The Calisthenics Mindset - Lessons from Anthony Arvanitakis (Bodyweight Muscle)

“My main motivation behind training is how it helps me perform better in everything else in life. I know when I train in the morning, I’ll be more creative afterwards with my work, I’ll be better with people, better in my relationship, overall a better person.”

You've been through some trials in your life, can you explain your journey?

So when I was 23, I was finishing my studies. At that point, I was studying physical education and sports science at the university of Thessaloniki here in Northern Greece. At the time, I had some part time jobs, one of those jobs was delivering pizza. So while delivering my last pizza, before my shift ended one day, I got into a major accident. I was on a small motorbike, and I crashed into a big jeep. I flew for what they told me was 21 metres. I landed on the pavement, I looked down, my leg wasn’t looking good. I had jeans on, so I couldn’t see a lot. But things were pretty twisted, not to get too graphic.

After that I got a ride with the ambulance to the hospital. And what followed was close to six years and 13 operations. So basically, the next six years I was either recovering from an operation or waiting for the next one. They told me initially that my leg would be okay. That didn’t happen. One year became two years became three years. After a lot of failed operations, I decided close to the sixth year to amputate.

“It took a year to learn to walk again, and three years to be able to run. But I started to realise that I can do this.”

That marked a new chapter in my life. After that things got better – the biggest struggle for me was being stuck, either on a bed or having to use crutches to move, not being able for so many years to move on with my life. You’re 23, your friends are finishing their studies, starting work, and you’re just stuck. The moment I got my prosthesis and I realised I can do stuff again, that I could go after whatever I wanted, that was the point things started to look good again.

What did you do once you could walk again?

I decided what I wanted to do was to be a coach. That’s what I’d studied. But I was a little bit sceptical with my prosthesis and all that. This was just before social media exploded – nowadays, you see a lot of people doing similar stuff on prosthetics, but back then I didn’t have a good idea of what was possible.

It took a year to learn to walk again, and three years to be able to run. But I started to realise that I can do this. I got into calisthenics, bodyweight training, because that was more or less the only option I had. Joining a sports team wasn’t possible at that point. So I started doing calisthenics, I fell in love with it, I saw that I was getting great results, results that I never thought possible unless I was using weights. But it turns out with some proper programming, a well thought out plan, and of course, a lot of trial and error in the beginning, a lot of experimentation, I figured out I could get in great shape just using calisthenics. So I became a calisthenics coach.

Nowadays, I do what I do online, but I also do it offline. I coach people here locally, which I enjoy a lot. I wrote a book, well a couple of books. Now it’s almost 10 years since my amputation, and here we are.

They say pain is a teacher. What did you learn during those years?

Up until my accident, I always did sports. I was in a rowing club growing up, I was always active. That was my go to place in terms of feeling better, in terms of decompressing while being a teenager, being annoyed by stuff.

But now, I’m basically pinned to a bed, I can’t do anything, I can’t be active, I’m trapped. I went from being super active – doing my studies, doing professional sports and also having a part time job, to being suddenly locked in a room.

So that created a lot of stress and discomfort for me in the beginning. I didn’t have a way to decompress, to deal with things. I realised that all these years, I trained my body a lot, but I never trained my mind.

And I would like to say that’s when I started training my mind as well, but it took a couple of years after getting out of that situation before I started. I wanted to do other stuff, I wanted to study but I just couldn’t get to it. I just didn’t have the mental drive, I was just too depressed to do anything basically.

So a couple years after I got my prosthesis I tried to find more balance in my life. That’s when I decided that besides training my body, I should also train my mind. That’s when I got really hooked with reading, I started reading a lot of books on self development, on psychology, basically anything that you can do to better yourself. I started meditating, mindfulness meditation. I tried to basically create balance in my life. So for every hour that I trained my body, I made sure that I also trained my mind.

What effect do you think meditation and reading has on you?

