In this ‘How To Calisthenics’ article I will explain the fundamentals of calisthenics.
When it comes to this type of training there is a lot of overwhelm and not much information out there available yet. If you are a beginner it is hard to know where you should start and what you should do. This ‘how to calisthenics’ article tries to clear things up for you regarding calisthenics and the fundamentals you need to know.
Let’s start with the basics
“Gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement”
The word calisthenics originate from the Latin words: ‘kallos’, which means ‘beauty’ and ‘sthenos’, which means ‘strength’.
Calisthenics is a form of physical training consisting of several exercises, which are often rhythmical movements. These movements are intended to increase body strength and flexibility using only one’s body weight for resistance.
The type of calisthenics done today is without a doubt the elite of gymnastics. Gymnasts are definitely among the greatest athletes. The interesting thing about gymnastics is that their strength can almost be seen as a by- product because they normally only train for their event or discipline and not for the sake of being strong.
Most gymnast train hours and hours a week which is not for the person who just wants to be able to perform a front lever, handstand push ups or a planche. So in order to understand how to calisthenics some knowledge of gymnastics is required.
The Most Important Fundamentals
When I say the word ‘basics’ I am talking about your body. Your body has got different building blocks programmed inside that can be used to achieve great things. What is meant by this can be explained by a simple example:
When you watch a video on YouTube about gymnastics or calisthenics you often see a type of movement that combines strength with other elements, like balance and flexibility for example. If we take a look at a handstand push up, you need the right type of elements in your body in order to perform this movement.
You would need to:
1. Maintain the position you are in
2. Push yourself up and down
3. Balance on your hands
4. Know where your body is in space (proprioception is what we call this)
5. The right amount of mobility in your shoulders
6. The proper activation of your core muscles.
Why am I showing you this example? This is because the Fundamental Motor Principles are a must for you to understand in order to differentiate yourself from the crowd. When you understand these principles, calisthenics is much easier to learn and you know why you do certain exercises. You will progress faster this way and prevent injuries.
The Fundamental Motor Principles are 5 physiological elements that are there to help you perform in a certain sport. In a nutshell they contain:
With strength is meant ‘muscle strength’. Within a body there are several forms of muscle strength. For example maximal strength, explosive strength and strength endurance.
Speed in this regard is meant as the speed of movement of a joint. Obviously this one works together with strength very closely but also how fast the body performs a certain chain movement.
Anaerobe (intensive but short efforts like a sprint or lifting weights up until a certain point of repetitions) or aerobe (effort that lasts longer than 2-3 minutes)
Obviously how limber you are, but also the range of motion of your joints. If there is a limitation on the range of motion of your joints it will influence the way you exercise a certain sports. In gymnastics this is very important.
Fine tuning of your motor units of the muscles. These are different fibres in your muscles that are being controlled by nerves. By doing a movement over and over again, the body learns better and better what muscle fibres to activate. So a certain movement becomes easier the more you repeat).
To answer the question: ‘How To Calisthenics’ really quick:
Nearly all movements there are in calisthenics, especially the highly advanced ones, learn the body to work as a complete unit (the above principles mentioned working together).
Take the planche as an example, you require all of the muscles in your body to act as one, with maximal tension required to perform the movement. If you compare this with a bicep curl or a bench press you can instantly see the difference. There is much more skill and complexity involved within the planche movement.
As you can see, you need to become a master of combining the 5 fundamentals mentioned above. It is truly an art form and it’s really fun to do if you do it the right way.
4 Unique Aspects You Need In Calisthenics
1. A great emphasis lies on straight- arm strength which is exactly what it sounds like.
Strength with your elbows fully locked out. This puts a huge strain on your elbows and all the tissue it surrounds. This makes it very injury sensitive. When you take a look at gymnast what is usually the first thing you notice? Probably the biceps. Do you think this is caused by bicep curls? No way. Straight- arm strength all the way. The tension on the lengthened muscle (biceps) makes it increase in size and strength drastically and also makes many of the more advanced calisthenics and gymnastic movements possible.
You focus a lot on straight arm strength if you want to differentiate. Calisthenics is street style type of workout and they don’t perform the movements as neatly as gymnasts do. However, this does not mean they do not have straight arm strength.
2. The second aspect is that the hands are involved in almost every movement that there is. This is a contrast to bodybuilding and other weighted forms of exercise.
3. The core is in my opinion the most critical aspect in whole calisthenics. Sadly enough, in most people the core muscles aren’t that developed.
Core training is not defined as simple sit ups. You should be able to properly activate your intrinsic muscles that stabilise your vertebrae and let them work together with the big global movers like your abdominals and bigger back muscles. These intrinsic muscles are skipped by 99% of the people. This is a huge cause of injury in the lower back. Once you develop a great core (like a gymnast) chances of lower back pain will decrease.
4. The shoulder blades. The shoulder blades are the basic of real upper body strength. The ability of a person to stabilise and control your shoulder blades. As with calisthenics and gymnastics you need become a master of the 4 movements that your shoulder blades are capable of doing: depression (shoulders sink down), elevation (elevating your shoulders), protraction (rounding your upper back and push your spine and shoulder blades apart) and retraction (puff out your chest and pull your shoulders back).
When the muscles around your shoulder blades are well developed, any strength in your upper body will be able to be transferred with better efficiency. Besides the core, this is the most important one, but least applied and understood.
How To Get Started?
Start calisthenics with the basics. A lot of people want to attempt the advanced body weight movements right away because they look cool. This does not work. Progressive overload is the key, just like in weightlifting. When you are new to the gym you don’t start bench pressing 300 pounds right away. You start by the basics and by getting used to the machines first. Get your posture right. Basically get familiar with it.
You need the right building blocks and get a solid foundation. Compare it with a house. If the foundation of a house is all mud and water and you build up a beautiful house on it, it will eventually collapse.
When you first start out it is utterly important you focus on the right posture, mainly with the core exercises. Hollow body position is a basic gymnastic exercise where they train to activate the intrinsic abdominal muscles to stabilise the spine. This is the way you decrease chances of a back injury.
When lying on your back on the ground or on a mat, focus on pushing your lower back down to the ground so that it flattens with the floor (pulling your belly inwards). This is only a small movement and there is not much strength required, but coordination instead. A proper activation of the right muscle group.
Once you can hold this for 10 seconds you lift up your slightly from the ground. You will notice the change in resistance in your abdominal area. If you want to test if your back is still flat on the ground, try getting your hands underneath your lower back. This should not work because your back should be flat with the ground. If you do manage to slide your hands under your lower back, go back to the basics.
Once you master this one you can lift your hands above your head and straighten them all the way like a handstand. This way you will experience even more resistance in your core. Try to hold this one for 20 seconds.
Your diet is very important if you want to be successful in calisthenics. The less fat you have on your body, the better you are in performing bodyweight movements. Excess fat is completely useless and serves no purpose. A big plus is it looks really good when you are at single digit body fat. To understand the diet and how you should eat, see the diet section.
Rest and Recovery
This is more important than you think. Calisthenics is a very injury sensitive sport and therefore you should take it easy in the beginning and rest properly in order to fully recover. You tendons and ligaments will endure a lot of stress and need to get stronger as well. The blood flow in these tissues is very low so recovery is huge. A common injury is tendonitis, this means: an inflammation of a tendon and often called an overuse injury.
Your body gets fitter and stronger in the intervals between the training session, not during the training. Your body is an adaptive organism, so be patient and understand that it’s a marathon, not a sprint.