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How calisthenics can offer a route out of crime

Juan Lopez has achieved remarkably rapid success in using calisthenics in prisons and community settings to activate, motivate and guide people towards better life outcomes.

Juan, from Tottenham in North London, has been running Callisseum for less than a year, but has already established a network of community groups across England and is operating his programmes inside three prisons.

Calisthenics are exercises performed without specialist equipment other than bars or rings. They rely on nothing but a person’s bodyweight and are excellent for development of strength, endurance, flexibility and coordination.

Having left school at 13, Juan “got to a tough place” after getting heavily involved in crime through his teens. At 19, he joined the Army, initially to “lie low and let things settle”. He ended up staying 10 years, latterly becoming a Military Training Instructor working with junior soldiers at the Army Foundation College.

He mentored young Army recruits, many of whom were from similar backgrounds to his own. “I helped them navigate their challenges and understand their barriers, whether personal or external,” he explains.

After leaving the military he set up an alternative provision called Military Preparation College, preparing young people who didn’t yet meet Army recruitment entry standards in terms of fitness, qualification and soft skills.

He then moved to Steel Warriors, a charity which melts down knives taken off the streets and recycles the steel to make outdoor street gyms.

After the Covid-19 lockdowns, Juan drew upon his lived experience of crime, his military background and delivery of community calisthenics in under-privileged areas to form Calisseum.

Calisseum consists of three programmes which deal with progressive stages of development.

First Rep is purely about engagement. A network of informal, outdoor community sessions introduce over 150 participants all over the country to a very simple form of calisthenics.

Early on, it’s about assessing each individual’s fitness levels and setting them a goal; perhaps performing a first pull-up or learning a cool trick on the bars.

“You can’t cheat a pull up!” says Juan. “To attain that goal you’ve got to be disciplined, resilient and dedicated, all the qualities you associate with success. Without realising it, participants learn the values and qualities they need in order to achieve. It’s a mindset they can apply to other areas of life. We find it extremely powerful.”

Each session has between 20-40 attendees who are from all walks of life. They are run by licensed facilitators from the local community who work within Calisseum’s framework and are supported in drawing funding from local councils.

Built 4 It is Calisseum’s second programme for groups of 10-15 at a time. It operates both in the community and as an intervention programme in prisons (HMP Swinfen Hall, Wandsworth and Brixton), referral units and Youth Offending Services.

It is an adaptation of the ‘Combat Estimate’, a seven-step process that Army commanders use to develop strategies to achieve a mission. It uses the same process to help people develop a personal strategy to change their life, with fitness and calisthenics as part of that journey.

“I have met so many people from my area involved in crime who want to go legit but just don’t how to take that first step,” explains Juan. “The combat estimate helps them prepare mentally and physically to get to a starting point on their journey to something better.

“I’ve got lived experience so when I’m up in front of them inside the jail they think, ‘He’s one of us’. The engagement was immediately high. They only get access to the gym twice a week but they can use calisthenics in the courtyard and their cells. The feedback has been amazing.”

Post-release, participants are linked up with their local Calisseum sessions. “It gives them a community and an exercise outlet straight away as they usually can’t afford a gym membership,” explains Juan. “We want to start training them up to go back into prisons and deliver the calisthenic programme themselves. It’s so much more powerful when they can say, ‘I’ve been there’.”

Level Up is Calisseum’s next phase. It is a referral scheme into a support network of education and employment providers.

Juan explains: “Our two initial programmes give the participants focus, dedication and understanding of what they want to achieve, so by this point they have belief, momentum, positivity, a track record of achievement in fitness and an understanding of their future aspirations.

“Whether it’s a qualification or job in construction, creative industries or sales, they have undergone a process to get them motivated for it. It’s not just a random qualification, there’s a process behind it.”

Calisseum also run calisthenics tournaments for beginner, intermediate and advanced-level athletes as well as ‘showcase’ categories for the professionals.

They say Rome wasn’t built in a day, but Calisseum has been built pretty quickly! Its growth has happened in just under a year – an astonishing achievement. “My Army experience of motivation through fitness, connecting people and leadership have come to the fore,” says Juan. “The benefits are evident for everyone who has got involved.”