The first time I ever tried to do a human flag was on the support beam of a cable machine at my old gym. I jumped up and squeezed as hard as I could but didn’t come close to staying up for even a second. I was pretty strong at the time too. After all, I was almost 30 years old and had been working out for most of my life by that point. Not one to be easily discouraged, I immediately made it my mission to master this feat of strength.
In spite of my early difficulties with the human flag, I pushed onward with my training. I began practicing flag variations with my arms and/or legs bent and eventually managed to get a little air. I stared using an actual pole, and was able to add a second or two every few weeks to my bent flag holds. Progress came slowly and after several months, I finally began building up to full holds. During this time I also trained pull-ups, handstand push-ups and planks, all of which help build strength for the human flag.
Raise Your Flag
I’ve now been consistently practicing for a few years and my flag skills have come a long way. Whereas I could only hold a straight-leg flag on an angle when starting out, I can now hold a full human flag with my body level to the ground for several seconds.
Be patient when beginning with this feat – part of what makes the human flag so impressive is that it is hard! If any guy who felt strong could master this move in three days, it wouldn’t really be much of a feat at all.
Ever since I began human flagging, I’ve gotten a kick out of trying to pull off this feat in unexpected places. Any tall, sturdy object is a potential place to let it fly. I love a good outdoor workout and in a city like New York, there are so many fun places to practice human flags!
My brother Danny and I recently ventured around the city looking for new places to attempt the human flag. We flagged on phone booths, mail boxes and other everyday urban objects.
A lot has been happening here at Team Al headquarters these last few months! Between the link love I’ve gotten at Mark’s Daily Apple, being featured on Ross Training and my recent article on Sherdog, lots of new visitors have been stopping by – not to mention all the people who’ve found their way here through fans and friends sharing posts on facebook and twitter (thanks guys!).
Looking Forward/Looking Back
In the months ahead, look for new articles on a variety of topics including injuries and injury prevention, muscle-ups and – everyone’s favorite – the human flag! I’m also planning a new front lever tutorial and more posts on nutrition.
In the meantime, I’ve put together a new highlight clip of some of my favorite moments from the last several months as well as some rarities and never before seen footage:
And for anyone who hasn’t seen my highlights from last summer, check out the clip below:
Throughout the afternoon there was no shortage of advanced moves like muscle-ups, L-sits, levers, handstand push-ups, planches and human flags. I also saw innovative variations and combinations of moves unlike anything I’d ever witnessed before. In spite of the intensity of the exercises, the vibe was casual and welcoming. In the end, we all had a good time and a great workout – my arms are still sore as I type this!
Watch the video below to see some of the action from this epic meet-up:
You don’t need to spend money on a gym membership or any fancy fitness gear to get in shape. You can actually get great workouts with no equipment at all. The only thing you need to get fit is the desire to better yourself and the ability to take action. If you are looking to get some equipment, however, the best thing you could buy (or build) is a standard pull-up bar.
Nothin’ but Bar
You could seriously train every muscle in your upper-body just by doing pull-ups, muscle-ups and dips on a straight bar – no other equipment is needed. As for your legs, you don’t even need a bar! Just doing lots of squats and lunges will make them strong and toned. If you decide to up the ante, pistol squats hit every part of your lower body as well as your core muscles. And if those get too easy for you, try doing pistol squats standing on a pull-up bar.
I don’t typically share specific workout routines here on the blog, but today is an exception! Here are three simple workouts that you can do with nothing but a pull-up bar:
This workout is based on a pyramid training scheme and it will work every single muscle in your body – including your heart! Start by performing one squat, then immediately grab an overhead bar and do one pull-up, then drop down and do a push-up. Next do two squats, two pull-ups and two push-ups. Continue to add one rep to each exercise until you fail to get through the circuit. Then start taking one rep away and work your way back down. Try to keep your rest time to a minimum. If you’re not strong enough to do push-ups or pull-ups, feel free to substitute knee push-ups and Australian pull-ups in their place.
Don’t be fooled by the name – though the emphasis of this workout is on the abs, obliques and lower back, it hits every muscle in your body!
First warm up by holding a plank for one minute. The rest of the workout consists of ten hanging leg raises (or hanging knee raises), ten back bridges (perform the back bridges with a two second hold at the top), then a 30 second side plank hold on each side. Try to get through this workout without any breaks (though you may stop to rest as needed). Feel free to repeat the sequence two or three times.
This is an advanced workout that’s not for the faint of heart! It doesn’t take very long, but you’ll need to be strong to even try this one. Area 51 starts with one muscle-up on a straight bar. Once you’re over the bar, stay up top and do 30 dips. The next objective is to perform 20 pull-ups – all without coming off the bar. If you can get through the whole set, you will have performed 51 total reps. If you can’t do it all in one set, you may take a break in between the dips and the pull-ups and/or spread out the pull-ups into multiple sets. For the advanced trainee, area 51 can be used as a warm-up.
Watch the video below to see me performing the “Area 51” workout:
Editors Note: This is a guest post by personal trainer and sandbag enthusiast Matt Palfrey.
For centuries, the sandbag has been used as a means for individuals to build high levels of
strength and conditioning. Far from being a poor alternative to traditional free weights, the
sandbag is actually an effective, versatile tool that offers many advantages. If you haven’t tried sandbag training then you’ve been missing out!
Ultimate Stability Training
The constantly shifting weight of a sandbag is perfectly designed to add instability to your
training program. While many are keen to introduce stability training into their exercises by
using all manner of aids like stability balls, wobble boards and *ahem* the Shake Weight, doesn’t it make more sense to use a naturally unstable load?
Keep it Real
The major advantage of training with an unstable object, rather than on an unstable surface, is that it has greater ecological validity or real world application. Most loads, in real life, are not equally weighted. Therefore, training with the sandbag prepares the body to deal with an unstable load. The craze for stability training typically involves making the surface on which you are standing unstable – the complete opposite of most real world situations.
This is one of the reasons that people often find that they cannot lift as much weight in a sandbag as say, on a barbell. This isn’t a bad thing though – I like to consider it as “real-world” strength as opposed to “gym” strength.
