When most people think about getting in shape they immediately think of weight training and cardio, however the truth is that there’s no better way to get your training started than a well designed beginner calisthenics workout routine.
I know this because I spent several years training hard with heavy barbells at the gym and while I got strong on the bench press, squat and deadlift, I still didn’t even look like I lift.
Here’s a photo of me 2 years into heavy barbell training when I went from being unable to press an empty barbell over my head to bench press 220 pounds, squat 315 pounds and deadlift 400 pounds:
Not exactly the best result and genetic response to training.
I had built a great level of muscle mass in my legs, glutes and lower back with barbell training, but my upper body barely responded to heavy weights.
I still looked skinny-fat and soft all over without any visible musculature in the places I really wanted to build up: the chest, shoulders, arms and lats.
My upper body results didn’t start coming in until the third year of training where I replaced heavy weights with a beginner calisthenics workout routine.
I took a step back and start working basic variations of chin ups, push ups and air squats.
Chin ups and diamond push ups were true game changers for my upper body.
My back, chest, shoulders and arms all started filling out and within 3 months of hard calisthenics training I looked like a new person:
And 1 year after this, I pretty much reached my goal physique with basic bodyweight exercises:
In this article, I will teach you why calisthenics works for building muscle mass, the importance of nutrition and progressive overload and show you a beginner calisthenics workout routine.
Why Calisthenics Works for Building Muscle Mass
As long as you’re able to place enough tension and resistance on the muscles, they will respond by growing.
This means that you can use any type of resistance to build muscle mass:
They all work for building muscle mass.
The main argument that people have for a beginner calisthenics workout routine not working for muscle building is that “bodyweight exercises are cardio”.
You’ll often hear heavy barbell training proponents and bodybuilders on steroids say that you can’t get big with bodyweight training because it’s cardio training done in the endurance rep ranges.
The whole idea of sets in the 15-30 rep range being cardio has been disproven by exercise science over 3 years ago already.
In 2016 a well designed study came out and showed that as long as you take each set close to muscular failure, you will be able to build muscle mass with any set up to 30 reps.
This has been my own experience as well. I have personally gotten my best muscle gains when training with bodyweight exercises in the higher rep ranges and the same goes for many of my Online Transformation Program clients who previously trained for years with heavy weights without results.
Now think about this: How many people can actually do 30 chin ups, 30 single legged squats and 30 wall handstand push ups with full range of motion while keeping their body tight (no swinging) and controlled reps (no bouncing out of the bottom of each rep)?
It’s a rare feat that +99% of gym goers are unable to do.
Even after +10 years of consistent hard training and gaining over 40 pounds of muscle mass, I’m far away from most of these feats.
This means that bodyweight exercises have an almost unlimited ceiling for gaining muscle mass as long as you progressively overload them.
Second, most bodyweight training follow the same movement patterns as the big staple exercises done at gyms.
When you look at most beginner weight training programs, they’re based around some form of bench presses, shoulder presses, rows, pulldowns and squats.
Here are the big exercise staples that you find in all gym training programs and their bodyweight exercise equivalent:
- Flat bench press: Push up and weighted push up
- Close grip bench press: Close grip push up and weighted close grip push up.
- Decline bench press: Incline push ups.
- Incline bench press: Decline push ups.
- Barbell row: Inverted row.
- Lat pulldown: Chin ups and weighted chin ups.
- Barbell squats: Single legged squats, air squats.
- Dip machine: Dips and weighted dips.
- Shoulder press: Handstand push ups and wall handstand push ups.
In other words, the majority of the musculature in your body can optimally be trained with calisthenics exercises and the ceiling for progressively overloading exercises is so big that most people will never reach it.
As a result, you can pretty much reach your genetic muscle building potential with an intelligently planned calisthenics program and minimal equipment.
Still don’t believe me? Then take a look at the back development I got from pretty much doing just pull ups and chin ups:
And the triceps development with diamond push ups, wall handstand push ups and dips:
In addition, bodyweight exercises produce an incredible stimulus to fatigue ratio.
As a result, you get a high amount of stimulation on the important muscles while minimizing fatigue.
