Bodyweight is back
Lucy Fry explores the growing trend of Calisthenics.
Why not drop that dumbbell for a moment. Just when everybody, everywhere, finally agreed to the manifold benefits of weight training, it’s time to consider stripping the plates off the bar and hanging your bodyweight from one instead. Why? Because Calisthenics – the name generally given to a type of strength and flexibility training where bodyweight itself provides the resistance – has well and truly arrived on our muscular doorsteps and it’s making serious noise.
Rings, bars, floor-work and gravity: these are the four main components of any Calisthenics training routine. Really, it’s just gymnastics for mere mortals, building yogi flexibility, surfer’s abs and Hulk-like shoulders. No wonder the likes of Hollywood actors, Jason Statham and Matthew McConaughey, and boxing superstar Anthony Joshua, have been known to incorporate Calisthenics into their workouts. Calisthenics is the sort of discipline that can be done little and often. Pull ups in an empty tube carriage, tricep dips between two kitchen units whilst waiting for the kettle to boil… It’s not like training for a marathon where you have to write off at least an hour 3-4 times per week. Instead, you can fit it in during lunch break or before or after work or head to one of the 525,000 calisthenics bar parks areas worldwide. Provided you’re committed, any Calisthenics regime will help build patience, pecs and perseverance, as well as improvements to fitness, health, coordination, posture, strength, self confidence, discipline and motivation, all gifts that keep giving long after you’ve finished training. What’s more, it’s inexpensive, fun, social and ageing-friendly; because it’s not as tough on the body as pavement pounding or heavy lifting, Calisthenics can keep you healthy well into your 40s, 50s and even 60s…
It’s become a competitive discipline in its own right, with federations and international competitions (like Battle of the Bars, King of the Bar and Street Workout Freestyle Championships), often with prize money involved.
So just where did this exercise system stem from? Thanks to its links with gymnastics, the answer is as far back as you can think. More specifically, all the way back to the Ancient Grecian time. Yet it’s only during the last decade that Calisthenics has taken hold amongst the masses thanks initially to groups of young men in New York City, who turned gymnastics moves into a street workout, and from there into a kind of performance, displaying extraordinary skill and often attracting crowds. With the assistance of cameras and YouTube, the word spread fast about these renegade routines. Now in 2017, according to Calisthenics UK (www.calisthenicsuk.co.uk), the number of regular Calisthenics practitioners has increased more than 14-fold since 2008, standing at an estimated 26 million throughout the world in 2015 and it’s set to rise to 157 million practitioners by 2020. It’s become a competitive discipline in its own right, with federations and international competitions (like Battle of the Bars, King of the Bar and Street Workout Freestyle Championships), often with prize money involved. Oh and it’s got some gritty internal politics going on too with a not-so-friendly rivalry between the ‘freestyle’ Calisthenics junkies (think: flashy moves on the bars, linked together in a kind of anarchic dance) and those who treat it more like a workout doing sets and reps – often referred to as ‘Strength Calisthenics’.
So just what exactly does this type of training involve and what changes can you expect to see? Beginners start with pull ups, press ups, squats and dips before progressing to more flashy moves such as the muscle-up, planche and human flag. You’ll build a stronger body, quite literally from the ground up, starting with floor drills such as the ‘hollow hold’ – many beginners’ nemesis because it betrays a weak core, which might otherwise go unnoticed when stronger dominant muscles are allowed to take over. But just because some of the basic moves are simple, doesn’t mean you’ll conquer them straightaway, says Kristoph Thompson, Personal Trainer and Co-founder of Calisthenics UK: “Regardless of what you can lift or press in a gym you won’t be able to jump straight in to Calisthenics and do a muscle-up, for example. Sound foundations are required because you can’t hide with this stuff, can’t gloss over those stabiliser muscles as you might when seated on a machine in the gym or doing Olympic Weightlifting with imperfect form.
… almost all profess that the bulging biceps, rippling pecs and obvious six pack are a mere by-product; the real reason they do it is for the community and the joy of playing and learning a new skill.
