It’s been just over a week since the Calisthenics & Bodyweight Strength Training Workshop me and Ollie Brown of Redevelop Movement ran at Gain Fitness (Norwich) – incidentally, Gain Fitness is the largest Crossfit box in the UK!
The afternoon was an amazing success and me and Ollie were eternally grateful to receive a 25/25 strong turnout. We had such a vast age range and a nice mix between male and female; as coaches we couldn’t have chosen a better division of students.
People wrongly assume the movement and calisthenics community consists of predominantly young males, but if our workshop showed anything, it’s how diverse a range of people calisthenics appeals to. There were teenagers and people above 50 years of age.
Whenever you teach fitness of any kind to groups, you quickly pick up on the energy/vibe of the group and as soon as we had done the introductory speeches and I ran them through a dynamic warm up, I knew these guys were receptive and eager to get going! It may sound simple but genuinely wanting to be somewhere counts for so much in regards to maximising the takeaway from any learning event.
Being a beginner workshop, the most advanced we got was a glance of my demonstrations of a full front & back lever. Some of the stronger guys attempted some intermediate levels of these moves, with pretty good success as well. As a group the most complex move we looked at was the muscle up – on rings and bar. What’s so great about the ring muscle up is how scale-able it is.
Across the workshop we had people doing some variation of this move, whether it was full muscle ups themselves or foot assisted transition drills, everyone was working hard.
Like any coach or personal trainer would do, I began reflecting on what I’d seen. Were there any patterns? Were there any group weaknesses? Could I summon some solid takeaways that may even help my readers? Something universal (or as close to) for most people to work on?
Yes, there were many trouble areas detected across the 24th of November. Some of these pertain to a lack of strength and others are mobility restrictions, although usually these two aren’t too disassociated.
The basics can ALWAYS be better
If you want muscle ups and advanced moves, you better be an absolute master at the basics. Chest to bar pull ups/chin ups had better be comfortable and basic dips had better be done with the absolute best form you possibly can – and for reps, reps and REPS!
A key takeaway ‘mantra’ from our workshop was the phrase ‘better is better’. This means adopting a mindset of eternally improving and never identifying as a master of something. There’s ALWAYS something you can do better, even if you’re strong and can rep out chin ups, can you touch the bar every rep? Better yet, can you hold your chest to the bar between reps? No? then you still have something to gain from the exercise.
Your ankle mobility SUCKS
Training the lower body without weights is an interesting topic, and one most assume isn’t really possible but we wanted to make a case for the most effective moves out there, in our opinion. One of those moves is the infamous Pistol Squat. What makes the Pistol Squat a cool move is how neurologically demanding it is: it requires uni-lateral motor control, balance, co-ordination and better than average ankle mobility.
One thing we saw lots of was people strong enough (leg-wise) to do pistols but nowhere near mobile enough at the ankles. Even having shoes on made no difference, they would descend and the heel would lift not long after the thigh went below parallel!
There are a myriad of fixes for this but keeping it simple, working bi-lateral (2 legged) squats to increasing depth of over time is one. Another is making sure you squat without shoes or in shoes that are virtually flats. And a final one is just hitting the resting/toddler squat position on a regular basis, perhaps numerous times per day.
Your overhead/shoulder mobility sucks too!
Any workshop that tackles the handstand will need to tackle the necessity for good overhead mobility; it’s essential for the targeted straight line. To achieve full shoulder flexion (arms overhead & completely in line with the upper back) you need the lats and pec minor to be mobile enough and you also need extension at the thoracic/upper spine.
Me and Ollie designed some gruesome drills to work on this and 50% failed one or both of them.
Much like the squat, there are many fixes that can either be used in conjunction with each other or individually. Some of the common ones are thoracic mobilisation drills and even handstand work itself. Another is upper back activation work – in the form of working the lower traps in isolation. Furthermore, changing the balance of the program you’re using can help too. If you’re doing more pressing than pulling, adjust it the other way and that in itself can make a difference.
WTF is this straight arm sh*t?!
What sets calisthenics and more advanced bodyweight training apart from the weightlifting world is the requirement of strength with straight arms. Moves like the front lever, back lever, planche or human flag are all feats of straight arm strength.
Most people try to jump into these moves without the requisite conditioning of the tendons and connective tissue. Sometimes this is thanks to the ego, other times it’s a lack of knowledge of where to start.
In the workshop we started with the basics which are deceptively difficult in themselves if you’ve not done them before. Simple moves such as the scapula push up and pull up (you can see a detailed clip of the scapula pull up on my instagram page) are always the perfect starting point. The challenge is keeping the elbow locked at ALL TIMES. The concentration this needed for some made them forget their own name.
Again, this compartment of bodyweight strength takes longer to progress in than bent arm. The primary reason for this is the limiting factor in straight arm strength is the time needed for connective tissue regeneration – which takes MUCH longer than muscle tissue.
You can have the strongest muscles in the world but if your connective tissue and tendons aren’t conditioned, the straight arm elements of calisthenics will elude you.
Strength & skill refinement must go together
If we were talking in terms of pure powerlifting, strength alone would be fine. But with calisthenics there’s always a high demand for co-ordination and refinement of technique. I guess this ties in with the ‘better is better’ concept mentioned earlier, because simply being able to do a move doesn’t mean you’re doing it well.
We saw many guys able to do rings and bar muscle ups for reps but there was still room for improvement in technique; there always is.
We made it our mission to stress the importance of always aiming for improvement in technique as opposed to gunning for more reps and adding weight. Even when you do reach a standard where adding weight is deserved, you can always still benefit from periods of technique refinement.
Here’s to workshop #2 – January 19th!
On January 19th at Gain Fitness Norwich we will be running another beginner’s Calisthenics & Bodyweight Strength Training Workshop. This will be a new and improved version where we will take you through key principles that will guarantee success when applied, how to make your warm ups not only more effective but more FUN. We will break down the handstand and provide you with a fool-proof set of beginner preparation exercises that eliminate bad habits and provide a stable base to train from.
We will take a detailed look at the ring muscle up and break down all necessary moves involved, including perfecting your form on the basics such as pull ups and dips. If you’re someone who can already muscle up, we’ve got versions of the ring muscle up for you to sink your teeth into that are harder and will build more strength!
If that’s not enough, we will look at what we consider to be the fundamentals of straight arm strength and the most effective exercises and their progressions, which will lead you all the way to front and back levers.
We don’t even skip leg training and would love to banish the stigma of calisthenics athletes not training legs. We’ll teach you the best bodyweight exercises for leg strength, size and functionality.
And we’re still not done……..no athlete operates at their best without addressing mobility and the potential lack of. We will cover drills to improve some of the primal patterns already mentioned in this post – such as the squat and the dead hang, among many more!
If you want to be there on the 19th, tickets are £38 per person. To reserve your spot, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
See you on the 19th!
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.