The Problem with CALISTHENICS - VAHVA Fitness

The Problem with CALISTHENICS

The 5 problems with modern calisthenics. Not so much about bodyweight training itself but how modern calisthenics is done and what is left undone.


he vast majority of our training is bodyweight training simply because it works the best for the purpose of versatilely strengthening the body.

However, bodyweight training is not the only way of training that we do and how we do bodyweight training is completely different compared to how it is generally done.

This article is mostly directed towards what is thought as "calisthenics" at the moment: urban gymnastics, bar workout, street workout and even "bodyweight movement".

Let's call these "modern calisthenics" for the purpose of this article. This is NOT how we do bodyweight training - this is how everyone else is doing it.

This modern calisthenics movement started over 10 years ago when Hannibal the king and many others started uploading different street workout videos to YouTube. Obviously it had been around for a longer time but only now it started to get big.

These videos quickly became a hit among young people because they had jacked dudes performing impressive stunts. Since then bar workout has become a massive global trend and there are even world championship competitions for the sport.

This calisthenics movement has done plenty of good because it inspired a new generation of people to workout (we were inspired as well). Many kids started to do pull ups instead of playing video games all day.

Nowadays the modern calisthenics movement is mostly a mix of gymnastic skills mixed with traditional calisthenics exercises such as pull ups and push ups. Later, pistol squats and different leg exercises were added to the mix as well. 

On the surface, the modern way of bodyweight training looks good but there are massive problems in the sport and that way of training. 

1. No Proper Methodology

wide underhand pull up

Modern calisthenics has some good exercises but most of them are badly done, a lot is left undone and the overall methodology is very damaging.

Who created the modern calisthenics? No one knows because no one did and this is one of the biggest problems. 

What happened is that kids and young adults around the world started doing bodyweight training in their backyards testing out different ways to learn calisthenics skills.

Eventually the best guys and gals started preaching of what you should do and what you shouldn't although no one had any real experience or knowledge regarding how to train properly in the long term.

As a result, the whole thing has evolved into one big mess where the ego drives everything. There is no proper underlying methodology behind anything they do - or there kind of is but it's badly thought-through.  

Methodology is about the methods and principles you use in your training - how you do what you do. In modern calisthenics bits and pieces have been connected with gum and the thing is barely holding itself together. 

The whole exercise selection is an arbitrarily chosen mixture of exercises and the vast majority of the methodology has been borrowed from the mainstream science (which no high level coach would actually follow). 

The rest has been invented by the incompetent trainees who haven't tested the system in the long run. This is simply because the whole calisthenics movement hasn't existed longer than 10 years.

How we train is not only based on our clinical knowledge and research but also from learning from the best of the best who have been part of the fitness game for 30-40+ years. 

Many of our students and clients come from the calisthenics circles and when they do - they have lots of stuff to unlearn. Athlete 20XX system is a real mindfuck to these people because proper training is done in a very different way.

The modern calisthenics methodology has severe problems. Most modern calisthenics practitioners overtrain and over-emphasize certain areas of the body. More problems below.

2. Not Sustainable (YOU WILL HURT YOURSELF)

active tension mobility for shoulders

For us, it took years to fix the damage we had done to ourselves in our early 20s with modern calisthenics.

We haven't had videos about injuries or how to fix them for years simply because we haven't had any of them. Most of our work is actually spent on fixing people because of their harmful training in the past.

We believe in preventing injuries and proper training should prevent injuries, not cause them. 

You cannot say the same thing about people who practice modern calisthenics. Many of them have broken elbows, hurt shoulders and what else. 

Even the most popular calisthenics teachers are continuously posting updates about their injuries. Sometimes freak accidents happen but these are not freak accidents - they are overuse injuries and injuries caused by structural imbalances. 

Chronic injuries should never happen because of training - THE TRAINING SHOULD FIX AND PREVENT THEM. Moreover, if you want to get strong, healthy and functional, you must avoid injuries at all costs. 

Proper training should be geared towards long term and longevity because fitness is a lifelong practice. Your body is here for your entire lifetime.

The reason the modern calisthenics has been geared towards short term is because it has been created by young kids and adults who haven't realized that life goes on and life is a very long game.

When you are young, you want everything NOW AND AS FAST AS POSSIBLE without realizing that real progress doesn't happen in months but in years and the greatest progress happens in decades.

3. All Ego and Skills

Training montage from a couple of years ago. Includes a +44 kg  (+97 lbs) pistol squat, 40 kg press and a lot more. +55 lbs muscle up in this video. Most of the skills and heavy lifts are mostly good for showing off and NOT how you should train.

Modern calisthenics is a sport where people compete with each other with different skills. It's not a proper way of strengthening the body. Like many sports, it has a price.

The reason why people get hurt is that they obsess over skill development instead of actually building up their structure with proper strength training.

