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January 03, 2023 3 min read

The history of calisthenics in a timeline

When did calisthenics start and how did it grow to the sport it is today?

Calisthenics has gone through several eras, from the bodyweight training of ancient Greece, through ancient China and India, to its popularity in Russia under the Soviet era, on to the emergence of calisthenics for general fitness in the 1940s, and now to its status as a sport and urban street movement.

If you’ve ever been curious about the entire history of calisthenics, we’ve put together quick at-a-glance timeline of calisthenics.

A timeline history of calisthenics 

600 B.C – Spartan warriors

As far as we can tell, calisthenics began in ancient Greece under Spartan rule. Calisthenics, along with wrestling, combat sports, and throwing sports, were a core part of Spartan military training.

 

500 B. C – Chinese monks

In the 500s B.C., Shaolin Monks in China trained in calisthenics to protect their monasteries from looters. Perhaps not the zen solution you’d expect, but certainly a powerful one. Calisthenics helped the monks become fast, strong, and hard to beat.

 

Early 1800s – calisthenics in education

German gymnasts and educators Friedrich Ludwig Jahn and Adolf Spiess popularised calisthenics and gymnastics, particularly in the education of women. It took off most notably in Sweden thanks to Per Henrik Ling who pioneered the teaching of physical education.

 

1800s – calisthenics for women

In the early 19th century, calisthenics was one form of exercise deemed acceptable for women in the UK (along with dancing, horse riding, and walking).

 

1820s – British army 

The British military caught on to the idea of formalising fitness for recruits in the early 1800s, and began using calisthenics (and weight training) around 1820.

 

1857 - Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families

Catherine Beecher wrote the Physiology and Calisthenics for Schools and Families in 1857 in the USA. It was intended for women, but became so popular her ideas were adopted widely by all ages and sexes.

 

1892 – The Manual of Calisthenics

In the USA, military man Herman Koehler who was working at West Point, wrote and published his “Manual of Calisthenics,” which became one of the first official Army publications to standardise physical training.

 

1892 to now - US Army

The US military uses calisthenics as a key part of its basic fitness tests, recruitment, and training.  US Army soldiers do at least two fitness tests a year, including push ups, sits ups and running.

 

1930s – state schools in Australia

Calisthenics was introduced into Australian Victorian State Schools throughout the 1930s, and quickly became popular across the country. These days there are 100s of calisthenics clubs across Australia.

 

1950-80s – Jack Lelanne and American TV

Jack Lelanne was a popular name in American fitness throughout the 1950s, 60s, and 70s. He had a nationwide TV show for nearly 35 years in which he used calisthenics to help viewers get fitter from home.

 

2008 – YouTube calisthenics 

Hannibal Lanham – aka Hannibal for King – was partially responsible for beginning calisthenics into the new era of street workouts, with his hugely popular YouTube channel.

2011 – the first calisthenics federations

In 2011, the World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation and WSWCF (World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation) were founded. These bodies organise events, champion new talent, and help standardise calisthenics into a sport. 

The World Calisthenics Organization was founded in 2012 with the objective of promoting calisthenics and helping communities set up events, sites, and activities.

If you’re a fan of calisthenics, or just getting into this incredible sport, check out the Gravity Fitness store for the best calisthenics and functional fitness kit around. We stock everything you need to get started in calisthenics or take your skills to the next level.

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