Isometrics and calisthenics: Take a look back at vintage exercises ( decidedly un- CHEUGY!)


Today’s blog entry takes a look at XBX AND 5BX vintage work out routines that incorporate isometrics and calisthenics.

 Isometrics is a foundational principle for staying fit or becoming more able-bodied. In this day the term is somewhat overlooked and therefore isometric basics are often omitted in today’s work- out routines.

Back in the day, isometrics took center stage and I’d like to take a look at both isometrics and calisthenics and understand the physics of both types of training activities. They are invaluable and target different aspects of body conditioning. Isometrics are integral to the “anti-aging” process and a brilliant exercise system that the Training Table relies on.

The Training Table values old school training

The combination of the two systems, isometrics with calisthenics are powerful; by adding 3 isometrics and calisthenics classics to your day you will evolve stronger and healthier by aiding muscle density and strength. In addition, you bump-up your calorie-burn.

I chose three drills for overall effectiveness and for the ease you can insert them to your Modus Vivendi; home routine or workplace without equipment or leaving the room for that matter. I also provide links to more exercises from other sources if you want to go beyond the Training Table three exercises.

Isometrics and calisthenics back in the day

Didn’t most of you, if you existed during the 60s and early70s, have a doorway pullup bar somewhere in your Mid-Century American homes? Maybe it was just my enthusiastic Jack LaLanne inspired dad who immediately went out to buy the on- trend door-jamb/ chin-up bars, (destroyed our wood door frames) and for sure, that 60s pecs-builder icon:  the accordion- like- stretchy- metal coil apparatus my father was constantly stretching in attempts to build up his pecs.

Retro Drills and gymless workouts

For some blog readers, might these exercise names bring back vintage gym-class memories?

Jumping jacks, squat thrusts, jump-squats, frog jumps, windmills. These are the classic exercises we were doing in our gym class in the 60s.


1960s 8th grade gym suit 

Or perhaps, this 60 girl’s gym-suit reminds you of 8th grade?

In the 60s and into 70s we didn’t have “gyms” if that is even comprehensible, nor did any of us even know about free weights, but we weren’t all out of shape. So how did we do it? In two words, “calisthenics” and “isometrics”.

In efforts to achieve fitness, we stood in gym class rows and diligently performed alternate formulas of isometrics and calisthenics.  Many of the throw-back exercise series have proven the test of time to be highly effective.

Immediate, right- this- minute- work-outs

 You can help your heart and muscle tone this moment- as soon as you finish reading this blog entry, wherever you are. Calisthenics and isometrics strengthening exercises can be performed in short spurts within a mini radius around you to include the tiniest of work spaces, and what’s more, you don’t need any equipment. I think that’s what I appreciate most- you can be watching your TV (which I do) and still do the calisthenics and isometrics and get immediate positive results. I actually keep my yoga mat rolled out in between my TV and my couch and hop up and activate my heart and muscles during TV viewing and same could be done with your gaming chair, office desk, or wherever you spend long intervals seated or standing. Or, if you take your dog for a walk, before and or after, throw in a quick callisthenic, and an isometric to enhance the walk.

What is meant by isometrics ?  

The Greek word origin iso ( the same, equal) and metric (metron, a measure),” Miriam Webster Dictionary defines isometrics as a system of exercises in which “opposing muscles are so contracted that there is little shortening but a great increase in tone of muscle fibers involved.” Isometrics are a series of movements where muscles are trained to work against one another. It is a movement where your body relies on gaining muscle strength through driving “tension” in your muscles; the body stays static. A key benefit is building joint stability.

For example, hold your hands in front of you close to your chest, and press palms firmly together fingers up, (as in prayer). The tension felt running up both arms, exemplifies the muscle strengthening isometric property. They are low-impact and the isometric activities effectively strengthen muscles, tone the body, and isometrics allow us to improve our movement and posture.

Examples of Isometrics/ static strengtheners

Exercises where you hold your poses such as: a wall sit, plank, many yoga poses, a slowly held dumbbell curl, a held lunge, are all examples of isometric exercise or also often referred to as static strengtheners. Isometrics are especially effective and helpful if you have arthritis, joint pain, are in injury recovery mode, or are a serious athlete who wants to prevent injury.

 Isometrics only gain in importance as we age. As reviewed by the Mayo Clinic research on isometrics, the data shows isometrics to be also extremely effective in reducing blood pressure. And if you are reading this entry and are not yet old, all the more reason to hone in on isometrics throughout your day to maintain your youth. You will avoid a lot of aging issues: stooped body, frail and fractured bone mass, diminish the amount and the speed of muscle atrophy, and prevent much of overall muscle strains.

 Pretty much every coach of any sport I’ve spoken with, discusses how concentration on  isometrics helps the team with tendon protection, pain avoidance/ relief, and improves vertical jumping and speed.

