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  • Writer's pictureKevin Mullins

Total Fitness - Don't Forget Calisthenics

Calisthenics may have their start with General Jack Pershing, the originator of the "jumping jack". Originally used as a hazing technique while he was a senior cadet, "Black Jack" would pull on imaginary strings as the underclassman at West Point responded with bodily movements that we now know as a jumping jack. (Vandiver)

It began in the 1900's before World War 1, but didn't become a popular modality of exercise until another Jack, Jack LaLanne, used it on his television show; one which ran for 34 years.

The Godfather of Fitness

The jumping jack, like all many other calisthenics and bodyweight exercises, often originate in the military and find popularity when promoted through the media. High school gym classes, sports teams, and every grandmother uses calisthenics to train their body...

Why then, do we forget to utilize them even when we are chasing our more focused fitness goals?

Moves like jumping jacks, mountain climbers, and ice skater bounds can be an incredible add to training if done correctly. It doesn't matter what your training goal may be - there is a way that they can be penciled into an individual workout or a long term program.

You should do some.

It's funny though, I haven't always pushed their importance of calisthenics when talking about fitness. In fact, they'd rank at the bottom of my list of things I'd recommend if someone asked me "how to get in better shape".

Ironically, I teach a group exercise class, Superhuman, a couple of times a week at my club...

A class that relies heavily on calisthenics to supplement the push ups, dumbbell deadlifts, and shoulder presses. In fact, I'd argue I teach a large-scale strength class that uses bodyweight calisthenics to boost heart rates, increase the fun-factor, and appease everyone in the room.

Mountain climbers may follow a set of double kneel shoulder presses

Squat Jumps may follow Dumbbell Squats

Lunge Jacks may lead into lunge holds, which becomes lateral ice skaters

I clearly believe in them in a group setting, so why haven't I utilized them in a 1-1 setting more often?

Outside of a little cardio-finisher, or "cardio-blast" as my clients have come to know it --- I typically spend 1-1 on sessions developing strength, skill, and attacking stability/mobility issues. I like to build on the things that people won't be able to do on their own. (YET). I like to get the runners to deadlift, and the bench press bros to master kettlebell swings.

I like to attack glaring weaknesses, which typically involve posterior chains. So, yeah, there are lots of deadlifts, hip thrusts, swings, and hamstring curls.

Not so many jumping jacks though...

Yet, recently I've taken to adding some into my programs with clients, my own workouts, and even recommending an entire day of nothing but calisthenics.

Here is how I see them fitting in during any workout --


A superset of bodyweight calisthenics does wonders when paired with a controlled movement pattern for a specific body part. Doing a weighted exercise for repetitions followed immediately by something explosive and quick for time is a sure way to ramp up the heart rate, get sweaty, and feel the muscles burn. You'll also make use of multiple energy systems, which is beneficial for overall athleticism and metabolic wellness.

Try these 3 on for size -

DB Goblet squats (5-8 reps) superset with Squat Jumps (30 seconds) = Fajitas on your thighs

Barbell Flat Bench Press (10-12 reps) SS with Plank-Pushup (30 seconds) = Boulder Shoulders

Lateral Lunges (20 reps) SS with lateral ice skaters (30 seconds) = Hips don't Lie, Legs will Cry


During a normal training program that is emphasizing strength, size, or even fat loss it isn't uncommon for your muscles to be too sore to keep lifting. Your hips and legs won't let you run correctly, and you struggle to wash your own hair because your arms are fried.

You can sit on your tail and look forward to better days, or take twenty minutes and do a series of jumping jacks, squat jumps, push ups, shoulder taps, high knees, lateral bounds, etc. and get the blood moving.

Studies have shown that boosting bloodflow and getting oxygen to over-worked muscles does in fact speed up recovery time. That blood your moving around is carrying valuable nutrients and hormones that are going to help in regenerating the damaged muscle tissue. Capitalizing on this phenomenon can aid in recovering from soreness and avoiding a multiple day layover between workouts.

Take a day that you would normally move no-muscle and do your best to move all-muscles with twenty minutes of calisthenics.


I absolutely love 2 workouts a day for fat loss clients. Both workouts cannot be high intensity; however, as the body will quickly breakdown and lead to mental and physical fatigue. This occurance will undercut any positive efforts faster than you can say "cold cuts".

Yet, with calisthenics you can have a lower intensity metabolic kick-in-the-pants hours after your initial workout. The best part? You might not even have to leave your living room.

I have often recommended to my weight loss clients to do a low intensity walk on their home treadmill, or a light trip on their bike/elliptical at night after we trained that morning. I'm looking for them to boost their heart rate, metabolic rate, and oxygen usage...not crush another workout.

Basic bodyweight moves can do that too. A quick bout of 3 rounds of three or four calisthenics can stimulate a quality cardiovascular response. Do this a few times over the course of fifteen minutes and you have yourself a awesome little secondary burn.

Give it a try!


I am always looking for ways to help my clients achieve absolute fitness. For most it isn't about elite strength, elite body composition, or anything else so focused. Many just want to lose a few pounds, look a little hotter, and feel a bit tighter. While I'll always base my programs around the major movements such as deadlifts, squats, presses, and rows...I know that I can utilize simple calisthenics to create a tremendous effect too!

Find a way to work some into your program immediately!


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