If you are into bodyweight training like I am, you probably have heard of calisthenic exercises and their ridiculous impacts at some point. They are, without a doubt, among the best forms of workout that you can do.
Much of what constitutes CrossFit, boot camps, and obstacle training is basically calisthenics, only dressed up and marketed better. Lets take a closer look at this fancy term which sounds a lot more complicated than it needs to be.
What is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics essentially include a variety of bodyweight exercises, which are generally executed without aiding equipment or apparatus. Instead, they utilize your own weight to build strength and muscles.
There are many different calisthenics exercises for you to choose from, with the difficulty ranges from very basic to advanced. Who knows that pole dancing turn out to be a great bodyweight workout, if not one of the ultimate calisthenic exercise out there.
It doesn’t matter how much you bench, starting out with the simplest exercises is advised if you are new to calisthenics. You’ll be blown away by how challenging and different bodyweight workout is from conventional weight routines.
Pros And Cons of Calisthenics
One outstanding advantage of training with your own weight is that it challenges just about every inch of your body. For example, your core muscles, strength and endurance can only be trained, almost exclusively, by calisthenics.
In order to analyse the effects of calisthenics on weight loss, a research team from the Harvard School of Public Health claimed that “vigorous calisthenics burn more calories than many common cardio workouts”. This is due to the greater amount of muscle engagement required by these exercises.
Other benefits include boosting the resting metabolic rate and improving muscular endurance. You can check out the complete list of benefits that bodyweight workouts offer and in-depth analysis of each type of exercise here.
With calisthenics, your mentality will be challenged simultaneously with your physique. While the impacts on your physique are hard to miss, the positive effects on your minds are rather subtle.
However, it’s been scientifically proved that weight-free exercises can significantly mitigate depression and anxiety and improve mental health. Furthermore, calisthenics are also claimed to enhance one’s self confidence.
This document comprehensively demonstrates different impacts of physical activities and exercises on well-being.
On the other hand, calisthenics do have certain drawbacks. For example, if you really care about the details, your skin will lose its smoothness, particularly on your fingers and palms because you will be using them for many upper body exercises.
Between Calisthenics And Traditional Weight Training
This dilemma is pretty common nowaday; I was actually surprised by the number of people struggling with this decision.
For me, it was very easy because I was admittedly a little biased against weight workouts from the beginning; and the free nature of calisthenics always seem more appealing to me.
Additionally, bodyweight workouts allow to focus on multiple muscle groups in the same area with few tweaks on the same exercise for variation.
Each move can be modified in many different ways; for example, changing your hands positions in a conventional push-up will turn it into a much-harder diamond push-up, which emphasizes on other muscle group.
In order to make the right choice, we need to understand the differences between the two forms of workout.
This table below outlines few things that distinguish conventional weightlifting from calisthenics, and vice versa.
- Ideal for isolating muscle group & gaining mass
- Focus on developing resistance and strength
- High risk of injury due to excessive stress on joints
- Usually requires free weights or training machines
- Does NOT help gaining mass quickly
- Emphasize on building core strength and agility
- Significantly lower risk of injury, stiff muscles and tendonitis
- No equipment or devices required
So there are some distinct characters of the two forms of training in comparison. They do share certain similarities in principle; however, overwhelmed by the differences (the full comparison can be found here).
It is very hard to decide which form is better; instead, it’s really down to your personal preference and training purposes.
If it’s huge muscles and getting ripped quickly that you’re after, then developing resistance with conventional weightlifting is the best for you.
On the other hand, many people, who don’t have either time or money for the gym, whose goals are to build strength and endurance, will find relief with calisthenics.
Or, better yet, you can integrate calisthenics into your regular weight training routines for maximum impacts.
What Signs Of Progress That You Should Expect
As your journey with calisthenics lengthen, you will soon notice the signs of improvement; for example, your body gets leaner and more agile like never before.
I started a plan for body development about half a year ago when I noticed how long I’d been inactive and what kind of impact it has on me. So I decided that it was the time to change the situation.
I remember being completely clueless of calisthenics at the time. All I wanted to do were some pull-ups and prayed that it’d somehow make my body fitter.
The very first change I noticed was the psychological effects, which instantly alleviated my mood. For the first time in a long time, I felt the energy channeling through my entire body, and I was in total control.
