Callisthenics: Bodyweight resistance training for ultimate strength

Trainer and founder of the Calisthenics Fitness Gym Joseph Oloo performs the Human Flag exercise during his fitness session on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

To sit through a 40-minute talk on bodyweight resistance training, delivered to you by 34-year-old Joseph Oloo, a certified callisthenics trainer, is no mean feat.

It's even more flummoxing when he grabs a bowl of beans and chapati in the chilling morning at his Calisthen Fitness Centre in Kileleshwa on Othaya Road, Haven Cottage in Nairobi.

"Is chapati even healthy?" I find my mouth going before my brain.

Haha! Not at all, it's definitely not one of the choices of meals I would recommend, but at my fitness level, I know how to manipulate my body. This is more of a snack to me, not a meal," Oloo clarifies.

With his tracksuit on, soft-spoken Oloo passes for a lanky figure. When he decides to go topless, he is shredded to the core, and every muscle pops out for the world to see.

Even with the chapati as a snack, his body fat stands at seven percent, which many fitness gurus consider moving a mountain.

For this sit-down, Oloo is joined by a longtime friend Young Obara, 31, and fellow callisthenics trainer, who provides contrast to his demeanour.

Calisthenics Fitness Gym founder Joseph Oloo (right) poses with fellow trainer Obara Young at the gym in Kileleshwa, Nairobi on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Loquacious Obara isn't shredded as much. He is bulky and lean at the same time. His six-pack is visible even from a stone-throw away. Just like Oloo, Obara is in the shape of his life.

I tease them to show us (accompanied by colleagues) what they are made of. Grabbing wooden parallel bars, they execute handstand poses with ease and hang on for about 30 seconds.

The handstand involves supporting body weight in a stable inverted vertical position by balancing on the hands. In a basic handstand, the body is held straight with arms and legs fully extended, with hands spaced approximately shoulder-width apart and legs together.

"This form of movement strengthens shoulders, arms and wrists as it also stretches the navel. Basically, unlike weight training, which in most cases targets a specific set of muscles, calisthenics are compound exercises, which target a group of different muscles," Obara offers.

Trainers Joseph Oloo (left) and Obara Young perform the Hand Stands exercise during a fitness session on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Oloo and Obara then execute front and back lever movements again with ease. They are exercises that look very easy, but once you try them (I did), you'll realise you're no way near executing them, even in a decent form.

But professional gymnasts and advanced callisthenics athletes, like these duo, execute them effortlessly.

The levers provide immense upper body strength, especially the lats, the largest muscle in the upper body, while also strengthening the core.

They would then pull the human flag, considered one of the ultimate body strength movements defying the law of gravity for about 30 seconds.

The human flag movement is a feat of strength where the body is parallel to the ground, supported by a vertical bar. A straight line is formed using arms and body, giving the impression of a flag.

The trick here requires the performer to have extensive upper body strength. The pose works the delts and lats muscles, with secondary muscles being the glutes, hamstrings, calves and quads. Obara would then opt to sit out in the execution of the planche movement. In his defence, he said, "sijafika hapo bado" (I'm not yet at the level just).

Planche is a complex movement where the body is held parallel to the ground while being supported above the floor by straight arms. It's a movement that requires significant sheer strength, focus and balance.

These movements work the biceps, triceps, delts, lats and glutes group of muscles. To finish the show, Oloo executed an intermediate-level exercise that requires core strength to execute properly. The V-sit targets the abdomen, obliques and hip flexors group of muscles.

Trainer and founder of the Calisthenics Fitness Gym Joseph Oloo performs performs the Straddle Planche exercise on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

"Getting to the level of executing these movements is the ultimate prize for anyone into callisthenics. They are the summary of human sheer body strength and mobility," Oloo affirms.

But to get here, it has taken them years of perfection.

Both Oloo and Obara have never lifted weights in their fitness journey. They both lost their jobs and turned to fitness. A mutual friend brought the duo together in 2018.

"Back in 2017 I used to work for an NGO that closed shop and I became redundant. At the time, I had started being involved with callisthenics because since I was young I loved gymnastics. The executions of the complex movements of the gymnast had me glued, there is this photo I saw of a guy balancing on empty bottles stacked on each other and I was hooked," says Obara.

With no job, he trained at a local gym but didn't fancy the weights, spending most of his time focusing on his body weight from watching the gymnastic athletes.

Obara would then start training his family and neighbours, who would pay him and it was at that point that he decided he wanted to be a trainer.

Later on, he enrolled for a course as a certified personal trainer at the American Council of Exercise.

Until 2016, Oloo worked at a real estate agency that paid him a monthly salary of Sh30,000.

Other than his morning runs, he had never indulged in any other form of exercise. "One day I saw a video on YouTube that read '100 pushups daily changed my body,'. The guy was chiselled and had the body of his life, then I thought to myself why can't I try as well and look the part too,"

Every evening after work he would try out the 100 pushups.

"I would do bits by bits until I hit the 100 mark I also continued watching more videos on YouTube and as you know with YouTube the more you watch the more related content is suggested to you and that's how calisthenics and gymnastics started to come out. I had never had of the two," he says.

It wasn't long before he had a chin up and dip bars set and started doing the exercise from YouTube.

"It wasn't long before people started noticing the transformation in my body but I wasn't as good. Then something funny happened. One day I watched a video of a guy who had a body frame similar to mine, he was a callisthenics expert doing a handstand move. I took a screenshot because he was doing it from the back and shared it online and for some reason, everybody thought that was me and enquiry started coming."

That's when he knew it was time to earn a certification as a personal trainer as well and enrolled for a fitness course that took him a year.

"While schooling I continued with my fitness routine, I used to live along Thika Road then and would go for my runs on the fly over do my push-ups there and little did I know people started joining and it wasn't long before a few suggested that I should start training them," he says.

Oloo would get two clients who paid him Sh20,000 monthly. At work, the pressure was mounting because he had now formed a tendency of showing up late and leaving early.

"With the pressure, I thought to myself if with two clients I easily make much more than I earn what was the point, that's how I quit," he says.

Once he attained his certification he secured a job as a trainer at Alpha Fit and when Covid-19 hit, his life changed for the better.

"I had struggled to find jobs at gyms because calisthenics is something not so popular with many but when Covid-19 hit people were now out seeking personal home trainers. The few videos of me doing calisthenics that I had shared on Facebook became my Damascus moment as many people reached out,"

Trainers Joseph Oloo (left) and Obara Young perform the Front Lever exercise during a fitness session on May 31, 2023. PHOTO | WILFRED NYANGARESI | NMG

Last October, Oloo found this space in Kileleshwa and set up a gym — Calisthens Fitness. Looking around all you see are various forms of hanging bars, parallel bars, gymnastics ropes but no sight of weights.

"So far, we have 30 clients and offer various packages. The monthly package is Sh15,000 and for those who require personal training the package price depends on the number of classes," says the entrepreneur.

For 20 classes one pays Sh20,000 and Sh16,000 for 12 classes, Sh12,000 for eight classes and so on.

According to the gyms website, they focus on strength training, mobility, flexibility, balance, callisthenics skills and nutrition.

Obara adds: "For a beginner, we start with the basic moves which are always the push-up variations, squats, leg raises, upper body strength and so on.

"For any human, there are certain movement patterns that one should be able to execute with ease. That is squat patterns, which in our case we focus on using one leg, because, the whole idea in callisthenics is mastering your own body weight, this also helps to build on balance. Then there is the pushing and pulling movement patterns."

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