Well, the reading I would say is a way of positive brainwashing. You learn a lot of stuff on how to deal with the rougher edges of your character, things that you want to improve, how to deal with the hardship of life, what to do when things are not that jolly. It’s very easy to get in a bad loop and just be reactive, be negative. So, constantly having a book that teaches you how to deal with things in a more proactive way, in a more positive way, for me is positive brainwashing that I definitely need on a daily basis.

The main thing meditation does for me is that it changes the way that I react to things that I consider not positive, when things are not going my way. Meditation is, for me, a way to train my brain to be like, ‘Okay, this is happening right now. And you can get overly stressed about it, or you can accept it.’ So basically accepting things is what meditation does for me.

How do you manage your time spent online?

One great thing that the COVID era did for me is that it really helped me to restrict social media use. I don’t use any social media other than during a specific window at the end of the day. At the end of the day, I take care of all of my inboxes, I respond to people, reply to comments, check social media, that kind of thing. And that’s it, that’s the amount of time that I spend on social media.

Knowing that I’ll take care of everything at the end of the day, I’ll get back to everyone and make sure that I’m not neglecting people is what helped me to downsize things. In the beginning, I took a more aggressive approach. I removed all social media from my phone, from my computer, I had some apps that didn’t allow me to have access to my social media. I did a cleanse for a few weeks. And after that, I introduced them back in slowly.

I wanted to see what would happen if I didn’t use social media for three weeks, and I just felt so much calmer. My brain, my thoughts were more clear. I felt like I had more RAM in a way, more cognitive resources to use for other things that are important – being more creative with writing and creating content and stuff like that. So seeing the benefits was what helped me to downsize my social media use after that.

You said that spending so long inside was tough mentally, and over the last two years a lot of people have also been stuck inside. What advice would you give people like that to take back control of their time and their mental headspace?

Well, we always say that we don’t have time, right that we want to do other things. And now that the gift of time was given to us during these lockdowns, most people didn’t take advantage of it, just like I didn’t take advantage of my free time, when I was restricted to a bed, when I couldn’t move. I spent years doing nothing, basically. I could have learned a language, I could have done 1000 things, online courses, especially nowadays that you have such a big, broad availability of courses and anything you want to learn.

And for me the biggest hack is having a schedule, because it’s very easy when you have a lot of free time to be like, ‘Yeah, I’m just going to sleep more, I won’t use an alarm clock. I’ll train whenever and I’ll study whenever.’ I also did that in the beginning of the lockdowns, but it turns out that I never got anything done because I just kept postponing things. And at the end of the day, I was like, ‘Screw this, I’m gonna do it tomorrow.’ And tomorrow became the day after that.

“A schedule for me is everything. If I don’t have a schedule, if I don’t have my day planned, I’m totally incapable of getting anything done.”

Create a plan on a piece of paper early in the morning, I like that quote that says, ‘Don’t start your day until you have it finished on paper first,’ something like that.

A lot of people recommend that you do it the previous night, but I like to do it first thing in the morning. I write down everything I want to do, and more or less the time that I’ll be doing it. It really helps, especially with training.

That’s one of the first things that I look at with people that I coach, we don’t leave their training to a random time. I make them figure out when and where they’ll train, and only after that do I give them the routine and all the rest of the details. Because if you don’t have a when and a where, people will either prioritise your time if you don’t make it a priority for you, or you just postpone it and leave it for the end of the day and never really get it done. So a schedule for me is everything. If I don’t have a schedule, if I don’t have my day planned, I’m totally incapable of getting anything done.

What does your average day look like at the moment?

So I wake up at 5:30, sometimes a bit earlier, depending on how much I have to do that day. I walk for 10 minutes to my office, sit down, meditate for 15 to 20 minutes, then I spend the first hour of the day writing. Working on a new book, or the next piece of content that I’ll be uploading. Once I’m done with the really creative stuff, that’s when I do my music practice. So I play a little bit of piano, I make sure that I have at least 15 to 20 minutes every day to just fool around on the piano and enjoy myself.

