The fitness industry has a saying: simplify for results; complicate for profits.
In order to stay in business, muscle magazines have to publish fresh articles every month, trainers have to provide clients with novel routines, and equipment manufacturers need interesting new machines to sell. Yet, when it comes to actually getting in shape, coaches and trainers are well aware that the methods for strengthening muscle and reducing fat have not changed substantially in at least the last 3,000 years. Indeed, the taut abs and toned limbs of classical Greek and Roman art prove that the ideals of physical fitness have been consistent for millennia.
The Silver Lining To Dropping The Iron
The existence of ancient fitness standards that are largely consistent with our own proves that it was perfectly feasible for people to get fit with absolutely none of our modern gym equipment. It also means that the same is still true today! In fact, calisthenics have enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past half-decade, with Instagram celebrities showing off chiseled physiques while doing handstands, single-leg squats, and other challenging bodyweight exercises.
The words “bodyweight exercise” might conjure up memories of climbing the gym class ropes, or grandma dancing along to her favorite aerobics DVD. But while bodyweight exercises — also known as calisthenics — are often sneered at by gym-rats who would rather die than give up their squat racks, a glance at the ripped physique of any competitive gymnast is a convincing argument for the potency of this time-honored method of training.
While gyms have always been somewhat inconvenient (you have to pay for access, you have to go there, you have to wait for the equipment you want to use, you have to work out while other people watch you), COVID lockdowns have made them even more inaccessible. First, there’s no guarantee of access, and depending on a number of factors, you may not be able to use the equipment you want, when you want. Calisthenics solve this problem by allowing you to get an effective workout almost anywhere, including the comfort of your own home.
Minimal Equipment Needed
Exercise almost anywhere, anytime, with no need to wait for a turn on the machine or weight bench. Lockdowns and quarantines won’t affect your fitness routine if you do it at home!
Lower Risk of Injury
Reduce muscle imbalance, strengthen connective tissue, and keep your joints happier with natural motions.
Develop All Aspects of Fitness
Use your bodyweight to build strength, flexibility, and endurance.
The Most Natural Form Of Exercise
Perhaps the easiest way to recognize the value of calisthenics is to consider the animal kingdom. Does a gorilla or a racehorse lift weights? When Charles Atlas, one of the first bodybuilders to promote bodyweight exercises saw a lion at the zoo, he marveled, “Does this old gentleman have any barbells, any exercisers? … And it came over me … He’s been pitting one muscle against another!”
As it happens, “pitting one muscle against another” is also one of the secrets to developing mobility and flexibility. Also, if you’ve ever run laps or jumped rope, you’re probably well aware that nothing more than your own body is necessary for an exhausting cardiovascular workout.
Another advantage of calisthenics is that they work the body in the way it is designed to be used. For example, a pull-up is a natural movement, in which the muscles of the hands, arms, shoulders, chest and back work together to smoothly raise and lower the body. Contrast that with a biceps curl, in which the goal of the exercise is to “isolate” the biceps, using it to move a weight with as little help as possible from neighboring muscles. Which of the two exercises do you think reduces muscle imbalance, strengthens connective tissue, and lowers the risk of joint injury? It’s a no-brainer: the human body, just like every other organism in nature, functions best when worked as a unit.
Safer And More Complete Fitness
Incidentally, the issue of connective tissue becomes more of a problem as we age. In our teens and twenties, strength is more a matter of “Yes or no.” As we get into our thirties and beyond, it gradually turns into “Yes, but it’ll hurt me.” Even if you’re a young buck who can do anything without pain, some of those crazy YouTube workouts put tremendous shearing pressure on the joints that’s likely to haunt you sooner rather than later.
You might be wondering: how is it that we can we be strong enough to lift, say, a sheet of plywood, only to experience searing pain in the arm for months afterwards? The answer is connective tissue. Muscle grows and heals relatively quickly, but the ligaments and tendons that bind those muscles in place take much longer to recover from strain or injury. A strained muscle can heal in a few days, while a strained ligament can take months or years. To make matters worse, the older we get, the more our connective tissue loses flexibility and becomes brittle. Like an old rubber band, it’s less likely to spring back to its original shape, and more likely to snap or tear.
One of the most common objections to bodyweight workouts is that they’re not challenging enough. Adding more weight to a bar is fairly straightforward, but reducing your leverage or switching to a variant of a calisthenics exercise in order to make it more difficult can be tricky. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to make any bodyweight exercise more challenging: slow it down! You might be able to crank out 50 or 100 pushups at normal speed, but slow it down to 10 seconds per pushup, and you’ll feel your muscles screaming for mercy far sooner than you expect.
