Calisthenics: Why It Stands the Test of Time & How You Can Get Started

by | Updated: April 28th, 2023 | Read time: 5 minutes

Picture calisthenics and you may think of middle school gym class. High school gymnastics practice also comes to mind with exercises like v-lifts and push-ups. Aspects of yoga also pop up because many yoga postures are essentially calisthenics plus gymnastics. This is all to say, you too have done calisthenics at some point. Calisthenics have been around forever, with an origin story dating back a century or two.

If you’re looking for a form of exercise that’s both familiar and novel, consider resurrecting calisthenics. You’ll find the benefits of calisthenics are many.

A Woman Uses Outdoor Parallel Bars to Do Leg Lifts, Representing Calisthenics for Beginners.

Calisthenics for Beginners: Reasons to Give it a Try, Plus a Sample Workout

Calisthenics require no tools, particular clothing or proprietary regimens

It’s easy to understand why calisthenics have endured. You don’t need anything to do it, no kettlebells or circuit programs. Your own body and gravity do the trick, and you can follow whatever “intervals” you want in order to benefit. Sure, a pull-up bar or gymnastics rings can be fun to incorporate, but they’re superfluous. Save them for later, when you’re looking for bigger challenges or itching for add-ons.

Calisthenics build strength

Look to male gymnasts for an example of how effectively calisthenics build strength. Gymnasts might lift weights occasionally, but their upper body muscle mass comes mainly from isometric holds and other body weight acrobatics.

Calisthenics increase flexibility

Seasoned gymnasts and yoga practitioners are both good examples of how calisthenics can increase flexibility. They exhibit increased flexibility relative to the period of time before they started calisthenics-type movements. Given my background in both yoga and gymnastics, I can attest to this firsthand.

Calisthenics hone balance and posture

Many forms of exercise increase balance and improve posture, but sports and practices that use more calisthenics movements (like gymnastics and yoga) hone these skills even more.

Calisthenics offer a range of intensity

You can make your calisthenics workout as weak or as intense as suits you.

If the whole of your calisthenics experience unfolded in your school gymnasium to the beat of your physical education teacher’s instructions, get psyched for a fresh start. We’re all at different phases of fitness and health. It doesn’t matter what you weigh or your fitness level, you can do calisthenics.

Calisthenics Routine for Beginners

Arm lifts

Sit in a chair with your torso upright and your feet flat on the ground. Your knees should be a little lower than your hips with your pelvis tilted forward slightly. Lift one arm laterally to about shoulder height or slightly above. Release it back down or hold it for one, several or many counts. Switch arms. Then lift each arm ahead of you. Same options for the holds. Repeat it all as many times as you want.

Leg extensions

Sit in a chair with the back of your knees at the chair’s front edge, your feet on or toward the ground and your torso upright. Straighten one leg. You can immediately bend it again or hold it for one, several or many counts. If you want more of a challenge, lift your entire straight leg a little higher before you bend your knee and drop your foot back down. Repeat with your other leg. Continue with each leg as long as you want.

Nothing complicated, right? But even more physically fit individuals can build strength with arm lifts and leg extensions. Hold your arm or leg aloft for a minute or two. Still not complicated, though taxing nonetheless. In addition to strengthening your arms or legs, these calisthenics work your core muscles because you need those muscles to stabilize your movements.

Advanced Calisthenics Routine

Plank with side variations

Come to your hands and knees then straighten your legs to create a plank position, one that looks like you’re in the apex of a push-up (push-ups are calisthenics!). This is your baseline. If you can hold plank for five solid seconds without rounding your upper back, sagging at your stomach or dropping your knees, you’re ready for the variation.

For the variation, drop to hands and knees for a few breaths, and then return to the plank shape. Now shift weight to your right hand while lifting your left arm skyward, as you simultaneously rotate to the outer edge of your right foot and inner edge of your left foot. Hold for as long as you want without your midsection sagging, and then return to your baseline plank, followed by a shift to the left hand, outer left foot and inner right foot. Repeat as many times as you want.

What you strengthen: All your muscles! Okay, maybe not all, but lots of them. Behold: You’ll work muscles in your back, neck, rear upper arms, shoulders, chest, stomach, butt, front and side thighs, and along your shins.

Contraindications: weak wrists, carpal tunnel syndrome

Standing balance leg lift

Stand with your feet under your hips and your hands on your hips. Shift your weight into your right leg, tilting your torso to the right and lifting your left leg laterally. Stop when you feel a stitch in your left buttock. Hold for as long as you can and/or lift then lower your leg one or several times. Option of reaching your arms out and away from your shoulders, stretching the fingers of your right hand farther from your left hand and the fingers of your left hand farther from your right hand. Switch to balance on your left leg, repeating the process.

What you strengthen: Your balance, for one, if that’s not already apparent. You’ll also strengthen muscles in your thighs, butt and core. If you stretch your arms out you’ll strengthen muscles in your shoulders, upper back and entire upper arms.

Contraindications: If this exercise hurts your standing ankle, back off. Also, be sure to keep your standing knee stable and in line with the second and third toes of your standing foot. It could shift around, but if you push back isometrically through the calf of your standing leg you’ll protect it.

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