Raising the bar for fitness with calisthenics

PHOTO: CHRISTY YIP

By Kimberly Kwek

Pull-up and push-up routines may be dreaded by those training for the National Physical Fitness Award (NAPFA) tests or the Individual Physical Proficiency Test (IPPT) in Singapore — but they are gaining popularity as part of another type of fitness regime.  

Known as calisthenics, it is a form of exercise where one uses their body weight as resistance. Common calisthenics exercises include pull-ups, push-ups, squats, dips and crunches, and more people locally and abroad are incorporating these exercises into their workouts in creative ways.

It is necessary to master these basic calisthenic exercises to build strength, before one can try out the more advanced exercises like handstands and variations of the basic exercises, like diamond push-ups.

Some athletes even string a few of these exercises together into a routine, which is known as freestyle.

Calisthenics groups in Singapore often modify and integrate basic exercises, as well as perform more advanced, gravity-defying routines as part of their training routines at fitness corners around the island — these often catch the attention of curious passers-by.

“A lot of people have been asking what we’re doing and if they can join,” said Elliot Ang, co-founder of the Asia Calisthenics Federation (ACF) and a final-year Sports Science and Management student. The ACF is a sports body that organises street workouts — exercises that combine calisthenics and athletics — in the form of competitions and meet-ups for the public all over Asia.

Response to their calisthenics events has been positive so far, said the 27-year-old, with the number of calisthenics groups registered under the ACF increasing from three to nine in the last year.

Despite the growing interest, Ang said: “People are still warming up to the idea that something as simple as body weight can help you keep fit. Some individuals can find it tough and maybe a bit boring or generic.”

That was the case for him when he first started out.

“I hated it. It was very painful and I found it quite boring because I thought it was just normal stuff like pull-ups and push-ups,” he said.

“But those were just the basic things and there were a lot of other things like handstands and front reverse. I stuck  with it and after a while, I found different people to train together with so it got a lot easier.”

For Ang, he felt there was a drastic difference between lifting weights in the gym and using his whole body weight to exercise.

“Back then I thought I was strong, but when I went into calisthenics, I realised that there was a whole new angle to being fit and healthy.”

For enthusiast Jasen Teoh, 23, he initially found it difficult to believe how effective calisthenics could be in helping him get into shape.

“Most of the time when you say you want to get into shape, you think that you have to lift weights. So trusting that it would work was one of the main challenges I faced,” said the third-year SSM student, who tried the sport out five years ago.

“A lot of people are also scared of what this sport has to offer. Some of the things (the routines they do) look pretty scary, but people don’t really look at the basic (exercises),” added Teoh.

PHOTO: CHRISTY YIP

But 24-year-old Rain Chua — who previously held a Guinness World Record for doing the most number of diamond push-ups in a minute — gave the reassurance that there are proper ways and places to train.

“Street workouts are pretty safe as compared to the gym. If you don’t have enough strength to do it, your body just won’t do it. So there’s not really much risk to injury as compared to the gym where if you cannot do an 80kg bench press, you may get injured doing so,” said the final-year student from the School of Computer Science and Engineering.

Chua is also the co-founder of local street workout group Bar Brothers SG. Inspired by the street workout group Bar Brothers of the same name in the United States, he set up Bar Brothers SG to promote the sport and give people the chance to come together to work out.

But Chua added that going to the gym and doing calisthenics are not necessarily alternatives for each other as they serve different goals — gym-goers use weights to do strength training, while those who do calisthenics train for endurance.

The functionality and convenience of the workout is what draws him to calisthenics, he said, as calisthenics can be carried out anywhere.

“I enjoy it being more functional instead of just lifting dead weights, which is something where you repeat the motion. At least I can learn to control my own body in calisthenics.”

Teoh, who currently works at the Singapore Calisthenics Academy, hopes to see the calisthenics movement gain even more ground in Singapore.

“We want to educate the effectiveness of this kind of fitness and how to do it properly. I hope for it be more known, but more importantly, the main vision is for people to be able to unite and grow together,” he said.

There are two main groups in the calisthenics community: those who train for strength and those who do freestyle routines.

Ang added: “Each side of the community respects each other. We always have meet-ups and do each other’s routines.

“We form a camaraderie between both sides, and that’s how we push for calisthenics.”