoga class. Calisthenics is a specific form of bodyweight training that emphasizes compound movements designed to condition the body.

"Calisthenics require no equipment and can be done with very little space," explains Alex Lyons, NASM–CPT, CES, a certified personal trainer, certified exercise specialist, and a coach on House of Athlete's HOA+ digital fitness and wellness platform. "These exercises are great when you need to get a quick burn in and have no equipment around. [While] you are mostly working on muscular endurance, if you’re a beginner, you can definitely see strength gains."

Benefits of Calisthenics

Even though calisthenics might get overlooked at times for other workout programs, this type of exercise still ranks near the top as a great way to build functional strength and improve fitness levels.

This is largely because calisthenics are based on your body's movements and are closely aligned with how you move throughout the day, says Rachel MacPherson, ACE-CPT, a certified personal trainer, pain-free performance specialist, and professional product tester/reviewer. For instance, the pushing and pulling movements you do in calisthenics mimic things you do when moving or lifting objects, she explains.

"Because you are using your body as a unit, you can build strength in all of your large and small muscle groups," MacPherson notes. "In particular, you will rely on your core for power and strength during most calisthenics exercises, which help protect your spine by providing mobility and stability, preventing pain and injuries."

Here are some other ways you might benefit from adding calisthenics to your fitness regimen.

Build Muscle and Strength

According to Landry, calisthenics are an excellent way to build muscle and strength. By using your body weight as resistance, your muscles are challenged to adapt and grow, leading to increased muscle and strength.

"The exercises involved—such as push-ups, squats, and pull-ups—are compound movements that work multiple muscle groups at the same time, providing a full-body workout," he says.

Plus, research supports the idea that calisthenics can improve muscle strength in a variety of ways. For instance, one study of 28 men found that eight weeks of calisthenics can not only improve posture and body mass index (BMI) but also may impact your strength—even in exercises you do not routinely perform.

During the study, one group did calisthenics and the other maintained their regular training routines. What researchers discovered is that the group that did calisthenics increased the number of press-ups and pull-ups they were able to do even though their calisthenics workouts did not include these specific exercises. Meanwhile, the group who continued with their everyday training routines did not improve on what they could do before the eight-week study began.

Body Mass Index (BMI) is a dated, biased measure that doesn’t account for several factors, such as body composition, ethnicity, race, gender, and age.

Despite being a flawed measure, BMI is widely used today in the medical community because it is an inexpensive and quick method for analyzing potential health status and outcomes.

Improve Cardiovascular Fitness

Over time, regular participation in calisthenics also can lead to improved cardiovascular health, including increased endurance and a healthier heart, says Landry. For instance, some calisthenic exercises, such as burpees and mountain climbers, are high-intensity movements that can get your heart pumping and blood flowing just by doing the movements, he adds.

And, if you challenge yourself and do these exercises at a brisk pace, research indicates that you could potentially experience the same cardiovascular benefits that you would engage in intervals or treadmill running.

Promote Flexibility, Balance, and Coordination

The movements involved in calisthenics require a range of motion that stretches and strengthens the muscles, tendons, and ligaments, says Landry. These exercises also can help reduce the risk of injury and make daily activities easier. Consequently, performing these exercises on a consistent basis can help improve your posture, balance, and flexibility, depending on which exercises you choose.

"Exercises like stretches, lunges, and squats help to improve flexibility and mobility," says Tom Oddo, DC, CSCS, CEAS, HHA, a doctor of chiropractic, certified strength and conditioning specialist, and certified ergonomics assessment specialist with City Integrative Rehabilitation. "Meanwhile, exercises like single-leg squats and one arm push-ups can challenge the balance, coordination, and proprioception of the body."

Impact Mental Health

Regular participation in calisthenics can even have a positive impact on mental health, Landry says. In fact, exercise, in general, is known to boost mood, reduce stress, and improve overall well-being.

But calisthenics may have additional impacts on your mental well-being. For instance, the discipline and focus required to perform calisthenics movements may help improve concentration and mental clarity, Landry continues.

Calisthenics also may serve a preventative role as well. Researchers in one study found that calisthenics may reduce cognitive decline. And they may be useful for promoting dementia prevention.

Meanwhile, another study found that calisthenics can have a positive impact on mental well-being—particularly for people with certain diseases such as ankylosing spondylitis and multiple sclerosis.

Provide an Accessible Way to Exercise

One of the most significant benefits of calisthenics is that it requires little to no equipment, making it accessible to anyone, anywhere, Landry points out. "Furthermore, it is low-impact, meaning it is easy on the joints, making it a great option for people of all ages and fitness levels."

And because calisthenics are easily modifiable, they also are suitable for almost everyone regardless of their fitness level or experience. As long as a healthcare provider has approved of this type of exercise, anyone can benefit from doing calisthenics.

Calisthenics exercises also are a low-cost form of exercise, explains Dr. Oddo. "They also can be modified to suit different fitness levels, from beginners to advanced athletes, so you can progress as you get stronger."

