Calisthenics For Beginners – Build Muscle & Strength With These 6 Exercises

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calisthenics for beginners - man performing a pull up

We live in a world where we are decreasingly mobile; more and more of us work office jobs or remain behind a screen for a larger part of the day, hindering our ability to use our body for what it was meant for, and slowly damaging it over time.

We increasingly develop all sorts of tendinopathies and various other problems in all parts of the body. Tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and a poor posture are very common in this modern way of life and they can be prevented or rendered less severe through various methods.

A good bodyweight routine can restrengthen those rear deltoids and help prevent forward rounding of the shoulders, making a dramatic posture difference and improvement. Working out regularly mean increased blood flow through your muscles and joints, improving lubrication and promoting effective flushing out of those dead tissues.

Tendons have a much more limited blood flow compared to your muscles, why is why it is useful to incorporate weekly exercising which will increase that blood flow further and help you recover more effectively.

As I mentioned in my calisthenics equipment article, body weight training started for me as a way to solve various back problems I was facing at the time. Not only did it save my back, but it got me hooked to the shear strength, power, and aesthetics you can develop with it, or just how anyone, anywhere, can use it to stay in shape, develop qualities which will carry over to other sports, or simply unwind during a long office work shift. Body weight training, or Calisthenics is highly advantageous because it can be performed  practically anywhere.

A great bodyweight routine can effectively be performed in a wide variety of different places; a park, your bedroom, a forest, and even on a tight office floor during your break ! This, and the fact that you can perform an efficient workout with limited to no material, is what makes calisthenics so powerful.

Welcome to this Calisthenics for beginners article, specially curated for those who are interested in starting out their own calisthenics journey.

What can I expect from this Calisthenics for beginners guide ?

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  • A list of basic compound exercises you can do as a beginner.
  • Progressions to those exercises, for when they become too easy for you to perform.
  • Videos that teach you how to do the exercise with the appropriate form.
  • How to arrange your favorite exercises into an efficient workout routine for  increased strength, or hypertrophy.
  • How to warm up and activate your muscles with various body line drills.
  • Existing, popular bodyweight workout routines that other people are using.


1. The basics

It’s important to understand that as pretty much anything in life, it’s important for you to master the basics before going any deeper into whatever you are learning. In our case, and to preserve and promote a healthy body, basic movement patterns such as push ups, dips, pull ups, rows, hollow body holds and squats have to be understood and mastered to some degree before you can even think of starting to train for more advanced movements such as handstand push ups, one arm pull ups, planches, and more. Do otherwise, and you greatly increase the chances of injuring yourself, which is not what we are looking for in this guide.

I am going to go over what I think are the 6 most important exercises you should master from the start; use as a foundation for your physique, and later on, how you can continuously increase the difficulty to your level. In fact, you can build an amazing body and impressive strength with just these five exercises, so hang on and read through, this article may completely dramatically increase your quality of life !

The hollow body hold

We’ll start with basics of basics; the hollow body hold. This is the position that you should use in practically all your exercises. Far too many people, neglect this, or don’t even know what it is. I you are one of these people, don’t worry, you are going to be happy you took the time to read because this will improve your overall form in practically every single exercise you perform. It’s also a great core exercise and a great activation drill that I use on a daily basis in my warm ups.

What to aim for:

  • lower back forms a straight line, no lumbar arch
  • shoulders do not touch the floor
  • feet about 10 inches above the floor
  • posterior pelvic tilt

What to watch out for:

  • arms out too wide
  • legs at a 90 degree angle
  • lumbar arch
  • awkward head position

The hollow hold can be implemented on a daily basis before your other movements as a means of activating your core and practicing on your alignment for handstands, push ups, pull ups and more. Start small by holding it with perfect form for as long as you can and increase until you can hold it for a set of 60 seconds. Stop when your form starts to deteriorate.

The push up 

The foundation for all your other pushing exercises; the push up can be used to take you from the point where you are a complete beginner, all the way to handstand push ups and more high strength moves as such. Again, this is where you will see that the hollow hold is important, as it translates directly into your push up position. as demonstrated below.

