As they say, “What’s old is new again.” Except, this time around, the born-again trend hails from 480 BC Greece: calisthenics. We’re revealing the “secrets” to getting ripped with this old-school method through progressive bodyweight exercises like push-ups, crunches, and squats.
Here’s our complete guide to getting ripped with calisthenics.
Table of Contents
- What Are Calisthenics?
- What Does It Mean to Be Ripped?
- Step 1 – Make Sure You Have Calisthenic Equipment
- Step 2 – Master the Art of Calisthenics Exercises
- Step 3 – Create a Calisthenics Workout Routine
- Step 4 – Fuel Your Body for a Ripped Physique
- Step 5 – Add Supplements to Your Routine
- Step 6 – Burn Fat & Calories With Cardio
- Step 7 – Be Prepared to Make Changes
- How to Get Ripped With Calisthenics Conclusion
What Are Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is a type of strength training that relies on little more than the weight of your own body, although some more advanced progressions could include weight plates or a pull-up bar.
Unlike traditional resistance training, calisthenics typically recruits multiple muscle groups at once — or even the entire body — to perform each rep and maintain proper form. Examples include pull-ups, hanging leg raises, lunges, and high-knees.
What Does It Mean to Be Ripped?
When we say “ripped,” we really mean “aesthetic” and “lean.” A ripped physique has visible muscle mass on the chest and shoulders, the clear definition between muscles, is vascular, includes a six-pack, has a sizably muscular upper body, and is low in body fat (<10%).
So, can you get ripped with just bodyweight exercises? Absolutely!
Let’s walk through each step…
Step 1 – Make Sure You Have Calisthenic Equipment
Yep, we defined calisthenics as a nearly equipment-free training style, and then our first step was to buy equipment. (We’ll explain why!)
Beginners can do lots of calisthenic exercises using their own body weight as resistance. But when it’s time to eventually scale the training and add exercise progressions into the mix, adding artificial resistance or equipment is the only way to continue building mass.
Not to mention, pulling exercises — like rows and pull-ups — aren’t exactly possible without some type of pull-up bar or rings.
This equipment can help you on your flat-out ripped, calisthenics journey:
An over-door pull-up bar can add dozens of exercises to your line-up — including pull-up and chin-up variations, leg raises, and 90-degree hangs.
Just make sure that your door frame is sturdy, and the pull-up bar can support your weight plus at least 50 or so some-odd pounds.
Some modern squat racks and power cages also have a built-in pull-up bar, if you’d prefer to use that or an old-school bar drilled into the basement or garage wall.
Power Cage & Olympic Set
But if you want to open the door to exercises like inverted rows and pull-ups and eventually transition into a classic lifting routine, they’re no longer optional. So choose a set with at least a 7-foot bar, matching bumper plates, and a weight capacity of your weight and then some.
Aerobic Stepper (or Boxes)
Aerobic steppers, boxes, or benches give way to jumping, incline, and decline calisthenic exercises like box jumps, split squats, and incline push-ups.
For newbies, steppers provide about four inches of height apiece, are stackable, and have non-skid feet for a sturdy landing or support surface. They also allow for more gradual progressions (a few inches at a time) without buying another space-hogging box.
Suspension Trainer or Rings
Suspension trainers (like the infamous TRX) or gymnastics rings are a non-traditional method of adding advanced, stability-based, suspended exercises to your routine. That could include dips, rows, push-ups, knee raises, and front levers.
A dip station or a parallel bar set is another alternative for guys with decent upper-body strength and flat-out tired of endless push-up variations. With a dip station, you can add more isolation exercises to your calisthenics workouts, like chest and triceps dips.
Weights are purely for adding resistance to the bodyweight exercises you were already doing (i.e., weighted crunches or weighted vest squats). A weighted vest, weight plates, kettlebells, or dumbbells can make calisthenic exercises more challenging and reignite muscle growth.
