Fitness is a land of tools and toys. The toys may amuse and distract us but their effects are only minimal and temporary. The tools challenge and change us but often they are introduced at the wrong time, for the wrong reasons. It is often difficult for people to tell the difference between the two and to know where to start their training. As you begin your fitness journey one thing is and will always remain true – better bodies are builtwith better movement and better movement begins first and foremost by developing a strong bodyweight practice.
Bodyweight training at its highest form is a process of self discovery and self mastery. A never ending string of progressive movements that not only shape our physiques but also our minds. To advance from one progression to the next you must develop greater strength, flexibility, awareness, and control.
Before you can overcome the resistance offered by weights you should develop a sound and deep bodyweight practice. Progress in everything from calisthenics to weightlifting is dependent not only on your physical strength but also your awareness and ability to control your body. Take your control further, faster by developing a masterful bodyweight practice.
The following top ten steps are essential to anyone serious about developing a deep and long lasting body weight practice.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #1: Awareness
I can still remember being twelve years old, standing in line and listening to my Sensei count out our reps. “One, one, one, one..” He was driving me nuts, what happened to “two, three and four?” I finally snapped and had to ask. “Why are you counting like that?” He said “its simple, when I give instructions usually the first rep people do is the best because that’s the one they have their full focus on. They just heard the directions and now they give it everything they’ve got to perform as instructed. By the time they get to rep five, six and seven their minds are starting to wander and they are merely doing reps for reps sake.”
To make all of your reps like the first one you must have awareness not just of what you are suppose to be doing but what you are actually doing. I see it in gyms around the world, people who train hard and often but who lack awareness. They are like cars spinning their wheels in the mud, no matter how much effort they exert they go nowhere.
To gain greater awareness first study everything you can about the thing you are trying to learn. Take a back lever for example. Learn the basic mechanics and methodically dissect the movement. What progressions should you use and why? Where are your weaknesses and strengths? What is keeping you back from performing this movement the way you want to? What is the desired alignment and what dangers if any are present during the movement.
A careful study of where you want to go will help get you there. Once you have started your training check in with yourself often to see if you are doing what you think you are doing. Find a training partner and use their outside perspective to see if you are performing the way you think you are. Video yourself to gain that outside perspective and dissect your performance.
Repetition without awareness is merely movement without a goal. If you want to get somewhere movement is not enough, it must be purposeful and determined.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #2: Mobility and Flexibility
Mobility and Flexibility are you foundations. If they are weak you will never be strong. The stumbling block that defeats more would be bodyweight experts is not their lack of strength but rather their poor flexibility and mobility training. People love to train and demonstrate strength. It’s fun, challenging and rewarding to show off what you can do. Flexibility on the other handoften seems like a chore and one that is too often avoided.
If you really want to be a well balanced athlete and accomplish many advanced bodyweight skills you will have to spend as much or more time working your flexibility and mobility as you do your strength. You can run from it but you can’t hide. Make this type of training the cornerstone of your practice and develop a strong flexible body. A flexible and strong body will encounter less limitations in your training as well as fewer injuries.
To help motivate you, work on challenging bodyweight skills like a Strict Press to Handstand. To efficiently perform this movement you will be forced to work your flexibility. You may find flexibility training on it’s own boring however when the reward is a beautiful press to handstand your motivation will get you through those tough training sessions.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #3: Joint Prep
A well prepared body is an indestructible one. Watch any gymnast work and you will marvel at not only their strength and flexibility but also how resilient their bodies are. They seem to move in an out of stressful positions with ease and grace. Their wrists are like pillars and their shoulders move like flexible steel. These highly developed bodies are the results of years of training and joint preparation. Before you load your joints with the extreme forces generated by working on movements like levers and hand stands you must first prepare your body for this work.
Joint preparation seems to be an uncommon practice in fitness yet it is a regular part of dance, martial arts, gymnastics, hand balancing and other movement systems. The fitness world can learn a lot from a careful study of these disciplines and their rich histories. Walk into any quality martial arts school and you will find beginners preparing their bodies for the rigours of hard training. They twist, turn, push and pull as they practice their conditioning routines. Careful attention is paid to form and yet sometimes they seem like they are working in less than optimally aligned positions. They are constantly challenging their joints, strengthening weak areas until they are strong.
We are not as strong as our strongest body parts but rather only as strong as our weakest. If you arms are strong but your wrists are weak, you will have little opportunity to demonstrate and build your strength in a lever with such a poor foundation. Attack your weaknesses don’t run from them, run towards them. If they hide, hunt and smoke them out. Work on your body until even your toes are stronger than most people’s
Bodyweight Workout Essential #4: Fundamentals
Everyone wants a black belt but no one wants to be a white belt. One arm hand stands are all the rage these days. I see people throwing themselves against walls and trying to hold on one arm, posting fake pictures of their one arm handstand snapped as they were clearly falling. We all want to be idolized experts but few of us are willing to start at the bottom and work our way up. Methodically working on your skills and honestly building your bodyweight practice takes time and patience.
Its like wanting to go to heaven but not wanting to die. You aren’t going to get one without the other. If you want a real one arm handstand you have to start in a very real and solid place and that is at the bottom. You need to get familiar with the fundamentals of hand balancing and slowly, carefully with awareness and determination, move from one stage to the next. The process of self mastery is about honestly looking at yourself and where you are.