After that is when I plan my day. I have a specific notebook that I use. I put down everything else that I want to do for the rest of the day. After that, I’ll have coaching sessions. At the end of the day, I’ll always do all my inboxes and my social media. Usually I’ll end around 6:30 to 7pm.

After that, I’ll go for a long walk. That’s my other ritual, my unwinding routine. I’ll take at least 20 minutes, sometimes it can be an hour to walk and decompress, to leave the day behind me. It’s a way to switch off my work brain because in the past I found that even though my day finished, I kept working in my brain.

I was thinking what else could I do and this and that, so now I have this buffer time where I just walk and try to get into a more meditative state and let go. I also have an audiobook that I listen to at this point of the day. Basically, this whole unwinding routine is what really helps me be more relaxed with friends, with my girlfriend and get quality sleep later on.

What is your channel ethos?

What I’ve been trying to do the last years is create a lifestyle, a fit lifestyle, a way of training with calisthenics, that is practical for people. I’ve noticed that there’s so much information online, all these routines that just take too much of your time, and are often not respective of your joints or your health.

So having done professional sports growing up, I know that exercise can be good for you but it can also be bad for you if it’s in excess. Usually I enjoy having short daily workouts that don’t take more than 30 minutes, that leave you energised and not drained, workouts that wake your body up, wake your mind up, make you more creative later on with work or with anything else that’s important for you, leave you less stressed and more capable to deal with other things in life, to communicate better with your children, with your parents, with your wife, your family, whatever.

Basically creating a routine that adds value to your life other than the physical aspect of it. A routine that helps you perform better mentally, emotionally, something that is practical. People get so overwhelmed with all this information out there telling them that they have to train for a ton of hours and overdo it every day. But that never really lasts. That’s not a long term strategy for creating a fit lifestyle.

I try to keep it simple, as minimal as possible, removing any complexity that is not useful, and create workout plans that are basically practical and doable by the average person who has a job, who has a family, who has other hobbies, who also wants to play the guitar, who has other things in his life other than exercise. Someone who is not training for the Olympics, who is not a professional athlete.

Why do you mostly focus on the basics with exercise?

Again with exercises, and I think that social media is responsible for this a lot, you just have such a big plethora of exercises nowadays, and people get confused by that. You’re always seeing popular people on Instagram or Tiktok doing all kinds of exercises that look kind of flashy, and will stop you from scrolling because it’s something different, but that don’t really add any value. I see a lot of these influencers with great bodies and physiques and all that, and I know that they’ve built that body, not by the flashy things but by hammering the basics. That’s what produces the best results in the long run.

I’ve done some of the flashy stuff. I used to work out with a group of people back in the Netherlands that were doing urban style calisthenics, moves you’d see online. And I noticed that you had a lot of 25 year olds who were already having problems like shoulder issues or elbow issues. This kind of training is great, but for some people that have sensitivities when it comes to joints and stuff like that, or people who don’t have a background in gymnastics, sometimes it can cause more harm than good. I still have elbow pain from back when I was getting the front lever down.

As you grow older, you start to realise that your joints have an expiration date if you keep on abusing them. I know all that stuff looks cool, but you have to realise that not everybody is built the same way. Not everybody can run ultra marathons and not destroy their knees. You have to find a way that is balanced, that works for you, that keeps you healthy. Exercise should only cause good, it should only improve your overall level of living, of health.

You talked before about the mental benefits of training. What are they for you?

So one thing that I noticed during the quarantines is that when I started to train at a fixed time early in the morning, it helped me a lot in terms of how I dealt with everything else during the rest of the day. First of all, it built momentum, it helped me be more productive.

But also starting the day with a workout took some of the edge off. I felt more relaxed, having those endorphins in my bloodstream really helped me to be a better person. I noticed that when I started my day with a workout, I would be less reactive, less emotional, I’d be more patient, kinder, more polite with the rest of my social interactions, and a better coach.

