Some of you coming to my website might be completely new to this, perhaps you’ve seen some cool videos on YouTube, and now you are curious. You are at the right place!
Calisthenics, sometimes referred to as Street Workout, is a way of training using one’s bodyweight as resistance, as opposed to using external weights and resistance machines, for example in bodybuilding. It is the oldest training method, predating all of today’s popular workout styles by thousands of years, but more on its history in a later blog post.
Unfortunately, as the use of dumbbells, loaded barbells, bulky machines, and later kettlebells took off, Calisthenics slowly disappeared out of mainstream gyms in the 20th century. What’s left are some circuit classes using the absolutely easiest bodyweight exercises and bastardized versions of some of the greatest exercises one can do. And gymnastics. That’s the only discipline reminding people that one can perform amazing feats of strength solely by training with one’s bodyweight. But for the vast majority of the population, it remains too inaccessible and it’s a lot more rigid than the old school calisthenics we are discussing here.
This way of using calisthenics in modern-day gyms is merely scratching the surface. The true potential of this truly ancient practice is far greater than most realize. Despite fitness moving towards big gyms and the use of heavy and expensive equipment, there were places where the original hardcore way of training calisthenics survived.
Prisons. Now, to make one thing clear, I never did time. But the legendary and elusive author of the book series Convict Conditioning, coach Paul Wade, did. That’s the book that got me into Calisthenics at a time where I was still mainly into martial arts but found myself without access to a gym. In jails like San Quentin the inmates didn’t have the luxury of using all this fancy modern equipment and getting seriously strong was a matter of survival, not impressing women.
Many of these prisoners knew a thing or two about strength training, and some of them even trained directly with the famous late 19th and early 20th century strongmen, which actually utilized bodyweight training quite a lot. And that’s where Progressive Calisthenics and the backbone of this system, the Big Six, survived, and later thanks to the aforementioned publications, YouTube and some very talented athletes seeped through into the mainstream.
To dispel a few myths straight away, yes, you can get insanely strong and build an impressive physique just by doing Calisthenics. There’s plenty of athletes to prove this point – from old-school strongmen to modern-day fitness influencers on social media. And by impressive physique I mean a “Greek god” or natural bodybuilder type of physique, rather than a Mr. Universe bubble gut type physique of someone taking a lot of, ahem, “supplements”.
Human muscles don’t know the difference between you lifting a barbell or just lifting yourself up. Resistance is resistance. And when it comes to the muscle fibers themselves, they only know two things: on, off. That’s it. Now the question is, can you get enough resistance for serious strength and hypertrophy gains without external weights? Well, depends.
If you use the modern “new school” calisthenics exercises, maybe when you are a beginner. You’ll get a bit stronger and some extra definition at the beginning. These exercises have their place and benefits, but if we’re talking pushing one’s limits to the extreme, getting insanely strong, mastering some crazy feats of strength, and putting on a few pounds of lean muscle, then no. How does it work then?
The answer lies in exploiting the right kind of leverage in the right progression. The Big Six consists of only 6 exercises (or I should say movement patterns), and each has ten different levels. Every level is slightly more difficult than the previous one. You build strength using one level and once can perform a decent amount of reps, you start practicing the next progression. Think of the Kneeling Push Up and how much harder a Full Push Up is. The difference is in leverage. And trust me, once you master the last ten progressions (and I’m saying once instead of if, because anyone can achieve it! You’re f***ing awesome!), you’ll be brutally strong! And you’ll have at least two world records under your belt
When it comes to building muscle, time under tension, training till failure, using drop sets, supersets, rest-pause method… all that can be applied to calisthenics. Endurance? No problem. You can chose some easier variations and put them into HIIT circuit, or do hundreds of reps David Goggins-style.
We will get into the pros and cons of Progressive Calisthenics, as well as history, in another post, before this one gets too long. Small spoiler – there’s a lot of benefits…