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The rise and rise of women in calisthenics

Women have traditionally been invisible or absent from strength training in public. But calisthenics is changing that— one pullup at a time

Satya Naidu picked up calisthenics by accident
Satya Naidu picked up calisthenics by accident (Facebook)

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How would you react if you saw a group of people suddenly going into a handstand and doing push-ups in the middle of your park or shopping district? Chances are you will be amazed, will stand around to see what else they can do, and possibly ask them how they learned it. For a very small group of athletes across the country, this is their daily life. They practice calisthenics in parks, open gyms or even just plain grounds. "Initially, I used to be very uncomfortable when people would stare at me doing my workouts in the park. But now I find it more encouraging than weird. It helps that the community itself never stops you from trying out something new, no matter the strength, just because you are a girl," says Satya Naidu. 

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Naidu picked up calisthenics by accident. As a kho-kho and table tennis player, she had already played at the national level. But once she joined the corporate world, she lost touch with sports and soon started feeling out of shape. She started with an obstacle course race and won it, re-igniting the fire in herself to get fit once again. Naidu won second place at the recently held calisthenics competition in Darjeeling. It is a matter of pride. After all, it was the first World Cup stage event for freestyle calisthenics in India and saw several international athletes participate. It's not that India doesn't have competitions, but they are too few and usually attended by people from that city or state. But such events, feels Naidu, are a great way to meet people, to know how they have trained, and ultimately to work on her own game as a self-taught calisthenics' athlete.

Working on your game is possible only when you know your goal, believes Mumbai-based Pearl Joseph Monteiro. The 34-year-old mother has never been shy about working out in public. But her turning point came when she saw a girl doing pull-ups during the All India Strength Wars (AISW)—a competition hosted for calisthenics athletes. 

"My first thought was if she can do it, I can do it too. I never doubted myself. I just needed guidance, so I went to a calisthenics gym park and started getting trained properly. I was comfortable in my body, comfortable wearing a sports bra and working out in public. But that said, I know a lot of women find it overwhelming," says Monteiro, pointing out how she has seen a growth in the number of women taking this sport up. But the work is far from over. 

Monteiro came second in the strength category at the World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation 2021. However, no one outside the calisthenics community knew about this or even seemed excited by this. This has been her personal mission now, to make it well-known and accessible to all. 

Rajan Sharma and Rohan Singh have a similar motto. The duo, in their early 30s, were one of the first calisthenics athletes in the country and are currently best known as the organisers for AISW, which has been happening on the ground since May 2018. 

"I have seen how this sport, which hardly had 2-3 people when I started, has grown in the last few years. In the first AISW we had 75 athletes and 150 viewers, mostly friends and family. But the same year, when we hosted AISW 2.0 in November, we saw many more. Along with that, many smaller competitions started getting organised at the local level in various cities. Since it's a growing sport, everyone is invited, and instead of competition between organisers, there is support from us all," points out Sharma. 

Sharma also reveals how in the first version, not a single girl showed up and in 2.0, there were just two girls. He has since made dedicated efforts to grow awareness and make calisthenics approachable to everyone. On social media, he has posted content answering questions about women who might take up calisthenics and has even organised women's only meet-and-greet events offline. "We could have had normal meet-ups. But in most of these, boys take up more space. Girls and women feel conscious and possibly too insecure to try a movement when they see men doing it effortlessly. We wanted to make a safe space for them and let them meet other women who are leaders in this field," he explains.

Naidu, for example, recognised this gap. She has got herself certified and is now also training other girls to pick up the sport. It's not that you always need a trainer, but it helps. 

According to Sharma, people who are already working out know the basics of movements like push-ups, pulls ups, squats and dips. But they might not know the depth of it or how to change angles to get a better workout. "Often, people just set themselves a goal to say, learn the muscle up. They skip the basic movements and get injured. The basics are the building blocks. That's why the trainer can help.," he explains. 

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But if you don't have the goal of a muscle up or a handstand push-up, don't worry. According to Monteiro, calisthenics is for everyone because "there are different versions within calisthenics—bodyweight, freestyle, endurance etc. You have to try them out to see which makes you feel good and then work on it. It's not just a workout. Rather a way to learn skills, no matter if you are a beginner or have been practising for years."


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