What are the Benefits of Calisthenics?
Calisthenics exercises have stood the test of time and they form the basis of physical training in every military and elite athletes training program around the world.
The reason for their enduring appeal is their undeniable effectiveness, wide array of benefits and the fact that different variations of each exercise can be scaled from beginner level to advanced.
Here are the most important benefits of calisthenics.
Calisthenics exercises are all compound exercises that increase muscle mass
They can effectively improve different strength attributes for superior, muscular endurance, explosive strength and maximal strength
Calisthenics training increase coordination, balance, flexibility and mobility whilst simultaneously developing strength
They promote a proportional physique and prevent muscle imbalances.
Save time and money by training at home for free
Calisthenics promotes functional strength for improved athleticism and teaches different muscle groups to work together cohesively and not in isolation.
Calisthenics Builds Muscle Mass
Yes, you can build muscle by just using body weight exercises. The body does not distinguish between different types of resistance training when it comes to building muscle. So whether you are lifting weights or lifting your own body weight it does not matter.
What the body is going to respond to is tension, and you can create tension with your body weight at a high enough intensity to create a progressive overload to build muscle.
With calisthenics, the progressive overload comes from progressing to more difficult variations of the various body weight exercises.
So for example, a great starting point to build triceps and shoulder muscle is with regular push ups. Once this exercise has become to comfortable and you can exceed 15 reps per set easily then you can increase the tension by elevating your feet with decline push ups.
This will place a greater proportion of your body weight onto your shoulders and puts the shoulders and triceps at a mechanical advantage to contribute more to the exercise, and it will progressively overload the muscles, thus increasing the potential for adding muscle mass.
Once this variation of push up has become too comfortable, you can increase the intensity again by progressing to wall assisted handstand push ups and so on.
Whatever your target muscle group, there are enough variations of calisthenics exercises to keep challenging your muscles with enough intensity to continually gain muscle mass and strength.
For more info on the optimal rep ranges and time under tension for muscle growth, have a look at my article.. Can you build muscle with calisthenics?
Calisthenics Exercises are all Compound Movements
Compound exercises are exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups to work together to contribute to the movement. This is in contrast to isolation movements such as preacher curls or chest press machine which attempt to isolate individual muscles to increase their size.
With exercises like chin ups, ring muscle ups or pistol squats, there are multiple large muscle groups that actively work together in one coordinated effort to move your body. Instead of just one muscle recruited, the muscle groups in your back, arms, shoulders, chest and core are all recruited into providing the force or stability required to do the exercise.
The compound movements of calisthenics subsequently not only improve functional strength by promoting different muscle groups to work in unison, but also develop:
Mobility and flexibility
With calisthenics you are increasing your strength and developing, these athletic characteristics that are required for sports performance and in everyday movement.
By comparison, weight training, particularly isolation lifting and machine weights can be rather one dimensional. This is why an athlete may be able to lift a huge weight using the smith machine squat rack (where the stability component is removed), but they will be unable to perform a pistol (one legged) squat as the core strength, muscular coordination and joint mobility has not been developed.
Calisthenics exercises therefore have a much better athletic application then the majority of the weighted equivalent exercises.
This is why calisthenics exercises feature prominently in every elite military training regime, strength and conditioning programmes of athletes and have stood the test of time because of their effectiveness over most modern gym machines and equipment.
Save Time with Full Body Workouts
Calisthenics exercises are more time efficient then most weight based workouts as the exercises train so many muscles at once.
Think about how many muscle groups are under tension during a pull up. Under the most stress are the primary movers- the biceps and lats- with the large muscles of the back and forearms also contributing to the generation of pulling force.
The core is also under considerable tension to stabilise and keep the body taut, coordinated and in the correct position during the movement.
Training all these different muscle groups simultaneously saves a tremendous amount of time. If you were to target all these muscle groups individually with gym equipment, attempting to isolate and work each muscle within a specific rep range it would take hours, not to mention it would get boring.
