Calisthenics: a fitness resurrection
How ancient Greece has reinvented your workout
Picture the perfect male body and it’s likely the stone-cast image of Hercules leaps to mind. The muscle-bound divine hero and son of Zeus was famous for his unparalleled strength and power. Now, in modern times, the bodyweight training methods his mortal contemporaries practised have swung acrobatically back into fashion — and it’s proving to be one of the most cost-effective ways to enjoy a full-body makeover.
Calisthenics — known to the ancient Greek Spartans of 480BC as kilos sthenos (‘beautiful strength’) — are exercises relying solely on bodyweight and gravity. Well-known examples include press-ups, pull-ups and chin-ups.
This sort of training has been practised around the globe for centuries but has suffered something of an image crisis in recent years, with uninspired PE teachers prescribing burpees and monotonous plank holds that rob the discipline of its creativity.
"Ten million-plus views later, ‘Hannibal For King’ is credited with singlehandedly reviving the art of calisthenics."
But in 2008 it was given a much-needed injection of street cred when a grainy four-minute video on YouTube blew up. The clip showed Hannibal Langham, from New York, doing crazy pull-ups, inverted dip holds and muscle-ups in monster sets, shirtless and rippling in Herculean muscle. Ten million-plus views later, ‘Hannibal For King’ is credited with singlehandedly reviving the art of calisthenics.
It’s hardly surprising it’s been rebranded as a ‘street workout’, given the sport has exploded in the urban playgrounds and jungle gyms of inner cities. Now commercial gym chains are muscling in: Fitness First and Virgin Active are replacing resistance machines with pull-up rigs and gymnastic rings to capitalise on the growth of bodyweight training — the number one exercise trend of 2016, according to the American College of Sports Medicine’s annual survey of 3,000 fitness professionals.
But despite its rapid growth, it can appear an intimidating world to break into if you’re not already blessed with an eye-popping eight-pack.
Calisthenics undoubtedly has the potential to help you rediscover your abs. Watch Hannibal in action and you’ll quickly realise the sport’s appeal — unless you’re especially wedded to your beer belly. But it can also help you rediscover exercise in its truest form.
“It’s a return to a more natural way of getting fit and recapturing your physical potential,” says David Jackson, co-founder of the School of Calisthenics, which runs regular workshops in Nottingham. It’s a way of sculpting your body into shape, rather than beating it into submission with weights.
“Our classes are like Pilates combined with gymnastics, with the aesthetic benefits of bodybuilding,” says Jackson, whose clients include professional rugby players and paralympic athletes alike.
Beginner sessions focus on improving shoulder mobility and correcting posture — the first steps on the long journey to completing your first muscle-up (think: dynamic pull-up to bring your chest over the bar before seamlessly pressing your arms straight into the top of a dip).
Once you’ve mastered the basics, you can start breaking down the limits of your physical ability. “Redefine your impossible,” is how Jackson describes it. Redefine exercise, with an emphasis on creativity over discipline. Instead of grinding your way to a new bench press PB, the aim is to come up with new pull-up combinations, static holds and party tricks that will wow any dinner guest.
"It’s a way of sculpting your body into shape, rather than beating it into submission with weights."
Can’t even fathom how to pull off stunts like these? “Focus on classic bodyweight moves first,” says Aslan Steel, one of the UK’s top street workout athletes, the founder of calisthenics crew Bar Mob and a senior figure in the World Calisthenics Organisation.
Start small with variations of press-ups, side planks and pull-ups. “Don’t just shoot for high numbers, focus on static holds, slow eccentric (lowering) phases of each move,” says Steel. Once they become easy you can progress to more ambitious moves like the dragon flag — immortalised by Bruce Lee and later Sly Stallone in Rocky IV’s training montage — and the ultimate show off: the human flag.
“The only essential piece of equipment you need is gravity, and it’s free,” says Jackson. So there’s no excuse: it’s time to channel your inner Spartan and reclaim the power of bodyweight training.
Published by National Geographic Traveller The Collection on 16th June 2016.