On Sunday October 27th, the first UK all-female calisthenics championships were held at the Old Truman Brewery in London, by Callos. Around 25 women competed in 3 weight categories and 4 exercises: maximum pull ups, maximum parallel bar dips, longest L-sit and longest gymnastic shoulder stand on parallettes.
(skip this section if you’re more interested in the competition details than my rambling)
Why I went
I had been going to calisthenics classes run by the organisers for a while before that. Most regulars were encouraged to consider signing up at some point. Through my strategy of following my favourite instructors around various studios on Classpass (Blok Shoreditch & Clapton, Metabolic and CaliFlow) for the past 6 months, I had met a lot of the other likely competitors at some point. Knowing quite a few people who could be going, I knew from the start I would be near the bottom, but it was just such a unique opportunity I couldn’t pass it up.
I hoped I wouldn’t come last, at least not in every category. Some people decided to wait until next year when they would be stronger, but I know I probably won’t be in London around this time next year, so I couldn’t put it off. I also have enough past regrets about not doing stuff because I didn’t think I was good enough in some way, and I try not to let fear of failure stop me from trying anymore.
It also felt like a nice way to celebrate how far I’ve come this year. Even six months ago applying would have been out of the question. The minimum requirements listed were 1 pull up and 1 dip, which I couldn’t do until June this year. There was no minimum requirement for L-sit and shoulderstand (if there had, I probably wouldn’t have entered).
In addition, it was the first UK all-female calisthenics competition, and it was exciting to be a part of something like that. If the popularity grows in the coming years, there might be qualifiers in the future (this year you basically just had to sign up and meet the minimum).
I’ve never competed in anything sports related before, unless you count the annual school runs. I prayed each year I wouldn’t be last in those, but it was in vain (in hindsight, training might have been more helpful than prayer). I’ve participated in fun runs and OCRs that were timed, but that’s not really the same. So I wondered what would happen when I would have to demonstrate my abilities on stage in front of 3 judges and who knows how many spectators. Would I a) feel paralysed and underperform, b) break PRs high on adrenaline, or c) perform just as I normally do? (Spoiler: c is the closest.)
As explained, I signed up with the intention of having fun experiencing something new, and meeting other women with similar interests, while knowing fully well I might come last. Rationally this sounded very reasonable to me. But a couple of weeks before the event, emotions took over and I got cold feet. That was also around the time I realised I really wouldn’t get a stable shoulderstand in time (previously I had held out hope, since I was making a bit of progress), and my cycle made me feel extra bloated and heavy at 71kg, which didn’t help. Some of the women I knew that were closer to my ability level either couldn’t make it or chose not to apply, which made me pretty paranoid that I would end up as the only person there who’s not doing 20 pull ups or holding L-sit for a minute.
Thankfully, the moment of panic didn’t last forever, and a week before the competition I was feeling better again. I un-bloated closer down to my usual 69kg and did 5 pulls for the first time on Tuesday before. After asking around a bit and chatting to other women, I also felt somewhat reassured that I wouldn’t be completely alone with my handful of pull ups and struggling with shoulderstand.
Finding out there would be weight categories also gave me some mixed feelings. There is no doubt that I would be in the heaviest category. At 178cm I would be most likely be one of the tallest women going, and at ~70kg I’m not skinny either. In theory, not having to compete with women who are two thirds my weight is definitely beneficial. In practice, I’m no good at estimating other people’s weight, so I wasn’t sure what I’d be up against. (In retrospect, it was definitely a good thing.)
Deciding on categories must be hard. Weight matters more for pulls ups and dips than for L-sit and shoulderstand. I would argue that body composition can make a big difference in L-sit (whether you’re top or bottom heavy. Or at least that’s what I tell myself to make myself feel better), but that would be really hard to categorise. There’s also other factors to consider, such as age, or whether someone is a fitness professional (a few people going were yoga teachers or PTs). I guess what I’m saying is that with infinite possible categories you have to draw an arbitrary line somewhere.
