Last summer my brother Danny and I built a backyard pull-up bar at his home in Brooklyn. The original set-up featured two bars of different heights connected by crossbeams for extra stability.
Recently, Danny had the idea to make an adjustment to the backyard pull-up bar set-up by switching the crossbeams on the right side into parallel beams. This one minor adjustment has opened up a lot of new possibilities for our backyard workouts.
The elbow lever is a unique hand-balancing skill that will challenge your core strength as well as your coordination.
It’s a great skill to practice concurrently while learning the freestanding handstand, but it also looks pretty neat in its own right.
Before attempting an elbow lever, I recommend getting comfortable with the crow pose. Once you can hold a crow for 10 seconds or longer, you may be ready to move onto the elbow lever.
As the name implies, an elbow lever is performed by leveraging your bodyweight against one or both elbows while balancing on your hand(s) with your body stretched out in a horizontal position. Though it looks similar to a planche, the elbow lever is a less difficult skill due to the fact that your upper-body is resting on your arm(s).
Elbow Lever Technique
Make sure to keep your abs contracted and engage your lower back as you raise yourself off the ground. It is also important to pitch your upper-body forward in order to counterbalance the weight of your bottom half.
Though this move can be performed on a variety of surfaces, I recommend starting out by practicing on a bench, step or any other flat, raised object. This will allow you more room to lift your legs into position, as opposed to the limited amount of space when starting with your hands on the floor.
It may take some time to get used to the sensation of having your elbows jutting into your abdomen; beginners tend to find it especially unpleasant. With practice, however, you can eventually learn to make peace with it.
One Arm Elbow Lever
Though breakdancers and other skilled hand-balancers have a way of making this move seem effortless, the one arm elbow lever is a very challenging feat, so be patient if you endeavor to add this one to your arsenal.
Just like the two arm version, start out by simply trying to get your feet off the floor to get a feel for the balance before attempting to fully extend your body.
It may be helpful to spot yourself with your free hand in the beginning by reaching it to the side and resting one or several fingers on the surface upon which you are balancing.
Holding your body in a triangular formation with your legs in a straddle can make it a bit easier to find the balance with this exercise. With practice, you’ll improve to the point where you can work on bringing your body into a straight line.
People often write to me wanting to know how to get better at pistols. The best way is simply to practice! Do this challenge as often as you can and you will quickly get better at them.
In the beginning, give yourself a rest day between efforts if your legs are sore afterwards. Over time you may build to practicing this routine daily. There is no trick – you just gotta keep working on it.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
The great thing about this challenge is that anyone strong enough to do just one pistol squat can participate. Even if you can’t do a single pistol yet, you can try the challenge with self-assisted pistols holding a pole, suspension trainer or other sturdy object for support.
There are three variations on the challenge; those of you starting with self assisted pistols should be able to perform an unassisted pistol by the time you’ve mastered the advanced version. Then you’re ready to go back to the start and do the challenge without assistance!
Alternating legs, perform 40 total pistol squats (20 each leg) in as little time as possible. Rest in between reps only for as long as you need to in order to maintain good form. This may be anywhere from a couple of seconds to a couple of minutes depending on your fitness level. You can break the reps up however you like. Do them one at at time with long breaks in between if you need to – however you do it is fine as long as you get your reps in. With enough practice you should be ready to move to the next step relatively quickly.
Perform 10 consecutive pistols on each leg in a single set with as little time between reps as possible. Don’t sacrifice good form to do them quickly – keep your reps clean. Rest for as long as you want and then do the other leg. Take another break and then do it all over again.
For the advanced version, the objective is to perform 20 consecutive clean reps on each leg without stopping. A true master of this challenge will be able to perform all 40 reps in less than two minutes. I’m still working on perfecting it, but I’m getting close.
I was so sore after the 5B’s Pull-up Jam this past Saturday that I actually decided to take a few days off from training. Though it’s common for me to train every day, we all need to rest once in a while. My body was telling me to take it easy, so I listened!
This past Saturday I took the #4 train into Brooklyn for the annual 5B’s Pull-up Jam at Lincoln Terrace Park.
Unlike last year’s contest, however, I didn’t enter the actual competition. This time I just went to hang out, be a part of the good vibes and of course, get my reps in.
As always, there was lots of good energy, good conversation and of course, “good money!”
