The Progressive Calisthenic Workout to Try at Home
Some of the best, most sweat-inducing workouts don't require any fancy equipment. Scratch that — they don't require equipment, period.
Calisthenics are a series of exercises done with bodyweight movements only. And while the term calisthenics may sound like it’s a trendy approach reserved for over-the-top (*cough* pricey) fitness studios, you actually use these movements in many everyday workouts — without even knowing it.
If you think a bodyweight circuit sounds easy, think again. Below, we explain what a calisthenic workout plan is, why it's different (and potentially more effective) than other workouts, and whether it may be right for you. Plus, we dive into a beginner calisthenics workout you can do anytime, anywhere.
What Is a Calisthenic Workout Plan, and What Makes It Different?
Put simply, a calisthenic workout plan is a circuit made up of only bodyweight movements.
Some of your favorite (er...least favorite?) exercises are calisthenic movements, including pushups, pullups, and burpees. Within each of these exercises, your own body weight — not a barbell or kettlebell — provides resistance.
Calisthenics combine endurance, strength, and gut-wrenching core work into one, sweat-worthy workout. A calisthenics program can help burn fat while building muscle — no equipment, gym membership, or commute required.
Calisthenic movements, and the science behind them, are nothing new. In fact, the term calisthenics stems from the ancient Greek phrase kalos sthenos, which translates to "beautiful strength." As early as 480 BC, Greek Spartan Warriors used calisthenic movements to train for battle.
And frankly, if it's good enough for a Spartan warrior, it's good enough for us. 👊
Is a Calisthenic Workout Plan Right for Me?
Listen, we've never met you in person, but we're going to go out on a limb here and say yes.
Calisthenic workouts are truly designed to be performed by any person, at any place, at any time. These workouts are incredibly versatile for two primary reasons:
They don't require equipment: Since there's zero-to-minimal equipment required, you don't even need a gym membership. You can do these workouts in your living room, making them perfect for busy parents or those working from home.
They can easily be modified: Calisthenic exercises are as difficult as you make them (discussed more below), making them suitable for beginners and advanced athletes.
How Do You Progress a Calisthenic Workout?
Many times, people think the only way to progress a workout (i.e. make it more challenging) is to add additional weight to the bar. So what's the solution when that bar is suddenly taken away?
Know this: There are limitless ways to make even the most familiar exercises (like bodyweight squats) more challenging. In that regard, you can continuously increase the difficulty of a calisthenic workout plan, preventing yourself from hitting that dreaded plateau.
To increase the challenge of a calisthenic exercise, you can:
Switch to a single leg exercise: Single leg movements increase stability, core activation, and glute activation — plus, they're extremely challenging. If bodyweight squats feel easy, try a Bulgarian split squat instead.
Engage your stabilizer muscles: Performing an exercise on an unstable surface requires more muscle recruitment, because it engages your stabilizer muscles. For example, if you already mastered the pushup, try doing a pushup with both palms on a weighted ball (it's incredibly difficult!).
Add a pulse (or hold): Adding a pulse at the bottom of a movement helps increase time under tension, delivering that muscle burn we all love to hate. So, if a forward lunge isn’t challenging enough, hold the movement for 30 seconds, then do 10 pulses followed by 10 full lunges.
Add a jump: Adding a jump adds a cardio element to the movement, which can get the lungs burning. If a squat no longer feels challenging, make it a squat jump.
Increase the number of reps: Increasing the number of reps promotes endurance while strengthening your muscles. Consider increasing reps or decreasing the amount of rest between sets.
TLDR: Calisthenics training is as challenging as you make it. You can start with basic movements. People who are highly advanced may progress all the way to gymnastic movements such as pistol squats, human flag poles, and muscle ups.
6 Basic Calisthenic Exercises Everyone Should Know
These bodyweight exercises can easily be modified to suit your fitness level. Plus, you can work with a personal trainer to transform these movements into a complete, at-home workout program designed for you.
1. Hamstring Curls
No, you don't need a machine to perform a hamstring curl. Just follow these steps:
Lay on your back on a hardwood floor. Place a towel or blanket under your feet.
Come into a bridge position, keeping your abs braced (do not over-extend your back).
