What Everybody Ought To Know About Fitness & Commercial Gyms
Posted On April 14, 2020
Fitness has always been with us, ever since its recognition in ancient Rome and Greece. It has come and gone in various forms. Throughout history it has been used as a way to promote combat readiness and health. It also served the sport industry since it’s inception – think gladiators and the Olympics!
Fitness has held many definitions in the past. Perhaps the most comprehensive modern definition can be taken from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), where fitness is defined as: “the ability to carry out daily tasks with vigor and alertness, without undue fatigue, and with ample energy to enjoy leisure-time pursuits and respond to emergencies”.
This definition sums up fitness perfectly. The task for man has been to come up with the perfect solution for achieving this state of being. So far, such attempts have been less than fruitful. Perhaps the more we dwell and try to outdo our efforts in this pursuit, the further we get from this ideal.
Commercialised fitness – What’s wrong with Anytime Fitness?
Commercialised fitness is a relatively new phenomenon. Unlike most previous mass physical fitness activities, gyms were created to stimulate and exploit the desire of people to keep fit, have fun and improve themselves, rather than for purpose of public health. As such, many of the goals of gyms may not necessarily align with the definition of fitness. This disparity brings us away from our original noble pursuit.
Let’s explore why gyms are missing the mark. The more commercialised gyms such as Fitness First, YMCA, Anytime Fitness and F45 are money making machines. The objective is to cram as much as possible into the spatial limitations.
The result is typically a low ceiling claustrophobic floor is packed to the rafters with every kind of machine you could possibly want. The reality is, however, unless you’re a complete beginner or have a pre-existing condition that restricts your ability to exercise, you really have no business using these machines.
The reason for this is because many of these machines are hopelessly non-functional. The movements are isolated and do not represent natural movement patterns (our joints work collaboratively not separately!).
Moreover, by using the machines in fitness centres the likes Fitness First, you completely disregard your postural muscles. These are the muscles they give you ‘core strength’ and are used the stability and balance. Super important not to miss them! The only way to hit these muscles is to do functional training – bodyweight exercises, or at the very least, exercises using free weights.
Alternatives to the gym
There are many alternatives to the gym. Although there are many ways to get cardio in, strength training options are not so diverse. Very few sports have strength as a primary focus, and even fewer of these have versatile strength components. Some that might come to mind are rock climbing and gymnastics.
This is perhaps why the gym has exploded in popularity – it has a virtually no entry barrier, is strength focused and versatile enough for most people. Gyms are everywhere and this added convenience factor pushes a lot of people over the line.
There is however one discipline that’s quickly emerging around the world and blowing up in popularity. It takes the same convenience factor but multiplies it by 10 fold and it’s main focus, like the gym, is strength.
That discipline is called calisthenics. Calisthenics hails from Eastern Europe but has since made its way to practically every land mass, country and village the world over. Calisthenics is a body-weight regimen that became pervasive as a result of calisthenics parks – a type of outdoor fitness station.
What gives calisthenics an edge?
1. Functional strength
Unlike the typical gym, calisthenics is largely focused on functional strength. What is functional strength? Functional strength is the kind of strength you need for everyday tasks. Bicep curls are not functional strength because we never need to do them in real life! A squat on the other hand is extremely functional as we do this motion dozens of times a day without even thinking!
2. Calisthenics takes us back to our roots
Okay, so you may have noticed some overlap between calisthenics and the gym. After all, we do some bodyweight exercises at the gym. Correct, and see that’s when we start to separate the good apples from the bad. The gym started off with good intentions, but then something happened.
We started getting bodybuilders pumping themselves with juice, then Instagram came along and had all the ladies obsessing about thigh gaps. Indeed, much of the fitness industry has become commercialised showbusiness. We are constantly being flooded by influencers trying to sell us a new diet or a supplement magic bullet to increase our power many times over. Everyone is looking for a shortcut.
All of this has taken away from the noble purpose we started with. We came as Romans… and we can still leave as Romans. Fitness needs to be taken back to its roots and we need to purge the corrupted elements within it. This is what calisthenics is doing in many respects – keeping it simple, no fancy machines, no trendy fake influencers, just the body and the bar.
3. Greater convenience
How can calisthenics be more convenient than signing up for the local gym? Precisely because you don’t need a gym. Most cities have at least several good calisthenics parks to choose from, and even if you don’t have one close by, it’s not even necessary!
Calisthenics can literally be done anywhere, anytime. Equipment is not necessary but can be useful later on. Lucky for you, almost all the calisthenics gear you will ever need is light, compact and can be cheaply purchased!
4. Lasting appeal
Although many gym junkies claim they get a rush each and every time they go to the gym, for most people this appeal peters out. Like in life, goals are everything in the gym. If your goal is simply to smash out more reps with more weight, then this can get repetitive and for a lot of people they lose perspective and motivation.