Step 2 – Master the Art of Calisthenics Exercises
We’re bringing back the glory days — old-school, elementary school PE exercises (just kidding, sort of). The beauty in calisthenics is that you can modify the exercises to match your experience and strength levels.
If we had to break calisthenics into two skill-level categories, we’d have:
Basic calisthenic exercises are simple, require minimal equipment (if any), and target several muscle groups simultaneously.
Here’s a list of 20 beginner-friendly(ish) calisthenic exercises:
- Calf raise
- Hanging knee raise
- Mountain climber
- Jumping jack
- Leg raise
- Side plank
- Inverted row
- High knee
- Butt kick
- Wall sit
These basic calisthenic moves are also semi-modifiable for real newbies.
For example, if you don’t have the upper-body strength for a complete, 90-degree push-up, knee-supported push-ups can double as the first step in that progression. You can switch to diamond, decline, or even clapping push-ups as you build strength and endurance.
More Advanced Calisthenic Exercises
These bodyweight exercises are reserved for those with at least intermediate or advanced-level strength and training experience.
These significantly tougher exercises either increase or decrease the angle, boost the range of motion, switch from two arms to one, add artificial resistance, or switch the attention from a major muscle group to a minor one.
Examples of more challenging calisthenic moves include:
- Handstand push-up
- Pistol squat
- Human flag
- Reverse crunch
- Diamond push-up
- Decline push-up
- Jumping split squat
- Iron cross
- Front lever
- Back lever
- Hanging weighted knee raise
- One-arm pull-up
- Frog squat
- Duck walk
Keep in mind that it’s normal for your total-body strength to progress at varying rates. For example, your core strength may already be “expert” enough for 15-pound hanging weighted knee raises while you’re still stuck on assisted or regular pull-ups.
Step 3 – Create a Calisthenics Workout Routine
Ah, the fun part — actually creating a calisthenics-only routine that’ll push you closer and closer to finally being “ripped.” While a circuit-style calisthenics workout will burn calories and double as an aerobic (or cardio) workout, the number one goal is still hypertrophy (muscle growth).
Here’s what you need to know about DIYing your bodyweight-training routine:
Calisthenic Training Principles
With each high-tension, heavy-resistance rep, the muscles experience microscopic tearing that later repairs itself to be both bigger and stronger.
The “problem” with calisthenic exercises is that the body eventually becomes strong enough to where cranking out 12, 15, and 20 reps is no longer tiring. To continue building strength and size, you’ll need to add more resistance (more than your body weight) or complicate the exercise.
Fortunately, the muscle fibers and cells don’t know the difference between a barbell, dumbbell, or bodyweight as long as the intensity and resistance increase.
Based on that, we can safely assume that the hypertrophy principles covered in this 2019 systematic review apply to calisthenics as well:
- 3–6 sets per exercise
- 6–12 reps per set
- <60-second rest periods between sets
- 60–80% intensity (moderate-intensity)
- 12–28 sets per muscle group per week
Another study out of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research uncovered a somewhat unexpected truth: progressive push-up training can be just as effective for building upper-body strength and mass as traditional bench training.
Volume vs. Overload
The folks at Old School Calisthenics also raise an easily overlooked point — volume and overload are both crucial to getting ripped with bodyweight training.
Spike the resistance too high, and your volume will suffer. Conversely, train at too high of a volume, and you’ll forfeit the tension and intensity needed to encourage efficient hypertrophy.
A mixed routine somewhere in the middle, whether that’s blending high-volume and progressive training into a single workout or splitting it between weekly workouts, is the best way to get ripped with calisthenics.
The study we just mentioned (called Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy) also reveals that training variety, supersets, and different rep ranges can dig you out of a training plateau. So if you want to dodge the plateau altogether, playing around with volume and overload are no-brainers.
Sample Calisthenics Workouts
But if you want to customize a calisthenics routine to target each body part at your current level, check out these calisthenic progressions (from A Shot of Adrenaline):
Build your own routine using the hypertrophy standards we discussed earlier! There are also dozens and dozens more progressions for each muscle group to keep workouts fresh and strength (and, more importantly — size) on the upswing.