Overall, I would say, I felt that whenever I stuck to my morning workout routine, I felt like 10% of a better person. So for me training early in the day is key. I mean obviously, if you can train any time of the day that’s a plus. But I find that for a lot of people, training in the morning has a much bigger impact on them than the evening.

How do you deal with times of high and low motivation?

That’s another thing that I’m trying to share with people – the understanding that motivation is not permanent. You might be motivated today, you might be super motivated for your new plan. But that is something that is fleeting, that is something that will come and go. You might be really motivated in the beginning, and that doesn’t mean that you won’t have other days where you feel motivated in the future. But that’s not something you can rely on.

What I’ve understood after studying a lot of books on psychology, on behavioural science and all that is that people who at least appear to be more self disciplined, that stick to routines longer are not people that have more self discipline, but are people who have better systems in place.

People who eat healthy, for example, don’t have unhealthy food in their home. So one thing that I always do with people that I coach is the kitchen clean up. I make them completely remove anything in their house that doesn’t support their goals. This doesn’t mean that they have to eat 100% clean, I don’t believe in that either. But this just means that you won’t feel tempted every time you go in the kitchen. Even for me, and I’ve been doing this for close to a decade, I still have days when I come back from work, maybe a little bit more stressed, and I’ll walk around the kitchen looking for cookies and ice cream and stuff like that. Even though I know they’re not there.

It goes to show how the primal part of our brain hasn’t changed a lot in the last 300,000 years. That part of your brain will always make you seek sugar, salt, and fat, especially in moments when you’re emotionally charged.

Any more advice for staying consistent?

For me your main motivation with exercise shouldn’t be getting the perfect body. That is a positive side effect of course, everybody will look in the mirror and enjoy some gains, a more aesthetic body, I also often do it.

“Having a physical goal of losing weight, getting healthier, and looking better in front of the mirror is good. But focusing on the mental benefits that exercise can give you on a daily basis will help you create sustainability, that’s the thing that will help you to keep going.”

But my main motivation isn’t getting the body, because I know especially as you grow older, that changes. My main motivation behind training is how it helps me perform better in everything else in life. I know when I train in the morning, I’ll be more creative afterwards with my work, I’ll be better with people, better in my relationship, and overall a better person. So that is the benefit that I chase after with my training. I train because I know I’ll be a better person on a daily basis. And all the other things, the aesthetic results, the body and the abs and building muscle and all that, that is a side benefit that I enjoy, but it isn’t the main drive behind why I train.

That’s the general mindset that I help people create when it comes to exercise, especially from people who struggle with sustainability, with consistency and all that. I try to help them see what are the benefits that you will gain from this other than the long term physical stuff, what are the daily benefits that you can get out of your workout routine. How does it help you? I mean, are you a calmer father, a better friend, a better boss, are you more creative as an artist? Are you overall more efficient with your work? I try to help people notice those benefits.

Once you have that on a daily basis, once you see the value that exercise adds instantly, every day, you’re not waiting for that long term result, for the six pack, which might happen, might not happen, if your genetics are not so advantageous for you getting a six pack. I mean, not everybody can look like Arnold Schwarzenegger, just like not everybody can look like Bruce Lee, we all have different body types. And some people have expectations that are a little beyond what they are capable of. I’m a big believer in aiming high, in going against the grain and changing your body, but feeling like you’re not making enough progress can be demotivating.

Having a physical goal of losing weight, getting healthier, and looking better in front of the mirror is good. But focusing on the mental benefits that exercise can give you on a daily basis will help you create sustainability, that’s the thing that will help you to keep going. That’s what you need if you want to make this part of something bigger, if you want to create a fit lifestyle, something that you will stick to in the long run.

How flexible are you with your routine? If one day you have less motivation or energy, do you change it?

