Does "calisthenics" make you think of military basic training — or people in retro tracksuits doing push-ups during gym class? Same. For whatever reason, in the modern-day era of exercise trends and boutique studios, the word "calisthenics" has gotten left a few decades behind.
But in reality, calisthenics exercises are an important part of every single person's fitness routine — and, actually, you're probably already doing them on the regular. Want more deets? Consider this your guide to all things calisthenics.
At the most basic level, “calisthenics is resistance training with your own body weight,” says Autumn Calabrese, a NASM-certified Beachbody super trainer and the 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 body weight as a means to maximize human power and athletic ability,” adds Tee Major, a U.S. military fitness instructor and author of Urban Calisthenics. The fundamental goal of calisthenics workouts should be mastering control over lifting and moving your body in space, he says. If that sounds like the point of many of the exercise moves you already do, you’re not wrong. 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 calisthenics 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,'" explains Major.
However, there's 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. But you don't need to get competitive to have an excuse to work calisthenics exercises into your routine: Here's why calisthenics or bodyweight workouts are worth taking a break from the dumbbells.
The Benefits of Calisthenics Workouts
Doesn't Require 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 don't need to invest in pricey equipment or a gym membership to reach your fitness goals.
Builds 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 body weight, says Calabrese. Look at it this way: If you weigh 150 pounds, doing a bodyweight pull-up means you’re effectively lifting 150 pounds.
“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,” notes Calabrese. But that’s where getting creative comes into play: For example, try using elevated surfaces to change the angle of exercises, increasing the percentage of body weight that you’re lifting. Or 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.
Helps You 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,” explains Major.
Helps You Maintain Proper 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," she adds.
Hits 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," he adds.
Gentler On 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 such as 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," he explains. (
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Improves 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," he continues. Think of a gymnast: It takes a lot of strength, flexibility, and stamina to perform those movements, not to mention unbelievable coordination, points out Calabrese.
Makes You 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.
Examples of Calisthenics Exercises
The options are endless, but if you’re just starting out, it’s crucial to get these calisthenics movements down pat before you try to progress. (Also: The Best Bodyweight Exercises for Getting Fit Anywhere)