Starting out?

If you’re new to calisthenics, or even to training, this is the place to start. I will try and keep it brief and simple.

Just in case you’re a female who is not yet persuaded that this calisthenics malarky is for you, have a read of this.

Now, let’s get cracking. I’m going to start with…

1. The hardest lesson first

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If you’re expecting to find here the World’s Best And Most Perfect Bodyweight Training Regime(™)*, which will turn you from a shrimp to a shot-putter in three short months, I’m afraid you’re going to be left wanting. Wanting from this site and wanting from every other. There is no such thing. 

I hope you’re sitting down, because this may not be what you want to hear: you need to put in the time and effort to learn. Simple, yes. Time consuming, involved, occasionally confusing, also yes. I know (because I’ve seen it first hand) that when you tell people that their training regime should be tailored to them, they mostly think you’re trying to fob them off because you can’t be bothered to answer the question. Not true, because everything depends on your individual…

That said, the closest I have done is to create an absolute beginners routine to run for two months, which if you are coming to this with no training background at all, and have access to some simple equipment, should help you build up a decent foundation. 

2. Goals

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What do you want out of your training? To do 10 pull ups? Just to be stronger? To lose weight? To run further? To be the best? Just to enjoy yourself out in the park?

Think carefully about these, along with what comes next:

3. Your lifestyle

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How much time do you have? Do you have kids to look after? Can you only train in the evening when it’s dark? Do you have the money for a gym membership? What is your other training load like?

Figure out what is a realistic time for you to set aside for training, how much physical effort you can put into it, and what time(s) of the day will suit you.

Where can you train? Gym at work? In the garage? Anywhere you like?! Do you travel a lot and need a routine that can come with you?

Once you’ve figured out these two things, so can start looking at putting together a program which has…

4. Balance

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If you’re just starting out and not chasing a particular goal, I recommend trying to achieve a good balance in your training regime. Build in some element of cardio (doesn’t have to be a lot – just make it effective and make it fun – I’ll share a few tips below) and then look at your strength work.

The general agreement is that pushing and pulling need to be in balance. Push ups and dips would be considered pushing, since they work the front of the body, whereas pull  ups and front lever work would be pulling, since it works the back. Be aware of the fact that if you sit on a computer all day, your pec muscles may already be tight and your shoulders rounded, and that you may therefore benefit from doing more pulling than pushing (I do this).

Then there are static holds (eg. plank, crow, levers etc.) vs. dynamic moves. At the higher levels static moves can be very intense on the body, so the use of dynamic moves is often used to build the requisite strength.

Planes of motion come into it – horizontal and vertical. For example you can do horizontal pushing – a handstand push up – and horizontal pulling – a pull up.

And finally there is straight arm and bent arm work, for example a handstand and a shoulder stand on the parallettes, respectively.

At this point I suspect the resentment I started in point one is nicely coming to a boil, but don’t start worrying – one of the joys of bodyweight training is that you will have enough time to learn as you are progressing in your skills and strength.

5. Exercises and form

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The second most important part of your training are the exercises you do, and the most important part is that you do them correctly.

For every exercise there is a shitty way to do it and a right way. The shitty was generally comes from you trying to do as many as possible, so for a push up this might involve not properly locking your arms at the top, and not going low enough at the bottom, and instead bobbing up and down like the Energiser bunny, hips sagging, desperately trying to crank out more reps. To read about the right way, here’s an example of the kind of article you will want to be reading from the excellent Breaking Muscle site. Oh actually, I should probably also point out that there are plenty of resources here on Bar-barella.com, such as this damn fine article on How To Do a Pull Up (try clicking on the “tips” and “how to” tags on the left of this page.

Once you start doing some reading, you’ll figure out the basics to get started with. When I first started bodyweight I wrote a post with a list (which is by no means comprehensive!) and some links to tutorials, which you can read if you like. Also, below are some sites which I recommend, since they give clear instructions and are written by people who know what they’re talking about:

GMB Fitness (also worth checking out their YouTube channel, which has a lot of excellent tutorials)

BeastSkills.com

FitnessFAQ’s – one of the best YouTube channels for straight-forward calisthenics tutorials

There are a few books worth checking out too, most notably:

– Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras 

Overcoming Gravity by Steven Low

Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade

I cannot recommend enough that you spend some time learning to do things properly. If you are in London and want some instruction from me, then get in touch.

6. Sets and reps

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I pretty much covered my thoughts on these on this post, but again what you do will depend on your goals: want to build endurance then do more reps, want to build strength then do less. 

7. Cardio

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Everyone should do something that raises their heart rate a few times a week, but what that is is up to you. Just make it something fun and (ideally) something hard. HIIT and tabata sets are great, and I have a lot of fun with the round timer app on my phone. If you enjoy running then run, if you like to dance then do that, if you want to run around after your dog outside then just do that. It’s up to you.

If you’re training for an event or race then that’s a different thing altogether and you’ll probably want to do some reading about that too.

8. Don’t forget to stretch.

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Yup – more reading! Stretch after every session, all the muscles you used. Try and hold each stretch for 30 seconds. I actually have a book called Sport Stretch which has very clearly explained stretches for all parts of the body, but GMB have loads of stretching tutorials, plus there are programs like Mike Fitch’s Animal Flow and the teachings of Ido Portal, both of which go way beyond mere flexibility and into agility and movement as a whole. If you can do yoga a couple of times a week then I definitely recommend that – it’s one of the few things that keeps me relatively injury-free.

9. And finally…

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There’s a subliminal message hidden in this post.

Figure it out and you’ll have unlocked the key to everything.