Calisthenics may look and sound flash, but in essence they’re simply bodyweight exercises using your own gravity as resistance – no weights, no machines and with very little equipment.
Classically, that means things like press-ups, pull-ups and sit-ups, but recently calisthenics have moved on from those basic exercises to include more exciting, eye-catching holds such as back levers, muscle-ups and the insane human flag – and they’re enjoying an immense resurgence in popularity.
RECOMMENDED: Jump to a step-by-step guide to the human flag, back lever and handstand push-ups
That’s partly thanks to a shaky four-minute YouTube video that went viral in 2008 showing Hannibal Lanham performing a jaw-dropping routine in an urban New York park, topless and shredded. Ten million views later, the world was sold. According to the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual survey of 3,000 fitness professionals, it’s the number one exercise trend of the year.
The name comes from two Greek words, kállos, meaning beauty, and sthénos, meaning strength. This more extreme form of calisthenics isn’t completely new; if you search the web there’s footage of men from the ’30s performing what would then be referred to as incredible feats of strength with their bodies. Think one man doing a one-legged squat with another man balancing on him doing a one-handed handstand – Cirque du Soleil territory. The tougher stuff has exploded in popularity in the era of YouTube, Instagram and Snapchat, when ripped muscle men can share workouts, and you can watch in awe. Classes are being held in parks and gyms nationwide, although it’s still pretty underground, and there’s even a world championships organised by the World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation.
To find out whether you need to be shredded to give it a go, we spoke to David Jackson, co-founder of the Nottingham-based School of Calisthenics.
How did you get into it?
Tim Stevenson and I were strength and conditioning coaches – he’d been a coach for seven years, and I played professional rugby for 13 years, but we got bored with traditional strength training. When I retired from rugby I carried on lifting weights, but without the end goal of matches it didn’t hold my interest. Tim started playing around with handstands and basic calisthenics, and I found having a goal of a particular hold to work towards – the human flag – helped focus me. On the web there were lots of people showing what they could do, but none were explaining how to do it. The guys who viewed them were inspired, but quickly gave up. We decided we should get those people involved and launched the school.
Why should people do it?
Our tagline is “redefine your own impossible”, because these moves look impossible, but they can be done – and that goal gives you purpose and motivation. Rather than setting generic goals such as “I want to be ripped”, with calisthenics we encourage people to work towards a specific outcome. You improve session-on-session until one day you do something that you thought was impossible. It took me three months to learn the human flag, but one day I couldn’t do it, the next I could. Your body starts to adapt and you look better but you’re not doing it purely for aesthetic reasons, you’re trying to achieve something and you have to activate multiple muscle groups at the same time – which is why you get such impressive body benefits. You will also feel incredible mentally.
How can people get started?
We’ve got a free beginners’ ebook on our website that you can download. Every exercise has a video tutorial in which one of us demonstrates the move, while the other explains what you’re supposed to engage and how. We start by focusing on planks, push-ups and chest dips. From those, you can often spot weaknesses and tight spots. If you can’t do full pull-ups, you could attach a band to the bar, dangling downwards, place one foot in the loop of the band at the bottom and rest the other foot on top, then do pull-ups. You need very little equipment – I got a pull-up bar for £10 from Argos that sits in the door frame.
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But is it really possible for normal people?
We gave 12 normal blokes three two-hour workshops to learn to do the human flag. On day one they were laughing, but after only six hours of tuition and some practice at home, three were doing it. We want to teach people what to do with their bodies, rather than just show off ourselves. Flexibility and mobility are important, so we help people address what may be restricting them. Age doesn’t matter – we had a guy in his fifties perfect the back lever at one of our workshops. Past injuries aren’t a problem, either. Tim’s dislocated both his shoulders, I’ve broken my shoulder in two places, and dislocated the AC joint in a shoulder. We’re proof you can overcome weaknesses and sore spots.
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