5 Reasons to Start Conquering Calisthenics

Man doing a pushup
Man doing a pushupCRISTINA QUICLER/AFP / Getty Images

To some young gymgoers, the word “calisthenics” might sound antiquated or conjure up thoughts of headband-wearing geriatrics knocking out toe touches or squat thrusts. But don’t think of them as old-school—think of them as timeless.

Calisthenics and other bodyweight exercises have proved their worth for centuries. From the Spartan army to the Navy SEALs, elite fighting forces have relied on humble moves like the pushup, lunge, and pullup as vital training tools. In recent years, the popularity of gravity-defying street athletes such as Frank Medrano or Hannibal for King has spiked interest in calisthenics and other bodyweight-inspired training.

But you don’t need to be a Spartan or a parkour superstar to benefit from this training style. Check out these five advantages to calisthenics training that will have you burning fat and building strength faster than ever.

1. You’ll Burn More Calories

There’s nothing wrong with seated preacher curls or leg extensions, but neither requires a huge amount of energy or encourage the muscles and joints to work cohesively. In contrast, a ring or bar muscle-up, hanging leg raise, or handstand shoulder press each require all the muscles in the body to work together. That takes more energy and causes you to burn more fuel during and after workouts. This isn’t to say you should bid farewell to isolation exercises—as the Handbook of Sports Medicine and Science says, “An increase in skill difficulty corresponds to the demand for higher mechanical energy.”

Bottom line: Bodyweight training is great for getting lean.

2. You’ll Carve a Stronger Core

Decent core strength is required to perform just about any bodyweight exercise. You can probably do a heavy leg press with a relaxed core, but a single-leg pistol squat? Not a chance. So you can imagine how much stronger your abs and lower back will get with a regimen of calisthenics.

Using electromyography technology, researchers tested the activity of the upper lumbar, lumbosacral erector spinae, and lower abdominal muscles. Writing in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, they found that “the most effective means for trunk strengthening should involve back or abdominal exercises with unstable bases.” Unilateral resistance exercises (such as lunges, one-arm pushups) were also found to effectively strengthen the trunk.

3. You’ll Build Muscle, Fast

Researchers at the University of Gothenburg discovered how effective calisthenic training was after analyzing what type of rep range, volume, and intensity builds the most muscle. They concluded that lifting a moderately heavy weight—approximately 60-75% of your one-rep max—and working to failure produced the best results for pure muscle growth.

Nearly all bodyweight training falls into that category—submaximal efforts repeated for moderate to high reps. And look at some of bodyweight training’s most outstanding proponents: Despite training for functionality, gymnasts boast arguably the most aesthetically impressive physiques on the planet (with levels of muscle not far behind that of bodybuilders), and YouTube sensation Kali Muscle can perform 14 muscle-ups while weighing 255 pounds.

4. Calisthenics Provide Varied Training Stimuli

Renowned Soviet athletics coach Yuri Verkhoshansky encouraged the use of his volume/intensity chart to indicate the best load and rep range for achieving a particular training goal. It was designed with Olympic weightlifters in mind, but the principles apply to any kind of resistance training.

In essence, the chart balanced the difficulty or relative “weight” of a move against the number of reps in a given workout. For instance, ring dips are an advanced movement—most beginner athletes can’t get more than five reps. Therefore, they’re a strength/power exercise and should be done first in a workout, when you’re fresh. Pushups, on the other hand, are easier, and you may be able to do 25 at a clip. In that case you’d choose them to focus on endurance gains. Customize your training accordingly.

5. Calisthenics Have the Navy SEAL of Approval

The Navy SEAL Physical Fitness Guide devotes an entire chapter to calisthenics, which are considered a “traditional and integral part of the SEAL’s training program.”

Take a page out of our troops’ book and experiment with wearing a weighted pack, exercising only one side of the body, elevating the legs during pushups, and doing supersets.

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