Poor Man’s Weight Training
Another great benefit of the sandbag is that it is inexpensive and readily available for most people. I originally started training with sandbags when I didn’t have the time or money to get to the gym – I started with just a 55 lb. bag of sand and some tape. This cost me just $3. In fact, I now have around 350 lbs. of sand in my garage that cost me around $15. If I had purchased the same weight in plates or dumbbells it would have set me back at least $300. While sandbag training is not designed to take the place of traditional free weight training, if you are on a budget, it is a great weight lifting choice. Sandbags are available from most hardware stores or builders merchants. Or you could fill a duffel bag with taped bags of sand – be creative!
The best advice for individuals who want to add sandbag training into their existing workout is to simply make substitutions. Just take basic exercises like squats, deadlifts and overhead presses and perform them with a sandbag instead of a barbell, kettlebell or dumbbell. Don’t be surprised if your poundage drops, this is natural and is testament to the challenge that the sandbag provides.
Matt Palfrey is a strength and conditioning coach who specializes in working with MMA athletes. Matt holds a degree in Sport Science and Biomechanics and is the author of Sandbag Fitness – the low-cost, high tech resource for developing strength and conditioning using sandbags and other exercises.
You can train every muscle in your body without ever going to a gym or lifting weights, you just have to be creative!
The overhead press is one of the most fundamental strength training techniques out there – and for good reason. Overhead pressing is a great way to build upper-body strength as well as a strong core. Barbells and kettlebells are great for pressing, but no matter how strong you are, handstand push-ups are a unique challenge and must be treated as such. Get ready to flip the classic overhead press on its head – literally!
If you aren’t strong enough to do a handstand push-up yet, the pike press is a great way to ease in. Pike presses allow you to train the movement pattern without having to bear your entire body weight. Start off in a “downward dog” position with your hands and feet on the floor and your hips piked up in the air. From here, lower yourself down until your nose touches the ground and then push yourself back up – that’s one rep.
Once basic pike push-ups are no longer challenging, you can progress them by elevating your toes on a bench or step. You will wind up looking like an upside-down letter L, with your body bent in half from the waist. Try to keep your back straight by taking the stretch in your hamstrings. You can bend your knees a little if you need to in order to keep your hips up over your shoulders. Elevating your feet places more of your weight in your hands and gets you closer to a full handstand push-up.
Wall Assisted Handstand Push-up
Once you can do fifteen consecutive feet-elevated pike presses, you’re ready to try a full handstand push-up against a wall. Kick up into a handstand with your back slightly arched and your fingers spread out. Engage your core muscles and keep your body tight as you lower yourself down and press yourself up. Make sure you touch your nose to the ground on every rep to ensure a full range of motion.
Handstand Push-ups on Parallettes
If you want a bigger range of motion for your handstand press, you’ve got a couple options. You could use a set of parallettes or you could set up two benches (or other sturdy objects) alongside each other with enough room for your head to fit in between. Any method that allows you to drop your head below your hands will add a new challenge to your handstand push-up.
Freestanding Handstand Push-up
The freestanding handstand is a tricky move to get the hang of on its own, adding a push-up to it takes things to a whole other level!
The freestanding handstand push-up requires tremendous strength, balance and total body control, so before you think about training for this move, I suggest getting to the point where you can do at least ten wall assisted handstand push-ups and hold a freestanding handstand for a minimum of thirty seconds.
When performing handstand holds, I’ve often found it helpful to look in between my hands. With the freestanding handstand push-up however, I’ve found it better to look a few inches in front of my hands. Since the balance changes throughout the range of motion, I recommend practicing static holds at the bottom and middle positions of the range of motion to help train for this feat.
The One Arm Handstand Push-up
Often discussed, though never actually executed, the one arm handstand push-up is the holy grail of bodyweight strength training. In theory, the one arm handstand push-up is the ultimate calisthenics exercise. However, a full, clean rep has never been documented as far as I know. I have no doubt that someone will eventually perform one (and get it on video), but in the meantime the rest of us will just continue to train hard and keep the dream alive.
Kartik has been one of my most consistent and hardworking clients for a long time, so he’s no stranger to pull-ups and dips.
Despite a shoulder injury from before we met, Kartik’s built a considerable amount of upper-body strength and power in recent years and he’s now stronger and healthier than he’s ever been.
Always seeking to challenge my clients, Kartik and I decided it was time for him to begin training for his first muscle-up. After a few sessions spent practicing explosive pull-ups, straight bar dips and assisted muscle-ups, Kartik was ready to try the real deal. There were lots of unsuccessful attempts, but Kartik persevered and finally achieved his first muscle-up!
It's normal for one arm to come over first when you're learning to do a muscle-up
It wasn’t the best looking muscle-up, but nobody’s first one ever is. It’s normal to have to kick your legs and throw one arm over before the other when you’re first learning to get the movement pattern down. Do whatever you need to in the beginning – with practice you’ll learn to keep your legs straight and make the movement fluid. Don’t get hung up on perfecting your form before you can even do a single rep.
Now that Kartik got the first one out of the way, we can work towards improving his form. Check back this summer for an update on Kartik’s training and watch the video below to see his triumphant break-through moment:
A long time ago, a client of mine asked me if I’d ever seen anyone do a one arm pull-up. I stood for a moment in silent contemplation, then lifted one hand, wrapped it around my opposite wrist and said, “ya mean like this?”
“No,” he said, “without the other hand assisting at all.”
I told him I hadn’t, adding that I didn’t think such a thing was even possible – boy was I wrong!
I’ll never forget the first time I saw someone do a one arm pull-up. It was a game-changer and now I’m a believer!
Pull-up or Chin-up
If you want to get technical about it, a pull-up is done with a pronated (overhand) grip, while a chin-up implies a supinated (underhand) grip. A lot of people find that the pull-up is a more difficult exercise – this tends to be especially true for beginners.
When you do a one arm pull-up, however, there’s a certain amount of unavoidable rotation. This is why many of the people who can perform this feat on a bar will wind up pulling towards their opposite shoulder. When a one arm pull-up is performed on gymnastic rings, the ring will simply rotate to account for this.
For me, the disparity between overhand and underhand grips seems negligible, though I’ve done so many reps of different kinds of pull-ups over years that I may have just evened it out. Besides, when someone is strong enough to pull their chin over the bar with just one arm, they’ve earned my respect; belly-aching over their hand position seems pointless.
