Bodyweight calisthenics are exercises that use the practitioner’s own bodyweight as resistance.
Resistance within the context of strength training simply means stressing a muscle with a load or training it to move against a force. When using free weights, the load comes from the weight of a dumbbell or a barbell; in bodyweight calisthenics, the load is the practitioner’s own weight. Authentic oldschool bodyweight calisthenics develops real strength. They are of different variety from those you see in a typical Physical Education class.
Though there are similarities, bodyweight calisthenics is different from yoga and gymnastics. Yoga would not be yoga without pranayama or esoteric breathing techniques. Gymnastics on the other hand, is a regulated sport that gives primary importance to aesthetics of movement; a goal that is vastly different from that of bodyweight calisthenics’ whose chief aim is simply to build maximum raw power and muscles as well as promote joint mobility.
The method of using one’s bodyweight to develop strength is innate to both man and animals. Primates constantly develop their strength by swinging from branch to branch with one or two arms carrying their total bodyweight. Men press their bodies away from the ground to get up; their arms and legs carry their whole bodyweight when climbing a tree. Walking and running are by themselves bodyweight exercises.
The term calisthenics came from the Greek “kallos” which means beauty and “sthenos” that means strength. One of the earliest mentions of calisthenics can be found in the chronicles of Herodotus on the Battle of Thermopylae (480 BC).
According to the account, a spy of the god-king Xerxes saw the Spartan army of King Leonidas practicing naked calisthenics. The Greek geographer and traveller Pausanias also observed that the athletes of the original Olympic Games were also trained in calisthenics. The art and tradition of bodyweight calisthenics continued in Roman gladiator camps as noted by the historian Livy.
Needless to say, every culture and civilization in the world has some form of bodyweight calisthenics. Physical culture is part and parcel of Indian tradition for thousands of years. India was known for traditional physical training implements such as heavy Indian clubs, gadas (maces) and nals (stone weights). But a staple in a traditional Indian wrestlers’ training program were two bodyweight exercises: the Hindu pushup or dand and the Hindu squat or baithak. The asanas (postures) of yoga, a discipline initially practiced exclusively by the warrior class, resemble many of the bodyweight calisthenics we practice today. In the interview conducted by Jason C. Brown, Steve Maxwell, a fitness guru and the first person that was certified to teach Gracie Jiu-Jitsu in the USA said, “A lot of people don’t understand that everything started in India. I mean the yogi rishis that were meditating and coming up with this amazing knowledge; they predate the Egyptian culture by 1700 years – they predate Chinese culture by 1500 years. Everything came from India and then went up…It’s the heart of everything we know… Even the Gracies talked about how their jiu-jitsu system started in India.”
The Persian physical culture tradition of Zurkaneh (literally House of Strength), which boasts of thousands of years of history also uses systematic bodyweight calisthenics. In the same way, the Shaolin monks of China also employ bodyweight calisthenics extensively to develop strength, agility and balance.
Bodyweight calisthenics were still popular and esteemed as a respectable method of strength training during the nineteenth century and early part of twentieth century. The nineteenth century was known as the era of the strongmen when such legends as Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow walked the face of the earth.
The invention of plate-loading dumbbells and barbells, a product of the Industrial Revolution, marked the beginning of the decline of popularity of bodyweight calisthenics. The following is a quote from Oldtime strongman historian Bill Hinbern: “On Valentines Day in 1865, Dr. George Barker Winship of Boston, Massachusetts, was granted a patent on his Practical Graduating Dumb-bell. That’s right, the humble, adjustable plate-loading dumbbell traces its roots as far back as the Civil War. Up until that time, cast iron globular style dumbbells were only available in a fixed weight with no adjustment.”
From the second half of the twentieth century until today, weight training using barbells, dumbbells and machines almost totally replaced bodyweight calisthenics as the preferred method of strength training.
During this period of decline, the bodyweight training tradition was preserved inside American prisons, military camps as well as by strongmen, boxers, wrestlers and martial artists.
Today, there is a revived interest in bodyweight calisthenics; thanks to the publication of the following books: Combat Conditioning by Matt Furey, Dinosaur Bodyweight Training by Brooks Kubik, The Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline and Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade.
I recommend that serious trainees of bodyweight calisthenics read all these books.