Not too long ago, a friend of mine, Jon, posted some photos of his calisthenics training on Instagram and it caught my attention instantly -no pun intended. Jon used to be fairly small sized but now he’s all ripped, lean and strong. He posted details of the intense workout routine and it was no surprise how he got this muscular. In my mind, there was no way I can survive a challenging routine like that but I was interested to find out how I can, and how this training method might improve my performance in Muay Thai. After a month of training with Jon, self-experimentation and learning from YouTube videos, I am now a convert and addict.
What is Calisthenics?
Calisthenics are essentially bodyweight exercises and that implies working out in an absence of machineries or excessive equipment. They are nothing new. In fact, you are certainly familiar with bodyweight exercises such as pull-ups, dips, push-ups, burpees, leg raises, squats and the likes. They are simple and effective for training and improving balance, flexibility and strength. In the beginner’s stage, the exercises are performed in their basic forms. As you progress, the difficulty and creativity level increases with more challenging variations. In its more advanced stages, calisthenics becomes very entertaining to watch, being very similar to gymnastics. Bordering on being performance-like, calisthenics can be very similar to what you might see in Cirque du Soleil.
Calisthenics has grown immensely in popularity over the last few years. I see a growing number of shirtless, young and fit guys doing all sorts of funky workouts at the park where I go for my jogs. The trend has also caught on with a few of the regular older folks at the park. When you see a 60 year old cranking out more muscle-ups than you can, swinging around the bar like it’s the easiest thing to do, it is hard to not take notice and be motivated to get stronger and fitter too.
Benefits of Calisthenics for Muay Thai
Strengthening and conditioning is a key aspect of Muay Thai training. Muscular strength and endurance often times determine the victor in an evenly-matched fight. In times of need, pure strength can help muscle out of unfavorable situations. Additionally, a strong core and well-conditioned body helps to reduce injuries, promote healthy bones and improve posture. Here are some reasons why calisthenics is an ideal strengthening/conditioning method to add to your routine and how it can add value to your performance in Muay Thai:
The beauty of calisthenics is that it can be performed pretty much anywhere, without a need for an additional pricey gym membership on top of your Muay Thai gym. In terms of equipments, pull-up bars and parallel bars are two of the most commonly used aid and they can be found free-for-use in many parks. Alternatively, you can invest in a pull-up bar and/or parallel bars that can be easily installed at home. No need for multiple bulky weights or kettlebells. In fact, you are all you need for calisthenics. With a bewildering array of push-up variations and exercises to choose from, your body is now your own portable gym.
Traditional weights training are typically isolation exercises targeted at specific muscles (groups). In order to get a full body workout, you would have to go through multiple stations multiple times doing multiple sets. This also places a lot of stress on joints, especially the wrists and shoulders. This is where calisthenics outperforms weights training. Rather than place excessive load on a targeted muscle or muscle group, calisthenics are compound exercises that typically require the coordinated use of a full range of different muscle groups. This involves a strong focus on core strengthening which includes the abs, back, and glutes. As we know, core strength is critical for effective strikes, better clinching, and the capacity to withstand body blows. Calisthenics allows a complete body workout with each exercise and improves coordination and functionality of the muscle groups, minimizing strength imbalance from isolated muscle training.
I wrote about the importance of neck strength in clinching in our last article (“Neck Strengthening for Muay Thai”). In fact, your upper body strength is also crucial as your hands continuously slither in and out of the clinch, battling for a superior position. Without strength and proper conditioning, it is half a battle lost. Calisthenics workouts always consist of multiple reps and sets and as you push yourself to complete the whole routine, the exercise will not only increase your physical strength, but also fortify your mental strength and endurance.
The other reason calisthenics is so popular right now is something that has come to be know as the “calisthenics body”. A ripped, fat-free, muscular body with perfect posture and poise unlike the hulking bulk of the traditional gym bodybuilder. Although physical appearance is not the ultimate aim of calisthenics, it is a side effect that is much appreciated and admired. Muay Thai favors the speed and strength of a lean muscular body due to the higher muscle-to-body-fat ratio, translating to more powerful strikes. A ripped body is, of course, not possible without a corresponding diet but the right workout such as calisthenics will get you there faster.
You can certainly get ripped with many other types of workout but you want something that is able to sustain your interest long enough to see benefits. Your creativity is the only limit to what you can do with calisthenics. There are so many exercises you can do that it is impossible to get bored as you try to master them all. These exercises can be challenging but definitely achievable, which is why it is so appealing. Calisthenics is addictive.
Calisthenics Workout Tips
All that said, calisthenics can be very physically demanding. But hey, if it were easy, you probably don’t expect to see much gains. Here are some tips to help you stay safe and make the best of your calisthenics training:
It takes patience, persistence and plenty of practice before you can get to the stage where you can do the advanced stuff like the Human Flag or a perfect-form planche dip. The best calisthenics athletes make it look easy but they have been training at it for years. Increase your reps and sets little by little and you will be able to see improvements and gains gradually. Also remember to allow at least 1-2 day of rest in between training. Doing this gives ample time for your muscles to recover which reduces risk of fatigue-related injuries. Alternatively, you can do split training if you want to train everyday. Focus on different sets of muscle group on adjacent days so as to allow time for the muscles to recover.
The importance of stretching can never be overemphasized. It loosens the joints and increases blood flow to your muscle. Adequate and proper stretching prepares the muscles for physical activity, helps to lower risk of injuries and improves muscle recovery.
Quality vs Quantity
For maximum gains and benefit, it is better to perform 5 proper pull-ups than 20 half-assed attempts. It is best to do each rep with the full range of motion and strict form. This will really work the muscles fully and build up strength and endurance.
Overworking your body/muscles is counterproductive to your strengthening plan. Remember this: Muscles grow only when your body rests. Ensure that you have sufficient sleep since the body repairs itself during this period.
Not sure where to start? There are now tonnes of calisthenics materials on the web. Just google “calisthenics for beginners” and you will be loaded with everything you need to get started. I started with the Bar Brothers beginner’s workouts and they will never fail to leave me waking up sore the next morning. The other helpful resource is, of course, YouTube videos, with many informational and inspirational videos that show you how to perform each exercise correctly.
Strength training and conditioning is an important aspect of Muay Thai in order to maximize performance. If you are looking for a low-cost (or no-cost) strengthening/conditioning program with lesser health risk than traditional weights training, calisthenics is the ideal workout. Your bodyweight is the best “weights system” you need and you can practically carry it anywhere and everywhere.
No more excuses. Right here, right now, you can start with some push-ups, squats and leg lifts. With an additional pull-up bar and parallel bars, you are well on your way to becoming leaner and stronger than you have ever been. Why pay hundreds of dollars every month for gym membership when you can get comparable -or better- results working out for free at home or at a local park?