So I have one rule. No matter what, do something. If I feel completely unmotivated, I’ll try to get at least like 10 minutes in – that can be like a pull up ladder or push up ladder. Some days even if I don’t train, I’ll just make sure that I get movement. So I’ll go for a walk, that way I keep the habit alive. I still move at the same time that I move every day, I still do my morning workout. But I don’t make it too obsessive compulsive, I still go a little bit with the flow.

I know that I can get in a decent workout in 10 minutes, something that will get both upper and lower body trained. I’m a firm believer in almost always training the whole body. So, having options like really short workouts – just knowing that I can be done in 10 minutes is helpful for me.

The other strategy that I share with people is, you don’t have to get overwhelmed by trying to do the whole workout routine. Whenever you feel unmotivated, just tell yourself that you’ll get the warm up in, and if you don’t feel like training after that, you’ll stop. Usually the most difficult part is getting started – putting on your shoes or setting up your equipment. Once you do that, once you build some momentum, 9 out of 10 times the rest of the workout is a piece of cake.

You don’t even remember why you didn’t feel like training. So just focusing on getting in the warm up, that’s my little hack. No matter what, if you don’t feel like training at all, just get the warm up in and see how you feel.

How do you prioritise recovery from your work or from your training?

“Learning to deal with stress is essential for recovery.”

As you grow older, you realise that sleep is essential, first of all for health, but also for being able to perform properly, being more of a pleasant, patient person. For me sleep is at the top of the pyramid. Making sure that I get quality sleep is the first and most important thing in terms of recovery. That’s why I have my unwinding routine, and why I try to stick to a pretty much fixed time that I go to bed.

The next in line that helps me with recovery is stress management. So again, brainwashing myself with books that have to do with psychology and meditation. And of course exercise is another habit that helps me manage stress better. Recovery isn’t just about recovering from your workout routine, recovery is also mental. It’s something more holistic. Learning to deal with stress is essential for recovery. I’ve noticed that when my stress levels are low, I can get by with less sleep. If I get like 6 to 7 hours of quality sleep, I’ll be great when stress levels are low. Whereas when stress levels are through the roof, I might sleep like 8 hours and that still won’t be enough.

How did you go about making your channel unique?

So I practise what I preach constantly, and I learned from my mistakes – there was a lot of trial and error in the beginning. And I always try to share everything and be open. I explain to people that it takes time, fitness isn’t easy. I mean, you can obviously abuse illegal substances, and get there faster if you want. But if you want to build something that is more long term, there are no shortcuts. One of my other favourite quotes is ‘The shortcut is realising that there aren’t any shortcuts.’

If there’s a way to cheat your way into getting results faster, then that is focusing on creating systems, not depending on self discipline, focusing on long term results – not overdoing it and causing injuries now to get some short term results faster.

I find that the more honest I become in sharing everything, the more of a real human being I am online, the more that resonates with people. That takes practice, because it’s so easy to filter yourself, to want to share things with social media that are always positive, and not share your mistakes and all that.

So what I’ve tried to do over the last years is just to be genuine, sharing my fitness journey without adding any fluff, without trying to polish things too much.

Have you had any role models?

In terms of mindset, I would say my first role model would be my grandfather. He always promoted a clean type of living and being consistent with your goals and all that. He was a very traditional, hard working person. After that, in terms of the world of fitness, Dan John would be my number one influence. He’s an amazing coach, I recommend all his books. He was the one that helped me to focus on what is essential, not get carried away by all the flashy stuff.

Any books you would recommend that really had an impact on you?

Starting with fitness, I would say anything by Dan John. In terms of habit formation, definitely Tiny Habits by BJ Fogg. Atomic Habits by James Clear. I also really like Greg McKeown and his books like Essentialism or Effortless.

In terms of meditation, I would say 10% Happier by Dan Harris,The Joy of Living  by Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche. And there’s this new book that I’m listening to which I find super interesting for mental health and meditation. It’s called Unwinding Anxiety by Judson Brewer. So that’s an amazing one on both mental health and meditation that I highly recommend.

In your book (Homemade Muscle), you mentioned that some friends came to visit you every day and others never came at all. Has this experience changed what kind of friend that you want to be to people?

