Incorporating Calisthenics Into Your Training Program

By on June 7, 2018

No matter what kind of fitness or strength training protocol you are currently following, I believe that adding calisthenics can only improve your strength and performance. That’s because calisthenics brings some very unique results to the table. I also believe it is one of the most effective tools for increasing athleticism and may be the most ‘functional’ form of training.

But first: what is calisthenics not?

calisthenics walking on hands

Well, calisthenics is not about lifting huge amounts of weight. You are working with your own bodyweight here, which in turn means that you are limiting the maximum amount you’re going to be moving. That in turn means you’re less likely to see some of the adaptations that you would normally see from powerlifting – such as huge increases in bone density, weight, or maximum strength.

At the same time, calisthenics is not about isolating or targeting specific muscle groups as a bodybuilder does. That makes it harder to build large biceps or delts. In fact, one of the questions I get most often is ‘can you build muscle with just calisthenics?’. Many people assume that you need weights in order to develop bulging muscle of any kind.

Can you build muscle with just calisthenics?

But none of this is to say that you can’t achieve these results with calisthenics: merely that you need to understand the differences and train a little harder. In this post, I’ll be explaining why calisthenics is so important, as well as how to incorporate it into your training in a way that will bring the best results across the board.

Why Calisthenics Training is Amazing

When you’re training with calisthenics, you are not aiming to lift the maximum amount of weight possible. Instead, you’re training to gain mastery over your own bodyweight. You’re lifting the same amount of weight in more creative ways – using leverage and balance in order to increase the challenge.

The result? When you get really good at calisthenics, you become a master of your own body. You increase your proprioceptive awareness, your agility, your stability, your balance, and much more. To a huge degree.

Advocates of training with heavy free-weights will tell you that this kind of training will build core stability and functional strength because it is training the small supporting muscles. Something like a deadlift for instance will train your spinal erector muscles, your posterior chain, your core, and your grip. This cannot be said of a lat pull-down or a leg extension.

But calisthenics moves take this concept to the next level. Something like a planche will train your scapula muscles, your pecs, your entire core, your spinal erectors, your posterior chain, your rotators, your fingers, your forearms.

You’re keeping your entire body rigid, at the same time as listening to feedback from the muscle spindles. You’re feeling for imbalances and correcting them with tiny contractions and changes in position. A planche might look like a static hold (and technically it is…), but in fact your body is working hard to keep you in that position.

The deadlift is a technical move for sure. But anyone can understand the basics of lifting a heavy weight off the floor. In contrast, the planche looks like magic to the uninitiated. This is why we talk about mastering ‘bodyweight skills’ rather than just ‘exercises’.

And this is also why I believe that calisthenics movements are the most functional type of exercise: because they force you to use your entire body at once and to balance and concentrate as you do. Depending on your precise angle, the challenge is never the exact same and there are countless angles and positions you can try out. In the wild, we likely wouldn’t have had to lift 150KG off the floor very often. But we would have climbed, crawled, and punched a lot.

And the carry-over to your lifts in the gym is huge – not only for increasing one-rep maxes, but also for injury prevention. Jeff Cavaliere has a fantastic video on the benefits of scapula strength and I don’t know any better way to develop it. This will improve your bench press, your deadlift and more. For traceurs, you’ll see your mounts and hurdles improve. Of course, muscle ups will improve this even more.

Calisthenics for Aesthetics

And there are aesthetic benefits to this too. Just take a look at a gymnast and you’ll see how defined and powerful they look. That’s because they’re training muscles that other people overlook. The serratus muscles for instance are part of the shoulder girdle that you’ll hit with any straight-arm movement and which add more detail and definition between the pecs and lats. It can make you look much more defined even at a higher bodyfat percentage – and I’ve seen this myself since chasing after those tougher bodyweight skills.

The same goes for your core. Many of these movements will train your transverse abdominis, which wraps around your core and acts like a weight belt. Developing this muscle will help to keep your stomach flatter and hold it in, which in turn makes you appear far more aesthetic.

