A flag pole isn’t just the thing Flick gets his tongue stuck on in “A Christmas Story,” a gathering point at day camps, or a place to hang a Pride flag in June — it’s also an exercise making the rounds on social media. More specifically, a calisthenics exercise. Even if you don’t quite know what calisthenics is, exactly, you’ve probably seen it in action. The training method has been around for a long time now, and sounds fancy, but is quite simple — and it’s booming in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic and in the era of TikTok.
What is calisthenics, what exercises does it include, and what are the benefits of it? Answers to all your questions ahead.
What Is Calisthenics?
Put simply, calisthenics is bodyweight training. “It’s a form of strength training that uses the combination of your own body weight and gravity to strengthen your muscles and build muscle endurance,” explains Jamie Simmonds, a personal trainer, CrossFit Level 2 coach, and six-time CrossFit Games Athlete with Reebok. It can also improve mobility, flexibility, balance, coordination, and even improve aerobic capacity, she says.
Calisthenics is both a training methodology and a sport with its own competitions (think: like CrossFit); however, the vast majority of people who do calisthenics never compete, instead incorporating the method into their everyday workouts.
Calisthenics Exercise Examples
When you think of bodyweight exercises, you likely think about classic moves like push-ups, pull-ups, squats, and lunge.s And, these exercises — alongside other popular bodyweight options like the dip, jumping jack, burpee, and plank — do make a common appearance in calisthenics workouts, Simmonds says.
However, there are other exercises seen in the training protocol that are more specific to calisthenics, too. To name a few: The flag pole, muscle-up, single-leg squat, and handstand press. (Often, it’s seeing these fancy, high-skill moves on social media that propel people to give the training style a try in the first place.)
The History of Calisthenics
Sure, you may have just started to see calisthenics on your social feeds in the last few years. But using one’s own body to build muscle is nothing new. “Calisthenics can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where the training methodology was used by warriors to enhance their ability in sport and combat,” Simmonds says. The word “calisthenics” is a combination of two Greek words: “kallos” (meaning, beauty) and “sthenos” (meaning strength).
In the centuries since, the training methodology has been used and further developed by a wide variety of people and cultures. In the 19th century, for instance, calisthenics gained exposure in Europe alongside the popularization of gymnastics and was promoted in the US by educator Catherine Beecher as being important for women, according to Britannica. Then, in the 20th century, it began to be integrated into schools as part of gym classes and physical education (PE) courses, Simmonds says.
These days, there’s a lot of crossover between gymnastics (which came first in history) and calisthenics, Simmonds says. Being able to control your body in space is essential to both methodologies and as a result, many of the movements in calisthenics are similar to (or derivatives of) the movements that have long been a part of gymnastics.
Why Is Calisthenics Booming Right Now?
Calisthenics may have been around even longer than “The Bachelor” franchise, but as anyone with a social media account knows, it’s having a moment now. At the time of publishing, posts with the #calisthenics hashtag have garnered more than 25.9 billion views on TikTok. There are a few reasons for this, according to fitness experts.
“There are no prerequisite levels of strength to start calisthenics. All you need is a body.”
For starters, you don’t need any gym equipment or a gym membership to get started, says certified strength and conditioning coach Jake Harcoff, CSCS, head coach and owner of AIM Athletic. This low barrier to entry makes the movement practice accessible to everyone in a way that things like bodybuilding and Olympic lifting are not.
This is especially true since the start of the COVID pandemic, as people have sought more at-home workout solutions that allow them to get their sweat on without entering crowded spaces, Harcoff says. At this point, many people have renewed their gym memberships, but many people have come to prefer the convenience of working out from home, or aren’t able to risk the germ exposure.
There’s also “a growing appreciation for fitness routines that prioritize longevity and functional health, rather than just aesthetics,” Harcoff says. Calisthenics can help you reach aesthetic and/or weight loss goals if you have them, but unlike other fitness practices, that isn’t its main claim to fame — improved strength, mobility, agility, and longevity are, he says.
“Social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram have also played a significant role in the popularization of calisthenics,” Harcoff says. “The often visually captivating feats of strength showcased by those who practice calisthenics on these platforms can be incredibly motivating and entertaining, contributing to its overall appeal.”