Training for a One Arm Pull-up
Only once you can perform at least 15 consecutive dead hang pull-ups should you even consider training for this feat. Tendinitis is a bitch, so back off if you start to get pain in or around your elbows.
The following methods have helped me on my quest for the one arm pull-up, but keep in mind that these are not the only ways to train towards this feat. There are many paths that lead to the same destination–feel free to be creative!
One Arm Flex Hangs
Just like learning to do a standard pull-up, performing a flex hang (holding your body at the top of a pull-up position) with one arm is the first step towards doing a one arm pull-up. Pull yourself up using both arms, then try to stay up while you take one hand away. Squeeze your whole body tight while keeping your legs tucked in close when you’re starting out. With practice, eventually you be able to try it with your legs extended.
One Arm Negatives
The idea here is to keep your body tight and controlled while slowly lowering yourself down from a one arm flex hang. Be prepared that the first time you try to do a one arm negative you will drop very quickly. When starting out, don’t even think of it as a negative, think of it as just trying to keep yourself up. Gravity takes care of the rest. Eventually, try working up to the point where you can make a one arm negative last for ten seconds or longer.
Archer Pull-ups Archer pull-ups are a great exercise regardless of if you want to work towards a one arm pull-up or not. When performing the archer pull-up as practice for the one arm pull-up, try to do as much of the work as possible with the arm closer to you. Think of your extended arm simply as a means of giving your pulling arm assistance, so use it as little as possible – eventually you won’t need it at all. (You can also spot yourself with your secondary arm by draping a towel over the bar and holding it or grabbing the pull-up bar frame.)
The One Arm Australian Pull-up
This is a nice precursor to the OAP for the same reason that Australian pull-ups can be a gateway to pull-ups – your feet are on the ground! When attempting a one arm Australian pull-up, concentrate on engaging your abs and your back muscles–don’t just focus on using your bicep strength. Remember that when you do a one arm Australian, it’s natural for your body to roll a little bit in the direction of your pulling arm.
Just like a one arm push-up or a pistol squat, core strength plays a huge role in one arm pull-ups and chin-ups. Think about keeping your entire body tight and controlled during your one arm pull-up training. If your core is weak, you may need to do some remedial ab exercises.
Pull-up or Shut up
Talk is cheap. The one arm pull-up is an elusive move that demands patience, consistency, and dedication. You’re never gonna get one without lots of practice. The question you need to ask yourself is this: How bad do you want it?
Ever since I can recall, I’ve always loved peanut butter.
As a kid, PB&J sandwiches were a staple of my diet, and though I don’t eat as much bread these days (or as much jelly), I’d never think of ending my love affair with the creamiest of all nut-butters.
Peanuts are Nut-ritious
I didn’t think much about nutrition growing up, other than holding onto the belief that anything labeled as “healthy” probably tasted bad and should therefore be avoided. Had I known peanut butter could be good for you, that might have been a turn-off. (Though at the time I only ate the candy peanut butter anyway.)
In time my perspective began to change and by my early twenties longevity suddenly mattered, so I decided to start eating healthy. Or at least I tried to start eating healthy. With so much misinformation out there, it’s really hard to even know what’s healthy and what isn’t. But one thing I quickly found out was that Skippy and Jif and all my other favorite brands of PB had been processed to the point where they were just straight-up junk food. The good stuff is the natural peanut butter – the kind with the oil floating on top. Stirring it together can even be a bonus workout – it’s win/win!
Which Butter is Better?
Switching to natural peanut butter in my early twenties was a life-altering moment for me. This was also around the time I first heard about “good fats” (ya know, the non-hydrogenated kind). Look at the nutrition label on your peanut butter – some brands try to market themselves as natural when they are not. Stay away from PB that contains any ingredients other than peanuts (and possibly salt).
Not only is natural PB a healthier option, but I also think it tastes better. I didn’t think that right away though of course. Like exercise, natty PB can be an acquired taste, but I was hooked by the time I finished my first jar!
The Butter Battle
Just when I thought I had this whole nut butter thing figured out, new information about PB started to come to light. In certain circles, peanut butter was becoming the bad guy. Now the experts were saying that almond butter or macadamia nut butter were better options. It turns out that peanuts aren’t even nuts! It’s true – contrary to what its name might lead you to believe, the peanut is technically not a nut – it’s a legume.
I’ve never been too much of a stickler for terminology myself, but people sure love to categorize things! While legumes and nuts have many similarities, what makes the peanut more pea than nut is that nuts grow on trees, while legumes grow in the ground. Nutritionally, legumes tend to contain a high amount of lectins, which have been linked to gastrointestinal distress and other health issues.
The Good, the Bad and the Nutty
The world of nutrition can be a tricky place, and there are pros and cons to all situations. In spite of their lectin content (and by the way – just about all foods contain varying degrees of lectins), I believe this is a situation of the good outweighing the bad. Peanuts are inexpensive compared to almonds and macadamias, plus they are full of nutrients. They’re also a great source of protein and – most importantly – they’re delicious!
Peanut butter is a versatile food that can be enjoyed in many contexts. I love blending peanut butter into a post workout smoothie along with a banana, a cup of milk and a little honey. It’s a recipe some of us know as “The Peanut Butter Banana Jammer.”
Peanut Butter Banana Jammer
2 Tablespoons of Natural Peanut Butter
6 oz. Milk (or another beverage of your choosing)
3-4 Ice Cubes
1/2 Teaspoon of Honey (optional)
New York City has so many great places to work out for free – you just have to be creative!
I’ve got nothing against training in a gym, but with spring finally blooming after a long snowy winter, my brother Danny and I couldn’t wait to venture back out to the streets of Manhattan for another edition of Sets in the City.
We all have the opportunity to better our bodies every single day. Instead of sitting around waiting for things in your life to magically fall into place, go out and make opportunities for yourself. Learning to improvise with whatever’s in front of you is a helpful skill in the world of fitness, but it’s an even greater asset in everyday life.
While freerunning and parkour both involve traversing urban obstacles with quickness, skill and grace, there are subtle differences between the two styles of movement.
It may be common to see a back flip or a human flag in freerunning, but you won’t see those moves in parkour unless they are needed in order to get from point A to point B.
Parkour is chiefly concerned with efficiency, while freerunning is more about fun and personal style. Whatever your preference, movement offers each individual a chance for self-expression and personal growth. The workouts are about overcoming obstacles, both literal and figurative. Parkour and freerunning can build strength, agility and stamina, but perhaps more importantly, confidence and character.
