By now you should have read the article “Kettlebells: the most asked question.” If not, click the link here and go back and read it before you read this.
I’m wary of referring to myself as a “personal trainer” as so many people have a sad-but-usually-true image in their heads of what that means: some shameless, skirt-chasing meat head who spends his days in the gym counting other people’s reps, acting cocky for his clients, passing judgment on others, or asking everyone he meets “Do you even lift, bro?” (I’ll admit, that last one is actually funny to do from time to time).
To avoid this comparison, when asked what I do, I generally tell people “I’m a kettlebell and bodyweight strength instructor.” Longer title, but a bit more accurate. What always surprises me is that more often than not, the follow up questions are almost always about kettlebells, where I teach, etc. It’s as if I didn’t even mention calisthenics training! Even if I try to re-inject the topic of bodyweight strength training into the equation when I answer, people more often than not just get that glazed-over look and still act like I just said something in a foreign language, or they’ll ask “bodyweight training? You mean like pushups and sit-ups and stuff? Can you get results from that?” I’ll start going on and on about it, but unless I’m dealing with someone with a good imagination, they can’t see how using no equipment to train can have any value.
What a damn shame too, because much like kettlebells, once my clients start seeing the benefits they get from calisthenics strength training, separating them from it is like separating a mama bear from her cubs.
Once I start explaining this to people, the mystique sets in and they’ve gotta know: “Why calisthenics?” As in, “Why structure a workout that only involves the weight of your body?
The answers are many. First and foremost, “functionality” (I put “functionality” in quotes because what often goes by “functional” in the fitness world has become a byword for “funky, complicated and seemingly random movements on a Swiss ball” rather than “useful in real life”). Your body has a myriad of uses, and part of your body’s abilities include both moving objects in free space (such as weight training) as well as moving itself in free space. Oftentimes people neglect that last part and you are left seeing people who can move impressive amounts of weight in the gym, but are “all show, no go” when it comes to lifting something or moving quickly and effectively in real life. Isolated movements in the gym, as strong as they may get you, are only half the equation. Half the equation = half the results. Regardless of your preference in weighted implements, be they kettlebells, barbells, or dumbbells, if you can move weight but not your OWN weight, can you truly be “functional” for most any real-life task? Think this over for a while.
Second of all is variety. While kettlebells – as much as I love them – lend themselves to an incredible variety of exercises, the variety of different worthwhile exercises in calisthenics training goes beyond incredible. It is absolutely dizzying. I can think of more than two dozen different types of pushups alone just off the top of my head – and that’s without even racking my brain. I have little doubt I could come up with 100 more if I just did some searching. The same goes for variations of pullups, squats, handstand pushups, dips, bridges and a massive collection of other major bodyweight strength movements. Not only will this keep you from getting bored, but it makes it much, much easier to scale exercises based on difficulty level for anyone from beginner to elite. Even better yet, the huge variety of different exercises means that you can work a lot of “in between strength” necessary for keeping your body supple and free of overuse injuries. And naturally, scaling the exercise from easier to harder requires no more equipment than your own body. Cheap, effective, no excuses.
Third, believe it or not, is your education in strength training. You will learn more about the discipline of building strength from calisthenics strength training than from anything else. I began to notice this once I had begun diligently working my way up to one-arm/one-leg pushups, and had my observations validated by Pavel Tsatsouline at the Naked Warrior certification workshop in October of 2012, where he said the exact same thing.
But why? And how?
The reasons are many. The use of progressive exercise to gradually get more difficult, the need for creative thinking in ways to make the exercises more difficult, etc. etc. The list goes on. But if I had to give just one reason why calisthenics training teaches so much about the discipline of building strength, it’s because it solidifies using the skill of tension in order to overcome major leverage disadvantages found in all the most difficult bodyweight strength feats.
When leverage is in your favor, you need much less tension to move (for example: pushups against the wall). When leverage is NOT in your favor, the only way to keep yourself from crumpling up on the floor like yesterday’s newspaper is by getting tight everywhere. For example: one-arm/one-leg pushups. Your entire bodyweight is being supported by the ball of one foot and the opposite palm. Holding this position is hard enough. Pulling yourself down and pushing yourself back up as a solid unit and under perfect control takes skill. That skill is tension.
This has big carry over into other activities. Once I could do a solid one-arm/one-leg pushup on either side, I was able to press an 80 lb kettlebell over my head with ease – something that had eluded me for years. My body was now better at linking itself up – and I reaped the rewards because of it. Another example: My friend Corey Howard, owner of Results Personal Training in Sioux Falls, SD, told me that upon showing him drills to improve certain bodyweight feats such as pistols and one-arm pushups, his kettlebells started to practically float when he lifted them. Perhaps the best evidence for this is elite gymnasts. They train ONLY with their bodyweight, and it is not uncommon for them to deadlift 2 and even 3 times their bodyweight upon their first barbell lesson thanks entirely to their mastery of full-body tension. Coach extraordinaire Charles Poliquin has noted that a number of gymnasts that he’s trained have worked up to 350 lb bench presses within weeks of learning the exercise – despite never bench pressing before. When was the last time YOU benched 350? Don’t answer. I know. The take away point is that your body is one big piece – the more you can use it as such, the faster you’ll get results.
But perhaps the most obvious reason is convenience – pure and simple! In my early days as a kettlebell fanatic, I ran into a problem. Whenever I travelled, I was stuck not working out because I didn’t have the foggiest notion as to how to put together a training program with anything else. More often than not I had no weights at my disposal, so I was just plain out of luck. As time went on, I started to make it a point to learn pullups, REAL pushups (not what passes for pushups), pistols, and a variety of other bodyweight essentials. The more I did them, the stronger I got. The day I first nailed one-arm pushups, I was officially hooked – kettlebells from there on out made room for bodyweight strength training, and I was better off for it.
Not only that, so were my clients. I finally had a solution for them when they went travelling and had no access to kettlebells. One of my clients, Jessica, whose job requires her to travel monthly and often for a week or more at a time asked if I could give her a routine to do while she was away. I gave her a very basic but no BS routine to do when she travelled, and later she told me it helped her lose 8 lbs! Pretty impressive considering how easy it is to eat poorly and exchange exercise for shopping and entertainment while you’re away on a business trip.
So how can you structure a workout completely around bodyweight training? I’m glad you asked! Below you’ll see the beginner’s workout I gave her, followed by a more advanced one that I myself have done while travelling.
Beginner’s bodyweight-only program:
5 pushups from the knees
10 second Hardstyle plank
10 second Hardstyle plank
5 towel rows (rows down with a towel around a door handle)
10 second Hardstyle plank
10 mountain climbers
rest as little as possible, as much as necessary
Repeat 5 rounds
Advanced bodyweight-only program
One-arm pushups – 1 per side x 5
Pistol squats – 5×5
Pullup ladders – 1,2,3,4,5
Hanging leg raises – 3×5
Bridge pushups 2×10
A bodyweight strength program could be made even more challenging by working up to front and back levers, one-arm chin-ups, stand-to-stand bridges, handstand pushups, muscle ups, and much more. Your imagination and discipline level are your limits. Master those and your strength levels can soar to heights most people’s dreams can’t even take them.
Well, what are you waiting for? Look up a Specialist in Bodyweight Strength (SBS) near you and get cracking. You’ll be wielding unreal strength in less time than you thought possible, and the body you have now will help you get the body you want later.
StrongFirst, Strong always!
Aleks Salkin, SFG, SBS