The word calisthenics might make you think of a drill sergeant barking, “Drop and give me 20!” Back in the 1950s and 60s these types of exercises that had been used by the military and sports teams began to be seen in school gym class. I remember squat thrusts in particular and hoping I could complete the set and wouldn’t embarrass myself. Much further back, the ancient Greek Spartans called them kilos sthenos, meaning beautiful strength. These are exercises relying solely on bodyweight and gravity to develop strength, endurance, flexibility, and coordination.
New names for calisthenic exercise made another US resurgence in the late 1990s and 2000s with the popularity of “boot camp” experiences to get you in shape. Other new workouts like “Functional Fitness” rely on many of these basic moves, employing large groups of muscles at once and emphasizing balance. Many of today’s new generation of calisthenic practitioners appear to be more thoughtful and mindful of preventing injury than the “weekend warriors” of the past.
Some who have a yoga background have blended the two practices. Yoga is a great lead-in to this type of exercise as common poses such as the plank, warrior pose, and the sun salutation routine use the body’s resistance to build strength. Also, yoga promotes flexibility. Without good shoulder, elbow, and wrist mobility and range of motion, performing calisthenics, especially when transitioning quickly, can and does cause a lot of injuries. Here’s a beginner’s yoga video.
I’d also recommend this book for Yoga and Fitness instructors, The Injury Free Yoga Practice written by Dr. Steven Weiss, who is an international yoga instructor and chiropractor.
You Actually Don’t Need Weights
How do we get stronger and have stronger muscles? Engaging your muscles with enough stimulus, or resistance, causes micro-damage to the muscle fibers. This may seem counter-intuitive, but as your body goes to work repairing the muscle strands, they become thicker and stronger in the process.
Here’s the thing, it doesn’t really matter whether the resistance or weight is a 25lb barbell, a 25lb box of apples, or a 25lb toddler. (Although toddlers are usually wiggling, so extra challenging.) Your own body weight is plenty of resistance to build muscles. Using free weights or machines might be more convenient, as you can add weight and keep track of progress, but they alone aren’t why you get stronger. You’re getting stronger by challenging your muscles with resistance.
Friends and patients who are fitness instructors are quick to point out the ‘do it anywhere’ aspect. Be creative! I often show my patients how to do sets of squats (25 at a time) that they can easily do in between chores, checking emails or other activities. Some enthusiasts do what’s called a Street Workout, where they perform routines on athletic fields, in parks, many of which are fitted with crossbars, parallel bars, and rings.
Getting Started with Calisthenics
A Classic Calisthenics Set of Exercises:
These exercises are performed fairly quickly. A beginner may only be able to do 5 or 10 of any one exercise to start, and then slowly increase as strength is gained.
Perform the following exercise circuit three times, with a 30-second rest between each exercise set, and a three-minute rest between each circuit repetition.
10 pull ups
10 chin ups
25 jump squats
20 push ups
20 ab crunches
30 seconds of jumping rope
Watch a beginner’s full body calisthenics workout using no equipment, here.
Is This Aerobic Exercise?
Calisthenics absolutely can provide an aerobic workout. These exercises are done as a series called a pyramid, which will get your heart rate up. A series is like climbing up, reaching the top and then climbing back down. It might look like this:
Then double what you’ve done:
Then double again and again to keep progressing and adding more exercises until you’re doing:
For your final set:
10 pull ups
Then you reverse and work your way back down.
Here’s your inspiration. Watch the Female Calisthenics World Championships!
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