Ask yourself the question – do you want to be a show pony or an ass kicking bad ass?
The reason I ask is simple. Right now bodyweight training is a big deal. In fact, it’s one of the highest-ranking Google searches you can do in regards to fitness. But what kind of bodyweight training do you want to do?
If you want to be a circus performer there’s one type of bodyweight work you should do. If you want to actually be able to use your fitness for something other than drinking games then there’s another way you should train instead.
And if you want to be a forty-year old bad ass then you also need to stop and think for a second. The reality for us older guys is this: we have jobs that are serious, limited time, and probably have bodies that are banged up thanks to some extra athletic miles on them compared to the youngsters you see on Instagram.
That means that you need to choose wisely what you spend your time on. A decent handstand could take you years to learn. Or you could spend those years continuing to kick some serious ass athletically and be like Clint Eastwood in Heartbreak Ridge.
Back in the early days of gyms they categorized gymnastics into heavy and soft training. These terms had nothing to do with actual load but the difficulty of the skills. Heavy gymnastics was the use of rings, pommel horse, and vaulting. Light gymnastics on the other hand was the use of dumbbells, clubs, and wands.
I think calisthenics needs to go the same route and start terming heavy and light calisthenics. Heavy calisthenics would be all the show-off, circus tricks you see – handstands, levers, pistols, and planches fit here. While impressive feats of strength they don’t really lead to anything. On the light side of the equation you have all the real work. Burpees, push ups, squats, lunges, pull-ups, and even star jumps – all the exercises that have been used to help create bad asses since Sparta.
The thing no one ever mentions about the impressive looking stuff you see on Instagram or people’s Facebook pages is that like all hard physical skills the risk of injury is high. Want elbows that don’t work properly? Try one-arm pull-ups. Want wrists that hurt to bend? Start doing planches. No one ever seems to want to tell you that to get to the point where your body is supple enough to deal with that kind of work might take you two years. If you’re hell bent on doing those things then have at it, but in two years time I’m still going to be fitter and stronger than you thanks to the two heard years of work I’ve been able to put in while you worked on gaining wrist flexibility every day.
Want proof that bad asses are made from higher reps of more basic exercises and not low rep circus tricks? Here’s the current Physical Screening test for entry into BUDS (SEAL school):
Push-ups – 42
Sit-ups – 50
Pull-ups – 6
550yd swim – 12.30min
1.5mi run – 11min
However, those are minimums and you’re unlikely to get much notice from a recruiter looking for potential frogmen with scores like that. Here are the “competitive” standards:
Push-ups – 79
Sit-ups – 79
Pull-ups – 11
550yd swim – 10.30min
Run 1.5mi – 10.20min
You’ll note nowhere does it list “max effort front lever” or “max handstand hold”. In other words, real bad asses don’t care about how many fancy tricks you can post on Instagram. They care about real-world fitness useful for hauling yourself and your gear for hours and hours. They care about the kind of strength endurance that allows you to crawl, climb, ruck, run, swim, and move for long periods of time.
The over emphasis of maximal strength started in opposition to the jogging trend of the 70s. Overnight coaches started telling athletes that cardio made them weak and that they needed more strength. Strength is a great asset but it is not the be all and end all of physical qualities despite what some gurus will try to tell you. When it comes to battle nothing is more feared than an enemy that will not stop. Stamina, or strength endurance is what allows you to attack hard for as long as needed to drive the enemy into submission.
I tend not to train in anything other than an integrated fashion. My workouts always include strength and cardio as well as bodyweight and loaded movements. The reason is simple – done this way the whole becomes greater than the parts.
My all-time favourite workout was one I created back when I competed in BJJ. I would set the timer for twenty minutes and perform as many swings and push-ups as I could in that time frame. I’d swing a 32kg kettlebell for ten reps at a time then I’d “rest” by doing hindu push-ups for ten reps. My goal was always to hit a hundred reps of each in that twenty minute window, but I never made, and neither has anyone I’ve ever trained.
They actually pair together better than you might think at first glance too. The hindu push ups are very similar in action to the swing – flexion at the hip followed by extension. Done properly the breathing will be the same too with an inhalation on the flexion aspect and exhalation as you go into extension. The other benefit is that you’ll stretch your forearms out while doing the push ups. Believe me, they’re going to get smoked swinging the 32kg for that many sets one-handed.
What you will notice if you do this for a month or so is massively increased GPP. This was my base conditioning routine for BJJ and gave me a big head start on everyone when I started competition specific preparation. An added bonus of this method, and one fighters will understand, is that you switch between power and economy breathing. If you try to fight for even a few minutes doing only the type of power breathing you use for swings you won’t last long. The forced relaxation of the breathing and hindu push-ups will recharge you to go again and get more work done in the same time frame.
Don’t turn your back on high rep calisthenics. It’s a method that has been creating warriors and world champions since we crawled out of the ooze. For best results combine it with high rep, heavy swings and become fitter than you thought was possible.