Calisthenics For Iron Domination
You know what, I get it. No really, I get it.
You think of calisthenics as a “back up plan” when you don’t have any iron handy rather than a discipline to be practiced and mastered. To be honest, I don’t blame you. YouTube and Facebook are replete with matchstick-legged Eastern European street workout urchins posting party-trick calisthenics moves and blood-and-guts high-rep sets in tragically dub step-laden compilation videos all over the place, and if that’s all you see, who can blame you for thinking that calisthenics is best suited for teenage hoodlums with a probable criminal record and a propensity for always skipping leg day?
The reality, however, is far more intriguing, and it holds a lot of potential for demolishing your previous strength and conditioning PRs both in your barbell and kettlebell practice and replacing them with all new levels of iron domination.
Good, because the scope of this article is going to be on how to employ calisthenics training into your current training to enhance your kettlebell and/or barbell practice.
To put it simply, calisthenics – when stripped down to its most fundamental elements – is the ability to control and master your body in free space. The better you can do that, the easier it is to control external objects in free space as well as defy gravity. In fact, this is the first thing we even learn to do as we’re developing. We don’t build our strength by bench pressing our Legos; we do it by learning to make gravity bend to the will of our bodies by first learning to lift and control our heads, roll around on the ground, rock back and forth, crawl on all fours, and eventually walk upright. These humble beginnings – known as the developmental sequence – set the stage for all the rest of your strength and athleticism, and it starts with defying gravity. When you can make gravity bend to your will, you can make iron do the same.
No? Fine, no problem. One need only take a look at any of the old school iron legends and you’ll notice one big thing in common: in addition to hoisting preposterous poundages, they always had incredible calisthenics feats to their name.
“Marvelous” Marvin Eder could reportedly do a mind-bending 8 one-arm chin-ups per arm, and John Grimek was said to do 6-7 per arm. Moreover, both Eder and proto-powerlifter Pat Casey performed incredibly heavy dips on a regular basis (Eder could do a dip with two 200 lb men clinging to his legs), with Casey even occasionally going so far as to do 8-hour dipping sessions (you read that right). Casey was the first man to bench press 600 lbs and Eder was the first man under 200 lbs to bench 500. Wonder why.
British berserker, pro-wrestler, and all-around tough guy Burt Assirati was an iron nut famous for squatting 800 lbs before squatting had even become fashionable and curls were still socially acceptable (so long as you didn’t do them in a squat rack). He could easily bust out such next-level calisthenics feats as multiple one-arm chins per arm, stand-to-stand bridges, one-arm handstands, and even the coveted and rarely seen iron cross – all at a not-so-svelte 240 lbs.
The Father of Modern Bodybuilding (and the guy who still appears on Mr. Universe trophies) Eugen Sandow was said to be able to do one-finger chin-ups on any finger of either hand (including his thumb)
Weightlifter and world record holder Paul “The Wonder of Nature” Anderson routinely performed handstand pushups and one-legged squats. He also once outran an Olympic gold medalist in sprinting in a 20 yard dash, which is not bad for anyone, let alone a 350 + lb slab of beef.
Fred Hatfield – more affectionately known as “Dr. Squat” – was the first man to squat 1000 lbs in competition. He started off his athletic career as a gymnast.
So beyond fundamentals such as being able to move your body through free space and a few examples of old school legends using calisthenics, what does calisthenics mean for YOUR iron practice?
- Builds intramuscular coordination and teaches it organically. If you’re not tight as can be in any severely leverage-challenged movement such as the front lever or one-arm/one-leg pushup, gravity will expose it in short order by bringing you earthward. No compensations allowed here. The better you can recruit literally every muscle in your body toward one task, the easier any feat of strength becomes.
- Teaches you to produce tension from nothing. One of the cornerstones of StrongFirst’s teaching methodology is that tension is a skill, and producing it is the gateway to any and all higher-level strength feats, both with bodyweight alone and iron. This becomes especially apparent when feed-forward tension techniques come into play. The better you can feed your tension forward, the heavier you can lift and the more control you can exert on a weight. Show me a weightlifter or powerlifter who is totally loosey goosey when he steps up to dance with the weight and I’ll show you a dude or gal who’s about to get folded in half like a grilled cheese sandwich.
- Builds unparalleled scapular stability. For the same reason the Get Up has been instrumental in building up many people’s heavy military press, straight-arm calisthenics feats such as the front lever, handstand, back lever, L-sit, Planche, and others lead to a what-the-Hell effect in all of your lifts akin to that of experienced athletes using kettlebells for the first time and seeing a huge spike in their performance. Sounds almost too good to be true, but usually the best things in life are.
So NOW are you convinced that calisthenics is good for more than just over-produced YouTube videos from behind the former Iron Curtain?
Good. Now it’s time to get to work.
So how do you start employing calisthenics moves for brute strength into your training?
Due to the incomparable versatility of bodyweight training, you have multiple choices:
A) Drop your iron completely, spend 1-3 months doing bodyweight training only, and then re-test yourself on your favorite lifts and see how you fare. An extreme approach – and one that can work wonders – but not necessary.
B) Save them for your variety day. A great option that will fit into just about any 3-day strength program and allow you to get in some high-quality, low-rep work without feeling rushed.
C) Pair a few low-rep sets with an iron drill of your choice.
D) A mix of all of the above options.
Just for fun, we’ll go with D. Why? It will allow you to spread out a number of high-yield calisthenics exercises throughout your program and get the benefits not only of regular low-rep, high tension strength practice, but do so without overwhelming you. What’s more, you’ll also fill in a lot of gaps in your strength and begin to acquire a variety of skills you’re less likely to get in your regular iron practice. Filling in these cracks will propel you forward in all of your athletic and iron goals.
