Calisthenics training is arguably one of the pre-eminent systems we have access to. Developed piecemeal over the course of thousands of years, stretching back in time to find practitioners in the ancient world, it is as relevant today as it ever was.
But what exactly is it, and what benefits could it offer you? Read on to find out.
What is Calisthenics?
When you hear ‘calisthenics’, think bodyweight training and you’ll generally be on the right track. Generally speaking, it’s the art of using one’s own bodyweight as resistance in order to develop various aspects of physicality.
Calisthenics training is a form of exercise in which large muscle groups are recruited to move the body through space in a rigorous, often explosive routine. Exercises like sprinting, pushing, climbing, rowing and jumping are common sights, though this list is far from exhaustive.
Exercises are usually quite high volume, repetitive movements that are performed to a high tempo and with little equipment. You will generally maintain a high rep range, or you will keep the pressure on for a finite amount of time with explosive cardiovascular movements like running.
This style of training has various benefits, which I’ll go through in more detail below. For the moment, suffice it to say that calisthenics training will generally lead to an increase in endurance and cardiovascular fitness, greater flexibility, some strength gains and a whole lot of improved motor control- psychomotor markers like balance, coordination, spatial awareness and agility will see a great benefit from calisthenics- as you get your body used to supporting itself through often mechanically awkward movements like pull ups and jumps.
Calisthenics: a brief history of an ancient discipline’s athletic benefits
The word calisthenics is Greek in origin (surprise, surprise.) It is a portmanteau of the words kallos, meaning ‘beautiful’ and sthenos, meaning ‘strength.’ Original practitioners of calisthenics therefore had a clearly demonstrated goal- to find beauty and grace from the physicality of their discipline. If you take no other benefit of calisthenics on board, take this on: it sums up its practice very nicely, and should give you a good idea of where athletic endeavour should be able to take you.
But who were those original practitioners, and what were their goals?
And, more importantly, do the goals they had chime with your own?
We’ve all seen the movie 300, right? The Frank Miller penned epic centres on the Spartan forces at the battle of Thermopylae, as they work to hold back the Persian army’s invading forces. Well, the Spartan army was one of the early adopters of calisthenics; the practice was first recorded in Ancient Greece, in the armies of legendary generals like King Leonidas and Alexander the Great.
These ancient warriors used the full body movements of calisthenics to foster their physical strength, power and stamina in preparation for the gruelling business of melee combat. In training for the movie, the actors playing Leonidas’ coterie of buffed up, jacked soldiers in 300 relied heavily on calisthenic training regimes as preparation for being the muscularly elite army that they portrayed.
The practitioner Friedrich Ludwig Jahn is often recognised as one of the pre-eminent modern advocates and developers of calisthenics as we would recognise it today. His disciples brought a very gymnastic oriented form of calisthenics to the US, whilst physical education programs focused on women began to adopt calisthenics into their teaching in the 19th century. Ever since, it has steadily grown in popularity and accessibility, being mandated across several national armed forces sectors and booming in commercial gyms as more and more people turn to it to do what the ancient Greeks wanted to do: improve their physicality, and find beauty therein.
Nowadays, calisthenics has found its way into many different places, and has filtered through many different branches and permutations of itself. Military units and sports teams often use it as a form of group training: think military fit, bootcamp style programs and classes that you may have seen in your local park. Many school boards have incorporated its core ideals into their physical education (PE) programs around the globe (who didn’t suffer through the beep test, do a pull up challenge, or rep out on crunches at least once at school?)
Urban calisthenics are a big deal nowadays in most big cities around the world. Calisthenics groups and practitioners perform freestyle, often improvised routines using whatever their urban environment has to offer them for support. Pull ups, dips and muscle ups on hanging rails, flips and jumps on multi-level platforms, monkey bar walks on whatever they can grip onto all play a part: parkour could be said to be one of the freshest, truest expressions of calisthenics in recent memory.
If you want to be able to emulate any of the above, if you need or desire this kind of physicality in your life, then calisthenics will most likely hold a host of benefits that will be incredibly relevant to your own training goals.
