Calisthenics

Date: 2006-May-31
Author: Mike Orr <sluggoster@gmail.com>

Calisthenics have been forgotten by most people, but millions of soldiers, ex-soldiers, and wrestlers continue to swear by them. They won't add inches to your pecs but they'll improve strength, aerobic capacity, and coordination simultaneously. Guys who do a lot of calisthenics are not huge but they're solid, hard, and lean. Calisthenics also give you energy that lasts throughout the day.

Calisthenics are bodyweight exercises. Most daily tasks do not require humongous strength: they require holding a moderate amount of weight for a period of time. Try holding your arms straight out or in a boxer's stance (fists protecting the face) for three minutes. Most people can't do it for even two. Yet think how useful this ability is for painting the ceiling, constructing walls, hanging pictures, reaching into cupboards, doing "hands up" when the police arrest you, or any other task that requires reaching up for long periods of time. This illustrates another point: your own bodyweight gets in the way. Calisthenics is about taming that weight: becoming strong enough that it doesn't bother you. This strength can be applied to other things like refrigerators, sofas, and wrestling opponents. A sofa is about the weight of a person, so if you practice carrying yourself you'll be ready for the sofa.

Some calisthenics use weights. Not the 7-rep "strength" level or the 20-rep "endurance" level, but much lighter than that, just enough to add a bit more "bodyweight". Calisthenics with weights remain an aerobic activity, while weightlifting is anaerobic. Weightlifting is covered on the weights page.

Stew's supersets

These workouts will remind you of all those bad boot-camp "B" movies, but so what. Stew Smith, an ex-Navy SEAL who writes a training column at military.com, came up with these workouts to help recruits prepare for boot camp and their PFT tests. They're similar to a wrestler's typical warmup.

Upper-Body Workout Lower-Body Workout
  • 10 pushups
  • 10 situps
  • 10 wide pushups
  • 10 crunches
  • 10 narrow pushups
  • 10 left/right crunches
Repeat entire round 5-10 times,
ideally in 15 minutes
  • 20 squats
  • 20 crunches
  • 10 lunges (each side)
  • 10 crunches
  • 10 calf raises
  • 10 crunches
Repeat entire round 5 times

"Wide" and "narrow" refer to hand position. Regular pushups hit the chest and triceps equally. Wide pushups emphasize the chest. Narrow pushups emphasize the triceps.

I tried the upper-body workout for two months and it's easily best workout I've ever done. My heart rate stays up for two hours afterward and I have significantly more energy throughout the day. I stopped for a couple months to concentrate on lifting heavy, but I just started it again (2006-01-21). I was getting improvements every week. The regular pushups are easy since I'd been training with 50-pushup sets. The situps were hard sat first since I'd stopped doing them years ago. (Somebody told me a crunch does everything a situp does without the useless hip flexion -- now I don't believe them.) The first time I could only do two rounds. The second time I completed five rounds in thirty minutes. The second week I was ready to quit in the second round, the third was easier, and the fourth and fifth were easier still. The fourth week, I could do five rounds without thinking of quitting, and my time had gone down to 20 minutes. Now I'm working on 15 minutes.

The lower-body workout didn't quite work for me because the leg portions were too easy, so I modified it a bit. Instead of standing squats I do ball squats, with my back leaning against a big ball against the wall. You're angled with your head back, and you keep the weight on your heels I'd been doing sets of 100 but could never get past 20-25 without a mini rest, so this is the same. For lunges I carry a dumbbell in each hand, which also makes balancing more challenging. For calf raises I've gone to the weight machines and increased the number to 50. This provides a workout almost as challenging as the upper-body workout. There's still one problem in that I can do the entire upper-body workout in one space on the mat plus a nearby ab bench. The lower-body workout requires moving to different parts of the gym every couple minutes, so it's less convenient.

Heart rate is something you learn to regulate. It should be high enough to be challenging, but not so high you quit (or greatly degenerate in the remaining sets). I find short rests useful, not just with this but with any exercise. Sometimes I do one set, wait a few minutes, and then find the remaining sets much easier and more productive. It's like you show the muscles what they have to do, give them time to get ready, and you'll be pounding the sets out.

