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Do you want to know what I think? Want to know what the bread and butter of calisthenics is? Do you want to know what the best calisthenics compound exercises are? Want to learn how to make the best compound routine for your calisthenics training? I’m going to tell you everything I know and how I get the results I get. I’m sure you’ll have the same results as I did. Remember, this article is a guide to get you started on the most amazing natural movements the body can do. The human body is its gym that requires little to no equipment when performing compound movements. You can do these movements anywhere without going to the gym. That saves you time, a gym membership, and gas money. Now, let’s start figuring out what compound exercises are the best in calisthenics.
What is a compound?
A compound movement is a type of mobility where two joints are moving at the same time. When this happens, multiple muscles move at the same time. What joints perform compound? The elbow, glenohumeral, and scapulothoracic joints are for the upper body. For the lower body, the hip joint, and the knees. But there is an exception for the abdominal area because the core is indirectly involved. Why does this happen? Because the abdominal region is a core stabilizer that tightens automatically whenever you perform a compound exercise. It doesn’t matter what the movements are from the upper or lower body region; the core will indirectly engage.
When you use multiple muscles, you are essentially performing functional strength. This means you would be able to perform daily activities more efficiently. Now that we know compound exercises are great for calisthenics training, let’s explore the best the human body can offer. Look at an article on static stretching before engaging in any physical activity. This article is to show you stretches to prevent you from underperforming and avoid tightness in the muscles.
Pushups are a great compound movement that directly targets multiple muscles and indirectly involves various muscles. The primary purpose of the pushup is to develop and strengthen the muscles of the front upper body region. These are the muscles primarily worked on for building and strengthening.
- Deltoids (anterior)
Next, we have assistance from other muscles that contribute to the pushup. Here’s a list of muscles indirectly worked on as stabilizers for assistance support during a pushup
- Abdominal Region
- Rotator Cuffs
- Erector Spinae
Even though they aren’t directly growing and strengthening, these assisted muscles will have a little stimulation.
Now that you know what muscles contribute to the pushup let’s look into three variations. Trust me; these three pushup variations are all you need to strengthen the front region of your upper body.
The horizontal pushup is a classic pushing strength exercise anybody can do at any place and environment. The movement requires you to have both hands and the tip of your toes on the floor. Most of your body weight pushed up is the torso, and you can change the tempo. You can go slow or explosive and add some isometrics to change the difficulty differently. Then you lower your torso to the floor and push yourself up, doing a full range of motion. After that, you repeat the action correctly and appropriately to ensure you get the most from a basic structure. Always keep elbows close to the rib cage laterally, and do not flare out the elbows. Straighten the back and align it well with the lower half of the body.
The second version is vertical, and I enjoy performing this move on a pair of parallel bars. With vertical pushing, you’re lowering your entire body weight, which requires a little more effort to elevate. The reason why it requires more effort is that you’re lowering your entire bodyweight down and bringing it back up. You must angle your torso at 45 degrees to engage the pecs. At the same time, lowering and raising the body correctly in an imaginary vertical straight line. If you only straighten the back at a 90-degree angle, you’ll only exercise the triceps. Raising the body back up requires a full range of motion and keeping the torso at a forward angle. Full engagement of the anterior deltoids, pecs, and triceps will occur doing it this way.
The pike pushup looks unusual for a pushup movement. It almost doesn’t target the same muscles as other pushups. The reason why is because of the angle being performed. You raise your butt while flexing your hips, and your face is facing the floor. Then the motion is diving forward at a 45-degree angle by almost touching the floor with your head. The exercise targets the triceps and the deltoids. The real reason you want to perform this exercise is to target the middle head of the deltoids specifically. The horizontal and vertical pushups only exercise the anterior deltoids. The reason is that when you extend the arm horizontally, the anterior deltoid contracts according to the fiber direction. The arms are elevated in a vertical position in the pike pushup position. This allows better engagement in the middle deltoid head according to the muscle fiber direction.
Over time, the deltoids will begin to shape by increasing the muscle size. Another added addition is this exercise helps in the long run when you want to perform assisted wall handstand pushups. The pike pushup is level one. Assisted wall handstands are level two. Level three is handstand pushups without relying on the wall for assistance. All of these progressions will lead toward the development of well-defined deltoids.
The pull-up is the most difficult of all the compound exercises in calisthenics because the back is one of the weaker areas of the human body. This is because humans don’t climb or hang on trees like our close ape cousins. They spend a considerable amount of time swinging and climbing trees or vines. That gives them an evolutionary upper body strength advantage over us. Why is this the case? Because we evolved to walk upright. We have to take care of our backs by strengthening them by pulling up vertically or horizontally. Sometimes we need to tap into our ape side and climb, swing, or pull our bodyweight. To perform this challenging compound movement, you must have a proper form from head to toe, hand to elbow.