Last spring, when I was beginning parkour, I started by practicing some basic moves like underbars and precision jumping at Tompkins Square Park. As I got more comfortable, I progressed to trying things out in other places. After all, parkour is about adapting to your environment and not feeling restricted by circumstance.
Since I love both styles, I’ve been combining different elements from each in my fitness training. We had a beautiful day here in NYC on Monday so I did some freerunning and parkour around the neighborhood, making my way to TSP where I worked on kip-ups, vaults and of course, muscle-ups.
I get lots of emails from people who’ve gone stagnant on their pull-ups asking for my advice on how to improve.
The only way to progress at pull-ups (or anything for that matter) is consistent practice. There has never been another way and there never will be.
Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way, there are specific methods that can be more effective than others.
Here are a few techniques that may help you bust through a plateau:
Greasing the Groove
This technique was made famous by Pavel Tsatsouline and it is especially helpful for beginners who may still be learning to do a pull-up.
Greasing the groove simply involves doing multiple sets of an exercise throughout the day, rather than doing all your sets in succession. If you have a pull-up bar at home, you can take a workout like my 50 pull-up challenge and spread it out over the course of an entire day. A beginner, on the other hand, might grease the groove by doing a couple of flex hangs and negatives in the morning, a few more throughout the afternoon and then hit it one more time in the evening. Greasing the groove is as much about training your central nervous system to learn a movement pattern as it is about building muscle. While consistent practice is key, don’t try to do too much too soon. If you start getting pain in your joints, back off and give yourself time to recover.
A superset involves taking two exercises and performing them back-to-back with no rest. Typically the harder exercise goes first and when fatigue is reached, you switch to the easier exercise and continue repping out. By sequencing it this way, you’re essentially pushing your body beyond failure.
Try supersetting Australian pull-ups after going to failure on standard pull-ups, or do pull-ups while wearing a weight vest, then remove the vest when you reach failure and continue with just your body weight.
Pyramid Sets and The Rest/Pause Method
These old school techniques will test your body, as well as your mental fortitude. See my full articles on pyramid sets and the rest/pause method for more.
Zef’s Warm-up This is a routine that I got from Zef of the Bar-Barians. I’ve been using it recently in an attempt to increase my numbers on muscle-ups, but it’s been helping my pull-ups, too.
The routine consists of 5 muscle-ups, followed by 5 straight bar dips, then without coming down from the bar, you proceed to do 4 more muscle-ups and 4 more dips, then 3 of each, all the way down to 1 rep of each. If you can make it to the end, you’ll have done 15 muscle-ups and 15 dips, all without coming off the bar. I’ve been adding a set of pull-ups to failure at the end as well before finally dropping down to rest.
You must be willing to push your body’s limits in order to effect change and experience growth. Get creative with different patterns of super-sets, pyramid sets and anything else that you can come up with to challenge yourself. Just don’t get too hung up on chasing progress, instead try to enjoy the process.
Check out the video below for my version of Zef’s warm-up:
Though I love simple bodyweight training, using a suspension trainer is a great way to spice up those workouts with an additional stability component. The good folks over at BodyWeightCulture.com decided to send me a USA so I brought it to Nimble Fitness to try out.
When you’re used to doing pull-ups on a bar, doing them while hanging from straps can be a shock to your muscles. The USA also proved harder for back lever practice when compared to the bar. The extra stability needed to keep the straps from wiggling really forces you go slowly and focus on form – even on basic exercises like Australian pull-ups.
The design of the USA also allows for a staggered grip on pull-ups and push-ups to add another challenge. Additionally, I messed around with a modified iron cross and practiced holding an L-sit while climbing up and down the ladder.
While certainly not a must-have item, the USA is a worthwhile tool for someone looking to mix up their bodyweight training. After all, the most versatile piece of exercise equipment in the world is something that we all have already – the human body.
One of the most common questions I get asked is, “what’s the best way to work your abs?”
Most people who ask are concerned about aesthetics – they want to get a six pack – but core training can be functional too. That’s why the best ab exercises will do much more for you than just help you get the washboard look (which has more to do with diet anyway).
Abs and Functionality
In order to understand why certain exercises are better than others, you must first understand the role that your abs play in the musculoskeletal system. The abs (or rectus abdominus as they are technically known) function primarily as a stabilizer muscle – they keep your torso upright while you’re standing, walking or performing other movements. For this reason, the best way to work your abs is to use them to stabilize your trunk in difficult positions. Rather than attempting to isolate them with crunches, I’ve found it more satisfying (and effective) to work my abs in the context of my entire body.
Top Three Exercises for Abs
While it’s hard to say any one exercise is the best for abdominal training, these three are all arguably in the running:
Think of your abs as a bridge that connects your upper body to your legs. Since you’re in a horizontal position when performing a plank, your abs will have to work considerably harder to keep your body properly aligned than when you are simply standing or walking. The plank is typically held isometrically while balancing on your elbows and toes, but part of what makes planks so great is that they can be modified to suit all fitness levels.
Novices can start on their knees, instead of their toes, while intermediate level trainees can try lifting up an arm and/or a leg. When you get the hang of that, you can start experimenting with planking on an unstable surface. For another variation, try bringing your knees to your chest one at a time while holding a plank.
Hanging Leg Raises
Hanging leg raises require tremendous abdominal strength and stability. In addition to keeping your body stable (swinging is a no-no), the abdominal muscles must also work to lift your legs up during this exercise. See my hanging leg raise exercise tutorial for more information.
Try doing a hanging leg raise and stop when your legs are extended at a right angle to your torso. While an L-sit is typically performed with the hands resting on the ground (or holding parallettes), holding your body in the “L” position is a difficult task in either position.
Though most commonly seen in gymnastics, the L-sit is a great exercise for anyone who is serious about building core strength. Like the plank, it is often held in a fixed position for a given amount of time. When you get comfortable with the L-sit, you may be ready for advanced core exercises like levers, dragon flags or the planche.
ABS – Always Be Stabilizing
Any time you have to stabilize your torso, your abs get a workout. That’s why core strength is such a huge part of performing even basic bodyweight exercises like push-ups and pull-ups. With bodyweight training, you’re always working your abs.
