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April 27, 2020 10 min read

We’ve all noticed this. Exercise fads coming and going throughout the years, all touting different benefits and ways of working on your body. Expert opinions seem to change depending on the flavor of the month, and websites pump out articles that usually obfuscate more information than they reveal. Whether history repeats itself is arguable—but there’s definitely a rhyme. And this rhyme becomes pretty obvious when it comes to fitness and the popular culture which surrounds it. Not to say that all of these fads and new-age workout regimes are necessarily bad for you since they’re usually based in something very real and they do help out a lot of people—usually behind a heavy price tag. But when superfoods come and go like seasons, the things that stick around are what we look towards for tried and true methods.

And let’s face it; working out takes dedication and discipline. What do you do if you don’t have access to a gym? What do you do if you forgot to pack that special fruit for your special diet plan? In the end, we only have our bodies and the space around us, which is all you really need. Enter: conscious calisthenics. This form of exercise uses just your bodyweight to activate your muscles, while also sometimes using basic equipment such as bars and poles. However, there’s much more to calisthenics than just the way one uses their bodyweight. This tried and tested method of exercise has a lot of benefits for all aspects of your physical and mental health.

History of Calisthenics

The word itself comes from the ancient Greek, “kallos” and “sthenos”—meaning beauty and strength. And similarly, the first record of calisthenics was made by the Greek historian Herodotus when he wrote about Spartan armies “dancing”, which was really just calisthenics training. Exercises such as this have been documented for centuries in a wide variety of cultures, mostly for military purposes. But even something such as yoga can be seen as a type of calisthenics. The popularity waxed and waned throughout the centuries until around the 1800s in Europe when physical conditioning grew in popularity in the general population. Modern calisthenics began in Germany and was soon imported to the United States.

After the First World War, this program began slowly declining in popularity with the government. During the “battle of the systems”—in which various fitness regimes tried to gain widespread recognition in the US—general sports-based physical education trumped calisthenics. What began as a slow decline after World War One, culminated with Lyndon B. Johnson signing an executive order for sports to be mandatory in the public schools’ curriculum. Throughout the years, however, calisthenics has still enjoyed popularity with a wide range of people for its unique benefits for the body. A variety of bodyweight exercises and regimes have been developed and improved upon since the early days of calisthenics, resulting in a large number of bodyweight routines that fall under the umbrella of calisthenics. Which raises a good question—what is the difference between bodyweight fitness and calisthenics?

Bodyweight Exercises vs. Calisthenics

There seems to be a significant debate in the community about what exactly differentiates bodyweight exercises from calisthenics. Or is there a difference at all? Some will argue that calisthenics deals with complex motions more than bodyweight fitness regimes, also focusing on impressive feats of strength rather than traditional weightlifting exercises. This can be seen with the popularity of isometric exercises (those movements that you must hold) in the community, over concentric exercises (those done over a series of reps) since the former is usually more challenging. Yet others will argue that it’s, in fact, bodyweight exercises that focus on strength, while some hold that there’s no difference at all.

However, there are certain exercises that are more associated with calisthenics than other regimes. For example, exercises and movements such as the planche, various levers, handstands, muscle-ups, pistol squats, and human flags. This isn’t an exhaustive list, but it’s a list of some of the most impressive exercises.

Whatever the difference may be between bodyweight fitness and calisthenics, the most important aspect is that they both primarily use just the body’s own weight in order to activate and develop muscles, size, and endurance. However, there is another aspect which is sometimes added to calisthenics that doesn’t have nearly the same emphasis in general bodyweight fitness or even traditional gym weightlifting. This is the idea of consciousness, or the mindfulness of one’s body when they’re working out. While it might sound like science fiction or fantasy, there’s actually a good understanding of it and how it can help your gains.

The Mind-Muscle Link

When we say, “conscious calisthenics”, what do we mean by conscious? Well, other than the fact you should be awake, there’s also the idea that there should be a measured intention behind our movements when we’re exercising. That is, movements shouldn’t be done in a jerky manner. Rather, when we’re exercising it’s important to go slowly and concentrate on how our body is feeling and what’s stretching or contracting. Specifically, when we exercise, we should be visualizing the target muscle and concentrating our minds onto it. This type of visualization has studied benefits in regular weightlifting too—with Arnold Schwarzenegger describing it as putting yourself “into” the muscle as you’re activating it.

