Calisthenics is a retro term that evokes images of 1950s-era schoolchildren doing jumping jacks in gym class. Yet while the word isn't often used today, calisthenics are still around — and many of us are doing them.
Calisthenics are rhythmic exercises that are typically performed without apparatus. Think situps, pushups, squats and, yes, jumping jacks. To put it into more modern terms, calisthenics is resistance training using your own body weight. So instead of using dumbbells to do bicep curls and chest flies, you can just do some pushups.
While it may be obvious that calisthenics can improve your strength, they're also great at boosting flexibility, agility, balance and coordination. If done properly, they can also enhance aerobic conditioning. Pick the right combination of calisthenics, and you can work almost every muscle in your body. But these aren't the only benefits.
Calisthenics are free; you don't need a gym membership to do them. And you can perform the exercises anywhere, like hotel rooms, parks and grandma's house. A calisthenics routine is also practical, since the movements tend to mimic ones we make in real life. So if you become proficient at doing squats, for example, squatting down to pick up the laundry basket or your toddler will become easier.
"A lot of calisthenic exercises also target muscle groups that aid in reducing low-back pain," says Andrew Schupp, owner of Schupp Chiropractic and Sports Injuries. And that's a huge benefit, he says, as so many people struggle with lower-back issues.
Some people believe you can only go so far with calisthenics. That is, while you can build more muscle mass by lifting heavier weights, you can't do the same with calisthenics. But that's not fully accurate. While you can't build as much muscle in your legs using just your body weight, calisthenics always can be made more difficult to continue building muscle in other areas. Proficient at pushups? Then have someone push down on your back as you're doing them, or try to explode upward and clap in between each one.
Another benefit of calisthenics is that they tend to be kinder on your body. For while it's easy to stress your body in the gym — selecting weights that are too heavy, for example, or using a machine incorrectly — you tend to maintain better form performing calisthenics.
So which ones are the best? You'll want a selection that targets the main areas of your body — back, chest, shoulders, arms, legs and core — although most calisthenics simultaneously work several muscle groups. Our picks can be done as a group three times a week, or, if you're breaking your workout into upper and lower-body days, then do the exercises that correspond with the body part you're working. Be sure to concentrate on form, rather than how many reps you can do — and always keep your stomach pulled in while doing these exercises. Here are five great ones to get you started.
Planks strengthen your core muscles — everything between your chest and glutes, or butt muscles. They're also widely regarded as superior to situps and crunches, which are hard on your back and neck, and which only target a few abdominal muscles, not your entire core.
To perform a plank, face the floor and rise up onto your toes and your forearms. (Start from a position where you're kneeling.) Keep your elbows directly under your shoulders and your forearms on the ground. Hold this position for 60 seconds, making sure your butt is level and not sticking up into the air or sagging toward the floor. Be sure to pull your belly button toward your spine. If you can't do 60 seconds, aim for 30 or even 15 and work your way up. Do three or four rounds to start.
To make things more difficult, hold your plank for a longer period of time. Or reach out your right arm and left leg while in your plank. Hold for a few seconds, then set them down and extend your left arm and right leg. You can also do a high plank, which is when you are on your toes and your arms are extended, so your body is resting on your palms rather your forearms.
Pushups work muscles in your chest, back, shoulders and arms, as well as your core. To do them, get into the full plank position, with your weight on your hands and toes. Be sure to keep your back flat and your core tight. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart, with your elbows at a 45-degree angle. Bend your arms to lower your body toward the floor, then push back up.
If this is too difficult, you can do them on your knees instead of on your toes, keeping the bottoms of your feet pointing toward the ceiling. Or do pushups against a wall. To increase the intensity, try doing them using just one arm.
Start with one set of 10-15 reps and work up.
Squats mainly target the quadriceps, which is the large muscle group in the front of your thighs, and your glutes. To do them properly, stand up straight with your feet shoulder-width apart. Then slowly lower your body, pushing your butt back as if you're going to sit in a chair. Make sure your core is tight, your chest is up and your knees are centered over the tops of your feet.
Once your thighs are parallel to the floor, pause a second, then rise back up, driving through the heels. If you're having trouble getting the form right, you can use an actual chair with this exercise and let your butt hover just over it.
Do three sets of 10-15 reps.
To make squats more difficult, hold a weight against your chest or a dumbbell on each shoulder. Or try a single-leg squat, aka a pistol squat.
Lunges are great for your lower body, working your hamstrings, glutes, calves and quadriceps.
To do a lunge, stand up straight, then step forward with one foot until that leg is at a 90-degree angle, keeping your knee centered over your toes. Your back leg should be parallel to the floor. Return your forward leg to the starting position and repeat on the other side.
Up the intensity of this exercise by jumping into each lunge without pausing between repetitions. Wearing a weighted vest works, too. Or you can try reverse lunges where you step backward rather than forward.
Do three sets of 15 reps, per leg.
A large percentage of people struggle with lower-back pain. Bridges are great for improving back health, plus they strengthen your hip muscles, glutes and hamstrings.
Lie on your back with your feet flat on the ground, your knees bent and your arms at your side. Slowly push your butt up off the floor by contracting your glutes and hamstrings; stop when your back and thighs form a straight line. Hold three to five seconds, then lower your butt back to the floor. Increase the difficulty by performing one-legged bridges.
Do three sets of 10-15 reps.