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Calisthenics: the WHAT, the WHY and the HOW

[author]Šarūnas G.[/author][author_img][/author_img] [author_info]Creative Director at Nordic Lifting[/author_info]
Young Athletic Man Doing Push Ups


What are Calisthenics?

If you’ve ever looked into the field of self-improvement and working out, chances are, you’ve stumbled across this quite trendy word – calisthenics. The word comes from the ancient Greek as a combination of 2 words: kalos (κάλλος) which means “beauty” and sthenos (σθένος) – strength.

In short, calisthenics is the merger of the raw, unadulterated aesthetic appeal of a fit body and the strength that comes with building one – both physical and mental.

But the keyword here is body. It’s not the challenge of picking up the largest dumbbells in the gym or using industrial tractor tires as your barbell weights. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. People who practice calisthenics strive to get as fit as possible without expensive gym equipment and year-round memberships. It is also known in the workout world as body weight training. In calisthenics you don’t need exercise machines with adjustable weights or expensive weightlifting shoes & belts for that perfect squat. All you REALLY require are the 3 big D’s: Determination, Drive and Devotion. Okay, okay, maybe just a few pieces of equipment…but I’ll get into that later!


Why do people do calisthenics training?

Before getting into how calisthenics work, we should first get to grips with the reasons behind this style of training. It is definitely not for everyone and it requires a certain set of traits that not everyone is willing to bring to the table. An easy way to assess the question is to list some pros and cons of calisthenics:


  • Price. While setting up a high-end calisthenics station in your home will require some gear, simply getting into the practice requires no investment. You literally only need a pair of shorts, a T-shirt and determination
  • Strength. Body weight exercises are a part of an exercise group titled compound exercises. These are essentially exercises that involve multiple joint movements & several muscle groups at once. Performing these exercises builds excellent overall strength & burn more calories than isolated exercises. They are also great for strengthening your core
  • Versatility. While weightlifting exercises require a gym membership or a robust home gym setup, calisthenics can literally be done anywhere – at home, at the beach or even on a business trip
  • Uniqueness. The range & complexity of body weight exercises is incredibly expansive. If you master the most impressive calisthenics exercises out there, you will literally be able to perform movements that seemingly defy gravity
  • Safety. Even working with low-key weights on weightlifting machines can be dangerous if the exercises are done incorrectly. Injuries when working with body-weights are possible, but are not as severe
  • Excuses. There are none. You can always find excuses with things like weightlifting or CrossFit:
    don’t have the money to do it, there are no gyms nearby, people will laugh at you (this one is a complete and total myth for ANY workouts), etc. But the only excuse for you not doing body weight training is your own laziness. Nothing more to it


  • Complexity. While the basics of calisthenics are intuitive to most and doing push-ups, pull-ups, dips & squats is simple, as you get stronger, the complexity of exercises becomes progressively more difficult. Comparatively, when working with weights, the only requirement is adding more weight
  • Progress. Closely connected with complexity, in weightlifting, your progress can be easily tracked by evaluating the increase in the weight that you work with. Calisthenics however, is not as easy to track and progress in this field is slower & harder to achieve. For some exercises it can take as long as 4-6 months before you notice active progression & results
  • Injury training. The compound nature of calisthenics exercises means that training with an injury becomes close to impossible. When training with weights at the gym you are free to perform isolation exercises that allow you to be joint specific, meaning that training around an injury is much easier to achieve
  • Leg training. Your legs are the strongest muscle group in your body. While there are definitely some challenging leg moves in calisthenics like the dragon pistol squat and the shrimp squat, they can only offer so much in terms of raw leg power & bulk. And so developing large, muscular legs with just body weight training is simply not possible
  • Motivation. Due to the above mentioned reasons, maintaining motivation in calisthenics is one of the biggest challenges you will face. This is especially true in the winter months, when working out in a park is impossible and training at home feels way more lethargic

Now there is no way of knowing whether calisthenics is right for you. There isn’t really a test you can take or a form to fill out. The good news is that it doesn’t really require a whole lot of planning either – at least not to get started. And there is definitely a heap of benefits to reap!


How do people get into calisthenics?



This is the reaction many people have at the very notion of physical training. And that is definitely a tough mindset to get out of. But that’s literally how you start. You drop down. And give somebody 20. It can literally be anyone, yourself, your wife, that poster of Arney that you always wanted to put up but never got around to do it.

In fact, that’s exactly what you should do right now, while reading this article. 20 pushups to start your road to calisthenics greatness. Can’t do 20 in a single go? Do it over a few attempts, but get to number 20. Regular pushups too hard? Try doing them on your knees instead of extended legs. But make sure to get to that magical number 20.

If you found the 20 push-ups manageable, try to do these variations:

Diamond push-up – hands in a narrow position, forming a diamond shape with your thumbs & index fingers
Wide push-up – hands in a wide position, using your arms & shoulders to get yourself off the ground

These are called basic exercise progressions. You start with a regular, military style push-up and then you work your way from there. It may seem like a simple concept, but as with most calisthenics exercises it can scale to crazy lengths, right up to performing a full planche.

And the great part of calisthenics is that virtually all exercises work in a similar fashion, whether you’re working on lifts, pulls, pushes, squats, raises – they all have an amazing array of progressions to master and there is literally no end point for your training.


Interested in finding out more? Check out part 2 where we go into the methods of calisthenics training, exercise variety as well as the common gear that most calisthenics enthusiasts use.

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