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Picture of schoolchildren doing sit-ups
School children perform sit-ups, a common type of calisthenic, during a school fitness day.

Calisthenics (American English) or callisthenics (British English) (/ˌkælɪsˈθɛnɪk/) is a form of strength training that utilizes an individual's body weight as resistance to perform multi-joint, compound movements with little or no equipment.[1]

Origin and etymology[edit]

The Oxford English Dictionary describes callisthenics as "gymnastic exercises to achieve fitness and grace of movement".[2] The word calisthenics comes from the ancient Greek words κάλλος (kállos), which means "beauty", and σθένος (sthenos), meaning "strength".[2] It is the art of using one's body weight as resistance to develop muscles.

The practice was recorded as being used in ancient Greece, including by the armies of Alexander the Great and the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae.[3]

Calisthenics was also recorded to have been used in ancient China. Along with dietary practices, Han dynasty physicians prescribed calisthenics as one of the methods for maintaining one's health.[4][5][6][7]

Common exercises[edit]

A squat exercise. After squatting down, the exerciser stands up again while moving their hands back to their sides.

The more commonly performed calisthenic exercises include:

Performed face down on the floor, palms against the floor under the shoulders, toes curled upwards against the floor. The arms are used to lift the body while maintaining a straight line from head to heel. The arms go from fully extended in the high position to nearly fully flexed in the low position while avoiding resting on the floor. This exercise trains the chest, shoulders, and triceps. An easier version of this exercise consists of placing the hands on a wall and then bending and straightening the arms.
A person lies on their back with their legs bent. They bend at the waist and move their head and torso towards their legs. They then lower themselves back down to the start position. For people who find it difficult to get down onto the ground, a similar range of motion can be achieved by standing with the legs slightly bent, and then bowing slightly and straightening up again.
Standing with the feet a shoulder-width apart, the subject squats down until their thighs are parallel with the floor; during this action, they move their arms forwards in front of them. They then return to a standing position whilst moving their arms back to their sides. Squats train the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, gluteal muscles, and core. The height of the squat can be adjusted to be deeper or shallower depending on the fitness level of the individual (i.e. half or quarter squats rather than full squats). Since squats can be performed easily in most environments and with a limited amount of space, they are among the most versatile calisthenic exercises.
A full body calisthenics workout that works abdominal muscles, chest, arms, legs, and several parts of the back. The subject squats down and quickly moves their arms and legs into a push-up position. Sometimes, people do a push up (not mandatory) before they finish their rep by tucking the legs in and jumping up.
Chin-ups and pull-ups are similar exercises but use opposite facing grips.
For a chin-up, the palms of the hands are facing the person as they pull up their body using the chin-up bar. The chin-up involves the biceps muscles more than the pull-up but the lats are still the primary mover.[8]
For a pull-up, the bar is grasped using a shoulder-width grip. The subject lifts their body up, chin level with the bar, keeping their back straight throughout the exercise. The bar remains in front of the subject at all times. The subject then slowly returns to starting position in a slow, controlled manner. This primarily trains the lats, and secondary muscles working are upper back muscles, as well as the forearms and core muscles.
Done between parallel bars or facing either direction of trapezoid bars found in some gyms. Feet are crossed, with either foot in front and the body is lowered until the elbows are in line with the shoulders. The subject then pushes up until the arms are fully extended, but without locking the elbows. Dips focus primarily on the chest, triceps, and deltoids, especially the anterior portion.
A front lever is performed by executing a lateral pulldown of the bar with straight arms until the body is parallel to the ground, with the front of the body facing upwards. This exercise may be done on rings or a pull-up bar.
A back lever is performed by lowering from an inverted hang from rings or bar, until the gymnast's body is parallel to the ground and facing towards the floor.
Practicing the wall walk, an exercise for achieving handstands
A handstand is the act of supporting the body in a stable, inverted vertical position by balancing on the hands. In a basic handstand, the body is held straight with arms and legs fully extended, with hands spaced approximately a shoulder-width apart.
Performed in a prone position on the ground, the individual raises the legs, arms and upper body off the ground.
Lying on the back, hands in fists under buttocks, move feet up and down.
The L-sit is an acrobatic body position in which all body weight rests on the hands, with the torso held in a slightly forward-leaning orientation, with legs held horizontally so that each leg forms a nominal right-angle with the torso. The right-angle causes the body to have a notable "L" shape, hence the name "L-sit". The L sit requires one to keep their core tensed and holding their legs horizontal, so that their body sits in a perfect 'L' position. This requires significant abdominal strength and a high level of hamstring flexibility.
An intermediate calisthenics exercise. Performed by a combination routine of a pull-up followed by a dip. May be done on pull-up bars or rings.
One of the most advanced exercises, which may be achieved after years of training. It is performed by protracting and depressing the scapula balancing the body on two arms. The planche requires a high amount of strength (particularly for taller individuals) as well as balance.
Plank on medicine balls
This is the name for holding the 'top' position of a push-up for extended periods of time. The primary muscle involved in this exercise is the rectus abdominis, especially if a posterior pelvic tilt is maintained.
The side-straddle hop is a two-action exercise. From a standing position, the subject first jumps slightly into the air while moving the legs more than a shoulder-width apart, swinging the arms overhead, and clapping the palms together. Secondly, the subject jumps slightly into the air once again while swinging the arms down and to the side, finally returning to a standing position. Both actions must be alternated per repetition.

