Category Archives: Strength and Conditioning

Air Baby Tutorial

Air Baby

The air baby is an advanced handbalancing exercise that combines strength, balance and skill.

It’s a visually breathtaking maneuver that can take years to perfect.

The air baby has origins in breakdancing, but it’s also become a trademark move of calisthenics and certain styles of yoga.

Though the air baby requires a high level of strength and control, the process of building toward the full movement can help you improve those attributes.

Here’s a 5-step progression you can use to achieve the full air baby.

Take your time with each step and be patient.

Crow Pose

Step One – The Crow Pose
The first step toward learning an air baby is the classic Crow Pose. In fact, you can think of the air baby like a one-arm/one-leg version of the crow.

Step Two – One Leg Crow
Once you can comfortably hold the crow for 30 seconds, you are ready to try taking one leg away and reaching it outward. You will need to shift more of your weight toward your fingers in order to stay balanced in this position.

Step Three – One Leg Crow with Staggered Hands
After you can do a crow with one leg extended for more than 10 seconds, you are ready to try the pose with your hands staggered. The idea here is to place less weight in your secondary arm by keeping it farther away from your body. You will also need to shift the position of your primary hand so that your fingers are facing out to the side rather than forward.

At this point you can also begin to play with turning your body slightly sideways and starting to stack your hips. You may be surprised by how much core strength this demands, particularly in the obliques on the side of your primary balancing hand.

Air Baby Progression

Step Four – Assisted Air Baby
Once you can hold the previous progression for longer than 10 seconds, you can take more weight away from your assisted hand by raising up onto the fingertips. Then you can gradually start removing fingers.

Eventually, you’ll be close enough to a full air baby that all you’ll need for assistance is one finger. Even still, it can be a pretty big jump between this step and the full air baby.

Step Five – Air Baby
Once you can hold the assisted air baby for several seconds with just one finger, you can experiment with starting to remove the assisting hand completely. Be prepared for a lot of trial and error as you learn to find the sweet spot between tipping too far forward and falling too far backward.

Additional Air Baby Tips
–You may need to experiment with the exact placement of your knee in relation to your elbow. If it is too high or too low, you won’t be able to balance.

–It can help to think about pressing the ground away with your balancing arm while crunching your obliques to keep your knee on your elbow.

–Keeping the extended leg contracted and squeeze the heel of your bent leg toward your butt.

–Don’t be alarmed if your knee and/or elbow gets chafed from the friction caused by practicing this exercise. Sometimes breakdancers will wear a wrap or pad on the elbow to help with this.

–It may be helpful to first learn the one arm elbow lever before going for the air baby, as they are similar in some ways, and the air baby is more difficult.

Watch the video below for demonstrations and more:

How to Do A Double Under

Al Kavadlo Double Under

Who knew you could burn fat and have fun at the same time?

Those of you who’ve been following me for a while probably know that I’m not a fan of “cardio workouts” – but I do love me some jump rope training!

Jumping rope burns a ton of calories, plus it’s a great workout for your heart, lungs, legs, grip…and brain!

You see, unlike mind-numbing treadmill or stationary bike workouts, jumping rope requires you to stay focused and pay attention to your body, which has major cognitive benefits.

And wouldn’t you know it – by focusing on the task rather than the outcome, you can have a more enjoyable experience – and still get ripped!

Double Under Technique
The double under is a particularly effective technique for expending huge amounts of energy and revving your metabolism, but it can also be quite challenging to learn. As such, make sure you are very comfortable with standard jump rope technique before you begin working on the double under.

In order to perform a successful double under, you’ll need to whip the rope extremely quickly and jump higher than normal to make room for the rope to pass beneath your feet twice before you land.

I also suggest keeping your hands relatively low and slightly forward of your hips. If your hands are too high or too far back, you won’t have enough clearance beneath your feet.

At first, you may only be able to perform one double under at a time, but with practice you will eventually be able to string together multiple reps.

Double Trouble
There’s often a lot of trial and error involved in figuring out the proper timing for a double under. It’s a skill that takes practice and patience to master, so try not to get too frustrated in the beginning.

It’s best to practice on a soft surface like rubber or grass in order to minimize impact on your joints. Also make sure to bend your knees and ankles upon landing in order to reduce impact.

It can also help to learn the technique with a lightweight speed-rope, like “The Bolt” from Crossrope.

Crossrope_Bolt_Set

Lighter ropes can move a lot faster than heavier ones, and I’ve found that ropes which weigh around 3 or 4 ounces tend to be ideal for learning double unders.

Once you’ve gotten fluid with your technique, you can try using an even lighter rope for more speed. Be aware, however, that very light ropes can potentially be harder to control, so some people will prefer to stick with a slightly heavier option.

That’s part of what I love about “The Bolt” from Crossrope: It comes with two ropes that are easily interchangeable – a lightweight 3 oz rope and a super-lightweight 1 oz rope.

Watch the video below for more:

The Benefits of Cold Exposure

Abominible Snow AlEvery time I take a shower, I go through a little battle inside my head.

Allow me to explain…

Several months back, I read Wim Hof’s The Way of The Iceman, and it inspired me to experiment with cold exposure training.

In the book, Hof suggests ending every shower by turning the dial all the way to the cold side, then staying under the frigid water for as long as possible.

The first time I tried it, I barely lasted 30 seconds and found the whole thing to be quite unpleasant.

When it was over, however, I felt a powerful surge of energy which encouraged me to do it again the next day. After doing this daily for a few weeks, I’d conditioned myself to withstand several minutes under the cold water.

Though I’m a bit skeptical of some of the bold claims certain proponents of cold exposure training have made, there are three clear benefits I’ve experienced from it, and that’s enough to keep me going:

1 – Increased Energy
Though I’m not typically lacking in vitality, I do feel especially energized right after a cold shower. When the water hits my skin, it really wakes me up and gives my nervous system a jolt.