Nonetheless, the satisfaction didn’t last long as I was absolutely exhausted by the exercise the following days. It took a few days to recover, but I was determined and ready for more challenges.
Here is the summary of my individual experiences with weight-free training; some changes might be recognized more easily than the others:
- Before calisthenics (about 6 months ago), I weighed approximately 75kg, which was slightly overweight for a guy only about 5ft8. After half a year, I managed to drop 5kg, which is a personal record.
- I can feel massive improvements in terms of my overall strength and stamina; for example, I could run faster, swim further and lift heavier objects quite effortlessly.
- Also I can now pull off some pretty impressive moves, of which I could only dream of previous calisthenics.
- After only 5 months, I noticed my lats have improved dramatically, causing my arms to swing around a bit unnaturally while walking; it didn’t bother me for long however. Calisthenics unmistakably help toning up my muscles and shaping my body just the way I wanted it.
- The exercises also help toning up my arms and shoulders pretty impressively; not really bigger, just stronger and more defined.
- The calluses and dead skin on my palms and fingers.
- After a while, I noticed my reactions became a lot faster and more accurate (like catching a mosquito in mid-air, that’s something right?)
Is It Possible To Build Muscle With Just Calisthenics?
The answer is yes, you can absolutely gain mass with only bodyweight workouts.
Think of your muscle like a rubber band, which only works in tension. The principles of packing mass are the same regardless of the training methods. It stated that tension, not lifting weights or calisthenics, helps growing your muscles.
In other words, training only tears and breaks your muscle fibers, meaning they don’t grow during workouts. Growth happens afterwards when your body is at rest.
In order to magnify the muscle-building impacts of calisthenics, there are few rules you should acknowledged:
1. Go for low repetitions with each exercise; try to raise the difficulty with angular training and changing weight distribution.
2. Instead of high repetitions, aim for multiple sets. Consistent muscle fatigue breaks your muscle tissue and allows development afterwards. Remember to rest sufficiently between sets.
3. Splitting up your training program is more beneficial. It allows you focus on one muscle group per day, providing ample time for recovery and rebuild.
4. Try to isolate and concentrate specifically on the muscle you want to build rather than spreading the workload on the entire body.
5. Take it slow at first, then advance progressively over time, by increasing either number of sets, number of daily exercises or number of training session per week.
Recently, a new training program named ‘Bodyweight Overload’ using only your bodyweight to gain muscles has been developed by Todd Kuklinski.
It is claimed to be just as advantageous with packing up bulks as training with weights with only bodyweight exercises. The full review of this method can be seen here.
Recommended Calisthenic Progress For Beginners
It should be noted that calisthenics are not something that you can just jump into. Patience and knowledge are your best friends here. Certain exercises such as the Planche take a lot of time and practice to master.
With bodyweight workout, you should progress as slowly and as methodically as possible, following guidelines of safe progression with each exercise. This will make more sense as you practice, especially with intermediate to advanced movements such as the Front Lever, the Back Lever, etc.
If you’re completely new to bodyweight training, I highly recommend these following basic exercises. It’s a combination of movements to develop your whole body, lower and upper body alike.
Each exercise has multiple variations with ranged difficulties, providing different options for newcomers and veterans respectively.
One of the most popular workout for upper body, with countless variations.
Well to be honest, this one is the easiest workout available!
Same as push-ups, usually performed with training bars.
Ideal for developing muscles on lower body.
Another exercise for lower body.
These four exercises might be simple, but I can assure they’re no easy tasks when performing with proper forms and techniques. They’re claimed to be the very essence of calisthenics.
Nevertheless, it’s very, very tempting to start working out like one of the pros we’ve seen on Youtube (if you’ve seen videos of people doing incredible calisthenic moves and wondered how on earth is it even possible, then you’ll know exactly what I mean).
Keep in mind that they’re professionals because they’ve been training for years to be able to do such things. And it should take the similar amount of time for you to do the same.
Always remember to stretch and warm yourself up properly before and after exercising. Beside getting your body prepared for more demanding exercises later on, they can significantly reduce the chance of injury.
In summary, I believe that calisthenic exercises have greatly improved my body shape and boosted my strength as well as flexibility.
The potentials of bodyweight training cannot be fully examined in such a short article. But I hope it does solves some problems that you might have with calisthenics.
Finally, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this matter so please don’t hesitate to join the discussion and leave a comment.