Most of us know what press-ups, pull-ups and squats are. Most of us have included them in our day-to-day training at one point or another. But what if we want to take our bodyweight training to the next level? Enter calisthenics.
What Is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics is an umbrella term for strength training that uses bodyweight only and minimal external equipment. That's pushing, pulling, balancing, jumping, bending and swinging - which, depending on how it's implemented, can lead to increased strength, fitness, proprioception (balance) and flexibility.
All the classic bodyweight movements you know and love such as press-ups and pull-ups are under its umbrella, as well as advanced movements you'll find in gymnastics - such as the muscle-up, front lever and the elusive iron cross to name but a few.
The terms 'calisthenics' comes from the Greek words kalós, meaning 'beautiful', and sthenos, meaning 'strength'. You could discern that as 'the art of using bodyweight to build an aesthetically pleasing physique'. That may sound overly romantic, but anyone who's got into calisthenics knows that given time, it transcends 'exercise' and does indeed become somewhat of an art form. The focus on building an attractive physique isn't universally important (although it certainly doesn't hurt that calisthenics can make you look great naked) - some are driven by attaining visually impressive skills, others by the effort and rewards that the journey bears.
Calisthenics has come a long way since the ancient Greeks, evolving far beyond its original purpose - to become the primary component of military fitness, climbing, gymnastics, an exercise solution for the everyday man and even a street-born discipline of own...
The Rise of Street Calisthenics
'Street calisthenics' bridges the gap between a bloke doing press-ups in his bedroom and a world-class athlete training for the Olympics. Advanced movements have become popular and feasible goals for everyday folk. You no longer need to be a gymnast to attain high-level skills - just a little guidance, consistency, floor space and possibly a pull-up bar.
Although you don't need to be a gymnast, you do need some gymnastic knowledge (or someone to guide you) to take a humble press-up to a one arm handstand. Unlike conventional weight training, it is far more difficult to gauge progress in calisthenics, and the progressions are far less obvious than simply picking up a heavier dumbbell.
Social media and its influencers have played a huge part in both the popularity of calisthenics and the wealth of knowledge now available. Until now, most of the information resided in the heads of extreme athletes and top gymnastics coaches. A simple Google search, 'how to do a planche?', will provide you with countless sources of information and advice, but oftentimes internet resources are inconsistent and incomplete. If you're ready to take calisthenics seriously, there's nothing better than a carefully considered book to bring it all together.
There are few true sources of bodyweight training in book form, but those that do exist are wonderfully effective, informative and engaging for the enthused mover - beginners and experts alike. We can confidently say we've poured through all of those that are notable and well-known. Over the years, Jake our founder has not only read these books but used them as a training resource for months and years at a time. You may read them once and move on, follow a prepared program, meticulously construct your own routine based on what you learn, or keep them on hand as an in-and-out resource for years to come.
Here are our 5 best calisthenics books to ensure your next book purchase suits your needs and allows you to take your bodyweight training to the next level.
The 5 Best Calisthenics Books for Beginners to Experts
Get Strong - Al Kavadlo & Danny Kavadlo
For those that: want an easy to follow yet effective plan that will take them from novice to proficient
Not for those that: have specific movement goals in mind and are looking to construct their own routine
Get Strong is our number 1 recommendation for anyone from beginner to intermediate who would like a straightforward, clear program from start to finish. The format is a 16-week plan starting from entry-level bodyweight exercises and finishing 4 months later with impressive movements like handstand push-ups and pistol squats. It's in an easy-to-read grab-and-go format but includes essential information on other aspects of training such as warming up, mindset and supplemental exercises.
Written in the buoyant and enthusiastic Kavadlo style with images and design to match.
Complete Calisthenics 2 - Ashley Kalym
For those that: want to learn more than the basics and are looking for more complexity in their training
Not for those that: want to get stuck into a program right away without research or preparation
Complete Calisthenics is perhaps the most comprehensive book on bodyweight exercises that isn't from a gymnastics approach. This makes it more accessible than Overcoming Gravity (see below), yet it still has great depth. Kalym has a military background so the foundations are built with conditioning in mind, but there are plenty of advanced isometric movements such as front lever and human flag with detail descriptions of how to get there. There are some programs included, but the focus is thorough exercise descriptions and clear progressions.
This is the perfect book for anyone wanting to improve their knowledge of calisthenics and construct their own program based on specific goals.
Convict Conditioning - Paul Wade
For those that: want to keep things uncomplicated and build up to some impressive equipment-free movements
Not for those that: are interested in isometric movements such as planche and front lever
Convict Conditioning is amongst the original bodyweight training books and was at least partly responsible for introducing the concept of progressive calisthenics to the relative masses. It has a no-bullshit approach and is rough around the edges - but Wade did develop the book in prison after all! The method focuses on 6 movements, each of which consists of 10 progressions to take you from the easiest expression to the most advanced. The final 6 movements range in difficulty - they are intermediate in gymnastic standards - but will challenge even seasoned bodyweight movers.
The Convict Conditioning program is straightforward to follow and doesn't require much understanding, but may be limited for those looking to progress in a wide range of skills.
Overcoming Gravity: A Systematic Approach to Gymnastics & Bodyweight Strength - Steven Low
For those that: want maximum complexity, detail and information from a gymnastics approach
Not for those that: can't dedicate time to learning or want a straightforward plan
Overcoming Gravity is a mammoth book in both physical size and detail. It is without a doubt the most exhaustive book on calisthenics in existence, reading like a gymnastics textbook with no stone left unturned. If you want an easy to follow program, Overcoming Gravity is not for you. It is for those that want to invest time and energy into understanding the gymnastic approach to bodyweight exercise - including vast chapters on human biology, programming, mobility, rehabilitation and much much more.
It will take countless hours to extract what you need from this book - it is complex to say the least. But other than hiring a personal gymnastics coach, this is the best resource you could possibly own to aid your journey towards achieving bodyweight mastery.
Street Workout - Al Kavadlo
For those that: those that would like an anthology of both classic and unconventional movements to experiment with
Not for those that: want a thorough training program or detailed information beyond the exercises themselves
It's in the name, but Street Workout takes the urban, informal approach to calisthenics rather than the clinical gymnastics approach. It compiles common bodyweight exercises, gymnastic movements and moves invented in modern, street calisthenics in one place - so you can easily add new, exciting exercises to your workout. Street Workout is informative yet super-fun - we've found it to be a great addition to training in the park, where everyone's always looking for the next alternative press-up or pull-up variation.
As the programming is limited, Street Workout is best used as a sidekick to Get Strong or Convict Conditioning, or alternatively for anyone who has a good foundation of bodyweight exercise and wants to expand their vocabulary in a casual and playful manner.
Have we missed your favourite calisthenics book? If so, let us know and if we deem it worthy, we'll add it to the list.