The science also shows that when the body is exposed to cold, it causes the capillaries to contract and blood is rushed away from the extremities in order to keep the internal organs warm. In the moments following cold exposure, the capillaries expand and fresh blood is returned to those areas. That’s probably why I’ve had some really good workouts right after a cold shower.

2 – Improved Recovery
When you’re fired up, a cold shower is a great way to cool down. Though it may seem like a contradiction to my last point, cold showers are perfect after a workout, especially if you’ve built up a lot of body heat.

Cold exposure following an intense training session also seems to help relieve muscular soreness, which makes sense given the anti-inflammatory power of the cold. There’s a reason it’s common practice to put ice on a fresh wound or injury. The healing power of the cold is undeniable.

3 – The Ultimate Meditation
Frozen YogaThe cold has an amazing way of bringing you into the present moment. It’s pretty much impossible to daydream or think about anything other than the physical sensations you are experiencing while you are in the midst of cold exposure. All you can do is stand there, breathe and accept it.

Focusing on the breath is a cornerstone of virtually all forms of meditation training, as well as a major part of the Wim Hof Method. If you focus your mind deep inside your belly and take big, powerful breaths, it’s easier to keep from succumbing to the cold.

It can also be helpful to move around. If I’m doing outdoor cold exposure, this could mean hitting a few yoga poses and/or doing some light stretching. If I’m taking a cold shower, I might start by letting the water hit my back and legs for the first few seconds, then turn to the side for a bit and let it run over my shoulder, finally letting it hit my chest, armpits and face after I’ve had a little time to adapt to the sensation.

Cold War
Even after following Wim’s teachings for the last several months and experiencing the benefits firsthand, it’s still sometimes a struggle for me to turn the shower knob to the cold side. Occasionally there are days when I’m eager to feel the cold against my skin, but much of the time there’s a voice inside my head trying to talk me out of turning that dial.

And that’s a big part of why I keep doing it.

Forcing myself to override the part of my brain that desires comfort has made me mentally stronger.

Just like my calisthenics training, my experience with cold training has helped reinforce for me how to best approach potentially daunting tasks without getting overwhelmed. The key is to focus on breaking the bigger task down into smaller chunks.

Cold ExposureOn the days when I really don’t want to feel the cold, I tell myself I’m just going to do 30 seconds. Once I get to that point, it’s usually not hard to convince myself to endure another 30 seconds. After a minute, I try to convince myself to say in for another minute. Sometimes it even starts to feel good!

There are days when I time myself on my phone and make sure I do a full 5 minutes. Other days I don’t bother with the timer and just stay in for as long as I can handle.

In addition to cold showers, I’ve also experimented with outdoor cold exposure, ice baths and cold rooms (like the one in the photo to the left), which can all get very intense.

Of course, I do take a day off once or twice a week when I am feeling particularly dispassionate about experiencing the cold.

Just like strength training, it’s good to give your body a break from all that stimulation occasionally. Typically when I skip a day, I’m more eager to go for it the next time.

Cold, Hard Truth
Studies continue to surface about the benefits of cold showers, ice baths and other forms of cold exposure therapy, yet many people are still hesitant to give it a shot. We live in a culture that encourages comfort above all else, but being comfortable all the time does not allow us to grow.

I’m sure you have a friend or two who thinks that you’re crazy for doing calisthenics. Keep that in mind if you think I’m crazy after you watch the video below:

If you’d like more info about cold training, pick up a copy of Wim Hof’s The Way of The Iceman.

Learning to Tear a Deck of Cards in Half

Torn CardsLast Halloween I went to see my friend Adam RealMan perform his one-man sideshow act, which includes everything from sword swallowing and eating lit cigarettes, to bending steel and tearing decks of cards in half barehanded. Fun for the whole family!

I’d witnessed card tearing before on several occasions and found it to be entertaining and impressive, but I’d never thought to try it myself until that fateful evening.

After watching Adam’s performance, he and I got to talking and I happened to inquire about the card tearing feat. He immediately reached into his back pocket, whipped out another deck, handed it to me and told me to give it a shot.

After a quick primer on technique, I grabbed the deck as instructed and did my best to rip it in two.

“C’mon, Al – I know you’re strong! You can do this!” Adam said encouragingly, but alas he was mistaken. Instead of the cards tearing, it was the skin on my hands that tore, and I began to bleed.

“Oh yeah, that’s normal!” Adam told me. “My hands bled the first few times I tried it, too!” he continued.

After letting me struggle with the deck for a minute, Adam took the cards back from me and promptly finished what I had attempted to start, easily ripping the now twisted deck in two.

He then handed me another sealed deck from his pocket (circus people apparently carry multiple decks of cards on them at all times) and instructed me to go home and practice.

“Split the deck in half and see if you can tear 26 cards. Then build up from there.” he instructed me.

When I got home I followed his advice and was able to rip the half-deck in two. The next morning I ripped the rest of the deck in half. Then I went online and ordered a case of playing cards so I could continue practicing.

Other than the advice Adam Realman gave me on Halloween, and a few videos I watched on Youtube, I didn’t have much to go on besides my own trials and errors. So I kept working on tearing 20-30 cards at a time, and gradually started to increase that number.

Six months later I finally managed to tear a full deck of cards in half without crying, cursing or bleeding. Soon thereafter I did it on video and shared it to Instagram. It’s not pretty, but here it is:

Card Tearing Technique
After I shared that video, I sent it to Adam to get his feedback. His reply basically boiled down to, “That’s nice, but you’re doing it wrong.” Adam pointed out that when I tore the cards, the rip was beginning by the bottom of my hands and going up toward my fingers. He then informed me the correct way to do it is by initiating the tear from the top down.

I went back and re-watched those card tearing videos again and saw that Adam was right. All the guys on YouTube – including Logan Christopher, Jedd Johnson and Adam T. Glass – start the tear from the top down. It’s amazing how we can miss some of the smaller details when learning something new (even if those details are clearly demonstrated, as they are in those videos).