Interested? Read on to learn how to build your own customized workout routine, and then use the blank training log to track your progress.
A quick introduction to some terms you’ll hear during discussions of calisthenic exercise.
Movements (such as push-ups) that require multiple joints to move together. This type of exercise activates more muscles than isolation exercises (such as biceps curls), and provides balance and support for connective tissue, reducing the risk of injury.
Isometric exercises (such as hollow hold) involve holding a static position to build muscle endurance for postural muscles (back and abs), and are much easier on joints than exercises that require motion.
The opposite of isometrics, plyometrics (such as clapping push-ups) use rapid, explosive movements to add challenge, build speed, and activate quick-twitch muscle fibers.
In the simplest terms, this is how we move:
• Legs lift the body and move it around.
• Arms pull towards the body or push away from it.
• The trunk rolls and unrolls.
A balanced workout routine will include exercises that work the body through all of these basic movements.
Sets, Reps and Workout Frequency
In order for the body to adapt, the exercise routine must be rigorous enough to be meaningful, but not so exhausting that the body can’t recover. Choose exercises that allows you to do at least 5 but not more than10 reps per set. To allow for recovery time, don’t exceed 10 sets per muscle group, per week. Aim for 3 workouts per week, but be flexible.
Design Your Workout Routine
Ready to get going? The rules are simple.
Pick A Schedule
You’ll exercise three days per week. Each day has a different focus: Day 1 = Strength, Day 2 = Core, Day 3 = Cardio. You can pick whichever three days you want, and put them in whichever order you want. If you aren’t sure what to do, just start off with Monday = Strength, Wednesday = Core, Friday = Cardio.
Pick Your Exercises
On Strength Days, do as many repetitions of each exercise as you can. Your goal is to complete at least 5 but no more than 10 repetitions of each exercise. When you can complete 10 reps, switch to a more difficult variant of that exercise, or slow down your cadence (how long it takes to complete each rep) to 10 seconds per rep (5 up, 5 down).
The exercises on Core Day and Cardio Day don’t change: your goal is to hold the Core exercises longer (up to 60 seconds), and to complete the Cardio exercises in less time.
Remember To Warm-Up
Just as a cold rubber band is more likely to snap than a warm one, cold muscles and connective tissue are more likely to be injured. Start each workout with a simple warm-up, such as 100 jumping jacks or a few minutes of shadow-boxing.
Day 1 — Strength
Select variants of each exercise that allow you to do at least 5 reps but less than 10 reps, moving at a natural, in-control speed. Try to get more reps (in good form!) each workout. Once you can do 10 reps, either switch to a more difficult variant, or slow down to 10-second reps. Complete three circuits, moving from one exercise to the next with no rest.
While innumerable variations of the venerable push-up exist, simpler is usually better. To make it more challenging, try moving your hands closer together, or moving them closer to your waistline.
2. Inverted Row
The opposite of a push-up is an inverted row. While holding onto a bar or other surface (table top, etc.), keep your body rigid while pulling yourself all the way up, and smoothly letting yourself back down.
Start off with your heels on the floor, and your hands at chest level. Add challenge by moving your hands closer to your waistline, and bracing your feet against a wall.
If inverted movement is too difficult, you can pull yourself towards a doorframe using one arm at a time, as shown here.
The humble squat is actually one of the most beneficial of all exercises. Make sure you go all the way down; this develops both balance and strength. To make it more challenging without using weights, do “pistol” squats, using only one leg at a time. Work your way up to that by doing deep step-ups (putting one foot on something at waist height, and smoothly standing up without jumping off the other leg).
As a kid, everybody hates doing pull-ups. But guess what? This one exercise works virtually every muscle in the upper body.
Once you can do more than 10 in good form, either move your hands closer together, or focus on moving more slowly in order to add challenge. Taking 10 seconds to do one pull-up will leave you no doubt about how effective this simple movement is.
Oh, and if you’ve ever wondered about the difference between a pull-up and a chin-up, it’s this: a pull-up has your palms facing away from you, and a chin-up has your palms facing towards you. Try both!
A “dip” movement is great for the triceps and shoulders, but it can be tough on the joints, so use caution if you’re not used to it. The idea is to hold yourself off the ground with your arms straight, lower yourself as far down as you can, and then push yourself back up.
