WHAT ARE CALISTHENICS?
Calisthenics: The ultimate manifestation of the strength and control of the human body in space.
That’s the beauty of calisthenics training.
Also referred to as bodyweight training, calisthenics are bodyweight movements that are an irreplaceable part of a complete athletic training program no matter what your goal is.
Reason being, at some point, regardless of your achievements in the weight room, you’re going to have to put that body to the test in a competitive environment.
I’m a big fan of this training method myself, incorporating calisthenics into almost every single one of my workouts.
Today, I’m ranking the top 10 best calisthenics exercises for helping you to build lean muscle mass, burn fat, and get a hell of a lot stronger.
And no, these aren’t advanced calisthenics exercises. They are ideal for everyone, regardless of your ability level.
You can add these calisthenics bodyweight exercises into full-body workouts to really hit those muscles that don’t get the most attention.
No resistance bands, dumbbells, or barbells. The only calisthenics equipment you’ll need is a pull-up bar, dip station or countertop, and your body weight. Ready to get started?
BEST CALISTHENICS EXERCISES
These calisthenics exercises are those that actually should be incorporated into all training programs including a full-body workout.
One of the main benefits of calisthenics training is that it perfectly complements what it is you’re trying to do when you have access to weights.
If you use these bodyweight exercises in the following order for calisthenics routines, don’t forget to add in rest periods.
Depending on your experience level, you can choose to do this by including a rest break after every exercise or rest time at the end of the list.
Naturally, give yourself a rest day in between intense workouts.
That being said, let’s start breaking down these bodyweight exercises one by one.
And we kick off this list of calisthenics exercises with one of my favorite upper body exercises for – building your back.
Also called the Human Flag, this exercise is designed to overload the lats from the top position to the bottom position, from origin to insertion, to build a better lat and increase upper body strength.
From the starting position, we’re overloading them because we’re utilizing our entire body weight and hitting the target muscle from the angle that matters.
This is not an ab driven exercise, but it could be if you do it incorrectly.
Instead of curling your trunk up by using your abs, you drive your body up by pulling your arms down. This is the active range.
Think about how you perform a Straight Arm Pushdown and mimic that to get your body up rather than lifting your pelvis into the air using your abs.
If you do this exercise with proper form, I promise you will create overload instantly because of the weight of your own body.
It’s an effective exercise, albeit a hard one, but it will drive muscle growth.
CLASSIC CHIN UP
Exercise number two is another beginner calisthenics exercises with lat involvement, but if you do this right, we’re going to turn it into a great bicep building exercise with an underhand grip.
What’s great about one of the basic pull exercises is it has all the components of a bicep contraction. It’s got that flexion of the shoulder.
It’s got supination at the forearm.
And of course, it has deflection of the elbow as you get towards the top of the movement.
But what’s key is maintaining the right relationship of your balanced body to the bar.
When you do the exercise, don’t get too close. Maintain some distance between your straight body and the bar at the top to keep the focus more on the biceps and less on the lats.
Since you’re lifting your own body weight, the overload you’re seeking is readily available, making the gains that you’re seeking much easier to come by.
HANDSTAND PUSH UP
Exercise number three is one of my favorite ways to build shoulders in calisthenics circuits, even if you have access to a full gym.
This one only requires minimal equipment, and I’m not talking about a pull up bar – I’m talking about a wall.
We’re talking about a closed chain shoulder building exercise using just this wall over here. It’s a Handstand Push Up.
And what’s great about this is that it’s one of the very few opportunities you have to do a shoulder exercise with an overhead pressing range of motion where your hands are still in contact with the ground.
This activates the kinetic chain in a different way, and you don’t need to have a ton of flexibility to do it.
It stabilizes the scapula differently because they’re not in this open chain environment of pressing the bar up overhead.
And it still gives you the chance to push the weight of your own body instantly, once again creating that overload that’s necessary to push and drive those new muscle gains.
Just be sure to keep that slight bend in the elbows at the top.
GLUTE HAM RAISE
Exercise number four is another one that I would include in any form of training program, even if I had access to a full gym.
This exercise incorporates both hamstring activation and glute activation and more importantly, ties them together in function.
If you can allow the glutes to drive the function of the hamstrings by contracting and stabilizing first, you’re going to get a better and safer contraction of the hamstrings.
That’s because the hamstrings are not overloaded with the responsibility that the glutes should be taking part in.
The bottom line is this bodyweight exercise will create gains in the size of both the hamstrings and the glutes if you perform it regularly.
And that brings us to number five, the halfway mark on the list.
One of the most classic muscle building exercises and compound movements out there, and it’s the Push-Up.
Those last two inches of extension on the push up matter if you want to get a complete chest contraction, but more importantly, the variation of the pushup is important; the Pushup position matters.
Don’t stick to the version that you can do for 30, 40, 50, or a hundred reps.
Instead, find the version that challenges your fitness level on each and every repetition you do. Something like 7 push-ups or 10 push-ups at most, and we know that there’s plenty of variations out there.
It’s going to take the exercise that you can do many of and instantly make it more challenging and difficult.
If you have yoga mats or something soft, that’s not a bad idea to use them for push-ups.
HANGING LEG RAISE
As we move to exercise number six, it’s important to understand that your abs are muscles, too, and they too can grow if you apply the right resistance.
So, in the absence of weights, what do you do for a core workout?