Some portions I find too easy, like the regular pushups. I double the reps to get my heart rate up closer to the other portions. Then when I get tired around the fourth set, I go back to the minimum. Or I do left/right U pushups (below) instead of the wide pushups until I get tired. Adding more sets is an alternative, but I like an evenness in the difficulty of the portions.

My complete calisthenic routine is the upper-body workout, dumbbell rolls (below), a few weight exercises (emphasizing things not covered above: pullups, biceps, and shoulders), and the elliptical bike. My lower-body routine is still evolving, although the weight portion emphasizes hamstrings (which aren't covered above). I've also started exploring finger-strengthing exercises for a better grip: currently with one of those squeezer things, working up to pushups on the fingers.

Pullups can be trained in standard bodybuilding manner (6-12 reps each with palms in, out, and sideways), on a bar or the weight-assisted machine, or in Stew's pyramid manner: 1 rep, then 2, then 3, and so on till you reach your max, then one less each time until you reach zero. My pullups suck so I'm currently doing a variation: 4-5-6-5-4 with 50 lb assistance. (But as of January 2006 I reached 7 reps unassisted.) a combined pyramid workout

Stew has this slogan, "Succeed by Failing". This is the same as the bodybuilding mantra, "Reps until failure". When full pushups get too hard, let your knees fall and do half-pushups till a second failure. I haven't had to do this, but I do something similar with left/right crunches. [Reference: "Upper-Body Workout" above]

Military workout

The routines above have built-in rests, compared to doing 150 pushups and situps in one set. Of course that's the goal. The purpose of these workouts is to prepare recruits for their PFT tests, which do require large numbers. For instance, the (US) Army Rangers require 49-80+ pushups in 2 minutes, 59-89+ situps in 2 minutes, 6-12+ pullups, etc. You might take those as minimum and midrange goals. For maximum, a "perfect" Marine score is 20 pullups, 80 situps in 2 minutes, 3-mile run in 18 minutes, 10-mile walk carrying 50lb in 2 hours, among other fun activities. Of course, those not in the military can choose whatever goal works for them. The benefit of situps and pushups is obvious to anyone who does them: it makes everything else you do in life easier. (Likewise for lunges.) Pullups are more of a status symbol: the benefit of 20 pullups is not so obvious unless you're a rock climber or a burgler. (Burglars have to hop fences and escape through windows. Such a hard job they have!)

References:

In SWAT Fitness, Bryzcki/Meyers point out that the demands of SWAT officers are similarly aerobic. A typical SWAT operation involves hoisting onself over a fence, helping your comrades over, running up stairs several floors, breaking through a door with a heavy battering ram, wrestling the perp to the ground, and rescuing your buddies if they get stuck -- all while maintaining a calm and authoritative demeanor. All these actions map directly to calisthenic and light-weight exercises. In contrast, a SWAT operation does not typically involve holding a 300-pound weight in the air for several seconds; there are ways around that such as getting a buddy to help, rolling it, lifting it a little bit, or leaving it in place until a winch arrives.

Dumbbell Rolls

This is my favorite wrestling drill. Take two light dumbbells (maybe 10-20 lb). Hold one hand high (nose level), the other low (stomach level). Elbows bent and close-in. Rotate your hands in a circle so the bottom arc is going out like an uppercut, the top arc toward you. Do 20 reps, rest if necessary, and reverse direction. Now the top part is going away from you like a jab. Keep the elbows close-in for maximum effect. This works the entire upper body: chest, arms, shoulder, back.

James's Warm-up

This was recommended by James, a guy heavily into combat sports, who taught hand-to-hand combat to the Army Special Forces. A guy you really don't want to mess with. It's a lower-body workout:

He says, "See, it's not that hard to do 500 squats." Remember to do hamstrings separately.

There's a variation of the jumpback called the sprawl. Stand, then kick your feed backwards and land on your palms. You're now in pushup. Jump the feet forward and stand up again. Avoid landing hard on your wrists, as it may cause wrist injury. Spread out your hands to diffuse the impact. It may help to let your fingertips lightly touch the ground first, then immediately drop your palms to absorb most of the impact, while letting the elbows/shoulders move like a spring. Try to push most of the weight backwards into your feet; this also minimizes impact on the wrists. In wrestling, you sprawl to prevent the opponent from taking you down. It's actually easier than this exercise because your hands are holding onto the opponent, so you don't go all the way down and the impact on your hands/wrists is avoided.