Not only that, it would not yield the same athletic benefits that calisthenics promotes and encourage different muscle groups to work cohesively together, rather then in isolation.
Calisthenics Promotes Functional Strength
Calisthenics can be used to meet any strength goal that you may have, often, more effectively and safely then weights would allow.
For example, different strength characteristics are required for different sports and calisthenics exercises can be used and adapted to emphasise and improve these athletic qualities for improved athletic performance.
Lets look at different variations of explosive, endurance and maximal strength and how you can use calisthenics to target them:
Explosive or plyomeric strength is exercise where the muscle is exerting maximum force in a short interval.
Many different sports require you to sprint, throw, jump, punch and kick which are all plyometric movements, so plyometirc training is very sport specific.
Developing and honing explosive strength is much more simple and safe with calisthenics then it is with weights and much more practical.
The perfect way to increase explosive strength in your legs is with box jumps and sprints. These exercises will fire up your fast twitch muscle fibres and condition your legs for explosive movement.
It is possible to add weight to these exercises to increase the intensity (with a weight vest, ankle weights etc.) but I would advise against this. Loading up extra weight and then practising explosive movements can be tough on your joints.
Your body weight provides enough resistance to provide enough stimulus for training fast twitch muscle fibres without needing additional weight that is going to tax your joints.
If you have every ran with a heavy backpack or weighted vest you will know it can hammer your knees, so don’t tax your joint unnecessarily and stick to body weight explosive training.
Endurance strength is where the muscle is under tension for a relatively longer duration without decreasing the efficiency of the movement. A lot of sports require endurance strength in some form or other but sports like, rowing, rocking climbing, rugby, wrestling etc. really emphasise this form of strength.
Developing muscular endurance for sport is most effectively achieved with calisthenics training. This is because you are moving your body with compound movements, engaging muscle groups to work together whilst honing your balance, coordination and flexibility.
Calisthenics exercises are extremely versatile so you can adapt a lot of the exercises to suit the purposes of increasing your muscular endurance.
For example, body weight squats, burpees, push ups, inverted rows and core exercises such as hanging knee raises from a pull up bar are all exercises that can be adapted for increasing muscular endurance with a high amount of time under tension and by adopting the appropriate rep range.
Exercises like the push up can be scaled up or down to meet your personal ability.
If you can do around 10 push ups or less, then you can do push ups from your knees to really burn out the triceps and chest. Or you could start from your knees and aim to keep a consistent output for as long as you can. Both are very effective strategies for sport specific endurance in the chest and arms.
Burpees are a personal favourite of mine as they hit every major muscle group and even promote explosive strength too, which is why they are such a favourite in the military for combat conditioning.
Bench pressing a huge amount of weight in the gym is very impressive but in a practical, sports specific sense, it is often not useful and can even be counterproductive.
Its not often you need one rep max strength on a very specific plane of movement, such as the bench press. However in sports you may have to maintain an output of varying intensity for 80+ minutes depending on the sport. In sports like this, a calisthenics based endurance train will serve your performance much better.
Maximal strength is the greatest amount of force your muscle or muscle groups can produce in a movement. The sport of power-lifting prioritises this type of strength, particularly with the exercises of bench press, squats and dead-lift.
However developing maximal strength isn’t restricted to these three exercises nor does it necessarily require weighted resistance.
If you are doing a particular exercise where the maximum number of reps you can achieve is 8 or less then the emphasis of your training will be on developing strength. So maximal strength training for some people may be to do 5 body weight dips or 5 wide grip pull ups.
Both these exercises are excellent compound movements and therefore contribute significantly to overall maximal strength.
Another example is the handstand push up which is already a difficult exercise but it can be scaled in difficulty by elevating your hands so that you are no longer restricted by your head making contact with the ground and you have a more complete range of motion.
This is an exercise that undeniably challenging exercise which relies on huge power in the shoulders and triceps, not to mention that the stabilising muscles of the core and shoulders develop in strength in proportion to your primary movers- the arms and the shoulders.
