Calisthenics form a category of physical exercises closely related to, but not a part of, gymnastics. The name of the discipline is Greek in origin, a combination of the words kalos, 'beautiful' and sthénos, 'strength'.
In the United States, calisthenics is a type of exercise consisting of a variety of simple movements, usually performed without weights or other equipment, that are intended to increase body strength and flexibility using the weight of one's own body for resistance. Repeated motions of calisthenics done over an extended period of time builds muscle endurance. The history of calisthenics is linked to gymnastics. Disciples of Friedrich Ludwig Jahn brought their version of gymnastics to the United States, while Catherine Beecher and Dio Lewis set up physical education programs for women in the 19th Century. Organized systems of calisthenics in America took a back seat to competitive sports after the Battle of the Systems, when the states mandated physical education systems.
The primary calisthenic exercises are:
- Sit-ups/crunches: Start with your back on the floor, knees bent, bottoms of feet against the floor. Lift shoulders off the floor by tightening abdominal muscles bringing your chest closer to your knees. Lower back to the floor with a smooth movement. This trains your abdominal muscles.
- Push-ups: Start face down on floor, palms against floor under shoulders, toes curled up against floor. Push up with arms keeping a straight line from head through toes. Lower to within a few inches off floor (or have a partner put their closed fist on the floor under your chest and lower your chest to their fist each time) and repeat. Do not rest on the floor or your partners fist when you descend. You should keep your head tilted upward, your back straight. Do not rest on your shoulder blades, even when you feel fatigue. This trains your chest, shoulder, and tricep muscles.
- Pull-ups: Start by grabbing an overhead bar using a shoulder-width overhand (palms facing forward) grip. Keep your back straight throughout. Using your lat muscles, pull yourself up to chin level then slowly return to starting position in a slow controlled manner. Avoid using the arms to pull yourself up and do not kip (kip is not a real word) to gain leverage. This primarily trains your lats or upper back muscles, as well as the forearms. An underhand grip variation or chin-up trains both the back and biceps.
- Squats: Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Squat as far as possible bringing your arms forward parallel to the floor. Return to standing position. Repeat. Again, if you feel like this is not a challenge, there are other forms of squats. One method is lifting one leg off the floor in front of you, putting both arms in front of you for balance, and squatting. This is a one-legged squat or pistol. Squats train the quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, and gluteals.
- Calf-raises: Stand on a platform with an edge where you can let the heels hang (e.g. a curb). Use your heels to lift your body on the balls of your feet, then slowly return to starting position. This trains your upper calf muscles on your lower legs. A seated calf-raise trains the lower calf muscles.
- As warm-up before various sports
- As part of a work-out to burn food energy without expensive gym equipment