So the next few times I practiced tearing cards, I attempted to rip them from the top down, but no matter what I tried, the tear still started from the bottom. I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong.

After asking around in my inner circle, it was recommended to me that I contact Chris Rider, one of the world’s top performing strongmen, and a fantastic teacher from what I’d heard.

Turns out Chris’ coaching helped a lot. In fact, during my first card tearing session with Chris, I made as much progress as I had in the previous few months training on my own. I obviously didn’t get any stronger in one hour, but Chris helped fix my technique. I was able to apply his advice effectively because I had built a lot of hand strength from practicing on my own already, even though I’d been making some mistakes. As my brother Danny always says, Everybody Needs Training – even me!

Card Tearing S

The technique Chris taught me starts by clutching the deck horizontally with the thumb, index finger and middle finger of your non-dominant hand. If you are right-handed like me, this means you’ll clutch the deck in your left hand. Once you’ve got a tight grip on them, aim to curve the cards in toward your palm slightly, then pinch the top corner of the opposite side of the deck between the thumb and the index finger of your dominant hand. Don’t put the fleshy part of your thumb on the deck. Instead, pinch it between the thumb itself and the outside of the index finger. This was the main mistake I was making before Chris corrected my technique.

Once both hands are in place, keep a firm grip and twist the cards into an S-like position by turning the top corner upward with your dominant hand as you continue to curl the opposite end of the deck slightly downward into your palm. Use your dominant hand to tear the deck toward you, while the other hand twists away, like you were revving a motorcycle.

Initiating the tear can sometimes be easier than finishing it. The final few centimeters are often the toughest part. As such, you may need to adjust the position of your hands slightly in order to complete the tear. It can help to slide the index finger of your non-dominant hand into the tear for more leverage on that side. You’ll also want to ease up on curling the deck inward. The S-curve is helpful to start the tear, but can make it harder to finish.

Here’s a more recent tear of mine with better technique:

Wild Card
Some of you may be wondering why a calisthenics devotee like myself would spend so much time practicing a strongman feat like card tearing.

It’s a reasonable question, and my answer is that – just like calisthenics – card tearing is simply a lot of fun!

Furthermore, learning to tear a deck of cards is actually more like getting your first muscle-up than you might think.

In fact, all the physical feats I’ve achieved it my life require the same three fundamental things:

1 – Progressive Overload
Every form of strength training operates under the principle of progressive overload, which refers to developing strength through incremental resistance increases over the course of several weeks or months. In weight training, practitioners start with a light weight and slowly add more over time. In calisthenics, beginners build a foundation with basic exercises and work their way up to harder ones (pull-ups before muscle-ups, etc.).

In the case of card tearing, progressive overload just means beginning with fewer cards, then gradually working toward the full deck. I started with a half deck, but you can start with 15 or 20 cards and build up from there if a half deck is too much. Treat it like any other exercise: Practice a few times a week, doing 3-5 sets each session (each tear counts as one set), and aim to train at around 65-80% of your maximal strength. You shouldn’t be trying to tear as many cards as possible every time. It’s easy to get carried away with this, so take a week off if you begin to feel pain in or around your elbows.

Thumb Callous2 – Tolerance for Discomfort
In the beginning, your hands will hurt, but after a while you’ll get used to the sensation of the cards pressing into your skin. You may even start to develop callouses in strange new places. It’s just like how people who are new to pull-ups experience discomfort due to hanging from the bar, but eventually their hands toughen up and it is no longer an issue.

3 – Technique/Specificity
Like anything, the more you practice card tearing, the better you’ll get. You can understand the technique theoretically, but knowing it in a deeper sense only comes from firsthand experience, so be prepared to practice a lot before it really starts to sink in. I’m still not where I want to be with this skill, but I’m enjoying the journey.

Changing of the Card
A few months into my card tearing odyssey, my mom told me that I had some old junk laying around in her attic that she wanted me to throw away. Among the boxes were a bunch of old baseball cards from when I was a kid. For a second I was going to throw them out, then I realized I could use them for tearing!

I soon discovered that the type of cards you use can significantly alter the difficulty. In tearing several different brands of baseball cards, I found that some of them were thicker and harder to rip than others. (Don’t worry, none of them were particularly valuable.)

Even within the world of playing cards, there are many different brands and varieties, and some are harder to tear than others. The same brand of card won’t even be totally consistent from deck to deck. I encourage you to experiment with a variety of cards. The nice thing about the tougher ones is that you don’t need to use as many in order to challenge yourself and effect change.

Cards Torn in HalfGrip training is some of the most functional training you can do because we use our hands throughout the day more than just about any other part of our body. Most of us carry bags, open jars and pick up random objects every day. Since I’ve been practicing card tearing, I’ve noticed all of those tasks are starting to feel a little bit easier.

Though some will dismiss card tearing as a silly trick with no practical value, I believe it’s a great way to strengthen your hands and fingers, as well as your mental fortitude.

And there’s nothing wrong with being able to keep your friends entertained at parties.

The Top Five Push-up Variations for Building Strength and Muscle

Push-up1The push-up is one of my all-time favorite exercises. It’s simple, effective and doesn’t require any equipment besides the floor beneath your feet.

Push-ups are fantastic for building strength and muscle in the entire upper-body, particularly the chest, shoulders, triceps and abs.

My other favorite thing about push-ups is that they can be infinitely progressed and modified to keep your muscles guessing…and growing!

Though there are countless variations on the basic push-up, the following five are among the very best for building strength and muscle:

1 – Classic Push-up
The classic two arm push-up will never go out of style! Make sure you maintain a straight line from the back of your head to your heels throughout the entire range of motion. Also be sure to lower yourself all the way to the bottom and achieve a full extension of your arms at the top.

2 – Feet Elevated Push-up
Elevating your feet during a push-up changes the weight-to-limb ratio, placing more of your weight in your hands, and thereby increasing the strength and muscle building potential of the standard push-up.