The trick is to consciously think about what your body is doing and how the various muscles are being activated. For example, when doing push-ups, we can just do them regularly, coming down and up without thinking about it. Or instead, we can visualize our chest muscles swelling and bulging, stretching and expanding, as we slowly travel up and down. This visualization of your inner workings is the consciousness and intention that’s necessary for a good calisthenics workout. Not just activating your muscles, but conscious calisthenics also calls for concentration and a mindfulness of your body. We can also go a step further and look at the links between proper breathing and the mind-muscle link in calisthenics.

Many see calisthenics as a sort of meditation. These movements, if done very slowly, become much more difficult. Your slow, controlled breathing can serve as a tempo for you to carry through the movement. As you strengthen, you can slow down the exercises even more while matching each move with your exhalations and inhalations. This also aids in developing an extreme attentiveness to every detail about your body and the motions it’s going through. As you control your breathing and tune into the nuances of your body, you can gain a better understanding of how your body works and helps in surpassing perceived limits. Many would say that there’s a meditative aspect to conscious calisthenics. This aspect helps to forge your mind-body link and comes with a load of other benefits. 

A man working out.

Benefits of Consciousness

One of the greatest benefits of having a strong mind-body link is in injury prevention. Injuries are some of the worst things that can happen when you’re working towards a fitness goal. However, by practicing mindfulness we can know when a move doesn’t feel “right”, or if something feels too strenuous. With this kind of knowledge, we’ll be able to prevent and avoid training injuries to ourselves since we’ll be able to tune in to what our body doesn’t respond well to.

Another benefit lies in your progression and development as an athlete. You can progress faster when working towards a goal because you’ll be able to feel out your strengths and weaknesses very easily. For example, if you or someone else is swinging a lot when doing a chin-up, you might be able to conclude that it’s an issue with ab strength and not engaging your core properly. Once a weakness is focused on like this, it becomes miles easier to crush plateaus, and workout more efficiently and with greater success. And finally, what we all like to hear, being “inside” of our muscles will help us get those gains that we crave. There is evidence that suggests that focusing on a muscle, or visualizing it, helps in increasing the activation of that muscle. Naturally, greater activation can translate to mass and strength gains.

While some take conscious calisthenics to the meditative sphere and mental health, it’s not necessary in order to still reap the benefits of a solid-state of concentration and mindfulness. Just as mental health can be improved by fitness and discipline, our athletic capabilities can be improved upon by our mental state and where we choose to focus this mental energy. Nevertheless, without consciousness or with, calisthenics still remains one of the best all-round fitness regimes that one can do for both short-term results and long-term benefits. 

Holistic Development with Calisthenics

The calisthenics world is overflowing with exercises that push our bodies to their limits with impressive skills and feats. These moves look impressive for a reason—they can’t just be executed by anyone. Not even if they have a lot of brutal strength or mass. This is because some advanced moves in calisthenics require a large amount of not only strength, but also agility, balance, coordination, and the mind-muscle connection. Advanced movements are also skills that one must learn before performing them and work up to them with more basic moves. Because of this, calisthenics has a wide range of benefits for your body.

Flexibility is one of the largest factors developed by calisthenics. Gymnastics, Pilates, yoga, and dance can all be seen as forms of calisthenics that take a lot of flexibility to correctly perform. Even in movements such as the sit-up, you’re moving your neck, arms, upper chest and core, all in tandem. Or the lunge, for example. Your body needs the flexibility to move through your hip and allow the hip extension. While your body might experience tightness at first in the quads and hamstrings, it’s important to train up your flexibility. A greater amount of flexibility allows for a greater range of motion. In turn, this allows for the correct muscle movements when performing exercises and therefore lessening the chance of injury and incorrect muscle pattern.

