“What's so special about calisthenics?”
This is a fair question. If you had asked me 5 years ago about using calisthenics as a main training tool within a program, I would have told you no way – I was an Iron Junkie through and through. But sometimes life throws circumstance at us and we must adapt, and because of that, I stumbled upon one of the greatest findings of my career.
In this article we are going to dive deep into how calisthenics has so many benefits, and in addition, why your training MUST have a calisthenics component to it. This doesn’t mean you need to train with bodyweight exercises exclusively, but they need to be incorporated to some extent and finding a good balance that works for you and your goals is key to maximizing their benefit.
There are extreme ends to the spectrum when it comes to bodyweight training. On one end you have the calisthenic diehards who scoff at the sight of a dumbbell. Their mindsets are as hardcore as their workouts. They see training as black and white and there is just no place for any kind of weight training equipment. However, these folks are typically shorter and stockier in their build which fits well with calisthenics training. Their short levers are ideal leverages for a lot of the more advanced bodyweight training techniques allowing them to excel.
At the other end of the spectrum, you have the heavy lifters. Guys who only want to use the barbell and load it up with as much weight as possible and the only other exercises they want to do are to aid in the progression of their main barbell lifts. These guys scoff at the sight of doing bodyweight exercises because there simply isn’t enough “load” for them and they are just too novice of an exercise. I mean, after all, what’s the point of a pull up when you can rep lat pulldowns with the entire stack??? (Hopefully you can sense my sarcasm).
As with anything, the answer lies somewhere between the two extremes. Where that 'sweet spot' is can and will depend on the individual and what they are trying to accomplish with their training. This is why, depending on the time of year and phase of training, we cycle the focus and the use of certain training modalities. But regardless of the phase of training, calisthenics is always incorporated consistently into our workouts to some extent.
Calisthenics Are Restorative
One of the biggest and most valuable benefits of calisthenics training is that it is restorative in nature. This doesn’t mean they can’t and won’t beat you up (in good and bad ways) – and they most certainly will depending on how you plan your workouts. Calisthenics are restorative as it pertains to movement. Because most calisthenics movements require not only the use of multiple muscle groups but also full body tension, it reteaches the body to work together as one unit – the way it was intended! This is called intermuscular coordination – which is the ability of different muscle groups to work together to create and produce efficient movement.
When the body can move efficiently as it was intended, it not only conserves energy allowing for better physical outputs, but it also takes a tremendous amount of stress off the joints of the body. The most common injuries you see take place at major joints of the body such as the knees, shoulders, hips, and lower back. When the body is trained together as one unit – improving intermuscular coordination – joints and connective tissues are put into proper balance and are strengthened along with the muscles of the body.
Now the argument can be made that compound barbell movements also incorporate multiple muscle groups and increase intermuscular coordination – and they do! But what gives calisthenics the edge over the barbell movements is we do not need the addition of an external load that changes our body’s center of mass to accomplish this. Think about putting a heavy bar on your back that compresses your spine or pressing a heavy bar overhead that can dump the lower back into excessive extension – these things are not restorative, and in the long run, accomplish quite the opposite. That doesn’t mean they are bad exercises! I love squatting and I love pressing overhead. However, it is using them in the correct frequency and at the right times in our training to maximize their benefit and mitigate their drawbacks that is key.
This is precisely what our programming does. It uses all the training modalities we have at our disposal in a way that maximizes each of their benefits and at the same time, balancing their drawbacks. This is what is meant when saying calisthenics is restorative. Can you overdo calisthenics and certain exercises and injure yourself? Absolutely. There isn’t a form of exercise out there that can’t be overdone to the point of causing issues. But when programmed intelligently, it is my belief that calisthenics provides the most benefits of any other form of training out there.
The restoration in movement we get from calisthenics training is accompanied by a restoration in athleticism. When your body and joints are pain free and your body has relearned to work as one well-oiled machine, you are able to express yourself in an athletic way again – capable of things you thought you would never be able to do. This is one of the biggest reasons why it is a foundational methodology.
Calisthenics Promote Favorable Body Composition
One of the biggest problems we face as a society is obesity. More than half of the country is obese or overweight and the trend is only continuing to increase. This is seen easily in the fitness space as well. The weight loss industry is a multi-billion-dollar industry. If you walk into your local gym, you will see many people there with the goal of trying to lose weight. Unfortunately, very few people actually accomplish that goal.
Like any industry, it is still a business at the end of the day and making money is the priority. Because of this, we have a plethora of equipment and machines at our disposal to try and make “fitness” as comfortable as possible and this really sabotages people before they can ever get going. The worst part is, it’s not their fault! They don’t know any better, but these companies will continue to feed and profit off their ignorance. Don’t get me wrong, machines have their place and can most definitely be useful, but they should not be the main tool in an exercise regimen.
