What Is Calisthenics: Meaning and History

In this article, we will briefly explore the meaning of calisthenics and the history and development of bodyweight strength training. We will introduce the development stages and some of the pioneers of modern gymnastics.

Calisthenics is the ultimate bodyweight strength training

The definition of calisthenics depends on who you ask. In our view, calisthenics is a training method focused on building strength and muscle mass to safely perform advanced functional exercises such as muscle-up, front-lever, and planche while also improving your endurance, flexibility, and body coordination.

Calisthenics in a strict sense means “beauty in strength” as the word itself is derived from the Greek words “kallos” meaning “beauty” and “sthenos” meaning “strength“.

Calisthenics is based on natural movement as it trains the body to pull, push and hold in a way it was designed to. It helps not only to build muscle, burn fat, be flexible and increase strength but also to perform better in everyday life. Since you can do calisthenics without the use of equipment it’s the perfect way to build the physique you want at home.

The history of calisthenics

Calisthenics has a long and rich history spanning thousands of years – it is probably as old as humankind itself. People had to improve their agility to be faster than the predators and endurance to be able to carry their prey over long distances. Back then exercise was part of everyday life, a matter of life or death.

Military training and the Olympics

In Ancient Greece, they believed that physical fitness and mental clarity are equally important. A good citizen was virtuous in mind and body and taking care of both was a civic duty rather than a hobby.

Some experts attribute the birth of systematic training and sports competition to the first Olympic games which were held in 776 B.C.

“No man has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical training. It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.”


Even the word gym or gymnasium derives from the greek “gymnos” which means “naked”. Yes, back then there was no need for fancy clothes if somebody wanted to hit the gym. The truth of the matter is that only males were allowed to compete, which made things less awkward.

There is evidence that bodyweight training was regularly used by the armies of Alexander the Great and the Spartans at the Battle of Thermopylae as a form of military training to prepare soldiers and also athletes for competitions and battles. The Romans also applied this method of training to their military to develop their physical strength and agility. The practice was also used in Ancient China, where, along with dieting, it was recommended by Han Dynasty physicians as a way to maintain good health.

Spartan soldier

Sports in the 19th century

In the 19th century with the spread of “gymnasia” – the first teacher-training institutions such as the YMCA – calisthenics started to become popular among the general public. This was a time when people were becoming more aware of the importance of physical activity and exercise, and bodyweight strength training was seen as an effective and accessible way to improve overall health and fitness.

Gymnasium in the 1900s

The German school of calisthenics

In the early 19th century this was popularized by Germans Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Adolf Spiess through the promotion of gymnastics. The German system was characterized by freestyle movements and the use of heavy equipment such as horizontal bars and jumping horses in addition to light equipment like dumbbells and wands. Gymnastics started to spread in the US in 1820s mainly thanks to the German immigrants. This gradually gave rise to the Turner societies in the US. In addition to community service for the German-Americans they also offered gymnastics training. Turners also actively promoted the benefits of physical education and wanted it to be introduced in schools.

Another pioneer was Dioclesian Lewis who in 1860 refined the German system and invented his own way of gymnastics. He considered it too physically demanding for the masses and created a light gymnastics method suitable for men, women and children.

Swedish school of calisthenics

It was founded by a Swede called Per Henrik Ling in the 1810s in Stockholm. After he successfully restored his health through regular exercise he decided to devote part of his life to the promotion of physical education. Besides free calisthenics, he is also credited as the father of the Swedish massage. The types of equipment used in the Swedish system were lighter than the German ones, mostly dumbbells and chest weights.

They also say that Ling’s gymnastics system shaped the development of modern yoga as a form of exercise in the Western world.

Calisthenics for women

Women performing calisthenics in the 19th century

Calisthenics for women was particularly emphasized by Per Henrik Ling and in the United States, Catherine Beecher was its early proponent and wrote a book on the subject, “Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families,” in 1857.

Beecher wasn’t an advocate of the German gymnastics system as she considered it too physically demanding for the females of the era. In her eyes, calisthenics for women was a great tool to help develop beautiful and strong bodies while at the same time also contributing to the grace of movement and easy manners. For women of the time, however, it wasn’t socially acceptable to exercise and wear clothes that allowed freedom of movement.

Calisthenics workouts in the modern world

In the early 20th century, calisthenics was introduced into the school curriculum in the United States as a way to promote physical fitness among young people. This was part of a wider movement to improve the health and well-being of children and adolescents, and calisthenics was seen as an effective way to help young people develop strong and healthy bodies.

During this time, calisthenics also became popular among fitness enthusiasts and athletes who were looking for a challenging and effective way to build strength and improve overall fitness. Many people began to experiment with different calisthenics exercises and routines, and new techniques and methods were developed.

In the 1920s a form of social exercise started to get popular in Japan which later spread to other countries. It was called radio calisthenics or “rajio taiso” and its purpose was to promote individual well-being and health via broadcasted workouts often funded by the public.

Today, calisthenics is still used by the military and other organizations as a form of physical training, but it has also gained popularity among fitness enthusiasts as an effective and affordable way to build strength and improve overall fitness. Many people are attracted to calisthenics because it can be done almost anywhere, without the need for expensive gym equipment or special facilities. Calisthenics has also become increasingly popular among people who are looking for a more natural and holistic approach to fitness and health.

In recent years, calisthenics has gained recognition as a legitimate form of physical training and competition, with many organizations and events dedicated to promoting and showcasing the benefits of calisthenics. This has led to an increased interest in calisthenics among people of all ages and fitness levels, and the popularity of calisthenics is only expected to continue to grow in the coming years.

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