Build functional strength with these six classic exercises.
Exercise doesn’t have to involve fancy, complicated moves in order to be effective. In fact, sometimes the simplest routines are best, which is exactly what a calisthenics for beginners workout is all about.
Calisthenics is one of those old-school fitness terms that you’re probably vaguely familiar with (hello, middle school gym class!) but perhaps unsure of what it actually means. Put simply, calisthenics is bodyweight training, Susane Pata, a NASM-certified personal trainer in Miami, tells SELF.
Now, contrary to memories of eighth-grade phys ed, calisthenics aren’t just tough, advanced bodyweight exercises like pull-ups, chin-ups, or handstands. A squat “counts” as calisthenics, as does a lunge, glute bridge, and side plank. Basically, any exercise you perform with just the strength of your own bodyweight and no added resistance (think weights, resistance bands, or machines) qualifies as calisthenics. So no, you don’t really need any specific calisthenics equipment to give this form of fitness a try.
Pata is a huge fan of calisthenics and recommends those kinds of workouts for a wide range of fitness levels. But calisthenics workouts can be an especially great choice for beginners in particular, since there are tons of benefits to prioritizing bodyweight training versus loading up the resistance right off the bat. (More on that below!)
Here, we explain how beginners can get started with calisthenics, the awesome benefits of it—and how you can put it all into practice with a six-move beginner calisthenics workout that Pata created just for SELF.
How can beginners start calisthenics?
A well-rounded beginner calisthenics program should center on foundational movement patterns, Pata says. These include squat, lunge, plank, hinge, rotate, push, and pull.
Because these movement patterns are the basis of so much of what we do during strength training—and in life—it’s important to focus on them from the get-go so that you can master proper technique and learn how to safely and effectively move your body in a variety of scenarios. Nailing foundational movement patterns with proper form and in a solid range of motion can help reduce your risk of injury once you progress to more challenging, complex exercises—say, by adding weight to a squat or by doing jump lunges instead of regular lunges. “You have to master [the basics] first in order to effectively and safely move up the progressive timeline,” Pata says.
When getting started, it’s also important to incorporate calisthenics exercises that have you moving in multiple planes of motion and not just forward and backward in the sagittal plane, which is how many of us spend our days and time in the gym. Multiplanar movement can help reduce your risk of injury and allow you to move strong, Pata says. And it has a direct carryover to everyday life, since there will inevitably be instances when you need to quickly cut to the side (like to step out of the way of an oncoming car, which would be motion in the frontal plane) and move diagonally (like to twist to put away dishes, which would qualify as transverse plane motion). Training in all directions just makes for a more functional workout.
In terms of how often to do a basic calisthenics workout, if you’re totally new to it, start with just two days a week, Pata suggests. After several weeks, you can progress up to three times a week (so long as your body is tolerating it well). Just be sure to give yourself enough downtime in between workouts so that your muscle groups have time to recover—say, at least a day in between. That said, pay attention to how you’re feeling and adjust accordingly. For instance, if it’s been two days since your calisthenics workout but you’re still feeling sore, consider going for a walk or doing some gentle stretches instead of trying to power through your planned routine.
Also key: If you’re new to exercise, you may want to chat with your doctor first to make sure this kind of calisthenics workout plan is right for you. Once you’re cleared, it’s super important to warm up properly before diving into this routine. Try this five-minute warm-up designed to prepare you for any workout.
What are the benefits of calisthenics?
For starters, like we mentioned, you can build body awareness with calisthenics when you learn how to do the primary movement patterns properly, Pata says. This can help set you up for exercise success down the line.
In addition, unilateral calisthenics, where just one side of the body is primarily driving the movement—think lunges, single-leg glute bridges, and side planks—can be a great way to identify and ultimately correct imbalances that exist in the body, Pata says. By ID’ing and then working on your imbalances, you can ensure the correct muscles are firing during your exercises, which can reduce the chance of injury.
Another big plus of calisthenics is that they can be a great way to get started with and feel successful doing a workout program, which can increase your confidence and encourage you to stick with an exercise routine, Pata says. Compared to workouts chock-full of heavy resistance moves, calisthenics can feel easier to execute, thus upping your chances of feeling accomplished by the end of your routine.
Another benefit is that you can do a bunch of reps of them at a time since your body isn’t loaded up with resistance. This can help build muscular endurance and core strength, really help you learn the ins and outs of a movement, and also provide cardiorespiratory benefits. The latter is especially true if you program calisthenics in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, where you alternate periods of hard work with recovery.
Finally, because you don’t need any equipment to do calisthenics, they can be a stellar option for slotting in exercise outside of a gym setting.
Is it better to start with calisthenics or weights?
Calisthenics training is a wonderful way to get started with fitness, Pata says. It’s wise to make sure you’re rock solid with the bodyweight version of a calisthenics exercise before increasing the resistance with weights. For instance, you’d want to make sure you have great form in a bodyweight squat before attempting the move with dumbbells in your hands or a barbell on your back; otherwise, you risk injury. “You can’t load dysfunction,” Pata says.
However, if your goal is to really build strength, then you’ll want to eventually incorporate weights into your workout program. (Here are some beginner weight lifting tips to get you started.) Even if you’re not keen on weights, it’s important to consistently up the difficulty of your workouts if you want to continually progress your fitness. There are plenty of ways to amp up the challenge of a workout without adding weights, Pata says, which you can do with calisthenics. These options include decreasing rest time, adding in plyometric elements, increasing speed, and dialing up rep counts.
Now that we’ve gone over everything you need to know about calisthenics, let’s get started with this full-body workout designed to build functional strength and get your body moving!
What you need: A box, bench, or step for the elevated push-up. Otherwise, all you need is your bodyweight for this calisthenics beginner workout—no equipment required!
- Reverse Lunge to Rotation
- Glute Bridge
- Modified Forearm Side Plank
- Skater Hop to Floor Tap
- Hands-Elevated Push-Up
- Do each exercise in Superset 1 for 30 seconds, resting 30 to 60 seconds after each exercise. Repeat for 2 total rounds. Then, rest 60 seconds before moving onto Superset 2. Repeat for Superset 2 and Superset 3.
- For a more challenging workout, increase the work period: Start with 45 seconds of work, then move up to 60 seconds if you’re still looking for more.
Demoing the moves below are Nikki Pebbles (GIF 1), a special populations personal trainer in New York City; Landyn Pan (GIF 2), an online fitness and nutrition coach who helps LGBTQ+ individuals feel confident and affirmed in their bodies; Gail Barranda Rivas (GIFs 3 and 6), a certified group fitness instructor, functional strength coach, Pilates and yoga instructor, and domestic and international fitness presenter; Alex Orr (GIF 4), a non-diet NASM-certified personal trainer and CNC, and host of The Birdie and the Bees podcast; and Heather Boddy (GIF 5), a group fitness instructor and creator of the Geeknasium workout program.
Jenny is a Boulder, Colorado-based journalist specializing in fitness, food, and human interest. She entered the news-making business at age 8 when she created a canine-themed publication for local dog owners. Though The Baci News (named after her family’s lab chow mix) didn’t survive sixth grade, her curiosity of people… Read more
SELF does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Any information published on this website or by this brand is not intended as a substitute for medical advice, and you should not take any action before consulting with a healthcare professional.
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