Watching a calisthenics expert work the bars is akin to experiencing a gritty Cirque du Soleil performance, or a street-style ballet, except with sideways baseball caps and loose muscle shirts.
A demonstration was provided recently by coaches and clients of the Gravity Calisthenics Gym – a bright, open space tucked in behind garages in Dubai's Al Quoz neighbourhood. It was part of an effort to promote the increasingly popular sport by Gravity and the World Calisthenics Organisation (WCO), which hosted the city's fourth international Battle of the Bars – and the sport's 26th – at La Mer in Jumeirah last weekend.
Sixteen athletes competed for cash prizes in three-minute, elimination-style battles. Two-time champion Eryc Ortiz, a 23-year-old from Columbia, who is also a coach at Gravity, defended his previous title to become the overall winner.
But don’t think you have to be able to float in the air balancing on one arm on parallel bars like Ortiz, or do a 360, or any of the other awe-inspiring tricks that are part of these street workouts, to be accepted into the fold.
An introductory workshop at the gym on Friday aims to teach the all-important basics, as well as how to train the body overall. A level two workshop will be offered on Saturday for those who want to move ahead.
Gravity is more of a lifestyle than a gym – a space where clients spend hours, attending classes and socialising – even eating lunch. After all, the calisthenics community is one of the most supportive in the world, says Brendan Cosso, WCO's California-based co-founder and vice president. "You show up, you're greeted with open arms," he says. "That is one of the most meaningful things about this sport."
Calisthenics refers to work-outs that focus on using basic body movements and body weight. It is derived from the Greek word kalos, meaning perfect or good, and sthenos, which means strength.
At Gravity, there is adult climber-style gear to hang off and pull up on, as well as parallel bars. There is a net and some blocks on the wall to climb between the first and second floors. There are a lot of squats and planks and dips, as well as a peg board – for the very advanced. However, there are no weights or weight machines, and that is because calisthenics is not really about the equipment at all.
"This movement is really about becoming self-aware, about using your body rather than using a machine," explains Kenneth Gallarzo, the co-founder and vice president of WCO, along with Cosso.
Although there are move-ments in calisthenics that are similar to CrossFit, and other CrossFit-style workouts, Gravity's co-owner, Yousuf Al Gurg, points out one major difference. "In CrossFit, you are trying to get a maximum of that movement in a period of time," Al Gurg explains. "In calisthenics, we have the same movement but, we try to do it in the best way possible – it's focusing a lot more on the quality than the number."
And because so much attention is placed on form, the propensity for injuries is lessened, says Cosso. "Take the lifting component out of CrossFit, and you have calisthenics, but calisthenics in a truer sense is really doing things properly," he tells me.
Jennifer Chalouhi, a 43-year-old personal trainer who lives in Dubai and is a mother of three, was very impressed by the attention to form – and the time spent on warming up the body – when she first tried calisthenics four years ago. "I remember it clearly, they showed us how to warm up the wrist before you even get into a handstand," she says.
One of the moves is borrowed from yoga's crow pose, which involves balancing on the hands out of a squat, with knees perched on the elbows. "They opened up every joint in the body before we even did it," Chalouhi marvels. "Slow and controlled, anybody can do it."
It took her a year to master one of the more impressive moves, the flag, which involves holding onto a pole, body and legs perpendicular to the ground. Her kids, ages 10, 13 and 16, all do calisthenics. She also loves how versatile and transferable it is. “You can do it anywhere around the world, you don’t need the bars,” she says. “You can do a handstand against the wall, you can do dips on a chair. You can do a squat. You can do it anywhere, wherever you are.”
Because it is so basic, calisthenics works for all ages – Cosso says people do it right into their 90s – and it is also suitable for those with disabilities. Ortiz got into calisthenics in his home country of Columbia, to put on weight after he was ravaged by a battle with Hepatitis B.
"I started doing fitness, like calisthenics moves, the base of the base moves, pull-ups, push-ups and dips," he says. "That's the necessary conditioning to build muscles. After one year, I had good progress in strength," he says.
It was through social media that Ortiz first discovered all the other aspects of calisthenics: balance, agility, creativity, technique – and began working on some of the tricks he can do now. He started watching the videos, and training 10 hours per week. Six months later, after moving to France with his family, he entered his first competition, and won. "That was the start for me," he says.
Cosso and Gallarzo started WCO six years ago in the United States, when they saw that the sport was taking off internationally. They modelled their organisation on the Ultimate Fighting Championship and Mixed Martial Arts, adding weight classes to even up the score. Along the way, they've partnered with Gravity's owners, Al Gurg and Saleh Al Braik, who are now also investors in WCO.
"All athletes get paid, whether they win or lose, that's our future plans for the company," Cosso explains. "[We aim] to make this not only a sustain-able sport, but also one where people can choose to have a career, plus coaching to bring up other people."
For an all-levels introduction to calisthenics in Dubai, Gravity Calisthenics Gym, Al Quoz is hosting a StreetSport Level 1 workshop on Friday, November 24 from 9am to 5pm. Level 2 continues on Saturday, November 25,from 9am to 5pm. Each workshop is Dh1,000 separately or Dh1,700 for both. For more information, call
04 321 6006. In Abu Dhabi, MProve Fitness Centre (behind Princess Auto) is offering free calisthenics classes at 4pm and 5pm on Mondays at Manarat Al Saadiyat with coach Ahmed Amr. No prior registration necessary. For more information call 02 555 1146