Honestly grading your progress and only taking forward steps when you are on solid ground. Anyone can fake a picture and let their friends post about how great they are. It takes a real student of movement to actually do it for real. What do you want, a black belt or the skills that a black belt has? Do you want, the attention of a faked one arm handstand or the skills and body that learning how to do it for real will produce?
Bodyweight Workout Essential #5: Consistency Over Contemplation.
I know more people that can argue about the best way to do something than I do people who can actually do it. It’s amazing how many people can argue for hours about the proper mechanics of a movement and yet they can’t seem to do anything. Science is great. Sports science is an essential part of helping us understand how the body works, recovers and what is needed to push our training further but it is also limited. Theory without practice is merely theory.
To really know something we must move, try, experiment and fail not in a lab or on the pages of an article, but in the gym. Most people looking to improve their health need not worry about the superiority of the front or back squat, they just need to SQUAT! Should they do Zercher squats on Monday during a full moon and then follow up with deadlifts on Tuesday if and only if its the second week of the month? Who cares? Squat!!!@!#!
Form is king but don’t let the pursuit of optimal form keep you from trying something. Experiment, research and don’t be afraid to fail. You can only learn new ways in which to move by moving. I know people who have taken their practices a lot further than most not because of natural talent or a great understanding of training protocols but rather from consistent hard work over time.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #6: Do the Same Thing Many Different Ways
They say that variety is the spice of life. This may be true and its certainly true when it comes to bodyweight training. When working on skills one of the best ways to progress is to attack the same challenge many different ways. If your goal is a solid free standing handstand you should approach your practice with a variety of exercises designed to reinforce and help you acquire this skill.
The more you can challenge the same position in various ways the stronger your understanding of the position will be. Work the handstand using the wall, facing in and out. Practice your holds on the floor and on blocks. The variety will challenge your body and mind in different ways and help you understand the mechanics better than if you simply trained the position the same way day after day.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #7: Do and Undo
How many times in a training session do you clench your fist? Come on, really think about it. Now ask yourself how many times do you stretch your hand back in the other direction? Not so many, right? Most of our training injuries are self inflicted. Sure accidents happen and they are a part of training but much of what we encounter as we train are not accidents but rather the results of poor programming.
If you move too far in one direction your body will bear the consequences of this movement. Training should involve a constant balancing act between doing and undoing. If you are training a lot of forward spinal flexion you should also include back extension as part of your movement practice. There is a balance to everything in nature, your training should reflect this same principle. Whatever you do, you should also undo.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #8: Spend More Time on Things You Can’t Do
Everyone loves feeling strong and capable. Unfortunately this good feeling is addictive and left to our own devices, we often program workouts for ourselves that make us feel good. Yes they may be tough, yes we may sweat for hours but they are still within our comfort zone and things we enjoy working on. It’s rare that I see people really challenge themselves in training by spending more time on their weaknesses than their strengths. I often see strong men and women who keep working strength. Flexible people keep getting more and more bendy but lack stability. If you really want to develop a deep well rounded practice you have to spend more time on things you can’t do.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #9: Be the Least Talented One in the Gym or Find Another Gym.
The next time you are at the gym or wherever you train take a good look around. Who is the best at what you are training? If the answer is you, go somewhere else to train. There is no greater inspiration than the kind you find when you surround yourself with talented, hard working people. I don’t want to train in a place where I am at the top looking down. Gyms where you are at the top are nice for your ego and it may be fun to have people ask you questions and admire what you can do, but those things won’t help your practice grow.
I want to train where I am at the bottom looking up. I want to be in a room where I am constantly reminded by those around me that I have a lot of work to do. In these kinds of places I can take my practice further. Find these people and places and use them to remind you that no matter how developed your skills are you must first and foremost be a student.
Bodyweight Workout Essential #10: Don’t Give Up!
A close friend of mine is an actor. He was quite successful in Canada before moving to Los Angeles. When he moved out there he went from starring gigs on Canadian TV and movies to lousy additions for terrible parts like “second taxi driver-no lines.” He struggled and often questioned if he was on the right path. As the years passed he wondered if he should pack it in, move home and find a different career. I remember talking to him on the phone one night when he was particularly disillusioned with the business.
I told him that I had no idea what it would take for him to get a break out there but that there was one thing we knew for sure about all the famous actors that have made it. They never gave up. The only true ingredient for success that was unarguable was not quitting. He agreed and kept pushing forward. He is now one of the stars of a hit NBC series that is going into its fifth season.
Anything worth having will be hard to get. This goes for relationships, jobs and physical skills. Anyone can do the easy stuff, but easy doesn’t count for much. The easy skills don’t challenge, change and transform you. Movement is about transformation, challenge and change. Change is only possible if we challenge ourselves. “Mastery” isn’t a goal you reach, it’s a goal you set. Something you move toward.
There is no magic in any particular tool system or method. True magic is found in the daily consistent and dedicated practice. Dedicate yourself to mastery. Find your passion and spend the rest of your life becoming the best you can be. Remember that mastery is not a destination. Always slightly out of reach, we seek it and it changes us. We move closer only to see how far we are. We transform because we preserver and continue our journey despite its hardships.