If you've seen videos of buff guys performing gravity-defying feats of strength in New York City, chances are it was calisthenics enthusiast and Barstarzz founder Ed Checo. He honed his skills on those very same monkey bars. Today, he has built an empire of bodyweight training programs to help you follow in his footsteps.
Previously, we published Checo's "You've Seen the Best Way to Do More Pull-Ups" and "How to Take Your Push-Up Skills from Beginner to Badass." Now Chico's back to share his tips for starting out in calisthenics, as well as presenting the five basic exercises you need to master to take your bar-flying skills to new heights.
First Things First
It's not necessary to buy equipment—Checo himself started with nothing more than the neighborhood playground. Having said that, daily access to calisthenics equipment makes it a heck of a lot easier to learn and practice new skills.
"Today, I have a two pull-up bars that go on the doorways at my house, and a pull-up station in my room," says Checo. "I can't go a day without seeing the equipment."
If you can invest in your own equipment, Checo recommends looking for sturdy products of high quality. Go cheap, he warns, and you'll get what you pay for.
If you can't buy, make sure you at least have access to the necessary equipment, whether it's at the gym, the park, or right in your backyard. Having a pull-up bar nearby allows for more frequent practice. And practice leads to progress.
Forget About Splits
Calisthenics are compound exercises, which makes traditional bodybuilding splits all but impossible.
"Chin-ups alone constitute a great biceps workout," says Checo, "but they also work your back and your shoulders. This is not a bad thing, but it's something to keep in mind when you're programing."
Instead of isolated splits, Checo recommends breaking your training days into specific movements groups (e.g., push/pull) or areas of the body (e.g., upper/lower or front/back). For example, you could do push-ups, handstands, and dips one day, then pull-ups, chin-ups, and back rows on another day.
Choose a Quality Program
Everyone must start at the same point: the beginning. Learning new skills requires repetition and progression.
"A good program should first and foremost introduce you to the basics," says Checo. "You have to start with very beginner skills and work your way up at a gradual pace."
Advanced skills take time to master. Those people on YouTube have been training for years! If a program starts you off with advanced movements like muscle-ups, or simply feels overwhelming, it's probably not the best program for you.
Mastering Basic Exercises
Regardless of skill level, you must master the basics to advance. Here are five exercises to master for any calisthenics program.
Even the basic pull-up is advanced, so Checo breaks this exercise down into variations any novice can tackle, starting with negative chin-ups, progressing to Australian pull-ups, then finally mastering the full chin-up before attempting the pull-up. The chin-up is easier simply because turning your palms toward you engages the biceps to assist the back muscles.
Pro tip: Don't try to cheat by jerking your head over the bar or kicking your legs for assistance. You'll build more strength if you eliminate momentum and pull your body up and down using good form.
Dips are a great way to strengthen your triceps for push-ups. Choose something sturdy, like a bench or box. Position your hands on the edge next to your hips. Extend your legs and slide your hips off the bench so your body weight is supported by your hands. Bend your elbows to lower your body, then straighten back up. Curve in your chest to better target the triceps.
Pro tip: If it's too hard to keep your legs straight, bend your knees and move your feet under you to assist with the movement until you get stronger.
3. Assisted Pistol Squat
Pistol squats are a great way to measure total body balance and core strength, but they can be challenging at first. Work up to the pistol squat by holding on to the upright portion of the pull-up bar or squat rack. When you come down, use your handhold to assist at the point where you have trouble coming back up.
Pro tip: Keep your foot flat and your weight in your heel, and avoid letting your knee go past your toe.
Pushups are the staple of any worthwhile calisthenics program, not to mention a great compound exercise for building core strength. Keep your back straight throughout the movement, and remember Checo's other form cues: Keep your hands shoulder-width apart, allow your elbows to come in, and align your wrists with your elbows and shoulders.
Pro tip: If you can't maintain proper form on your toes, drop down to your knees.
5. Push-up to handstand
Start in a push-up position with your feet on the wall, and walk your feet up the wall as you walk your hands back closer to the wall. You should end perpendicular to the floor facing the wall, balancing on your hands in a full handstand position. If you can't achieve a full handstand, go as far as you can and hold, which is a great workout for your shoulders.
Pro tip: When starting out, practice one rep at a time, and focus on holding the handstand position. Learning proper handstand alignment will help you later.