Callisthenics at full strength: catching up with UAE enthusiasts of the body-weight workout
The first time I came across the word callisthenics was on an exercise video I bought when I was 15. A Lycra-clad woman in her late 60s with an enviable figure was instructing with a natural grace and strength that made the workout look easy. She was the complete antithesis of the muscular man standing in front of me – Kenneth Gallarzo, vice president of the World Calisthenics Organization and trainer at Dubai’s Gravity Calisthenics Gym. Originally from California, Gallarzo’s gravity-defying moves are just one of the reasons why he has an Instagram following of nearly half a million (@progressive_calisthenics). He is also credited as one of the people to champion the global revival of callisthenics. Often dubbed the “street workout”, callisthenics relies on using your body and gravity to build fitness, rather than fancy gym equipment.
See more: 5 callisthenics moves to try
“Definitions change over time. Back in the 20s and 30s, gymnastics was the name given to the exercises men did, while callisthenics was the female equivalent,” says Gallarzo of the practice. “Before World War II, the body- weight movement was pretty dominant. Physical education in schools was all about teaching people how to move and use their bodies in a safe, controlled way.”
He pauses to show me a YouTube video of a 1960s physical education programme at La Sierra High School in California – just watching it is exhausting. Chiselled teenagers scale walls and perform dozens of push-ups and pull-ups while barely breaking a sweat. Endorsed by President John F Kennedy, this, Gallarzo tells me, was one of the last great physical education programmes in the United States.
“After that, PE classes switched from education to activity. It was more about playing sports rather than building the fundamental callisthenics techniques that essentially form the foundation for our fitness,” says Gallarzo. “Then the 70s and 80s saw the rise of bodybuilding and people wanting to pump weights to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger. Complicated gym machines became popular and people were able to use equipment to help get their bodies into positions – there was a real move away from keeping it simple.”
When Gallarzo started on callisthenics, he says he couldn’t hold a handstand. “I had no idea how to control my body, even though I was very strong and had a background in professional fitness. I used to see people working out on the streets or in the park and using their bodies in amazing ways – I was inspired.”
Gallarzo went on to revive the art of callisthenics by founding the World Calisthenics Organization in 2012 along with business partner Brendan Cosso. In 2013, they showcased the movement in Kuwait and the rest of the Middle East for the first time, before coming to the UAE, where it has boomed in popularity ever since.
Callisthenics trainer Ahmed Amr runs classes at Abu Dhabi’s MProve Fitness. “I started about three years ago and the results have been amazing. Callisthenics builds an amazing athletic body. It has become more popular in the UAE and worldwide because it is such a fun, freestyle way of working out. What I love most about it is that it’s never boring – there are always new moves, challenges and endless potential.”
I start to wonder if this practice is just for men when I see a woman in the corner of the gym gracefully doing pull-ups on a bar. She follows it up with a series of leg raises, bringing her feet off the floor right up to her wrists.
Marina Pavlenko, 28, from Ukraine, came to callisthenics from a yoga and CrossFit background just one and a half years ago. “Callisthenics has given me so much strength and control and I feel better in my body than I’ve ever done before. It might seem hard at first, but if you start with the basics, you will be amazed at how quickly you can progress,” says Pavlenko.
Tarryn Hoffman, global director of education at the World Calisthenics Organization, was also involved in organising the first Calisthenics Amateur Cup in the Middle East, a competition aimed at raising awareness about callisthenics as a form of fitness.
“Callisthenics is a very old sport but has recently turned into a huge craze in the mainstream fitness world,” says Hoffman. “This type of training is very addictive because it is about skill development rather than just increasing weight on a machine, which makes it super rewarding when you master a new move. The strength and flexibility gained is also very sustainable.”
But surely you need a certain level of fitness, flexibility or strength to begin with? And what about the more crazy moves such as the human flag, which involves holding on to a pole with your legs extended horizontally? It is enough to have you wondering about safety and whether the regimen is for everybody.
“It doesn’t matter what your level is – it is not like you have it or you don’t,” says Gallarzo. “The problem with society today is that they want instant gratification. Why are we in such a hurry? You’ve got to start slowly and build the foundations. With the right education and safe progressions, anyone can do it.”
Ahmed agrees. “Injuries mostly come from impatience – trying a move when you are still not strong or flexible enough to do it, or by skipping the warm up.
“Every move has its own progressions and steps that will condition you to perform that move with zero risk. That’s what makes callisthenics so accessible to everyone, regardless of age, fitness level or gender.”
Phil Elder, a strength and conditioning coach from the Up and Running Sports Medical Center in Dubai, says: “There is often a lot of fear around movement, but we need to move to live. If done in a correct way, callisthenics has huge, positive implications for the body.”
Elder emphasises the importance of good coaching and technique. “The problem arises from poor technique and improper positioning, which only adds more stress on the joints, so it is vital to work with an experienced coach,” he says. “You should progressively build up, not aim to become a winner in a week’s time. If it is done in a safe, efficient way, rotating the types of exercises and resting then, yes, callisthenics is definitely sustainable in the long run.”
Gallarzo advocates callisthenics for its functional movements. “While I might not be doing the human flag when I’m 80, I still want to be working out,” he says. “I know my practice will evolve over time and that it won’t always be to the same extent. But, after all, life requires us to squat, push and pull every day, so why wouldn’t we want to learn how to do these moves properly and safely? This is what is going to help us sustain healthy, strong and supple bodies for decades to come.”
Updated: March 22, 2016 04:00 AM