Multiple muscles contract during a pullup, which is terrific because it’s a compound movement involving various muscles. Here’s a list of muscles performing the pullup
- Deltoids (posterior)
- Rotor Cuffs
Other muscles are involved during a pull-up, but it’s assisted muscles. Here’s a list
- Pecs (upper layer)
- Deltoids (anterior)
- Abdominal region
These are the muscles that contribute to the pullup. There’s a variety of pull-ups you can do, but there are two versions of the pullup that matters the most. Here they are
Horizontal pulling is a pulling exercise that flexes the entire back muscles. The angle is excellent for pulling your torso’s whole weight in an up-and-down motion. The biceps and forearms also get a tremendous amount of exercise performing this movement. I’ll be honest; this pullup is a little easier because you’re not pulling your entire body weight. You can do more repetitions since you are mainly lifting the weight of your torso. To do the exercise correctly, you have to maintain your spine in a straight line. Then it would be best to do a hip extension to keep your body straight. The elbows must be lateral to the body while flexing and extending the elbows during the pull. Doing this allows greater engagement of the upper back.
After correctly performing the movement, you can add more strain to the exercise. You do this by mixing mid to slow-tempo repetitions and isometrics. Isometrics are holding positions where you keep your body in a static position. I guarantee you’ll feel that strenuous sensation after doing this.
The vertical pull-up is a more challenging version than the horizontal pull-up. The reason for it being a more strenuous exercise is that you’re lifting your entire body weight. The horizontal pullup mainly raises the torso’s weight, but the vertical pullup raises your entire body weight. Since this pullup is more challenging, you’ll get tired much faster. Ten is the best number of repetitions to aim for, and it will strengthen your back. The pull mainly targets the posterior deltoids, lats, lower traps, and rotator cuffs. The pull makes the scapula rotate downward, which activates more lat muscle growth. This is the exercise to develop a wider back and grow the lats.
The core is an essential body region because the abs are stabilizers. Its purpose is to have a firm structure of the torso. It ensures your walking, running, or standing has good balance and posture. If you’re into sports, the abdominals are crucial to exercise. An example of a power sport based on speed and endurance is boxing. The power punch comes from the core, and boxers need a solid core to withstand body punches. Another reason why you exercise your abdominals is to show off. To feel confident outdoors shirtless with a nice v-taper, you must have a healthy diet. Having the right macros for building a lean body is easy if you’re consistent with your practice.
Here’s a list of muscles that make up the entire core.
- Rectus abdominis
- Erector Spinae
The exercise is one of the most demanding calisthenics compound exercises and helps develop strong core stabilizers. You extend your entire body out by doing this movement. In the starting position, you hold on to the ab roller’s handles while you keep your elbows extended. Place your knees on the floor in a sitting position. Then to extend out, you extend out your arms by rolling forward and extending out your hips. Then you retract back to place by flexing your spine and performing an upside-down crunch. A bonus to this exercise is you can perform an isometric movement called the plank. It’s a challenging move to perform because you’re on your knees while holding onto the handles of the ab roller. This is much more challenging than the traditional plank. I recommend doing at least ten repetitions and then doing a plank for five seconds or more.
Sit up/Russian Twist
I don’t particularly appreciate doing the situp on the floor because it hurts. I have to roll my sacrum and coccyx to perform a sitting position. Sure I could use a towel to make the motion feel comfortable, but still, I’m not too fond of that. I prefer to use an exercise ball. It’s versatile, and you can exercise the front and back regions of the core with a full range of motion.
Now the situp on the exercise ball allows you to extend your spine back by stretching the abs fully. You fully engage your abdominals when you flex your spine in a sitting position. You feel very light and comfortable sitting on the ball. The second movement I like to do is performing Russian twists because the obliques are rotating muscles.
The leg raise is a hip mobility motion. You can do it by hanging on to parallel bars. The two main muscles contributing to the leg raise are the hip flexors and quads. The hip flexors are a group of muscles attached to the lower spine and inner hip. It’s their origin attachment. It lies behind the abdominal wall. And the upper part of the femur is the insertion where the hip flexors attach. These muscles help contribute to performing hip flexion.
The quads contribute to the exercise because they attach to the hips as their insertion origin. They help to lift the entire leg. Then the lower spine naturally flexes when you do leg raises. The lower abdominals will flex because the lower abdominal attachment is the pubic area of the hip. Since multiple muscles perform hip flexion, this is one of the best calisthenics compound exercises for exercising the core.
