Barholics: The Advanced Calisthenics Movement

By: Jason Lewis

When thinking about calisthenics, a lot of people flash back to that junior high P.E. teacher who would challenge anybody to a push-up contest. Typically, people trying to build good-looking bodies won’t turn to calisthenics. Instead, they gravitate to weight lifting and machines.

But there’s a movement on the verge of capturing the fitness industry’s attention, and it’s certainly not a push-up competition. It’s an advanced form of calisthenics practiced by some of the most ripped athletes around. They’re shocking onlookers, performing handstand push-ups on a pull-up bar, twisting their bodies like gymnasts, and displaying unimaginable upper body strength.

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“Most people think of calisthenics as regular push-ups, pull-ups, or chair dips,” said Anthony Cephas, recent winner of Battle of the Bars at the Santa Clara Fit Expo in Northern California. “In this case, now it’s performing and taking it to another level. Now it’s learning how to control your body. For instance, doing a handstand without the wall, and learning how to do push-ups off of that, with no wall, it’s just your core and your balance.”

Advanced calisthenics is not only a type of resistance training, but it’s also an art form. At the Fit Expo, there was a lot of buzz surrounding Battle of the Bars, one of the first competitions of its kind on an official level.

“Besides the CrossFit crowd, we had the biggest crowd at the fitness expo,” Cephas said. “Our crowd was so huge and so anticipated from word of mouth that nobody left their chairs, everybody stayed through the final event, and it was a huge success. The reaction is crazy… They’re taking pictures as if we were Cirque du Soleil.”

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Cephas has a background in football. He played with NFL Pro Bowl wide receivers Steve Smith and Chad Johnson at Santa Monica City College, then went on to play at Tennessee State. As a 400-meter sprinter in track, he clocked in at 47.7 seconds. Two severe knee injuries ended his football career, but he continued with weight training to build an impressive physique.

After exposure to the athletic trend on YouTube a year ago, Cephas has revamped his entire workout regime. Advanced calisthenics now make up 80 percent of his workload, including most of his upper body workouts. He still employs weight training for legs and to test out his upper body strength. The test results? He still has it – even though he rarely picks up a barbell.

“You’re learning how to concentrate two functional movements of your body versus just one with weights,” Cephas said. “When doing the bench press, you’re laying down and you’re only worrying about contracting one part of your muscle, which is your chest. But in this case, when I do push-ups, my abs are engaged, my legs, my glutes, everything stays locked up. Which forms a better core and foundation.”

Cephas continued, “It’s learning how to become one with your body versus becoming one with weights…You want to be your own machine, not to be controlled by the machine… I’d rather see a guy doing a one-arm push up instead of a guy benching 300 pounds. That’s more impressive to me.”

photo 3Cephas weighs in at slightly more than 190 pounds with very low body fat. Compared to body builders, power lifters and athletes who focus on weight lifting, athletes who specialize in advanced calisthenics have slimmer, more muscular builds.

Cephas adds resistance by either changing the tempo of his movements or wearing a weight vest or weight belt. When he’s performing various types of push-ups, he weights up his back.

The great thing about advanced calisthenics is that it can be practiced almost anywhere. It gained popularity on the East Coast, where athletes practice outdoors in parks and playgrounds. New York City crews such as the Bar Starz, Bartendaz, Bar-Barians, and Beastmode have perfected these movements and wowed crowds for years.

Cephas is now doing his part to give advanced calisthenics more exposure by taking these competitions to fitness expos. These amazing athletic feats are not mainstream like CrossFit, but these athletes are getting the ball rolling. Now, people are dropping the weights and hitting the pull-up bars.