While we’ve touched on how calisthenics build muscle, it’s important to note that calisthenics also improves the strength of bones and joints. The wide range of motions that calisthenic exercises need in order to be performed allows for a terrific full-body workout that’ll see you make gains in both upper and lower body muscle groups. Calisthenic exercises are even used by the US military in basic training in order to build strength and avoid injuries. Furthermore, the slowness of calisthenics can prevent a lot of wear on the body that regular weightlifting sometimes has. For example, some movements in traditional weightlifting might be jerky or abrupt, forcing the body to push or pull a large load in a short timespan. A mindful practice of calisthenics will avoid this unnecessary stress.

When working out calisthenics in a circuit style, this works your body as a cardiovascular exercise and improves your endurance. Even though the movements might be slow, performing a circuit 3-5 times and constantly having your muscles under strain will definitely give you massive gains in the endurance department. Although rest is important, performing these circuits on a regular basis will allow you to do more and more of them. Outlining your plan in a workout regime will further allow you to develop an endurance that hits all of your muscle groups. After all, it’s not a surprise that multiple, slow and methodical muscle-ups back to back take a lot of endurance to properly execute.

A girl working out in a park.

Conscious Calisthenic Exercises

So, what makes up this seemingly perfect set of exercises? Well, there’s a lot to it, and we’ve already mentioned some advanced moves above. While the impressive calisthenic performances that are on YouTube usually show ripped dudes performing amazing feats of strength on outside gyms, anyone can get started with calisthenics—wherever they are and however much space they have. Calisthenics are good for both upper body and lower body workouts, and it’s recommended to see what works best for you if you’re starting beginner calisthenics.

The classics of upper-body exercises are push-ups and pull-ups. The former is great for developing muscle in your chest, triceps, shoulders, core, and stabilizers. They’re excellent for your stability and your muscular endurance and provide a good jumping-off point for other, more advanced moves. Pull-ups are also a classic and a traditional test of upper-body strength. They train the back, biceps, and grip, along with a number of other muscle groups. Furthermore, these exercises can be transformed into dozens of other variations. From knee push-ups to clapping push-ups, you’ll be hard-pressed to get bored of push-ups. Similarly, the pull-up can be changed by widening or narrowing the grip or using a pair of gymnastics rings for an added challenge.

Squats are also a lower-body classic with a number of variations. You can do these Tabata-style, where you try to do as many as you can in 20 seconds, then repeat after a short rest. Another popular variation is the pistol squat. A pistol is a regular squat except on one leg—definitely a more advanced and impressive maneuver. While squats activate almost entirely your lower body, lunges can focus in on your quads while also giving your lower body a general workout.

The Diet for Your Calisthenics

Just like with any other exercise regime, all calisthenics really require is properly nutritious meals. Eating clean and healthy is essential when embarking on your fitness journey, but it does become uniquely important when it comes to calisthenics. Since it’s a bodyweight exercise, your body will have to work harder in order to carry any extra pounds that you might be lugging around. There is a self-balancing aspect to it since you’ll be forced to work harder in order to do the exercises, leading to weight loss.

While a clean diet can obviously involve meat, there is a slight emphasis on the vegan diet in conscious calisthenics. Additionally, intermittent fasting is popular in the community. This type of diet has you fasting anywhere from large parts of the day to days on end. Although you don’t necessarily need to be an intermittent faster or one of the daily diet eaters in order to succeed with calisthenics. When it comes to more advanced movements in calisthenics, you’ll be wanting to have a lightweight with a high muscle ratio in order to pull off the gravity-defying exercises.

Conscious Calisthenics as They Apply to Life

“Anything worth doing, is worth doing right”, goes the old saying. If you’re reading this then it’s probably safe to assume that you workout because you believe it’s worth doing. Calisthenics is a natural progression of this line of thinking. Every movement in an exercise is worth doing, and therefore it’s worth it to give it your entire effort—to do it right. That means concentration, mindfulness, and a consciousness of where your body is and what it’s doing in the moment. It’s not difficult to see why many people see this as a meditative exercise as much as a physical one. But whether or not you see conscious calisthenics as something greater than just a test of muscle, it can’t be denied that we can borrow a lot from its tenets. If we’re to do something, whether that be in the gym or out, we should do it with intention and diligence so we can be proud of our work.