As a kid, I got into working out because I wanted to put on muscle. Running had absolutely no appeal to me; runners were skinny guys and I wanted to get diesel.
And besides, running sucks! Who the hell would want to run around for hours for no reason? I was going to do pull-ups and get jacked.
Ironically, most people who begin running are drawn to it for the exact reason that I was turned off – they want to be skinny!
Turns out we’re both wrong.
In the Running
Running has seen a boom in recent years, but along with that explosion there has also been a backlash. Distance running has been called “chronic cardio” by members of the primal community and has been blamed for countless ailments and injuries. A lot of the backlash against running is aimed at those who are motivated primarily by a desire to lose weight (and those in the industry who pander to them). Truth is, while running can burn lots of calories, unless you change your eating habits, you’re unlikely to see any significant weight loss from beginning a running program. In spite of this, I believe that everyone should give running a shot as part of their fitness program. Especially those of you who hate it.
For the Love of Running
When most people (even fit people) begin running, there is an adaptation period that can be unpleasant and frustrating. Once you cross that threshold, however, the improvement that you will feel in your day to day life is significant. The increased aerobic capacity and cardiovascular function is just the beginning. You’ll also develop leg endurance that can carry over into walking, stair climbing and other everyday activities.
Of course, the best motivation to run is simply that it feels great (once you get accustomed to it). Simple pleasures make life worth living and few things rank higher on my list than a good run. Running can be an acquired taste, but just like riding a bike, once you get the mechanics down and start to build some endurance, it becomes a whole different experience.
Designing a Running Program
In the beginning, start out with run/walk intervals. You don’t need to follow a strict protocol, just run at a steady pace for as long as you can (which might be anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes). When you need to, take a break and walk until you catch your breath.
Repeat this process for 20 or 30 minutes, then stretch out and call it a day. In time, your walk breaks will get shorter and shorter until you can eventually go for 30 minutes without a break.
Once you can do that, you can try alternating between jogging and sprinting for your interval training.
Anyone who’d want to run a Marathon must be tripping, right?
Seriously though, if you’re crazy enough to want to do a Marathon or Half-Marathon, be smart about it – you’re going to need to run at a substantially slower pace and gradually build up your mileage. This type of running is usually referred to as long slow distance or “LSD” running.
LSD running is slow enough that you can maintain a conversation while running, so feel free to invite a workout partner. Take your time on LSD runs, it should feel almost like how walking feels to a non-runner.
Running is Fun-ctional
For those of you who still think strength training is all you need, keep in mind that in the wild, you’re either quick or you’re dead. For that reason, running is the most functional bodyweight exercise out there. I don’t care how strong you are, if you can’t run, you’re not fit. But perhaps more importantly, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!
For those of you who are unfamiliar with My Mad Methods, they offer expert advice on many unconventional training methods from kettlebells, to sandbags to bodyweight training. Check out their website to find out more and subscribe.
I am excited to be included amongst so many cutting-edge trainers in this issue. This is definitely not your run of the mill fitness magazine!
While books and websites can be entertaining and educational, there is no substitute for the inspiration that comes from a real flesh and blood training partner. Anyone who has had a great personal trainer or worked out with athletes can tell you that there is no better motivation in the world.
Grok and Roll
Though it’s great to train with someone so similar to myself, working out with different trainers and training partners has led me to expand my horizons. From my caveman workout with Lenny Lefebvre, to my MMA workout with Matt Ruskin, I’ve been lucky to have lots of great training partners over the years.
Another of my favorite workout partners is my friend Rick Seedman from the Bar-barians. Rick and I spend a lot of time training together at Tompkins Square Park. We’re constantly pushing each other to test our limits.
Don’t Get Dependent
While it’s great to get a session in with friends when possible, don’t get dependent on them. It’s not going to be feasible to train with a partner every workout; remember that you need to find intrinsic motivation as well.
Watch the video below to see some highlights from my recent workout with Rick:
From push-ups to pistol squats and, yes, even muscle-ups, there’s hardly a bodyweight exercise out there that can’t be cranked up by wearing a weight vest.
Sure, some of you guys (and gals) are still learning to do a pull-up, but I know lots of you can peel off 15 or 20 of them in a row (I’ve seen your videos on youtube). If you’re looking to add a new challenge to your bodyweight regimen, weight vest training could be for you.
It’s All Good
While working towards higher reps on basic exercises like pull-ups, dips or squats can lead to progress in your training, wearing a weight vest when performing these exercises can shock your body and stimulate new growth.
That’s not to say you can’t continue to increase your strength with just your bodyweight. If you continually work towards harder exercises, no equipment workouts can still be very intense! However, it is helpful (and fun!) to vary one’s training stimulus on the road to a well-rounded, functionally fit body.
“Weight” For It
Only once you can perform a given bodyweight exercise for ten or more reps with proper form should you consider adding resistance. Better to wait until you are ready than to get injured because you were overzealous.
Do the Math
Keep in mind that the amount of weight in your vest must be relative to your body weight. A man who weighs 135 pounds might find doing dips with an additional 25 pounds to be very challenging, whereas a man who weighs 235 might barely even feel a difference with 25 extra pounds. It’s better to base your decision on a percentage of your bodyweight, rather than a catchall number. First timers should add between 10-20% of their bodyweight (depending on the difficulty of the given exercise). When you can get at least five reps with clean form, feel free to gradually ramp up that percentage.
Maybe This Weight is a Gift
Weight vests are not the only way to add resistance to bodyweight exercises. You can use a weight belt, have a training partner provide manual resistance, or simply toss some free-weights into a backpack. Just don’t do that last one at your gym or they might get the wrong idea; free-weights doesn’t mean free weights!
One of my most vivid adolescent memories is the first time I ever attempted a parallel bar dip. It was my freshman year of high school and I had just started to explore the wonderful world of working out.
I signed up to take weight training my second semester that year, and there was a dip station in the weight room, so I decided to give it a go. I understood the task at hand and felt confident approaching the dip bars.
Once I began lowering myself though, it suddenly felt like someone had punched me hard in the sternum. Rather than being able to press myself back up, I instead fell to the ground and recoiled in pain, feeling like I would NEVER be able to do a single dip on the bars. The few kids in gym class who could do one suddenly seemed like super-human deities.