While the contest was happening in one part of the park, a crowd gathered near another set of bars for an informal freestyle exhibition. A lot of big names from the extreme calisthenics community were on hand to represent. There was no shortage of pull-ups, muscle-ups, levers and many other advanced moves.
All in all, everyone had a good time and a great workout. Thanks to all who entered and attended, and especially to everyone behind the scenes who made this event so much fun!
The front lever is one of the most difficult (and coolest looking) calisthenics exercises of all time. Performed either as a static hold or for reps from a hanging position, the front lever involves pulling your whole body up til it’s parallel to the floor, almost like you are laying down…on air!
In the continuum of bodyweight strength training, a static front lever hold ranks amongst the most difficult feats. I’d put it somewhere between the human flag and a full planche.
First Things First
Achieving a front lever requires serious back strength as well as total body control. Before you consider front lever training, you should be able to perform at least 10 dead hang pull-ups and several full range of motion hanging leg raises. I also recommend you learn to do a back lever and a dragon flag first.
Tuck Front Lever
The easiest variation on the front lever is the tuck front lever. Hang from a pull-up bar and squeeze your legs into your chest while rolling your hips back until your torso is parallel to the ground. Try to stay up and hold this position for as long as you can.
More advanced variations can involve extending one leg while keeping the other tucked or keeping both legs in a half-tuck position. There are many steps in between the tuck front lever and the full position.
Straddle Front Lever
By opening your legs during a front lever, you’re not only changing the balance, you’re also shortening the lever, both of which make this move slightly easier than a full front lever (though still more difficult than the tuck lever). You’ll need better than average hip mobility to pull off a decent straddle front lever, so make sure you’re stretching regularly.
Front Levers for Reps
When building up to a front lever hold, performing front levers for reps can be a very useful tool. Keep your whole body tight as you use your lats to pull your body into the lever position, then lower back down to a dead hang and repeat. The movement pattern is similar to a dumbbell pullover, except you’re moving your entire body instead of just a dumbbell!
When your form breaks down, switch to hanging leg raises. This can make for a very difficult superset.
Front Lever to Muscle-up
The front lever to muscle-up is a great way to work towards improving your front lever hold, as well as a bad-ass move in its own right. It’s easier to do the muscle-up first, then lower yourself into the lever, maintaining total body tension the whole time. Hold the lever position, then pull yourself back over the bar and repeat. Try using a false grip for this maneuver.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Working your way up to a front lever hold can take a very long time. Be patient and gradually build to several seconds on each step before moving onto the next one. If you find yourself getting stagnant in your progress, take a break from front lever training while you continue to work the basics (pull-ups, push-ups, etc.) then come back to it after a few weeks. In the big picture, a little time off can sometimes give you a renewed focus. The front lever is a very difficult move and I am still working on perfecting it myself!
If you’re looking for a great full body exercise, you’d be hard-pressed to find one better than the Turkish get-up.
Turkish get-ups involve full-body strength, flexibility and coordination in a way that few other movements offer. They’re especially good for your shoulders and core, and they can have functional carryover for handstands and handstand push-ups.
If you’re new to this exercise, start with no weight or use a very light weight until you get a feel for the movement pattern. Some people will get it quicker than others, so be patient if you struggle at first. Remember, it’s always beneficial to have one-on-one instruction from an experienced personal trainer when learning a difficult new exercise.
Originally developed as a military technique for self defense, the Turkish get-up has become a viable tool for athletes and strongmen of all kinds. The lift involves moving from a position where you are flat on your back into a full standing position, the whole time keeping a weight extended above you in one hand.
Get On Up
Though there are a few different variations on specific techniques, the classic Turkish get-up starts with the lifter bending the leg on the same side where the weight is being held. That foot is used for leverage to roll the torso up onto the opposite hip and elbow. From here, roll onto your palm, bridge your hips, and drag the far leg under your body. Complete the move by standing up just like you were coming up out of a lunge.
Make sure you keep the arm holding the weight straight during the entire lift. Think about actively pressing through that shoulder the whole time. Keep your eyes on the weight, maintaining a tight grip with your arm vertical.
Once you get to a standing position, you’ll need to return to the ground to complete the lift. Take it slow and controlled. Sometimes getting down can be harder than getting up!
Don’t worry about going for high reps on these, a few at a time is plenty. You might be surprised how quickly you’ll fatigue, even with a light weight. As always, form first!
Once you are comfortable with this exercise, it can be used to assess your strength. If you can do even half your bodyweight on a Turkish getup, you are extremely strong! (When going heavy, use your free arm to get the weight into position before starting the lift.)