3 – Archer Push-up
This variation finds one arm doing the bulk of the pushing while the opposite arm remains straight, acting as a kickstand of sorts to help stabilize the body. You can think of the archer push-up almost like a self-assisted one arm push-up.

4 – One Arm Push-up
By removing one arm from the equation entirely, you automatically double the amount of work performed on your other arm. Taking away a contact point also forces your abs and other core muscles to pick up the slack, thereby giving added benefit to this challenging movement.

Check out my full one arm push-up tutorial for more.

5 – One Arm/One Leg Push-up
Taking away a leg makes the one arm push-up even more challenging, and can help take your strength and muscle gains to the next level!

Remember to use cross-body tension to stay balanced during this difficult variation. That means that when you are pushing with your right arm, you will balance on your left leg, and vice versa.

Watch the video below for more:


SWBanner1

The Top 5 Pull-up Variations for Building Strength and Muscle

Al Kavadlo Pull-up MuscleIt’s no secret that pull-ups are my favorite exercise. There are an endless number of ways in which you can alter or modify the classic pull-up – and I love them all!

Still, the question remains: What are the very best pull-up variations for building strength and muscle?

Though all types of pull-ups work the entire upper-body (including the abdominal muscles), the following 5 variations are the very best for building strength and size:

Pull-up
The classic overhand pull-up has been a strength training staple for as long as the concept of “working out” has existed. Focus on driving your elbows toward your hips to fully engage your lats.

Chin-up
This underhand version of the classic pull-up is a great way to add emphasis to the biceps. It can also be a less difficult variation for beginners who struggle to perform pull-ups with the overhand grip.

Commando Pull-up
For this variation you will grasp the bar with your hands facing one another in a close grip, and your body positioned in line with the bar. This means you will have to pull yourself toward the side on the way up, which creates a unique challenge. Make sure to alternate which side of the bar your head passes with each rep.

L-sit Pull-up
The L-sit pull-up is a fantastic way to increase the demand on your abs, while also increasing the strength and muscle building potential for your entire upper body. Due to the change in leverage, all of your muscles will have to work harder than in a standard pull-up.

Archer Pull-up
The archer pull-up is an advanced variation that involves keeping one arm straight while relying primarily on the opposite side to do the bulk of the pulling. Begin like you’re performing a very wide pull-up, but bend only one of your arms as you pull your chin over the bar. This means your torso will shift toward that side while the opposite arm stays straight. The hand of your straight arm may need to open and roll over the bar at the top of the range of motion, depending on your wrist mobility.

Watch the video below for more!


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Hand and Wrist Warm-ups for Calisthenics

Al Kavadlo Straight HandstandWhen performing handstands, push-ups and other calisthenics exercises, the hands and wrists bear most of the burden.

Even when we hang from a pull-up bar, our hands and wrists play an important role.

For this reason, it is important to warm them up properly before your calisthenics or handbalancing practice.

In the video below, I demonstrate six simple warm-ups you can perform for your hands and wrists before beginning your practice:

–Wrist rocks
–Wrist rolls
–Wrist circles
–Side-to-sides
–Reverse side-to-sides
–Fist spreads

I recommend performing each of these movements several times in each direction before beginning your training. Also feel free to perform additional reps while you rest in between efforts.

The exercises in the video go by fairly quickly, so you may need to watch it a few times.

Strength Rules

Strength Rules

The wait is over! My brother Danny Kavadlo’s new book Strength Rules is now on sale in both paperback and ebook formats!

Strength Rules showcases Danny’s colorful personality and out-of-the-box philosophy on strength training and nutrition. It’s my personal favorite of Danny’s books so far!

Here’s what others have to say about Strength Rules:

“If you are a bodyweight master, this is the bible you will want to go back to again and again, to keep you on the straight and narrow. If you are raw beginner—Jeez, then get this book right now, follow the rules, and save yourself years of wasted effort! Strength Rules is as good as it gets!”
—PAUL WADE, author of Convict Conditioning

“Strength Rules by Danny Kavadlo is so good you can’t ignore it. It’s minimalistic. It’s low tech. It’s simple. It’s right.”
—DAN JOHN, author of Never Let Go

“I can’t say enough good things about Danny Kavadlo. I just love his entire approach, mindset and overall vibe. And Strength Rules has to be one of the coolest, most badass fitness books I have ever seen.” —JASON FERRUGGIA

So what are you waiting for? Go get your copy of Strength Rules right now!

Pushing The Limits! Ebook

Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment is now available in ebook format! (Paperback coming in April.)

While my last book, Raising The Bar covers all the essential bodyweight exercises that require a pull-up bar, my new book focuses on my favorite bodyweight exercises that can be done with no equipment at all.

Pushing The Limits! covers dozens of types of push-ups and squats, including one arm push-ups and one-legged squats. The book also goes over back bridges, headstands, handstands and other inversions.

Click here for more information or to purchase your copy of Pushing The Limits!

Here’s what people are saying about the book:

When people ask me about bodyweight strength training, I point them to Al Kavadlo. Pushing the Limits! is a must-have for bodyweight training enthusiasts or anyone looking to build strength without lifting weights. Al lays out dozens of effective exercises for every fitness level, while making the journey fun and encouraging.”

Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint

“Whether you are an advanced bodyweight conditioning athlete or a wet behind the ears newbie, Al’s Pushing the Limits! has something for you. Easy to follow progressions allow you to master advanced push up, squat and bridging variations. All you need is the will to do it! No gym required.”

Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution

“In this awesome new book, Al only asks that you find ONE piece of equipment—your body! Stoic, Spartan, perfection…this book is bodyweight strength training for the ultimate purist!”

Paul Wade, author of Convict Conditioning

“This is the book I wish I had when I first started working out. Knowing Al’s secrets and various progressions would have saved me years of wasted time, frustration and injuries. The variations of The Big Three and progressions Al lays out will keep you busy for years.”