You use the weights that you carry around every day and that’s your legs. And the best way to do that is with a Hanging Leg Raise.
By taking the weight of the legs and lifting them up, you’ll create that necessary overload.
Remember, resistance is resistance whatever form it comes in, and we can create hypertrophy and growth from that.
When it comes to the abs, it’s actually something that you want because the more they grow, the more they pop, particularly at lower body fat levels.
Keep that core tight and really focus on the contraction as you bring your feet shoulder high.
This exercise is a keeper because it also helps with building core strength.
And speaking of suspending your body in space, the Dip is another exercise where we get an opportunity to do that.
And again, it’s one that needs to be included regardless of whether you have access to gym equipment or you don’t.
The Dip is a great chest, shoulder, and triceps builder.
This is because you’re suspending your entire weight of your body in space, rather than having your feet to offload some of your own body weight like we do in the pushup.
The fact is, we can do this anywhere, whether you have access to a dip station or even a kitchen counter corner. Whatever you need to get in that 90-degree angle at the elbows.
Do it wherever you have to do to get it done. Just make sure you have a strong grip.
And make sure you do because this is one of the most effective exercises in our bodyweight exercise arsenal when it comes to building muscle.
Back up to the bar here for exercise number eight and we’re talking Pull-Ups.
We know the versatility of this exercise extends beyond just this ability to build the lats.
We know that Pull-Ups can be an overall back builder.
Not only do they hit the entire back, but Pullups also stabilize through those important lower lumbar paraspinal muscles.
We could even work in the arms on the Pull-Up bar, making it the perfect complement to both Chin-Ups and the Human Pullover (Human Flag) exercises that were already included.
DOORWAY FACE PULL
Speaking of those upper back muscles, no best calisthenics workout would be complete without some form of Face Pull.
And we just happen to have a bodyweight version of a Face Pull that we could do in a doorway.
This Doorway Face Pull provides the same benefits that you would get from a regular Face Pull.
We can easily overload the muscles that we’re targeting because they tend to be very small muscles that respond fairly quickly to overload and we don’t often subject them to that.
We’re talking about the rotator cuff, the rear delts, and the rhomboids and mid scap muscles.
Again, it doesn’t take a lot here, and oftentimes angling your body differently in the doorway is going to alter the amount of overload you’re creating, but it does so in a safe, controlled way that keeps those gains coming everywhere, ensuring no muscles remain untouched.
As your personal trainer, I’ll never let you skip leg day.
And that brings us to exercise number 10, which is going to focus on your legs and that includes quads, hams, and calf muscles.
This bodyweight exercise is actually a much easier exercise for beginners to start with, but at the same time, it will not compromise the gains that experienced lifters have built.
We have the Levitation Squats, and what I like here is the overload that is possible from a Single Leg Squats exercise, but without some of the negatives that might come along with Pistol Squats.
In the Levitation Squat, we’re able to keep a much more neutral pelvis position rather than the extreme posterior tilt we get from the Pistol Squat.
We have much less knee flexion here, which allows for people that have meniscal issues to perform the exercise pain free.
It’s the perfect exercise to complement that all-important Glute Ham Raise we already covered, and it’s the perfect way to end this list of the best calisthenics movements for building muscle.
Look, guys, you can use these exercises in the order I’ve laid them out as a beginner calisthenics circuit workout if you’re new to bodyweight exercises.
Or you can incorporate them into your current fitness routine.
Either way – beginner calisthenics workout plan or advanced calisthenics accessory work – these exercises will work, but only if you do.
Well, guys, there you have it: the best calisthenics exercises for building muscle, burning fat, and boosting your strength.
These bodyweight-based exercises are going to take your gains to the next level, but only if you focus on quality reps and not how many you’re doing.
If you’re looking to build muscle and strength throughout the whole body with little to no equipment, check out our ATHLEAN-X programs and see which best fits your goals.
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- The best part about bodyweight exercises is that these basic movements can be performed without needing fancy equipment except for a pull-up bar. They are also quite scalable and are great for all fitness goals including building strength and muscle.
- We start this list of the best calisthenic exercises with something called the Human Pullover. Focus on pulling down with your arms in order to lift your body off the ground rather than curling your body up by contracting your abs.
- Next, we move onto the Chinup. This is a great bodyweight biceps exercise. Maintain enough distance of the body away from the bar throughout the movement in order to keep the focus on the biceps rather than the lats.
- Next, we have the Handstand Pushup. This calisthenics exercise will hit your front, middle and rear delts and should be included in your shoulder workouts.
- Next, we have the Hanging Leg Raise. Be sure to curl your pelvis up and not just lift the legs if you want this to target the core rather than the hip flexors.
- The Pushup is one of the absolute classic calisthenic movements out there. You need to choose a variation that is more challenging and capable of driving overload on the chest.
- The Pullup is of course the king of all bodyweight back exercises. This will hit your entire back, including your lower back for stabilization.
- Dips are another one of those classic exercises with just bodyweight. The key to building a bigger chest and shoulders with this movement is to safely lower yourself down to about 90 degrees, pause briefly and then power back up with the muscles rather than momentum.
- No calisthenics workout is complete without addressing the need for a corrective exercise. In this case, I recommend the Facepull.
- The legs will get hit hard with the combination of a Glute Ham Raise and the Levitation Squat.