You’ve likely seen people doing advanced moves like handstands, one-handed push-ups, or flipping around pull-up bars in the park, like below. Given that calisthenics thrives on jungle gyms, there’s also something very playful about the workout method. This is exactly what many people need right now, as they’re looking for their workout routine to spark joy rather than become a chore.
The Health and Fitness Benefits of Calisthenics Training
There are practically more health and fitness benefits associated with calisthenics training than there are social posts featuring people doing it — which is to say, there’s a lot. To name a few:
1. There’s no equipment necessary.
Once more for the people in the back: Calisthenics can be done (almost) anywhere, anytime. “No gym equipment or gym membership is needed,” Harcoff says. And you don’t need much space. Whether you’re in a hotel room or in the airport, on the beach or in the park, you can give calisthenics a try. This accessibility makes the modality especially appealing to those who travel a lot or prefer to work out from home.
2. It’s totally free.
Oh, and because no gym equipment or membership is needed, there’s absolutely no cost associated with calisthenics. You don’t even need a special pair of shoes to get started, the way you do with running. The fact that it’s cost-free means people who can’t afford a gym membership, equipment, or even regular child care may be more able to give it a try.
3. It’s a full-body workout.
“Calisthenics works all the muscles in your body, including on your legs, glutes, core, and upper body,” Simmons says. But calisthenics doesn’t just work these muscles, it works them through a large range of motion — more so than in other sports, she says. Because you can’t make an exercise harder by adding weights, you may make it harder by going deeper into the move. (For instance, squatting as close to the ground as you can.) As a result, you work a greater portion of the fibers in your muscles than you would with a smaller range of motion, helping to increase the challenge and therefore your results. “You’ll also strengthen your other connective tissues, such as your ligaments and tendons, which can help with joint stability and strength,” Simmons says.
4. It builds functional strength.
“Calisthenics emphasizes what most would consider functional strength, or one’s ability to perform everyday activities and sports through compound movements that mimic real-life actions,” Harcoff says. Indeed, the methodology prioritizes functional movement patterns, like the squat, hinge, pull, push, lunge, and rotation.
When you master the ability to execute these movement patterns safely during your exercise routine, you groove the movement pattern so that you’re more likely to do it safely when you have to in real life.
5. It improves stability.
In order to access the strength in your limbs, your body has to call on your core, too. As a result, of all the muscle groups that calisthenics works, it works your midline the most. And having a strong, stable core offers its own set of health and fitness benefits, according to Harcoff.
“A strong core helps stabilize the spine, improve posture, and enhance balance and stability,” he says. It also plays a crucial role in preventing lower back pain, as well as decreasing the risk of injury from day-to-day tasks like throwing a ball, picking up Amazon packages off the front porch, transferring the laundry, and getting out of bed.
How to Get Started With Calisthenics
Want to join the likes of TikTok and give calisthenics a try? Good news: You can. “There are no prerequisite levels of strength to start calisthenics,” Simmonds says. “All you need is a body.”
1. Master the basics.
“Simple bodyweight movements like the squat, lunge, push-up, sit-up, pull-up, and plank are all foundational to the sport,” says Simmonds. While they may not be as sexy as some of the other calisthenics moves, no matter your training age or strength level, she suggests starting there.
To be clear: You don’t just want to be able to do these foundational bodyweight exercises, you want to be able to do them well. That means making sure all the muscles that should be engaged are engaged.
2. Increase the difficulty.
“Once you have the basics down pat, you can build the difficulty with increased reps or slow the tempo or even increase your range of movement,” says Simmonds. This approach is known as the progressive overload principle and is essential for continuously challenging yourself, so you can keep making gains.
3. Work with a professional trainer.
If the basics are new to you — or you’re looking to graduate to more advanced movements — Simmonds suggests working with a fitness professional. “It can be helpful to have someone with experience check your form and give you instructions,” she says.
4. Take classes.
Did you know that there are a wide variety of online and in-person calisthenics classes? “These are a lot of fun and allow you to have someone guide you through the levels of calisthenics and ensure you are moving correctly,” Simmonds says.
Looking for a place to start? The School of Calisthenics, Mad Muscles, Bar Brothers, and Online Calisthenics are all good online options for people of all abilities. You can also find calisthenics programs in more general workout apps like Centr or Sweat.
Image Sources: Photo Illustration: Aly Lim and POPSUGAR Photography / Chaunté Vaughn