 About isometrics   The incredible shrinking woman (man) and the antidote for muscle waste

Massive amounts of medical research on isometrics prove that doing isometrics allow our muscles and  joints to stabilize, increase our mobility and avoid what I call the “incredibly shrinking man/woman” thing to occur. We’ve all seen how our grandparents or neighbors, and for some of us-ourselves, start to slump and decrease in stature. Perhaps we’ve noticed the gait become less vigorous, or our skeletal frames more stooped or crooked. Natural atrophy inevitably occurs, but isometric exercise can and will, slow down the degradation of muscle tissue and inflammation. In the Incredible Shrinking Woman film (1981) Pat Kramer (Lily Tomlin) a normal suburban house wife starts to shrink after exposure to household products and cosmetics. While we might not get to microscopic size as Lily Tomlin did in the sci-fi comedy, in time, we will however, indeed shrink.

How not to shrink

The antidote for the incredible shrinking man or woman syndrome where we lose muscle and bone, is to focus in on performing easy to do isometrics.

The story about isometrics

IF one tries to trace the history of isometric exercise there are many rabbit holes to follow about the origins, but the isometrics adapted and popularized in the 60s (old school workouts routines) correlate to the isometric exercise system created by Buddhist monks in China as far back as the 12th century. If you love yoga, or steadfastly perform martial arts, if you train for sports enthusiastically, then you undoubtedly already incorporate isometrics in your workout routine.

Click on the link below for 8 isometrics:

8 isometric exercises and how to do it: adapted from Jay Hyber’s blog are some good examples and explanations of isometrics:

  • Hand to temple press (for neck)
  • Plank
  • Low squat
  • Split squat
  • Wall sit
  • Calf-raise hold
  • Leg extenders (no apparatus)
  • Static lunge

About calisthenics

The word origin of calisthenics as defined by the Miriam Webster Dictionary: “systemic rhythmic bodily exercises performed usually without apparatus.” Calisthenics comes from the Greek Kalos beautiful and sthenos strength. The Royal Canadian Air Force calisthenics program is widely credited with helping to launch the 1950s movement (that I grew up with) and serves today as a fundamental guiding principal.

XBX AND 5BX Exercise Plan and Royal Canadian Air Force    

You might recognize these exercise plans as the prevailing exercise plans developed in the late 50s by Dr. Bill Orban. The 5BX Plan acronym “5 Basic Exercises” (for men) was a manual developed for men and the XBX “Ten Basic Exercises” was designed as a corresponding manual for women. These classic programs were developed for the Royal Canadian Airforce Calisthenics Program and released to the public in 1961 by Dr. Bill Orban. It is worthwhile exploring this vintage exercise manual as it drives home how important it is to go back to basics.

Essentially the military pared strength and conditioning to highly comprehensive and effective 10-15 minute work-out routines, with little to no equipment to work out the entire body. Much of what we see in today’s boot-camps and cross-training style gyms is directly attributable to Dr. Orban’s work-out for the Canadian Air Force.

Gymless again, during Pandemic

The pandemic forced me back in time to my gym-less era and I discovered what I’d learned in PE during the 60s proved to be some of the most comprehensive, quick-workouts. These retro-classics hold up in in today’s sophisticated workout world. I’d forgotten how great they are; love these short but powerful routines. I still love gyms, but until this year’s pandemic game-changer, I didn’t realize that I could stay in great shape without packing my gym bag, getting into my car and driving cross traffic to the gym. I turned to my minimalist 60s gym class routines and do so much from home.

Today’s take-away

My goal for today’s entry is to prod (lightly) anyone who sits on the couch, sits at their computer, or wants to add one more integral exercise into their workout routine, with 3 stellar take-away exercise options. Hopefully the blog entry serves as reminder of how calisthenics and isometrics are essential to a quality of life. No matter where you are in the spectrum of fitness, it is always good to deliberately think about this and understand the mechanics of work-outs.

Crucial and indispensable

It is KEY to frequently integrate movement and fire up the entire body throughout your day. I cannot possibly state this enough. A lack of movement is dangerous to one’s health. You do not need a dedicated space, or equipment or time set aside. You do not need gym clothes. So, for example, you can be watching Netflix and just jump up and do a few rounds of isometrics, jump up again and do a few rounds of calisthenics. You could be at the worksite and do these at your desk, in the ware house, really anywhere, any time.


rhythmic jumping jacks

If you ask me to choose just one overall basic exercise, and were allowed to do no other workout, my number 1 pick is unhesitatingly the squat thrusts   similar but not the same, to today’s “burpee” which adds a jump. (read on for how to do it old-school).


Squat thrusts ingeniously strengthen and tone the entire body and employ a good balance of isometrics and calisthenics and are cardio-boosters. Squat thrusts strengthen quads, glutes, hamstrings, arms, shoulders and at the same time will crank up your heart rate and build up your core. A few of these tossed into your day would be stupendous.

Body percussion techniques

How is a vintage squat thrust different from current work-outs? For openers, old school exercises were big on using body percussive movements. Deliberately using the percussive techniques on oneself keeps your brain at high alert. Examples of body percussives are: a clap, a tap, a slap, a touch. This auto-rhythmic touch (using yourself for beats)  during workouts, while seemingly simplistic, is in fact highly effective; body percussive movements drive the dynamics, holds your focus, and allows you to push your body beyond the comfort zone.

