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Calisthenics: Get Stronger Without Lifting Weights

By Alan Williams, PT, OTR/L, ATC, CSCS

As a physical therapist, I spend my workdays helping people become stronger. Whether they’re recovering from an injury, surgery, or are simply learning to strength train for the first time, most people I work with are strength “beginners” – they have a low level of base strength that must be slowly and patiently built up. Once they reach their goals and finish their physical therapy, I instruct them in the importance of continuing their strength training so they don’t lose the new strength they worked so hard to build. At this point, many of them become concerned and ask, “Does this mean I have to go to a weight room?”

While weight rooms can be wonderful places to build muscle and improve fitness, the reality is they aren’t appropriate for everyone. Unless you know your way around, weight rooms can be intimidating places. It’s easy to get lost amid the strange-looking machinery and piles of dumbbells. Sometimes they’re hard on your self esteem – even if you try not to compare yourself to the big guy benching 250, most of us will still subconsciously feel like a weenie. And weight rooms are often male dominated locales, making it difficult for many women to feel comfortable there.

The simple answer is to just lift weights in the comfort and privacy of your home, but many people can’t afford to purchase their own weight sets. But that doesn’t mean you should give up on the benefits of making strength training part of your routine (for starters, it increases metabolism, decreases blood pressure, and boosts energy)! The solution can be found in an exercise form as old as the Spartan warriors of ancient Greece – calisthenics.

Yes, it turns out calisthenics are not just about men wearing leotards and handlebar mustaches while performing deep knee bends. Calisthenics are exercises performed with only the body’s own weight as resistance. It’s an exercise form that’s been used throughout the centuries as a convenient way to build strength, flexibility, and endurance.

Many calisthenics exercises are already familiar to most people (push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, etc.) The key to making calisthenics work is to perform them at a level that’s appropriate for you. You should feel challenged but not overwhelmed, and as your strength increases, you can increase the intensity of your workouts.

To begin, warm up with 1-5 minutes of jumping jacks (you should feel loose and comfortable but not out of breathe). Next, work each area of the body, performing the exercises in sets of 5-8 for beginners or 12-15 for the more advanced.

• For arms, do push-ups, pull-ups (if you have a bar available), and dips (Sit on a sturdy chair or other surface and cross your legs in front of you. Placing your hands on each side of the chair, slide your bottom forward and off the chair, using your arms to support your weight. Slowly lower down until your arms are at a 90 degree angle, then rise back up. Don’t sit between repetitions.)
• For legs, do calf raises, squats, and lunges.
• For your core, do sit-ups, planks, and bridges (while lying on the ground with legs bent at a 90 degree angle in front of you, raise your mid-section until it forms a straight line between your knees and head, with only your feet and shoulders on the floor, then lower to starting position).

Repeat the entire routine 2-3 times, 3-5 days a week.

Simple modifications can make these exercises appropriate for all levels of strength and fitness. Beginners can do push-ups on their knees and crunches rather than sit-ups. For more challenge, do one-armed push-ups or wall push-ups and use a large book or other weight held against the chest when doing sit-ups, squats, and lunges.

You don’t have to visit a weight room to get the benefits of strength training. With a regular home program of calisthenics, you’ll soon be enjoying a stronger, more confident you.

Don’t let pain stop you from getting in shape. Call 463-0022 today for your FREE Pain Assessment!