King of Calisthenics Workout: Lean Muscle Without Equipment

Brad Borland
Written By: Brad Borland
September 5th, 2014
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Workouts Bodyweight
523.8K Reads
Man doing calisthenics workout chin up outside
No gym? No problem. Grow without equipment. Brad Borland shows you how to use your own body weight to build lean muscle mass. Basic & intermediate workouts included.
Workout Summary

Workout Description

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.

Basic Bodyweight Workout
Perform 2-3x a Week
Exercise Sets Reps Rest (sec)
Superset: Push-up and pull-up 2-4 10-20 60
Superset: Parallel bar dip and inverted row 2-4 10-20 60
Superset: Prisoner squat and forward static lunge 2-4 10-20 60
Superset: Step-up and single leg calf raise 2-4 10-20 60
Triset: Lying leg raise, floor crunch and plank 2-4 10-20 30
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
Posted on: Sun, 10/01/2023 - 19:43

How can I turn the intermediate workout into an advanced workout?
Do I increase the number of sets or is their an advanced bodyweight version?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 10/18/2023 - 11:19

Hi, Jerry. If it was me, I would suggest bumping the reps up to 20 and cutting the rest to 30 seconds. That would make it more challenging. You could also wear a weighted vest for extra resistance.

Posted on: Wed, 09/20/2023 - 23:01

Can I incorporate this with my 6-day full body dumbbell only workout program? If so, can you give me any tips how to do so?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 09/27/2023 - 13:55

You can. Pick the two least intense days and do the calisthetics workouts after the weights. That is how I would do it.

Kit Walker
Posted on: Fri, 08/11/2023 - 10:15

How long is the rest period after completing a cycle before staring the next round?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Thu, 08/24/2023 - 21:26

Rest is after supersets and listed on the right of each section of the workouts.

Fiebe Op de Beeck
Posted on: Sat, 05/08/2021 - 03:35

Are you supposed to do the intermediate AND the basic training in 1 week?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Mon, 05/10/2021 - 10:11

Hey Fiebe - you'll start out with the basic training 3x per week. Once you feel like you can move up to the intermediate, you can do so.

Posted on: Mon, 12/07/2020 - 16:36

How long on the plank/three-way plank?

Also, it seems to me that there'd still be plenty of benefit by progressively increasing exercises that someone can't do the minimum number of in a single go (three pull-ups per superset, progressing to four pull-ups per superset, etc...). Thoughts?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 12/08/2020 - 13:25

Hey jaime - you can hold the planks for 30-60 seconds depending on your skill level. There is also plenty of benefits of doing your max number of reps and then progressing towards that rep goal.

Posted on: Thu, 06/11/2020 - 12:11

Are there any bicep exercises included?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 08/11/2020 - 13:32

Hey Ethan

Your biceps will be worked while performing your pull-ups and your inverted rows.

Bruno Mota
Posted on: Wed, 10/02/2019 - 02:08

Hi to all the M&S team,

First of all thank you for a great workout.

Now, my question is, would you advice me to do this workout in circuit form ?

Was thinking about spliting upper body, lower body and abs.

The circuits would be done 2 to 5 Times each with 1 minute rest for upper and lower and 30 sec for ABS.

What are your thoughts ?

Thank you on advance.

Bruno Mota
Posted on: Thu, 10/10/2019 - 01:27

@M&S team,

What are your thoughts on this matter ?

Have a great day.

Posted on: Sun, 03/24/2019 - 03:41

So, number of reps refers to TOTAL? If, for example, I do 12pushups, then I can do 8 pull-ups (total of 20) or I have to do the minimum of reps for both exercises in each superset, so 12 push-ups+10 pull-ups (total of 22)? Thanks in advance...

Enrique Rosado Pino
Posted on: Tue, 03/19/2019 - 09:54


Should these be done as a circuit or complete all sets on one superset and then move to the next one?

Posted on: Wed, 11/29/2017 - 10:47

Are these suitable for Ectomorph body type?
If not do you have any that suitable for it?

Posted on: Wed, 10/18/2017 - 04:29

do you have a more basic option lol? 20 pushups each set is fine, but 10 pullups a set is just not possible for me yet

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 10/18/2017 - 08:38

Hi Daniel,

Check out this article on pull up progressions:

Give some of those a shot, and if you do it consistently over time, you should be able to bang out a set of 10 no problem in the future!