What to aim for:

  • posterior pelvic tilt, no lumbar arch
  • wrists in a nearly vertical line under your shoulders
  • squeeze shoulder blades together at the bottom, spread them at the top
  • go all the way up, and all the way down. Do not neglect range of motion for more reps

What to watch out for:

  • excessive lumbar arch
  • flared elbows ( puts additional stress on your shoulders )
  • awkward, forced, downward head position
  • poor range of movement

The push up is the king of pushing fundamentals that should not be neglected, whether you are a beginner, or an expert, the strength you build in a push up carries over to many other movements. As you get stronger, you can ramp things up with more difficult progressions or by adding weight. I will go over this later.

The dip

Along with the push ups, possibly the two best pushing exercises you could possibly do. The dip is a close kinetic chain exercise, meaning that the muscular co-contractions it generates lead to greater joint stability. you can perform it on regular parallel bars as a beginner, and move on to gymnastic ring dips later on. Here’s how to do them correctly.

What to aim for:

  • keep constant tension
  • full range of motion at all times
  • squeeze shoulder blades at the bottom and push them apart at the top

What to watch out for:

  • over extending the elbows
  • going to deeper than your shoulder mobility allows
  • kipping
  • spine position

Start by doing them on parallel bars, or a straight bar. You can then move on to gymnastic rings dips where you will also have to stabilize the rings, thus increasing muscle fiber activation and making the exercise much harder. Start slow and watch out for your range of motion; don’t try to go too deep at first as your shoulders will hate you for it otherwise.

The pull up

I don’t think I need to tell you how important these are, and the good they can do for you. No pulling routine should ever be considered without pull ups as a part of it. Just look at some of the calisthenics athletes you will find on Instagram or YouTube; they all have massive “V” shaped backs; and that is manly due to the fact that they include pull ups almost religiously as a part of their routine. Once again though, too often is form sacrificed for more reps or just by complete ignorance as to how to exercise should be performed.

What to aim for:

  • FULL range of motion
  • controlled movement
  • correct scapular engagement ( see video )

What to watch out for:

  • Uneven pulling
  • kipping
  • rounded shoulders at the top of the movement

One of the absolute best pulling exercises you can do for back development, posture correction, and strength gains. Can be adapted to anyone’s level in many different ways. The pull up should be a part of both basic, and advanced routines.

The row

Another staple in terms of puling movements is the bodyweight row. Pair this with pull ups and you are guaranteed big results in size and strength. Also great for posture correction, this movement with strengthen your entire back; latimus dorsi, rhomboids, trapezius, they will all get there share. Here is a video on how to perform them correctly, with a brief explanation of how you can keep challenging yourself with this movement when it gets too easy.

What to aim for:

  • engaged, retracted scapula
  • body in a straight line
  • squeeze at the top
  • controlled movement

What to look out for:

  • rounded shoulders
  • excessive lumbar arch
  • kipping

My favorite in terms of rowing movements. A great mass builder that gives you enough leverage to keep making it harder as you gradually become stronger. Another common name for this exercise is Australian pull ups”.

The bodyweight squat

A great exercise for most beginners, and an introduction to all sorts of other leg exercises you can do down the road with some of the strength you will have built from those bodyweight squats. Once again, understanding how to perform this movement is important, especially if you wish to add weight as you get stronger.

What to aim for:

  • feet shoulder width apart
  • keep your heels flat on the ground
  • bend at the hips and sit back

What to look out for:

  • excessive rounding of the spine
  • “bouncing” on your knees
  • heels coming off of the floor at the bottom of the movement

As mentioned above, this exercise will serve as a stepping stone towards the harder bodyweight (or weighted if you prefer and have access to weights ) variations. Practice these regularly and if you find yourself lacking in mobility at the bottom of the movement ( heels coming off the floor ), try just sitting down into a deep squat position and spending a few minutes there a couple of times per day. You can gradually aim to get even lower, and hold for longer periods of time comfortably.

The handstand

This exercise will be vital at the start to build strength around the shoulder girdle, triceps, and overall balance. It has a nice carry over to several other exercises, including more advanced movements you will be doing later on like handstand push ups.

