Bodyweight Is Back
Calisthenics have made a comeback in recent years due to their simplicity and effectiveness. After all, you don't need equipment to do them, not to mention that bodyweight training is a powerful and effective way to build muscle. But not everyone has embraced the calisthenics resurgence.
Many traditional gym folk have resisted bodyweight exercises for one simple reason: They suck at them. But if you fall into this category, you don't have to suck anymore! Here are five reasons to add more bodyweight exercises into your program, along with ways to identify and eradicate any weakness that may be holding you back from excelling at them.
Many of the all-time great bodybuilders used bodyweight exercises in their training regimens. But many of today's lifters are under the misimpression that any exercise that doesn't involve moving a ton of iron is automatically a waste of time.
Sure, you do need to lift something heavy in order to increase your strength, but that load doesn't always need to come from an external source. Your own bodyweight can offer plenty of resistance. Anyone who considers himself strong should be able to complete at least 30 full push-ups and 10 full pull-ups.
If you're unable to master those foundational movements, you owe it to yourself to give calisthenics a fair shake. Bodyweight training keeps you mobile, balanced, and honest about your real world, pound-for-pound strength.
It's easy to think you're getting stronger if your lifts are going up, even if your waistline is expanding right along with them. Increasing your body mass can improve your leverage to lift an external load, regardless of whether that mass is comprised of fat or muscle. With calisthenics training, however, any superfluous body weight you're carrying will decrease your leverage and make your exercises more difficult by creating additional resistance.
In other words, if your body fat percentage is greater than your max number of push-ups, you have a low strength to mass ratio, which is basically a more scientific way of saying that you're too fat. If this is the case for you, the only pie you should be eating is a big ol' slice of humble pie. Put your ego aside and devote yourself to improving the basics. It doesn't matter how much you can deadlift; if you can't do a single pull-up, you're not strong.
A lot of calisthenics exercises demand greater mobility than their weight room counterparts. A full range of motion barbell squat requires better-than-average mobility in the hamstrings and hips, but a one-legged pistol squat takes those attributes to the next level.
If you can back-squat more than your body weight, but struggle to do a de-loaded single-leg squat, there's a good chance that a lack of mobility is to blame.
Additionally, other calisthenics staples like back bridges and L-sits require a considerable amount of flexibility, in addition to high levels of strength. One thing that's great about calisthenics is that by working on progressions towards these skills, you can improve your flexibility as you continue to build strength.
For example, performing a pistol squat on an elevated surface requires less mobility in the hips and hamstrings than one performed on the ground, as doing so allows your non-squatting leg to drop below surface level. When you've built up to a few good reps this way, you can progress to holding your extended leg a bit higher. Eventually you'll be able to keep it high enough to perform a pistol on level ground.
On the other hand, if your upper-body mobility limits you from performing a full back bridge, practice a bridge with your feet elevated.
This subtle shift makes it so you won't have to reach your arms as far overhead or extend your spine as significantly.
While there's certainly technique involved with executing a proper barbell squat or bench press, the amount of coordination needed for a freestanding handstand or human flag is much greater.
A novice lifter can learn proper technique on most barbell lifts with only a few weeks of coaching, though many advanced calisthenics exercises can take years to attain in their fullest expression.
The good news is that you can start with regressions of these moves in order to work your way towards the fully monty. As you continue to refine your technique, you'll learn how to better control your body and coordinate your movements in various positions.
For example, if you can't do a freestanding handstand yet, you can start by using a wall for assistance. With practice you'll learn to gradually rely less on resting your feet against the wall for support as you build the coordination to balance fully on your hands.
As for the flag, practicing with your body at a slightly lower (or higher) angle than parallel to the ground, and/or tucking one or both knees are good ways to train until you're capable of achieving the full position with both legs straight and the body completely horizontal.
Even if you have strong muscles, it's still possible to have weak joints. If you're used to lifting with a weight belt, wrist wraps, knee braces or other such implements, there's a good chance that your joints may not be as strong as your muscles.
Some people can move some serious iron around in the weight room, yet avoid things like chin-ups and dips because those exercises hurt their elbows or shoulders. If you can't do those basics without pain in your joints, the exercises aren't the problem – your joints are.
Fortunately, you can strengthen your joints with a healthy dose of calisthenics, as long as you choose exercises that you can handle in a fairly high rep-range. Due to their relatively low intensity and high time under tension, performing certain bodyweight exercises in the range of 20-40 reps works well for increasing blood flow to your joints and ultimately repairing them.
If dips are too much for you, try working on close-grip push-ups to build strength in the connective tissues around your shoulders and triceps. Build toward 30 consecutive, controlled close push-ups and your joints will be better off for it.
If chin-ups are too much for you, you can begin with inverted bodyweight rows where your feet remain on the ground.
Again, building to 30 consecutive and controlled reps here will do wonders to rebuild your shoulders and elbows.