For example, diamond push ups have been shown in EMG studies to have the highest activation of the triceps of any exercise out there and chin ups have the highest activation of the lats.
The triceps make up 2/3 of arm size and the lats are the biggest horizontal muscle on the upper body, therefore to create a V-tapered physique with big arms, there are no better exercises to start the process than diamond push ups and chin ups.
How about fatigue? Bodyweight exercises are easy to recover from, primarily because they don’t put much stress on the spine.
This means that you can train more often while minimizing the risk of overtraining.
Training at a high frequency is extremely beneficial in the beginning of your training because it will allow you to put a constant sustained stimulus on your target muscles and thereby grow more.
In addition, being a master of moving your own bodyweight through space locks you into being lean and muscular. You can be obese and bench press 400 pounds, but there’s no way you’ll be doing 20 chin ups with perfect form while being fat.
With all these benefits in mind, I see no better way to train than calisthenics.
How to Structure Your Beginner Calisthenics Workout Routine
There are 3 main movement patterns that you have to train to develop your entire physique: Push, pull and squat:
- Push: Trains the pushing muscles which are the front and medial shoulders, chest and triceps.
- Pull: Trains the pulling muscles which are the back, rear shoulders and biceps.
- Squat: Thighs and glutes.
The main movement patterns will train +80% of the musculature in your body and by intensely focusing on those, you will get your best results in the first year of training.
You want all progress to be focused around these movement patterns.
Other than these, there are also abs, calves, neck etc. however these are smaller muscles which matter less in the beginning.
Therefore, isolation exercises should never be the focus in the beginning, although they’re good to add to your training regimen later on once your strength base is developed.
Below I will show you a sample beginner calisthenics workout routine that covers the main movement patterns and some core work.
Most of the people I train are unable to do a single chin up or diamond push up (2 upper body exercises I consider essential), therefore this beginner calisthenics routine is ideal for building the strength to get your first full chin up and diamond push up.
It has to be performed 6 days per week, alternating between workout A and B.
This routine only requires a chin up bar and a place to do inverted rows (e.g. a stairwell, sturdy table or a dip station).
Workout A: Back, biceps and core:
- Exercise 1: Negative chin ups. 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 3-5 min rest between sets.
- Exercise 2: Inverted rows. 5 sets to 1 rep before failure with 3-5 min rest between sets.
- Exercise 3: Floor hyper extensions: 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 1-2 min. rest between sets.
- Exercise 4: Lying leg raises: 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 1-2 min. rest between sets.
Workout B: Chest, shoulders, legs and glutes:
- Exercise 1: Incline push ups. 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 3-5 min rest between sets.
- Exercise 2: Air squats. 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 3-5 min rest between sets.
- Exercise 3: Single leg glute raises. 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 1-2 min. rest between sets.
- Exercise 4: Plank. 3 sets to 1 rep before failure with 1-2 min. rest between sets.
1 rep before failure means that you stop each set when you know you can’t do another rep with good form.
One thing I recommend you do at the start of your training is to record a video of yourself to optimize your technique.
I found that in most cases when someone says they can do say 12 reps on push ups, it usually means they can do around 4 with proper technique.
This is why I recommend starting with relatively easy exercise variations such as the ones above and truly mastering the technique on each.
I also set this routine to be relatively easy. You can see this as a base-line routine that can be increased over time. With Online Transformation Program clients, I start them off easy and then build up frequency, exercise variations and volume as needed.
Don’t let your ego get in the way and start lower than you think and do proper reps.
This will prevent you from getting injured early on and it will give you the time to work on getting proper technique.
Keep in mind that if an exercise feels too easy, you can simply do more reps to start with. As long as you’re doing 30 reps per set or less and going close to muscular failure, you’re still stimulating muscle growth.
What is proper technique?
You want to make sure that your muscles do the bulk of the work throughout each movement.
To ensure that this is the case, you want each set to meet the criteria below:
- Each rep is done with full range of motion. E.g. with push ups you start each rep with arms locked out at the top then go all the way down until your chest touches the floor or your hands.
- Focus on the negative phase. You want to fully control the negative phase of each rep (this is the part where you lower yourself). The main reason for this is that roughly 2/3 of the muscle building process happens on the negative part of each rep.