Training methods[edit]

Calisthenics can be used as a means to pursue a number of fitness goals including, but not limited to hypertrophy (increasing one's muscle mass), strength, and endurance.

The training methods employed are often different, depending on the goal. For instance, when pursuing hypertrophy, one aims to increase the load volume over time; when pursuing strength, the intensity of the exercise is increased over time; and to improve endurance, one can gradually shorten their rest periods.

Co-operative calisthenics[edit]

The fireman's carry is a simple co-operative calisthenic exercise which can be used to improve general strength and fitness. Such exercises can also be used to prepare for situations where carrying someone might be required to rescue them, as demonstrated by these US Marines.[9]

Co-operative calisthenics refers to calisthenic exercises that involve two or more participants helping each other to perform the exercise. Such exercises may also be known as partner exercises, partner-resisted exercises, partner carrying, or bodyweight exercises with a partner. They have been used for centuries as a way of building physical strength, endurance, mobility, and co-ordination.[10] Usually, one person performs the exercise and the other person adds resistance. For example, a person performing squats with someone on their back, or someone holding another person in their arms and walking around. Some exercises also involve the use of equipment. Two people may hold onto different ends of a rope and pull in different directions. One person would deliberately provide a lesser amount of resistance, which adds resistance to the exercise whilst also allowing the other person to move through a full range of motion as their superior level of force application pulls the rope along. A disadvantage of these exercises is that it can be challenging to measure how much resistance is being added by the partner, when considered in comparison to free weights or machines. An advantage such exercise has is that it allows for relatively high levels of resistance to be added with equipment being optional. On this basis, co-operative calisthenics can be just as easily performed on a playing field as in a gym.[11] They are also versatile enough to allow them to be used for training goals other than simple strength. For example, a squat with a partner can be turned into a power-focused exercise by jumping or hopping with the partner instead, or even lifting them up on one knee.


A 2017 study: "The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition" found that calisthenics training is an "effective training solution to improve posture, strength and body composition without the use of any major training equipment".[12]


Roper's Gymnasium, Philadelphia, c. 1831. Climbing, balancing and gymnastics have been popular forms of calisthenic exercise throughout history and are still practiced in the modern day.

Catharine Esther Beecher (1800–1878) was an American educator and author who popularized and shaped a conservative ideological movement to both elevate and entrench women's place in the domestic sphere of American culture. She introduced calisthenics in a course of physical education and promoted it.[13]

Disciples of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn brought their version of gymnastics to the United States, while Beecher and Dio Lewis set up physical education programs for women in the 19th century.[14] Organized systems of calisthenics in America took a back seat to competitive sports after the Battle of the Systems, when the states mandated physical education systems.[15] The Royal Canadian Air Force's calisthenics program published in the 1960s helped to launch modern fitness culture.[16][17]

Calisthenics is associated with the rapidly growing international sport called street workout. The street workout consists of athletes performing calisthenics routines in timed sessions, in front of a panel of judges. The World Street Workout & Calisthenics Federation (WSWCF), based in Riga, Latvia, orchestrates the annual national championships and hosts the world championships for the sport. The World Calisthenics Organization (WCO) based in Los Angeles, California, promotes a series of competitions known globally as "the Battle of the Bars". The WCO created the first set of rules for formal competitions, including weight classes, a timed round system, original judging criteria and a 10-point must system, giving an increasing number of athletes worldwide an opportunity to compete in these global competitions.[18]

Street workout competitions have also popularized 'freestyle calisthenics', which is a style of calisthenics where the athlete uses their power and momentum to perform dynamic skills and tricks on the bar, often as part of a routine where each trick is linked together in a consistent flow. Freestyle calisthenics requires great skill to control one's momentum and an understanding of the mechanics of the body and the bar.[19]

Calisthenics parks[edit]

Park in Osdorp, Amsterdam, NLD where one can practice calisthenics.