Types of Calisthenics

Bodyweight exercises that use an individual's own body weight as resistance are the foundation of calisthenics. Some examples include push-ups, squats, and lunges. Here is an overview of some of the types of calisthenic exercises.

Pulling Exercises

These exercises focus on training the muscles responsible for pulling movements, such as the back, shoulders, and arms, says Landry. Examples of pulling exercises include pull-ups, chin-ups, and rows.

Pushing Exercises

According to Landry, these exercises focus on training the muscles responsible for pushing movements, such as the chest, shoulders, and triceps. Examples of pushing exercises include push-ups, dips, and handstand push-ups.

Core Exercises

Core exercises focus on training your abdominal and lower back muscles, which are responsible for maintaining stability and balance during movement, Landry says. Examples of core exercises include planks, sit-ups, and leg raises.

Single-Leg Exercises

According to Landry, single-leg exercises focus on training one leg at a time, targeting the muscles of the legs, hips, and core. Examples of single-leg exercises include lunges, step-ups, and single-leg squats.

Plyometric Exercises

Calisthenics focusing on explosive, power-based movements, like plyometric exercises, challenge the muscles to work quickly and forcefully, says Landry. Examples of plyometric exercises include jump squats, clap push-ups, and box jumps.

How to Make Sure You Work All Your Muscles

To ensure your calisthenics are effective and you are working all your major muscles, Dave Mace, IPT, a certified personal trainer, founder, and head coach at Maximum Potential Calisthenics in Australia, suggests that you split your movement patterns. Here are some things to consider.

  • Vertical pull (works the lats and biceps)
  • Vertical push (works the anterior and lateral delts)
  • Horizontal pull (works the rhomboids and biceps)
  • Horizontal push (works the chest and triceps)
  • Anterior chain (works the abs and hip flexors)
  • Posterior chain (works the glutes and spine muscles)
  • Lateral chain (works the lateral delts, obliques, and glute medius)
  • Quad dominant squat (works the pistol squat)
  • Glute dominant squat (works shrimp squat)

How to Get Started

If you have decided to give calisthenics a try, it is important to approach your workout with a plan. Start by making sure calisthenics is an appropriate workout option for you, especially if you are a beginner or have pre-existing medical conditions. Once you are cleared to exercise, MacPherson suggests starting with movements that you are familiar with and can perform with good form.

"Try pushups, bodyweight squats, planks, lunges, and other basic movements," she encourages. "Aim to work each body part during your workout and aim for at least two workouts per week. Make sure you warm up with light and easy motions that mimic what you will do during your workout."

For instance, if you plan to do bodyweight lunges, do a few light, quick bodyweight lunges and squats before you begin, she says. You also should go at a pace that is comfortable for you until you get accustomed to working out consistently.

"You can count reps or set a timer and switch exercises every minute, which is called EMOM-style (every minute on the minute)," says Lyons. "You will want to pick four to five exercises with various focuses. For example, sit-ups for core, plank for shoulders and core, lunges for glutes and thighs and jumping jacks for cardio."

When starting out, have at least a day rest in between workouts and aim to do two sessions in your first week, says Mace. "Build up to a calisthenics workout three to four times per week."

You also may want to consider partnering with a personal trainer who can help you learn proper form, suggests Dr. Oddo. While there may be a cost involved, this can be an important step in preventing injuries while getting the most out of your exercise.

"A good personal trainer can also help to create a personalized workout program tailored to your fitness level and goals, which will be more efficient in achieving your desired outcome," he adds. "Overall, calisthenics is a versatile form of exercise that offers a wide range of health and fitness benefits. It's a great option for people of all ages, fitness levels, and backgrounds who want to improve their physical fitness and overall health."

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is it OK to do calisthenics every day?

    While you can potentially do calisthenics every day, it is important to allow your body time to rest, too, so that your muscles can repair themselves. Remember, more is not always better. In fact, research indicates that there may be a point where exercising intensely without rest might actually reduce the health benefits.

    Allow yourself the freedom to rest but do not forgo movement in the process. Exercising and movement are two different things and you should move in some capacity every day, even if it is just a short walk.

  • Should you combine cardio or strength training with calisthentics?

    One benefit of calisthenics is that it can be used to build your cardiovascular health as well as your strength. That said, if you want to incorporate additional cardio or strength training along with your calisthenics, it is fine to do so. But, if you are unsure how to pair different forms of exercise, you may benefit from talking with a certified personal trainer.

  • What is the main purpose of calisthenics?

    Calisthenics uses multiple muscle groups at once and requires a high amount of movement. This allows you to build strength, improve your mobility, and increase cardiovascular function. If done properly and consistently, calisthenics is an ideal full-body workout that can can be done anywhere and by anyone.

5 Sources
Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Sherri Gordon, CLC
Sherri Gordon, CLC is a published author, certified professional life coach, and bullying prevention expert. She's also the former editor of Columbus Parent and has countless years of experience writing and researching health and social issues.