Diet and rest are perhaps the most neglected factors influencing your calisthenics performance.
They can dictate a large amount of your success and yet are ignored by even advanced practitioners.
In this article, we hope to change your mind in regard to the importance of having a good diet and give you a primer on nutrition for calisthenics.
In a nutshell, we believe that the prefect calisthenics diet will:
- Regulate your appetite: By keeping your blood sugar relatively low and constant, you’ll avoid the hormonal over-eating trap. More on this later.
- Promote muscle gain: By giving your body the right nutrients at the right time, you’ll be able to re build muscle faster, reduce recovery time, and get a more defined body.
- Keep you lean. By cutting out on some types of carbs.
Here’s a summary of our strategy for weight loss and muscle gain:
We’ll get into the specifics further down.
But before we begin…
Why is Diet so Important for Calisthenics?
A correct diet will balance your body’s requirement, optimize recovery, and accelerate your skills progress. If you require energy, your diet is the most efficient way to provide it.
If you require less weight and fat, cutting on carbohydrates and fats, and regulating your appetite will deliver the most results.
It’s no secret that lighter and leaner bodies have more ease in doing bodyweight exercises, so a common goal between athletes is to cut down the carbs and increase the protein, which will help the muscles heal and form again.
At the end of the day, it all depends on your body’s requirements.
Diet also influences calisthenics performance more directly in the short-term, with the use of stimulants such as caffeine or methods such as fasting, which can really boost your performance in the short term.
How you achieve your target diet is up to you. You can use supplements and protein shakes or go the more natural though more complicated route of hitting your dietary goals with “real” food only.
We’ve written previously about the best supplements for calisthenics here.
Our favorite supplements, shakes, snacks, meal delivery services, and meal plans can be found below:
|Usage / Goal
|Grass Fed Whey Protein Isolate by Muscle Feast
|– No Artificial Sweeteners (Stevia is Used)- All Natural / Grass Fed- Gluten Free / Kosher Certified
|Take after workouts to stimulate muscle growth and recovery
Check Price & Reviews
|Legion Pulse Pre Workout
|– All Natural – Contains: Beta alanine, Citrulline, Ornithine, Betaine, Theanine, Anhydrous caffeine
|As the name suggests, take before workout to boost energy and performance
Check Price & Details
|Controlled Labs Orange Triad
|– Focuses on Immune, Digestive, and Joint Health.- Contains Vitamins, Minerals, Chondroitin, Glucosamine and Echinacea
|Take after meals to reduce fatigue, increase energy, reduce injury risk, and control appetite/weight
Check Price & Details
|Full Circle Farms
|Organic Farm Food Supplier
|– Customisable boxes sent as frequently as you want – Organic certified – Sustainable – As healthy as it gets!
Check Price & Details
|Meal Prep Delivery System
|– Relatively affordable – Keto friendly – Super easy to cook
Check Price & Details
|– Tasty – Keto friendly snacks –
|Healthy snacks between workouts
Check Price & Details
We will be going into all of this in the body of the article.
What should you eat to improve your performance?
Here’s where it gets tricky.
There are different trends in exercising and even conflicting theories in relation to the optimal diet.
In this section, we will outline three strategies that we have found to be successful in loosing fat and building muscle, as well as some general guidance in relation to the type of food you should be eating.
But before, let’s look at what a typical meal plan for a calisthenics athlete looks like:
Calisthenics Diet Plan
Ok, now on to the important- Here’s an example of a calisthenics meal plan that will improve your calisthenics performance by eliminating fat and optimizing muscle growth.
Diet plan 1- Non-fasting plan
Option 1- Oatmeal with fruit (blueberries, mangoes, banana, strawberries, etc)
One bowl will give you about 14 grams of carb and 4 grams of protein. Only 68 calories.
Blueberries are important to as they are great for regulating blood sugar levels, thus not creating a huge spike of glucose, which has important implications in appetite regulation and even physical and mental performance.
Option 2- Fruit Bowl
Once again, try to include blueberries or other similar berries.
Bananas are also a good option as they provide potassium and despite the relatively high levels of glucose, they will leave you quite full.
Option 3- Breakfast wrap
Wraps and tortillas are a great alternative to bread. You can make these wraps sweet or salty.
Sweet options include:
- Banana + peanut butter
- Strawberries + honey
Salty options can include:
Option 4- Breakfast Smoothie
Here are some variations to try out:
- Avocado, Kale, and Spinach
- Mango, Banana, Honey (just a little bit), lime
- Blueberries, strawberries, banana.
Note: there are dozens of fresh fruit and vegetable suppliers that make it supper easy to get a wide range of healthy foods delivered at your door.
Our recommendation goes to Full Circle Farms.
Ok, now this is where it gets interesting.
Calisthenics is a largely explosive type of training, that requires to break and build muscles constantly.