Hope this helps!

Posted on: Sun, 09/17/2017 - 18:04

Is a superset exercise A then B then A then B and so on, or all A and then all B before any rest?


M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Mon, 09/18/2017 - 08:52

Hi Dean,

For a superset you perform all the reps of both exercises (a and b) then rest. That equals 1 set, perform for the prescribed number of sets.

Hope this helps!

Ivan Gevawer
Posted on: Mon, 06/26/2017 - 21:56

I'm a skinny guy looking for cutting the extra fat that i have, i like this workout, but it is labeled as "Building Muscle". Could i try this out or would you recommend me to search for a more straighforward approach in terms of cutting fat?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 06/27/2017 - 09:19

Hi Ivan,

Give it a shot. When you build muscle, you tend to burn more fat. They kind of go hand in hand in terms of body recomposistion.

Hope this helps!

Charlie S
Posted on: Tue, 05/16/2017 - 17:21

How long until I notice changes?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 05/17/2017 - 09:16

Hi Charlie,

Everyone responds differently to exercise. A safe bet is giving consistent effort (including diet and sleep) to a program for 6-8 weeks. At that point you should be able to tell if you are seeing the adaptations you would like.

Hope this helps!

John Shepard
Posted on: Mon, 03/13/2017 - 21:47

I don't quite understand the meaning behind the sets and supersets. Eg: it says a set of 10-20 push ups, a superset is 2-4 sets. Above the whole number/chart piece it states "rest after supersets".

Do I not rest between sets? If that is the case, then what is the point of 2-4 setts, isn't it just one giant set of 80 push ups?

Or is it finish a set, rest for 60 secs, and then after the superset is done I rest for X amount of time?

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Tue, 03/14/2017 - 09:05

Hi John,

for supersets you perform one exercise right after the other without any rest in between. After you've finished both exercises listed within a given superset, you rest for the prescribed rest period.

I hope this helps!

John Shepard
Posted on: Thu, 03/16/2017 - 17:29

Thank you sir.

John Shepard
Posted on: Tue, 03/14/2017 - 19:06

Ok I tried two things thus far, please let me know if they are wrong:

I finally reached decent state of physical fitness and I found some vids that recommended moving on. Eg: I can do 50 push up, 100 sit ups.

Based on the information above, to use one as an example:
Superset: Push-up and pull-up 2-4 10-20 60

I have thus far done two things:
A-I do 10 archer push ups, then do 10 pull ups. Rest for 60 secs then do it again another 3 times.
Is this correct?

B-I don't think this was correct, based on what you wrote.
10 Archer pushups, stood up stretched a bit more, then another 10 archer push ups. Rested 60 secs, then did 10 pull ups, let go of the bar moved my arms a bit (3-5 secs) then did another 10 pull ups.

Thank you for taking the time to answer, sir.

M&S Team Badge
Posted on: Wed, 03/15/2017 - 09:05

Hi John,

Your example "A" would be the correct approach in this workout.

Hope this helps answer your questions, if you have any others please feel free to ask!

Posted on: Sat, 02/11/2017 - 07:05

3 way pushup means? How to do this?

Posted on: Mon, 01/08/2018 - 04:37

3-way push-up (feet-elveated, flat, then hands elevated)

Posted on: Mon, 05/09/2016 - 04:49

Thanks for sharing this great tips and advices

ben israel
Posted on: Wed, 03/11/2015 - 23:07

You seem not to hit biceps at all. Are you just relying on all the back workouts?

Posted on: Thu, 12/22/2016 - 06:13

Pull ups hit your biceps just as much as any bicep curl out there, if not better. You don't need to isolate your biceps to make them grow.

Angelo devizio
Posted on: Tue, 02/07/2017 - 12:25

Hello question I'm 56 cancer survivor bad shoulders have gym downstairs and gym membership using weights on and off for a long time getting bored and unmotivated like to try cahlestenics any suggestions to start with

Posted on: Fri, 10/10/2014 - 10:35

3-way plank???

Posted on: Thu, 06/01/2017 - 18:25

Regular plank followed by a side plank on both sides

ronnie coon
Posted on: Wed, 09/17/2014 - 21:41

I am 74 years old an need a manual of this material. I will pay you for this service ,of course.
please advise. thank you , r. coon.