I Dip, You Dip, We Dip
I didn’t let that early experience stop me from trying again, however, and a few weeks later, I got my first real dip – it was a very exciting time! I’ve done a lot of dips since then and learned a lot of different variations. Dips are a great exercise and there are endless ways to keep them fresh and challenging. Keep in mind that while they emphasize the triceps, dips also work your chest, shoulders and core muscles. Pretty much any time you use your arms to press your bodyweight while in an upright position, it’s a dip. Here are the basics:
As I discussed in my previous dip tutorial, the best way to start out is to do dips with your hands on a bench and your legs resting on the ground straight out in front of you. Try to keep your chest up and your back straight when performing bench dips.
If you find it hard to stay upright with your legs straight, it’s okay to bend your knees and put your feet flat to make it easier. On the other hand, if bench dips with straight legs are not difficult, try putting your feet up on another bench for an added challenge.
Parallel Bar Dips
Eventually, bench dips will get easy even with your legs elevated. That’s when you’re ready for parallel bar dips.
When you perform a parallel bar dip, keep in mind that the movement pattern isn’t just straight up and down. You’ll need to pitch your chest forward as you lower yourself or you’ll likely put unnecessary strain on your shoulders.
If you’re having a hard time when starting with parallel bar dips, ask a spotter to help you. Have them grab your ankles while you bend your knees so they can assist you on the way up.
Straight Bar Dips
While the parallel bars are the most common place to work this movement pattern, dips can also be done on a straight bar, which most people will find more difficult. It’s also a great variation for anyone working on muscle-ups.
When you are dipping on a straight bar, you can play around with placing your hands wide or narrow. A wide grip puts more emphasis on your chest, while a narrow grip places more of the burden on the triceps. For this reason, the narrow grip tends to be harder for most people.
You can also do a straight bar dip with the bar behind your back. This is sometimes referred to as a Korean dip.
Korean dips are a very challenging variation and you’ll really need to concentrate on keeping your entire body engaged in order to perform them properly. Keep your abs and lower back tight while squeezing your legs and glutes in order to prevent yourself from swinging around excessively while practicing this variation.
Like all the basic exercises, you may eventually build up enough strength and power to get airborne at the top of a dip. My favorite way to do plyo dips is by exploding across a long pair of parallel bars. Clapping dips are another great way to amp up this classic move with some plyo-power!
When you do plyometric dips, you’ll need to get your whole body into it. There’s nothing wrong with using your hips and legs in order to utilize your full explosive power.
Less Lip, More Dip
Talk is cheap – if you want to improve at dips, it’s gonna take time and practice. However, keep in mind that people who try to do too much, too soon often wind up burned out, injured or just plain ol’ frustrated. Always remember to progress gradually and stay humble. Take it one rep at a time and enjoy the ride.
The Hanging Leg Raise is the single best exercise for your abs. In fact, hanging leg raises are great for your whole body!
In addition to working the abdominal muscles, hanging leg raises rely heavily on the serratus anterior muscles for stability, which has a huge effect on the entire midsection. You’ll also get additional grip, arm and shoulder work just by hanging from the bar.
Before you are ready to attempt a hanging leg raise, you’ll need to have the strength to hang from a pull-up bar for at least 20 consecutive seconds. If you can’t do that yet, practice hanging on for as long as you can. It shouldn’t take too long to build the endurance needed to begin.
Once you’ve built up some respectable hang time, you’re ready to attempt the bent-knee version of the hanging leg raise. As you begin to raise your knees, think about curling your hips forward to facilitate the movement. Keep in mind that your focus is to engage your abdominal muscles, which are attached to your pelvis, not your legs.
At first, you’ll have to go very slowly to stay in control and you’ll probably only manage to do a couple of reps. This is okay; go for quality over quantity and be careful not to swing your body. If you find yourself swinging, try to stop the momentum by touching your feet to the ground in between reps. If bringing up both knees together is too hard for you, try hanging bicycles instead.
Once you can do ten consecutive bent-knee leg raises, you’re ready to try it with your legs straight. This can be extra challenging for those of us with tight hamstrings. If you have to bend your knees a bit on the way up, this is fine. In time, work towards increasing your flexibility in order to keep your legs straight. It’s also helpful to practice planks and L-sits concurrently to help build the strength and control needed to perform a full hanging leg raise.
Strength Beyond Strength
Once you can perform the full hanging leg raise, there are still new challenges ahead. You may even eventually work up to doing hanging leg raises with just one arm. Remember to take it one rep at a time; there are no shortcuts on the road to mastering your bodyweight.
Most of the fitness questions that I get asked start off with the same six words, “How do I get better at…”
The answer is always the same no matter what comes next.
The specificity principle is a fancy way of referring to the simple fact that you get better at the specific tasks that you consistently practice. Whether it’s handstands or pistol squats or running, to improve your skills on anything, I recommend the direct approach.
For athletes, this means that much of their training time must be devoted to their specific discipline. The little bit of supplemental training they do usually consists of things like squats and cleans to maximize their strength and explosive power. After all, the combination of skill and strength is what leads to success in most sports.
For the rest of us, however, the specificity principle means that once we can establish a baseline of strength through basic exercises like squats, pull-ups, push-ups, etc, we can elect to devote our workout time towards whatever we like.
While skill enhancement isn’t the best means towards weight loss, finding new challenges helps keep your workouts fresh while allowing you to build up a skill set that can make you stronger and more functionally fit across different modalities.
Whether it be a sport, a race or just a good old fashioned pull-up contest, pick whatever interests you and devote your fitness time towards that task.
The goals themselves aren’t really important, but working towards something specific might help you stay focused. After all, goals are just a fantasy; the training that you do today is real.
No single bodyweight exercise works your entire upper body as thoroughly as a muscle-up. It is truly the king of bodyweight exercises, bar none.
I’ve blogged about muscle-ups before, but it’s a topic that people continually ask about. With that in mind, I’ve created this guide towards getting your first muscle-up on a straight bar. (If you are using rings, check out my muscle-up on rings tutorial.)
In order to achieve a muscle-up on a straight bar, you must be able to comfortably perform pull-ups and dips on one, but there is no set rule for how many reps are needed as a prerequisite. Some people who can only manage six or seven pull-ups can muster up a muscle-up, others who can bang out twenty dead hang pull-ups still continually fail at getting through the sticking point; the muscle-up is a unique challenge and must be treated as such.