Jason Ferruggia, author of Renegade Muscle

“I LOVE this freaking Book!!! I will use it with my athletes, with the adults I train, in my own training and with my kids. This stuff reminds me of the old school Strength & Health Magazine, I’m fired UP!”

Zach Even-Esh, author of The Bodyweight Bodybuilding Training System

“Al is a master at developing the foundations of true strength through the use of the most complex, sophisticated and powerful training tool ever devised – the human body. Pushing The Limits! is a practical and entertaining book that describes ancient methods for building futuristic strength.”

Elliott Hulse, creator of The Grow Stronger Method


Click here for more information or to purchase your copy of Pushing The Limits!

The Century Workout

Over the last several weeks, interest in the upcoming PCC workshop this June has grown beyond my expectations.

We’re still more than four months out from the inaugural certification and we’ve already filled almost all of the 75 spots allocated for the event. This is going to be a truly momentous occasion!

As the PCC course material is based heavily on the work of Convict Conditioning author Paul Wade, a key part of earning the PCC title is passing Coach Wade’s “Century” test.

The Century is a strength and conditioning challenge that consists of 100 consecutive bodyweight repetitions performed as follows:

Men                                       Women
40 Squats                              40 Squats
30 Push-ups                         30 Knee Push-ups
20 Hanging Knee Raises     20 Hanging Knee Raises
10 Pull-ups                           10 Australian Pull-ups

A lot of people have asked about how the test will be judged. Here are some guidelines to make sure you are doing things the PCC way:

  •  The exercises must be performed in the order listed above. No exceptions.
  •  Squats must be performed with a minimum depth of top of the thighs parallel to the floor and a full lock out at the top of each rep. Arms may be raised in front, crossed, or placed on top of the head. Heels must stay flat the entire time.
  •  Push-up depth must reach a minimum of 90 degrees of flexion as measured along the outside of the elbow and a full lockout must be achieved at the top of every rep. A straight body position must be maintained throughout the entire range of motion. No sticking your butt into the air or leaving your hips down on the ground.
  •  Hanging knee raises must be performed with the knees being raised above waist level and a full extension of the legs at the bottom of every rep. Swinging shall be kept to a minimum. Arms must remain straight the entire set.
  •  Pull-ups may be performed with an overhand or underhand grip. The chin must clear the bar at the top of each rep and a full extension must be reached at the bottom. Kipping will not be allowed. (Australian pull-ups are to be performed with the bar at waist height and a straight body position must be maintained throughout.)
  •  Rest may be taken in between exercises, but each exercise must be completed in a single set. You may pause briefly between reps as long as the position is held (i.e. top of push-up position, bottom of pull-up, etc.)
  •  The reps may be performed as quickly as you like as long as all the above rules are adhered to. Form first!

In the videos below, you’ll see the Century demonstrated in real time by three different people: myself, my brother Danny, and our PCC co-instructor Adrienne Harvey.

Progressive Calisthenics Certification

I’m excited to announce that my brother Danny and I have partnered up with Dragon Door to bring you the world’s first ever Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC).

The inaugural workshop will be held in St. Paul, MN on June 7-9, 2013. I will keep you posted as more dates are added. (Click here for more information or to reserve your spot.)

The PCC was created by Convict Conditioning author Paul Wade, along with Dragon Door founder John Du Cane and myself. The curriculum covers everything from pull-ups to pistol squats as well as dozens of other bodyweight exercises. (More info on the curriculum can be found here.)

Unlike weight training, where you simply add more weight to the same movements to increase the intensity, progressive calisthenics involves changing your body position to create more or less favorable leverage in order to adjust the resistance.

Through gradually working toward more challenging exercise variations, you can continue to grow stronger without using anything but your own bodyweight.

If you want to know more about how progressive calisthenics works, check out the video below to see me demonstrating a push-up progression from a beginner’s incline push-up, all the way up to some pretty advanced variations.

I’ll be posting new video clips on pull-ups and squats in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!

Click here for more info about the PCC!

Hand and Finger Strength

Hand strength is arguably the most functional type of strength out there. From carrying grocery bags to opening jars and packages, we use our hands in day-to-day activities more than any other part of the body. The hands are also a crucial component of most upper body exercises, so having strong hands will help your training all around.

Fingertip Push-ups
The fingertip push-up is a classic exercise that can take your hand strength to new heights. If you don’t have the ability to do fingertip push-ups yet, I recommend practicing the isometric plank position on your fingertips. Start with a few seconds at a time – eventually you should be able to build to a ten-second fingertip plank. Once you’ve achieved that, you’ll be ready to start practicing fingertip push-ups. Begin with just a few reps and slowly add more over time. Eventually you might be strong enough to try holding a fingertip plank on just one hand. A few select individuals can even perform a one arm push-up in this fashion.

If you aren’t able to hold the plank on your fingertips, try placing one hand flat on a slightly elevated object while the opposite hand is supported on the fingertips. Hold for several seconds, then switch hands.

It’s important to note that the term “fingertip push-up” is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t actually want to be all the way on the tips of your fingers, but rather on the pads of your fingers with the tips slightly bent back. Just don’t allow any part of your palm to touch the ground if you want it to be legit.

Pull-ups and Bar Hangs
Fingertip push-ups and hanging from the bar go together like peanut butter and bananas. Pull-ups can do a lot for your grip on their own, but if you want to give your hands some extra attention, try doing additional dead hangs after your pull-ups. When you’re strong enough, you can practice single-arm hangs as well. With any type of dead hang exercise, make sure to stay engaged through your shoulder blades. Don’t allow your chin to collapse into your chest.

Hold Everything
Once you can hold a fingertip plank for thirty seconds or more, I recommend experimenting with more difficult isometric fingertip holds. L-sits, elbow levers and even handstands are all fair game for the fingertips once you get strong enough.

Remember to tread slowly with fingertip exercises and don’t expect too much too soon. It’s a fine line between making your hands stronger and injuring yourself. Fingertip holds and bar hangs will be challenging, but they should not be painful.

