The Art of Beautiful Strength
October 12, 2010 10:02 AM   Subscribe

The Bar-Barians. The Calisthenics Kingz (and their Kiwi First Lady). Hannibal & Barilla.

Calisthenics (a.k.a. bodyweight exercise) comes from the Greek kalos sthenos, "beautiful strength". It is a method of exercise, movement, and strength training that involves moving the human body rather than outside objects, and is one of the oldest strength-training methods known to humans, particularly favored by military trainers. According to Herodotus, King Leonidas and his 300 Spartans did calisthenics before facing the Persians at Thermopylae. And if our modern Navy had to be propelled by tiers of free citizens pulling the oars, we'd have a hard time finding enough people fit enough to fill the crews (although grandpa's generation probably would have fared better).

In fact, in Convict Conditioning, Paul "Coach" Wade teaches that progressive bodyweight exercises are superior to barbell-based exercises; barbells (while easy to add weight to) put the joints of the body into unnatural positions (notice the elbows flared out to the sides) under stress. Plate-loaded barbells also allow for muscular development faster than the joints, tendons, etc., can keep up with. These factors (and others) all but guarantee injuries for their users.
"Pain is not something we have to learn to live with as a result of our training. In fact, I'm a strong believer in the notion that if your training isn't gradually lessening the pain in your life, you're doing something wrong."
-Paul "Coach" Wade, Convict Conditioning
Progressive bodyweight exercise, however, allows for incredible strength and mobility while developing the body in a manner Mother Nature intended (no junk-shrinking steroids needed).

Modern humans still carry the ancient genetics that allowed our hunter-gatherer ancestors to survive and thrive in a world without plastic-wrapped food sold in supermarkets, automobiles to carry us around, or chairs, desks, or any of the other artifacts of the modern, sedentary lifestyle. Our ancestors had to move and be strong, agile, and smart in order to survive. All they had was the environment around them and bodies (and brains) evolved to grow strong in response to physical demands.) (Yes, they generally died younger than us moderns, but the environment they were trying to get dinner from was also actively trying to kill and eat them back. This was also why they needed great strength and mobility.)

In a similar vein is La Methode Naturelle, the forerunner of Parkour. Founder Georges Hébert's motto combined personal development with social altruism: Être fort pour être utile; "Be strong in order to be of use."

posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey (2 comments total) 41 users marked this as a favorite
Interesting post. America inherited Turnvereine which was the forerunner of National Socialist Calithenics which was probably influenced by the Sokol movement whose later followers went on to stage the SpartakiƔda this one from 1985 to get an idea of the size forward to about 7.30 mins
posted by adamvasco at 1:51 PM on October 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

Your "barbell-based exercises" article isn't about barbell-based exercises. It's about machines. Likewise, your "guarantee injuries for their users" article doesn't mention barbells or weight lifting. As for "unnatural positions", I don't see how this elbow position is "unnatural", whereas this one is "natural".

I'm all for bodyweight training, and even bodyweight-only training, but the idea that bodyweight exercises are universally superior to compound barbell lifts is bunk. For one thing, many sedentary and/or overweight beginners can't complete even the first exercises in Convict Conditioning with proper form, and won't be able to do so until they build a strength base -- most likely with an adjustable-resistance system like free weights. For another, it's difficult to steadily increase resistance with bodyweight exercises, which makes linear progression difficult. And it's easy to hurt yourself by overdoing bodyweight exercises, or by doing them with poor form, just as it's easy to hurt yourself that way with weights.

Besides, if this is about "developing the body in a manner Mother Nature intended" via "the environment around us", then it's worth noting that resistance training is an ancient tradition, and was probably quite obvious to early humans who had to lift and carry food, materials, and firewood to survive. The idea that our hunter-gatherer ancestors never thought to see who could lift the heaviest log is ridiculous. Hell, the first entry on your "ancestors" link is "cavemen lifted heavy things".

The environment around us includes heavy objects, and overall fitness includes the ability to lift heavy things safely. I agree with pretty much everything else you've said here, including and especially the idea that our physical existence is paramount, but I think you (and Wade) are way overstating the case against weight lifting.
posted by vorfeed at 2:01 PM on October 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

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