Calisthenics are exercises that use your bodyweight for resistance and is arguably one of the hottest fitness trends at the moment. The word calisthenics is derived from the Greek kalos, meaning beauty, and sthenos, meaning strength. Calisthenics don't require any exercise equipment except maybe a pull-up bar or a set of dipping bars.

While it’s fair to say calisthenics exercises are low tech, they can still be extremely effective and, in the current financial climate, the fact that they are all-but free to do make these no-frills exercises even more appealing.

But, just because calisthenics are hot right now, does that mean you should abandon your barbells, shun the squat rack, and quit the gym in favour of press ups and pistol squats? Let’s see...

The Benefits of Calisthenics

Common calisthenics exercises such as lunges, press ups, jumping jacks, squats and step ups can be performed just about anywhere. This means that you never need to miss a workout just because you can’t make it to the gym. Also, because calisthenics exercises require no setting up time, you can transition from one exercise to the next quickly and easily which makes your workout very time-efficient.

Calisthenics exercises teach coordination, balance, proprioception and self-awareness. Unlike resistance machines that guides your movements, performing calisthenics exercises effectively means you must control your limbs and maintain proper body position. This has a positive carryover to sports and other “functional” activities.

It’s very easy to adjust the difficulty of most calisthenics exercises according to your fitness and strength levels. For example, a press up can be as easy as a wall press up with your body only slightly angled to very demanding – such as a handstand press up. No additional equipment is required; simply change your body position.

Some calisthenics exercises are incredibly demanding. If you are looking for a hard workout that can take years to master, you’ll probably enjoy some of the more advanced gymnastic-based calisthenics exercises like planche press-ups where you support your weight on your hands only and muscle ups – a cross between a pull-up and a dip. Single leg pistol squats can also be very challenging – even if you have very strong legs.

However, of course, there are a few downsides to be considered...

  • Resistance is limited to your bodyweight. Some exercises will be simply too hard or too easy for you depending on your bodyweight
  • It can be hard to target specific muscles – important for bodybuilders
  • Because you can exercise anywhere at any time, it’s all too easy to put workouts off until tomorrow and, of course, tomorrow never comes!
  • Some muscle groups are very hard to target with bodyweight only exercises. If you are unable to do pull-ups, working your lats can be all but impossible
  • Progressing from one variation of an exercise to another can be difficult e.g. two-footed squats to single-leg squats is a huge jump in exercise difficulty – so too is regular press-ups to handstand press-ups

It’s clear then that bodyweight training has both advantages and disadvantages that need to be considered. If you are a powerlifter, weightlifter or bodybuilder then you’ll need to focus on barbells, dumbbells and resistance machines if you want to maximize your performance and muscle size.

But, if you are more interested in muscular endurance, developing a lean, athletic physique or prefer to work out in the comfort of your own home, at the park or on the beach, calisthenics exercises have a lot to offer too.

If you want to do metabolically demanding circuits for burning body fat or improving your fitness, then bodyweight exercises such as burpees and mountain climbers could be just what you need. 

Of course, it doesn’t have to be a case of either/or – you can do both. There is absolutely no reason you can’t mix and match exercises and workout modalities to help you reach your fitness goals. For example, a barbell-wielding powerlifter would definitely benefit from high-rep press-ups, lunges and pull-ups to provide a less structurally-demanding workout after maximal strength training.

The cardio fan would burn more fat if he included bodyweight squats, press-ups and planks with treadmill intervals instead of just plodding along mindlessly at 7mph.

The bodybuilder, bored with sets after set of bench press, may well experience new muscle growth if he included dips and press-ups for high reps in his weekly chest workout.

The beginner will learn how to master exercise like barbell bench presses and barbell squats much faster if they first learn how to do proper press-ups and bodyweight squats.

So, is calisthenics right for you? The answer is yes but to what degree really depends on your training goals, training history and current level of fitness. Calisthenics might well be one of the hottest fitness trends at the moment but, by their very nature, trends come and go. Rather than simply jump on the next passing fitness bandwagon, be like the late, great Bruce Lee and “absorb what is useful, reject what is not”.