Before you’re ready to do a muscle-up, practice doing pull-ups with an exaggerated range of motion. Instead of stopping when the bar is below your chin, pull that sucker all the way down past your chest. Get as far over the bar as you can!
Jump Right In
It can be helpful to practice a modified muscle-up on a bar that is about chest height so you can use your legs to help jump into it. (If you can’t find a low bar, bring a step or a bench up to a high bar.) This will let you get a feel for the transition from being under the bar to getting on top without having to overcome your full bodyweight. With practice, you’ll learn to rely on your legs less and do most of the work with your upper body. Once you’ve gotten the hang of jumping into a muscle-up, you’re ready to attempt the real deal.
Kipping is Appreciated
When you are learning to do a muscle-up, it’s helpful to use your hips and legs to generate additional power to get your chest beyond the bar. Do whatever it takes to get yourself up and over – nobody’s first muscle-up looks perfectly clean. As you get stronger and more comfortable with the movement pattern, you can begin to work cleaning up your muscle-up technique, as well as working on other types of advanced muscle-ups.
More Muscle-up Tips Like all bodyweight exercises, trunk strength plays a big part in performing a muscle-up. Always practice your planks and L-sits to keep your abs strong.
Beginners might find it helpful to use a false grip when performing a muscle-up on a bar. This entails bending your wrists over the bar so that your palms are facing toward the ground.
Just like when you are working on getting your first pull-up, it can be helpful to practice negatives and use manual assistance while learning to do a muscle-up. If you are going to spot someone on a muscle-up, I suggest giving them a boost by holding them under one or both heels, as if you were helping them over a fence.
While I strive to avoid heavily processed foodstuffs and snack treats, I know it’s not realistic to think I’ll never again indulge my sweet tooth.
If I find myself overcome with desire for a gigantic muffin or an entire pint of Ben and Jerry’s, I might be able to talk myself down from the ledge, but sometimes jumping headfirst into a carb-frenzy is the only way to get it out of my system.
For individuals who are trying to take the fast-track to weight loss, giving into one urge can sometimes be a slippery slope, but for those of us who are focused on the big picture, occasionally indulging those urges can actually help tame the beast within.
Be Here Now
People sit in movie theaters across the country shoveling popcorn into their mouths, virtually as unaware of the stimulus to their taste buds as they are of their over-taxed hearts beating in their weak little chests.
If you’ve made the conscious decision to eat something you know to be of sub-optimal nutrition, you’d better savor every bite. And that’s easier to do when you’re giving your food your full attention.
Don’t Have a Cheat Day
I know some people who will eat clean all week, then give themselves a cheat day to satisfy their pent up cravings. While this is obviously better than eating crap all the time, I find it more sustainable to spread my indulgences out through the week. If I have ice cream on Monday, onion rings on Wednesday and a piece of cheesecake on Saturday, I’m able to keep my cravings from building up to the point where I have to go completely wild on the seventh day. This approach usually keeps me from waking up with a full-on junk food hangover and having the “I’m never doing that again” conversation with myself.
Of course it would be better for my body to never eat any of my favorite junk foods again, but life ain’t ever gonna be perfect. Even with four or five treats a week, I’m still eating clean around 80% of the time (I eat a lot!). Since my workout schedule allows me to consume large amounts of calories, I could get away with eating a lot worse than I do and still stay lean. However, nutrition is about more than one’s body fat percentage. Luckily, I’ve managed to keep both of those things in check, even with my occasional penchant for ice cream.
The back bridge is a timeless exercise that can help build total-body strength and improve your flexibility along the way.
Whether your focus is strength training, calisthenics, yoga or any other type of exercise, back bridging is bound to come up in some form.
While bridges are often performed isometrically, they can also be done for reps. Like all exercises, there are many variations on the back bridge. Here are a few of the basics:
Beginner Back Bridge
Lie on your back with your arms at your sides and your knees bent. Your feet will be flat on the ground. From here, push your heels into the ground, squeeze your butt and lift your hips as high as you can. You’ll also need to think about pushing your chest up and squeezing your shoulder blades together while your head stays on the ground. If you can’t keep your knees from bowing open, you might find it helpful to squeeze a yoga block or small exercise ball in between them.
This time you’re going to sit with your legs straight in front of you, almost like an L-sit except you’re not in the air. From here, lift your hips by contracting your hamstrings, glutes and other posterior musculature. Drop your head back, press your chest up and try to look behind you. You’ll wind up looking like an upside-down plank.
This starts off in the same position as the beginner back bridge except your hands are placed on either side of your head, palms down and wrists bent back. From here, press yourself off your back and onto the top of your head. You might want to place a towel or other soft object between your head and the ground when starting out. For an added challenge, try taking your hands away and supporting your upper body with just your neck. This variation is sometimes called a “wrestler’s bridge.”
Full Back Bridge
Don’t be in a rush to get to a full back bridge, as it can put a lot of pressure on your spine. If you aren’t ready for it, you could be in for a world of hurt.
However, if you are ready to try it, start by coming into a neck bridge. Next, press your hands into the ground, dig in your heels and push your chest forward. This last part is really important for those of us with tight shoulders, as pushing forward with the chest will facilitate a deeper stretch through the thoracic region.
In part one of this series, I dispelled some myths about what it means to be a personal trainer. If you’re not disillusioned after reading that, here is my advice on how to get started.
Make it Personal
Anyone can stand there while someone does squats and push-ups; what sets me apart from other trainers in my personality. If you want to be a personal trainer, remember that your product is YOU. If you’re a nice guy, don’t try to be a drill sergeant. And if you’re a stone-cold bitch, there will be people who’ll need you to get in their face in order to push themselves. Nobody is the best trainer for everyone – embrace who you are and you’ll attract clients that you’ll click with.
Give ‘Em What They Want
When I started out in the fitness industry, I thought I needed to look like a bodybuilder in order to be taken seriously. I soon found out, however, that most personal training clients aren’t interested in putting on mass. In fact, they’re usually much more interested in losing weight. As absurd as it seems in retrospect, before I entered the world of personal training, I was hardly even aware that simply being thin could be a desirable body type. It took working for a commercial gym to realize that my fitness goals weren’t the same as those of the general public.
