Calisthenics: How London Parks Can Fit Into Your Exercise Programme

Calisthenics, outdoor workouts

I’m sure you remember that scene in the Rocky movies where Sylvester Stallone’s character is doing raised press ups on a park bench and uses a felled tree for some squats. Well, sometimes you just have to make the best of what’s around. For those of you who want to keep fit but find the idea of going to a gym and mixing with those perfectly toned athletic types daunting, you can always prep up for a few months in the local park. It’s actually a healthier option because of all the fresh air and also you’ll be immersing yourself in nature, which studies have shown benefits both physical and mental health.

Trees and plants give off oxygen, which is exactly what your lungs, muscles and red blood cells need when you’re exercising to the max. Don’t forget, gyms are full of knackered people exhaling carbon dioxide. Do you really want to be breathing down all their waste C02? And anyway, there’s something about the outdoors that gives your workout that stirring, primal edge that draws you nearer to your core, authentic self and as close as one can get to the environment of our ancestors hunting the savannahs thousands of years ago. Escape from the concrete confines of 21st century life is an essential part of your journey to wellness and fitness.

Of course, every park is different but you’ll just to have to be inventive and resourceful with whatever’s around. Most London parks have some basic exercise apparatus which is often overlooked as a purely decorative parkland feature. However, the local authorities have constructed those items with public health in mind, so get cracking! The best equipment is whatever’s around and the best time is now.

WEST HAM PARK in London’s East End, has a few custom-built structures dotted around and you can almost miss them because they are made from the tree trunks that are natural part of the surroundings. These are ideal for the type of calisthenics exercises that will get you toned and muscular. Calisthenics comes from a Greek word meaning strength and beauty – well that’s the general idea but essentially you’re using your body weight as resistance to get the optimal physical results. So not much equipment is needed.

You can use the overhead bar for pull ups and chin ups. Chin ups are done with your palms facing you as you pull yourself up. Make sure your arms are a shoulder’s width apart and fully extend your arms. With pull ups, your palms are facing away but its executed in the same way. Also, you can improvise with different angled grips and arm positioning for subtle shifts in results or whichever is you’re preference. But NOT whichever makes you feel most comfortable. Comfort and results rarely go together. No pain no gain.

Pull ups and chin ups develop chest, shoulder and back musculature.

Alternative equipment If there are no overhead bars in your park, children’s climbing frames can be used. But you’ll have to get there when everyone’s at school because kids obviously have priority. Some calisthenic exercisers have used super-sturdy tree branches for this exercise but we wouldn’t recommend that because of the risk of injury if the branch breaks and also damage to the trees isn’t exactly helping the environment. Remember what we mentioned earlier about trees giving off oxygen? So destroying them is pretty counter-productive.

This park also has a dip bar which is pretty popular with curious casual park goers and as with most of the exercise apparatus here it doesn’t have a Venice Beach-style crowd to make you feel self conscious. Begin your exercise in the position in the photo below and make sure you lower yourself until your elbows are at right angles and close to your body. We recommend three sets of 5-15 reps before moving on to the next exercise.

Alternative equipment Hit your park’s children’s playground again and you are likely to find parallel bars or something pretty similar. The back of a park bench will do, but make sure it’s securely fixed to the ground or you’ll go flying!

Press ups can be done anywhere. Raised press ups shouldn’t be too much of a problem either. If you can sit on it you can probably do raised press ups on it. These two structures in West Ham Park (photo below) are handy because they are at different heights and put incrementally heavier loads on your arms, back and chest area.

When in the position of the photo above you can add explosive power by pushing off the bar during the press up and catching it on the way down. Also reverse your position and put your feet where your hands were and plant your hands on the ground. These slight adjustments in body weight will not only add gains but vary your routine when it gets a little repetitive and your options are limited. As they are supposed to be! Below is a list of some other workout parks in London with exercise apparatus or a calisthenics community, but the full list is a lot longer and you’ll find something to train with in every London park.

West Ham Park, 125 Ham Park Road, Stratford, London, E15 3QN

Victoria Park, 32 St. Mark’s Gate, Bow, London, E3 2JU

Bethnal Green Health Centre, Florida Street, Globe Town, Bethnal Green, E2 6AE

London Fields, 11 Exmouth Place, London Fields, London, E8 3RY

Butterfield Green, 80 Milton Grove, Clissold, London, N16 8TH

Elthorne Park, 71 Sunnyside Road, Hillrise, London, N19 3AA

Kilburn Grange Park, 50 Palmerston Road, Kilburn, London, NW6 2JL

Slade Gardens, 3 Ingleborough St, London SW9 0DL

Brockwell Park, 65 Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London, SE24 0PB

Kennington Park, 651 St. Agnes Place, Oval, London, SE11 4AY

Bourne Terrace, Warwick Estate, Westbourne Green, Westminster, London, W2 5TH

London Exercise Park, 27 Ilchester Place, Holland, London, W14 8NH,

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About the author /


Eddie Saint-Jean

Eddie Saint-Jean is an arts reviewer with a background in art theory, film and theatre.

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