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How Flexibility Makes Calisthenics Easier

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Once you tick off pull ups, dips, push ups and other basic staple calisthenic moves, it becomes time to think about what’s next. It’s a popular debate: what moves shall I train for after I’ve got my ‘solid foundation’??

Most commonly recommended is the L-sit, handstand, muscle up and back lever. I’d tend to agree and this was the same for me. Good old push ups, pull ups and dips don’t require much in the way of flexibility and are what I call ‘tin man friendly’; even the tightest people can work these moves just fine.

The next level moves require more mobility, and I will show you in this post just how to stretch for certain moves and explain how flexibility in certain areas will make more advanced moves SO MUCH easier.

A Better Front Fold = Easier L-sits, V-sits, Hanging Leg Raises & Handstand Presses

People wrongly assume these moves are all functions of the core when it’s not just the core that determines your proficiency with them. It’s also your posterior chain mobility – particularly in the lower body.

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A better front fold allows you to only have to fight gravity and not your own muscles too!
Some beginners are so tight in their front fold (mainly hamstrings), they can’t even straighten their legs in an L-sit, even if they’re strong enough in the core. What most people do is keep training the crap out of the L-sit expecting to just get better. I made this mistake with the V-sit; thinking I could muscle my way into it.

Recently I’ve stripped it back and not even trained the move. Instead, I’ve focused on hamstring and front folding flexibility. The theory being, if I free up the resistance in those areas, my compression (ab & hip flexor strength) won’t have to fight my tight muscles AND gravity.

It’s just a case of being efficient.

What is a good standard for front folding?

I think a comfortable palms to floor pike with straight legs is a good target for most. Of course this is nothing compared to gymnasts but getting to this level will net you a vast improvement in any of the moves above.

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Standing hands to floor pike. It’s Ok to round the back; doing it with a flat back would take immense flexibility. Walk before you run.
And comfortable means without warming up for half an hour and doing a million front fold attempts prior. Just test it throughout the day with no pre stretching and see where you’re at.

In terms of a good stretching routine to follow to improve your forward folding, I’ll hand the floor over to Emmet Louis in the video below. This is the protocol I myself use.

 

Shoulder Extension = Back Levers, Skin The Cats & V sits

Tight pec muscles, front deltoids and biceps can all inhibit your ability to extend the shoulder (reach your hands up and behind you). The V sit, back lever and skin the cat are all moves that not only need you to extend your arms behind you, but they need you to be able to do it under load.

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Passive shoulder extension stretch
In case you don’t quite get it, trying a full back lever with tight shoulders and pecs = tendon ruptures and torn muscles.

Obviously the V-sit entails nowhere near as aggressive shoulder extension as the back lever or German hang (bottom of a skin the cat), but as you start getting very advanced and working towards ‘The Manna’, shoulder extension will become more paramount. See the picture below:

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                      The Manna………basically a V-sit on steroids

Putting A Plan Together

If you’re brand new to shoulder and chest stretching, then please start conservatively. Use the floor stretch shown above – perform 3 sets of 60 second holds, consciously trying to draw your arms further behind your body. Remember to breathe well. Do this 3 times per week.

If you’re a little more experienced and have more mobility in your chest (can do deep dips and have no trouble lifting your arms behind you), then German Hangs are the way to go. Again, start conservative and build your hold times. Sets of 5 seconds may feel a lot to begin with. As you acclimatise you’ll find 30 seconds is more than comfortable. It’s at this level the back lever will really start to feel much stronger. Trust me.

GMB have a wonderful video on German Hang progressions to suit any level……..

Shoulder Flexion, Overhead Mobility & The Thoracic Spine

Another area equally as lacking as the hamstrings; people just seem to have crappy overhead mobility these days, myself included! Think about it, when do we spend any time in modern life with our arms overhead? Unless you’re on a roller-coaster you probably don’t, with the exception of gymnasts and sports involving overhead throwing.

Straight handstands and bridges require fully open overhead mobility. Even your chances of holding the iconic human flag is a representation of your shoulder flexibility, believe it or not.

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If you can’t raise your arms overhead into 180 degrees of shoulder flexion, you’ll not be able to hold a straight handstand; there will always be a degree of compensation (the evil banana handstand). While banana handstands aren’t wrong per se, they’re much less efficient than their straighter counterpart; balance is always easier when things are aligned.

Even though the back bridge is more a display of flexibility than a strength move itself, it’s still a very important position if you have any gymnastic aspiration for moves like back walkovers and the likes, as any restriction in the lats and thoracic spine will make these MUCH harder.

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                             A perfect Bridge – note the open shoulders & hips

Even less skilled moves such as overhead pressing and handstand push ups will be made smoother by having better overhead mobility – your shoulders and traps aren’t having to oppose the weight AND your tight muscles but rather just the weight. Again, by being mobile you’re more efficient.

My Story & A Plan Of Attack

I’ll never forget my time at Emmet Louis’ Modern Methods Of Mobility Seminar (read the full review here), which I went to, to try and improve my woefully lacking overhead mobility above all………and I spent the whole seminar leading up to the bridge just going about my business. When it came to the bridge though, I had everyone trying to help me with ideas and techniques; you know you suck when you get help without asking for it! So I’m very much trying to win the war on overhead mobility with you.