The knee raise is a simpler version of the leg raise. Why? Because the lower half of the leg’s weight lowers, making the exercise less stressful. The movement allows you to raise your knees and align with the abdomen. This allows lower ab engagement. Another benefit to executing a great ab workout with this exercise is isometrics. To do this, do a couple of reps, and hold as long as possible. When you give out, reset by resting for a minute or two and then repeat the exercise.
Another crucial importance of strengthening your core is to improve your lower back strength and glutes. These two muscles are responsible for maintaining correct posture and supporting our body weight. The erector spinae is a long muscle attached to the spine and the sacrum. The muscle helps support during heavy lifting because it’s a stabilizing tissue. The more you exercise the erectors, the stronger your back will be and a better posture. The glutes provide power for hip thrusting and forward momentum like walking, running, and support. The way the glutes involve themselves during a back extension is when you perform a hip extension. Hip extension is when you rotate the hips back. As your torso lays on a flat surface, you lift your legs while extending your back.
A better way to do back extension is performing it on an exercise ball. You can perform a better full range of motion. Find an anchor to place your feet and lay your hip on top of the ball. Once you do that, you begin leaning forward. Along with performing back extension, you can perform a hip thrust to exercise the glutes. The exercise is much better on a ball than on the floor.
The sturdy region of our bodies carries our body weight as we walk or run in our lifetimes. The legs are much more muscular than any other region because we walk upright. No other member of the ape family can anatomically perform this way of moving with the legs than humans. We can do various leg activities, such as walking, running, jumping, balancing, flexing, and extending our knees. Here is a list of muscles belonging to the lower body:
Exercising the legs can be done in a variety of ways. In this article, I’m limited to only showing compound exercises instead. Now, I’ll show you the best compound exercises you can do for your lower body.
The squat is one of the most robust compound leg exercises in calisthenics. It’s an explosive movement that allows you to jump and develop powerful quads. If you squat without jumping, you’ll still see results in muscle development. You can do slow-tempo squats and then change the tempo to med to intensify the motion. Doing only fifteen or twenty squats isn’t enough to cause hypertrophy. It would be best if you did many repetitions until failure. The quads and glutes are strong muscles relative to your body weight. Remember, the lower body carries the weight of the torso. Doing high repetitions of fifty squats will result in feeling the burn. Then perform more reps to increase tension. The muscles that contribute to the action are the glutes, quads, and calves.
The deadlift is a compound exercise focusing on the posterior chain. The motion starts by flexing your knees slightly and the hips simultaneously. This causes your torso to be straight at a 30-degree angle and your lower back to be slightly arched. In this position, you are stretching the glutes and hamstrings. You must thrust your hips forward and squeeze your glutes when you raise your body in a straight vertical line. The top half of the hamstrings contract too. Why? Because the hamstrings perform hip extension on the way up and are attached to the ischial tuberosity. But, the hamstrings are assisted muscles that provide the motion to occur. In reality, the hamstrings do not receive as much contraction as the glutes do.
Unfortunately, bodyweight deadlifts can’t create much tension because the torso is light, and more pressure is needed. I recommend using loop resistance bands to add more pressure to the exercise. I also recommend a circular steel bar from Homedepot. The added pressure will signal tension in the glutes and hamstrings when doing a deadlift. The positive side of bodyweight deadlifts is you get to practice correct posture and understand the mechanics of the movement. When you’ve done this, you can apply the loop bands and strengthen your posterior chain. Various bands have different colors with different pounds of pressure ranging from 35 to 150 pounds of pressure. That may not sound much, but when you stretch the band, you’ll be shocked to feel how tough they are.
Reverse Back Extension
To perform the exercise, lay on a chair or an exercise ball facing the floor. When performed on an exercise ball, hold on to something firm because the ball is unstable. To execute, keep your posterior chain straight. The legs must be lifted, while the hip region lies on the chair or ball. Raise your legs high by doing a hip extension. To make this exercise harder, perform an isometric hold when you do a high hip extension. It’ll cause tremendous tension on the posterior chain. The glutes and hamstrings are the contributing muscles.
So there you have it. I show you the best compound exercises in calisthenics that I use to develop my physique. Much of your calisthenics training will be centered on compound exercises. The principles of performing a full range of motion, proper form, angles, and reps until failure will have positive feedback. Your calisthenics practice will form a fantastic physique if you are consistent, disciplined, and follow a healthy diet.
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