Calisthenics is a time-honored training and conditioning component of many sports. Team sports such as American football often place a particular emphasis on calisthenics drills as a total team warm-up, although it is clear that these drills are carried out not so much for their physical benefits to the athletes, but due to their positive effect on team building and the cohesion gained from teammates performing the exercises in unison.

Calisthenics is a form of exercise where various stretching and resistance type forces are applied in a systematic fashion to all parts of the body. Calisthenics are usually performed without additional free weights or machines to add resistance to the exercise. Calisthenics are performed in sets or patterns, whereby joints, muscles, and particular limbs are isolated in an exercise. Calisthenics as a recognized discipline is an outgrowth from the gymnastics training movements in the United States in the latter part of the nineteenth century. This relationship continues today in Australia, where calisthenics is the term used to describe a sport that combines elements of dance, gymnastics, and ballet. Calisthenics also shares many similarities with pilates, the exercise system developed by Joseph Pilates in the early 1900s.

Popular calisthenics exercises include: sit-ups, crunches, squats, push-ups, jumping jacks, and bounce drills.

In doing sit-ups, on a floor or flat surface, the athlete lies face up and with the knees bent. The object of the exercise is to bend at the waist with the knees remaining flexed and the feet planted on the floor, bringing the head straight up, with the arms typically behind the head. This exercise can place significant stress on the vertebrae of the lumbar (lower) back, but it is excellent for the development of the abdominal and hip flexor muscles (responsible for the flexing of the hips and the rotation of the lower spine). Crunches isolate the abdominal muscles as the individual starts from the same position as with sit-ups, the shoulders are brought forward toward the pelvis, with the lumbar back flat and not twisted in any fashion. The training effect of this exercise is heightened if the athlete reverses the motion, bringing the pelvis toward the shoulders, or if the athlete twists alternating shoulders in the crunching motion.

The squatting exercise is aimed at the development of the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and gluteal (buttocks). Athletes extend their arms until they are parallel to the floor an then move to a squat position in one controlled movement, and then return to a standing position. This exercise can be made more difficult by holding weights in each hand.

Push-ups (also known in England and elsewhere as press-ups) are the simplest and one of the most effective upper body strength exercises. A push-up begins with the athlete, face down to the floor, hands palm down under the shoulders on the floor, and feet together, legs fully extended. The athlete pushes the body up with the arms, with the legs assisting in keeping the body stable. When the arms are fully extended, the athlete lowers to the starting position and repeats the push up. While push-ups tend to strengthen the shoulder joints and upper back muscles, they are particularly effective in the development of the triceps and the strengthening of the rotator cuff, the muscle sleeve that aids in keeping the shoulder stable. For persons who are out of condition, or who have weak arms, push ups can be performed in a modified fashion on the knees, instead of the toes and feet, for stability.

Jumping jacks require the athlete to jump from a set position with feet together, spreading the legs laterally on the jump, and then bounding back to the set position. As the bounding movement is being made, the athlete moves the arms from the sides of the body in an arc, touching hands over the head, and bringing the hands to the return position in coordination with the return of the feet to the set position. This exercise is used to generally warm up, increasing heart rate and respiration. And finally, bounce drills begin with a simple, rhythmic bouncing with the feet together, progressing to gentle lateral two-foot jumps, back and forth jumps, and progressing to jumping in a circle or a square pattern. Unlike the jumping associated with plyometric training, bounce drills are intended to stimulate heart and breathing rates, and to prepare the foot, ankle, Achilles tendon, calf muscles, and knee joints for more intense activity.

Performed properly, calisthenics have a number of positive benefits to the fitness, strength, and flexibility of athletes in virtually any discipline. Calisthenics are intended to be performed in a routine, with careful attention paid to form and the completion of each movement. An example is the maintaining of calisthenic stretches for 20- to 30-second intervals, and the importance of engaging all muscle groups in the exercises.

Calisthenics now fulfill a number of different athletic purposes. For the elite athlete, forms of calisthenics are used both for year-round stretching and fitness, as well as for pre-competition or pre-training warm-up routines. For a recreational athlete, a calisthenics program is a freestanding workout. Thirty minutes of active calisthenics is an excellent way to maintain fitness without resorting to the weight room or other equipment. For all levels of athletes, calisthenics are a useful cool down technique, to gently reduce cardiovascular stresses and to stretch overworked muscles.

SEE ALSO Pilates; Stretching and flexibility; Warm up/Cool down.