Everything is about skills and everyone is obsessed with reaching the final progression with every skill that they train. This obsession with the skill causes a great deal of the problems.

Instead of actually taking care of the body and patiently strengthening the body as a whole, the person always jumps to the hardest progression with a hope of "acquiring the strength" to perform the final skill. 

In the short term, this tactic produces results but soon you will just max out the skill component and your structure is so underdeveloped that you can no longer progress. This is how plateaus happen and why you get stuck in different skills.

Another problem is that because you are always focusing on the hardest exercises and progressions, you will mainly develop the prime mover muscles of your body. The modern calisthenics how it's done is horrific for developing a balanced body.

In the short term this works but in the long term you will only create muscle imbalances and cause damage to your joints which can be irreversible. 

The reason why people focus on these skills is to mainly show off, it's an ego thing. These people feel inadequate and somehow think that reaching the X skill will make them feel better about themselves or something like that.

We have done this in the past and we can tell you that reaching a certain amount of weight in weighted pull ups, doing 10 muscles ups or doing anything impressive won't actually mean anything and won't make you happy. 

Skills are nice to pursue but they shouldn't be the focus and they should be treated as something extra. If you make them your obsession, they will eat your future (broken joints and imbalances) and you will get very little back in return.

What actually has given us happiness and fulfillment is feeling the body to get truly strong and healthy. Having the body that is actually pain free and not weak.

A truly strong person doesn't need a one arm chin up to show others how strong he/she is. Moreover, obtaining different skills and being strong usually are not synonymous with each other.

4. Not Proper Strength Training (DOESN'T TRANSFER WELL TO ANYTHING)

athlete 20xx strength conditioning

Athlete 20XX is likely the only real strength training program you have ever done.

The purpose of strength training is to build up the whole structure of your body (all muscles) in a balanced way. This will improve your health, posture and overall performance which will transfer to everything that you do.

Needless to say that modern calisthenics does not do this and as said before, modern calisthenics is a sport - IT'S NOT STRENGTH TRAINING.

Skill training in general is not strength training because building strength is only the side product of the skill training. Real strength training is about directly building strength and other attributes. This is what we do in our training.

For this reason, your impressive stunts on the bars won't actually transfer to almost anything. You will mostly get good at the skills of modern calisthenics and that's it. 

You are stronger than the average guy who doesn't workout but the transference to almost anything outside the skills of calisthenics is plain bad.

Modern calisthenics practitioners can try out martial arts, dance or play sports. Your performance has been improved but you will mostly suck. On the contrary, proper strength training would directly enhance your ability in these things.

You see, getting good at planches, handstands, chin ups and levers won't transfer well to any other activities such as most sports, yoga and martial arts. 

For universal performance, they are mostly waste of time. Just because they require lots of strength, doesn't mean the skills will make you universally strong. 

In the calisthenics circles there is this idea that once you can do 10 different skills at the highest level, you are strong. In reality, it doesn't work this way. This is reverse engineering performance which doesn't work.

99% of the strongest and most athletic people in the world cannot do these gimmicks and modern calisthenics practitioners aren't even close to their level.

Bodyweight exercises only produce results in universal strength if you do them correctly and no practitioner of modern calisthenics actually does this.

In fact, no calisthenics practitioner even understands what proper strength training is. Talking about proper strength training probably makes zero sense to many because people don't have the reference for it.

5. Black & White Thinking

The problem with calisthenics and bodyweight training

This is the final thing. In modern calisthenics, the whole thing isn't even well thought out (because no one smart and competent actually created it). 

The problem is that everything in modern calisthenics is arbitrary and it's done with black and white thinking. This is not limitless training, rather everything has been limited to very narrow boundaries.

Here are some examples.

"Bodyweight is better than the weights!" - In order to feel good about what the practitioners are doing, they need to talk badly about the weights and think bodyweight exercises are the only good ones you should do.

Here at VAHVA Fitness, we use mainly bodyweight but we also use all kinds of weights and everything else that offers benefits.

"Compound exercises are the best" - It's hard to properly isolate anything with the bodyweight training and that's where this probably comes from. Just because something is 5% better, doesn't mean the other thing isn't good.

"Closed chain exercises are the best" - This is some BS because most athletic movements and movements you do in your daily life are open chain movements. This is just nonsense science with black and white thinking.

You actually need free open chain movements like shoulder raises and leg circles to fully develop the body. Closed chain movements like pull ups are very limiting although good. 

"You have to use progressive overload to make progress" - This is the reason why people stick to heavy resistance and the hardest exercises imaginable. In reality, light resistance done right works better but it's just not good for the ego.

Progressive overload is one of the most dangerous ideas because it pushes people to always lift heavier and the most they can lift. This doesn't only produce garbage results but you will also cause damage to your joints.