But let’s be honest here. Look at any dude who’s been practising Calisthenics for a few years and it seems they’re hewn from solid rock. Truth is though, that almost all profess that the bulging biceps, rippling pecs and obvious six pack are a mere by-product; the real reason they do it is for the community and the joy of playing and learning a new skill. “It’s like being a kid again,” says Thompson: “You can see yourself progress from one version of an exercise or the next and then suddenly, hey presto, you can do a handstand!” There’s a common misconception that the lower body is neglected with Calisthenics, but this needn’t be true says instructor and competitor, 41-year-old Lee Wade Turner (@LWT1976): “The top people are able to do heavy back squats, front squats and overhead squats, even one legged squats with added weight!” He insists that it’s ridiculous to think you can’t fully challenge your body without a dumbbell or barbell: “When you hold a front lever position for example, you’re using pretty much every body in your body! Everything is fully tensed, including all the little muscles that keep the bigger muscles in place.”
Provided you progress slowly and with due diligence, your shoulders will love you forever for taking up Calisthenics, says movement expert and Personal Trainer, Stretch Rayner (@StreTchRayner): “With Calisthenics training, there’s more focus on structural balance, the stability of the shoulder and firing of the lower trapezius muscles (in the middle back). Working on the rings too offers you a chance to move in all directions, stabilising shoulders, wrists and elbows. You just don’t get that with a barbell.” Calisthenics can also help you be better at other sports, says Rayner: “You’ll develop great spatial awareness and control of your body and because gymnastics is essentially about understanding how the body moves, it can impact your ability in pretty much every other sport you can think of” What’s more, it trains the mind: “People often think their brain cell development stops at thirty, but that’s just not true,” says Rayner. “One of the best ways to develop new brain cells is to perform new movements and because Calisthenics is precise, you have to do this continually, whereas with something like Olympic Weightlifting once you’re proficient at the movement it becomes more about perfecting movements (rather than learning new ones).”
Of course, it’s easy to go too hard, even when using your bodyweight, and become injured. Supplementing with high quality fish oils will help to keep the joints supple, and a simple whey protein shake post-training will help hardworking muscles to repair. Beware the overenthusiastic novice scenario, though; the most stringent recovery routine still can’t offset simple overload. “Even if you’re experienced at gym training or weightlifting it’s best to start with 3-4 training sessions per week, maximum (provided you’re recovering well),” advises Thompson. “Take things slowly. Listen to body. Back off ego wise. Go for position over power.” And remember: if you can’t handle your bodyweight, there’s not much point in pumping iron.
7 DAY CALISTHENICS BEGINNER-INTERMEDIATE PLAN
from Kristoph Thompson (www.calisthenicsuk.co.uk)
You can do this at home or in the gym. Equipment required: a pull up bar.
DAY 1: All body circuit.
• 5 minute warm up
• Three sets of 10 repetitions of: Squats, Push ups, Lunges, Diamond push ups, Squats with feet close together, Seated tricep dips. Minimum rest between rounds.
DAY 2: Upper body blaster!
• 5mins warm-up then perform these exercises in a circuit.
• Round 1) 5 reps of each and rest 60s. Round 2) Four reps of each then rest 60s.
• Continue, reducing repetitions by one until you get to 1 repetition and finish.
• Diamond Push ups
• Feet elevated push ups
• Close grip push ups
• Regular push ups
• Seated tricep dips
DAY 3: Handstands & Squats.
• 5mins warm-up.
• Kick up into handstand and hold for as long as you can maintain good form. Rest for 10-20secs then kick up again. Aim for as few sets as possible to reach 60seconds total handstand.
• Then, descending squat ladder: 10 squats with 10second hold at bottom of last rep then 9 squats with 10seconds hold. Continue until you reach one squat with 10seconds hold.
DAY 4: Rest
DAY 5: Pull n’ push.
• 5mins warm-up
• Wide grip pull ups – 10-15repetitions x 3sets
• Chin ups – 10-15repetitions x 3sets
• Pull up grip – 10secs hold with chin above the bar then 10secs hold with top of head just below the bar then 10secs dead hang x 3 sets
• 5 push ups then 10second hold at the bottom of the last rep, 4 push ups with 10second hold at the bottom of the last rep, 3 push ups then 10second hold at the bottom of the last rep, 2 push ups then 10second hold at the bottom of the last rep, 1 push up then 10second hold at the bottom
DAY 6: Sweaty circuits.
• 5mins warm-up then 3 rounds of:
• 15 squat jumps
• 30 mountain climbers
• 15 hanging leg raises
• 10 burpees
• 20 pike push ups
• 2 minutes rest.
DAY 7: Rest
– By Lucy Fry
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