What does Calisthenics mean?
The word ‘calisthenics’ originated in the early 19th Century and is from the Greek word ‘Kallos’ (meaning beauty) and ‘sthenos’ (meaning strength.) In essence it means ‘Beautiful Strength.’
The Oxford English Dictionary describes Calisthenics as: ‘Gymnastic exercises to achieve bodily fitness and grace of movement.’
Simply put it is the performing of bodyweight exercises, however, there is much more to it then this. It is an exercise system that develops strength, power, agility, endurance and skill. (pretentious sentence alert!) It is about taking ownership of your physical form and moving it with control and purpose through space and is a creative utilisation of your body, the environment and your imagination. (I do genuinely believe this.)
It has truly stood the test of time.
It is easy to think of calisthenics as a modern phenomena and fad, however, this simply isn’t the case. Calisthenics has a time honoured lineage and as a practitioner you are standing in the shadows of some of the most impressive and formidable warriors in the annals of history.
One of the earliest mentions of calisthenics can be found in the writings of Greek researcher Herodotus (484 BC – c. 425 BC.) Herodotus is often credited as being the world's first historian and in his writings on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC) tells of the Persian King Xerxes sending out a scout in order to report on the size of the Greek force. The resulting report stated that the Spartans were witnessed practising calisthenics and also combing their long hair (?!)
The Greek geographer and traveller Pausanias also observed that all athletes of the original Olympic Games would train in calisthenics and it was also used to prepare and train Gladiators in preparation for combat in the ancient Roman Amphitheatres.
The Monks of the Shaolin Temple make significant use of calisthenics in order to protect themselves and the temple as part of their rigorous and gruelling training regime and can perform amazing feats of strength, flexibility and balance using nothing but their own body.
Throughout the 19th and 20th century there have been some amazing feats of strength that have been documented. In 1860 George Barker Windship achieved a one arm chin-up with his little finger and in 1895 Eugine Sandow was able to perform a one arm chin-up with each finger, including the thumb with both hands. Billed The Great Sandow, he was also said to be able to hop up the rungs of an inverted ladder using just one hand!
These are but a few examples and there are countless others with contempory military forces around the world using calisthenics to build strength and endurance in order for their troops to perform at maximum capacity on operations.
Why did I start Calisthenics?
I started calisthenics nearly three years ago now in order to add interest to my workouts. I’d been going to the gym and lifting weights for nearly six years and had put on a decent amount of muscle and enjoyed the act of lifting weights and I wanted to look good in the mirror. I performed mostly bodybuilding style split routines and the more experienced I got, the more it seemed that anyone who was really serious about their training should be entering a bodybuilding competition. Believing that this was the next step I should be taking I started looking into competitions around me, yet the more I looked into the details of the competition the more I was put off. The very act of being subjectively judged solely on the way I looked really didn’t appeal and the constant aesthetic analysis I would have to impose upon myself, for me didn’t seem a healthy option. This meant that I started actively looking for other things that would give my time in the gym focus.
It was during my search for something different that I first come across one of Al Kavadlo’s articles on bodybuilding.com. I devoured his blog posts and watched a lot of his youtube videos and bought his and Danny Kavadlo’s book ‘Street Workout.’ His message instantly appealed to me. Here was someone who had a very definite unique look and character who emphasised that exercise was something to be enjoyed, made fun and not to be obsessed over. Something I think is very healthy in an industry that is inherently ‘looks’ orientated.
I loved the fact that despite not being the guy with the biggest muscles both Al and Danny were able to do things that many bodybuilders and fitness models could only dream of (think handstands, front/back levers, one-arm elbow levers, one arm push-ups, muscle-ups etc.) They were promoting movement and exercise simply for the love of it rather then to sell products. I found myself thinking what’s the point in having lots of muscle if you can’t do anything with it?
I thought I’d give the bodyweight thing a go and if I started becoming weaker or lost a lot of muscle then I’d go back to the weights. Three years on and I haven’t looked back, I’ve certainly become a lot stronger and have put muscle on if anything. Through working on trying to achieve different moves I’ve learnt a lot about myself and the way that I learn skills. Through achieving skills such as the muscle up I have realised that with hard work and consistency I can indeed achieve things that previously seemed impossible. This is something that I believe is incredibly empowering and liberating.
Why Calisthenics is for every one!
You don’t need money, you don’t need a gym membership. All you need is your body and the floor beneath your feet.
You’re current ability doesn’t matter at all, any exercise can be progressed or regressed to suit anybody.
As a member of the military I travel a lot and yet am still able to work and get better at calisthenics. (Handstands, pistol squats and one arm pushups are great exercises to work on if space is tight!) It gives you freedom, you’re not tied to a gym!
It’s not about the way you look, it’s about doing things, it’s about getting better at something than you were before.
It stands in stark contrast in todays western culture of mass consumerism and materialism. Things don't matter and it forces you to be in the present moment rather then worrying about the future or contemplating the past. (You're unlikely to have that luxury whilst trying to hold a handstand or perform that last pull up rep!)
It fosters a mental and physical toughness that gives you confidence and enables you to stand tall. It teaches you how to learn. Through learning moves that were previously thought to be impossible you learn a lot about yourself.
It’s sociable! Forget standing by yourself, headphones on, the calisthenics community is incredibly passionate, friendly and willing to help. So far I haven’t seen any any petulant or immature rivalry or one- up- man-ship.