Watch the video below for more:
Thanks to Nimble Fitness for letting me shoot this video in their facility.
The human flag is among my favorite bodyweight feats of strength, so I’ve spent a lot of time practicing it. The better I get at the flag, the more fun it becomes to push the boundaries of the exercise.
Though holding the textbook human flag position is still extremely challenging (holding a vertical pole with both arms totally straight, body completely side-on and level to the ground), it’s fun to mix it up by working on other variations.
Two Man Human Flag
Recently, my brother Danny and I did human flags everywhere, letting it fly on trees, phone booths, mailboxes and anything else we could find. The only place we hadn’t practiced the human flag was on each other – until now.
There are many different ways that we could approach this feat, but after a little trial and error, I’ve found that holding onto Danny’s forearm and ankle seems to be the most stable position. Perhaps with more practice, we’ll be able to try it other ways.
Doing coordinated two-person bodyweight feats adds a whole new element to training. While we’re still amateurs at this skill, we’re starting to get a feel for it. But don’t go calling Barnum’s just yet!
There is a lot to love about calisthenics and bodyweight training – besides being fun and cost-effective, zero equipment workouts are also convenient for travel.
My favorite aspect of bodyweight training, however, is how it teaches you to become aware of the subtle nuances of movement.
Using machines instead of your bodyweight (or free weights) neglects this key aspect of fitness. Don’t even get me started on people who read magazines or watch television during their “workout.”
Lost in Space
I am continually amazed at how out of touch the average person is with their body. For example, when I ask a new client to try moving their shoulder blades without moving their arms, they usually cannot find the coordination to make it happen. However, these types of subtle movements can be the difference between learning to do a pull-up correctly and injuring yourself.
Proprioception refers to the sensory ability to feel different parts of the body moving through space in relation to each other. I almost always do some yoga with my strength training clients to help with their proprioceptive capabilities. Only once somebody truly learns to feel how their body moves, can they make significant gains in strength.
Clearly I’m not a fan of exercise machines, especially when compared to bodyweight strength training or weight training, but those of us who feel that way are on the fringes. Go into any commercial gym and you’re bound to see way more machines than free weights. In some of these places, you’re lucky if there is even a pull-up bar or an open space to do push-ups.
Throw out your treadmill!
Rise of the Machines
Most commercial fitness facilities are not designed to get you fit – they are designed to get your money. The fancy looking machines you see in these clubs are all hype. They don’t work as well as bodyweight exercises, but they sure do look high-tech! Sadly, that’s enough to trick the average person into shelling out lots of money for a gym membership they’ll probably never even use anyway.
This doesn’t mean you can’t sculpt nice looking muscles using machines, it’s just a ridiculous way to go about it. Selectorized fitness equipment movement patterns are not natural, and will have less carryover into real life activities. Plus you’re much less likely to understand the movement of the human body if you’re never really moving! If everything you do for your workout involves sliding a fixed piece of machinery along a predetermined path, you’re just going through the motions. You’re not truly creating movement.
Less is More
While modern exercise equipment has only existed for a few decades, human beings have achieved fantastic physiques since the days of the ancient Greeks. If you want to build a better body, the only piece of equipment you’ll need is something you already have – YOU! Stop making excuses and start working out!
Varying your training forces the body to continually adapt, so I’m always working on acquiring new skills and expanding my arsenal. The better that I get at doing muscle-ups, the more I try to challenge myself with different modifications. I’ve blogged about advanced muscle-ups before, but I’ve been working on some new techniques since then.
Slow Muscle-ups and the False Grip
The transition between the pulling and pushing phases of the muscle-up is the hardest part for beginners. Some people find that using a false grip (cocking your wrist over the bar) can be helpful, as it eliminates the need to roll your hand over the bar during the transition.
A false grip is especially important when attempting to perform slow, controlled muscle-ups. In such instances, if can be helpful to use an exaggerated false grip with your closed fists completely on top of the bar.
Wide Grip/Narrow Grip
Just like pull-ups, the muscle-up can be done with a wide grip or a narrow grip. Both add their own unique challenges to the exercise, though the close grip can be especially tough. Work on gradually bringing your hands closer together over time, eventually working up to the point where they are touching.