How to Incorporate Calisthenics

Okay, so hopefully I’ve convinced you that calisthenics deserve a place in your training program. Now how do you go about incorporating them effectively?

First things first: master the basics. That means your press ups, your pull ups and chin ups, your bodyweight squats etc.

At first, these will be challenging for many people but with time, you’ll be able to do more and more. Increase the volume and you can start to see some growth and transferrable strength gains.

But there will come a point where you can comfortably perform hundreds of press ups and that’s when many people will progress to weights and abandon calisthenics.

Bodyweight Variations Using Levers

Instead, the key at this point is to start trying to master those more difficult variations on the classic exercises. These are slight tweaks that we’re going to make to the movement in order to make them more challenging, and very often this involves lengthening or shortening the lever.

So, for instance, when you perform a push up, your hands are usually placed directly under your upper body, with your legs stretched out and balanced on your toes. This position places the center of gravity directly above your hands but it also spreads your weight out between your hands and your feet.

Now if we lengthen the arms out in front of ourselves, we have what is called the ‘Jack Lalanne’ push up. Now our hands are much further away from the center of gravity and the lever arm is lengthened. This in turn makes the movement considerably more difficult. And the easiest way to visualize this is by trying to lift a chair while holding either the bottom or the top of one leg in one hand.

Lelanne pushup

Likewise, we can move the arms down towards our hips, to perform a maltese push up or pseudo planche. Now our bodyweight is hanging over the top of the arms. Progress this to a full planche and you will also be focusing the weight on just two points – your hands – rather than four. The same things happens when you move from a press up to a single-armed press up.

Changing the angle like this doesn’t only lengthen and shorten the lever arm: it also changes the mechanics of the movement

And similarly, you can also change the movement by bringing the hands closer together or widening them further apart. This will not only focus the pressure rather than spreading it, but it will also move your hands slightly in relation to the center of gravity once again.

But this is also slightly oversimplifying matters. You see, changing the angle like this doesn’t only lengthen and shorten the lever arm: it also changes the mechanics of the movement and shifts the focus between different muscle groups. That is to say that a Jack Lalanne push up will challenge the shoulders slightly more for instance, while the close-grip push up will shift focus to the triceps. In the case of a planche, you’re now also involving many more supporting muscles to keep your core and legs straight and stable.

So more challenging variations don’t just increase the relative weight you’re moving. They also often shift emphasis away from larger muscle groups like the pectorals, to smaller, often-overlooked muscles like the scapula muscles. They might also simply involve more complicated sequences of movements – as is the case in a muscle up which essentially combines two different exercises via a transition.

Explosive Exercises

Finally, one more way to increase the challenge in a bodyweight exercise is to add in explosive exercises. These include things like clapping push-ups, jumping squats, even handstand jumps if you can get to that point. Here, you are trying to generate acceleration, which in many ways is very similar to generating maximum strength from your muscles’ perspective. You’ll recruit the fastest twitch muscle fiber in just the same way, and you’ll be generating raw power in just the same way.

The same goes for explosive eccentrics – anything that forces you to catch your weight and absorb impact. When you perform a depth jump for instance, you can experience significantly greater forces. Dropping from just 42 inches for instance will exert a force equivalent to 3-4 times bodyweight. Remember, that eccentric strength is thought to be roughly 1.75 times greater than contractile strength and this form of training is fantastic for creating stiffer tendons capable of returning greater energy.

But this isn’t quite comparable to using a one rep max in the gym still. That’s because you can’t ‘hold’ this type of weight and it won’t be even close to even through the whole range of motion. There is no equivalent to a slow negative unless you incorporate weights. Just one more reason I believe that combining training modalities is the key to optimizing performance.

Acquiring Calisthenics Skills Using Progressions

To train for the more impressive calisthenics skills, the key is to use progressions. That means starting with what you can almost do and focusing on that until you reach the point where you can do it confidently. Then you progress to the next ‘step’.

For instance, to acquire planchet, you might start with pseudo planch push ups, then progress to the tuck planchet (where your legs are tucked in so that your center of gravity is closer to your hands). Then when you can hold that for a minute, you might progress to the straddle planche where your legs are wide apart. Then finally, you might shoot for the full planche.