Calisthenics does have its limitations when it comes to developing maximal strength in the legs. The best way to increase power in your lower body is barbell squats, as you can easily add more weight to the exercise to maintain a progressive overload, to continue to get stronger.
Whilst there are calisthenics variations for leg exercises, (lunges, squats, squats, jumping jacks, calf raises, plyometric box jumps etc.) there are few that you can do to consistently overload the legs for the purpose of gaining maximal strength.
The one notable exception would be pistol (one legged) squats. Due to to the balance, ankle flexibility, core strength and proprioception required, pistol squats are far more difficult then they look and they have significant athletic crossover.
You can scale your pistol squats with a weight vest or by simply holding a dumbbell to maintain that all important progressive overload and increase you maximal strength.
Build a Proportional Physique
With full body calisthenics training, you will naturally build a physique that is proportional in both strength and size, owing to the fact calisthenics works your body as one unit.
Working out with big compound moves such as push ups, pull ups, planks and squats will ensure that your muscles will grow evenly in relation to one another so that you don’t develop any muscle or strength imbalances that can ultimately lead to a reduced mobility and poor posture.
With weights the temptation can be to over emphasise a particular part of your physique or individual muscle, for example, the biceps or visible six pack abs.
This can leave other areas of your physique comparatively underdeveloped which not only does not look as desirable but can cause problems in terms of injury.
Having one muscle that is more developed then the surrounding muscle groups can change the position of your joints at rest or change its path of motion during a movement.
By implementing a full body calisthenics workout you can hit every muscle group with just a few exercises to grow a proportional aesthetic physique whilst promoting balance and mobility and avoid muscle imbalances that lead to poor motor patterns, joint discomfort and injury.
Workout at Home
One of the biggest advantages of calisthenics is that you do not need a gym or expensive gym equipment for a full body workout.
The average cost of a gym membership in New York is $134.50 with many gyms charging much higher rates. Over the course of the year this cost adds up to $1614 which is a lot of money to spare on top of an already high cost of living.
Not only that you have to spend time and money getting to the gym which can be an inconvenience after a long days work.
With calisthenics, you can do a full body workout at home, saving significant amount of time and money with either no equipment or just a few basics.
There are loads of exercises such as pistol squats, push ups and burpees that require no equipment, but with just a small investment you can expand your repertoire of exercises so that you never need a gym again.
My personal favourite is gymnastic rings, which can be hung from garage beams or perhaps a tree outside. With a pair of rings you have an infinite scope of exercises to increase your strength, muscle and athleticism for the entire upper body with exercises such as:
Ring Push ups
If you are travelling frequently in hotels or you do not have the room to hand gymnastic rings then a TRX suspension trainer is a great option. With TRX you can do a huge range of exercises, but crucially you can hang the equipment from any door frame with the door anchor that comes included.
Both gymnastic rings and TRX are easy to store and therefore do not take up a significant amount of space if your training at home, whereas free weights, barbells and benches need a whole garage worth of space and are a much bigger investment.
So what are the benefits of calisthenics?
The number one advantage that stands out for me is that fact you can do these exercises anywhere with only minimal equipment. With just a pull up bar or a pair of gymnastic rings you can do full body workouts with endless room to gain strength and muscle.
Calisthenics has the unique quality of promoting athletic attributes such as coordination, balance and flexibility whilst you are improving your strength. Not only does this help you in competition but it also translates very well to every day movement and mobility.
Compound movements really help emphasise core strength and engage multiple muscle groups to work together, contributing to each movement.
Calisthenics exercises can be scaled in intensity from the beginner doing push ups on their knees to the advanced power-lifter practising handstand push ups with their hands elevated.There are so many variations, you can find an exercise that works for you, without going to the gym or loading you joint up with external weight.
You can always improvise an effective full body calisthenics workout where ever you go without accessing a gym.