The Benefits of Calisthenics
As mentioned above, calisthenics are exercises that rely for the most part on bodyweight for resistance. Though this will come with a host of physical benefits in itself, I first want to note the first big benefits of calisthenics: you’re not limited by location. Calisthenics can be done anywhere, using minimal equipment. Though I’m used to training in fully stocked gym and sports facilities, whenever I travel, I go full on calisthenic to maintain my training regime when this kit is removed.
This also makes calisthenics incredibly cheap. If you’re wanting to reduce your outgoings, expensive gym and leisure centre memberships and fees to sports clubs and facilities can be cut down by just taking on a simple calisthenic regime and performing it in your garden or local park.
If your local park has a playground, all the better. Monkey bar pull ups, box jumps onto blocks, climbing up wooden frames… it’s all good stuff.
Now for the physical benefits of adopting calisthenics into your training regime. There are many, and I’ve included a select few below.
- You will always be working multiple muscle groups. If you take on a calisthenics regime, gone will be the days of isolation arm curls and pushdowns, leg extensions and hamstring curls. You will be working serious, multi-joint slabs of meat! This is because all the exercises you’ll find in a calisthenics workout are compounds: you work multiple joints and muscles in synchronicity. It’s time efficient and will lead to much greater gains than working at muscles in isolation.
- Because you’re relying on your own bodyweight, rather than jumping beneath heavy barbells that could crush you with a mis-step, calisthenics presents a much-reduced risk of injury. Please note: calisthenics is not appropriate for obese people or people with pre-existing joint issues, as the impact will be too great. For everyone else, however, you will be safer doing calisthenics than doing almost any other type of training.
- You will see several signifiers of physical health and fitness improve with calisthenics training. It will increase you basal metabolic rate (BMR) meaning that you will burn fat and build muscle faster, as well as enjoying increased energy levels. Your muscular and aerobic endurance will be greatly improved, you maximum oxygen capacity will be raised, and you will see a reduction in blood pressure alongside an increased production of endorphins, meaning that you will experience a great deal of stress relief from both your mind and body.
- Though common to various disciplines, whole-body stability is a big deal in calisthenics. This brings about greater mind-muscle connectivity across your whole body, which in turn leads to improved control and balance, speed, strength and flexibility. These effects cannot be readily replicated through other forms of resistance training such as weightlifting. Multiple muscle groups are engaged synchronicity and in their natural state, and proprioceptive awareness is greatly enhanced as a result.
The Drawbacks of Calisthenics
The benefits of taking part in calisthenics are real and profound. However, as with any exercise system, calisthenics training is not perfect: there are some drawbacks to it, which are very worthy of consideration when scheduling you training regime. As I see it, there are three main problems with calisthenics training:
There are many ways to alter the intensity of calisthenics movements, and of programming in progressive overload so that you will adapt, improving strength, flexibility, endurance and so on. You can adopt mechanically harder body positions, changing your footing, arm placement or manipulating an exercise’s levers. You can also increase volume or intensity, taking shorter rests or higher rep ranges, or adding in ever more sets to your routines.
However, you will plateau at some point. You will most likely reach the point at which you cannot overload your muscles any more by just relying on bodyweight exercises. Diminishing returns will hit you hard, and eventually you will stop making gains altogether- especially if you are looking to increase strength. This is where switching out to weighted resistance will be necessary, and calisthenics will have shown their limit.
Lack of isolation
Part of the reason I really like calisthenic workouts is that they rely on compounds. These are efficient and usually contain more athletic and real -life relevant carry over than isolation work will give you: most athletes will do better from outperforming themselves on box jumps than by repping out on the leg extension machine.
However, compound movements may have some limits. The reason that bodybuilders in particular get such utility from isolation work is that they are great for individual muscle hypertrophy, especially in smaller muscles that usually form the junior partner in compound lifts. Pull ups will put some stress into your biceps, but most of the effects will be felt in your back, leaving your arms alone. If you want your arms to grow, biceps curls will be a much better ally.
Hard (and often unsafe) for beginners to get into
It’s very common for beginners to fitness to be unable to perform a single rep of many of the exercises in a calisthenic regime. Push ups, pull ups and squats are beyond many new practitioners. Whereas light dumbbell chest presses, cable rows and leg presses are easy to adapt to even the most junior athletes, full body movements like these can be prohibitive.