How to prepare?
As per usual, make sure to get good sleep, eat nutritious food, and be adequately hydrated. You may have to make some sacrifices. I said no to a couple Halloween parties. On the day, have some caffeine and light carbs 30-90 minutes before exercise (if that’s something you’re used to).
Be fresh and rested. This means you shouldn’t work out ~3 days before (or 2-4, you should know your body best). That doesn’t mean no movement at all – walks, light cardio, stretching, light yoga can all feel good, but do avoid strength training.
If you can, be on the lighter end of your weight range. We all fluctuate a bit. My range for the past year or so has been mostly in high 68 – low 70kg (with some spikes around Christmas and such). 3 pounds difference is something you can really feel when you’re doing pull ups. There’s a special case if you happen to know that you’re right between two weight categories. In that case, it may be to your advantage to be on the low end of the higher weight category.
If you have any issues with nerves, I think one of the best advantages you could have in a competition is simple: having done it before. This is another reason to consider signing up to compete even when you are expecting to lose. It might give you an edge next time, when you have a chance of winning. Maybe this isn’t true for everyone, but I’ve experienced it before. Last year, I got really anxious about Spartan one or two weeks before (despite generally looking forward towards it for three months before that). I knew it was irrational, but it still resulted in a couple bad nights of sleep and general fretting. In the end it went okay, of course. This year I didn’t feel nervous at all, slept just fine and was well rested for the race.
Another important tip is to really read the rules and understand what the judges are looking for. In this case, there was a big emphasis on proper form, which was described well in advance and demonstrated on the day. Any reps with bad form (e.g. kipping on pull ups, not breaking 90° on dips…) were not counted. But if you’re taught a certain different way of doing things, I can see how it’d be hard to change your style, if you’re not used to it.
Initially I’d assumed that the judges might tell me if I was doing something wrong, but I had told earlier in the week that was not the case. The general advice was to be overly careful on form (costs a little energy), since bad form reps won’t count (and cost a lot of energy). At the competition, they were all quite friendly and did end up giving some corrections, which was helpful.
On the day
The competition was held in the Dray Gallery, which is a part of the Truman Brewery and a pretty cool venue. Two sides of it are glass, which attracted quite a few spectators from the outside. Since there was only one person competing at a time, the stage didn’t have to be very big. We had a small area for competitors and our bags. The venue got quite busy, but not too cramped.
They had a DJ, stands with donuts, beer, soft drinks, CBD snacks, etc. Spectators with tickets also good goodie bags with discounts and some protein bars.
There were some complimentary massages (or more accurately someone to help competitors who felt hurt or tired) and a visualisation expert, which I didn’t get a chance to talk to.
The contestants had to be there at 10am for the weigh-in, signing waivers and general briefing. They kindly let in significant others too. There were meant to be 27 women competing (I think a couple didn’t show up?), and they spread us out roughly evenly into three categories. I weighed in at 69.9kg and was solidly in the heavyweight category, as expected (the boundaries were around 54 and 62kg).
We went one at a time for each event, with 5 or more judges watching the form and filming us just in case there was contention. For each event, lightweight (strawweight?) category went first, then medium (flyweight), and heavy at the end. Within the category, the order seemed to be random for the first event (I went as the very last). After that, they ranked us in points and we went in order from last to first on the previous event. For example, if you were worst in dips in your category, you would go first in shoulder stand. This gave you an idea of how you did in the previous events, since we didn’t see the scores immediately. I’m not sure if/how ties were handled.
There was a brief group warm up and stretch, and there was a fair bit of time to practice on the bars if we wanted to before the competition actually started at 11am. For most events you don’t want to practice too much so you don’t you tire yourself out (although it also depends on how many reps you’re expecting to get). Shoulder stand is a bit different – a lot of people find that a bit easier on 2nd or 3rd try.
