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Water cooler: A beginners guide to calisthenics

Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Tom Johnson, left, and Shamar Stephen do calisthenics during a June 2017 team drill.  (Associated Press)
Minnesota Vikings defensive tackles Tom Johnson, left, and Shamar Stephen do calisthenics during a June 2017 team drill. (Associated Press)

Calisthenics may be a word that brings up the torturous physical education classes of elementary school, but it’s actually an excellent form of exercise perfect for quarantine. Calisthenics is a form of exercise rooted in bodyweight exercises, meaning there’s no equipment required, especially at the beginner level. You would be surprised how incredibly hard a workout can be just using your body and that ever-present force that runs our world – gravity.

Calisthenics was popularized through the sport of gymnastics, shaping it as a form of exercise that values strength as much as it does gracefulness and mobility. The word itself comes from the ancient Greek words “kallos” which means beautiful or beauty and “sthenos” which means strength. That isn’t limited to physical strength but recognizes mental strength and determination as well.

Physical education in the United States helped make calisthenics widespread and it is now used anywhere from military fitness tests to the international trend of street workouts. It has taken many forms and some who perform calisthenics competitively even use it for freestyling on gymnastic bars. The basic roots and movements, however, remain largely the same.

If little to no equipment suits the way you like to exercise and you’re interested in learning how to increase your overall strength as well as mobility, here are the universal, basic moves to get started with.

Push-ups: Push-ups are thought of as the quintessential upper-body strength workout, but the longer you work on them the more you will begin to understand how full body they truly are. Push-ups work the arms, but also many of the core (back included) muscles, and strong, engaged legs help stabilize and perfect this move. Wherever you are with push-ups, remember that form comes first. If you can do 10 push-ups but only five of them maintain good form, do five and then come back to knee push-ups.

Knee push-ups are the best place to start. Stack the hands right below the shoulders, and from your knees lower yourself down and forward. Keep your elbows at your side and do not let them flare out. When coming back up, keep the body straight. Do not let the lower back sink below or rise above the hips. Once your knee push-ups become solid, progress to an assisted push-up. This is a push-up using a higher surface to push off rather than the ground. This can be a bar, a table, a crate or any stable surface. Keep progressing toward the traditional push-up as your strength and form improve.

Squats: With barbell workouts all the rage, squatting has become one of the most used movements in fitness. Weights increase intensity but if you’re not a gym rat quite yet, an air squat using bodyweight only is an excellent and effective place to start. Leaving off the weights also helps focus on form, which is just as important for building strength as intensity is.

For beginners, start out with a chair or box behind you. Stand about a foot in front of it and push your hips back as lower down. Tap the seat of the box or even take a quick seat to feel out where your lower body needs to be. Get used to that form, then adjust to a lower seat or box to increase the difficulty. Eventually you’ll know the form well and you can do air squats. To increase difficulty, explode out of the squat with a jump. After you can do 20-50 of those, you can move onto one leg squats called pistol squats. Do exactly the same progression but with one leg.

Lunges: A lunge is simple but effective. Step back with one step, lowering the knee of that leg until it touches the floor. Both of your legs should be at a 90-degree angle. Bring yourself back to standing using the front leg. Once you can do this 15 times on each side, start exploding out of the lunge with a hop to really feel the burn, but make sure you can maintain good form and balance.

Once you get a grasp on these four basic moves, YouTube has a ton of calisthenics workouts to offer.

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