We covered most of the bad sides of the modern calisthenics but we could talk a lot more how bad and insufficient the leg and hip training actually is, and more.

Many of these same points also apply to many other forms of bodyweight and movement styles - just not us because we don't do things like everyone else. 

In fact, if you see bodyweight training done it's almost always pure skill training because the concept of proper strength training is a very high level concept for amateurs to comprehend.

To reach your fullest potential in fitness, you have to give up your limitations. Modern calisthenics is a big mess and covered with bad explanations and self-induced limitations. 

Modern calisthenics is good in the beginning because everything you do will produce results and it's one of the easiest and the least expensive ways to get started in working out. 

Just don't get stuck because you will pay the price not just in the health of your body but in all the wasted years and workouts you could have done better. The sooner you upgrade your training, the better it will be for your future.

The older you get, the more you realize how meaningless these attempts to prove yourself were. Once this is realized, you can focus on proper strength training that actually serves the body and makes your life better in every aspect, forever.

If you want to focus on skills - you can do this but you have to CLEARLY separate skill training and strength training. Moreover, strength training should still be the priority. In modern calisthenics NO ONE understands the difference.

This is it. Join Athlete 20XX to upgrade your training. Athlete 20XX contains proper strength training you will not find anywhere unless you find a very talented and expensive strength coach.

If you are just getting started, Movement 20XX is probably the better program for you because it's less technical and more free in execution. 

Train hard, stay safe.

  • Antonio says:

    Very interesting and insightful read,

    I am completing the movement portion of Movement 20XX program and I am loving it. I agree with how you talk about modern calisthenics because at the end of the day is seems very much like body building, great aesthetics, great feats (like higher reps and “weight”) but ultimately not focused on the intrinsic movement or the smaller muscles as part of the bigger picture.
    I think that achieving a planche or a handstand is a great strength but to your point only if it was done methodically and with the proper mobility and progression. I am in martial arts and do yin style yoga and I love doing calisthenics but more like a gymnast with slow measured progress in it and not to just as you said, rush to the end.
    P.S. loved the article about working the shoulder girdle with weights. I need to re-read it.

    • VAHVA Fitness says:

      Thank you for the amazing comment Antonio! Modern calisthenics can be really as shallow as focusing on pure aesthetics, it’s ego in just a different way.

      Skills are fine to pursue but you shouldn’t sacrifice your health and body to achieve them, instead they should something extra on the top of your foundational training.

      What modern calisthenics practitioners, powerlifters and even many movements practitioners do is that they over-emphasize certain areas and neglect others to shape their bodies to maximize their skill development. The sad truth is that the more imbalanced (unhealthy) you are, the better you can be at certain skills but the worse you are as a whole.

  • Chris says:

    Interesting topic.

    When i first started to train calisthenics i also really wanted to learn all those skills as soon as possible, but after a while i got tendonitis in my elbows and wrists and later also pain in my forearms from overuse. I thought if i could hold a full planche i would be very strong and healthy, but then i realized that you can be very strong in certain positions and still have a lot of imbalances and problems in your body. For example i heard somewhere that you can actually be stronger at bench pressing if you’re pecs are very tight, but of course that also means that you are very unhealthy. Anyway, since i decreased the volume of my skill training and focused mainly on proper strength training, including resistance bands for shoulder health, i feel much better and stronger overall. I will still train for skills but i’m not going to force anything. I think it’s possible to safely train for skills, but as you said, proper strength training should be the first priority. I also try to get enough rest days now because even though i want to train more often i actually feel like it’s slowing down my progress if i do too much, i really try to listen to my body now. Thank you for the great content as always! 🙂

    • VAHVA Fitness says:

      Great comment Chris!

      The same thing with tightness can apply to other exercises like back squats as well. When you are not too flexible, squatting heavy can be easier since the inflexibility/tightness prevents you from going all the way down and pushes you back up (stretch reflex).

      When you only train few movement patterns, the body continues to optimize itself for the movement pattern you focus on, sometimes at the cost of everything else. For example, deadlifting with a bad form for years can develop a rounded back (kyphosis). You will lift heavier and heavier but in the long run your posture just gets worse and you will get worse at other activities. The person thinks he is getting stronger because he can deadlift more but in reality he is getting weaker as a whole.

      Planche is also a great example because the less developed your legs are, the easier it will be to perform.

      With skills, the progress is also very individual – everyone is different and some people are naturally talented at certain skills because of their physiology (height, body composition, muscle fiber type, bone density etc.).

      This is why skills aren’t a good indicator of strength. The strongest person in the world would not be able to perform any gymnastic feats if he didn’t have the optimal body composition and enough specific skill practice.

      What you are doing now sounds good! As I get older, the skills aren’t that appealing anymore but being strong and healthy as a whole is more valuable than before. The thing about proper strength training is also that it will make you good at everything and new skills are very quick to acquire.

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