Start off by bracing your feet on the floor. Then, move to the classic “parallel” dip with your hands supported on bars or the backs of chairs (don’t let them tip over). When that gets too easy, switch to a single-bar dip with both hands in front of you.
6. Leg Raise
Finish off your Day 1 circuit by working your abs, lower back and thighs with this killer exercise. Start off by lying on the floor with your legs straight, and then pulling your knees towards your chin. When that gets too easy, keep your legs straight, and do the same motion. For added challenge, you can do both exercises while hanging from a bar or other support.
Day 2 — Core
Although there is no body part called a “core,” the abdominal and lower back muscles are often referred to as providing “core strength,” because they keep the spine (the “core” of the body) stable and secure. Because the role of this muscle group is more to keep the body in position, rather than to move it, static-hold “isometric” exercises are uniquely well-suited to developing core strength.
Your goal for each of these positions is to hold it, in good form, for one full minute. Complete three circuits, moving from one exercise to the next with no rest, holding each movement for one minute or as long as possible.
1. Front Plank
The front plank is exactly the same as the beginning push-up position, known to military personnel as the “Front Leaning Rest.” Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, and your feet together. Don’t let your back sag or arch.
2. Side Plank
Side plank is substantially more challenging than front plank. If one hand with your arm extended is too hard to balance, support yourself on your elbow. Do both sides.
3. Rear Plank
Rear plank is easier to balance than side plank, but can provide a nice stretch, in addition to a surprisingly compelling abdominal workout.
4. Hollow Hold
The hollow hold uses every muscle in your anterior (front) core. Practicing this move will make you stronger in every position from standing to running. It’s also one of those moves that looks easy until you try it.
The goal of the hollow hold is to push your lower back flat against the floor, while lifting your straightened arms and legs slightly into the air by squeezing your abdominal muscles in and down.
If you’ve never done this, don’t be surprised if you can’t hold it for more than a few seconds. To make it easier, bring your arms to your sides, or bend your knees. Keep practicing, and it’ll get easier.
5. Arch Hold
The arch hold or “Superman” position is another exercise that is harder than it looks. The goal is to lie on your stomach and keep your arms and legs straight, while lifting them off the floor and holding them that way.
If the strict arch hold is too difficult, make it easier by bringing your arms to your sides or bending your knees.
Whether on the floor, the parallel bars or the rings, the L-sit is a cornerstone of calisthenics strength. When performed properly, you will support your entire bodyweight on your hands, while holding your legs straight in front of you.
This move doesn’t just work the abs, it’s a powerful workout for your arms, shoulders, back and legs.
Work your way up to the full L-sit by using less-difficult variants.
Start off by sitting on the floor and raising your feet up, and trying to hold that. Once that’s easy, try holding yourself up on your hands and lifting one leg at a time off the floor.
When that’s easy, try balancing on your hands with your knees bent in the “tuck” position. When that’s easy, try gradually extending your legs.
Eventually, you should be able to start holding yourself in the full L-sit position for a few seconds. Keep practicing to increase that time.
Day 3 — Cardio
As exercise buff Regis Philben observed, after suffering a heart attack, “the heart is the most important muscle in the body.
Cardio days in this routine are built around Burpees. The notorious Burpee works virtually every muscle in the body, including the heart. This makes it both the most hated and the most valuable exercise, especially for cardio. Alternate weeks on these workouts.
WEEK 1: Complete 100 burpees in as little time as possible. Don’t worry about counting sets, just track total time. Aim for a time under 12 minutes. If you can get them in under 8 minutes, you’re awesome.
WEEK 2: “Tabata.” Named for the Japanese researcher who developed this particular torture, uh, protocol, the Tabata is a form of High Intensity Interval Training. The good news is that only takes four minutes. The bad news is that if you don’t feel like vomiting afterwards, you aren’t pushing yourself hard enough. You’ll need a timer, but the rules are simple: Do as many burpees as possible for 20 seconds, then rest for only 10 seconds. Repeat for 8 sets. Aim for a total of 40 Burpees. If you can do 60 or more, you’re awesome.
Six Steps To The Perfect Burpee
- Start Off Strong
A proper burpee begins in a neutral standing position. Don’t crouch or lean over. Each repetition begins this way.
- Drop It Like It’s Hot
The key to packing more burpees into the same amount of time is dropping to the ground as fast as possible. This is a four-point position where both hands and both feet are touching the floor.
As quickly as possible, thrust your feet all the way out, while dropping down into the bottom of a push-up position.
