How to Create Your Best Calisthenics Workout Program
Tired of spinning your wheels trying to find a suitable calisthenics workout plan?
Maybe you’re a beginner. Maybe you’re ready to move beyond Bodyweight 101 and get to the challenging routines that will dramatically improve your physique, fitness and overall health. Maybe you’re an expert and you’re looking to refine your program to become elite.
Wherever you are in your development, the best way to advance is to craft the best calisthenics workout program for you.
Maybe you’ve heard about bodyweight fitness, but you keep running into gurus showing you their overwhelmingly complex routines and maneuvers you’re not quite ready to pull off, rather than a simple beginner calisthenics workout routine.
Or, maybe you’ve found a blog or two and thought “Great, I found it.” It’s advanced enough for you, and yet provides paths to continue to grow.
Then, you dug in and had the same reaction I did.
Wow, that’s an awful lot of information!
We’ll go into depth as this blog develops, but really we’d like to start with a simple premise: Exercise doesn’t need to be overly complicated.
The whole point of bodyweight fitness is to reduce the complexity. Reduce the risk involved in picking up heavy objects. Reduce stress on the body.
Reduce drag on the mind.
The challenge with following workouts designed by others is that they’re not custom tailored for you. But keep reading and I’ll show you an approach that allows you to do just that.
My beginner Calisthenics Workout Program
Ever check out a site on bodyweight fitness, only to find a million articles on the theory behind number of reps and which progressions you should start with, but not a simple list of exercises you can start doing today?
Let’s start with something I know well: my beginner calisthenics workout plan. In fact, often my workouts still consist of just these exercises.
When starting out with bodyweight fitness, especially if you haven’t been active, I recommend taking things slowly.
Those of you who have not been active are at risk of causing yourself injury, or a potential cardiac event if you jump into things too quickly. Check with your doctor!
So with that, I’d like to start with an overview of the calisthenics workout that I’m performing as I get my start in bodyweight fitness.
It includes the core exercises you should start with if you’re getting into this fitness modality.
Follow the links for more on each exercise.
This routine provided enough of the exercises my body’s muscle memory is already trained to do–pullups, pushups, squats, running and walking–with a few movements I have to master from the beginning. Those leg raises and L-Sits do quite a number on the abs, and shrimp squats and pistol squats require a good deal of balance to do correctly.
And note that the above 4 traditional bodyweight exercises–pushups, pullups, l-sits, and squats–work the 4 major muscle groups. Pushups is a chest-focused pushing exercise; pullups focuses on the same area with a pulling motion; squats develop the posterior chain; and L-sits work your abs. You’re getting a complete workout by starting with these 4!
What about dips? I’ve added these in recent sessions after I got my power tower. Because of the all-around workout my routine already provides, I don’t consider dips to be mandatory in the routine, but if you’re ambitious there’s nothing wrong with adding a few exercises you like.
How to add cardio to your beginner calisthenics workout program?
Most people don’t question why you should mix in some cardio with their weightlifting, but there is lots of confusion about how much is appropriate.
As with everything else, I believe in balance.
I also believe that the best exercise program is the one you actually do.
So I’m less interested in clocking my time than I am in achieving a balance I can live with. And as I reached my 40s, the best balance I was able to find is espoused–as I’ve mentioned elsewhere–in The Primal Blueprint.
Mark Sisson’s formula includes the following mandates:
- Move frequently at a comfortable pace.
- Lift heavy things.
- Sprint once in a while.
Sisson’s site recommends “going to the gym to lift weights,” but that’s where bodyweight fits in for me. I believe it is possible to develop and maintain enough strength through bodyweight; however, I also believe an intense Crossfit workout can do wonders as well. I’ll drill into that topic in a future post as well.
As for cardio, I am trying to incorporate more walking as I go along. My running is limited, as I don’t think miles and miles and miles are good on the feet or knees.
Increasingly, I mix longer (3-4 miles) runs with high intensity interval training (HIIT).
Recent research has demonstrated that high intensity, quick-burst exercise provides different benefits than longer “steady state” cardio sessions in a number of ways. They’re both useful, which explains why I mix them up.
The HIIT protocol I’m following right now is a full-throttle run for 25 seconds, followed by about 1:45 of walking, repeated 4 or 5 times. Over time, I want to improve all those metrics: longer duration of full throttle, shorter duration of walking, and increased number of sets.
That said, anything over 6 sets is considered gravy in the HIIT world.
Combine one or two of those per week with a longer run on the weekend, along with my strength training, and I am maintaining pretty good blood markers and overall well being.
As the site grows, you’ll see more on these and many other topics.
Before I wrap up–there’s another getting-started routine you might want to check out. It comes in the form of a poster that you can print with illustrations of each exercise in a number of progressions.
But, should I include weighted exercises in my program?
The further along i get into my program, the more I recognize bodyweight routines can get a little dull–especially if you’re not varying the exercises in your program.
Lesson 1: Keep working on new skills!
We all struggle with motivation from time to time. I believe it’s important with fitness, and other goals in life, to remove resistance and build a system in order to reach your goals. If you have problems getting up early enough, go to bed earlier. If you have problems working out in the evening, do it in the morning.
Do what you need to do.
I also think there’s a place and time for weighted exercises, in particular for Crossfit.
Crossfit teaches proper form and provides the motivation of other people working out with you, which is a welcome change from workouts on your own accompanied only by a bodyweight workout app.
While I like the fact that Crossfit teaches functional exercises, and an ever-varying set of exercises in the form of the workout-of-the-day, I think its most valuable contribution is the camaraderie and the teaching.
While Crossfit is frequently associated with people developing shoulder injuries, in my experience everyone there is focused on doing exercises with the right form, and there’s an Onramp program in place to help you get up to speed.
Plus, they teach you handstand pushups and other calisthenics moves as part of their wide-ranging program.
For a short time, I joined a Crossfit box in my neighborhood, but life pulled me away – in this case, family health concerns came up that demanded my time.
Maybe I’ll return — I may decide to keep a membership for a few months and then alternate periods of time as a member and not. Maybe I’ll keep the membership and keep doing weighted exercises primarily in winter where I don’t enjoy working out in the outdoors.
We shall see.
But in the mean time…
How do I build upon the basics to become a bodyweight expert?
It occurs to me there are couple of primary angles from which to consider your fitness program:
- First, there’s building your fitness in general. Strength training a few times per week, plus some HIIT and cardio thrown in for balance. For this element of your program, and to avoid exercise burnout, I recommend a varied selection from our bodyweight WOD list.
- Second, there is regular work on a (Single) given skill. You can’t just add additional plates to your moves like you can with weighted strength training–you’ll need to learn more advanced movements until they’re captured in muscle memory and you can execute them at ease. There are progressions involved in most major exercise families (such as pushups, planches, squats, etc) — I recommend you pick one or two moves at most that you’d like to master, and include progression work in your weekly training. Take a look at this master list of bodyweight exercises for inspiration.
Over time, if you vary your WODs significantly and you get off your keester, you’ll end up with a nicely toned body with good overall strength AND you’ll be working your way towards mastery of one of the moves that inspires you. Human flag? Planche? Go for it!
Hopefully, this gives you some ideas to think about in building your calisthenics workout plan, whether it’s exclusively bodyweight or only partially, and whether it’s beginner or more advanced.
Have a look around the site for more – and good luck!