Ask Stew: The Benefits of Calisthenics and Adding Variety to Programming

There are many ways to exercise. In fact, exercise does not have to even look like exercise. You can get physical activity doing fun things outside without ever visiting a gym.

Many of you still have closed gym facilities or do not feel comfortable heading back to a gym yet and are resorting to less traditional forms of exercise. Here is a question from someone who used to lift weights regularly but has moved to calisthenics and started doing more cardio for his exercise routine.

Hey Stew, I have been doing mostly calisthenics and running or biking since my gym closed. It has been fun but things are starting to get stale and I’m missing the weight room. Any way to spice this up some? What kind of benefits/disadvantages are there for long-term calisthenics and cardio cycles? Thanks – Jeff.

First, let me share the benefits of long-term calisthenics. There was a time when I laid off weight training and focused solely on calisthenics and cardio (run, swim, bike) for over two years as I transitioned from a power/strength athlete into a better spec ops candidate. It will change your focus for sure if you do a longer than normal cycle. Here are a few of the many benefits:

1. No Equipment Needed: This is one of my favorite things about calisthenics. Some of the harder exercises like pull-ups and dips require special equipment but those movements are so common you can find ways to do them in a park or a playground. Everything else just requires floor space and your body moving. Buying a power-tower or building your own is not that difficult or costly either.

2. Countless Options: Calisthenics workouts only require a few exercises to get an effective full body workout. The basic pull-ups, push-ups, squats and plank poses work wonders for the entire body. Add weight in the form of a dumbbell, weight vest or backpack and you have increased the intensity to spice things up a bit.

3. Kids Can Do Them: Calisthenics, stretching, and a variety of cardio options are ideal for kids to start to learn how to add fitness to their world. We typically start off pre-teens and early teenaged youth with calisthenics workouts especially if they want to pursue sports that require weightlifting in their future. Calisthenics gives them a good foundation to build upon with added weight as they get closer to high school age.

4. No Shortage of Variety: You can search the Military.com Fitness pages for countless workout ideas using calisthenics as they are great ways to spice up your workout and prepare for the wide range of military and police fitness tests used by tactical athletes today. I have workout books full of calisthenics (literally 100s of individual workouts) based programs and supplement resistance training that includes weight vests, TRX, sandbags, dumbbells, kettlebells, etc.

5. Add to Your Weight Programming: A cycle without weight training is actually quite helpful as you also need a break from heavy weights every now and then. Adding in calisthenics and some often-neglected cardio is not only going to help your strength but will add some endurance to your life, too. Consider periodization training for life and give yourself an off-season from lifting even if it is only 6-8 weeks a year.

Personally, I like to lift weights half the year mixed with the hard calisthenics (pull-ups and dips) and then do calisthenics and cardio cycles for the other half of the year. You can change things up every few months and do sprints and agility vs. longer running or biking as well as faster or slower repetition calisthenics.

The only disadvantage I have experienced was my own fault with high repetition workouts that led to joint tendonitis. You can always adjust repetition ranges and speed of repetitions to make changes if you feel you need to.

When adding running to the equation, remember runners get injured every year for the same reasons: too much distance, too much progression, too fast on sprints, too many days per week. Mixing in running every OTHER day with biking is a good way to keep the cardio up without all the impact related aches and pains that are associated with daily running programs for beginning runners.

My advice for you is to only do 4-6 months of calisthenics- and cardio-focused training if you are getting bored with it, but start adding in weighted events such as these listed below:

Weight Vest: Add a weight vest, back pack or weight belt to your calisthenics to make them harder. It will be more of a strength exercise and reduce your repetitions by 50-75% depending on the weight and exercise you select.

TRX: Add suspension training to your world and you will diversity your workouts 100x. The TRX is such a unique piece of equipment that can make more difficult exercises like pull-ups easier and easier exercises like push-ups much harder.

Sandbags: Either make your own or buy some with sturdy handles like BruteForce or GoRuck Sandbags. You can use them for basic calisthenics like squats and lunges or add more complex movements like hang cleans or power cleans.

Of course, adding some weight with dumbbells or kettlebells can create huge variety to your training program by doing rows, curls, overhead presses, swings and many more. Have fun and get creative as the workouts you can do with calisthenics and a few pieces of equipment are only limited by your imagination.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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