- Don’t Cheat
Do a push-up in good form. Try not to let your back or knees sag as you pop up.
- Use Momentum
In a continuation of the push-up movement, keep your hands on the floor and pull your feet in, as close to your hands as possible.
From the crouch/squat position, spring straight up to jump as high as you can, completing the repetition. Now do it over and over, as fast as you can, and try not to puke.
Warm-Ups and Stretching
One of the most common mistakes in the world of exercise is the pre-workout stretch. Not only is this counter-productive, it’s often harmful. When your muscles and connective tissue are “cold,” stretching them can either cause an injury or make it more likely that they will become injured as soon as you load them. Instead, you need to warm those muscles up by doing some light cardio to stimulate bloodflow. Jumping jacks, low-speed burpees, and shadow boxing are all great warm-ups. Then, once the workout is finished, stretch those warm, tired muscles to keep them from tightening up.
Here’s a simple post-workout stretching routine that you can follow. Each stretch will be more effective if you actively resist the stretching motion. So, for example, if you’re pulling your knee toward your forehead, use your leg muscles to try to pull the leg in the opposite direction, away from your forehead. It may be counter-intuitive, but that tension actually allows the muscle to stretch farther.
Anterior Shoulder Stretch
This is a great stretch to help reduce chronic tightness in the shoulders and biceps.
While seated on the floor, straighten your arms and put your hands behind you as far as you can. While sliding your hips forward, push your hands forcefully into the floor. Hold the tension for a 10-count, relax and then repeat.
Child Pose With Wide Knees
This one move effectively stretches a multitude of areas in the body.
While kneeling on the floor, bend forward from the waist (stretching your back), extend your arms forward (stretching the biceps and shoulders), and spread your knees (stretching the groin and inner thigh).
Try to push your chest and stomach to the floor, while squeezing your back muscles as though to sit up. Hold the tension for a 10-count, relax and then repeat.
Knee To Forehead
Much of the chronic “mystery pain” that adults feel in their knees is actually not a result of joint damage, but of tightness in the iliotibial band (“IT band”).This stretch can be very effective in reducing knee pain associated with IT band tightness.
While lying on the floor, cross your legs as though you were seated in a chair. Use your arms to pull your foot and knee towards your forehead, while pulling away with your thigh muscles. Hold the tension for a 10-count, relax and then repeat.
Flex While Stretching
Passively pulling on a muscle can feel nice, but it doesn’t actually do much. Suprisingly, a flexed muscle is more mobile than a relaxed one. Whenever possible, resist the stretch by pushing/pulling in the opposite direction. This will result in more effective stretching and also reduce the risk of injury.
Simpler Is Better
Tried-and-true movements like toe-touches and the shoulder capsule stretch (pulling your straightened arm towards your chest) are just as good now as they were in middle school. When in doubt, stretch the way you know how.
Most people who start exercise routines don’t continue more than a few weeks. Why? Because they burn out, get bored, or don’t see any results.
To avoid burnout, don’t bite off more than you can chew. When it comes to exercise, something really is better than nothing. Adjust the frequency and intensity of your workouts to a level that is challenging for you, but not so brutal that you hate doing it.
To stave off boredom, forget the complicated “high variety” workouts you’ve seen elsewhere, and focus on doing a few, simple exercises as well as you possibly can. Make a real effort to keep your body alignment as perfect as possible, and to consciously squeeze the muscles used by each movement.
When it comes to results, look at the numbers more than the mirror. Use the workout log in this magazine to track your progress. As long as you challenge yourself, you’ll add strength and endurance.
Listen To Your Body
If you’re 19, your body can recover from a tough workout a lot more quickly than it can if you’re 39. Be sure to pace yourself, especially if you have old injuries, or issues such as asthma, high blood pressure, etc. If you feel tired and run-down, add an extra rest day between workouts until you’ve gotten back on track.
Make It A Habit
Research shows that it takes upwards of two months to get into the groove of a new habit. If exercise has never been a priority for you, make it as structured as possible. Pick a time of day when you can consistently do your workout (depending on where you are, this decision might be made for you), and don’t let yourself make exceptions.
The more consistently you exercise, the faster you’ll get results. So, even though there will be days when you’re not in the mood, make it a commitment!
Track Your Progress
Here’s a workout sheet you can print out and fill in. Be sure to keep accurate records, so that you can see how much you’re improving.
Disclaimer: You know the deal … Consult your physician before doing anything, and don’t hurt yourself by trying to do more than you can handle.