King of Calisthenics Workout: Lean Muscle Without Equipment

Published Categorized as Lean Muscle Workout

Brad Borland is a strength & conditioning specialist, cancer survivor and the founder of WorkoutLab.

Bodyweight training is a fickle term. Some see it as a convenient and efficient way of getting into great shape without the need for a well-stocked gym. Others see it as a cop out when it comes to building real muscle – as specialized equipment is needed for any substantial muscle gain. Many lifters fail to include any bodyweight training into their programs in fear of wasting precious energy needed for the big lifts: bench presses, rows and squats.

With virtually an endless amount of variations bodyweight training can build some appreciable muscle and also add a surprising twist to your current routine as well. So from here forward let us fear no more and embrace what this type of training can teach us!

Let’s look at a few advantages and benefits of bodyweight training and how you can ultimately build real-world muscle along the way.

Advantages of bodyweight training

Do anywhere: Yes, a no-brainer for sure but you can perform bodyweight training almost anywhere which is particularly a good thing when you are on the road – no Google gym search required. All you need is some space and possibly (if wanted) some basic dip and pull-up bars, which can easily be found at any local park. While on the road most hotels have a basic, small gym area or you can simply get a great workout in the privacy of your room. The point is that little is required for an effective bodyweight training workout.

Little/no equipment: Another obvious conclusion is the fact that little-to-no equipment is required. When you travel does the little gym fairy appear on your shoulder stressing the importance to find a nearby gym that has all of the comforts of your local gym back home? Do you feel like without the perfect set-up you won’t get in a real workout? Depending on what you want to accomplish all that is needed is a bar or two (as mentioned above). The luxury of not needed anything big, heavy and expensive opens up limitless possibilities as well.

Push Up

For those of you out there who still doubt the efficacy of real bodyweight training and scoff at the mere notion, I challenge you to add some exercises in your mix.

No wait: Yet another monumental advantage of bodyweight training is the lack of the need to wait on a specific machine or station as in a traditional gym. Have you had to wait for someone to finish texting or talking in order to use something at your local gym? Do you sometimes lose your drive and get out of your zone? Bodyweight training may be the answer. It not only cuts out precious wasted time it also allows you to train in a stress-free period of time at your own pace.

Easily adjustable: Most machines and plate loaded apparatuses have you move in very specific tracks and ranges of motion. Not all machinery is an equal opportunity muscle-builder. Being tall, short or having different length limbs can become a challenge when it comes to fitting into some contraptions. Conversely, bodyweight training allows you to adjust and move in your own ranges of motion and in your specific arcs of movement.

Can easily progress and regress: Finally, with bodyweight training you can create progressions and regressions rather easily. For example, if you wanted to progress on the standard push-up simply elevate your feet, do super slow reps, add some plyometrics or pause at the bottom of each rep. To regress on the same exercise you could perform them on your knees, push-off from an elevated block with your feet on the ground or do half reps. The options are endless.

Benefits of bodyweight training

Now, let’s take a look at just a few of the many benefits of bodyweight training and what it can do for you.

Build real, full-body strength: Who can argue with this one. Nothing will give you the feeling of full-body strength and control like bodyweight training. Don’t think so? Try a circuit of push-ups, pull-ups and Bulgarian split squats and get back to me. Each aforementioned exercise requires complete body control, stabilization and coordination. Once you start adding in a few intensity techniques then you will surely feel the burn. Another benefit is that it creates real, functional strength – nothing isolated. So, of you want to be real-world strong, bodyweight training may just be the fix you need.

Shore-up weak points: Have you ever had a body part that just didn’t budge? It possibly could be a weak spot in your range of motion or other “link” in the chain. Bodyweight training challenges your entire range of motion not only for a specific body part but also for both your entire upper and lower halves. A pull-up, for example, can easily be referred to as the upper body squat. It stresses your lats, rhomboids, teres minor and major, lumbar, anterior, medial and posterior deltoids, traps, abdominals, biceps, forearms and, to a lesser degree, glutes. It is easy to see the massive benefit to bodyweight training.

Joint rehab: Along the same lines as above, bodyweight training can also have a therapeutic effect on certain troubled joints. Often referred to as “greasing the groove” this type of training, when done with the proper volume and frequency, can build and strengthen certain weaker joints that would otherwise remain in a state of repair while doing heavy, body part-specific exercises. Performing full range of motion push-ups, pull-ups and squat movements, for example, will move the joint in the full spectrum of its ability without the use of heavy, joint-pounding weight.