Here’s a sample program.
Let’s say your regular practice is 3 days a week of the following:
Double kettlebell clean + press
Double kettlebell front squat
Here’s how we’re gonna spice it up, fill in the gaps, and crush weakness even faster using a deadly blend of both iron and your own fair flesh. The following are my recommendations on how to maximize it with a complementary assortment of classic calisthenics moves.
Main days: (exercises listed as sets x reps)
Double KB military press – 3-5×5
+ 2-3 sets of 3-5 reps of a handstand pushup progression you can manage without excessive strain.
Double KB front squat – 3-5×5
+ a set of 3-5 hanging leg raises before your sets. Optional set of 3-5 afterward.
Weighted pullups -3-5×5 (these weren’t in your original program, so I did you a favor and added them in. You’re welcome).
5-10×10 single kettlebell swing
+ 2-3 sets of 2-5 reps of any easy pistol progression before you start swinging
- Front lever progression – 3-5 sets of 5-10 second holds
- L-sit progression – 3-5 sets of 5-10 second holds
- One-arm/one-leg pushup progression – 3×3
- Back bridge progression: 3 sets of whatever your current flexibility levels will permit
You might have noticed this is anything but a beginner’s program. This will demand a lot of work from you, and as such will also demand a lot of recovery. I suggest starting your sessions off with some Original Strength resets to get the lifting juices flowing, and a cool down of more OS, or some of Pavel’s fast-and-loose drills along with Master SFG Jon Engum’s Flexible Steel drills to stretch what you’ve so powerfully tightened.
So what’s the benefit of each choice and each pairing?
Handstand pushups: These allow you to work on your overhead pressing groove and get in more volume – crucial for overhead pressing success – with less overall fatigue, since simply doing more military presses will serve mostly to trash your legs and abs, which handstand pushups will not. Moreover, your forearm flexors will get some repose since they’ll no longer be crushing handles during your presses.
Hanging leg raises: to quote Pavel “I have never known a single person who regularly practiced hanging leg raises and failed to develop a hard and useful set of abs. Ever.” If that’s not good enough for you (for shame!) HLRs will also help connect your grip, your core, and even your lats into your front squatting efforts. Unless you’re one of those non-squatting chicken leg-types I mentioned earlier in the article, I shouldn’t have to explain why that will be useful for your squats .
You may consider doing them both before AND after as some ab assistance work for your squats, as that’s one of the arrows in the quiver of Igor Shestakov. Who is he? Oh, just some Russian powerlifter who has squatted 854.3 lbs at 181 lbs of bodyweight. And he does 2×20 both before and after, so a few sets of 3-5 ain’t gonna kill you.
Weighted pullups: one of the best back builders around. Your grip and core will sit up and take notice, too.
Pistols: Pistols are great for building what Pavel refers to as “steering strength”, while also powerfully teaching you how to root through your feet, engage your quads, hamstrings, glutes, and abs together at once. My friend Corey Howard of Sioux Falls, SD – a former powerlifter – told me that a few years ago he did only pistols for his lower body strength work. When he came back to swings, his heaviest bells suddenly floated with incredible ease. What’s not to love about making heavy bells float with ease?
Front lever and L-sit progressions: both of these are fundamental – and indispensable – straight-arm scapular strength moves. Straight arm scapular strength is the final frontier of upper body strength development. Overlooked and underappreciated by the average strength enthusiast, these are a power tool against weakness in all its forms, and are without a doubt the greatest way I know of to speed toward ever-increasing strength in all of your favorite feats – including kettlebell and barbell feats. Ignore them to your own detriment. The amount you’ll be doing won’t impress any gymnast (but then again, not much will) but it will set you on the right track, and a little dab will do ya.
One-arm/one-leg pushup: see part 1 of my blog on this topic (From Bodyweight To Heavyweight Pt. 1: Mining the One-Arm/One-Leg Pushup For A Heavier Military Press) so I don’t have to repeat myself here.
Bridge: We all spend too much time in forward flexion, and most bodyweight feats will only add to that. These will reverse that.
And as a recap, here are a few things to keep in mind for each of your calisthenics moves:
High tension! Crush the pullup bar (or the floor) with your hands while trying to “break” it. I cannot stress this enough. This is StrongFirst-style bodyweight training. Don’t hold back.
Low reps. Keep the goal the goal. If you want to trade in your iron for calisthenics later, by all means go for it. For now it’s supposed to be assisting your efforts, not hindering them. More than 10 total to help you charge up your iron practice (with the exception of weighted pullups) is not necessary. Focus on tensing and recruiting as much muscle as possible with each rep. Same goes with the straight-arm work. Start conservative on both difficulty of the progression you choose and time under tension.
Go hollow! Flare your scapulae, practice the karate navel maneuver (point your bellybutton toward your face, tensing your abs and glutes at the same time), and keep your shoulders down. Obviously this will not apply to the bridge outside of keeping your shoulders down.
Relax after each set. Fast and loose, stretch, etc. You know the routine by now.
So there you have it. A demystified approach to combining iron and bodyweight training to get brutishly strong, defy gravity, and unceremoniously smash all of your old PRs, replacing them with newer, more impressive ones. You already have all the tools you need: your iron of choice, your bodyweight, gravity, and time. Now all you need to add is work. Give it two to three months and drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org to let me know how it worked for you.
Happy training, and have fun defying gravity.