Visually arresting and incredibly effective, an age-old style of training is making quite a comeback, writes acclaimed bodyweight trainer Al Kavadlo.
Imagine a person suspended sideways on a vertical pole, completely parallel to the ground, arms and legs outstretched, with no points of contact other than their own two hands (or just look at this picture!)
Until you’ve witnessed it for yourself, it’s hard to believe this so-called ‘human flag’ is even possible. The unique combination of strength, stability, and control required to perform this hold is unlike anything else.
Visually, it’s one of the most eye-catching feats of strength possible, but there’s so much more to the flag than just showing off in front of your friends.
Training the body without the use of external resistance equipment is known as calisthenics. It’s been around since the dawn of humanity, but lately it’s been making quite a comeback.
Calisthenics, or bodyweight training, is the oldest and noblest form of exercise. Way before the invention of the modern gym, using only our bodies for resistance was not just the best way to train, it was the only way! It’s perhaps no wonder, then, that more and more people are getting excited, inspired and motivated by this phenomenon.
Working out, like life, should be fun, adventurous, primal and pure. No training style embodies these elements quite like calisthenics, which celebrates the use of our whole body cohesively, rather than attempting to isolate small body parts one-at-a-time. Furthermore, employing numerous muscle groups promotes greater overall strength.
Pull ups, for example, use the biceps, latissimus dorsi (lats), abdominals, shoulders and more. No machines come close to simulating the overall effect and strength gains. The ability to confidently pull your body up and over a real object is a lot more impressive than the ability to move a weight stack straight up and down a machine.
And while the classic pull up is undoubtedly one of the best exercises out there, the realm of bodyweight training goes far beyond basics like pull ups and push ups.
In progressive calisthenics, progress is made by moving onto more challenging movements, not by simply adding weight to the same exercise. A beginner can start out with kneeling push ups and bodyweight squats, while more advanced practitioners can work on one-arm push ups and single-leg squats. Once you master pull ups, you can begin working toward a muscle-up or even a one-arm pull up (see below).
The Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC) covers a huge variety of exercises and offers something for everyone, whether you’re a trainer who wants to learn new ways to challenge your clients, or a workout enthusiast looking to take things to the next level.
Although advanced exercises like the aforementioned human flag may make calisthenics appear a daunting prospect suitable only for experienced athletes, this is far from the case. For fitness professionals, the PCC introduces a large arsenal of calisthenics exercises that can be used with clients of every fitness and ability level. Programming guidelines for various populations are also discussed in-depth during the seminars, reinforcing the fact that bodyweight training is one of the most universal styles of exercise that anyone can get started with, regardless of their previous fitness experience.
The PCC curriculum contains dozens of exercises that require nothing more than the floor beneath your feet or a basic overhead bar.
Knowing how to assemble a fun and challenging workout without relying on a lot of equipment or space is an essential skill for trainers. Whether you’re doing your own workout at home, taking a group session outdoors, or training a client in a crowded gym, the skill to conduct fresh and effective bodyweight training is a great one to possess.
Some progressive calisthenics favourites include:
Pull ups (photo 1)
There is only one reason why would-be strength athletes are intimidated by pull ups – because they have not been taught the proper progressive method for working on this great exercise. Perhaps even worse, those athletes who have struggled to build adequate pull up numbers often remain at the same strength level in the movement for their entire careers, because they do not understand how to progress to more difficult exercises.
PCC workshops teach the most effective techniques to help beginners get their first pull up, as well as how to continually challenge yourself (and your clients) with numerous progressive pull up variations.
Handstands (photo 2)
Many athletes possess strength and muscle in spades, but how many have the poise and body control to pop up into a perfectly balanced handstand?
PCC workshops deliver the training to painlessly teach your body the inverse position using traditional headstands; you will become expert in the most efficient method of kicking up into wall handstands (a rarer ability than you may think); and you will be taught all the professional drills and skills needed to build your perfect free-balancing handstand from the ground up.
If the handstand has always just eluded you, it could be time to make it your new
Back bridging (photo 3)
Bridging safely strengthens the spine, reinforces deep tissues, increases total-body flexibility and effectively bulletproofs the body from injury – making it one of the greatest techniques in the calisthenics armoury. It’s a sad irony that very few coaches, even experienced professionals, know how to build bridging power safely and correctly.
PCC workshops teach participants how to build an expert bridge by using progressive steps and corrective exercises. From there, you can learn how to perfect the elements of the classic bridge, how to practice old school wall walking safely and productively, and how to approach advanced bridging techniques like the stand-to-stand bridge, bridge transitions into handstands and even partner bridge variations.
Single-leg squats (photo 4)
There is a long-held myth that bodyweight training systems neglect the legs. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.
Never forget that the two most important lower-body movement patterns in all of athletics – running and jumping – are bodyweight movements.
In leaping, sprinting and kicking motions in sport, the legs often push off the ground one at a time. For this reason, athletes who need to excel at these movements should apply a calisthenics regimen that includes bodyweight squatting, building to full squats on one leg.
PCC training teaches the proper progressions to go from the basic bodyweight squat, all the way to performing the coveted ‘pistol squat’ and other advanced single-leg squat variations.
The front lever (photo 5)
The front lever is arguably the ultimate total-body strength-tension exercise, requiring power in every muscle, from the legs to the fingers.
It’s a shame that you will seldom, if ever, see this exercise performed in a commercial gym. Many athletes either don’t know about front levers, are unable to perform them, or simply don’t know how to go about training for them.
Whether you want to perfect your front lever, learn superior progressions to move up to a front lever, or have never even seen a front lever before, this element of PCC training equips course attendees with the know-how to move into a new realm of bodyweight exercise.
The PCC curriculum also includes numerous push up variations, muscle ups, frogstands, elbow levers, L-sits, skin-the-cats, back levers and more. To the uninitiated all of this may sound intimidating, but the fact is that using your own bodyweight as resistance to strengthen your entire body couldn’t be more natural, and calisthenics offers variations and progressions to suit every level of fitness.
Al is a personal trainer and one of the world’s leading experts in bodyweight strength training and calisthenics. Famous for smiling while performing some of the most difficult bodyweight exercises imaginable, Al has racked up millions of views on his YouTube channel. As the lead instructor for the Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC), Al gets to bring his unique coaching style to fitness professionals and enthusiasts around the globe. Follow Al on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.