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Calisthenics: The Ancient Greek Workout for a Shredded Body


Calisthenics - Dr. Axe

When thinking of calisthenics, if you have a mental picture of the military performing jumping jacks to cadence, you’re not far off. The truth is, though, that calisthenics exercises are rooted much deeper in history, dating all the way back to ancient Greece. (More on that later, interesting stuff.)

When it comes to your personal history, you probably first experienced calisthenics workouts in elementary school gym class in the form of sit-ups, push-ups, jumping jacks and other bodyweight exercises. Calisthenics, when performed vigorously, actually help people gain muscle and serves as an aerobic form of exercise at the same time. Talk about a timesaver. (1)

Speaking of that, with people’s time-crunched schedules, fitness programs seem to be largely focused on how to get the benefits of exercise in the least amount of time. (That’s right, one-minute workouts are a thing.) Packing a lot of exercise, including lots of bodyweight training, into a short amount of time, has become quite popular, as evident with CrossFit and programs such as P90X®.

These workouts all feature calisthenics to some degree, but what I want to stress is that, as mentioned before, this type of workout is nothing new. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine reports that workplace wellness programs incorporated calisthenics into employee breaks as far back as the 1960s. The purpose? To develop employees’ mental and physical fitness. Sadly, most of our corporate structure today does not allow for extended time off in the middle of the day or week. (2)

What Are Calisthenics Workouts?

Simply put, the calisthenics definition is using your bodyweight and gravity to perform exercises (some of which are pretty intense) using good form. What’s great is that it does not require a gym membership and could include various activities such as gymnastics, Pilates, running, squats, lunges for great legs, crunches, jumping and walking, just to name a few calisthenics workout ideas.

A more common term for calisthenics today is bodyweight training. Regardless of what you call it, this type of training can be the core of a fitness plan or used in conjunction with other training programs, including cardio workouts, HIIT workouts (including my Burst training), marathon or triathlon training, weight training or all sorts of other exercise. Mixing it up is a great way to ensure that you are working all of your muscles and can provide a healthier way to fitness.

Types of Calisthenics Workouts

There are many types of calisthenics workouts; push-ups and pull-ups are most common. Push-ups are one of my favorite calisthenics exercises because they build strength in numerous areas of the body and can be done anywhere. You can achieve great muscle development without lifting a single weight.

Performing push-ups, for instance, strengthens the muscles in your chest, shoulders and triceps while also strengthening your core. You can add variety by doing push ups on a medicine ball or adding a clap between each one. One of my favorites is the spiderman push-up, which works the obliques by bringing the knee up towards the arm as you lower into the push-up.

Pull-ups are great for working your back and biceps. The most popular style is with the palms facing forward; however, the chin-up, palms facing towards you, is a great challenge, too. While you can do these using a pull-up bar at the gym, you can also perform them with a sturdy tree branch or find a bar at a nearby park. There are some options available for installation in doorways of your home, as well. (3)

Another type of calisthenics workout is the abdominal workout. For many, having a six-pack is the ultimate goal. While having a six-pack can be awesome, it’s really more about losing abdominal fat for an overall healthier body.

There are various ab exercises that you can do to contract the muscles and work towards strengthening them. Even the push-ups mentioned above can help do this if you focus on contracting the muscles while performing the push-up. There are lots of exercises that are amazing for the abdominal area such as the plank, crunches, and hip raises — all of which can be done with your body weight, making these types of exercises great for a calisthenics workout on their own or combined with incorporated into your routine. (4)

Cardio is great for burning fat since it provides an opportunity to burn calories. Running and cycling are good cardio workouts, but you can choose exercises that can easily be incorporated into a daily routine no matter where you are, such as traditional jumping jacks or high jumps.

Jumping jacks are great because they get the heart pumping — not only offering fat-burning benefits, but keeps the heart healthy. The full body movement combined with jumping gives the body a great overall cardio burn. If you are not able to jump at this time or need to work up to it, you can do a low impact version by extending one leg at time as the arms go overhead in the traditional jumping jack form. (5)

Most bootcamp workouts provide calisthenics-specific exercises and can be found at your local gym or you can do one on your own in your living room. Burst training using my Burstfit DVDs may be ideal for this which is another type of calisthenics workout.

I even have a burst training workout for beginners right on my website. The majority of the Burstfit workouts do not use any equipment and provide amazing strength benefits from muscle toning to cardio and a blend of the two. They are also useful for the beginner as well as the advanced providing modifications for all exercises.

6 Top Benefits of a Calisthenics Workout

1. You Can Do Calisthenics Anywhere

Because calisthenics can be done using only your bodyweight, this type of training can be performed anywhere. What a beautiful thing. (Read between the lines: No excuses!) You can do an entire routine in the privacy of your home, at the gym or in a nearby park. I’ve even done short workouts at the airport.

There are numerous ways to perform calisthenics exercises at different levels. For example, a push up can be performed on the knees for beginners. Over time, you can work up to the toes and eventually add in claps or side knee tucks. The options are many and will build muscle and stamina.

