The world’s oldest form of resistance training
A From the very first caveman to scale a tree or hang from a cliff face, to the mighty
armies of the Greco-Roman empires and the gymnasiums of modern American high
schools, calisthenics has endured and thrived because of its simplicity and utility. Unlike
strength training which involves weights, machines or resistance bands, calisthenics
uses only the body’s own weight for physical development.
B Calisthenics enters the historical record at around 480 B.C., with Herodotus’
account of the Battle of Thermopolylae. Herodotus reported that, prior to the battle, the
god-king Xerxes sent a scout party to spy on his Spartan enemies. The scouts informed
Xerxes that the Spartans, under the leadership of King Leonidas, were practicing some
kind of bizarre, synchronised movements akin to a tribal dance. Xerxes was greatly
amused. His own army was comprised of over 120,000 men, while the Spartans had just
300. Leonidas was informed that he must retreat or face annihilation. The Spartans did
not retreat, however, and in the ensuing battle they managed to hold Xerxes’ enormous
army at bay for some time until reinforcements arrived. It turns out their tribal dance was
not a superstitious ritual but a form of calisthenics by which they were building aweinspiring
physical strength and endurance.
C The Greeks took calisthenics seriously not only as a form of military discipline and
strength, but also as an artistic expression of movement and an aesthetically ideal
physique. Indeed, the term calisthenics itself is derived from the Greek words for beauty
and strength. We know from historical records and images from pottery, mosaics and
sculptures of the period that the ancient Olympians took calisthenics training seriously.
They were greatly admired – and still are, today – for their combination of athleticism
and physical beauty. You may have heard a friend whimsically sigh and mention that
someone ‘has the body of a Greek god’. This expression has travelled through centuries
and continents, and the source of this envy and admiration is the calisthenics method.
D Calisthenics experienced its second golden age in the 1800s. This century saw the
birth of gymnastics, an organised sport that uses a range of bars, rings, vaulting horses
and balancing beams to display physical prowess. This period is also when the
phenomena of strongmen developed. These were people of astounding physical
strength and development who forged nomadic careers by demonstrating outlandish
feats of strength to stunned populations. Most of these men trained using hand
balancing and horizontal bars, as modern weight machines had not yet been invented.
E In the 1950s, Angelo Siciliano – who went by the stage name Charles Atlas – was
crowned “The World’s Most Perfectly Developed Man”. Atlas’s own approach stemmed
from traditional calisthenics, and through a series of mail order comic books he taught
these methods to hundreds of thousands of children and young adults through the 1960s
and 1970s. But Atlas was the last of a dying breed. The tides were turning, fitness
methods were drifting away from calisthenics, and no widely-regarded proponent of the
method would ever succeed him.
F In the 1960s and 1970s calisthenics and the goal of functional strength combined
with physical beauty was replaced by an emphasis on huge muscles at any cost. This
became the sport of body building. Although body building’s pioneers were drawn from
the calisthenics tradition, the sole goal soon became an increase in muscle size. Body
building icons, people such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sergio Oliva, were called
mass monsters because of their imposing physiques. Physical development of this
nature was only attainable through the use of anabolic steroids, synthetic hormones
which boosted muscle development while harming overall health. These body builders
also relied on free weights and machines, which allowed them to target and bloat the
size of individual muscles rather than develop a naturally proportioned body.
Calisthenics, with its emphasis on physical beauty and a balance in proportions, had
little to offer the mass monsters.
G In this “bigger is better” climate, calisthenics was relegated to groups perceived to
be vulnerable, such as women, people recuperating from injuries and school students.
Although some of the strongest and most physically developed human beings ever to
have lived acquired their abilities through the use of sophisticated calisthenics, a great
deal of this knowledge was discarded and the method was reduced to nothing more than
an easily accessible and readily available activity. Those who mastered the rudimentary
skills of calisthenics could expect to graduate to weight training rather than advanced
H In recent years, however, fitness trends have been shifting back toward the use of
calisthenics. Bodybuilding approaches that promote excessive muscle development
frequently lead to joint pain, injuries, unbalanced physiques and weak cardiovascular
health. As a result, many of the newest and most popular gyms and programmes
emphasise calisthenics-based methods instead. Modern practices often combine
elements from a number of related traditions such as yoga, Pilates, kettle-ball training,
gymnastics and traditional Greco-Roman calisthenics. Many people are keen to recover
the original Greek vision of physical beauty and strength and harmony of the mind-body