Step 4 – Fuel Your Body for a Ripped Physique
A truly ripped physique has high muscle density and low body fat. So, in addition to calisthenic sessions in place of traditional weightlifting, you’ll also need to eat for the physique you crave.
A strategic, well-balanced diet will fuel your muscles pre-workout, encourage post-workout recovery, and simply help you survive day-to-day.
That means regaining control of your:
If you swear by fitness “god” Lyle McDonald’s genetic muscular potential theory, a newbie with less than a year of consistent training experience can pack on 1.5–2 pounds of lean mass per month — or 0.375–0.5 pounds per week.
So eating a 1,000-calorie surplus per day won’t guarantee two pounds of muscle gained weekly.
If you buy into the highly criticized rule that one-quarter of weight loss is the fat-free mass (like muscle), it’s clear that crash diets aren’t the magic fix to fat-shredding. (Industry experts suggest that the body will naturally burn fat before muscle unless it’s in starvation mode.)
So there’s no shortcut to losing weight and maintaining muscle mass.
Any weight gain or loss on your journey toward getting ripped with calisthenics should be gradual. 250–500 calories above (for muscle gain) or below (for fat loss) your total daily energy expenditure — or TDEE — is a decent way to gain or lose about a pound or so per week.
The right combination of macronutrients will also help you burn fat, build muscle, or do both. Side note: we’re basing the following recommendations on a 2004 review published in Sports Medicine, analyzing the diet of bodybuilders in the off-season and pre-competition.
The body depends on proteins to rebuild torn muscle fibers and allow the muscles to recover both bigger and stronger. Even though calisthenic training is stereotypically lower-intensity than regular weight training, the body needs 25–30% of its calories from protein.
The body instinctively burns carbohydrates for fuel and converts them into our primary energy source, glycogen. That’s also the logic behind the somewhat controversial keto diet — reduce carb intake, and you can force your body into its second-favorite energy source: fats.
Getting 55–60% of your daily calorie from carbohydrates is typically within reason. Just make sure your carb-rich foods are high in fiber and low in sugar and refined carbs.
We hear fat and assume overweight and obesity. However, the cells need fat to increase anabolic hormone production (to build muscle) and allow the transfer of nutrients to the body’s cells for growth and repair.
Fat intake of around 15–20% of your calories is generally regarded as “in moderation.” But, of course, select foods rich in omega-3s and unsaturated fats and low in saturated and trans fats.
Food Choice & Nutrient Timing
There’s no top-secret diet to getting ripped, let alone building a ripped physique with calisthenics alone. However, beyond tracking your daily intake using a meal-tracking app like MyFitnessPal, try to stick to whole, nutrient-dense foods that limit:
- Processed foods
- Excess fats
If you do splurge, which research shows can improve your metabolism and prevent you from permanently falling off the wagon, do it occasionally. Remember: it’s a cheat meal, not a cheat day, and regular binge-fests will set you back and begin undoing your gains.
Step 5 – Add Supplements to Your Routine
The right blend of supplements will only improve your physique and enhance your calisthenic workouts. If you choose any three supplements, these three are the undisputed champions:
Creatine isn’t only one of the most well-researched sports supplements on the planet. This highly cited study published in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2012 stands firm with the pro-creatine crowd (for the most part), proving it:
- Improves exercise performance (+8% 1RM)
- Boosts fat-free mass
- Increases muscle glycogen — or energy
- Spikes strength and hypertrophy
Yet, the study also revealed that some people might be “non-responders,” meaning they don’t respond well to creatine supplements. So if you already have high muscle creatine or a lower percentage of type II muscle fibers, creatine may not be the “magic bullet” you’re expecting.
Pre-Workout (With Beta-Alanine & Caffeine)
Pre-workout powders won’t save an otherwise low-energy workout. But, when packed with beta-alanine and caffeine, these powders — taken 30–60 minutes before training — can boost mental concentration, overall workout performance, and muscular endurance.
