If you’ve been following me for any significant amount of time, you’ve noticed that I love bodyweight strength training. Today, I’m gonna confess to you that I’ve been cheating on calisthenics for quite some time now and I don’t regret it.
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First off, I truly believe that nobody needs anything more than his own body and something to hang from. With only calisthenics, you can get very strong and develop an appealing physique along the way.
Having said all that, there’s nothing wrong with using other tools to increase your strength and overall athleticism. I am, first and foremost, a fan of strength training. It’s valuable to have a varied set of tools and choose the right tool for the job.
These are the tools that are, to me, most effective for building mobility, strength and power:
- Calisthenics (pull-up bar, rings, parallettes optional)
Calisthenics are still the cornerstone of my training. And it paid off. When I started to dabble into using other things like kettlebells and barbells, I already had a very good foundation in terms of mobility, body awareness, overall strength and the ability to generate whole body tension.
But I have to admit: I freaking love lifting heavy shit.
The nice thing about being able to use different training methods is that you can benefit from them enormously once you understand the principle of carry-over.
I really love deadlifts because they make me stronger in almost all other movements. At the moment, I’m making pretty fast progress with my bar levers (stay stuned for more tutorials on these ;)). I’m blaming the deadlift for that, because it emphasizes whole body tension – especially in the posterior chain – and requires lots of grip strength and lat engagement.
Moving a kettlebell around is also quite the performance enhancer. I’m pretty sure that the turkish get-up is responsible for the quick progress I’m making with my handstands recently.
This is what I mean when I talk about choosing the right tool for the job. Pick and choose the movements that give you the most bang for your buck.
When I pick a movement, I always ask myself “Will this make be better at something else?”
For example, will biceps curls make you better at anything else except biceps curls? – I doubt it.
On the other hand, will pull-ups make you better at curls? – Well, not that this would be my main argument for practicing pull-ups, but definitely yes.
See, I have no problem with wanting bigger arms. It’s just way better to get bigger arms and get more awesome in other areas of your training.
Another advantage to not marrying yourself to one particular training method is options and opportunity. Just recently I encountered this problem: I had a pretty nasty tendonitis in my hip flexors. Doing single leg work was pretty much out of the question because it hurt too much and worsened my condition.
What helped me was doing lots of plain ol’ bodyweight squats. Then I slowly started doing barbell front squats until I got to the point where I could do pretty intense squatting sessions whith my injury still recovering quite steadily. In fact, I think the front squats enhanced my recovery process.
That would have been impossible if I didn’t have access to these options.
Movements, Not Tools
Instead of categorizing your strength training with the kind of tools you use, you should start thinking about your training in terms of movements.
I am totally stealing this from Max Shank’s Ultimate Athleticism program and Dan John, but I’m sure they’re comfortable with me sharing this info: We can categorize movement into 4 basic categories: Upper-body push, upper-body pull, lower-body push, lower-body pull.
Here are some examples for upper/lower push/pull movements:
- Upper push: Push-ups, handstand push-ups, military press, dips, one-arm push-up, bench press
- Upper pull: Pull-up, bodyweight rows, door pull-ins, barbell rows, front lever
- Lower push: Bodyweight squat, pistol squat, Barbell front squat, goblet squat, zercher squat
- Lower pull [aka hip hinge]: Deadlift, kettlebell swings, one-legged bodyweight deadlift, good mornings
The goal is to get your level of strength to roughly the same in all of these categories. For example, if you can bench press a metric shit load, but can’t perform one single pull-up, something went wrong.
Notice that I make an effort to always write “movement” instead of exercise. If you merely want to “exercise”, go to an aerobics class. If you want to train and get better and stronger over time, movement is what it’s all about.
I also don’t like to categorize training by using body parts. A push-up is not a chest exercise. It’s an upper-body pushing movement. To push something, be it yourself off the ground or some external resistance, you need your whole body. There has to be tension throughout your body. It’s neither possible nor useful to “isolate” a muscle.
You are not Frankenstein’s monster.
You are a complex system. Movement is a complex action, so it makes sense to practice this action holistically.
Yes, it’s good to have some basic understanding about which movement emphasizes which muscle groups, but we can comfortably stop right there. Bodybuilding is to me like Pokémon: not my specialty.
I also hate the term “leg day”. There is no leg day. There is only movement day. Ideally, that is every day. But when you’re in a training session, look at it as movement practice. Strength is a skill. That skill is best practiced by spending time in all these 4 movement categories.
That’s what I mean when I say “move freely”. Moving freely means having the necessary mobility, strength and coordination to move your own body or some external weight in a variety of circumstances.
Minimalist Strength Training
I still consider my training to be minimalistic. When I’m at home, I do bodyweight and kettlebell training. In the park, it’s mostly bar calisthenics. In the gym, I like smashing heavy weights.
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are. – Max Shank
Everytime I train, I focus on these 4 movement categories, do some extra mobility work and maybe include some finishers like I explained in this article.
Once you grasp that concept, training becomes trivial. I follow the principle “same but different” to keep my training interesting: Focus on one movement variation for a couple of weeks, then change it up.
My focus for now lies on the deadlift, front lever, barbell overhead press and barbell front squat. That will change in a couple of weeks. That way, I keep it fun and avoid overuse injuries.
Does that mean I’m abandoning calisthenics? Hell no!
I will continue to provide you with more tutorials about bodyweight training. Just don’t be confused if you stumble over some pictures or videos of me lifting some heavy iron 😉
How do you train? Do you like weights or are you a pure bodyweight trainee? Would you like me to write more about barbells and kettlebells? Please let me know in the comments or by contacting me.
Photo credit: Sabine Adler