I’ve found passive stretching to not work in this category very well at all. You not only have to loosen the tight muscles (usually lats and pecs) but also activate the ones that don’t fire (usually the lower traps, serratus anterior and mid traps) – this seems to be the winning formula here.

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                                 (image credit: liftbigeatbig.wordpress.com)

There are 2 stretches I like most for lats and overhead mobility. The first is a chin up dead hang with a supinated grip; the supinated grip places the shoulder into external rotation and thus, further stretching the lats as they’re internal rotators of the shoulder.

The other really nice overhead stretch is the hanging cobra. For this you’ll need set of gymnastics rings. The tighter you are, the lower you’ll need the rings.

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Emmet Louis demonstrates a hanging cobra – note the lack of excessive arching at the lower back
The cueing here for enhancing the stretch is simply squeeze the butt and draw the abs in somewhat; you’re basically ‘hollowing out’. Reason being, if you don’t tighten up, all you’ll do is arch your lower back and bypass the lats and thoracic spine.

3 sets of 30-60 second holds here work well. Another tip is to rotate from side to side while in the cobra stretch and target each lat individually.

Strengthening work

Emmet Louis has a lovely sequence for this that I’ve been using with quite a bit of success myself. Here’s a link to the article in question: https://emmetlouis.wordpress.com/2014/10/04/fixing-arched-back-in-handstand/

I hope you now realise the value of better than average mobility when it comes to doing the advanced moves. I will say you can get these moves while being rather inflexible but it’s stupidly inefficient and you’ll never look as graceful as those with more flexibility than you.

Questions & comments, hit me with them below. Thanks for reading.

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JR @ Straight-Talking-Fitness View All

The 'brains' behind StraightTalkingFitness, a site all about discovery that leads to strength in all formats; fitness, mental, emotional and spiritual. Everything starts from within and projects outwards. Master the body, master anything and everything.

16 thoughts on “How Flexibility Makes Calisthenics Easier Leave a comment

  1. Really good and also very relevant article for me. I have been half heartedly trying to get a front fold and have not made much progress. Mainly because I don’t practice enough. Only yesterday I was watching Emmett Louis YouTube video on the front fold. I want to improve my sun salutations and also seated front fold in my yoga practice. Thanks for expounding on this subject

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      • hi JR
        I can with some warm up and stretching, put my palms flat on the ground. What I want to do is to do the standing and sitting pike (Paschimottanasana). I have in a year of weekly practice, improved slightly. I wonder if it is because I have substantial tummy fat and it is just a question of losing the fat. Because, i manage to do the seated pancake after warmup and stretching. and in that pose my tummy fat is not getting in the way. I have lost about 20 kgs and have 20 kgs more to lose. I am trying to cultivate a regular (near daily) practice as I feel that even if i cant reach the position, i can make improvements in general.
        what do you think?

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      • If you’re somewhat overweight then yes, the stomach fat will definitely restrict your ability to fold yourself flat against your legs or the floor. You’ll find as you lose weight everything gets easier, even just basic movement. Just keep plugging away at both the flexibility and the weight loss in conjunction. You’ll get there, it just takes time.

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  2. Totally agree. You hit the nail on the head here:

    “if I free up the resistance in those areas, my compression (ab & hip flexor strength) won’t have to fight my tight muscles AND gravity.”

    Coming from a powerlifting background I never had much respect for mobility as long as I was comfortable with the ROM required for the big three lifts. It’s taken me a while to shake that mindset since I switched to gymnastics-style training but now I see mobility as equally important to strength. You can definitely white-knuckle your way through some of the more advanced moves (say, press to handstand) without having full range of motion but it’s going to look awkward and be super taxing. (BTW, manna is one of those “if I ever get that I’ll die happy” goals for me. That hold is a thing of beauty. It feels completely impossible since I can barely get an above-parallel V-sit right now, but maybe one day…)

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    • Hey Kurt,

      Yeah, powerlifters are notorious for being mobile only in specific areas. The amount of guys I see with a powerlifting background that are so tight they struggle to get a bar on their back for squats, unless they take a really wide grip is insane!

      Can you do a press handstand? I would think with your planche strength you should have a fair crack unless you’re very tight in the pike?

      The Manna is a sight to behold (not that I’ve seen one in the flesh) and another move that not everyone is supposed to be able to get, similar to the planche. I’ll settle for a nice V-sit at the moment – I can hold a 45 degree one but going above that becomes pretty hard to stay up there…….it’s all tightness in my forward fold.

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  3. That’s a solid v-sit. I’m hoping to get there eventually, but as you pointed out I need to improve my front fold as much as my active compression strength. I can almost palm the floor comfortably with straight legs (a HUGE improvement from where I started) but my hamstrings are still tighter than I’d like. I can get a fairly ugly straddle press handstand but lots of room for improvement. I’ve been focusing on rings lately but one of my longer term goals is to get a full Stalder press.

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  4. Great reminder that it’s not all about lifting weights and doing pull ups. Your body will eventually hate you if you’re not stretching… Especially the lower back. I also like that you point out having a tight core while doing shoulder stretches. It always amazes me that other gymnastics coaches would miss this in kids. Thanks for the reminders!

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    • Absolutely! Flexibility is so underrated, it really is. And you’re right, everyone arches the lower back and ends up not even opening the shoulders to the degree they could have if they kept the core stable. These are all things you learn over time and almost feel. Thanks for your kind comment.

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