First, pull ups: from dead hang to chin above the bar. No jerking, kipping, back arching, bending legs or lifting them up into L-sit. The average number of pull-ups in the higher weight categories was definitely lower than in the lighter ones, but there were some incredible high-rep contestants in each. If I recall correctly the highest results ranged from 2 or 3 all the way up to the the mid-twenties* (that still counted as good form).
I was hoping for 5 after having managed it for the first time earlier this week. I did get them, which made me quite happy. That put me somewhere in the lower middle. Since this was the first event and my very first time going up like this in front of a crowd, it went like a blur and I couldn’t even really think. The audience was actually very supportive and cheering for everyone, which was nice.
Next, dips: from locked out at the top to 90° degree angle at the bottom with straight legs. After the shock of doing pull-ups I actually zoned out here a bit, but I think the reps ranged from 5 or so up to 30-something, with averages again noticeably different across categories.
We’d mostly been doing push-ups the week before, and I don’t know for sure where my dip number is, but I was aiming for somewhere around . With dips I also still struggle with knowing if I’m going deep enough. Ideally you should know where you are, but I’m not an expert yet. My aim was to spend a bit of extra energy to go a bit deeper than I think I need to go, but in reality the pressure got to me a bit. I actually got to 11, but this time my thinking was clearer and I could the corrections from the judges, and I had a feeling they didn’t all count. I later asked for my dips results, and it turns out 8 were counted, which is still not too bad – but in theory, I probably could have done 9 if I hadn’t wasted energy on 3 bad ones.
Then, shoulder stand: body in a straight line, no resting body on elbows or shoulders on parallettes. We had 30 seconds to initiate hold, which means you can try again if you immediately fall out, which quite a few people did. Several people (including me) didn’t really manage to hold for more than a second on either attempt. The highest holds were somewhere around 30-40 seconds. This was one of the events where weight matters less, although I think there was still a small effect.
I expected to be (jointly?) last here, and I was. I’d managed a second or two at home with my janky set up of push-up parallettes on top of stacks of tiles and books, but I hadn’t managed it in a public setting. A lot of shoulder stand is mental, and I was assuming that the pressure of doing it in front of everyone at the competition (and the loud music and cheering) would only make it harder. I didn’t really do any worse than in class – I extended my legs, but couldn’t stay up, as usual.
Lastly, L-sit: straight legs parallel to the floor. As soon as your legs drop below parallel, the clock would stop. This was put last because it has an element of endurance and fighting, if you really want to win. There was a big range, with a lot of people around 10-20 seconds, but the highest holds were nearly a minute.
I expected to be last here, and I was. I’ve made pretty big gains in upper body strength last year, but my core hasn’t quite progressed at the same pace, or at least it doesn’t feel like it (maybe it just started in a worse place, but it’s hard to tell). I’d never held L-sit for more than a second or two with both legs straight.
The judges deliberated for a bit while people had a chance to show off their skills, which were really impressive. In each category, they have out gold, silver and bronze*. In the light-weight category, there was a tie for second place. We knew there would be a tie breaker in such a case, but not what kind. Since their closest event was dips, they had to do them in tandem (each doing one rep after the other) until one of them failed. I lost count, but they did a lot. (It was pretty intense – it maybe detracted a bit from the actual gold winner, but it was fun to watch…)
They also gave out two special prizes for best form in pull-ups and dips, to promote form focus. They actually went to gold medalists in heavy and medium weight categories respectively.
Overall, I had a great time, and I’m so glad I went. I really pushed my personal comfort zone, and learned so much. There were so many strong inspirational women there to look up to, and it’s only raised my goals. More specifically, I realise even more than before that I really need to work on core strength.
*I’m not listing anyone’s names here as this is my personal blog that I haven’t really run by anyone, so I want to respect people’s privacy. If you happen to have been involved in the event, and want to be mentioned (or don’t mind it), just let me know.