Yeah, in school and that you pretty much take friendships for granted. But as you grow older you start to filter out people, you decide that you want to spend more time with this or that type of person. It is very important to be selective, I think with the people that you choose to have around you. Jim Rohn said that ‘You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.’

So first of all, have a good look at yourself and think about what value you’re adding to your friends lives, because you can’t only expect them to add value to yours. I ask myself –  ‘How can I be of help, of service to my friends? What can I do for them?’ Before I ever start thinking, ‘What can they do for me?’ A simple way to put it is be the friend that you want to have.

But it also goes deeper than that – helping others helps yourself. So there was another book I read back in the day, I can’t remember the title of it. But the big conclusion was that the way that we as human beings feel happy is when we add some value to our circle around us – in the community that we live in, in the circle of friends that we have. So when as a person you’re not adding any value around you, that can be a subconscious reason for having low self esteem, or for feeling depressed, or all kinds of negative emotions.

So what I realised is that if I want to feel better, sometimes focusing on serving other people around me, helping other people around me is the best way. Instead of just being in that narrow mindset of me, me, me, me, I’m not feeling well, I should be helped, I’m the one that people should feel sorry about.

If I’m feeling low, the first thing that I’ll do is ask myself what I can change right now. Usually, for me, feeling the urge to be depressed is a call to action from my subconscious for change. That’s number one. And number two is, how can I help someone? How can I add some value around me?

We evolved to live in groups of people. And groups of people are stronger when everybody’s trying to uplift everyone else around them, not thinking in an egoistic way.

What achievements are you most proud of over your life?

I used to think that awards and stuff like that would be things that would make me happy. But early on, I realised that that’s not the solution. When I was in my early 20s, I always thought that gaining a gold medal, winning a national game would make me happy. And eventually I got first place in some important games, which I never had accomplished so far. And I realised that I felt exactly the same, I didn’t feel any better, any more significant, nothing really changed. I even have a picture of those awards. My expression looks like I’m thinking ‘This is all been for nothing.’

I was chasing this award that didn’t really didn’t do anything for me. And on the way I missed out on all the experiences that led to that point, which were the things that I really gained from it. 

What really makes me happy are people that I have an effect on, usually through coaching. When I have people that tell me ‘You really helped me, I feel better, and I’m doing better.’ Just little comments like that. Whenever anybody tells me that I’ve been of help to him or her, those are the things that make me the happiest.

I recently read Will Smith’s autobiography. It’s probably one of my favourite autobiographies. He talks a lot about how he always thought that becoming a famous actor would make him happy, but instead he ended up being miserable. When he was the happiest was when he started to deal with his childhood issues, with his relationships with his parents and with his family. He talks in such a raw and honest way about it, it really struck a chord with me.

What is your advice for young people?

What really makes me happy at this point, being 36 years old, is first of all having good friends around me, a couple of friends that I can trust. Having a meaningful relationship, having dealt with all my childhood issues, which everybody has. And having a job that I enjoy, which isn’t just about survival.

Of course, there will be points that you have to work for survival and take care of your family, but  finding a job that makes you a little bit happier, that gives you a sense of fulfilment is definitely important. You spend basically half of your life working. If you do something you hate eventually that will cause you either a serious health problem or at the very least it will waste your time away. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets a dream job, everybody becomes a famous singer or painter or whatever the case.

Maybe you didn’t get the job that you always wanted. But learning to practice your job in a way that is pleasant, that is meaningful is another way to approach this. Because I think that the more you try to get better at your job, and see it as a way to serve people around you, the more happy you’ll be with it. Whereas if you have a job that you hate, and you also do it with zero passion, zero seriousness, it will make you even more miserable. Martin Luther King said:

‘If a man is called to be a street sweeper, he should sweep streets even as a Michaelangelo painted, or Beethoven composed music or Shakespeare wrote poetry. He should sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will pause to say, ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who did his job well.’