Getting Started with Body Weight Training

Stefan Imhoff

I’m doing body weight training for almost a year now and really like it. It’s free, you can do it anywhere, all you need is something to push from and to pull to, and it’s fun.

Human Flag
Human Flag

Two years ago I stumbled upon a new training concept founded by some guys in Munich: Freeletics. They only trained with body weight and had a quite impressive physique.

Freeletics and Crossfit

I also had heard of Crossfit, which is quite popular in the USA. I bought the Freeletics training guide, which included a 15 week training. But Freeletics is a HIIT course and was far to extreme for me. I couldn’t even walk a few hundred meters, after the first few trainings, so bad were my muscle aches.

And reading more about these extreme sports I found out they come with the danger of getting Rhabdomyolysis, which is a very dangerous degenerative muscle injury. It destroys the muscles and can even lead to death. The body of beginners may be not capable to do high intensive training sessions that long or hard, as they are done in Crossfit or Freeletics.


Body weight training is also called Street Workout, Ghetto Fitness or Calisthenics. The word Calisthenics comes from the greek words καλός (kalos), which means beautiful and σθένος (sthenos), which means strength.

Arm Elbow Lever on Beer Bottles
Arm Elbow Lever on Beer Bottles

With Calisthenics you use some basic movements like Lunges, Crunches, Push-ups, Pull-ups, Squats, Dips to strengthen your body. You gradually improve your skills and proceed to more difficult exercises. That’s why it’s called Progressive Calisthenics.

Adding 5 kg of weight to the barbell doesn’t feel as good.

The nice thing with this kind of training is you do small steps and improve in a sustainable way. Your body needs time to learn the movements correctly and get used to them. If done correctly some will reach advanced exercises like Muscle-ups, Pistol Squats, Human Flag or One-Arm Push-Ups. Whenever you reach a goal and master a trick, this is a really good feeling of accomplishment. Adding 5 kg of weight to the barbell doesn’t feel as good.

Progressive Calisthenics

Calisthenics is suitable for everybody, you can start with the simple exercises possible. For some you even can start sitting right on your sofa. You can’t do a Pull-Up? There is a progression route for that.

When I started with Pull-Ups two years ago I could do barely 1 or 2 Pull-Ups, now I’m at 20 in a row. To find out, how advanced an exercise is, you can have a look at this Periodic Table of Body Weight Exercises. The website Body Weight Training Area provides multiple progression guides and even a poster to print out and put on your fridge. Calisthenics 101 provides a complete list of Calisthenics exercises.

And yes, everybody can learn Pull-Ups. Women, too! Just have a look at Cornelia Rizkes Workout with some girls or see the professional StarCraft 2 player Madeleine Leaner doing Human Flags, Muscle-Ups or Lever.

Building a New Habit

I’ve read James Clears article How to Build a New Habit: This is Your Strategy Guide and according to his article building a new habit has five key points:

  1. Start small
  2. Increase very small
  3. Break big habits into chunks
  4. Never miss twice
  5. Be patient

I followed his advice and started small, just with a few repetitions and a few sets, but increased the repetitions, sets and difficulty constantly.

To reach a big goal like doing a Human Flag (which I haven’t reached jet) needs to be broken into parts: Build core strength, back strength and arm strength.

I keep track of my workouts in a diary and can easily see the training days in a calendar, to see if I missed too often.

Man doing a Pull-Up with 3 children as additional weight
Best dad ever. What is your excuse for not working out?

And I am patient. It’s more about the journey, than about the goal. It’s still an effort to train every day, to convince me to do my workout, even if the day isn’t a good one. Personally I decided to train early in the morning, a few minutes after I got up. This way I don’t need as much willpower as I would in the evening. Unfortunately we are all victims to Ego Depletion, and later in the day it may be completely gone.

Training Sites and Equipment

Calisthenics are far more popular in other countries, like Russia or the United States, where you will find a lot of good outdoor training courses. Working out is every day life, as you can see in this Street Workout video from Ukraine. In Germany this is unfortunately not the case. Most German cities don’t provide good outdoor training courses, and if they do, the height of bars is more fitted for children.

But with creativity you’ll always find a solution. If prisoners can train Calisthenics in their small cells, you should find ways to train without a perfect training course. You can pull up to branches of trees or fences, dip on handrails or bicycle stands. I for example found a playground nearby with decent bars. Not high enough to hang with my legs stretched, but I can train. Additionally I bought a Doorway Pull-Up Bar and Dip Bars, because I got tired of using two chairs for Dips.

Build Muscle, Endurance and Strength

One thing you read all over the internet is the question if it is possible to gain muscles with Calisthenics. The answer is yes. It may be harder as with weight training, but your physique will be more balanced and you will be a lot stronger. There is no value in training arms like Popeye or focus just on a Sixpack. With Calisthenics you can improve your strength, endurance and build muscles.

You can find a lot of articles on this topic on the internet, but as a general rule you need to do low repetitions, multiple sets, do them slow and reduce rest time.

Motivation and Inspiration

Finding resources on how to do the movements is an easy task. YouTube is filled with videos on how to do anything. And these channels provide regular motivation. Some of these persons or groups are like superstars. Frank Medrano, a vegan athlete has over half a million followers.

Other good channels to follow are Strength Project, OfficialBarstarzz, Brendan Meyers, BaristiWorkout, Corey Hall, Al Kavadlo, Calisthenic Movement or Cornelia Ritzke.

So, and now get started with Body Weight Training.