Calisthenics can work every single part of your body while allowing you to master pretty incredible skills — and taking you right back to the freedom and play of childhood. Here’s how to start and where to train in the UAE.
What is calisthenics?
Calisthenics, a type of resistance training using your own body weight, has absolutely exploded across the UAE over the last few years. At its most basic, the sport involves a combination of squats, lunges, push-ups and pull-ups. Taken to its more advanced levels, calisthenics involves athletes flying through the air, performing handstands and splits on bars or flipping off buildings — and anything else they can find.
Eryc Ortiz began doing calisthenics seven years ago, “back when I was really skinny and wanted to change my body and my lifestyle”, he explains. Now he’s WCO Featherweight World Champion 2018 and a coach at Gravity Calisthenics Gym Dubai.
“I’ve been living in the UAE for only two years and I’ve seen how people are changing their training styles.,” he says. “They see what calisthenics can offer, and they know they can achieve crazy things.”
When done correctly, calisthenics hits every single muscle, helps you move better and creates serious strength.
“Three years ago, I wanted to get a stronger upper body, so I started at Gravity,” says Samia Kallidis, a coach at Orangetheory Fitness Dubai. “I started seeing improvements and was able to lift my own body weight. Shortly after, I was invited to take part in the first season of Ninja Warrior in Arabic.”
If you’re tempted to get involved, here’s what you need to know.
Am I strong enough for calisthenics? Yes
“I’ve been teaching calisthenics for four years now, and the most common thing I see people saying is that they aren’t strong enough to try or join,” says Justin Garcia, WCO Elite Coach and WCO USA Featherweight Champ. Garcia began calisthenics around seven years ago, transforming his body from 45 to 60kg.
“I got tired of being really skinny, but when I went to the gym to lift weights, it just didn’t work,” he says.
So he went home, watched YouTube, learned the foundations of calisthenics — and hasn’t looked back.
“What people usually see on the internet is the near-finished product that has taken a lot of work,” he adds. “You don’t see the work on the basic movements, learning to move.”
In other words, Garcia notes, folks don’t start out as pros.
Don’t skip the basics of calisthenics
People tend to get excited by the crazy, intense flips and other calisthenics skills they see online, says Ortiz. “But then they aren’t patient, don’t do the proper conditioning, and get injured quickly.”
Ortiz starts with the basics, like learning to pull your body weight, squat properly and move again.
“Then we develop the strength, then skills, then there’s play time and re-adventuring with your body,” he says. “So just try it. Find a coach, find someone near you, and give it a shot.”
Forget your fears
Don’t let the fear stop you, suggests Sarah White, a Dubai-based yoga teacher and calisthenics coach. White began calisthenics just after she dipped her toe into yoga, drawn by an urge to be stronger.
“It took me so long to go to my first class but I only wish I did it sooner,” she says. “I realize how intimidating it can be to try something new, and also very daunting when you see people who are super strong doing it. But seriously don’t be scared.”
In many ways, calisthenics is a return to our childhood method of playing, says Kallidis.
“As kids, everyone is good at calisthenics because that’s all we have. We were born to lift our own weight. The nature of sedentary lifestyle has disrupted that, but we can all do it if we try.”
Embrace your potential
This sentiment is echoed by Amal Murad, a calisthenics athlete and the first Emirati female parkour coach.
“There’s a phrase in Arabic that means, ‘what will people say about you?’, and it’s every little girl’s nightmare growing up,” she said. “I’ve learned that if you genuinely want to do something amazing, don’t be afraid to try. Don’t be afraid of your greatness.”
Murad notes that even when she was a child, she wanted to go outdoors and move. Athletics helped her realize her own strength and what she can bring to the table.
“The reason I teach parkour is that there’s a lot of mental barriers that you set for yourself,” says Murad. “I want to show people that it’s ok to fall and it’s ok to fail, as long as you get back up and do it again.”
Where to train in the UAE
Many of the athletes interviewed point to Gravity Calisthenics as the gym to visit in Dubai. Classes include everything from calisthenics, tumbling, climbing, weight lifting, parkour, handstand workshops, break dancing, yoga, flexibility and more.
“It’s where I started and I still train there today,” says White. “For me, it’s home. You train with the best athletes and the gym has the best community, and you feel so welcome.”
Featured photo courtesy Sarah White.
Danae Mercer is a freelance health and travel journalist. In addition to working as editor-in-chief of Women's Health Middle East and Men's Health Middle East, Danae has written for The Sunday Times, CNN Travel, Dubai Tourism, The Guardian, Afar, Bloomberg and many more. She's based in Dubai and is a trainer at Crank. instagram.com/danaemercer