Think about it…does a person that sits for 12 hours a day at work need to come to the gym and sit down on a chest press machine to “work out?” No. And this gym-goer thinks they’re doing well because they can press over 100 pounds on the machine, yet they cannot perform a push-up. Seems odd, right? Which person do you think is more fit, the person who can sit down in a chair and push a bar on a machine, OR the person who can drop down, maintain a tight plank while they lower themselves with control all the way to the floor and press up to full lockout? One perfectly performed push up will yield more benefit than a set of 10 machine presses, yet because the person doesn’t know better, will choose machine exercises because they are easier to perform.
The reason they are easier to perform is because the person is not responsible for carrying their engine. The push-up is harder because not only are more muscles involved, but also because you are required to handle your bodyweight – and for an overweight or obese person, this can be difficult. Unfortunately for them, keeping the training wheels on by always resorting to machines will never help them move the needle. If you want to get better at bodyweight-based movements then you must give focus to your body composition and overall bodyweight.
Lastly, even though I do not have an official study to back this claim up, I am a believer that calisthenics training aids in quicker changes in body composition and lends itself to a leaner and more athletic physique. The only proof I have is with myself the people close to me who I have seen implement these principles. I have been an avid lifter since I was 16 years old and my physique changed dramatically when I made the transition to a heavy focus on calisthenics training.
Calisthenics Travel Well
One of the biggest advantages to calisthenics training is the fact that it can be done just about anywhere, anytime. Whether you are more of a novice calisthenics trainee, or a long-time veteran of it, you have a tremendous number of options at your disposal and can get a workout whenever and wherever you need to. As a professional in this industry for over a decade, I cannot tell you how many times I have heard the story of how a person couldn’t work out on their vacation or work-trip because the hotel didn’t have a gym.
If you have a floor to stand on, you can get an awesome workout using nothing but your own body – and the best part is, the more advanced you become, the more options you give yourself. This is the opposite of weight-lifting based methodologies. When you’re squatting 600 pounds and your hotel only has a dumbbell rack and an elliptical, there isn’t a ton you can do to keep progressing that exercise and your options become limited.
Utilizing calisthenics as a primary training method in our regimen gives us the single most versatile tool when it comes to fitness – OUR BODY – and it comes with you everywhere you go. So, no matter where you go or for how long, your training doesn’t have to suffer.
Calisthenics Enhances the Rest of Your Training
This last benefit is my favorite of all and it’s all about tricking our body’s ability to adapt. Training and working out in a nutshell, is just placing work on the body to force it to adapt. When the body sees a stimulus enough times, it adapts and becomes stronger to overcome that stress. Knowing that, when we look at weightlifting as our means of resistance training, the way you can keep forcing the body to adapt is by placing either higher loads or higher volumes on it – heavier weights, more reps and/or a combination of the two in most cases.
This is all well and good, but unfortunately, our ability to adapt is a finite resource. If it wasn’t, then we would be squatting and deadlifting 3000 pounds after a couple decades of training. As mentioned earlier, continually adding weight and/or reps for years and years at a time can begin to cause issues within the joints of our bodies as the repeated stress adds up.
What’s great about calisthenics training is that we can continue to train and make gains in strength and size while putting common weight-based methods on the back burner. This gives time to let our bodies re-sensitize to the weight-based methods as a stimulus to drive adaptation. Then, when we re-introduce weightlifting methods into our regimen as a main training modality, we get a boosted adaptation from them without having to progress to ultra heavy weights or volumes because it is once again a more novel stimulus to the body from not having seen it for an extended period.
As an iron junkie myself, this is a game changer! Because it will allow you to continue to lift the way you love to lift and get results from poundages and volumes that won’t break you down long-term.
Hopefully you now see the benefits of calisthenics training, and the crazy part is, this isn’t even all of them! The longer I myself, along with those I work with, continue to use them, the more and more benefits we discover.
As I said before, you do not need to train calisthenics exclusively nor would I recommend that! The best method is to use a blend of many training modalities. There should be times throughout the year where you cycle your main training modality depending on your goal for that season.
Unfortunately, in the day in age of social media, people feel the need to take a stance to so they can belong to some sort of camp. You are either a Crossfitter, a Powerlifter, a Bodybuilder, Calisthenics, a Yogi, etc. Instead of pinning training ideals against each other, we take and use pieces of all of them to create a robust training system to build an extremely capable human being. And as you now know after reading this article, calisthenics just happens to be an extremely versatile method that gets used a lot in our system along with many others.
If you would like to learn more about how to cycle different modalities and drive certain training adaptions, sign up for one of our programs today! If you would like more information before diving in, set up your free coaching call. I'd be more than happy to sit and talk training with you.