Workin’ for the Man
I’m happy not to be working for a chain gym now, but I’m glad I did for almost seven years. In fact, I think every new trainer would benefit from working at a commercial facility (though not necessarily for as long as I did) before working independently.
Sure you’ll have to deal with a few knuckleheads and the usual bureaucratic bullshit, but the benefits of working for a big-box gym are many. For starters, you’ll get to be around lots of other trainers with more experience, so you’ll get to see firsthand what works and what doesn’t. That’s not to say you should try to copycat the top trainers at your gym, but rather develop your own style based on what you observe to be effective.
In addition, working at a gym will allow you to pitch your services to people who are already interested. After all, if they are in a gym, chances are they want to improve their fitness!
Talk is Cheap
New trainers always like to tell me about how they just got a new client, but when I ask them how many sessions the client purchased or when their first session is, I often get a response like, “Oh, well they didn’t actually sign up yet, but they told me they are going to.” Truth is, potential clients will want to chat you up about your services, but most of them aren’t actually serious about hiring a trainer. Some people will continually tell you (and themselves) that they are going to start next week or next month, but in reality they are wasting your time (and theirs).
Don’t Sell Yourself Short
There is nothing wrong with offering a prospective client a complimentary or discounted first workout so they can try out your services, but don’t allow your clients to take advantage of you. The satisfaction you’ll feel from helping someone develop their body is a huge part of what makes personal training worthwhile, but it won’t pay the bills. While it’s reasonable to keep your rates relatively low until business picks up, remember that a trainer who charges substantially less than the competition is devaluing themselves and will appear amateurish in the eyes of others.
A lot of people are intimidated by personal trainers, especially if they feel out of shape. These people need the help of a trainer the most, yet they will often be the least likely to ask for it. Be friendly and introduce yourself to everyone in your gym. When they have a question, they’ll remember that you were kind and approachable.
Give it Time
Just like getting in great shape takes patience and dedication, establishing a reputation as a quality personal trainer takes years. If you think personal training is going to make you lots of money without having to work hard, you’re going to be in for a rude awakening. However, if you are genuinely passionate about health and fitness, personal training can be a very rewarding career.
Check out my brother Danny’s new book, Everybody Needs Training for more proven success secrets for fitness professionals!
I often get questions from aspiring personal trainers who want my advice on how to begin. Before getting to that (which I do in part two), I first need to dispel some common misconceptions about what it means to be a personal trainer.
The Client is the Star (Not You!)
Personal training is not about how great you look in a tight shirt or how much you can lift – it is about your clients! Your job is to be there for them. Just like a good parent must put the needs of their child before their own, a good trainer always puts their clients’ needs first.
Knowing How to Train Yourself Doesn’t Make You a Trainer
Since most of your clients are not going to be athletically inclined, the workouts that you do for yourself are rarely going to have any relevance for your client. If I took a new client and tried to get them to do a pistol squat or even a pull-up, it would likely be embarrassing for both of us. You must understand the beginner’s mind as well as what they are capable of. Just because an exercise is easy for you, doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy (or appropriate) for your clients.
Certifications Don’t Matter
Sure I learned some stuff from studying textbooks and preparing for exams, but it’s nothing compared to what I learned from actually training people. Just like reading a book about working out won’t make you fit, getting a PT certification won’t fully prepare you to train people. Some of the worst trainers I’ve ever met had all the credentials in the world and some of the best weren’t even certified at all. Knowledge and experience matter more than a piece of paper ever will, even if you spent a lot of money to get that piece of paper.
Your Clients are Your Boss
A lot of people think that being a trainer means you get to make your own schedule. This couldn’t possibly be farther from the truth. Most personal training clients are busy professionals who will need you to work around their schedule. Say a potential client has to be in the office by 9am and they want to work out in the morning. You’re going have to get your ass out of bed before sunrise to meet them before work or they’ll find another trainer who will.
On the other hand, some people prefer to get their workout in at the end of the day; 7am is one of the most popular times for personal training, but so is 7pm. If you’re not willing to put in long hours, you are not going to succeed. I’ve had countless days where the span of time between when I met my first client and when I ended my last session was 13 or even 14 hours. Don’t like long days? Personal training isn’t for you.
All or Nothing
If I had a dollar for every wannabe trainer who’s said, “I really want to be an actor/dancer/model/etc. but I figured I could make some extra money on the side by training people,” it would add up to a lot more than most of them ever made as trainers. The truth is, if you want to be a successful trainer, you have to fully commit yourself to the trade. If you’re turning down clients to go on auditions, you’re wasting everyone’s time. Sure a handful of people are able to find the balance between pursuing their art and pursing a career as a trainer, but they are few and far between. If personal training isn’t something you feel passionately about, don’t do it. You must be willing to sacrifice things in your life for this dream, or you will never make it.
It’s been over a year since I started training for the planche and progress has been slow. In fact, I took several months off last year to focus on other aspects of my training as I was getting frustrated with my lack of progress. It’s often been said that doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results is the definition of insanity. With that in mind, I have retooled my planche training strategy.
In hindsight, I was trying to get to the finish line too quickly. Rather than establishing a solid foundation with the tucked planche and other variations by performing them with straight arms, I rushed into trying to achieve a full planche with bent arms. By practicing with my arms bent, I was able to get my body closer to the full planche, so it seemed closer to the final objective, but in the process I put more stress on my shoulders than they were ready for.
Luckily I knew to back off before I crossed the line between discomfort and pain. Now after a hiatus, I’ve been back to practicing towards a full planche. This time, however, I am employing a different method, using kettlebells as parallettes and working on getting comfortable with extended tucked planche holds before I move onto the harder variations. I’m also working on transitioning back and forth from the tucked planche to the L-sit. I’m not certain that this method will guarantee me success, but my previous strategy wasn’t getting me very far, so it’s worth a shot!
I stand by the other techniques I demonstrate in my old planche training video and will continue to practice them, but I will not be doing bent arm planche holds. The goal is to get a straight arm planche, so I shall practice with straight arms! I’ve also been throwing in some weighted pistol squats in an attempt to increase my abdominal and lower back strength.
Al Kavadlo is not liable for any injuries or damages that individuals might incur by attempting to perform any of the exercises or feats of strength depicted or discussed on this website.
Any individual attempting to does so at their own risk. Consult with your physician before beginning an exercise regimen.