What to aim for:

  • Maintain an elevated scapula
  • Locked elbows
  • Maintain hollow and rigid body

What to look out for:

  • “Banana” shape of the body line
  • Not respecting the proper elbow or scapula position as mentioned above
  • Jerking oneself into the handstand without control

You won’t achieve the handstand in two weeks, and probably not even 2 months. To nail this movement, it really takes consistent practice. You should work on this 4 to 6 times a week, for sessions anywhere from 5 to 20 minutes, after a short warm up consisting of bodyline drills and wrist prep. Once achieved though, it is incredibly rewarding to be balancing on your hands consistently, and it will make your workouts that much better in the future.

The L-sit

The L-sit will get you that core strength, and will greatly participate in maintaining that structural balance in the shoulder girdle, which is highly important. It’s generally a good idea to superset these with the handstands as you will be training elevating the scapula and pushing it down at the same time.

What to aim for:

  • Push shoulders down towards the floor
  • Locked elbows
  • palms flat on the floor

What to look out for:

  • Try to keep your legs as straight as possible
  • Rounding of the upper back

As you progress on these, you will gain both strength and flexibility, allowing you to eventually perform the V-sit and more. A strong L-sit equals a strong core.

How to warm up effectively

Before any workout, you should always spend time warming up appropriately. When I first started training, I knew little about both warming up, and the exercises I was doing. As time passed, I learned more and more about strength exercises and such but never bothered to put as much time and effort into creating a dedicated warm up routine. At first I did them just because I had heard that you need to, and my warm ups sucked accordingly.

As a result, I have had a few small injuries and some big ones that have kept me off training for up to 4 months at a time. It’s really disappointing to train with ardour for years and then have to loose progress because I wasn’t careful enough with both warming up, and recovery.

Don’t be like me and many others, listen to your body, treat it with respect and give yourself plenty of time for a proper warm up before anything else.

There exists a few different ways of warming up depending on the situation, but in general here’s how I like to do it for maximum efficiency:

  1. Static stretches
  2. Movement and rotations of joints, starting with the upper body and going down to the lower body
  3. Activation of your core and stabilization muscles through bodyline drills

A great example of this type of warm up can be found here. Reddit features a fantastic bodyweight workout forum from which you can gather a lot of information and ask questions of your own, share your progress with others and more.

Choosing or creating your own workout routine

Now you have a grasp of the basics and how to work on them, but also how to warm up properly, we can go over how to integrate those exercises into an efficient calisthenics routine for beginners. I will also explain how you can then make those exercises more challenging as you progress.

A great way to go about doing this would be to pick two pulling exercises, two pushing exercises, and lastly, one or two lower body exercises. You can also throw in some ab training work such as L-sits, or leg raises.

three sets of each of these exercises, for a total of three times a week, with at least a day of rest in between each workout. It would look like this:
calisthenics for beginners

  1. pull ups – 3 sets
  2. rows – 3 sets
  3. dips – 3 sets
  4. push ups – 3 sets

rest from 1 to 5 minutes between each set.

The amount of reps you do depends on your goals:

  • 6-12 rep range is optimal for muscle hypertrophy
  • 1-6 reps is optimal for maximum strength
  • 12-20+ is optimal for indurance

For maximum muscle growth and strength gains, you want to aim for progressive overload. That means sensible, incremental loads; you can do this by adding more sets, shortening your rest times, advancing to a harder exercise progression, or adding weight.

For more information on which bodyweight progressions to advance to or how to perform a specific warm up, I would really encourage you to check out the recommended routine on Reddit’s bodyweight training forum. It’s a fantastic routine to get started with, similar to what I have already spoken about above, and information packed with essential knowledge.

This should so far cover the essential training aspects to consider when starting calisthenics, and I hope it was of use to you. I will be releasing an article on my top list of recommended bodyweight training and nutrition books very soon. In the meantime, you can subscribe to the blog by simple leaving your email adress in the sidebar. This will insure that you don’t miss out on further, upcoming articles.

Calisthenics for beginners – Conclusion

In this guide you will have learned about the basics you should start training with, how they are performed, and how you can keep progressing by making the movement more difficult. You’ve also seen how to arrange these exercises into an efficient routine for increased strength and hypertrophy, as well as how to warm up properly before jumping into your workout. Don’t forget to do the bodyline drills before doing your handstands and L-sits; if you are also planning on doing those.

Lastly, we went over how to choose or create your own routine.

Now that you have all this information, which exercises do you think you’ll apply to your own routine? If you think I have left out anything that should be in this guide, please comment below, so we can get a conversation going!


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