Slowly extend your knees, so they are almost straight (do not lock your knees). On an inhale, pull your feet back into your starting bridge position.
Modification: Keep one leg extended, only working one leg at a time. This is one of the few exercises where a single leg movement is easier.
Progression: Keep your legs extended for 3-5 counts before curling them back in.
Many people do push ups incorrectly, forgetting this exercise works your entire body. To start:
Come into a high plank position, with your palms directly underneath your shoulders. Engage your lats by imagining your right palm rotating clockwise (closing a lid on a jar) and your left palm rotating counter-clockwise (opening a lid).
Squeeze your abs, and bring your chest toward the ground. Your entire body should remain in one, straight line. Your elbows should point at a 45-degree angle from your ribs (not flare out to the sides).
On an exhale, push yourself up to a plank, keeping your body in one line.
Modification: Place both hands on an elevated surface (the higher, the easier). This allows you to hold your plank position, which can be difficult when coming down to your knees.
Progression: Turn it into an explosive pushup, clapping your hands together before coming back to your starting plank. Or, consider doing a close grip pushup where your hands are closer together, helping to engage your triceps.
3. Leg Raise to Hip Lift
For this ab exercise, go slow and controlled rather than speeding up the movement. Start by:
Lay with your lower back pressed into the floor. Tilt your pelvis toward your ribs to engage your abs.
Raise both legs so that they are in a straight line, perpendicular to the ground. Slowly, lower both legs so they hover just inches above the floor.
On an inhale, raise both legs back to their starting position. When you come back to your original position, raise your hips and point your toes toward the sky.
Modification: Take out the hip lift.
Progression: Add a scissor to the leg raise, continuously crossing your right leg over your left, then left over right, as you lift and lower your legs.
4. Pike Pushups
If you want to progress to handstand pushups, pike pushups are a great place to start. Follow these steps:
Start in a downward dog position, but don't connect your heels to the ground.
Bend your elbows, bringing the top of your head closer to the ground, staying in a pike position.
Press back up, returning to your starting position.
Modification: To make this move easier, walk your feet closer to your hands.
Progression: To increase the resistance in your upper body, place your feet on an elevated surface (such as a bottom step of a staircase).
5. Mountain Climbers
This exercise helps build abdominal strength while adding an element of cardio to your workout. To start:
Find a plank position. Your hands should be directly underneath your shoulders. Squeeze your shoulders down, so you can feel your lats engage.
Brace your abdominals. Slowly bring in your right knee toward your belly button (your right foot should be hovering off the floor).
Bring your right leg back to its starting position. Bring your left knee toward your belly button.
Once you find your rhythm, speed up the movement, switching legs so that you’re almost “running” from a plank position.
Modification: Slow down the movement, carefully switching one leg at a time.
Progression: Place your palms on a pillow or couch cushion. Using a less sturdy surface will help you further engage your core.
6. Bodyweight Squat
This lower body movement is a basic but effective exercise. To start:
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Roll your shoulders back and down.
Squeeze your core and sit back into a squat position, keeping your knees pointed outward.
On an exhale, return to standing.
Modification: Turn this squat into a box squat, by sitting into a chair behind you.
Progression: Add a 10-second hold at the bottom of the squat position.
Beginner Calisthenic Workout Plan
Ready to put it all together? This sample full-body workout hits multiple muscle groups — you can use this in place of your total-body workout on one of your strength days.
Perform 45 seconds of each exercise. Do two full rounds.
Jump rope (if you don't have a jump rope, do jumping jacks)
Perform each circuit three times before moving on to the next circuit.
12 standing squats
12 hamstring curls
Army crawls (Get in a plank position, then lift an arm to move forward and drag your opposite leg behind. Alternate between arms.)
12 leg raise to hip lift
24 bicycle crunches (12 on each side)
Work With a Personal Trainer to Design a Calisthenic Workout Plan
When you're short on time, a calisthenic workout can provide a grueling — and effective — workout. Calisthenics focuses strictly on bodyweight training and can easily be customized to suit your fitness level.
If you love this workout, you might want to work with a personal trainer who can design additional, innovative calisthenic workouts tailored to your goals. Building workout plans is a lot of work, but a personal trainer can make it easier. Plus, they’ll make sure you have varied workouts that help you progress over time.