This is especially the case if somebody is overweight. If you’re carrying an extra forty pounds, you won’t be able to perform bodyweight exercises either proficiently or, most importantly, safely. And safety is a BIG concern in calisthenics.
Some exercises included can be dangerous for anybody, let alone those who lack the necessary athletic skills and conditioning of a more seasoned athlete. If you don’t know how to jump and land properly, and you’ve got that extra forty pounds coating your frame, there is no way you should be doing any of the explosive leg movements for which people love calisthenics.
I’ve genuinely seen coaches have new, untrained, obese clients box jumping and skipping, watching in horror as I countdown to the inevitable day they sprain an ankle, crack a knee, throw a hip, slip a spinal disc or pull or perforate any number of muscles. However, were that same client to stick to safer, dumbbell, kettlebell and machine based exercises whilst they strengthened their muscles, boosted their athletic competence and lost their first twenty pounds, they would be in a much better position, with MUCH greater longevity.
Common Calisthenic Exercises and Their Benefits
So far, we’ve talked in general terms, highlighted the benefits and drawbacks of calisthenics as a whole, unified system. But what about the benefits of each of the major, most commonly used exercises involved in calisthenics programs?
Let me run through a few below before I wrap this up.
Some of the more common exercises that you’ll find in any calisthenic program include:
These should be a staple of any routine, as they cover such a fundamental mechanical movement and bring about such great benefits. They work a variety of muscle groups, including chest, triceps, shoulders and rotator cuffs as prime movers, back and biceps as antagonists, and core and legs as stabilising factors. They will improve muscle balance, coordination, and upper body and core strength, and will be a great tool for hypertrophy.
Pull ups and chin ups
These are advanced moves that will bring a host of benefits to your whole body, though they specifically target your back muscles for hypertrophy and strength. Grip a bar with an overhand, wide grip for pull ups, or a close, underhand grip for chin ups, bring yourself up so that your chest is level with the bar, then lower yourself.
Sounds simple and easy, right? No… not at all. But it’s very worth it.
As I said, both will primarily work your lats and upper back muscles, as well as your forearms, biceps, and your grip strength. Pull ups tend to place the emphasis more into your lats, whilst chin ups utilise biceps and upper back a little more. Both will give you an intense core workout as well, as you keep your body stable.
These are the perfect antagonists to pull up, equal and opposite in every way. You lower yourself between two parallel bars, using your chest and triceps as you would for a push up, with your feet either crossed or together. They are one of the most potent exercises for your chest, triceps and deltoids, and also rely on stable core strength.
These are a firm favourite in CrossFit circles, who take a lot of inspiration from calisthenics. Muscle ups are a sort of hybrid pull up/dip, in which you pull yourself up to the bar, then press yourself above it in a mini-dip/push up motion. These can also be performed on gymnastic rings, which requires a little more core stability.
Though muscle ups are quite dangerous and can lead to injury if done by inexperienced athletes, or those with poor motor control, they are great for hypertrophy and endurance training. Many consider them the gold standard in upper body strength and ability in calisthenics.
Moving into the lower body now, we have to start with squats. These are the cornerstone of any lower body, strength and endurance building regime. Stand with your feet just over shoulder width apart, squat down as far as you can by hinging backward at the hips, sending your bum backwards. Then reverse, pushing yourself back up to the top. You will recruit almost every muscle fibre in your body as you do these, though focus will be on the glutes, quads and hamstrings.
Whilst squats are the best leg exercise going, they are also the ones that plateau the fastest. By the time you can do twenty or so squats in a single set- very manageable by most standards- there won’t be much left that bodyweight can do for you. This is where, as I mentioned above, adding extra weight will do you well.
Squat and box jumps
Enter a squat position, and either squat upwards, into the air, forwards, covering a certain distance, or jump explosively onto something like a box or tire. It’s simple enough in conception, and incredibly good for building explosive power and speed. It’s more complex in practice, bad if you’re overweight, and relies heavily on many of those motor skills and mind-muscle connections mentioned above.
Either way, however, explosively working through squats is brilliant for you for many reasons, and is a discipline well worth mastering.