Whey Protein Powder
Whey protein powder will never fully replace naturally occurring proteins, like those found in meats or dairy products. Yet, these protein-dense, easy-digesting powders can help you meet your 25–30% daily protein goals and the ACSM’s recommended 0.5–0.8g per pound.
Step 6 – Burn Fat & Calories With Cardio
Up until now, we’ve centered much of the discussion around building muscle. But sculpting an aesthetic physique is also about shedding fat to uncover definition and reveal the bulging muscles underneath.
Cardio can also widen your daily caloric deficit if you’re cutting. But no matter what, the best way to shred fat without putting your gains in danger is to avoid cardio before resistance training and limit your cardio to three 20–30-minute sessions per week — backed by research.
There are two ways to ignite the calorie-burn with aerobic exercise:
HIIT — or high-intensity interval training — alternates between maximum effort aerobic training and rest or low-intensity exercise. This, in turn, slightly increases the body’s EPOC (or afterburn effect) to increase metabolism at rest for the next 14 or so hours (study).
The average 30-minute HIIT session can shred some 300–450 calories. So if you want to balance your deficit (for cutting) between diet and exercise instead of one or the other, HIIT is one of the most efficient ways to torch fat in short-burst half-hour sessions.
Calisthenics is also an ideal choice for circuit-style training. In other words, you can seamlessly blend your HIIT sessions with your calisthenic workouts with a 30-second on, 30-second off pattern to burn calories while still building strength and size.
LISS — or low-intensity steady-state cardio — is less effective for burning calories. One study comparing the calorie burn between HIIT and 70%-intensity cardio discovered that HIIT burns about 3.14 more calories per minute than classic, steady endurance training.
Of course, lower-intensity cardio also puts less strain on the lower body (for those with pre-existing athletic injuries), the heart, and the lungs.
Note: If you’re bulking and eating in a caloric surplus, there’s literally no need to do cardio (other than the heart benefits). Avoid cardio if you can or keep it super low-intensity.
Step 7 – Be Prepared to Make Changes
Plateaus are a completely normal part of training, and no routine — calisthenic or not — will perfectly fit your body’s unique needs on day one. Eventually, you’ll need to adapt the program to continue increasing strength, size, and overall aesthetics.
- Tracking your body measurements using a cloth measuring tape, bathroom scale, and skinfold calipers
- Adding weight or reps, changing exercises, or infusing set variety (like supersets) to bust through plateaus or training lags
- Removing or adding supplements
- Re-calculating daily calories if you’re losing when you hoped to gain (or vice versa)
As you increase your strength, make the calisthenic exercises more difficult by sliding into the more challenging progressions.
Can You Get Big With Calisthenics?
You can get big with calisthenics if you’re a complete newbie with little to no training experience. But for the most part, calisthenics is best for increasing size (to an extent), strength, endurance, and overall aesthetics — building muscle and burning fat.
However, when combined with traditional resistance training, supplements, and a caloric surplus, calisthenics can easily replace a regular weightlifting split.
How Big Can You Get With Calisthenics?
According to Lyle McDonald’s theory, you can gain 1.5–2 pounds of pure lean mass per month with calisthenics with less than a year of training experience under your belt (which is the same as regular resistance training).
Yet, even with exercise progressions and a strategic diet, the classic calisthenic physique is typically less muscular than the standard “ripped” physique. So if you’re aiming for both low body fat and size, regular weight training may better meet your needs.
How to Get Ripped With Calisthenics Conclusion
To get ripped with calisthenics, you’ll need to follow these seven steps:
- Make Sure You Have Calisthenic Equipment
- Master the Art of Calisthenics Exercises
- Create a Calisthenics Workout Routine
- Fuel Your Body for a Ripped Physique
- Add Supplements to Your Routine
- Burn Fat & Calories With Cardio
- Be Prepared to Make Changes
Also, don’t forget to focus on progressive overload, increasing volume, and adapting the program as you make progress.