There are numerous schools of thought about the ultimate exercise for peak physical fitness. Strength training, hypertrophy training, HIIT, gymnastics are of course well-known. The fitness world is also paying close attention to yoga these days. Another technique that is drawing gazes and raising brows is calisthenics.
Here, we shine a light on the calisthenics workout and explain both the good and bad of these bodyweight focused exercises.
What Are Calisthenics?
This workout has been around for a while: Ancient Greeks did calisthenics. In 480, the Greek Spartans practiced what they called “kilos sthenos.” Translation: “Beautiful Strength.”
More recently, calisthenics became increasingly popular in the late 19th century and throughout the 20th century.
These took the form of circuits done without the use of weights and using your own body weight, often in school phys ed classes to encourage fitness in students. In 1962, President John F. Kennedy introduced his fitness program with a special song, “Chicken Fat,” composed by award-winning Broadway composer Meredith Wilson. This would be a lot like if everyone started listening to Lin Manuel Miranda’s songs during gym classes in 2022.
Calisthenics includes a wide variety of resistance workouts that rely on the natural weight of the body rather than the weights you might find in the gym. The appeal lies in the fact that people of any fitness level can perform them. This is great for people trying to take control of their physical health and create a dedication to moving their entire body. This is also great for people who may not be ready for weights or live in tight spaces.
Main exercises include lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, jumping jacks, l-sit, muscle-ups, squat jumps, and sit-ups. By virtue of being bodyweight exercises, Calisthenics also includes impressive feats like handstands and planches (gymnastic exercises).
Once you’ve reached a high enough level of performance, calisthenics can be used as an athletic way to show off the way you’ve built up your mobility, strength, stability, and coordination with your own bodyweight.
What a Normal Calisthenics Routine Looks Like
In theory, you can decide to simply do 100 push-ups and have completed a calisthenics routine. In practice, however, calisthenics more closely resembles circuit training.
A typical circuit might consist of this sequence: 10 jumping jacks, 10 push-ups, 30-second plank, 10 crunches, 10 squats, and then 10 hip dips.
An exercise like this may be performed once, with a varying number of reps, several times. In the case of group workouts, a similar fitness program could be performed for the duration of a song.
Circuits can be done to isolate specific muscle groups (like your torso, thighs, biceps, upper body, forearms, or glutes) as part of a weekly workout plan.
When circuit training in a group setting, many routines are usually formatted to simulate a full-body workout.
What Does Calisthenics Do?
Calisthenics aren’t for everyone. However, they are a great way to get the body of a Greek Spartan.
Isolating specific muscles in calisthenics is difficult, but this actually leads to one of the benefits of the workouts. Because of the large degree of muscle utilized in these workouts, they are highly effective for burning calories, building muscle, and achieving your fitness goals.
Calisthenics and Complementary Routines
Calisthenics is loosely defined as a set of bodyweight exercises, which means that a broad variety of methodologies could be considered to “technically” be forms of calisthenics.
HIIT Training and Calisthenics
For those whose workout patterns lean a certain way, a lot of what has been said so far may ring true for another type of exercise: high-impact interval training. While HIIT may have many commonalities with calisthenics, the two are not necessarily one and the same.
HIIT focuses on a training method where brief periods of high activity are matched by a short pause to create a highly effective, highly condensed workout, whereas calisthenics specifically refers to bodyweight exercises.
It just so happens that because swapping between bodyweight exercises is easy compared to shifting around weights, many HIIT workouts use calisthenic routines for ease and impact. In other words, while the two are not necessarily the same, the methods complement each other well.
Yoga and Calisthenics
Yoga can be defined as a combination of different poses and positions that include breathwork and meditation. Yoga works to improve strength, flexibility, balance, and mental and physical awareness.
Sounds pretty similar to what we’ve been discussing so far, save for the focus on the mind! Most yoga can largely be separated into a three-pronged approach to physical and spiritual fitness: breathwork, posing, and meditation. While the former and latter have more to do with one's internal life, the middle has the most relevance to physical fitness.
Yoga poses create a challenge for endurance and balance, much like calisthenics, except it largely relies on stillness rather than movement. Still, much like modulating your weightlifting routine can help you overcome a physical plateau, so too can yoga help you explore your body in a way regular exercise might disallow.
When it comes to balance, your starting position might be standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, and performing different poses balancing on your right foot, then left foot. You can also isolate your left leg and right leg to try different poses (like airplane pose).
In particular, breathing exercises and meditation may give a better sense of self-awareness than a high-intensity workout where you are focused on your muscles and reps would.
Ultimately, yoga fits in with calisthenics in much the same way HIIT does; while not a part of a traditional routine, yoga can offer a nontraditional way to supplement a bodyweight workout.
The Detractor: A Word on Weightlifting
To truly give a wide view of the world of bodyweight training, it’s important to give time to the alternative, which is traditional weightlifting. Weightlifting uses external resistance, rather than the weight of the body, which has many benefits at the tradeoff of requiring either buying or carrying your own weights or limiting your exercises to the gym.
When lifting weights, it’s also easy to change the amount of weight you are carrying in a bid to increase your gains, or respond to fatigue in your body.
The biggest benefit weightlifting has over bodyweight training is the possibility of muscle hypertrophy. Hypertrophy is a scientific term referring to physical muscle growth in response to trauma. In this case, trauma refers not to permanent injury, but the temporary tearing and repair process the body undergoes in response to the high levels of exertion caused by intense lifting.
The Pros and Cons of Calisthenics
Now that we’ve gone deep into the fundamentals of calisthenics, it’s time to summarize the key benefits and disadvantages bodyweight workouts have when compared to a weightlifting routine.
All-Terrain: The last year has put many of us out of our usual workout environments, if only temporarily. Bodyweight workouts can be done anywhere, without needing to rely on anything but a little bit of space surrounding you.
Affordable: Gym memberships cost money, and whether finances are a concern or you don’t have enough free time to make a membership worth it for you, the nature of calisthenic exercises means that you can do them for free, without any investment but your time.
Weightless: The most practical benefit of calisthenics is that because they rely on body weight, rather than gym workouts, they can be done without gym equipment.
Weight Loss: Some programs which integrate calisthenics, such as HIIT, are highly beneficial for weight loss.
Fitness Benchmark: Many exercises used in these workouts - push-ups, in particular - are considered classical fitness markers, indicating not only generalized fitness but reduced risk of particular diseases.
Weight: Despite being designed as an affordable, accessible workout routine, calisthenics may be more difficult than other forms of resistance training for people who are obese by virtue of the fact that the individual is forced to work against the weight of their own body.
Resistance: Similarly, because calisthenics uses the weight of your own body in the workout, the inverse problem may occur. Once you reach a certain comfort level, bodyweight alone may not be enough to help you gain strength. With this, you can either switch to a weightlifting routine, or incorporate weights into your calisthenics through the use of kettlebells or resistance bands to push through a plateau.
Isolation: In bodyweight training, muscles act in tandem. This can make it difficult if you wish to isolate one specific group for growth.
Regardless of how you choose to work, most forms of exercise, barring overtraining, have been shown to improve physical and mental health, meaning no matter what you should be seeing some form of results.
Bodyweight Training: Yes or No?
Every person's fitness goals are unique, and so is every fitness regimen. In the long run, whether or not bodyweight or traditional resistance training is better for you depends on your specific goals.
If your focus is increased strength or muscle mass, hitting the weights may be the way to go. A calisthenics routine, however, offers superior flexibility.
Keep in mind that if you choose to use bodyweight training to take your routine out of the gym, you’ll need all-purpose workout material to handle whatever elements the seasons throw your way.