Progressing from a basic fingertip plank to a fingertip L-sit or fingertip handstand can take years of practice. As always, listen to your body and take things slowly.

Watch the video below for more:

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Bodyweight Deadlift Alternatives

Neck BridgeI’ve met a lot of guys over the years who’ve been banged up from lifting weights and wanted to try switching over to calisthenics-based resistance training. Though these folks recognize the benefits of bodyweight training (improved joint health, increased mobility, greater proprioception, etc.), putting down the weights for good often comes with some hesitation.

One of the most common concerns I’ve heard about dropping the iron in favor of bodyweight training is that there’s no way to replicate the classic deadlift. Push-ups can replace the bench press, squats can be done on one leg to add resistance and pull-ups are better than any pulling movement you can do with a weight anyway. But that deadlift is a bit of a doozy.

Though the specificity principle still applies, you can in fact work your posterior chain and strengthen all the same muscles as the deadlift without any external weights.

Back Bridges
Anyone who’s got a solid back bridge can probably deadlift a respectable weight without too much trouble, though you’re unlikely to see too many guys who are even capable of getting into a full back bridge if all they’ve been doing is lifting for years. The bridge will challenge your flexibility as it simultaneously strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, lower-back, upper-back and shoulders.

Click the link for more info on back bridges.


One-Legged Bodyweight Deadlifts
While many weightlifters dismiss this exercise as being too easy, the one-legged bodyweight deadlift is a fantastic way to build strength in your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. If done slowly and with strict attention to detail, performing a dozen or two one-legged bodyweight deadlifts can be a serious challenge even for someone who’s used to moving some heavy metal. They’re also an excellent balance and stability challenge.

Click the link for more info on one legged bodyweight deadlifts.

Pistol Squats
That’s right, the pistol squat is such a well rounded exercise, it can fill in for both squats AND deadlifts. The pistol also requires considerable core strength (that means lower back too, not just abs!) in addition to strong glutes and hamstrings. Of course the pistol is a big time quad exercise as well – you get a lot of “bang” for your buck with pistols!

Click the link for more info on pistol squats.
Back Lever PCC

Levers
There are many ways to perform lever holds and they all require a strong back, powerful core and total body control. The elbow lever is typically the easiest for beginners to start with, though the more advanced back lever is especially demanding on the posterior chain. Try pulling into a back lever from the bottom up and tell me it doesn’t feel as hard as deadlifting a bar with twice your bodyweight.

Click the link for more info on back levers.

Alternatives Rock
While exercises like pistol squats and back levers require some strength to even begin training, newcomers can start practicing one legged deadlifts and back bridges early on in their training. As you get stronger, you can add assisted pistols and modified back levers into your routine, eventually working to the full versions.

Anyone who consistently trains these four exercises will no doubt build a powerful posterior chain that any weightlifter ought to respect. And if you really love deadlifts, there’s no reason you can’t use them in addition to these other moves; it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Bodyweight training and weightlifting can happily coexist in the same program.

Watch the video below for more:

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Ask Al: How Do YOU Train?

Other than how to do a muscle-up and what the “trick” is to doing the human flag, the most common question I get asked is what I do in my own workouts.

I first addressed the question last year, but things have changed since then. A lot of my training had been dedicated to preparing for the NYC Triathlon, but since finishing the race, I’ve shifted my primary focus back to strength-based calisthenics. I still do some yoga moves to warm-up, but I am no longer using any weights in my workouts (though I do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work with some of my clients). Weight training is a great way to build strength, but for now my interest lies solely in bodyweight training.

I’m Working Out!
Lately I’ve been enjoying longer workouts with more rest between sets and less structure than ever. I can easily spend two hours on a summer day at Tompkins Square Park just practicing various moves with little concern for the specifics of sets, reps, rest times, etc. And wouldn’t you know it – my skills have been improving!

The main things I’m currently focused on are hand-balancing (including elbow levers), finger strength, and lever holds on the bar. As I discussed in my recent post on why I don’t do cardio, these days I’m all about treating my workouts more as skill practice than anything else. I’m avoiding structured “sets and reps” workouts and staying away from training to failure (not that there is anything wrong with structured workouts and training to failure – in fact, I’d recommend both of those things for beginners). At this point in my training, however, my focus is on refining my skills and improving my body awareness during my movements, so I’m taking my time with things. I’m not so much concerned with getting stronger, but rather learning to utilize my strength more effectively. I’m still exercising pretty much every day (I take a rest day only on days when I am particularly sore or particularly busy) but I vary the intensity and duration of my training from day to day. Some days I’ll train for a couple of hours, other days I’m in and out in thirty minutes. Listening to my body is still a cornerstone of my philosophy, so when I feel like I’ve had enough, I call it a day. I’m also still doing some running and swimming for active recovery.

Goal Digger
Those of you who know my fitness philosophy are aware that I am not a fan of the goal-centric mentality that dominates the fitness world. Focusing on goals is often a distraction from the process itself. There are skills I’m looking to improve, but the best way to go about it is to take things one day at a time. With that in mind, my training on any given week might look something like this:

Monday: Muscle-ups, pull-ups, back levers, various fingertip holds
Tuesday: Handstands, handstand push-ups, elbow levers, hanging leg raises
Wednesday: Jump rope, pistol squats, back bridges, fingertip holds
Thursday: Low intensity swim
Friday: One arm pull-ups, one arm hangs, front levers
Saturday: Handstands, push-ups, dips, fingertip holds
Sunday: Pistol squats, shrimp squats, back bridges

What I am doing is basically a modified version of the classic bodybuilding style three-day split: mostly pulling exercises on one day, mostly pushing on another, with legs and low back on the third day. Then an active recovery day, then it repeats. This allows me to train daily while still allowing my muscles adequate rest. Isometrics like elbow levers, handstands and fingertip holds can be practiced more frequently, as the hands are very resilient and all of those skills involve balance and coordination as much as strength.

