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I used to be a bit of a gym rat. Over the past twenty years, I evolved from the Men’s Health bro-science workouts of the 1990s and 2000s to something a little more scientific. International chest day on Monday still featured heavily even though I was far more focused on heavy compound exercises with lots of rest.
Then I discovered calisthenics about three years ago and it all changed. With gyms shut for much of the past 12 months, I'm pleased I had this in the back pocket.
I may be late to the game and you’re probably breathing a huge sigh of disappointment but please bear with me.
What is calisthenics?
Calisthenics is a sport or training discipline based on using your bodyweight to perform skills of strength, balance and control.
The name comes from the ancient Greek words ‘kallos’ and ‘sthenos’ which mean ‘beauty’ and ‘strength’. Calisthenics might be best-described as entry-level gymnastics and, at its finest, is a beautiful sport.
The foundations of calisthenics are four elementary bodyweight moves (the pull-up, push-up, dips and the squat, which, with progression and a steady accumulation of strength and adaptation, can lead to the acquisition of skills such as the human flag, muscle-up, handstand, planche and front lever (amongst others).
In terms of equipment, you use your bodyweight so very little is required. In fact, you could practice and progress certain skills without any equipment whatsoever. That said, the most commonly used props are horizontal bars, parallel bars, suspended rings and parallettes.
Seven (great) reasons to try calisthenics
1. Skill progression is hugely satisfying
Rather than moving a bar or a weight up and down, I'm now progressing a skill. There can be up 10-15 progressions for any one skill, like the handstand. You can’t really move on until you've mastered each progression, with the final goal being completion of that skill with perfect form. The body’s nervous system and muscle fibres need to learn to adapt to achieve calisthenics skills. Like learning to walk as a child. This takes time and practice but is hugely satisfying and becomes extremely addictive. After years of going to a gym, it can feel really enjoyable to be learning something new.
2. Complete strength
Although this one's contentious, I believe calisthenics delivers more ‘complete’ strength. With weights, I could move a dumbbell above my chest, but couldn’t do 30 consecutive push-ups. I feel the strength from calisthenics is more translatable to real life, it feels like it's strength that can better support an ageing body and serves a more functional purpose. The range of strength from explosive to static (or ‘isometric’) is so varied and helps deliver this ‘complete’ strength. I know the same can be achieved using weights but not as easily in my opinion.
3. Total joint stability
Having had operations on both shoulders and spent hours doing physiotherapy, I found that calisthenics gave me multi-dimensional strength. What I mean by this is that I now have more stable and stronger shoulders that work in all planes and dimensions. Lifting a weight up and down in one plane gave me strength in that single plane but didn’t provide the greatest, overall shoulder health. Calisthenics movements attack the shoulders (and other joints) in so many ways that, over time, my shoulders have become stronger, more stable and more injury-proof than ever before. I just use the shoulder joint here as one example but have found this to be equally true for my back, hips and core.
4. Mobility and flexibility
An important element of calisthenics is a mobile and flexible body. We’ve all read the clickbait headlines about sitting being the modern-day heart disease and those headlines did resonate slightly with me. As I get older, I’m becoming more preoccupied by the idea of preserving the longevity and functionality of my body. Stretching, joint mobility and flexibility (supported by strength) are all foundations of calisthenics. It's also something you need to work on at the start and end of each session. I like the coupling of mobility/flexibility and strength that calisthenics can bring. Performing movements and exercises in correct form is more important than how much volume or weight somebody can move. Ultimately, this means the body and its joints are used the way they were designed from birth.
5. Flexible and cheap
Calisthenics can be done by anybody. Any body shape. Any age. Man or woman. Experience or no experience. Sporty or non-sporty. It's cheap. It doesn’t require an expensive gym membership. It's flexible and can be done at home, in a hotel room or outside. You can do it with your partner. It really is immensely flexible, accessible and enjoyable.
6. Culture and community
Much like many other sporting ‘movement’, calisthenics cultivates a close-knit community and a tribe of like-minded people. People who care about all aspects of health and wellbeing, and who want to practice, train and be together. There's a strong sense of support within the community. People want to help and support each other to get better and improve. That's been my experience at least when I've been to outdoor parks in London to train.
I'm intentionally leaving 'cosmetics' to the end because it probably is the least important for health but I understand it's often the sole motivator (which is no bad thing by the way). Personally, I prefer the lean, athletic look of the people I see who've mastered calisthenics. Look at some of the best calisthenics athletes and you will see what I mean. They're super strong and incredibly lean. That's because most exercises are ‘compound’ movements that use multiple parts of the body at one time, above all the core. I do think this is becoming the more fashionable 'look' for men as opposed to the muscular response from traditional weight lifting.
How to get started
Here are the four best online resources. First, dig around on each.
THENX – Miami-based group of guys led by the super talented, Chris Heria. One of his sidekicks, Osvaldo Lugones, is probably the most incredible athlete I’ve seen. THENX has hundreds of videos on YouTube and a really good app that walks you through all skills. My sense is that calisthenics is more developed in the US than in Europe. These guys have been doing it for years and have a massive head start on the overall movement.
Barsparta Set-up by the UK calisthenics athlete and world champion, Jay Chris, Barsparta is a calisthenics brand selling gear, advice, programs and entertainment. Check out the website and Jay Chris' Instagram feed for endless content. They're also available for online or in-person coaching.
BarStarzz – Another US-based calisthenics YouTube channel. My sense is this is the original home of calisthenics. Loads of strong guys in bar parks across New York strutting their stuff, showing their moves and giving useful advice at the same time.
GymnasticBodies – A former US gymnastics coach called Coach Sommer created gymnastic bodies, an online coaching program. You don’t get as much free content from GymnasticBodies as from the other resources but you won’t find a better way to prepare, strengthen and mobilise your body than through these programs.
If you do want to give calisthenics a go, you need to build foundational strength. This is the hard yards. The grind. It takes a while and you can never have enough. As your base level of strength progresses, your skills will progress. The pros can do push-ups, pull-ups, dips and squats in their sleep.
Secondly, I would decide on one or two goals as a maximum. One or two moves or skills that you want to achieve. Use the resources I provided to find, and then work through, the progressions. Practice them on your own in the gym or at home. If you’re enjoying it, you can even buy some relatively inexpensive equipment to use (door pull-up bar, rings, bars, rubber training bands, parallettes).
Finally, and you don’t have to do this, but you may want to get a coach. Whether that’s to show you the ropes at the start, to refine your technique or to help you develop on a regular basis. I went with one session a week to learn the correct form and technique. I'd then go and practice on my own in between these sessions. Calisthenics is a relatively unknown sport and coaches can be few and far between. I suggest using Instagram to direct message people in the calisthenics world where you live. It's a close-knit community so start following a few and see who they follow or just DM them and ask. It's such an open and friendly community. Send a message saying you'd love to learn to do what they do because you think it’s awesome. They'll definitely respond. Or do a google search for calisthenics + the name of your nearest city. Nothing you don't know already!
So that’s it for another week. I really enjoy sharing my passion for calisthenics because I think so many people would love it and benefit from it. Get outside (or inside) and try it. You won’t be sorry. I only wish I'd started earlier.