The following is my adaptation of the squat thrust- there are modifications to make them more challenging or less intense if you find a full squat thrust too difficult for your current fitness status. For intensification you can do two thrusts instead of one, you can add in a dip of a push up into the extended thrust. To lessen the intensity and strain, you can simply walk through the motions and use a chair to assist you going up and down. Many people do “walk-thus” at first, until the calisthenic and isometrics kick in to improve mobility, agility, and energy.

Here is my personal ON THE TRAINING TABLE take on the brilliant squat thrust:

1.       First clap out the 8 beats: 

(Stand at attention and before you start your first squat thrust set: clap out a steady 8 beats)

clap, clap, clap, clap, clap, clap clap clap

 This 8 beat rhythm will drive your pace

2.       Each step of the squat thrust routine is accompanied by a tap, a slap, a touch,  or a movement. Count 1 begins with arms upstretched over ears and final count 8 will land on same- arms extended high. Count the 8 counts aloud as you do them.

a.       Reach 1--- thrust arms fully towards ceiling

b.       Tap 2---hands down to shoulder tap shoulder firmly

c.       Tap 3---hands down to waist- a firm tap/hold onto your waist

d.       4 squat--- hands in front of your feet pressing into floor for balance, knees bent- tap floor

e.       5 hop back: Legs slide back hands anchored to allow the backward thrust into a plank

f.        6 hop forward: legs hop forward to your hands for the forward thrust (like a frog)

g.       7 spring up standing position hands tap firmly on waist

h.       8 a final tap both hands tap shoulders, and then you are ready for squat thrust #2

a.       arms thrust and extend high above the head up with final flourish and start again.

 Squat thrusts demo by Spotebi) click on link to view

Repeat as you can, 10 completed squat thrusts is a good goal to have as a set. Depending on your current fitness level: try sets of 3 and work your way up. Or do a walk- through of the movements until you get stronger and remember, there is nothing wrong with using a chair to help you get up and down. At first, even if you are in good shape, you might find you are breathless and winded but you will improve rapidly within two weeks. Once the squat thrusts are part of your muscle memory, you can try out so many modifications such as hold the plank, do double hop-backs etc.

The Windmill: (calisthenics)

This vintage exercise involves complex muscles, particularly the obliques, abdominals, hip and leg muscles, hamstrings, and spinal erectors. But you need to start slowly and AVOID ALL JERKY MOVEMENT. At first you reach to thighs, then work your way down to touching ankle to ankle. Do your spinal twists as you go side to side cautiously, gently, rhythmically.

For outstanding windmill exercise fine points, check out crossfit enthusiast and coach: Justin Lind and his blog: Breaking Muscle.

HAND TO TEMPLE PRESS: Neck exercises (isometric, contractions without movement)

Another popular isometric we emphasized in the 60s was a series of  neck exercises as shown and explained and detailed by Saint Lukes health tips website below:

To start, sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor. Your weight should be slightly forward so that you’re balanced evenly on your buttocks. Relax your shoulders and keep your head level. Using a chair with arms may help you keep your balance. "

1.    Press your palm against your forehead. Resist with your neck muscles. Hold for 10 seconds. Relax. Repeat 5 times.

2.    Do the exercise again, pressing on the side of your head. Repeat 5 times. Switch sides.

3.    Do the exercise again, pressing on the back of your head. Repeat 5 times.

These can be done sitting or standing. When I have neck strains and pain, I like to do these neck isometrics while in a hot shower. Or, after a shot shower, try  the isometric neck-presses with a moist towel around your neck. This series is vital for strengthening and limbering the all- important, easily pained and strained neck.

 Journal of Sports Science and Medicine and neck intervention programs analysis

Coaches use these tested isometric series frequently. In extensive, medical testing analysis with rugby players as reported by the fascinating article in  Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, neck strengthening that included static stretching such as the series I recommend in this entry, is proven to find a significant reduction of injuries. If rugby players swear by these isometric neck exercises, we in the every-day world will no doubt benefit as well.

Conclusion: As is so often the case, “It’s all about basics.”

For today’s blog entry I chose three classic isometric and callisthenic basic exercises; staples of military, sports teams and gym classes, to easily roll into your day:

  1. the squat thrust
  2. wind-mill
  3. neck press.

For all three you don’t need a change of clothes, nor a change of room. You don’t have to fire up a mirror or clip into a peloton. The only required start mechanism is to rise from the couch and go.

Maybe doing these three exercises will expand your repertoire with add-ons such as jumping-jacks, plank-holds, push-ups and perhaps a static wall stand.

Remember: even one single exercise will have a positive impact on your strength and well-being. Sometimes I feel I'd like to shout that from the rooftops to the world, just baby steps help enormously.

And, as I sift through all the decades of work-out trends I have lived through, and I promise you I devotedly checked out and embraced most fads, crazes, trends and exercise movement of every decade- starting at age 10 until now -which equals a half a century’s worth of exercise “movements,” I have come to the realization that my back’n-the- day vintage work-outs and exercise plans, hold a treasure trove of unbeatable conditioning exercises. The old school calisthenics and isometrics are worth a revisit for old timers, and can serve as a foundation for the younger generation.














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