In order to rightly make a statement like this I have to take on ‘onus probandi’. The burden of proof.
In a civil legal trial it is the obligation of the plaintiff (a person who brings a case against another in a court of law) to prove the claims they have made against the other party.
If I am to prove that calisthenics is the greatest form of exercise, it is my responsibility to present the facts that convince you.
In law there are different levels of proof.
In civil cases the level of proof required is known as ‘preponderance of the evidence’, meaning that it is more likely than not, that the facts are as the plaintiff claims.
In a criminal case, the prosecution must ‘prove beyond reasonable doubt’ that the defendant is guilty. This is the highest level of proof because someone’s freedom is on the line.
Today you are on jury service. But because no one’s freedom is at stake and no form of fitness will be dismantled upon the verdict, we’ll consider this as a civil case.
Therefore these are your instructions from the Judge:
When I tell you that a party must prove something, I mean that the party must persuade you, by the evidence presented in court, that what he or she is trying to prove is more likely to be true than not true.
Ladies and gentlemen of the jury. I propose to you that calisthenics is the greatest form of physical exercise, and here is a summary of my evidence.
Humans are designed to move. It is essential for our survival and therefore being able to do so is a primary concern of the brain. However, many training approaches do not respect the complexity of the human movement system and offer incomplete methods for training it.
The movement options available to humans are extensive and as history has progressed we are called upon to utilise very few of them in order to survive. This could be confused with system efficiency, but a loss of these motor abilities begins a cascade of negative compensations that disrupts the kinetic chain (the connection of body segments that allow the transfer of forces and human movement), leading to pain, weakness and poor movement.
The movement system is not only muscle, bone, nerves and connective tissue. We must also consider the other senses such as the vestibular system. The semi-circuar canals in the ear serve to govern our perception of movement and tell us which way is up. This is significant because the quality of sensory information gathered provides messaging to the brain upon which movement decisions are made. Like anything else in the human body we must either use it, or lose it, so training should include challenge to this system as well. Going upside down against a wall or spinning on rings is a great place to start.
Calisthenics as a form of exercise requires you to connect the entire human movement system. You simply cannot perform a handstand, human flag, or even a high quality pull up unless you achieve this. In bodyweight training you must earn the right to progress because you are only as strong as the weakest link in your chain, and you can only hide from this for so long.
Learning to create multiple joint stability and transferring force throughout the chain is the essence of how the human movement system is designed to operate.
Bodyweight training exposes you to movement in all planes of motion and challenges you to explore a full range of joint angles. In the process you build stability and strength in positions where other modalities do not even venture. Furthermore, calisthenics is continually scalable, offering a progressive stimulus which is limitless and continues to provide the human body with the essential ingredients for controlled and efficient movement.
Workouts are adaptable and the principles of human movement that are so important for a high performing functional system still feature when the desired adaptation changes. Training programmes can be designed for strength, power, endurance or body composition.
The evidence shows that the human movement system is designed as an integrated system with incredible potential for movement. A complete training solution must recognise this and challenge it accordingly.
“The muscle bone concept presented in standard anatomical description gives a purely mechanical model of movement. It separates movement into discrete functions, failing to give a picture of the seamless integration seen in a living body. When one-part moves, the body as a whole responds.”
Robert Schleip: Fascia in sport and movement 2016
It’s the best holistic way to train your whole body and mind
In the year 2000, a study from Duke University showed that exercise was more effective at treating depression than sertraline (anti-depressant). Now in 2019, despite what the drug companies may lead us to believe, scientists have proven that exercise has significant positive effects on anxiety, stress, depression and attention deficit.
From a neuroscience perspective, it is known that much of the brains’ signalling and activity is regulated by a powerful group of neurotransmitters. Meet serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine.
Serotonin mediates brain activity and influences mood, anger, impulsivity and aggression. It is often prescribed in drug form to treat depression, anxiety and obsessive behaviour. Norepinephrine ramps up the signals influencing motivation, arousal, attention and perception. Dopamine is the movement neurotransmitter that also influences learning, attention and reward.
There is a lot of money to be made by packaging these neurotransmitters into pill form and prescribing them to improve mental health. What is uncomfortable for the pharmaceutical giants is that due to the complexity of the human brain, one drug or manufactured combination may not solve the problem because there is a fine balance and intricate interplay involved. We do however find a complete solution in exercise, and it happens to be free!
So far in my presentation of the case for calisthenics and its effect on mental wellbeing, I have done little more than strengthen the argument for exercise, and not specifically bodyweight training. That is true, until we consider dementia and Alzheimer’s disease and it is here that calisthenics stands apart.
A growing body of research shows exercise to be a potent stimulus to improve the brains’ infrastructure by developing and enhancing the neural wiring at a cellular level. A major player in this process is a group of proteins known as ‘factors’ and one in particular is especially potent; brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF).
