Hanging out at this bar is good for you…

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First appeared in Sunday Telegraph.

When I first heard about Calisthenics five years ago it was largely populated by men who looked like The Hulk doing stunts that belonged in the park – think: a poised kind of dance done whilst hanging from a bar. For the last 20-30 years, it was a primarily urban discipline, with an exclusive, slightly renegade edge. Skills were usually passed down – in tribal fashion – from advanced practitioner to intermediate to beginner in a community-led setting. Recently however the masses have finally cottoned on with the recent increase in Calisthenic’s popularity and availability (in mainstream gyms and high-end training facilities) responding to a wider trend towards a more simple, functional style of training.

So what exactly is Calisthenics? In some ways it is more like artistic movement than exercise but, put simply, this is the everyman’s gymnastics, building the flexibility of a yogi and the upper body strength of a Titan. I went along for my first session at Motus Strength in Fulham (www.motusstrength.com) with sports therapist and trainer, Colleen Butler, whose eldest Calisthenics pupil is eighty years old. Butler has been recommended by a fitness expert friend, Alice Rickard, who was recently inspired to take up Calisthenics after watching some awe-inspiring videos from advanced practitioners on social media sites. “I thought I want to do that!” She says. “Their upper body strength was amazing and I wanted to improve mine. Now, after a few months of Calisthenics I’m amazed: I went to do London’s TOUGHEST obstacle course the other day and my upper body is so strong. I had no problem whatsoever.”

Another element that appealed to Rickard as it does to others was the minimalism of Calisthenics, usually practiced on the ground or using bars and relying largely on gravity (and however many kilos you are) to provide resistance (hence why it’s still done in local playgrounds or anywhere with a set of parallel or pull up bars).

“I think everyone should do Calisthenics,” my instructor and ex-dancer, Butler, tells me before we start our session. “You can’t fake this discipline – it’s not like sitting on a stationery machine where you can just push through and do exercise. I’ve had two kids and there’s nothing better for post natal stuff than doing the floor work and abdominal work required for Calisthenics.”

I quickly learn that in every Calisthenics fan’s armoury is any kind of shoulder-blade retraction exercise as it helps teach the body to stabilise in that area before it begins to push, pull or lift itself.

And on that note, we begin, starting with some hangs to loosen up the back and help me learn to  use the muscles around the back of my shoulder. I quickly learn that in every Calisthenics fan’s armoury is any kind of shoulder-blade retraction exercise as it helps teach the body to stabilise in that area before it begins to push, pull or lift itself. This is particularly helpful in preventing back and shoulder injuries and correcting poor movement patterns in round-shouldered desk jockeys (like me) who have spent much of their working life typing.

Suffice to say, if you’re a complete beginner at Calisthenics you’d better prepare to be rather humbled: you might spend weeks doing the kind of ‘basic’ drills like the ‘hollow hold’ that Butler teaches me now – lying for as long as possible facing up with arms and legs raised and lower back pushed into the floor. This exercise is my personal nemesis because it betrays a weak core which might otherwise go unnoticed when stronger dominant muscles are allowed to take over, but getting better at this is the only way I can progress onto tougher moves such as the infamous back lever (about shoulder flexibility as much as fierce strength), planche and, the best for showing off to your friends, the muscle-up. Then we try a basic press up, done slowly and without allowing the shoulders to roll forward and the chest muscles to become overused. What we move on to next is a lot more fun. Nicknamed Skin The Cat, it’s a dynamic move that is much less threatening than its name (or how it looks): I must hang from a bar and lift my legs all the way up, threading them behind my head to touch the ground behind me. Then, if I have the strength, I can pull my legs back around to my starting point.

I’m not surprised to hear that perfecting these movements can take years. Butler promises me that whilst positive results can be felt within a few weeks, true Calisthenics devotees will often spend hours every week working on small, focussed movements in order to get their body strong enough to perform these more advanced tricks. Clearly there’s a purism in this discipline, and a pride that goes with it: in essence this is an old fashioned way of building a strong body, quite literally from the ground up and I’d thoroughly recommend it. Not only is Calisthenics a brilliant way of getting strong and supple at the same time – of building lean muscle tissue and bulletproof core strength – but your balance, agility and endurance will sky rocket. Most importantly however, it’s the closest thing you’ll get to becoming a gymnast in this lifetime.

www.motusstrength.com offers one-to-one Calisthenics training and regular workshops.

– By Lucy Fry

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