This Century-Old Bodyweight Workout Is Trending Again – And It Builds Strength Fast

As seen in Vogue

I’m not unfit. I’ve sweated my way through HIIT classes, can run 10km in under an hour, and I recently started lifting weights in the gym. I have an 18-month-old daughter (who weighs 20lbs), who I pick up, put down and carry around on a daily basis. Yet I can barely do a single push-up properly, let alone a pull-up. My arm strength is non-existent. I’m not alone, either, with less than one percent of women estimated to be able to lift their own body weight. So with that in mind, I was ready to be humbled as I arrived at an hour-long callisthenics class at Mission in east London.


If you’re not familiar, callisthenics is the practice of using your own body weight as a form of resistance. TikTok has named it one of its community trends of the year, explaining: “When it comes to workouts, in 2024 our community is going back to basics. #Callisthenics is taking off as we wave goodbye to complicated machines and embrace our own bodies and individual strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination.”


Hero moves include the aforementioned pull-ups, but also push-ups, chin-ups, tricep dips, headstands and shoulder stands. The beauty of it is that it requires little to no equipment, which explains why it exploded during lockdown. “I’ve seen a massive increase in clients asking me about it in recent years,” shares Raphael Debnath, who runs a callisthenics workshop at Third Space. “Of course, lockdown was one reason due to lack of gym equipment, but I also get professionals who travel a lot for work that want me to show them how to workout using just a chair in their room, for example.”


My own memories of lockdown involve endless Peloton plugs and Amazon selling out of free weights, so I definitely missed the callisthenics boat the first time around, though it makes sense that this is when it first started to take off. But another reason why it is so popular now is that it’s actually very straightforward – ideal for those with Peloton fatigue. As Lucy Joslin, head coach at Cali Kulture, whose class I’m taking, tells me: “People like that it isn’t super complex. It’s comprised mostly of moves that people have seen, even if they haven’t tried them – everything is a pull or a push and it just goes up in difficulty. It’s very accessible in that way. It has an across-the-board appeal.”


As I walked in, my mind was immediately put at ease by the make-up of the class. Rather than a room full of muscular gym bros, it was a mix of men and women, of all ages and body shapes. One woman in her 50s had followed Joslin across London, and explained there was nothing else like it near where she lives in the west of the city. Her friend had only been going for a few weeks but was already seeing improvements, which I found heartening. Both agreed that ageing can mean starting to lose fitness rapidly – one of the reasons that they both wanted to do Joslin’s class. Regulars attend her other dedicated movement sessions too, such as handstands, with the squat one in particular filling up as soon as spots are released.


Joslin has been teaching callisthenics since the pandemic – she started by doing pull-ups in her garden. A fitness veteran, she jokes that she taught every exercise class going – from Pilates to legs, bums and tums – before discovering callisthenics after the birth of her two children. “I’ve seen major strength improvements on a scale like nothing else,” she shares. “It’s certainly not as tangible in other disciplines. It’s going from not being able to pull yourself up over a bar, to being able to pull yourself up over a bar. You can see your strength improving in a way that you couldn’t see otherwise.”


Debnath also spotlights how the technique can improve stability – something that’s essential to maintain as we get older. “As we age we get weaker in lots of areas, like balance. Callisthenics specifically benefits those areas. Most movements are unilateral – they require you to only move one arm or one leg – which requires stability. So when that happens you become more balanced in daily life – whether you’re surfing, on the Tube or climbing the stairs.”


Callisthenics as a way to train has been around for more than a century, and was initially popularised as a way to get soldiers fit for battle in World War II. “It was bootcamp-style, body weight movements and swinging from bars, because equipment was scarce,” explains Debnath. “That’s how they trained their troops.”


Roughly translated as “the beauty of strength” (in Greek, “kallos” means beauty and “sthenos” means strength) its focus is on getting the movements right, rather than achieving a certain aesthetic. This, Debnath thinks, is among the reasons why it appeals to Gen Z. “Callisthenics is skill-based, it’s not focused on how you look,” he explains. “Gen Z specifically don’t want to train to look a certain way, they are more focused on body positivity, they want to learn a new skill, like a pistol squat or a handstand.” Joslin agrees: “It’s really about skills and being able to see yourself improving week by week in a tangible way.”


Joslin’s classes consist of multiple reps with rest periods in between, with moves including pull-ups and chin-ups using a series of supportive bands, as well as rings to do rows and parallette bars to do L-sits, where you hold your weight up with your hands. It’s hard work, but fun, with a real sense of achievement when you manage a move. The community aspect is immediately obvious, as you get chatting in breaks and help spot each other, breeding a sense of trust. According to Joslin, this community feel is unlike any she’s experienced in the fitness world, and helps to explain why so many women love it – particularly those who are postpartum and looking to reconnect with their bodies.


“I want more women to be able to do pull-ups and lift their own bodyweight,” shares Debnath. “That’s my mission!” It’s certainly got one new devotee in me.


This article was first seen in Vogue, written by Rebecca Cope. You can book into Lucy’s and all Cali Kulture classes at Mission here.