An effective bodyweight workout can be constructed from a handful of what we know to be some of the best calisthenics exercises. In most cases actually, it is better to have the simplest workout possible that has been designed with the strict minimum of exactly what you need to reach your goals, rather than doing a ton of different exercises at once, sometimes impacting your results negatively on the long term.
This article will serve as a guide to the best calisthenics exercises to choose from to promote constant progress whether you are an advanced trainee, or a total beginner. The same exercises can be made easier or harder through various progressions depending on your current level of strength, endurance, and general abilities, and therefore be used by anyone at any phase of their training.
If you are unsure of what progressions are or how to use them properly, read on as I have listed every progression for pretty much any level on every featured exercise so that you may obtain constant progress and keep on getting stronger.
If you are new to bodyweight training or unfamiliar with some aspects of training such as compound movements vs isolation or other different methods of training like isometric and static work, I have included a clear explanation of what they are and how to best use them in this article also.
Compound vs Isolation
In any exercise routine, compound exercises should always serve as the foundation of your workout, followed by one or two isolation exercises to complete the job. They will recruit the largest amount of motor units, stimulate a larger amount of muscle fibers, and provide a greater challenge to your central nervous system; which is why they should be done first.
These exercises can include movements such as pull ups, rows, push ups, dips, deadlift and squats.
To give you an example, a bodyweight pushing session could look something like this:
- Handstand pushups (compound exercise)
- Dips (compound exercise)
- Pushups (compound exercise)
- Tricep extensions (isolation exercise)
When you are doing Isolation work, you are doing the exact opposite of a compound movement and only targeting a single muscle at a time. This allows you to isolate weaknesses and work on them separately, and further aid with growth and strength gains. They are also sometimes used as a means of injury prevention by strengthening a particular area. Some isolation movements include rear delt pulls, bicep curls, and tricep extensions.
Isometric & Static
The muscle is contracted in a static way; the muscle is contracted in a lengthened or shortened state but does not move either concentrically or eccentrically.
Some know isometric strength exercises include:
- Human flags
- Front and back lever
Isometric training can be used to build muscle and is great for strength training.
The best calisthenics exercises
Arguably the most effective compound pulling exercise you can do along with the deadlift, if you have access to weights.
Targeted muscles: Lats, Biceps, Rhomboids, Trapezius, Forearms and core
The bodyweight pull up can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- jumping pull ups
- Negative pull ups
- Pull ups
- L-sit pull ups
- Archer pull ups
- One arm chin up eccentrics
- One arm chin up
Once you have reached the one arm chin up/pull up, you may add weight to further increase the difficulty.
Regular pull ups with added weight can also be done instead of the bodyweight progressions.
The standard, horizontal pull. When paired along with pull ups, rows will help to build upper back thickness and strength.
Targeted muscles: Lats, Rhomboids, Trapezius, Rear delts, posterior chain, core
The bodyweight row can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Row negatives
- Full row
- Full row, feet elevated
- Archer row
- One arm row
- Tuck row
- Advanced tuck row
- One legged front lever row
- Straddle row
- Full front lever row
All the exercises up to the tuck row can be performed on a low pull ups bar, gymnastics rings, or a low set bar in a squat rack or smith machine.
From the tuck row on to the front lever row, you will need a higher pull up bar or rings, so as to not touch the floor.
Once you obtain the feet elevated row, you may also progress by adding weight in a backpack or wearing a weight vest.
The standard bodyweight, closed kinetic chain pushing exercise.
Targeted muscles: Chest, anterior delts, triceps, core, some posterior chain activation
The bodyweight push up can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Knee push ups
- Standard push ups
- Diamond push ups
- Rings push ups
- Rings turned out push ups
- Rings turned out archer push ups
- Rings turned out pseudo planche push ups
- Rings turned out maltese push ups
- Wall pseudo planche push ups
- Rings wall pseudo planche push ups
- Wall maltese push ups
- Rings wall maltese push ups
Other effective push up variations to work on include the one arm push up which can be worked towards by starting on an elevated surface, and gradually decreasing the elevation.
Explosive movements such as several variants of the clap push up are also effective.
Regular push ups can also be weighted with the use of a backpack, dip belt, or weighted vest.
The bodyweight dip is another highly effective closed kinetic chain pushing exercise.
Muscles targeted: Chest, anterior delts, lateral delts, triceps, core, some posterior chain activation
The bodyweight dip can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Parallel bar jumping dips
- Parallel bar dip eccentrics
- Parallel bar dips
- Ring dips
- Ring L-sit dips
- Rings wide dips
- Rings turned out dips + Augmented forward lean
To make the exercise harder, keep increasing the forward lean all the way up to a maltese hold.
The bodyweight variant of the overhead press. Handstand push ups are not an easy feat, especially the freestanding version.
Muscles targeted: Shoulders, Triceps, Trapezius, core, some lat and posterior chain activation
The handstand push up can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Pike push up
- Elevated pike push up
- Wall handstand push ups eccentric
- Wall headstand push up
- Wall handstand push up
- Freestanding headstand push up
- Freestanding handstand push up
Perform this movement on rings to make it increasingly harder
It would be wise to have mastered the handstand to some degree before attempting the freestanding handstand push up. It will also allow you to condition your shoulders and elbows for the upcoming harder variations.
The L-sit is a fundamental core exercise in bodyweight and gymnastics training. It has a powerful carry over to many other bodyweight isometric skills and movements.
Muscles targeted: Abdominals, Hip flexors, Lats, Rhomboids and Scapular stabilizers, quadriceps and forearms
The L-sit can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Tuck L-sit
- One leg bent L-sit
- Straddle L-sit
- Rings turned out L-sit
The transition form a V-sit to a Manna is long. Gradually increase the degree of compression and height of your legs to work towards it.
A basic but perhaps one of the most fundamental exercises in bodyweight training; the handstand hold is great for building up strength in the shoulder, learning proper body alignment, learning how to effectively shrug the scapula and strengthen that too, without mentioning the fact that it needs to be mastered before one can move on to more advanced exercises like the handstand push up.
Muscles targeted: shoulders, chest, Serratus anterior, Erector spinae, Trapezius, Latissimus dorsi and Quadratus lumborum.
The handstand can be rendered more difficult through progressions in the following order:
- Wall handstand
- Freestanding handstand
- Freestanding handstand with one arm support
- One arm handstand
- Ring strap handstand (feet against the straps)
- Ring freestanding handstand
As a personal note I like to couple my l-sit and handstand work in order to prevent any imbalances from happening in the shoulder girdle.
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