Home » Physical Fitness When Times Get Tough – Part 2: Calisthenics

Physical Fitness When Times Get Tough – Part 2: Calisthenics

by Paul-Martin Foss

So many preppers get so focused on accumulating gear that they neglect their health. In our last installment, we talked about ways to improve cardiovascular health. Now we’ll discuss how to start strengthening your muscles, starting with the most important physical task most people have – moving their body around. Being able to move your body weight is an important task. If you’re not strong enough to move your body weight, you won’t be strong enough to haul any extra weight either. Calisthenics is the name given to exercises that use the body’s weight to strengthen muscles. Here are some of the best bodyweight exercises you can perform.


Pushups are the obvious body weight exercise that everyone thinks of. They don’t require any equipment, just your body, and a hard surface. Everyone knows the pushup position, just put your hands palm-down on the floor at about shoulder width, extend your legs back until your back is completely straight and your body is balanced on your hands and toes. Lower your chest to the ground, then push back up until your arms are extended and repeat. If you’re not strong enough to do a full push-up on your toes, you can rest your weight on your knees. Doing enough pushups from the knees can help build up enough strength to do full pushups.

Pushups are often done with a high number of repetitions, 10, 20, 30, or more, and for multiple sets. Doing a few hundred in a day isn’t terribly taxing to someone who is in decent shape. If body weight push ups get too easy, you can start placing weight on your back to increase the amount of resistance.

Abdominal Exercises

Situps and crunches are the two most common forms of body weight abdominal exercises. Situps are performed by lying down on the back and feet flat on the floor and the knees at a 90-degree angle. Cross your arms over your chest and use the abdominal muscles to bring your torso up until your elbows touch your thighs. Lower your torso back down and repeat. Situps are also normally done for higher reps.

Crunches are derived from sit-ups, except that the torso is only brought up a small distance, to about a 30-degree angle from the ground. This is supposed to maximize the work down by the abdominal muscles, whereas the full sit-up engages the hip flexor muscles the closer the torso reaches the thighs.

Another abdominal exercise is known as the 6 inch/45, named after the naval gun. Lying flat on the floor with legs extended, raise the legs to a 45-degree angle, then lower them to where they are no less than 6 inches off the ground, and repeat. Also performed for higher reps, this exercise is supposed to actively target the lower abdominal muscles.

Finally, side holds target the oblique muscles in the abdomen. They are also known as side planks. The body is balanced on its side, resting on one elbow and on the side of one foot. The body is kept straight for a certain period of time, relying on the oblique muscles to keep the body straight and stabilized. Repeat for the other side of the body.


Pullups are a great indicator of upper body strength and a great exercise to strengthen the back muscles. Many localities have pull-up bars at local parks or at exercise stations along running trails. Even if you don’t have access to pull up bars, you can still do pull-ups by finding solid ledges where you can pull yourself up, or by placing a section of pipe or steel bar across rafters of a garage or unfinished room.

If you can’t do a full pull-up, just pull yourself up as far as you can and repeat for multiple reps. It can take the time to build up the strength to do a pull-up or multiple pull-ups, but the more you do pull ups the stronger you’ll get.


Dips are often called upper body squats because they work so many different muscle groups. While the triceps, chest, and shoulders are the primary movers, the biceps, abs, and back play a significant role in stabilizing the body during the exercise. Dips are far more strenuous and require much more strength to perform than pushups.

The main problem you’ll find in trying to do dips is finding dip bars. Again, some localities may place them in parks or along running trails. You can also set up sawhorses to act as a makeshift dip stand, otherwise, you’ll probably have to purchase a commercial dip stand. Commercial dip stands are often built together with pull up bars.

Dips can be strenuous on the shoulders, so if that’s the case for you, don’t lower your body all the way. Or if you lack the strength to push yourself up from the bottom of the dip, just do several reps of lowering yourself to build up the strength in your muscles. Eventually, you’ll be able to do a full dip.

Squats and Lunges

It’s a little more difficult to do lower body calisthenics, as bodyweight exercises don’t tax the strength of the legs nearly as much as weighted exercises do. Still, there are a number of exercises that can be performed.

Bodyweight squats are a good exercise for building up endurance in the quadriceps, hamstrings, and buttocks. They also can help strength tendons and ligaments in the ankles, knees, and hips. Stand with the feet just slightly wider than shoulder width, squat all the way down, keeping the feet flat on the floor, then rise and repeat. If you’ve ever watched a baby squat down, they perform it naturally. Adults have a tendency to rock up onto the balls of the feet or onto the toes to keep balance. If that happens, focus on keeping your feet flat on the floor and put your arms out in front of you to keep your body weight balanced.

Lunges are performed by lunging forward with one leg until that knee is at a 90-degree angle to the ground. You can perform them stationary by lunging one leg at a time and pushing back with your lead leg to remain standing, or you can do walking lunges by pushing off with your trailing leg and repeating, essentially taking long, exaggerated strides.

Start off with small amounts, though, because lunges are deceivingly taxing on the hamstrings. Don’t be surprised to feel your hamstrings tighten after performing a few lunges, and don’t be surprised if you have difficulty walking the next morning after you try them for the first time. That tightness and muscle soreness will dissipate once your hamstrings get used to being worked.

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