When researchers put BDNF on a petri-dish containing neurons they promptly grow new branches. BDNF then is like a neural fertiliser and exercise generates plentiful quantities. Research studies have found it post-training in the hippocampus, an area of the brain associated with learning, memories and emotion.
A 2007 study found that rate of learning was improved by 20 percent following exercise compared to before. Interestingly this correlated directly with the levels of BDNF present in the brain. But just doing exercise will not make you smarter or initiate the development of new neural circuitry. There must be an appropriate stimulant.
In conditions such as dementia and Alzheimer’s we find dying and damaged brain cells. We know however that it is possible for neurons to grow, divide and propagate through a process known as neurogenesis. This is the foundation of neuroplasticity, the brains ability to change itself. Scientists have shown that exercise stimulates neurogenesis and BDNF production. In this perfect partnership we have the creation of new neurons and the fertilizer to help them proliferate.
But there is one condition. Exercise must include complex, novel tasks that require co-ordination and skill acquisition. The stimulus must prompt the need to learn and therefore it cannot be achieved through something we already have mastery of.
Due to the challenges of experimenting on the brains of humans, neuroscientist William Greenough set up an experiment which compared running rats with a group that was set tasks on balance beams and unstable objects. After 2 weeks the rats faced with complex motor skill challenges showed a 35% increase in BDNF compared to the control group that just ran. That is a big difference in brain fertilizer.
If something is to hold the title of the greatest form of exercise, it should create an environment in which our mental health can be trained and enhanced to the same extent as our physical body.
Calisthenics provides this through an exercise form based on progressive and continual opportunities to learn to move in new ways. The never-ending skill acquisition process will stimulate new neural circuitry to stave off degenerative mental illness in addition to stimulating aerobic training intensity. When we combine the additional benefits of play and the social culture found in calisthenics we have something very powerful.
If that wasn’t enough, the new neural circuity you develop through calisthenics will actually be recruited by the brain and used for thinking.
‘The pre-frontal cortex will co-opt the mental power of the physical skills and apply it to other situations.’
I put it to the jury that calisthenics might make you more intelligent.
“Exercise strengthens the cellular machinery of learning on three levels: first it optimises your mindset to improve alertness, attention and motivation; second it prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus.”
Dr John Ratey. Spark; How exercise will improve the performance of your brain
It’s majorly beneficial. After a workout I feel like I can tackle anything in life.
Fun + play, its allowed me to introduce lots of fun and excitement into each workout, not anxiety.
It has affected the way I think, I have less negative thoughts to go with my smaller waistline.
Play must be fun, otherwise it is not play. In its purest form, play has no rules, it involves creativity, movement and engages the body and mind. As a child you learnt to move and refine your skills through play. It helped you to understand where your body was in space (training the vestibular system as mentioned previously), you explored ways to move and what your limitations were.
Play was is in fact the original exercise right up until adults made it structured, uninteresting and defined it with social norms, etiquette and acceptable behaviours.
If exercise isn’t fun, you will find a reason to avoid it. Or you will force yourself to do it but your brain will not be engaged or interested and as such, it won’t get the stimulus it needs. You can see the evidence for yourself next time you’re in the gym. Just watch people on treadmills or bikes reading magazines or watching television. The brain dislikes boredom so when the exercise activity is of no interest, the only way to get through a training session is to occupy it in some other way.
Play is a big part of calisthenics. It offers the freedom to explore movement. To see what your human movement system can do. Exercise in this format does not revolve around reps and sets, you do it until you’re tired or ready to do something else. Play does not have structure.
Not only does play make you happy, it creates the conditions for the brain to acquire new skills. It also allows you to test your limitations and sometimes you will find yourself doing something you didn’t think you could. Play increases effort, motivation and adherence. When you are enjoying exercise you will move with more purpose and better quality
‘Calisthenics is play, and play is the freedom to have fun.’
‘Play seems to be one of the most advanced methods nature invented to allow the complex brain to create itself’
Dr Stuart Brown
To design your own programme progression you really need to understand the movement and be humble about your limitations. It’s fun learning and more rewarding when you move along a complex journey.
It gets you stronger physically and mentally, and it’s a lot of fun.
It’s fun! Massive sense of achievement even with small gains. You can learn to do things that you probably haven’t done since being in the playground at junior school! It’s fun – already said that…!
Forms of exercise that require a lot of equipment or specific venues mean that you can only participate when you have access to them. Anyone who has gone from a fully equipped gym to a standard hotel fitness centre will know this pain. Yes, it is possible to do something, but that may be a long way from the effective session you would have in your normal regime.
Calisthenics is about mastering your own bodyweight. You carry the required equipment around with you by default. When you have an exercise repertoire of movements that can be done anywhere you can always do a training session with the intensity required to get the desired adaptation. At times there will be the need for something to pull against to ensure you have a balanced programme, but a set of gymnastics rings are cheap, transportable and can be hung from any suitable tree, beam or bar.
This piece of evidence around accessibility must be considered inlight of the rest of the case presentation so far. All of the aforementioned benefits of calisthenics are available to you anytime, anywhere at extremely low cost.
