It is a continuous battle against gravity with one’s own body weight
A good trainer has the task of enabling his/her customers to achieve their goals, giving them what they want; but at the same time, giving them what they need. With the majority of customers that means more strength, better agility and stability of their limbs, and a strong torso.
All of these are athletic attributes which most customers should try to achieve with calisthenics long before reaching for the weights.
Until the start of the 20th century, calisthenics was the dominant form of power training – before the development of technology led to the advent of equipment for training purposes, which gradually pushed calisthenics to the side. It was suddenly claimed that people needed expensive equipment to stay fit and strengthen their body!
Today, however, calisthenics is becoming more popular and is the focus of increased interest. The goal of calisthenics was, and remains, the development of a level of strength and body control that is rarely seen today through gradual and targeted progressions.
In those days the athletes weren’t into repeating one unappealing exercises after another, over and over again. It was the quality, elegance, harmony, power and aesthetic that counted (kallos means beauty), and not the quantity.
It is precisely these attributes that continue to fascinate us today, whether it is gymnasts at the Olympics, athletes in the parks across the globe, or the acrobats at the Cirque du Soleil.
History, Film & TV
The term “calisthenics” comes from the Greek language and consists of the words ‘kallos’ (beauty) and ‘stenos’ (strength). It is the age-old art of bringing one’s fitness and physique to awe-inspiring heights with the weight of one’s own body in the battle against gravity.
According to legend, the Spartans strengthened their bodies and their fitness using calisthenics and put the fear of god into the Persians. The Spartans continue to be perceived as the toughest warriors of all times. Martial artist Bruce Lee, who was always known for his immense feats of strength (such as single-finger push-ups) also trained primarily with calisthenics.
A former trainer of the British Olympics team for gymnastics once said that all of his athletes were able to dead-lift twice their body weight at the first attempt, although they had only ever trained with their own body weight and had never lifted weights before.
Acrobats and gymnasts are a source of fascination. Their exercises are replete with elegance and body control. One reason why they are so impressive is our awareness for the hard work and patience which is required to achieve such a degree of body control.
Unfortunately, these days, this is a level of patience that many customers in fitness studios and in personal training – not to mention the trainers themselves – do not have. Customers want to see quick results and the trainers want to provide them; which means they may well consult their “bag of gimmicks” before it has been possible for the customer to develop a solid foundation.
The best trainers agree, however, that training with one’s own body weight should come before training with weights since it creates a solid foundation for protecting the body against injuries, and that it should always be an important part of power training.
We start in the middle – everything revolves around the strength of one’s torso. It is the foundation on which calisthenics is based. The torso includes everything from the neck down to the hips. The torso stabilises the body so that the arms and legs can create the strength which they would not otherwise have been able to do so.
For example: a canon can’t be fired in a canoe, it requires the stability of a battleship. Without the necessary core dynamic tension, genuine strength cannot be developed, and injuries are a matter of inevitability.
There are three groups of muscles which work together to provide the body with its greatest stability, their customers’ activation of which every trainer should check on a regular basis: the gluteus (bottom), the abdominal wall and the latissimus.
The world-famous back specialist, Mr. Stuart McGill, describes the simultaneous contraction of these muscles as being “super stiffness” or super dynamic tension. I always tell my customers that it is only when these three areas are active simultaneously that Bruce Banner can turn into ‘The Hulk’.
With these principles your customer’s path is smoothed, whether they want to progress from the plank to the “human flag”, from squats or push-ups to their single-sided versions, or from the bar to the hand rings. As a good trainer, it is simply up to you to take your customers there.
Customers want quick success – so many trainers dip into their bag of gimmicks and push their customers towards training equipment. The plank is the basis of all training exercises as it provides training in the required core stability.
For training in “super dynamic tension” the traditional plank (ideally on the hands) is the elementary tool. The exercise does not require any movement, which enables the customer to focus fully on a flawless technique and their personal control in order to transfer the dynamic tension that they have learned into more sophisticated exercises.
The plank extends through the full range of calisthenics exercises. Every exercise, whether it is push-ups, chin-ups, squats, hand-stands or dips requires this precise dynamic tension regardless of whether the body is in the horizontal or vertical position. According to the back specialist McGill, every customer should be able to hold this position as a good basis for two minutes.
Stability and strength increase with the torque of the joints. Without external rotation, with the hands or the feet on the ground, e.g. with push-ups, with squats or with chin-ups against the bar, advanced calisthenics exercises are completely impossible.
The trainer must ensure that the customer uses this rotation at all times to maintain the integrity of their joints and to draw on their full strength.
– Phil Heather
The writer is co-founder of the “Dominate Fitness Systems” online fitness & performance platform and specialist for training and performance optimisation. He has been providing training for personal trainers for several years and writes articles in English and German; a Perform Better expert; for further information, please visit: www.dominate-fit.com; www.perform-better.de.