Therefore, after training, you’ll need to eat something that will help you re-build your muscles, avoiding soreness and bulking you up.
Option 1- The weight / muscle gaining option: Protein Shake
If you’re looking to get bigger, this is the time to drink your protein shake, you can also add some supplements, like BCAA to the mix, though the evidence of BCAA’s effect on muscle building is still being reviewed.
Option 2- The balanced / cutting option: Fruit shake with some protein
Same as above, but instead of using a full portion of protein, use only half and blend with some fresh or frozen fruit.
Lunch and Dinner
Now on to the “proper” meals.
Keeping up with our philosophy of blood sugar regulation and non-processed foods, here are some calisthenics friendly meals:
Option 1- Fish (Eg. Salmon or Tuna) bowl
Getting your omega 3 and 6 is crucial for recovery and performance. In fact, we also recommend taking fish oil supplements, especially if you don’t easily eat fish.
And what better way to supplement them with some low carb vegs such as:
Option 2- Steak and sweet potato fries
If you’re cutting, this is not a good option.
If you’re looking to build muscle, it is.
Contrary to popular belief, sweet potato fries don’t have less calories or carbs than normal fries- they’re pretty much the same.
They do, however, have way more nutrients and vitamins, which is very important for recovery.
Steaks are a great source of protein, specially if you go for wild animals and non-conventional cuts such as guts and organs, which are more nutrient rich.
If you’re on a keto or fasting diet, try replacing the sweet potatoes with a vegetable puree from the above listed vegetables.
Option 3- Keto / healthy pre-made meal delivery
Over the course of our experience teaching calisthenics and implementing our own optimal diets, we’ve come across a few providers that deliver high quality pre-made meals following our standards of:
- Low carbs
- Non-processed ingredients
- Lean and clean meats and fats
- High nutrient dense food
- Sustainably sourced.
Here are our favorites:
Ideally, we wouldn’t really eat snacks.
But let’s be real here, we’re all occasionally guilty of snacking out of boredom.
With that in mind, it’s possible to keep calories and blood sugar low during these trying time, here’s how:
Option 1- Snack on fruit
We’ve recommended a lot of fruit throughout this article.
And for good reason, it’s full of fiber, nutrients, anti-oxidants, and vitamins.
However, it’s also full of sucrose, a kind of sugar, so you also don’t want to go overboard, and of course a good diet is a varied diet so if you’ve eaten already a lot of fruit, disregard this option.
This won’t be the case for 99% of readers though, as it’s hard to eat too much fruit.
So an apple, orange, banana, some blueberries, are all great fruits to snack on.
Option 2- Keto snacks.
Low carb, high protein and fat snacks that won’t impact your diet much.
- Fast bar: Fast bar is our favorite snack.
It’s used by intermittent faster to break fast without consuming any carbs.
A great and nutritional snack that will fill you up without giving you many calories.
- Real Ketones Keto Chips (Spicy nacho)
- Atkins Bars
(Disclaimer- These are not whole foods and they have additives, but within the “guilty pleasure” category they are not so bad, and they have some killer flavours such as chocolat brownie and peanut caramel)
cinnamon roll crunch bar
Calisthenics Diet Primer
1. Regulating Appetite for Calorie Consumption Reduction
For calisthenics, you’ll want to stay lean and with no excess fat.
For that reason, we recommend a low to medium calorie diet, focusing on proteins such as red meat, fish, eggs, chicken, and vegetables, and fiber.
In our opinion these are the 3 most impactful diet changes you can implement to lose fat:
- Reduce or eliminate all foods with added sugars.
- Reduce or eliminate the 3 “whites”: White sugar, white flour, and white rice.
- Reduce carb intake.
Because of the effect these 3 types of food have in your blood glucose levels and your appetite.
Sugar, processed carbs, and carbs with low fiber content cause a spike in your blood glucose level.
After this peak, your glucose levels will rapidly decrease, which results in a decrease in insulin levels, the hunger regulating hormone, which in turn creates a sense of hunger.
By avoiding refined carbs, you’ll keep your glucose levels more constant, and as a result, your insulin levels will also remain fairly constant, decreasing the hunger response.
If you feel constantly hungry, even shortly after having just eaten, then your blood glucose level might be to blame.
Processed carbs and sugars, also known as refined carbs, are bad because they have been stripped of their fiber and are mostly empty calories. They deliver loads of glucose / energy, without making you feel as full as vegetables, for example, would.
They also don’t have the nutritional benefits of the fiber, vitamins, and minerals that a “normal” / unprocessed carb would deliver.
A quick way to implement this diet change is by substituting the carb-heavy side dishes such as white rice, fries, and pasta, with vegetable alternatives, such as sweet potatoes.
In fact, most of the time you don’t really need a side dish. Just having a fillet of salmon, for example, might be enough.