- Minimize momentum. Also, by doing this you prevent using momentum. I.e. when people do chin ups, push ups and squats they tend to drop down during the negative phase then bounce out of the bottom. This takes the tension off the muscles and puts it on the joints instead.
- Minimize swinging. Tense your abs and glutes to keep the body tight since swinging also creates momentum.
- Each rep burns into the next one. Don’t rest between reps. You want each rep to burn into the next one to make it one continuous set where the tension is kept on the muscles.
Overall, the set should be one continuous motion that looks clean and where the first rep is identical to the last one.
This is how bodybuilders execute their sets when training for maximum muscle mass and this is the key for you to gain muscle mass with the beginner calisthenics workout routine above.
The execution of each set is by far one of the most underrated aspects for gaining muscle mass. A set is not just a set.
This is of course an ideal that you want to strive for and with clients we usually find a middle ground where some technique deviations are made to ensure faster progression on exercises. For most people it simply isn’t possible to progress if form is always picture perfect but eventually you’ll want to make a hard exercise look easy. That’s how you know you locked in true strength gains.
Progressive Overload Is Key
The key to fully benefit from any type of resistance training program is to focus on progressive overload.
Progressive overload is when you gradually increase one of the following variables in your beginner calisthenics workout routine:
- Reps: E.g. going from 2 push ups to 3 push ups.
- Weight: E.g. going from 40 KG weighted chin ups for 5 reps to 45 KG weighted chin ups for 5 reps.
- Sets: E.g. going from 5 sets of 10 push ups to 6 sets of 10 push ups.
- Frequency: E.g. going from doing 5 sets of 10 push ups 4 days per week to 5 days per week.
- Exercise variation: E.g. going from doing push ups to diamond push ups or dips to weighted dips.
- Training density: E.g. going from doing 5 sets of 10 push ups in 15 minutes to doing them in 5 minutes.
- Time-under-tension: E.g. going from doing chin ups with a 3 second time-under tension per rep to 5 second time-under-tension.
- Speed: E.g. going from doing 5 sets of 10 push ups with a long-time-under-tension to doing them explosively.
The idea behind progressive overload is to gradually do “1 more thing” each workout by manipulating the variables above.
Each variable has their time and place, but the best ones to start focusing on with bodyweight exercises are reps and exercise variation.
Focus on increasing reps each training session and once an exercise get’s too easy, move to a harder variation.
Weak Points To Watch Out For: Wrists, Elbows and Shoulders
When you start the beginner calisthenics workout routine, you may find that variations of chin ups cause discomfort in the elbows while variations of push ups cause discomfort in the shoulders and wrists.
If you feel any type of pain around the joints, don’t push through it.
Start with an easier variation of each exercise and build up strength gradually.
It often takes the joints, ligaments and tendons time to catch up to the strength of your muscles.
In addition to this, use supportive gear on the wrists and elbows.
You can use wrist wraps and elbow wraps in the first 6 months of training to be able to do harder exercise variations without pain.
Eventually, you will be able to take off the supportive gear and perform each exercise without it.
Optimizing Testosterone Through Nutrition is Crucial to Support Muscle Gains
You’ll sometimes see strong skinny guys with a relatively unimpressive physique who are doing advanced calisthenics exercises or knock out sets of 20 chin ups with ease.
This can easily make you think that calisthenics don’t work or that you won’t get muscular by doing a beginner calisthenics workout routine such as the one above.
Most guys who are doing advanced calisthenics exercises and still look skinny or skinny-fat is simply because they don’t eat correctly for muscle growth and hormonal optimization.
Think of building muscle mass as building a house.
If the amount of building blocks is insufficient, the house can’t be built.
The same goes for muscle mass.
The training is just a stimulus, however without the right hormonal environment, muscle mass can’t be built.
The right hormonal environment for building muscle mass is mostly created through better nutrition.
The 2 muscle building hormones that are important to consider are testosterone and insulin.
Insulin is an anabolic hormone that is spiked when eating carbs, therefore as long as you eat a diet that bases meals around quality carb sources, that won’t be a problem.
However, low testosterone is often a problem.