An increasing number of outdoor fitness training areas and outdoor gyms are being built around the world[where?][when?]. Some are designed especially for calisthenics training, and most are free to use by the public. Calisthenics parks equipment include pull-up bars, monkey bars, parallel bars, and box jumps. Freely accessible online maps exist that show the locations and sample photos of calisthenics parks around the world.[20][21]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "Why You Should Try Calisthenics". Cleveland Clinic. 2022-12-03. Retrieved 2023-10-20.
  2. ^ a b Paperback Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. 2012. p. 95. ISBN 9780199640942.
  3. ^ "How ancient Greeks trained for war". BBC. 2019-04-02. ISSN 0458-3035. Archived from the original on 2019-04-04. Retrieved 30 August 2019.
  4. ^ de Crespigny (2007), p. 332.
  5. ^ Omura (2003), pp. 15, 19–22.
  6. ^ Loewe (1994), p. 65.
  7. ^ Lo (2001), p. 23.
  8. ^ "Chin-Up Exercise Guide and Video". Bodybuilding.com.
  9. ^ Grant, Jeff (2019). Running Heavy. Hillseeker Publishing. pp. 123–124. ISBN 978-3952466773.
  10. ^ Jimmy Nixdorf (October 1993). "Traditional training methods. Are they still beneficial today?". Black Belt. 31 (10). California: Michael James: 56–57.
  11. ^ Kraemer, W.J. & Fleck S.J., 'Partner exercises' in Strength Training for Young Athletes, Leeds: Human Kinetics, pp.83-86
  12. ^ Thomas, E.; Bianco, A.; Mancuso, E.P.; Patti, A.; Tabacchi, G.; Paoli, A.; Messina, G.; Palma, A. (2017-08-16). "The effects of a calisthenics training intervention on posture, strength and body composition". Isokinetics and Exercise Science. 25 (3): 215–222. doi:10.3233/IES-170001.
  13. ^ Taketani, Etsuko (2003). U.S. Women Writers and the Discourses of Colonialism, 1825-1861. Knoxville, Tennessee: University of Tennessee Press. pp. 75–76. ISBN 1-57233-227-1.
  14. ^ "calisthenics (exercise)". Britannica Online Encyclopedia. Retrieved 2010-08-04.
  15. ^ Higgins, Chris (2020-01-03). "Calisthenics History- How Calisthenics Once Ruled the Schools and Lost the Battle to Sports". Calisthenics Gear. Retrieved 2020-01-03.
  16. ^ KRUCOFF, CAROL (1998-06-22). "Going Back to the Basics With Calisthenics". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2018-10-08. In fact, the popularity of the Royal Canadian Air Force's calisthenics program in the late 1950s helped launch the modern fitness movement.
  17. ^ "Five basic exercises for fitness in 1961". CBC Archives. Retrieved 2018-10-08. The program became famous worldwide.
  18. ^ "Battle of the Bars". World Calisthenics Organization. Archived from the original on December 4, 2021. Retrieved December 4, 2021.
  19. ^ Rick (2020-04-03). "An Introduction To Freestyle Calisthenics And Isometric Holds". Calisthenics 101. Retrieved 2020-12-05.
  20. ^ "Calisthenics Parks - Spots Map". calisthenics-parks.com. Retrieved 2016-12-30.
  21. ^ "Find a place nearby, where you can workout". Workout Places. Retrieved 2022-05-11.


  • de Crespigny, Rafe (2007), A Biographical Dictionary of Later Han to the Three Kingdoms (23–220 AD), Leiden: Koninklijke Brill, ISBN 978-90-04-15605-0.
  • Lo, Vivienne (2001), "The influence of nurturing life culture on the development of Western Han acumoxa therapy", in Hsu, Elisabeth (ed.), Innovation in Chinese Medicine, Cambridge, New York, Oakleigh, Madrid and Cape Town: Cambridge University Press, pp. 19–50, ISBN 978-0-521-80068-6.
  • Loewe, Michael (1994), Divination, Mythology and Monarchy in Han China, Cambridge, New York and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, ISBN 978-0-521-45466-7.
  • Omura, Yoshiaki (2003), Acupuncture Medicine: Its Historical and Clinical Background, Mineola: Dover Publications, ISBN 978-0-486-42850-5.