I’ve done a lot of different types of workout regimens over the years and this is by no means a strict protocol. I’m prone to improvise and go with what I feel on any given day. And of course, I still do the human flag on a regular basis, simply because people are always asking to see it, and I like to give the people what they want.

Training For The NYC Triathlon

Like most fitness enthusiasts, I’m always in search of a physical challenge. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone has allowed me to experience a lot of personal growth. Besides, if you only do things that you’re good at, you probably won’t get to do that many different things.

Though I’m known primarily for practicing bodyweight strength training, I’ve also been a recreational runner for several years, having completed multiple races such as the Brooklyn Half Marathon and the NYC Marathon. In fact, I’ve often said that running is the most basic form of bodyweight training in existence. It’s an essential life skill that any fit person should be capable of doing. The same can be said for swimming and cycling. With that in mind, I’ll be participating in my first triathlon this summer. The NYC Triathlon is less than two weeks away and I am ready to rock!

Try to Tri
Triathlon training can be very demanding both time-wise as well as logistically. Arranging to train in three different modalities that all require unique parameters and equipment is overwhelming on it’s own, to say nothing of actually doing the workouts.

Add to that my continued dedication to my strength training during all this and we’re talking about a huge time commitment. Good thing I love working out!

Sink or Swim
Like most triathlon first-timers, the swim was the part I needed to work on most, so I’ve practiced swimming at least three times a week since I got accepted into the race last fall. Nine months ago I could barely swim 100 meters in a pool without a break; in less than two weeks I’m going to attempt to swim almost a mile in the Hudson River.

The rest of the race consists of a 25 mile bike ride, followed by a 6.2 mile run. While neither of those things is too daunting on their own, doing them back-to-back right after the swim is going to be a serious challenge. Though I’ve been running and cycling on and off for years, I’ve recently increased my milage in preparation for this race. My cardiovascular endurance feels solid and my legs are ready to go.

Strength and Conditioning
Of course I’ve also been doing strength work 3-5 times a week. But by treating those workouts strictly as skill practice (low reps, lots of breaks and only working on one or two things at a time), I’ve managed to maintain most of my strength and even improve at a few things like lever holds and hand balancing.

I’ve become a much better swimmer since beginning my triathlon training, and my running and cycling have felt as natural and fluid as ever. If you define physical fitness as being fit to do various physical things, then I am the fittest I’ve ever been. I’m not looking to set any speed records on this race – just finishing will be enough satisfaction. I’ve dedicated my career to calisthenics and bodyweight strength training, the triathlon is something I’m doing just for fun.

Watch the video below to see some highlights from my triathlon training:

If you’re interested in to getting a pair of running sandals like the ones I’m wearing in the video, check out Invisible Shoes.

Super Slow Workout

If you’re looking to maximize your training, what’s the best speed to perform your reps?

This question comes up often in strength training circles. When clients ask about rep tempo, my answer is usually to focus on proper form and not to worry about speed. If you can do fast reps and keep them clean and controlled, then go as quickly as you like. If you start losing form, then slow down.

How Slow Can You Go?

While fast reps can be helpful for building agility and explosive power, slow training can be a nice way to work on form and alignment. In fact, just three or four slow reps can often be as challenging as twenty fast ones. Going slowly also requires extreme focus, adding a meditative quality to the workout.

One who’s mastered an exercise can do reps at whatever speed they feel like. As far as I’m concerned, true mastery is only attained once the move can be performed with control at any tempo.

Not So Fast

While there are some strength coaches who claim that super-slow training is the best way to work out, I would certainly not make that assertion. As I’ve stated before, there is no one best way to do anything. There are lots of effective techniques and it’s good to mix it up.

With that in mind, I set out to challenge myself by practicing some of my favorite calisthenics moves much slower than usual. I started with basics like pull-ups and dips, then got to work on super slow muscle-ups, pistol squats and even dragon flags.

Watch the video below for more:

Natural Movement and Functional Exercise

During a recent workout at Tompkins Square Park, I observed a father and son playing catch. The dad was around my age and the boy looked to be about three years old.

At one point the child missed the ball and the dad went to retrieve it. I watched him bend down with his back rounded, shoulders slumped and knees pitched way over his feet. (What you might call “bad form” on a squat or deadlift.)

A few minutes later, the boy missed the ball again, but this time the father let him retrieve it himself. When the tot picked up the ball, he squatted down from his hips with his chest up tall and lifted it without the slightest bend in his back – or any overt awareness of the movement pattern. It seemed to happen very naturally. He certainly had no idea what he’d just done can be difficult for many personal training clients!

Child’s Play
Lots of the exercises I teach my clients are movement patterns that children instinctively know, yet through years of neglect, the adult body has forgotten. However, with practice the movements usually return, and with them come increased strength, flexibility and of course, functionality.

Kids typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how. Yet when a deconditioned adult tries to perform these movements, they may feel very unnatural. We’ve spent our entire lives sitting in couches, chairs and cars, steering our bodies away from natural movement patterns. We’ve done this to the point where we’ve unlearned instinctive habits like lifting from the legs, and replaced them with lower back pain and hip ailments.

Functional Exercise
The best exercises are those which mimic natural movement patterns, like the aforementioned squat and deadlift, but sometimes functional exercises aren’t natural movement patterns. A pistol squat certainly isn’t something the body “naturally” does, but it’s a fantastic exercise nonetheless. The pistol takes a natural movement pattern and exaggerates it, making it more difficult, thereby causing the body to adapt and improve. That’s what makes it a functional exercise – it has carryover into real life scenarios. The pistol improves balance and makes each leg individually strong, so when you need to use them together, they can be an even stronger team.

Function or Fashion?
While taking a natural movement pattern and adding difficulty to it is a great way to bring a practical element to your workout, sometimes “functional training” gets so far removed from the original source that it misses the point. Standing on one foot on a bosu ball while doing an overhead dumbbell press is probably less functional than just using heavier dumbbells on stable ground.

