Why did I switch to bodyweight movements?
I was seeing results in the gym, curling triple digits and repping the famed 225 on incline bench press. It was going just fine.
So why mess with a good thing?
Because I wasn’t looking for good. I was looking for great.
Calisthenics is damn fun too. It improves through compound movements that are more in-tune with our bodies. Plus, you can do bodyweight lifts anywhere, a much-needed perk for me.
While it may take longer to increase muscle, you can get strong relatively fast. If you are new to lifting, I say stick to the gym to squeeze out as much newbie gains as possible. However, if you are advanced — 2 to 3 years into lifting — it might be time to move into something different.
Here are my favorite calisthenic exercises I use almost daily. These movements have variations, so you can progressively overload to increase the difficulty and continue to make strength and muscle gains.
The OG of calisthenics. Push-ups are classic in building a well-defined chest. They’re also a universal exercise to show off how many you can perform in a row.
Push-up variations are endless:
Some people add weight to their backs to help with progressive overload. Others improve their one-armed push-ups until they can rep ’em easily. Either way, if you can perform 50lb./25lb./bodyweight drop sets to failure or going 3x12 on one-armed push-ups, your chest muscles should be popping.
Surprisingly though, push-ups are actually the second best exercise for chest development…
Everybody’s favorite triceps lift, bodyweight dips are fantastic for creating a thick chest as well. The ultimate push movement, the variations for dips get real fun once you master the regular parallel bars:
- Single bar
- Forward lean (focus on chest)
- Behind the back (Korean)
- Side-to-side walkers
- Forearm to regular (Russian)
These get incredibly tough, but if you can get 8–12 reps on rings or Russians, you’ll develop those eye-catching triceps that look like horseshoes, complete with a cut chest.
If you have some version of dips and some version of push-ups — variations that are intense and difficult for you, while still having decent form — you can expect to move mountains with your pecs and triceps.
This is where you start to look like a badass. The third and final of my main push exercises, handstand variations target your shoulders to achieve the rounded, capped look that exudes power and size. Be careful with these; inverted lifts can be dangerous if you go over your limits too quickly. Make sure you master one variation before moving on:
- Pike push-ups
- Feet-elevated push-ups
- Assisted handstands
- Assisted handstand push-ups
- Freeform handstands
- Freeform handstand push-ups
If you stay smart and progress slowly on these movements, you can bust out 5–8 freeform handstand push-ups and have the shoulders of a god.
The biggest grievance I have with everyone else who comes to outside gyms is how they perform pull-ups. When it comes to the king of pull exercises, form is everything! If you kip (swing your legs) or struggle to stay symmetrical with your elbows, just stop. Start at a lower variation.
Once you can easily rep the classic chin-up and pull-up, then the world is your oyster:
- L-sit chin-ups/pull-ups
- Wide grip
- Wide grip behind the back
- Wide grip L-sit
- Assisted one-arm chin-ups
- One-arm chin-ups
The key with pull-up form is to retract your shoulders back and down, so your scapula is pulled into position. If your shoulders are clouting your ears, wrong! Your back needs to be wide and your chest should be facing the bar, so you can pull your chest to the bar.
5. Australian Pulls
My favorite type of exercise by far. These work on a different plane than pull-ups; while pull-ups move your back by pinching at the bottom, Australian pulls (down-under pulls) pinch your entire back.
You start this movement by getting underneath a bar parallel to the ground. Perform a bodyweight row with your feet on the floor and pinching your back as you pull your chest into the bar.
These start to look cool after the classic Australian pull:
- Feet-elevated Australian pulls
- Front lever raise tuck pulls
- Front lever raise straddle pulls
- Front lever rows
Your back will become a map with ridges and valleys galore. Plus, you look epic while performing these with great form. People will stare.
What? You thought you could escape squats because we’re leaving the gym? Fat chance. Squats are too damn important to be left out. The #1 leg exercise for strong quadriceps, hamstrings, and glutes, the squat is always in my routine.
But not just lame bodyweight squats (though these are also good if you go ass-to-the-grass):
- Jump squats (helps with power)
- Shrimp squats (holding one leg up, going down to that knee and back up)
- Pistol squats
Look, I know people hate leg day, so I’ll make you a deal: Do 3 sets of squats and walk or run 10 miles daily and you never have to have another leg day again.
7. Hanging Knee Raises
The only core exercise you’ll ever need. I’m not kidding. If you tuck your pelvis and contract your lower abdominals, you don’t need much more in terms of exercises that focus on your midsection. Get strong in hanging raises, and you will have advanced abs. (The reason you don’t have a six pack is because of what you eat, bro.)
You can increase the difficulty on these too:
- Hanging leg raises — halfway
- Hanging V to L raises
- Hanging leg raises — one leg
- Hanging leg raises
- Underhand HLR
- Ankle-weighted HLR
However, if you stick with hanging knee tucks and some walking side-to-sides, you’ll feel your core immediately, and tell me three days later how your abs are still sore.
These are the basics I use as my workout foundation.
Granted, I am fairly advanced and I try to get 54 total sets daily, targeting my entire body. I also strive for at least 8 miles walking and running. So while these 7 exercises are amazing at progressing in strength and muscle, it is only a percentage of the entire equation.
Calisthenics helps with the “calories out” part. You still need some form of cardio — even if it’s simply walking — and you need to have your “calories in” dialed as well.
But if you’re looking for a fun, challenging way to build strength or muscle, calisthenics are the way to go. You can do them anywhere (I prefer outside), it’s free, you don’t need any equipment save for a handful of bars, and you look badass doing them.
J. D. Lyda is the most passionate health and fitness writer in the world. Check out his site to see how he creates engaging articles and kickass social media. Feel free to contact J. D. Lyda to see if he can rep out consistent, quality content for you. Follow him on Instagram for fitness and nutrition advice and motivation!