Outside magazine, March 1996
The gym I'm in today is different. It's sunny, it doesn't smell, and a breeze tousles the elms. There are no troglodytes hogging the machines. There are no machines.
I'm perched above the monkey bars at the playground around the corner from my home, doing dips at the behest of Mark De Lisle, a 32-year-old former Navy SEAL who has designed an exercise program that transcends all the health-club trappings: His no-equipment workout is based on body resistance alone. And according to De Lisle, it's also the fitness path of most resistance. "No matter what you've accomplished in the weight room," he says, "calisthenics will work muscles you've never worked before--and as hard as they can be worked."
A lofty claim to attach to some of the oldest training tricks in the book, but De Lisle, like most SEALs, is persuasive. He has already directed me to his recently self-published book, The Cutting Edge Total Body Workout ($19.95; 800-281-7325). In it, De Lisle prescribes a series of pull-ups, dips, push-ups, abdominal exercises, and leg lifts done in quick succession with very little rest between exercises. It still didn't look like any reason to let my gym membership lapse. I've been exercising diligently for most of a lifetime. How hard could calisthenics be?
That you can escape dependency on exercise equipment isn't news to some. Basic SEALs training consists of running, swimming, navigating obstacle courses, and calisthenics. Five-time Olympic gold-medal speed skater Eric Heiden, of the quintessentially impressive quads, trained almost exclusively with a circuit of push-ups, sit-ups, and bounding leaps that required four props other than a few square feet of turf and a box to jump over. Simple calisthenics, with a few challenging twists, can build significant muscular endurance, aerobic stamina, and strength, even in your own backyard or hotel room.
"You can get a terrific workout by just using your body weight the right way," says Harvey Newton, director of program development for the National Strength and Conditioning Association in Colorado Springs, Colorado. "Calisthenics are convenient, cheap, and certainly effective."
The basic principle of strength training is pretty simple. If you lift any kind of weight regularly, whether it's a barbell or your own body, three things happen to your muscles: They get bigger, they get stronger, and they'll last longer.
The basic argument against strength training sans equipment is that you won't build muscle as efficiently as in the weight room, where you can slowly work up to lifting more weight. Indeed, concedes Newton, "Unless you're careful, plateaus come quickly to a body-weight program." But, he adds, "That's why variety is so crucial. If you use your imagination, you can always make calisthenics more difficult and keep your fitness gains from leveling off."
How do you know when you've mastered your body weight and a plateau is imminent? "In calisthenics, when you're still progressing from, say, two pull-ups to four, you're building strength in the same way you would by slipping an extra weight onto a barbell," says W. Keith Prusaczyk, a research physiologist at the Naval Health Research Center in San Diego. "As soon as you can do more than ten to 12 repetitions of a particular exercise, you've stopped building muscular strength."
However, you're just beginning to build muscular endurance, a more versatile trait. "Muscle strength and power are sport-dependent. Some activities call for them, some don't," says Newton. "But every athlete needs muscular endurance, from climbers to mountain bikers to swimmers." The elite SEALs and Army Rangers that Prusaczyk and De Lisle have studied may not be fantastically strong, but, says Prusaczyk, they are well rounded. A SEAL might ski 60 miles under a 60-pound pack and then make an anaerobic burst up a 20-foot wall. Big biceps look formidable, but as De Lisle observes, "Most of the huge guys don't make it through training."
Along with variety, not easing off is the other trick to keeping your calisthenics challenging. "Normally people do ten pull-ups, and just as they're starting to feel tired, they drop off the bar and rest," says De Lisle. "Every time they peak, they stop, which is counterproductive."
De Lisle neatly quashes this escape valve by doing two things. First, he allows for little rest between exercises, which jolts the muscles and gives the heart and lungs a steady push, too. Second, he uses a pyramid structure for most calisthenics sets, building the number of repetitions (two pull-ups, then four, then six) and then decreasing them. This adds stress precisely when you want it least--and need it most. "The real growth usually comes during those difficult last few reps," says Prusaczyk.
In other words, pumping off 50 push-ups, though it may boost your ego, won't move your muscles much. Instead of doing 50 push-ups, says Newton, do 25 very slowly, taking five seconds to raise yourself and five seconds to get back down. Or change the angle of your effort: Put your feet up on a step or a chair to add to the load on your muscles. Do pull-ups on a thicker bar (add tape) to increase your grip and arm strength, or clench a dumbbell between your feet. Crunches are tougher when you fold your arms across your chest. Facing muscular lack of progress, change exercises completely, alter your form slightly (moving your hands closer together on a push-up transfers stress from chest to triceps), or just reverse the order of your routine.
Take It With You
How you use calisthenics depends on where your regular fitness program could benefit from some filler. De Lisle recommends mixing body-resistance work into your routine with running or swimming three days a week and stretching on the off days. Prusaczyk suggests a calisthenics program on your light training days, before you go out on an easy run or ride. When the U.S. National Cycling Team, which Newton counseled from 1982 to 1992, was traveling and racing, he had them do calisthenics to maintain the strength they'd gained in the weight room during the off-season. No longer will you be prisoner to a hotel equipped with nothing but a broken ice machine.
It's true that calisthenics will never match weight lifting for muscular strength and size gains, and even the most grueling circuit won't supplant the cardiovascular benefits of a long run. But these shortcomings suggest the real value of calisthenics: They're the duct tape of any fitness program, building muscular endurance where the weight room leaves off. Besides, adds Newton, you can't escape their versatility: "There's no excuse not to stick to a calisthenics program. You always have your body with you."
Ken McAlpine wrote about muscle shock in the August 1995 Bodywork column.