Off to the side of my middle school’s football field, which was almost never used by middle schoolers to play legitimate football, sat a 1980s-era calisthenics park, which was also seldom utilized by anyone who attended my middle school. In fairness, the underutilization of the calisthenics park wasn’t owed to a lack of good-faith attempts by students to use the equipment. It had more to do with the scalding heat of the sunlight stored within the metal bars, combined with the weather-beaten, sliver-inducing wood, and underscored by the simple fact that tweens typically don’t have the upper-body strength to crank out too many reps of bodyweight-loaded exercises, let alone full-fledged pull-ups.
But that was then, and this is now. And in the ensuing 40 years, the construction of calisthenics and fitness parks across the country has improved dramatically. In fairness, too, the fitness park of my youth wasn’t exactly a walk in, well, the park — I still have unwelcome reminiscences of vain struggles against unforgiving steel rods to produce reps when my puny little arms couldn’t muster the might to generate an output of any worth.
All of which has often led me to wonder: How fit is the average person capable of getting in a modern calisthenics park?
Yeah, what sort of exercises can I even perform in a fitness park?
Let’s pretend for a moment that you don’t possess the nearly superhuman strength, elite flexibility or world-class agility of someone who has gone out of their way to specialize in bodyweight training over a period of several years. Let’s also assume that you’re not one of those folks who frequents these parks primarily to shame all of the normies by showcasing their breathtaking skills for the sake of boosting their Instagram following.
What is in these parks for a normal person like you to put to use? Usually, we’re talking about a couple of elevated wooden platforms, a few horizontal bars set at heights from the ground ranging anywhere from six inches to a few feet and several sets of horizontal bars set six or more feet from the ground. If you’re lucky, there may even be a set of parallel bars to toy around with.
Toy around with how?
Well, it’s not just the parallel bars, of course, that can provide a solid workout. With everything I just mentioned…
You can probably do incline push-ups. These are often touted as an exercise that places more emphasis on the chest than regular push-ups while also eliminating some of the workload from the shoulders and the triceps. But the reality is, this variation places even greater emphasis on the lower portion of the chest and is an easier version of the exercise for most people to perform. If you have trouble doing many regular push-ups, incline push-ups can be a more manageable workaround.
You can almost certainly do crunches and sit-ups. Provided that your fitness park possesses at least one wooden bench with the appropriate foot attachment included, you should have no problem at all training your abdominals to some degree of failure.
You can do inverted rows. If you can’t imagine yourself doing a pull-up of any kind, inverted rows are a logical starting point for you to start making progress toward total body elevation. The muscle recruitment pattern isn’t exactly the same, and that’s because your feet are on the ground. Ideally, you’d be able to pull off some inverted rows with minimal assistance from your legs, but that’s part of the allure: You can cheat the movement somewhat until you’ve developed sufficient strength to hoist the full dead weight of your body up to the bar by using only the muscles of your back and biceps.
You could try bodyweight dips. Being able to crank out bodyweight dips is one of the advantages to the parallel bars. Personally, I’ve adored dips ever since my high school years, but the improper execution of them probably contributed to a few shoulder injuries, along with the loss of a lot of the mobility in my shoulders over time. If you can do dips, that’s awesome; building endurance through body-weight dips is an incredible way to rapidly build strength and endurance in your triceps and lower chest.
Sounds great, right?
Now, unfortunately, I have to provide you with the sad disclaimer: If you’re not in the 30 percent of Americans capable of executing more than 20 push-ups in a row, I’m not sure we should be having this conversation about bodyweight dips, because they can be particularly dangerous to your shoulders if you’re having difficulty controlling your own bodyweight.
You can do tricep dips. These can be very difficult — and potentially dangerous as well — but you can limit the depth of the dip in order to accommodate your own personal comfort and strength level. This is one of those exercises where you need to be highly cognizant of your positioning, or you’ll find yourself shortening the longevity of your shoulders at the same time that you’re strengthening your triceps.
Okay, some of this stuff sounds a bit beyond me — hello dips! But generally speaking, I like where we’re headed here.
Not so fast, actually. Bodyweight workouts aren’t for the faint of heart and most people aren’t in the kind of shape to pull them off. For instance…
You may not be able to perform decline push-ups. More than one-third of Americans can’t pump out five regular push-ups in a row, and half struggle to do more than 10. So if we presume that the median American can do exactly 10 regular push-ups consecutively before collapsing, why would we assume that it would be worth your while to attempt sets of decline push-ups, which are more challenging, and primarily target the weaker clavicular head of the pectorals?
You probably won’t be able to do hanging leg raises — at least not the way you should do them. This is arguably the best abdominal exercise that most people will ever be able to perform unless they develop some specialized power, but these leg raises are also extremely challenging for most people to execute correctly, and simply lifting your legs without engaging the muscles of your core won’t permit you to reap the benefits of this extremely challenging but rewarding exercise.
You probably can’t do bodyweight tricep extensions. These things are challenging even for elite lifters, with some people referring to them as the most difficult form of tricep extensions you can attempt. If you struggle to do skull crushers with 60 or more pounds, I wouldn’t even think about touching this one, at least not with the bulk of my body weight behind it.
You probably won’t be able to do all of the varieties of pull-ups and chin-ups. When the average U.S. Marine maxes out at somewhere between 15 and 17 pull-ups, you know that we’re talking about a challenging bodyweight exercise. Men are expected to be able to do eight pull-ups in order to be considered in “borderline shape,” but the majority of men aren’t in shape. In reality, if one-third of Americans can’t do five regular push-ups, I’m going to presume that none of those same people can execute more than one proper pull-up, and that the median American probably tops out around two.
So, if you’re headed to the fitness park and you’re just getting started, it would be best to earn your access to the pull-up bar by mastering some less demanding movements first.
How exactly? Because it sounds like I’m a fitness park failure.
Get a gym membership. If you’re of below average fitness, the machines at the gym are specifically constructed so that novice exercisers will be able to execute strength-building movements at increasing levels of difficulty — this includes the pull-up and dip machines that offer optional, built-in assistance to everyone who uses them.
Going this route, you can gradually develop the sort of strength required to go to a fitness park and have your way with the lion’s share of the training stations, rather than showing up and realizing there’s effectively not much you can do unless you already happen to possess a superheroic level of bodyweight mastery.