There are many other progressions you can use too though, such as the frog stand, the tuck planche push up, the bent arm planche etc. You can work with the ones that best suit you. Personally, I’m kind of stuck at bent arm straddle planche.

There are other things you can do to improve your chances of success too though. One of the most important is simply to lose weight. I’m arguably a bit heavy currently in order to maximize my calisthenics abilities – but that’s fine seeing as I am using these progressions as a tool for developing my overall strength, rather than an end in themselves.

To combine this kind of training with a larger training program, you can try placing these complex progressions at the start of a training routine. This way, you can try them when you are fresh before you exhaust any of those smaller supportive muscles that you’re going to need.

Note: Don’t forget the legs! There are plenty of great bodyweight exercises from the legs, which range from the squat and pistol squat, to calf jumps and box jumps.

Using Calisthenics to Build Size

The next question is whether you can build more strength and size through calisthenics alone. And the answer is yes… but only if you’re tricky!

What big fans of calisthenics will tell you, is that simply by going through these progressions, you can increase muscle size through progressive overload: just the same as a powerlifter gets bigger by increasing the amount of weight.

But this isn’t entirely true: because when change your position as we’ve seen, it actually changes the muscles involved and the skill. That means that you’re not simply increasing the weight in the same exercise – unless you use weighted calisthenics (which I’ll talk about soon!). You’re building more strength by increasing your mind muscle connection and your core stability. But you’re not directly increasing the resistance for a specific muscle group. It’s not a linear progression.

Likewise, it’s harder to generate a ‘pump’ in order to trigger ‘sarcoplasmic’ hypertrophy (as it is sometimes called) when using calisthenics. That’s because there are so many muscle groups involved that it’s impossible to train to failure. This is true of nearly any multi-joint exercise. For instance, if you’re doing pull ups then you won’t necessarily give up only once your lats are fatigued: your core, your biceps, or your shoulders might fatigue before you get to that point.

Used this way, calisthenics are more than capable of leading to serious hypertrophy

So, what does all this mean? For one, it means you can train with more frequency and with more volume than you might with other types of training and you shouldn’t need as long to recover. Likewise, that frequency will help you to cement those movement patterns more quickly. There’s nothing to stop you doing full-body calisthenics only routines every other day.

OR you can use my favourite trick. The old ‘mechanical drop set’. A drop set is a technique used by bodybuilders to go past failure: you might perform as many bicep curls as you can, then drop to a lower weight and keep going. This allows you to use a high weight and high repetitions in order to maximize muscle damage and create that pump.

And you can do the exact same thing with bodyweight training. Here, you will perform as many planche push ups as you can for instance, then immediately switch to pseudo planche press ups, then immediately switch to regular press ups, then immediately switch to

While these exercises get progressively easier and they are somewhat different, they also involve many of the same muscles – meaning you can really fatigue and challenge the prime movers while also creating muscle damage and metabolic stress.

Likewise, you can do this by using exercises that isolate and target a specific muscle group less and less. How about perform handstand push ups until your stabilizing muscle give out, then switching to handstand press ups with your feet against the wall (to remove the balance element), then moving to pike push ups (push ups with your butt pointing in the air with focus on the shoulders), then moving the feet further and further back.

One of my favorites is to perform chin ups with my feet on a chair. As my upper body starts to tire out, I use my legs more and more until they are doing the lion’s share of the work. Or how about hanging leg raises > frog kicks (bringing your knees up to your chest with legs bent, bringing that center of gravity closer to you).

You can also incorporate calisthenics as part of a larger mechanical drop set that also uses weights. For instance, how about performing as many reps of a heavy bench press as you can, then switching immediately to press ups, then immediately to press ups on your knees.

NOW you’re going to feel that burn. And when used this way, calisthenics are more than capable of leading to serious hypertrophy.

I haven’t even had a chance to talk about rock climbing yet, using ropes to develop gripping strength etc. There’s a whole lot more to discuss here, so rest assured I will be coming back to calisthenics a LOT in the coming weeks and months. Stay tuned.

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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