There is one form of exercise that all branches of the United States military use as the cornerstone of their fitness programs in order to get soldiers to peak performance levels as quickly as possible: calisthenics. Calisthenics are a form of dynamic, rhythmic exercises that build both strength and endurance and require little or no equipment or apparatus to perform. They include movements such as bending, jumping, pushing, pulling, swinging, twisting or kicking, using only one's body weight for resistance.
In today's modern world with all the fancy weightlifting equipment, circuit training machines and high-tech gyms available, why does the military still rely on calisthenics? For starters, the fact that calisthenics require no equipment makes them completely portable and extremely affordable (free)! Because soldiers in the field train in such large groups, training is usually held outdoors with little or no additional equipment. Basic bodyweight exercises are the basis of their strength training workouts. These exercises are very easy to modify simply by changing body position, tempo and number of repetitions. But the main reason the military uses calisthenics is because they are so effective! Soldiers are whipped into shape at blistering speeds by performing calisthenics, and YOU can improve your fitness level and realize strength goals by using these methods too.
Exactly what are calisthenics? The word "calisthenics" comes from the Greek words "kalos" meaning beauty, and "sthenos" meaning strength. (2) Many of us remember junior high and high school gym classes where we performed a series of warmups including jumping jacks, windmills, toe touches and situps along with other exercises demanded of us by our gym teachers. Turns out our teachers had it right! They knew the same thing that military drill sergeants know -- there is no better way to build strength, endurance and flexibility than calisthenics. All of the aforementioned exercises as well as pushups, pullups, chinups, arm circles, flutter kicks, squats, lunges, dips and squat thrusts are but a few of the literally hundreds of exercises you can do using your own bodyweight.
What are some of the advantages of a calisthenics program? First of all, they can be done almost anywhere, anytime, and at any fitness level, from total beginners to the most hardcore athletes. They can be done without expensive gym memberships or fancy equipment. Calisthenics can be performed at home or while traveling, indoors or outdoors, and at any time of day. Another advantage of calisthenics is they quickly elevate the heart rate causing the body to burn large amounts of calories in a short amount of time. Because several muscle groups are used during each exercise, the total workout time can be as short as 20 minutes and still be very effective. This appeals to many people who are on a tight schedule without much time for exercise. With calisthenics, there is minimal risk of injury because you are not wielding large, heavy objects which can cause strain. Also, since so many muscles are engaged at once, you develop an awareness of when something doesn't feel "right" and can quickly stop the movement without risk of dropping a weight or pulling a muscle. And perhaps the best advantage -- calisthenics are just downright fun!
Last week we discussed the importance of incorporating resistance training into your weekly exercise routine. No matter what form of strength training you decide to pursue, calisthenics and bodyweight exercises can be an integral part of that training. They can be rigorous enough to be a stand-alone workout, or they are also a great warm up for traditional weight lifting exercises.
52Weeks: What are potential problems or a downside one might encounter when beginning a home calisthenics program?
JH: A majority of the issues come from lack of space, keeping a regular schedule, and the presence of other people or pets in the house. When it comes to space issues, many people workout in their basements and oftentimes the ceilings are too low or, if an unfinished space, the room temperature or lack of flooring can make it uncomfortable.
Another issue is that we always have something that needs to be done at home and it is easy to put off working out because there is something else that should be done first. Family members, pets, phone calls, etc. can be a limiting factor when working out at home.
52Weeks: Can a person initiate a calisthenics program on their own or do they need to hire a professional?
JH: Yes, a person can initiate a calisthenics program on their own. The individual needs to make sure that they understand the exercise and the proper way to perform it. With the internet, there are numerous articles and videos to help one learn to do them properly. The biggest consideration is to perform exercises that are appropriate to their beginning fitness level, start slow, and gradually build themselves up. Too often, people push themselves too hard or perform exercises at too high of an intensity level in the beginning. Those individuals are more likely to be injured and stop working out altogether.
If hiring a professional, make sure they are educated in the type of exercise you are interested in. Performing exercises with the proper form and progression is imperative to a successful program. Professional trainers can design and oversee programs that help individuals learn proper techniques and exercise progression.
52Weeks: What schedule do you recommend for calisthenics for maximum benefit?
JH: I believe calisthenics are most effective when you incorporate them into your workout, either as the warm-up or cool-down. If doing it as a stand-alone workout, I would suggest 3 times per week, for 20-30 minutes per session.
52Weeks: Are there any contraindications to starting a calisthenics program on your own?
JH: Heart and lung conditions, orthopedic limitations, obesity, or other medical conditions can be a limiting factor and require one to consult with a physician before starting a calisthenics program.
52Weeks: What recommendations do you have for someone who may have physical limitations?
JH: The individual should develop a program that fits their specific needs, and should not try to perform exercises that they are not capable of doing. The main thing is to not use their physical limitation as an excuse not to exercise. There are numerous ways to modify exercises and one should never do exercises that cause pain!!
Calisthenics are a great way to improve balance, flexibility and strength and I strongly encourage you to incorporate them into your everyday workouts -- a few minutes each day as a warmup or cooldown, or 20-30 minutes as a stand-alone workout. And certainly don't make the mistake of viewing them as old-fashioned or outdated -- they are a dynamic addition to any workout! The fun part is you get to choose which exercises you like best, and you can change up the routine frequently. Alternate between upper body, lower body and core strengthening exercises. Do a Google or You Tube search for "calisthenics", or visit your local library or bookstore for an almost endless selection of exercise guides.
For personal trainer Ricki Butler's excellent video series demonstrating 14 different calisthenics exercises, click here.
Click here for fitness professional Yuri Elkaim's video tutorial/beginner's guide to bodyweight and calisthenics exercises.
Click here to visit Workoutz.com's video demonstrations of hundreds of different exercises. Follow the "Exercises" link at the top of the home page.
"I do it as a therapy. I do it as something to keep me alive. We all need a little discipline. Exercise is my discipline." ~ Jack LaLanne
2. Premier Training: It's All Greek to Me, http://premiertraining.blogspot.com/2011/05/its-all-greek-to-me.html