Ancient wisdom meets modern ingenuity
Beautiful bodies are not exclusive to the age of platforms and treadmills. Ancient traditions of physical culture have provided vibrant health and a functional physique for centuries, and much of this was done exclusively with body weight resistance.
Ancient and modern physical cultures use body weight for impressive results
Pahlavani, an ancient art of wrestling in Iran, made extensive use of body weight conditioning methods in its training. A famous wrestler, Pahlavan-e Bozorg Razaz, is said to have performed 1,000 Shena (a form of push-up) per day as part of his conditioning regimen.
Already in the V century a. C., the physical culture surrounding the wrestling traditions of the Indian peninsula was based primarily on exercise with body weight. Some examples that have been revived by modern fitness professionals include the Bethak (Hindu Squat) and the Dand (a form of diving “flex”). As with Pahlavani training methods, these ancient bodyweight exercises (/ ancient bodyweight exercises) were traditionally performed using very high repetitions with no additional resistance.
Modern fitness enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that the training methods of these tough Indian fighters completely intersect with the practice of yoga in its oldest and most rigorous form. Our imported, westernized version of yoga tends to emphasize the flexible side of the discipline. But that’s only half the equation. The yogis of yesteryear were able to yield and conquer with incredible strength and grace. As my coach and mentor Scott Sonnon, founder of the circular strength training system, likes to say, “Yoga was never meant to be a thumb and a blanket, but rather a hurricane and an earthquake.” If you delve into the softer side of yoga and apply a little imagination, you’ll find that old-school yoga can be an incredible source of inspiration for body-only exercise options.
Today icons of body weight training
Today, we don’t need to look beyond the male gymnast’s physique to recognize the power of resisting the pull of gravity on our own bodies. Deliberately moving through space in three dimensions, with impressive control, results in incredible physical development.
According to renowned gymnastics coach Christopher Sommer, the vast majority of a gymnast’s training is done using only the resistance of their own body weight. Sommer attributes much of the gymnast’s impressive physique to straight-arm body manipulation, the plyometric nature of many of the exercises, and many jumps and single-leg exercises for the lower body.
Everything is relative
Total mastery of how your body moves in space is almost magical. How well you handle your own body weight is known as your relative strength. It depends on how strong you are, how heavy you are, and how adept you are at moving your body. When you can master your own movement, it seems like you can really defy gravity.
But beyond the tricks to stop the show, in essence, relative strength is about how well you can apply your strength. If you can squat or bench in large numbers, but don’t have the ability to transfer that force to performance on the athletic field or in the arena of life, then it’s not necessarily a useful force. Bodyweight exercise is a great way to integrate strength into more sophisticated movement patterns. Being able to manipulate the way your body moves in space also has the potential to reduce your risk of injury and increase your performance in life and sport.
When you slip on a patch of ice, your body must react instantly to stay upright. This righting reflex is automatic, but the way your body responds and the movement patterns that are used to do the work can be trained by moving your body through all of its potential degrees of freedom. This must be done in a mechanically efficient manner to ensure that the correct movement patterns are trained. Anyone who has seen a consummate martial artist fall, fall after fall, effortlessly and quietly, has seen an example of the end result of such training.
What do I mean by “movement patterns”? This refers to the way our bodies are together and how they generate force. A very smart guy named Thomas Myers popularized a concept called Anatomy Trains, which essentially refers to slings of muscle and connective tissue that go through and across the body. These “trains” are lines of tension or traction that are activated to cause movement, that is, if everything is firing correctly. Activities like sitting at a desk all day or doing only two-dimensional strength training and conditioning can make our bodies forget how to move naturally, a phenomenon known as sensory motor amnesia. Over time, these misfires develop into common movement patterns. Using bodyweight exercises to bring your body through its full potential for movement allows you to apply all those little muscles that should be part of a given Anatomy Train, but may have become disconnected through disuse.
One of the most frequent comments I hear from new clients who already have a long training history is, “Wow, I discovered some new muscles after our training session.” My clients are usually strong and fit people, but by taking their bodies through more complete and complex movement patterns using only their body weight, I can connect the dots and have all of their muscles fire in concert throughout the sessions. various tension chains. .