It’s not even about discipline at this point, it’s the fact that diminishing results combined with repetitive gruelling training is not a great combination for building good habits.
Calisthenics solves this problem because practitioners have higher goals. The end goal in calisthenics is not to build your rep counts and flex on others, but to master movement itself.
Calisthenics has several tiers of progression. Your calisthenics journey really only begins once you get into these later stages of your training. This is not to say that there is a high entry barrier, just that you need to build a foundation before you start building the walls of your calisthenics castle. This gives you something to look forward to and changes the way you look at training.
How do I get started with training calisthenics?
Anyone can start training calisthenics. There are no prerequisites to speak of but having a strength training background will definitely save you a lot of catching up. However, even years of weightlifting can leave you with very little in the way of bodyweight strength. That’s because training affects your body in a very specific capacity due to neuromuscular adaptation.
Initially your training should be focused on building a strength foundation. There are several basic movement patterns that are your bread and butter in calisthenics. Below is an estimate of what you need to establish a sound foudnation in calisthenics. Each exercise is expressed in reps per set. Ideally you should be doing 2-3 sets of each exercise.
Just remember that it’s okay if you can’t even do 1 repetition, each exercise can be made easier! A full guide for the below workout can be found in the beginner calisthenics workout blog post.
Pike push ups
Making exercises easier:
1. Decreasing lever lengths
Lever lengths affect exercise difficulty as the amount of force generated by gravity on a longer lever is greater than a shorter one. Thus, trying to resist gravity in an elongated shape will be considerably more difficult. Bending the arms or legs can therefore make many exercises easier.
2. Changing the angle
Angles can make a lot of difference to an exercise. Think about push ups for example. The higher the placement of the hands, the easier the exercise is. This is due to more weight being on the legs and less on the upper body (which is generally weaker).
3. Using resistance bands
Resistance bands can support your body-weight and thus reduce the amount of force required to complete various exercises. A great example is the pull up. By attaching the resistance band to the bar and then hooking it under your feet, you can effectively reduce your body-weight. The thicker the band, the more assistance you will receive.
Advanced calisthenics training
Alright, so I’ve mastered some functional body-weight exercises. Is that all calisthenics has to offer? My friend, you haven’t even scraped the surface. Yes, it’s essential to build a foundation in basic body-weight movement patterns. Yes, this can take some time – months, maybe a year if you haven’t had prior strength training.
Calisthenics has a lot more to offer, and in fact you might just be overwhelmed when you first step foot into advanced calisthenics. Calisthenics branches off into 2 distinct paths at this point:
1. Statics, which is widely known as the path of strength
2. Dynamics, which is the path of power and momentum
Statics is all about control. Advanced calisthenics practitioners use static holds (isometric holds) to train strength. These are positional freezes where athletes suspend themselves against gravity. Statics rely on constant muscle tension to support the body in precarious positions. This contrasts with isotonic exercises where we do repetitions to achieve training outcomes.
Statics are much more difficult than traditional exercises, hence the requirement for a strength foundation. Common calisthenics static holds include the handstand, human flag, planchet and front lever.
Dynamics, or calisthenics freestyle, are all about self-expression. In many respects this is what elevates calisthenics to an artform. Dynamics are often flashy skills mostly performed on a high bar. They are combined into a sequence or calisthenics routine and usually flow one into the other with minimum disruption.
Calisthenics freestyle allows for creativity not just of combinations but of skills themselves. Although many of the original dynamic skills were adopted from gymnastics, calisthenics has since grown and innovated to the point where, although there may be some resemblance, even an untrained eye can tell the two apart.
Perhaps the most iconic calisthenics freestyle skill, is the 360 barspin – where an athlete lets go of the bar, spins 360 degrees and catches the bar again. The calisthenics freestyle repertoire is expanding at a phenomenal rate, with many athletes harbouring their own unique skills and skill variations.
The competitive scene
Calisthenics has exploded all over the world and so has the competitive scene! There are several types of calisthenics competitions, both organised alongside a calisthenics park style playground. The 2 main types of calisthenics competitions are endurance and freestyle.
Endurance competitions are tournaments where athletes are stacked against each other to see who can bust out the most reps in a given amount of time. Sometimes they are done on a point-based system. Several exercises are allowed, each exercise is given a certain amount of points scaled by difficulty. Athletes are generally given 1 minute to smash out as many exercises as possible. The points are subsequently added up and athletes are given a score.
Freestyle competitions incorporate both calisthenics freestyle and statics. These tournaments are usually organised into battles, with each battle consisting of 3 rounds capped at 1 minute each. Athletes are put up against 1 other opponent per battle.
Calisthenics freestyle tournaments are hugely impressive, exciting and really get the crowd going as athletes fly high over the bar and get creative with the particular bar set up at hand. They are judged on creativity, uniqueness, technique and overall crowd pleasing effect.
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