Calisthenic exercises are deemed one the most classic and mainstream practices when it comes to training the body. It seems like this type of training is commonplace for a number of reasons. Two of the factors that seem to contribute to the calisthenic exercises being favored are the ease of access (there are little to no equipment needs) and the fact that there are scalable options for many of the exercises. We’ll touch on the regime and background of Calisthenics, then we can begin to assess whether some of the most common calisthenic workouts actually merit their popularity - Or, if there may be more efficient ways to build muscle and develop a lean physique that is both pain and injury free.
Examples of a Calisthenics Workout
Calisthenics is a term used to describe exercises that use the body’s weight as the primary form of resistance, instead of utilizing dumbbells, kettlebells, exercise machines, or other equipment. These exercises can either be completed slowly, with isometric holds, or executed more explosively with several reps. By orienting the body in different positions, the pressure gravity places on the body can be used to load various muscles more intensely than when standing or seated. There are also some slight variations in opinion as to what calisthenics is, because some fitness professionals do not include ballistic motions like jumping in their definition. For the most part, the exercises below seem to be unanimously agreed upon as some of the staples of calisthenics workouts.
Calisthenic exercises can include, but are not limited to:
It is not entirely clear when calisthenics workouts originated, but there are some sources that suggest calisthenic exercises were used by Spartans in Greece as early as 600 B.C. When you see the meticulously sculpted musculature of Greek statues, this is likely the product of various lifestyle factors such as having to hunt more regularly for food and having a generally physically capable body to work and survive, not just a body-weight oriented workout regime. Calisthenics is otherwise known as kilos sthenos (beautiful strength). The name undoubtedly comes from the focus on the appearance of one’s physique, possibly even to represent the highest functioning physiques of ancient time periods, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it was the strongest or most resilient form. Especially in today’s modern age, the means to which many people go to reach a lean body isn’t the most sustainable.
Risk vs. Reward
Calisthenic exercises may be more accessible to most, because of the minimal use of equipment, but the lack of external resistance does not inherently make bodyweight training safer as some people may assume.
- Calisthenics: Epidemiology of Injury Patterns and Their Risk Factors - PubMed (nih.gov)
- Injury in the Australian sport of calisthenics: A prospective study - ScienceDirect
These studies list the injury rate of calisthenics workouts at 27.8%. Nearly a third of all participants seem to develop injuries in a single year of training with calisthenics exercises.
This injury rate forces another discussion to the forefront relating to why people do calisthenics in the first place. While it may not be the most effective way to build muscle due to the limitations of using one’s body weight at various angles, it does seem like it is an effective way to gather attention on social media.
More advanced calisthenics exercises, like handstands or the human flag, seem to be a prime example of this attention seeking behavior. There are more and more influencer types emerging as smartphones are continuously upgraded and social media platforms become more easily accessible. This type of novelty and attention seeking behavior can drive influencer types to pursue increasingly more dangerous stunts.
From National Geographic was an article on how Calisthenics exercises are used as ‘stunts’ to show off, stating: “Instead of grinding your way to a new bench press PB, the aim is to come up with new pull-up combinations, static holds and party tricks that will wow any dinner guest.”
The Unconsidered Variables of Calisthenics
Unfortunately, this attention seeking behavior seems to be a common theme among many trainers as a whole in the fitness industry. Due to physical fitness coming to some people more easily because of genetics or athletic capabilities, they tend to do more of what comes easy to them and capitalize on more naive populations, with less time to research what the most fundamental variables are to being healthy, by selling promises of getting lean and muscular with simple exercise routines. One of these fundamental variables we focus on improving in people to get the best results in the industry with Functional Patterns, is moving more efficiently as a human.
The handstand and human-flag exercises we listed earlier, do not carry priority to learn, since as humans we have much more dense lower limbs (our legs) and hip muscles designed to bear the weight of our body more effectively than the arms and shoulders. There may be utility to learning how to perform something like a handstand or pull-up, but if the body is already in an imbalanced state when standing or walking, then it is much more likely that doing something like handstands or other calisthenics exercises will exacerbate the compensations in the body.
This begs the question why calisthenics was seemingly so rewarding for the ancient Greeks, but has a larger risk potential and higher difficulty level for the modern human. Our posture and movement patterns have been greatly impacted by the modernization of humans, so much so that it doesn’t seem like an ancient workout style alone could really be the answer to recovering our health. This especially the case for one of the other demographics that seems to use bodyweight training, which are people who may be older or have limited strength as they recover from injuries. In these cases preventing injury and rehabbing to a more functional posture to increase strength is paramount.
When researching what calisthenics is and if it is something you should be doing, it is important to analyze your long term goals. If sustainability of lean muscle mass and pain-free joints are a priority, then it would be a wise decision to learn how to use the muscles in our body around the most fundamental functions first, before exploring what is calisthenics. Using the most fundamental functions we have such as standing, walking, running, and throwing as the blueprint for developing strength, will allow us to develop muscle that will have longevity and improve our posture.
The link above is an example of a Functional Patterns Practitioner improving muscle mass by focusing on strengthening muscles to make these 4 primary movements more efficient. It seems like this type of training is also the most effective for people who have suffered injuries or are seeking to rehab themselves as the focus is not directed at gathering attention on social media and simply finding what works the best to provide sustainable fitness gains.
Additional Functional Patterns articles on Calisthenics and other related topics:
- A Comprehensive Look at Calisthenics Workouts by HBS Practitioner Will Coetzee
- Beyond the Trend: Discover the Difference between Functional Fitness and Functional Patterns by HBS Practitioner Will Coetzee
- Intentional vs Intense: Is HIIT Training Sustainable? by HBS Practitioner Courtney Smith
- What is Functional Strength? by HBS Practitioner Michael Dugan
- Injury in the Australian sport of calisthenics: A prospective study https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0004951414601288?via%3Dihub
- Calisthenics: a fitness resurrection | National Geographic https://www.nationalgeographic.co.uk/2016/06/calisthenics-a-fitness-resurrection