It’s no secret that resistance exercise can change an individual’s body in shape and function - though to what extent and the end result of such changes can in fact vary between different bodies and the type of training modality they choose to employ.
One such training modality is that of calisthenics, a form of dynamic resistance exercise best known for its minimalism and rather flashy displays of raw bodily strength.
Calisthenics has seen a recent surge in popularity due to its cohesive training methodology as well as its convenience, with the subsequent “calisthenics body type” also appearing more frequently in modern fitness media due to its aesthetic appearance and relative attainability.
In more technical terms, calisthenics is a bodyweight resistance training modality that focuses on utilizing time under tension, compound movements and synergist muscle recruiting exercises - all of which can result in a body that is quite far from what is so often stereotyped of calisthenic athletes.
Differences in the type of training stimulus presented comparatively between calisthenics and other modalities, as well as what sort of muscle groups are activated are the main reason behind why calisthenic athletes will often have differently shaped bodies and different body compositions than a powerlifting athlete or strongman competitor.
This is not to say that calisthenics or its subsequent body type are inferior, however, as many calisthenic exercisers are capable of feats that their free weight utilizing counterparts would not be able to easily do.
Calisthenic athletes often develop a distinctive appearance due to the proportions of their skeletal musculature in comparison to other parts of the body.
This is usually visually identifiable in the significant width and thickness of their upper and middle back, with such muscle groups like the latissimus dorsi, trapezius and anterior deltoid heads all receiving significant muscular hypertrophy from the pull-ups and bodyweight rows that are a staple of calisthenics.
Furthermore, calisthenic athletes will often have significant biceps brachii size - rivaling or even surpassing their free weight utilizing counterparts - of which is also a natural benefit of the frequent back muscle compound movements seen in many calisthenic training programs.
In terms of other large muscle groups, calisthenic athletes will unfortunately have smaller pectoral or chest muscles than athletes of other training modalities.
This is simply due to the difficulty in isolating the pectoral muscles solely with calisthenic exercises, as few bodyweight movements are capable of targeting the pectoral muscles to the degree that free weight exercises such as the pec deck or dumbbell chest fly can.
In addition, the leg muscles of a calisthenic athlete will also show a lean and more svelte appearance than that of powerlifting athletes or other freeweight athletes; a difference that is simply because of the fact that calisthenics only use bodyweight resistance, limiting the sort of progressive overload achievable in regards to the leg muscles.
From a more cohesive point of view, regular performance of calisthenics will develop the much coveted “V-taper” that is so often strived for by modern day exercisers, as well as result in several athletic ability improvements that carry over directly to practically any sport.
One may note that, in the previous section, there was no mention of whether calisthenics can result in the frequently sought after six-pack abs.
This is because - despite the impressive improvements calisthenics can make in terms of core musculature - performance of a calisthenics training program alone will not result in the appearance of visible abs whatsoever (at the least in a direct manner).
Six-pack abs are a term that refers to the visibility of the rectus abdominis muscle group, a skeletal muscle structure on the outer layer of the abdomen that only becomes visible once the adipose tissue pad covering it has been reduced in thickness.
In other words, though calisthenics can certainly train your abs to an excellent degree, it will not make a six-pack visible - this is only achievable through fat loss by way of proper dieting, with calisthenics only acting as a secondary method of caloric expenditure.
While we have established in the previous two sections that calisthenic training programs place greater emphasis on certain muscle groups over others, we have yet to discuss the actual body composition of athletes performing said training programs.
Before delving deeper into this, it should be noted that body composition is influenced by more than simply what sort of training modality the exerciser has chosen to participate in, as gender, diet and lifestyle will also greatly influence what sort of tissues make up an individual’s bodyweight.
Nonetheless, calisthenic athletes invariably possess a far leaner physique than the average member of the population - a fact that is due to one simple training requirement: complex bodyweight exercises are easier to perform the greater the strength-to-weight capacity of the athlete is.
This is to say that, if the athlete possesses impressive physical strength but a high amount of body fat, they will be less effective at performing calisthenic exercises than another athlete with similar strength but comparatively lower amounts of body fat.
While it is entirely possible for a calisthenic athlete to possess a high body fat percentage, many will note that this body composition is rarely seen, especially in the performance of more complex calisthenic exercises such as the human flag, one-arm pull-up or similar movements.
A hallmark of calisthenic athletes is their capacity to perform quite well in a multitude of sports - a benefit of calisthenic training, which produces functional strength that has a direct carry-over effect to practically any athletic activity.
This functional strength is in combination with the explosiveness practiced by more advanced calisthenic athletes, who may perform such exercises like clap push-ups or pistol squats that aid in producing speed and power on command.
Furthermore, the constant usage of the core muscles as stabilizers throughout practically any calisthenic exercise will result in a safer body that is less prone to injury, allowing calisthenic athletes to participate in particularly grueling sports with a lower risk of being hurt.
As previously covered, bodies built with the help of calisthenic training will often feature a rather impressive set of back muscles, especially in terms of width and strength - something that is somewhat less frequently seen in the bodies of other training modality practitioners.
Calisthenic exercises feature large ranges of motion, intense mobility requirements and will usually demand dynamic contraction of muscle groups while under significant tension for long periods of time.
All these factors, in combination with the general stretching and warm-up routines advised by calisthenic coaches, will result in muscles (and connective tissues!) that possess rather impressive flexibility, reducing the risk of acute injury and allowing a greater range of motion to be achieved.
Though not necessarily related to the type of body produced through calisthenics, any individual that regularly performs bodyweight exercises will find that their sense of equilibrium and balance have greatly improved as a direct effect of their training, with greater synergist muscle contraction and more flexible body tissue only aiding in such a benefit.
Due to the excellent core muscle training featured in calisthenic exercises, as well as the improved bodily control and sense of proprioception - regular practitioners of calisthenics will naturally develop a more straight and upright posture, not only reducing their risk of chronic injury later in life, but also giving them a healthier and more aesthetically appealing appearance.
Ask any seasoned calisthenics athlete and they will indeed confirm that, yes, the body produced from bodyweight exercises are worth the effort.
Just as any sort of body type produced through a resistance training modality will have its own set of benefits and abilities, so too does the body produced through calisthenics - creating a healthier and stronger athlete, all without the use of inconvenient gym equipment or a dedicated training space.
1. Thomas, Ewan & Bianco, Antonino & Mancuso, Esamuela & Patti, Antonino & Tabacchi, Garden & Paoli, Antonio & Messina, Giuseppe & Palma, Antonio. (2017). The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition. Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 25. 1-8. 10.3233/IES-170001.
2. TSOURLOU, THOMAI; GERODIMOS, VASILIY; KELLIS, ELEFTHERIOS; STAVROPOULOS, NIKOS; KELLIS, SPIROS. The Effects of a Calisthenics and a Light Strength Training Program on Lower Limb Muscle Strength and Body Composition in Mature Women. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2003 - Volume 17 - Issue 3 - p 590-598
3. Epstein, L. H., Wing, R. R., Koeske, R., & Valoski, A. (1985). A comparison of lifestyle exercise, aerobic exercise, and calisthenics on weight loss in obese children. Behavior Therapy, 16(4), 345–356. https://doi.org/10.1016/S0005-7894(85)80002-2