Bodyweight Training: Calisthenics
Spectators see human flags everywhere. They see mighty muscle ups, single leg squats and one-arm push-ups. Party tricks? Brute strength? Mind games? Sometimes folks think these moves are fancy, complicated, even esoteric. Well I’m here to tell you these moves are simple. Far from easy, but simple.
I’m known primarily for calisthenics (or bodyweight training), but I’m the first to admit that, despite the inherent distinctions of any particular discipline or modality, the body moves the way the body moves. Therefore whatever style you choose to train, the movement patterns are rooted in our very humanity. But before get into that, I have to get into this…
The first exercises I remember doing were push-ups and sit-ups. Real basic calisthenics. That’s how it was for my generation. Although we looked up to body builders, action heroes and pro wrestlers, when my brothers and I decided to work out, weight training simply was not an option. This was 80’s South Brooklyn—there were no after school programs, equipment chain stores or hipster YMCA’s on every corner. We had no choice but to keep it fundamental. So there we were, on the linoleum kitchen floor, having push-up contests half the day. Good times.
Pull-ups were next. Then Dips. Squats. Like many men in my generation (I turn forty in August), I focused on my upper body first, before learning that you’re not strong if you don’t have strong legs. But, like I said, I was a young kid in old school Brooklyn, and such was the style at the time.
I started lifting weights in high school. Bench, curls, military press, all the classics. In this life, I’ve lifted on-and-off for twenty years, but I never abandoned the bodyweight basics: push-ups, pull-ups and squats. It shocks and saddens me when I see people take sides between weight lifting and bodyweight strength training… they’re all good! Until recent decades, strongmen of all sorts not only pressed barbells and objects, but also did pull-ups and dips (not to mention handstand presses and balance work).
Later in life, when I started working as a personal trainer, I experimented with all kinds of machines. This was mainly to familiarize myself with every piece of equipment in the gym with the goal of increased personal training sales, not because I thought that all of these machines necessarily had merit. I preferred body weight (and free weights) to isolation machines my whole life. The world does not move on a slide track! Nevertheless, as a fitness professional, I made it my job top cover all bases, even if my passion was calisthenics.
Eventually, I phased out weight lifting entirely. This was not because I stopped liking it or thought it was ineffective, it’s simply because I started dedicating more of my time to the skills that inspired me most. Human flag and handstand push-up training is demanding, and seated military press had to fall to the wayside. In fact, for the past several years, I’ve been focusing exclusively on bodyweight strength training and I love it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Back to the present…
I don’t clutter my life with things I don’t need, like gratuitous physical possessions, useless status symbols or past emotional scars. My minimalistic life philosophy bleeds into my approach to training. One of my favorite aspects of calisthenics is that it requires very little (if any) equipment. No gym membership, specialized clothes or high tech gear is needed. I’ve been criticized by many anonymous strangers on the internet for occasionally working out in jeans, but hey, I’m getting my reps in! I’m in it for the pull-ups not a fashion show.
I believe that everybody needs training. Therefore even without gear, it’s important to be able to scale a workout to meet any individual’s fitness needs. With a barbell, you can add or take away weight. In calisthenics, you must adjust your own body and it’s relation to the environment to progress (or regress) a particular exercise. This task is fun! You must tap into your brain’s creative side to improvise and use what is around you, even if it’s just the ground beneath you. Examples include adjustments in points of contact (such as removing a hand from the classic push-up to practice the one-arm version), body length (as in a kneeling push-up) or leverage (incline push-ups). Ironically, it was all those push-up contests as a kid that gave me the basis for the more advanced exercises.
Even the most complex maneuvers come back to the basics. I never even tried a muscle-up or human flag until I was in my 30’s, but my extensive background in pull-ups gave me a solid foundation. You see, a movement like the muscle-up combines elements of explosive pull-ups, straight bar dips and even hanging ab-work into something unique.
Back to basics, baby! Don’t even try a flag until you’ve developed some beastly skills on the pull-up bar. There is more carry-over than one may realize between these exercises, as many of these moves demand chest, back, shoulders, arms, glutes and more. A big part of my style exploits the unity of the entire body, helping the whole get strong. This is not to say I do not emphasize certain muscles or muscle groups from exercise to exercise, but rather that I encourage intra-muscular harmony over complete isolation—which in itself is an impossibility in the first place.
These days I’m still fascinated by the purity of calisthenics, the nuances of leverage and the principles of progression. That’s part of the reason my brother Al (also a trainer) and I teamed up with our publisher, Dragon Door, to launch the first ever Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC) last year. We made it our mission to teach trainers about the body-weight basics which seem to have been forgotten over time, as well as explore the modern feats of strength that get everybody’s heads spinning! But even more so, we build a community of fitness professionals and enthusiasts from all over the world. In just over twelve months, over two hundred trainers in three continents have become PCC certified. We have certifications scheduled in seven countries so far for 2015.
When all is said and done, I truly believe less is more. We can take any move to the next level but it all starts simply. Use your body and start with the basics. Keep challenging yourself and the sky’s the limit!
Here are Danny’s expert recommendations on gaging your training to see what you’re ready for. Get good at the basics before moving toward the advanced.
- 15 dead hang Pull-Ups before attempting Muscle-Up training
- 40 body weight Squats before attempting single leg Pistol Squat variations
- NOTE: Squats should be performed with full range of motion—ass to ankles
- 30 perfect Push-Ups before working on the One-Arm Push-Up
About the Author
Danny Kavadlo is one of the world’s most established and respected Personal Trainers, as well as a Co-founder & Master Instructor of the Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC). Danny is the author of Everybody Needs Training: Proven Success Secrets For The Professional Fitness Trainer and has been featured in the New York Times, TRAIN magazine and Men’s Fitness. To learn more about Danny, go to DannyTheTrainer.com.
To learn more about the Progressive Calisthenics Certification, check out dragondoor.com