2. Calisthenics Can Help Provide Improved Coordination

The Journal of Sports Rehabilitation published a study investigating how Pilates and calisthenics impact a person’s coordination. The participants included healthy females ages 25 to 50. The results indicated that calisthenic exercises were more likely to improve coordination after 3 and 6 months of training compared to Pilates. Pilates is great, but if you’re looking to increase coordination, you may benefit more from calisthenics-type exercises. (5)

3. You Gain All-Over Muscle Tone

Calisthenics offers the ability to build amazing muscle tone and you can pretty much take it as far as you want. Ever notice how some guys at the gym seem to have huge chest, arms and shoulders, but a small back and legs? This can occur when using specific weights that are targeting specific muscles; however, using your own bodyweight can allow you to focus on specific muscle groups and overall body tone at the same time.

Typically, when lifting your own body weight, it requires focus and engagement of many more muscles to ensure proper form. That means that all of these muscles are getting work which will result in a more evenly distributed physique.  

4. Provides Support for Other Sports and Fitness Goals

Calisthenics-type exercises are a safe choice because it puts less strain on the muscles and joints of the body. It is considered a “natural” form of training because you are using your own bodyweight to perform the exercises. This is not an injury-free guarantee, but with proper form and gradual increase in intensity, it can definitely provide a safer option for an effective workout.

Calisthenics workouts are perfect for adding strength without adding bulk. This is often needed to become more efficient at other sports as well as helping to prevent injury. Endurance runners often need to strengthen the hips in order to be more efficient at running while minimizing the risk of injury. A study tested athletes by increasing their strength training but decreasing their overall volume of training. The group that increased their strength training resulted in improved performance through improved muscle development. (6

Another study found that “explosive strength training” improved results by improving endurance due to improved neuromuscular efficiency. This occurs when the nervous system uses the correct muscles to produce or reduce force while stabilizing the body in all three planes of motion. (7)

The National Academy of Sports Medicine shares that resistance training, in this case using your own body weight, can improve running economy without added bulk, an important component for endurance athletes such as Ironman athletes and ultra trail runners. (8)

5. It’s Perfect for Beginners to Advanced

Calisthenics is perfect for anyone just starting a physical fitness plan or someone who is advanced, but wants a more shredded physique. By starting slow, a beginner can begin a smart program that will provide amazing benefits, especially if consistent; however, make sure to choose a program that offers modifications so that you can have options that are right for you and at your level. Starting at a too-advanced level puts you at an increased risk of injury.

In terms of frequency, I would suggest 3 to 4 days per week for about 20 minutes each session to start. Over time, you can work more exercises and longer time periods into your training schedule. An advanced exerciser can develop amazing overall body tone, muscle development and strength by performing more intense variations of calisthenics.

For example, if strength is a focus, an advanced exerciser can work towards performing one-handed push-ups. This will create an phenomenal amount of strength and muscle development in the entire body because it requires numerous muscles groups and additional focus to perform this exercise well. (910)

6. It’s an Option Even If You’ve Got Health Issues

Calisthenics isn’t just for people who are already in shape. If you’re living with chronic disease, check with your doctor to see if it’s right for you. But in 2016, Turkish researchers published a study showing that calisthenics is as safe and effective as even cycling for people living with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) (11).

Full-Body Calisthenics Workout

If you are looking to get great muscle tone, consider a calisthenics workout a few times a week. If you want to get results, create a routine that you can commit to doing and stay consistent. Check out my Burstfit videos for some variety. Here is a great workout that you can try.

Calisthenics - Dr. Axe

History of Calisthenics

Calisthenics has been around for a very long time originating from the ancient Greek words kálos, which means “beauty,” and sthénos, meaning “strength.” It is defined as the use of body weight and “qualities of inertia” to help develop the physique.

It may have been named after the Greek historian, Callisthenes, who was tutored by Alexander the Great. Gymnastics and physical education programs were developed in the 19th century, in particular due to the Battle of the Systems, an effort to determine the most effective form of exercise spanning from the 1830s to the 1920s. (12)

Later, calisthenics became associated with crowd-drawing street workouts, much like choreographed performances by well-trained individuals. These routines would occur in parks, in particular where there are playgrounds with bars, in a competition style, drawing crowds with their amazing ability to suspend their bodies using their developed muscles and a lot of practice. These competitions often had judges creating even more authenticity to the art of calisthenic fitness.

Even today, The World Calisthenics Organization (WCO) based in Los Angeles, California, has a well-known competition series called Battle of the Bars, adding to the the increasing popularity of worldwide competitions. (13)

Calisthenics Precautions

Like all new exercises programs, please check with your doctor prior to performing these exercises. Start slowly and work your way into more advanced moves over time. If anything causes unusual discomfort or injury, or if you feel dizzy or dehydrated, stop immediately and consult a physician.

Final Thoughts on Calisthenics

Calisthenics is an amazing way to start your fitness journey (or to dive deeper into the path you’re already on). What’s great is you can take it with you wherever you go, even when traveling. You can even get the kids to join you. Consider preparing a notebook of workouts you like or check out some of the great workout apps available today. Make fitness a priority in your life and results will follow, especially when combined with a healthy eating plan.

Read Next: Tabata Workout: The Fastest Way to Fit & Lean?

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