Supplement weight training: For those of you out there who still doubt the efficacy of real bodyweight training and scoff at the mere notion, I challenge you to add some exercises in your mix. Add some feet-elevated push-ups into your chest training routine, add in some pull-ups or replace them for pull-downs and superset a few walking lunges or Bulgarian split squats with leg presses and tell me they don’t push you to better muscle gains. You will feel more strength, power and control over time and will wonder why you weren’t doing it before.

Lifelong training: What will you be able to bench press when you are 40? How about 50? Is it really that important? Heavy squats, leg presses and shoulder presses have their place in any muscle-building routine but let’s look at this from another, wiser perspective. When you look at your big blueprint regarding your physique goals where does real, practical, functional training fit in? Eventually you will still want to be able to run, jump, push, pull, drag and lift your own body weight with little regard to how much you bench. Bodyweight training teaches you to connect with what your body is capable of doing without the $5000 machine required. Use it to your advantage and you can take that with you for years to come.

Pull ups

With virtually an endless amount of variations bodyweight training can build some appreciable muscle and also add a surprising twist to your current routine as well

What you will need

  • You: Don’t forget this. It’s possibly the most important ingredient.
  • Space: Depending on what you set out to do you will need ample space available. For most bodyweight routines this may only require the space of a hotel room or small workout room. For other more dynamic training you may want a slightly larger area with plenty of ceiling height.
  • Minimal equipment: For those of you who want more of a challenge some minimal equipment might be helpful. Nothing too fancy, just a bench and possibly a pull-up bar and something to do dips on if desired.
  • 30 minutes: Most bodyweight routines can take 30 minutes or less (more if that’s your thing). Just be sure to cut out this specific time period to completely focus on training.
  • An open mind: Nothing will impact your training results like mindset. Keep an open mind about what you can do with bodyweight training, adjust when you need to and jack up your intensity as if you were hitting the iron!

The basic bodyweight muscle-builders

Below is a list of the basics. Most are all-to familiar and easy to perform. Just be sure to properly warm-up with some burpees or jumping jacks before diving in. And remember, always use proper form and technique throughout each exercise.

  • Push-up
  • Pull-up
  • Inverted row
  • Parallel bar dip
  • Prisoner squat
  • Lunge
  • Step-up
  • Calf raise
  • Leg raise
  • Sit-up/crunch
  • Plank
Intermediate alternatives

Once you reach a certain level of conditioning and strength you will need and want some new challenges. Below are just a few alternative ways to push harder and keep those gains coming.

  • Feet-elevated push-up
  • 3-way push-up (feet-elveated, flat, then hands elevated)
  • Chest-to-bar pull-up
  • Feet-elevated inverted row
  • Pike press
  • Pistol squat
  • Bulgarian split squat
  • Walking lunge
  • Reverse lunge
  • Windshield wiper
  • Hanging leg raise
  • 3-way plank
Intensity boosters

Below are a few tricks to add into your bodyweight routine for added intensity. These can be used at the end or in between sets of other exercises to increase your work output and scorch a little fat along the way.

  • Burpees
  • Sprint intervals
  • Shuttle runs
  • Sled drag – push/pull
  • Jumping jacks
  • Jump rope
  • Box jumps

The calisthenics workout plans

Below are two plans (basic and intermediate) that you can perform two or three times per week (or more if you’re a beast). These can also be added to your current training program as tools to strengthen a weak area or for added volume or frequency.

Basic bodyweight training

Perform the following program two or three times per week. Remember, pay strict attention to form. Rest is AFTER all supersets have been completed.

Intermediate bodyweight circuit

Perform the following program two to three times per week. Remember, pay strict attention to form. Rest is AFTER all supersets have been completed.

Intermediate Bodyweight Workout
Perform 2-3x a Week
Exercise Sets Reps Rest (sec)
Superset: 3-way push-up and chest-to-bar pull-up 3-5 10-16 60
Superset: Feet-elevated inverted row and burpees 3-5 10-16 60
Superset: Pike press and jumping jacks 3-5 10-16 60
Superset: Bulgarian split squat and reverse lunge 3-5 10-16 60
Superset: Box jumps and sled drag – push/pull or sprint intervals 3-5 10-16 60
Triset: Hanging leg raise, 3-way plank and jump rope or mountain climbers 3-5 10-16 30


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