A typical meal plan for a calisthenics athlete might look something like this:
Breakfast– Scrambled eggs or Oatmeal,
Lunch– Chicken breast with sweet potatoes,
Mid-afternoon / Post-workout snack– An avocado or similar healthy high calorie/energy snack.
Or a protein shake.
Dinner– Salmon with quinoa.
After-dinner snack– Nuts and seeds.
The above diet provides all the necessary calories and proteins for a high-intensity training day.
It’s also high in vitamins and minerals.
2. Intermittent or Normal Fasting
Another way to regulate insulin, and thus appetite, is by fasting.
In addition, it will allow you to burn fat directly, rather than carbs.
If you wish, you can get away with eating much less, to benefit from a state called ketosis, in which your body is burning body fat, rather than carbohydrates derived from the food you eat, to gather energy.
In this state, certain athletes have reported increased muscle strength and mental performance. Muscle explosion has been one of the aspects in particular reported to be boosted by this diet.
The easiest way to reach this state is by depriving the body of food, namely carbohydrates.
There are two approaches to doing so: “Normal” fasting, where you go without eating for up to several days, or intermittent fasting, where you allow yourself to eat during a period of 6 to 8 hours.
The former is easy to do, just stop eating.
The latter requires one well-planned meal per day, consist of close to none carbohydrates.
Most people choose to have this meal at the end of the afternoon, so as to take advantage of the sleep period, when your body can easily go without eating.
For fasters, one of the most popular snacks is canned fish, such as sardines, which are very lean and won’t break your ketosis.
Other fish and red meat are also good bets.
Please note that if you go for any extreme form of diet change, you should consult a doctor/nutritionist first and you should also consider running blood tests to find out if you’re deficient in any kind of vitamin or mineral.
There is also common misconception that fasting interferes with building muscles, this is simply not true.
Athlean-x has a great video on the topic:
3. Watch out for calorie density and nutrient density
The final concept we’d like to introduce you to is the concept of the “calorie density” of different foods.
Simply put, this term refers to the ratio of calories to “density” i.e- how filling the food is vs how many calories it delivers.
This concept is crucial for weight loss, as it will allow you to get full without consuming a lot of calories.
Once again, foods with added sugar and processed carbs, will have a high caloric content relative to their density, as they have been processed and added ingredients to make them tastier and sweeter to the consumer.
These are often referred to as “empty calories” as they don’t deliver much nutritional value yet have loads of calories.
In general, you’ll want to go for low calorie density foods such as:
- Non-starchy Vegetables: Lettuce, Spinach, Carrot, Asparagus.
- Fruits: Strawberries, Bananas, Berries,
- Oats, Whole Grains, Beans, Sweet Potatoes, Corn, Squash.
- Tuna, Chicken Breast
Of course, you’ll need to take into consideration the context of your diet.
Also note that not all fruits are made equally, though they are generally good to include in your diet, avoid fruit juices that don’t have the fiber, ie the “meat” of the fruit- these are empty calories.
The lecture below by nutrionist Jeff Novick is a great overview of the topic:
When should you eat?
Related to the above-mentioned method of intermittent fasting, when you eat is almost as important as what you eat.
Eating right before exercising is obviously a big no-no. If the majority of your blood is going towards your digestive organs, your other muscles and organs will not be capable of functioning with the same power.
Therefore, allowing 2 to 3 hours of no intense eating before working out is a great idea.
After working out, you should get some food in, as it will help you recover.
Keeping Track of Calorie Consumption and Deficit
We’re not huge fans of calorie counting, because if you stick to the advice outlined above, it shouldn’t be required to actually count your calories.
If you train around 3 times a week and cutout refined carbs and sugars, and/or implement some form of fasting, you’ll lose weight, we can almost 100% guarantee.
If you have a faster metabolism, changes will occur faster, but even people with slower metabolisms will see changes eventually if they stick with our advice rigorously.
However, you might want to track your calories to make sure you’re on the right path.
This will never be 100% accurate as you can never tell with absolute certainty the caloric composition of your food and the amount of calories burned by exercising, but to get a ballpark figure you can:
- Download a free calorie tracker such as myfitnesspal
- Estimate calories burned per hour of calisthenics training (we’d say on average, around
400 calories per hour, but it depends a lot on your workout, this tool is handy for estimating calories burned).
- Log these figures into an excel spreadsheet at the end of the day and track net calories.
We must advise you that this article is just a primer on some techniques that we have used ourselves or have seen others use.
We recommend paying a nutritionist a visit or conducting your own firsthand research.
As always, we welcome your comments on the box below.
Chris is an experienced Calisthenics practitioner focused on isometric exercises and street workout. He founded thehybridathlete.com in 2017, which was subsequently acquired by theyhybridathlete.com
He is based in Portland and has been working out using solely his own body weight and bars for the past 6 years.