As I wrote in my free 50 page guide “2 Phases of a Skinny-Fat Transformation”:
On average young men today have just half of the testosterone production of the average young man in the 1940s.
This is why it was rare in our grandfathers’ generations to see young skinny-fat guys with man boobs and the strength of a 60 year old woman.
Our testosterone levels have been steadily declining each decade since the 1940s as a result of many factors but here are some of them:
Our diets have changed from a natural diet consisting of whole foods high in micronutrients to a diet full of processed foods, soy, refined sugar and minimal in quality seafood, vegetables and fruits.
Women are getting pregnant at a later age.
The use of pharmaceutical drugs is widespread. Most of them impact hormonal production.
Our lifestyles are higher stress with bigger demands from work. Most people are stressed out, sleep late and do not get the required 7-9 hours of sleep. Your sex hormones are produced during sleep.
Lack of sunlight. Optimal vitamin D3 and a good circadian rhytm is imperative to maximize natural testosterone production.
Less exercise and micronutrient rich foods which leads to worse circulation and issues such as varicocele (varicose veins in your testicles). 20% of men right now have some degree or varicocele which can impact testosterone production.
Testosterone affects nearly all the functions in your body. The graphic below sums up the functions affected by low testosterone:
I was diagnosed with low testosterone at age 18 by an endocrinologist. That was around the beginning of my training where I didn’t get any results.
After being diagnosed, I researched everything I could get my hands on about natural testosterone optimization and boosted my natural testosterone levels with 270%.
Boosting my natural testosterone levels made an immense difference in my ability to recover between training sessions and pack on muscle mass.
The truth is that until I boosted my levels, I got close to no upper body muscle gains and I believe part of the reason was incorrect training (heavy barbell training with suboptimal volume and frequency) but an even bigger part was that my body simply wasn’t in the right hormonal environment to pack on muscle mass.
The key to boost my testosterone levels was to optimize my nutrition.
I have covered nutrition more in the video below:
There’s no reason to why you can’t build an incredible physique with bodyweight exercises and the beginner calisthenics workout routine above is a great way to get started.
Overall, I’ve trained over 450 clients in my Online Transformation Program and they have all started with basic bodyweight exercises.
Most of them were unable to do a single chin up, however within a year of training most of them were up to doing anywhere from 12-20 reps with perfect form.
The key was to start low and slowly build up strength while focusing on eating correctly.
Adding that strength gives you confidence that it is possible for you to make a change and many of the people I’ve trained saw the change in the mirror over time.
While bodyweight training isn’t the only tool to pack on strength and muscle mass, for the vast majority of people, it’s the best one to start with.
There’s no need to load your spine with a heavy barbell and do barbell squats or heavy bench presses when you haven’t mastered moving your bodyweight through space yet.
With that said, now it’s up to you to get started.
Be proud but stay hungry!
Oskar Faarkrog, ISSA Certified Personal Trainer
can I include the burpee exercise to this 3 basic exercise to speed up.
By the way, the 30 reps recommendation appears in Arthur’s “Textbook of Weightlifting” a great resource and available for free on the internet / Kindle. Also free is his “Development of Physical Power”.
Hey Oskar, more great stuff from you!
I am a huge fan of your work. It may interest your readers to know that Arthur Saxon recommended using 30 reps as a means for determining when you could use more weight to progress. Google “Saxon Brothers” you folks who have never heard of Arthur.
Thank you so much Oskar for your very relevant and well-presented content. Yours is a voice of sanity on the internet!
In phase 2, while trying to gain muscle, can I have any cheat meal(s) / cheat day(s) or something like this?
Oskar please do a pull up progression article, especially when u dont have a bar, but do in your door. I put my towel on my door go to a chair and try to control negative phase.(I dont have enough strenght to go up with my current bodyweight). What is more impressive is that just doing lots of sets of those pull up negatives my lats grew in a way that dumbbell rows and horizontal rows never did.
I mean my back are more wide than ever! With other exercises i also gainned wideness but mostly was thickness. And i want wideness and pull up for sure the best. But as i said i lack strenght…
Could you do a pull up guide and talk about progressing on it?
I just started phase 2, when should I add isolation work? I have a couple of resistance bands that I could use at home.