This same idea of coordinating force also has implications for the athlete. For example, a soccer lineman may have a high level of isolated force when pressing with the legs alone (as in a squat) or with the arms alone (as in a bench press), but uniting that force into a coordinated effort should it is also part of a comprehensive training program. In the heat of the action, the player drives with their legs and pushes with their arms. An interesting example of a bodyweight exercise that can bring these two actions together is the Quad Squat, which we will explore later.
Moving through 6 degrees of freedom
In talking about relative strength and its ability to functionally respond to situations both in everyday life and in athletic activities, I mentioned the importance of moving the body through all its possible degrees of freedom. This concept was initiated by the Circular Strength Training® system. The idea of describing spatial motion through the convention of 6 degrees of freedom has been used in the field of aeronautics for a long time. But CST founder Scott Sonnon recognized the genius of applying this concept to human movement, taking us beyond three dimensions and into six degrees.
Essentially, you can think of the three axes that we already know and understand from three-dimensional models of motion, but now imagine moving both along and around each axis. This gives you the 6 degrees of freedom:
- Elevation: move up and down on the vertical axis
- Emergence: moving along the axis from front to back
- Roll: movement along the axis from side to side
- Yaw: move around the vertical axis
- Rolling: moving around the axis from front to back
- Pitching: move around the axis from side to side
If we imagine our usual sagittal plane, we can move forward and traverse it. We swing along the frontal plane and roll on it. And finally we push along the axis of the transverse plane and yaw around it. The most interesting thing about this way of looking at movement is that we can apply it individually to each joint, even when the spatial orientation changes. Although you can get your body through all 6 degrees of freedom using many different tools, the most versatile and natural tool for this is the student’s own body weight. This is a powerful mechanism for creating large groups of bodyweight exercises that address the most important degrees of freedom for a given sport, activity, or client.
The biggest problem with conventional bodyweight exercise programs is the lack of variation. You can only do so many push-ups, sit-ups, and jumps before boredom drives you away. But the reality is that the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating innovative exercise variations and designing effective conditioning programs for body weight only.
Sources of inspiration include age-old physical cultures like yoga and martial arts, gymnastics, tumbling, and of course all the old standards we know of from conventional sources of strength and conditioning. I consider the Circular Strength Training® system (http://squidoo.com/cst) (CST) to be the undisputed leader in absorbing and re-expressing all of these sources in a comprehensive and engaging approach. Most of my own bodyweight exercise vocabulary comes from or is inspired by CST.
One of the hallmarks of CST is a concept called incremental sophistication. Basically this means continually increasing the quality of the movement along with the quantity. Not only do we lift more weights, longer and more frequently, we also move in increasingly sophisticated patterns. Sophistication of movement is also the key to creating variety in bodyweight exercise programs. As you or your clients progress through a program, you have the option of moving up to a more sophisticated level of the same exercise rather than simply adding reps, sets, or time under tension.
The most eloquent expression of the idea of incremental sophistication that I have seen is the FlowFit® program by Scott Sonnon. On the surface, it’s a very simple circuit of seven bodyweight exercises chained together to form a flow. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll discover that FlowFit® is a well-thought-out, well-rounded workout routine for the whole body. The flow is specifically designed to take you through all 6 degrees of freedom. Beyond that, each individual exercise comes in four progressively sophisticated versions.
With each version of an exercise, the gross effort required may not be more demanding, but the finesse of the execution becomes more sophisticated and the resulting training effect increases. More complex movement patterns mean more sophisticated neuromuscular recruitment. The sum of the parts equates not only to more work, but to a better quality of work and a greater potential for transfer to life and sport. Along with load, volume, and frequency, sophistication can provide a valuable tool in exercise progression.
A powerful tool in its own right
I hope you’ve come to see that with a little imagination you can use principles like 6 degrees of freedom and incremental sophistication to create almost limitless examples of bodyweight exercises. I have used them exclusively and integrated with team-based training to provide impressive results for clients ranging from weekend athletes looking for a head start to stay-at-home moms interested in losing fat.