Simply put, calisthenics is any type of exercise that you do with your own body weight. You use your body to create resistance in order to develop total body strength, flexibility, and overall fitness level. Some of the most commonly known calisthenics exercises are push- ups, lunges, crunches, and pull- ups, as well as handstands, box jumps, jump rope, and muscle ups. But there is much more to be known about calisthenics and the benefits that it provides and I hope to inspire some people to include it in their lives to make their bodies more efficient whether they are a current fitness practitioner or not. In this blog I will touch on the history of calisthenics as well as the benefits that come along with it.
The history of calisthenics
The word calisthenics comes from the Greek origin of the words kalos, and sthenos. Kalos meaning beauty, and sthenos meaning strength. One of the earliest mentions of calisthenics can be found in the chronicles of Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae(480 BC). At this time in history, the ancient Spartans were preparing to do battle against the invading Persian army and calisthenics became a part of their everyday training for combat. Ancient Greece wrestler, and other Olympic competitors were known to use calisthenics in order to prepare for the Olympic games. In Rome the Gladiators were known as some of the fiercest warriors and they too used calisthenics as a form of training. The art and tradition of calisthenics continued in Roman gladiator camps as noted by the historian Ivy. China also has a reputation for calisthenics beginning around 527 BC. Shaolin monks used to regularly engage in calisthenics to keep them fit enough to perform their daily tasks of protecting the temples and monasteries against looters and robbers. A lot of roots to physical fitness can be traced back to India with yoga probably being the most widely known practice of the east. But calisthenics has long been a staple in the traditional Indian wrestlers’ training program. Two of the most used exercises included the Hindu pushup and the Hindu squat, which are still used as very challenging calisthenics exercises to this day.
America has also had its share of calisthenics in history. In the mid 1950’s President Dwight D. Eisenhower was sensitive to the issue of physical fitness as many young US citizens were growing overweight and out of shape, as well as hearing the complaints of military officers regarding the physical conditions of the draftees during the World War 2 and the Korean War. And after a publication of an international study that found American children to be far less fit than other countries, Eisenhower was prompted to establish the President’s Council on Youth Fitness. During his time in office the project never quite gained traction but it was revitalized when John F. Kennedy took office and showed his commitment to improving the nation’s fitness. Shortly after his inauguration he started taking steps to make it clear that physical fitness was a priority of the government. In the 1960’s the country was beginning to feel the impact of President Kennedy and his mission to improve fitness nationwide. The President’s Council on Youth fitness was reorganized including adding a White House Committee on Health and Fitness; direct oversight by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and an annual Youth Fitness Congress to be attended by state governors. The council made an impact in many ways, including the famous 50 mile hike and the “Chicken Fat” song. The combination of these efforts as well as a national publicity campaign on physical fitness was making an impact with the public. The council capitalized on the excitement by creating a curriculum to improve fitness, it was devised with the cooperation of 19 major US educational and medical organizations. During the 1961-1962 school year the council attempted to achieve widespread participation in the program. 200,000 copies of the program were distributed for free and another 40,000 were sold. In that school year a quarter of a million school kids took part in pilot projects in 6 states. At the end of the year, twice as many students passed a physical fitness test as had the year prior. The success of the program brought expansion, including awards and new programs. The physical fitness program produced a measurable improvement in fitness nationwide.
Why everyone should do calisthenics
To me it’s clear that body weight training came before weight training. The same way walking from place to place came before driving to places. People worked with what they had and as more resources became available they started to make changes to adapt to the times and needs. When travel needed to be more efficient for time and transporting walking turned in to horse and carriage, which was eventually replaced by cars. Similarly, when people mastered their bodyweight and needed to increase resistance they started using weighted loads to do so. It wasn’t until the industrial revolution that brought the invention of plate-loading barbells and dumbbells.
In my opinion calisthenics are the fundamental building blocks of all other types of fitness. Am I saying that all people should only do calisthenics, absolutely not. But having a firm foundation of bodyweight movements, especially the basics, will benefit any weight training program and as far as I’m concerned should be a prerequisite to any weight training program. No one should be squatting with a heavy load on their back until they have ‘mastered’ the bodyweight squat first. Efficient training of bodyweight squats will not only strengthen the main muscles used in a weighted squat but they will also develop strength and endurance in the smaller muscles used during a squat. These small muscles may not carry the majority of the load in a squat but the more supportive they are the more proficient you are in the movement and the less chance of injury you have. The same thing should go for a bench press, training your push up is going to lead to a safer and more effective way of training your bench press.
Another huge advantage of calisthenics exercises is that they require total body engagement. The human body is comprised of over 600 muscles and none of them are designed to work independently. Our body can be thought of as a machine that requires all of the pieces to work together and when they do we are at our strongest. If you are using a lat pull down machine you are in an attempt to isolate your lats so they take the majority of the strain but every other muscle in your upper body is working as well. This gets taken one step further when we switch from a lat pull down to a body weight row, which requires not only every muscle in your upper body to be working but every muscle in your entire body to be working. The goal is to keep your body engaged to pull yourself in a straight line through space, if you disengage your core your hips will sag and you take away from the exercise. Squeezing your core, glutes, and legs while you are doing rows will isometrically strengthen your core and lower body while developing the pull strength in your upper body. This takes what we think of as just an upper body exercise and turns it in to a full body exercise. The same way you take a pushup from an upper body exercise to a full body exercise by squeezing your glutes and legs. The benefits of that include more energy expended which equals more calories burned. Calisthenics is a great way to burn fat and build muscle because of the energy demand to engage your entire body at all times.
I think one of the main reasons everyone should do calisthenics is because they can. It is for everyone. All you have to do is move your body. Every exercise can be modified and every exercise can be progressed. And you don’t need one of those fancy corporate gyms and you don’t need any equipment. This is a great training technique with a lot to offer everyone, the general population and the fitness industry alike.
I am so fascinated with this culture that I could go on and on about why I love calisthenics but I wanted to provide a little bit of insight on the history and the benefits to inform my readers that calisthenics is for everyone. I hope that you learned something and I wouldn’t be mad if you are intrigued to give calisthenics a try one of these days. If you are new to fitness you can feel free to check out the Fitness Tips section of my website for some great ideas on where to start. Active stretching, pushups, and planks are a great place to start in my opinion.
Thank you for taking the time to read my blog.