As the name implies, this muscle-up involves crossing your arms like an X, with each hand over the opposite side’s shoulder. When you do an X-muscleup, the arm that is on the bottom has to do most of the work, so start by learning with your dominant side underneath. It took me lots of practice to get the hang of these and I still need to work on cleaning up my form. Even if you are very good at muscle-ups, expect to get a humbling the first time you try this one.
Any time you generate enough explosive force to get airborne, you are doing plyometrics. If you do enough muscle-ups, eventually you can try to push beyond the normal range of motion and propel yourself completely off the bar. Once you’re in the air, you may choose to toss in a clap or other freestyle movement of your choosing. When practicing plyo muscle-ups, use your hips to “cast off” the bar for more height.
The switch grip or “switchblade” muscle-up is one of the more difficult plyometric variations. To perform the switchblade, start out hanging below the bar in an underhand (chin-up) grip. From here, pull yourself up explosively, reversing your grip during the transition phase. You’ll have to generate tons of explosive force to get high enough over the bar to catch yourself and push through the dip phase to complete the exercise.
The pistol squat is a fantastic exercise for building lower body strength, balance and flexibility. But of course there’s a catch – you have to be strong, well balanced and flexible in order to even do one!
The main muscles involved in the pistol squat are the quads, glutes and hamstrings, though a strong core is also essential. Like all advanced bodyweight exercises, pistols require a high strength-to-weight ratio, so if you’re carrying around a lot of excess body fat, you’ll need to clean up your diet and shed some pounds before trying to learn this exercise.
I’ve blogged about the pistol squat before, but it’s a topic that I get asked about often, so it’s worth discussing again.
The Flex Pistols
When you do a pistol squat, there are three joints involved: the hip, knee and ankle. In order to achieve a full range of motion, you will need to be flexible in all three. People who overlook the ankle flexibility will wind up shooting themselves in the foot (so to speak). You have to dorsiflex in order to perform a true pistol. Your knee should slide right up by your toes without your heel coming off the ground, otherwise you’ll fall back on your butt. If your heel does come up, you may be able to maintain your balance, but the change in leverage can be harmful to your knee.
Pole Position Once you get comfortable with going deep on a standard two legged squat, you can do self assisted pistols by practicing in front of a vertical pole. Begin by standing in front of the pole, loosely grasping it with one or both hands. Now reach one leg in the air as you squat ass to ankle on the other, using the pole to guide yourself through the full range of motion.
When practicing pistol squats, it helps to think about squeezing your abs, particularly on the way up. Also bear in mind that keeping your other leg outstretched can be just as demanding as the squat itself. Squeeze that leg tight and reach it away from your body.
For the advanced trainee who can perform several pistols in a row, there are many ways to add a new challenge. You could try my twenty pistol squat challenge or grab a kettlebell and do weighted pistols. Holding you hands behind your head is another way to add difficulty – this seemingly minor change in leverage will make the exercise significantly harder. If those get easy for you, try pistols balancing on top of a bar. If you’re more concerned with explosive power, you could even attempt a plyometric pistol squat.
Bodyweight training is my bread and butter, but deadlifts are still a great exercise. The single leg bodyweight deadlift is a nice alternative to traditional barbell deads and they don’t require any equipment at all.
Much like a pistol squat is exponentially harder than a regular air squat, single leg deadlifts are more challenging than you might think. Doing a deadlift on one leg takes strength, balance and flexibility.
While I consider the one legged deadlift a full body exercise, the main muscles involved are the hamstrings, glutes and lower back.
The movement of a single leg deadlift is not unlike that of a drinking bird. As you lean your upper body forward, reach your opposite leg out behind you. This will not only help you balance, it will also further engage your lower back as well as the leg that’s in the air. I like to touch my hand to my opposite foot at the bottom to keep from externally rotating at the hip.
Watch out that you don’t bend your spine on the way down, but rather take the stretch in your hamstrings. The idea is to keep your back flat and pivot from the hips.
During my visit to St. Louis this past Memorial Day weekend, there wasn’t much time for a formal workout session, but I wanted to make sure I didn’t lose footing as I ascend towards mastering my bodyweight. With that in mind, I decided to get my reps in throughout the day anywhere and everywhere that I went.
In addition to attending a few family functions, I hit up the usual tourist attractions like the St. Louis Zoo, the Missouri Botanical Gardens, Grant’s Farm and of course, the famous St. Louis Arch. Though I didn’t strictly adhere to a healthy eating plan while vacationing, I made sure to practice push-ups, pull-ups, muscle-ups, dips, L-sits and of course, the human flag.
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:
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.