Calisthenics when I travel! No more boring poses in front of sights. Flags, levers and handstands
I train at home and around the family and my 2 year old joins in because it is fun. As a dad it is awesome to share this with my girl.
I like the flexibility – can be done alone, with company, at home, in a park, in a hotel room
You are going to have the same human body until the day you die. Whilst most people live in the blissful ignorance that this day is a long way off, your body is slowly deteriorating and there will come a period of time when you are less able than you are now. If you want to live a full life, you must ensure you maintain your ability to move for as long as possible.
Movement is life. When you lose the ability to move, you lose your life.
Exercise and nutrition are the most potent weapons you have to combat the onset of movement degeneration. Therefore, the greatest form of exercise should represent the investment that will reap the largest return from your physical pension. Check out our blog on investing in your physical pension – click here.
What are the things that the human movement system prioritises above everything regardless of age? Big biceps or a big butt? I’m afraid not, in terms of its optimal performance the brain wants structural integrity and dynamic postural control in order to move well and without pain. It wants joint stability and neuromuscular control. It wants balance and range of movement. It wants strength for precision and strength to overcome external forces. It wants all of this to be linked through a connected chain.
Through calisthenics, you will find all these things come as a standard in the training package and the pursuit of seeking to master your own bodyweight. A human flag may look like a great trick, but view it through a different lens and you see a representation of what ones system can do. High level shoulder range of movement, stability and strength which is presented through a newly acquired movement pattern that now allows you to create and transfer forces through the chain and defy gravity!
In over a decade as a professional in the elite sport and fitness industry, I have seen a lot of people whose exercise preferences are slowly grinding down and breaking their bodies. They are not making wise investments in their physical pension. By contrast, I am yet to meet someone who hasn’t told me that calisthenics makes them feel better.
Teaching me to control and move my body in a way to future-proof longevity.
The compound movements make you more structurally stable and functionally better mover for other applications
Creating opportunities within our physical training to do things that we don’t believe we can, transcends a feat of physical strength. It could be so powerful that it influences all areas of your lifestyle, relationships, career, family, health and finances. This is about more than taking a photo for social media that will give you a short-term high when we see the likes roll in. No, this is about changing perspective, self belief and developing a positive state of mind. This is bigger than a handstand.
Tangible goals are everywhere in calisthenics and, providing you trust the process and commit the time and effort, you will redefine your impossible. Everything feels hard and out of reach when you start, but at some stage along the journey you will feel a glimmer of hope that something is happening. Motivation sky-rockets and soon the day comes when you do something for the first time.
As you celebrate that moment you think about what you might do next. But now the landscape has changed. Everything seems possible. Calisthenics has the power to change your whole outlook on life.
Calisthenics taught me I can achieve anything I want in life with hard work and consistency
The confidence and self belief in my own abilities where I doubted myself before. The little victories along the way have helped me to not only develop myself in terms of movement but mentally as well.
Community and real human connection might be the thing that we as a society are most deficient of in this day and age. Today, it is all too easy to find yourself isolated and lonely and the statistics on male suicide serve as an example to highlight this issue.
Community should therefore be a central and pivotal part of the greatest form of exercise. Humans need people around them. They need interaction, support, laughter, friendship and love.
In any healthy fitness culture you should find a community that is welcoming of all people regardless of ability or background. In calisthenics this exists in abundance. Everyone regardless of their stage along their individual journey knows the struggles that will be faced. They have knowledge to share and are forthcoming with it. They are also having fun and that is infectious!
What we have experienced at the School of Calisthenics with our incredible community is something very special.
Community of people with their unique goals but coming to together in mutual support.
The best things about calisthenics is the community, people like you guys with knowledge and that contagious good vibes
The greatest form of exercise must create the conditions for optimal physical and mental wellbeing, health and performance. And that doesn’t mean performance for a big one off event. I’m talking about performance in life.
Our happiness is founded on much more than what we do whilst we are physically training. What we choose to invest our time and energy into should impact all areas of our life and our enjoyment of it, both now and in the future.
There are many ways to exercise, but I put it to you that they are not all equal. Few can claim to enhance body, mind and soul like calisthenics does. Yes there will always be personal preference but this is not what is on trial today. To illustrate my point, spirulina might be one of the most nutrient dense foods in the world, but not everyone wants to eat it. That however does not change the fact that it is extremely good for you.
I have presented the benefits of calisthenics, the evidence as to why calisthenics is the greatest form of physical training. I ask you now to take a step back to reflect and see the bigger picture. Where else can you find all these benefits in an exercise form where everything is equally scalable as you get progress and improve. You never finish calisthenics, it will always be ready to give you more.
I rest my case.
You must now decide whether I have, given preponderance of the evidence, done enough to persuade you that what I have presented is more likely to be true than not true.
The decision is yours and I would love to know the result of the jury’s decision.
Let’s pick up the conversation on social or in the Virtual Classroom.