Don’t fall for a “new exercise” just because it looks complicated or involves high-tech equipment. You don’t need anything fancy to get functionally fit. Real-life scenarios might involve standing on a shaky surface or pressing a heavy object, but they rarely involve both at the same time. A heavy standing overhead press is already a stability exercise – it demands that you use your entire body!

If you want to mix up your pressing routine, a handstand push-up might be a better choice. Admittedly, being upside-down isn’t something that will come up in day to day activity for most of us either, but the HSPU demands a high strength-to-weight ratio as well as stability and full body control. The HSPU also requires you to push yourself away from the ground, rather than pushing a weight away from your body, which will automatically engage your scapular musculature and build rotator cuff stability. You’ll be much less likely to make the mistake of pressing with your neck instead of your shoulders. Like all inversions, another benefit of the HSPU is that it can improve circulation.

Have Fun(ction) With It!
There are many ways to take natural movement patterns and increase their difficulty in a functional context. Adding weight, bringing in a plyometric element or using a stability component are some of the best ways to accomplish this. But remember, you don’t need wobble boards and other such gadgetry. Be weary of any fitness equipment that isn’t a weight or some type of pull-up apparatus. As a general rule, the more equipment that is required to perform a given exercise, the less functional it’s likely to be.

Below are some examples of functional exercises in each of the categories mentioned above:

Natural Movement + Weight
Squat
Deadlift
Clean and Press
Natural Movement + Plyometrics
Jump Lunge
Plyo Pull-up
Clap push-up
Natural Movement + Stability
Pistol Squat
Ring Muscle-up
One Arm Push-up

Final Thoughts
This list is just the tip of the iceberg! The world of functional fitness includes endless variations on these and other exercises. There might be some that are more effective for you than others. Experiment for yourself and let your body be your teacher.

Backyard Pull-up Bar Part III

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.

In addition to practicing various types of pull-ups, muscle-ups and levers, we can now work on human flags off the parallel bars as well as using them for assisted one arm pull-ups.

Watch the video below to see some highlights from one of our recent training sessions:

Related Posts:

Building a Backyard Pull-up Bar

Backyard Pull-up Bar Part 2: Back to the Bar

Freestyle Calisthenics Workout

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!

After taking the time to fully recharge, I went to the one and only Tompkins Square Park this morning for a freestyle calisthenics workout. I worked on all different kinds of push-ups, including handstand push-ups as well as front levers, muscle-ups and dips.

Watch the video below for more:

Front Lever Training

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!

Check out the video below for more:

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Turkish Get-ups

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.

Get Up
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.

Get Down!
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!

Trainer Tips
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.

Muscle-up Variations

No one move works the entire upper body as thoroughly as the muscle-up. In fact, muscle-ups are on their way to replacing pull-ups as my number one favorite exercise.

If you’re unfamiliar with them, check out my guide to getting your first muscle-up as well as my original post on muscle-ups.

Muscle(up) Confusion
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.

X-Muscleup
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.

Clapping Muscle-up
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.

Switchblade Muscle-up
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.

Watch the video below for more:

Avoiding Injuries in Strength Training

Anyone who’s worked out consistently for long enough has no doubt had to deal with an injury at some point. Setbacks can be frustrating, but if you train hard, eventually some type of injury may be inevitable.

In spite of over two decades of strength training, however, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid anything serious. The worst I’ve had to deal with was a strained rotator cuff, some mild tendinitis and a few cuts, scrapes and bruises (mostly from freerunning and parkour). If you train smart, you should be able to avoid any serious injuries as well.

Listen to Your Body

One of the most common questions I get asked is, “Is it okay to work out every day?” There is no universal answer that applies to everyone, as individual conditioning varies greatly from person to person. As a general rule, however, let your body rest if you feel sore, achy or tired. If you want to work out and you’re still sore from a previous session, you might take a day to focus on flexibility or work around your sore muscles using a split routine. Another option is to simply do a low-intensity active recovery workout.

You might not always like what it has to say, but listening to your body is the best way to avoid injury. When you have aches and pains, you need to back off. Pay attention to how your body responds to different training programs and act accordingly.

Balancing Act
It is important to make sure that your strength training routine doesn’t favor any one movement pattern too heavily. The phrase antagonistic balance refers to maintaining a healthy symmetry between opposing muscle groups. If your routine is all push-ups and no pull-ups, you’ll likely wind up with shoulder problems and poor posture. Likewise, neglecting your glutes, hamstrings and lower back can also lead to joint pain and postural issues. This is why deadlifts and/or back bridges should be a mainstay of any fitness regimen.

Gradual Progress
People who get injured in training usually do so because they attempted something far outside of their capabilities. While ambition is a great asset, you’ve got to be objective about what your body is realistically capable of handling. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of human performance, but you have to do so gradually!

Check out my master list of exercises to get an idea of how to progress intelligently in the world of bodyweight strength training. You’ll typically want to get to about 10 reps of a given exercise before moving on to harder progressions. For static holds (like planks and L-sits), aim for a 30 second hold or longer.

Live and Learn
Injuries may sometimes be unavoidable, but I believe we are all ultimately responsible for our own fate. Be smart, stay humble and pick yourself up when you fall. If you do get injured, perhaps you can learn from the experience and avoid repeating your mistakes. Remember, an expert is just a beginner who didn’t quit.

Sandbag Training

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!

Integrating Sandbags
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.

Handstand Push-ups

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!

Pike Press
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.

Watch the video below for more:

How to Increase Your Reps on Pull-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.

Supersets
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:


For more information about pull-ups, pick up a copy of my book, Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics.

The Best Exercises For Abs

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:

The Plank
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.

The L-Sit
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.

Watch the video below for more:

Weight Vest Training

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!

Watch the video below for more:

All About Triceps Dips

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:

Bench Dips
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.


Korean Dips
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.


Plyometric Dips
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.

Watch the video below for more:

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