Calisthenics is a form of exercise designed to improve muscular strength, increase agility, and promote physical well-being. The term comes from two Greek words, kallos, which means “beauty,” and sthenos, which means “strength.” A very specific team form of calisthenics that emphasizes rhythmic gymnastics and ballet in addition to traditional exercises, called Australian calisthenics, is very popular in that country.
Elements of calisthenics exercise exist as far back as the sixth century BCE, when Shaolin monks in China were said to have developed a rigorous training program as an element in preparing themselves against attack by outsiders. One of the most frequently cited allusions to calisthenics in ancient times comes from a report by a Persian scout who observed Spartan military men performing calisthenics exercises in preparation for combat prior to the Battle of Thermopylae in 480 BCE. The Persians took the activity to be a form of dancing and, hence, judged their foes to be weaklings. Calisthenics exercises largely fell into oblivion with the rise of the Roman Empire and did not become widely popular again until the 19th century with the rise of the gymnasium movement in Germany. Calisthenics were introduced to the United States in 1848 with the arrival of three German proponents of the sport, Charles Beck, Charles Follen, and Franz Leiber, all of whom were fleeing political persecution in their native country. The exercise soon became widely popular and was incorporated into the formal training program at many secondary schools and colleges. The first formal training school for physical eduction, with a strong calisthenics component, was established as the Normal Institute for Physical Education, in Newton, Massachusetts, in 1861. Calisthenics continued to be a very popular form of exercise until the 1920s, when it was gradually replaced in formal educational institutions by an increasingly greater emphasis on team sports.
The characteristic feature of callisthenics exercises is that they can be performed individually or in groups with little or no special equipment. One can also select a specific exercise or set of exercise to achieve a particular objective, such as greater strength, agility, or grace. Some exercises that typically make up a calisthenics program are the following:
Many variations on all of these and other calisthenics exercises are available, depending in part on any equipment that may be available and the possible presence of someone who can assist in some of the positions required for an exercise. An excellent, wellillustrated (with video clips) description of calisthenics exercises that a person can do with little or no equipment is available online at http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/wotw2.htm .
Australian calisthenics is a more formalized and theatrical version of traditional calisthenics. It is performed by teams in competitions like other sports, such as gymnastics or synchronized swimming. The primary elements now included in Australian calisthenics are figure march, club swinging, free exercises, rod exercises, and aesthetics. Other activities sometimes included are folk song, action song, song and dance, rhythmic interpretation, and calisthenics revue, which combines the elements of calisthenics with dancing, singing, and elaborate costuming. Australian calisthenics competitions may involve teams from ages 7 and under (“Tinies”) to over 26 (“Masters”). The sport has traditionally been almost entirely an all-female activity, although it has begun to find some popularity among males in recent years.
Calisthenics has two general applications, one for athletes and one for the general public. Athletes benefit from carefully designed calisthenics programs because they can be used to improve strength and agility for very specific parts of the body. As an example, squat exercises increase the strength of quadriceps muscles, sit-ups and crunches strengthen the abdominals, and calf raises improve the calf muscles. Trainers in most sports have now designed specific calisthenic exercise programs to improve the training and conditioning of participants in their own sport.
Calisthenics are also an excellent way of improving the general fitness of the average person who is not particularly interested in becoming an expert in a specific sport. In addition to being an essential part of any weight loss or weight control program, calisthenics exercises are also generally believed to improve one's general cardiovascular health, immune system, and mental outlook on life.
See also Dance ; Exercise ; Gymnastics ; Weight loss .
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American Council on Exercise, 4851 Paramount Dr., San Diego, CA, 92123, (858) 576-6500, (888) 825-3636, Fax: (858) 576-6564, support@acefitness. org, http://www.fitness.gov .
Australian Calisthenic Federation, PO Box 58, Belair, 5052, South Australia, 61 08 94743256, eo@calisthenicsaus tralia.org, http://calisthenicsaustralia.org .
David E. Newton, AB, MA, EdD