Pushup variations

There are many kinds of pushups, some of which we encountered above. Others include:

Wrestlers often emphasize the left/right U and rowing pushup. The left/right U strengthens you for the "defense" position in freestyle/collegiate wrestling, where the guy is above you trying to turn you over and you're not letting him.

You can also mix pushups with bodybuilding. Here's a way to get 250 pushups in:

Since pushups focus on the chest and triceps, we work on other areas in between. Another variation is to do a 4-style combo of pushups between sets of "something else":

You can also do pushups with a partner. One person holds his arms out; the other grabs his arms and does an upward pushup toward him. This is not as difficult as it sounds.

Ab variations

Sit on a mat with your knees up and your hands clasped just below the knees, making yourself into a tight ball. Roll backward onto your back and shoulders, then roll forward again. Repeat several times, sometimes angling back onto each shoulder. Never rock back all the way onto your head or neck; stop yourself with your hands if necessary. This works the abs while simultaneously relaxing the back.

Boxing workout

Boxing is perhaps the most aerobic-intensive activity there is, so the fitness workout is excellent. Boxing gyms have both fitness classes and sparring classes. Both are the same but sparring classes include direct confrontation in the ring. You typically start with jump rope, play catch with a medicine ball (heavy ball), shadow box the air, hold your hands up in position guarding your face for 1-2 minutes, hit the pad on your partner's hand, pound the heavy bag for a few minutes, hit the pads on a partner's hands, and pound the speed bag at the end. If there's a ring you stand inside the ring with the ropes at your side, then bow under the ropes to stand on the other side, then back, then forth. While holding your arms up you hold a 1-pound weight in each hand representing the gloves (which are 12-16 ounces). A timer beeps every two minutes, marking the begin/end of the sets. There are a myriad of variations. Kickboxing and muay thai boxing provide a greater variety of movement.

You can also do boxing alone on a heavy bag (5 minutes x 2), or shadow boxing. Pretend the bag is Saddam Hussein, your crackhead neighbors, the guy in the gym who's too good to talk to you, etc.

Other wrestling drills

Rolls (require a mat): Stand, fall backward onto one shoulder, continue rolling to stand. Or stand, aim one arm between the legs, fall forward onto that shoulder, continue rolling to stand, then do it again and again until you run out of mat. Always tuck your head so your head/neck never touch the ground. Falling on your head/neck can cause serious injury. Tucking your head also makes you round so you can roll like a ball; this is more efficient. You can also roll straight backward and forward, but you'll have to tuck even farther to protect your head. Rolling teaches your muscle memory how to fall correctly. If you watch soccer matches, the players don't just fall splat on the field. They roll and come up in the same motion, ready to respond.

Push-Push: stand facing a partner, shove each other around, look for takedown openings. Keep proper stance (knees bent, low center of gravity), move forward/backward/diagonal, keep balance. If you don't know the basic takedown positions, just try to grab the guy's leg(s) while keeping him from grabbing yours, and distract him with upper-body movements so he doesn't realize a leg attack is imminent.

Pummeling: this doesn't mean to thrash somebody to a pulp. In wrestling it means to stand facing a partner, each person in turn trying to get a hand under the other's shoulder while the other tries to prevent him. The arms end up going in circles in a kind of "swimming" motion. This will quickly show how much endurance you have in your arms. If it's easy, the partner isn't resisting enough, but that's something that takes practice too.

Stand with one foot forward and one back. Jump and reverse feet. Go back and forth.

Shoulder tens: Stand with very light dumbbells (5 pounds). Do 10 shoulder presses (overhead), 10 front raises, 10 side raises, 10 rear-delt raises (bending forward), 10 shrugs. Immediately do the same cycle for 9 reps, then 8, and so on down to 1. This is a pure endurance exercise. It's not really a calisthenic because it doesn't get your heart rate up, and it's not heavy enough for bodybuilding. But it does build endurance and it'll make your shoulders hurt, unless maybe you're a boxer.

Isometric

Isometric exercises are another thing that's forgotten. Try sitting against a wall as if you were a chair. You probably can't do it for more than a minute or two. Isometric excercises mean tightening the muscle without moving it. You can also hold your arms raised or push against a wall. It provides a good variety for the muscles and may improve strength.