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What Is Calisthenics (and Should You Be Doing It)?

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Does "calisthenics" make you think of people in retro tracksuits doing push-ups during gym class or military basic training? SAME. For whatever reason, in the modern-day era of über trendy fitness, the word "calisthenics" has gotten left a few decades behind. In reality, calisthenics is an important part of every single person's fitness routine—and, actually, you're probably already doing them on the regular.

So What Is Calisthenics, Anyways?

At the most basic level, "calisthenics is resistance training with your own bodyweight," says Autumn Calabrese, Beachbody super trainer and creator of 80 Day Obsession. It's designed to improve strength, flexibility, agility, balance, coordination, and aerobic conditioning—just about every skill you need to be a fit human being.

"It is an art form of using your own bodyweight as a means to maximize human power and athletic ability," says Tee Major, a U.S. military fitness instructor and author of Urban Calisthenics. The fundamental goal of calisthenics should be mastering control over lifting and moving your body in space, he says.

Squats, push-ups, lunges, crunches, dips, jumping jacks, broad jumps, handstands—yep, all calisthenics.

And, considering it's the simplest form of exercise (no fancy equipment necessary), it's been around for a really freaking long time. "Even though this modality is being talked about today like it's a new phenomenon, this ancient precursor for war has been around since the Greeks coined the term ages ago, from the words kallos, which means 'beauty' and sthénos, meaning 'strength,'" says Major.

However, there is a new flavor of calisthenics gracing the modern era: Competitive calisthenics (sometimes called street workout or street-sport calisthenics) is a rapidly growing international sport that includes elements of dance, acrobatics, and gymnastics. (Read more: Urban Fitness League Is the Badass New Sport You Need to Know About.)

But you don't need to go near a competition to have an excuse to work calisthenics into your routine. Here's why calisthenics or bodyweight workouts are worth taking a break from the dumbbells.

 

 

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The Benefits of Calisthenics Workouts

You don't need any equipment. The beauty of calisthenics is that you can do it anywhere, anytime—all you need is your body. "It's one of the only ways to build mass and strength without the use of weights," says Calabrese. Read: You officially have no excuse not to work out. (See: This Beginner Bodyweight Workout Video Will Help You Build a Solid Fitness Foundation)

You can build serious strength. You might be thinking: "How, if you're not hoisting barbells or dumbbells?" But you can accomplish a lot using just your own bodyweight, says Calabrese. If you're a 150-lb woman doing a bodyweight pull-up, you're effectively lifting 150 lbs.

It's true that "you will reach a certain max point of muscle growth with calisthenics because muscle mass comes from progressive resistance, and there will only ever be so much resistance provided by your own body," says Calabrese, but that's where getting creative comes into play. Use elevated surfaces to change the angle of exercises, increasing the percentage of bodyweight that you're lifting. Use vertical surfaces (i.e. walls and poles) to challenge your body in new ways, and recruit your core like you wouldn't believe (human flagpole, anyone?). Go faster, slower, longer, upside down, or increase your range of motion to keep provoking physical and mental adaptions.

You'll move better IRL. Since calisthenics is all about moving your body in space, it's the ultimate kind of functional movement training. "Functional training means training in a way that will directly enhance the way you perform everyday life tasks or particular physical requirements of your work or sport," says Major.

You likely maintain better form. "When using free weights or machines, you can continue to progress your strength and muscle mass; however, people often end up using too much resistance on a machine or weights that are too heavy and that leads to compensating, meaning you don't execute the exercise properly using the correct muscles," says Calabrese. Calisthenics gives you the necessary solid base of strength for when/if you do incorporate external resistance into your training. "If you can't lift your body weight you definitely shouldn't be trying to lift more on a machine."

You hit every. single. muscle. "Calisthenics involves using the entire body and not emphasizing certain muscles over others," says Major. "What I'm talking about is strength from the bottom of your feet to the tips of your fingers."

 

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You'll be gentler on your joints and connective tissue. Resistance training—when performed incorrectly, with too-heavy weights, too often, or in a way that creates imbalances—can put extra stress on soft tissue structures like your tendons, ligaments, and fascia, says Major. Calisthenics, on the other hand, "only develops strength and size in proportion to your muscular system with authentic and natural movements." (Related: 8 Essential Exercises to Correct Common Body Imbalances)

You improve your brain-body connection. "Calisthenics training develops those fine motor skills that require your brain to work hard as well as your body," says Major. "Coordination, speed, power, acceleration, strength, quickness, and agility, are all actions that are demonstrated by a body trained in the art of calisthenics." Think of a gymnast: It takes a lot of strength, flexibility, and stamina to perform these movements, says Calabrese, not to mention unbelievable coordination.

You'll feel like a badass. Yes, really. "There is an unmistakable swagger about someone who knows that they have total control over their body," says Major. Truth: Executing a super heavy deadlift or hoisting a massive kettlebell overhead can make you feel super badass, but so does banging out plyo push-ups or being able to pull off a one-arm pull-up.

5 Calisthenics Exercises to Master

The options are endless, but it's crucial to get these five basic movements down pat before you try to progress. (Also see: Jen Widerstrom Shares the Bodyweight Moves Every Woman Should Master.)

  • Push-Up: Works the chest, triceps, and shoulders while strengthening the core in a plank.
  • Pull-Up: Works the back and biceps while strengthening the core. (Beginners, try bodyweight rows.)
  • Plank: Builds stability and strength in everything below the chest and above the glutes.
  • Lunge: Builds strength and mobility in the lower body.
  • Burpee: Getting down and up off the ground is useful to practice and also does wonders for your heart, says Major. (Beginners, try half burpees: no push-up, no jump.)
 

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