Calisthenics -- derived from the Greek words "kalos" and "sthenos," which mean "beautiful strength" -- are exercises that improve grace, flexibility, strength, balance and stability with your body weight as your resistance. Although calisthenic exercises are usually performed without equipment, some exercises use apparatuses to help you move, such as a wooden pole, parallel bars, gymnastics rings or Indian clubs. With so many different kinds of calisthenic exercises, the best total-body ones are those that suit your fitness level and goals.
Movement, Not Body Parts
Unlike most modern gym exercises, calisthenic exercises focus on movement, incorporating nearly every muscle in your body. They're best demonstrated in gymnastics, martial arts, yoga and dance, in which you coordinate and control your body through space and against gravity. Body positioning is very important to your movements, as being strong or limber in one exercise doesn't mean that you can perform equally well in another activity that uses the same muscle groups. For example, doing numerous situps and crunches to strengthen your abs won't improve their function for boxing or golf, because these exercises are done in a different body position than the sports. Fitness educator Paul Chek recommends that to improve certain muscle functions, you must train your body in the similar position as the sport demands.
Getting Old School
Beginners can start with calisthenics movements that move the body in one direction, such as pushups, squats, lunges, stepups and pullups. These exercises teach you to control and coordinate movement with your whole body in one direction while overcoming your own body weight's resistance. They're also progressive, meaning that you can adjust their difficulty. For example, you can use parallel bars or a squat bar on a squat rack to adjust the height of your pushups and pullups. Once you can perform the basic calisthenic exercises, progress to adding different directions to them, such as lunging and doing stepups in different directions -- to the side, diagonally in front of you or behind you. Depending on the exercise, adjust the challenge by changing how you position your hands, the distance between your feet or the speed with which you move.
You can take almost any basic calisthenic exercise and speed it up, allowing your muscles to contract quickly and forcefully in a reflexive manner. Since most sports and activities require you to perform bursts of powerful movements over a short period of time, such as tennis and martial arts, plyometrics can get you conditioned for the next competition with less fatigue and faster reflexes. Plyometric training involves repetitively moving your body as fast as you can. Sample exercises include squat jumps, power lunges, power pushups, kip-ups on a pullup bar and box jumps. Because of the high-intensity nature of plyometric training, this may not be suitable for those with cardiovascular, metabolic or pulmonary diseases or disorders. If you're new to plyometric training, work with a qualified exercise professional before training on your own.
Quiet the Mind
Total-body calisthenics don't always have to be sweaty and exhausting. If you have a very stressful day, the best calisthenic exercises slow down your thoughts, calm your mind and decrease your headaches with deep breathing, body awareness and meditation. Yoga and tai chi are common practices in which you move through space and hold certain positions for a period of time -- from a few seconds to a minute. Almost all exercises are performed with just your body weight, although sometimes a little bit of prop -- such as a yoga block or a sword -- can be useful to facilitate movements.
- Science Daily: Calisthenic Exercise
- IDEA Fitness Journal: Creative Total-Body Exercises
- ExRx.net: Calisthenics
- Supersets: Calisthenic Exercises
- NSCA’s Performance Training Journal: Introduction to Plyometrics
- Gray Cook Movement: Self-limiting Exercise: Jumping Rope
- American Council on Exercise: Training Movement, Not Isolated Muscles
- PPSSuccess.com: Paul Chek’s Points for More Effective Training
- Photo Credit Jonathan Wood/Getty Images Sport/Getty Images