One of my favorite images from history is when the Persian king Xerxes faces off with the famous 300 Spartans at Thermopylae…but it isn’t any of the battles or famous one liners that I think of.

No, my favorite image is from before the fighting started, when the Persians had made their intentions known that they were going to cross this piece of land even if it meant killing everyone in their way. As history shows, they were serious about their threats and eventually that is what happened.

The Spartans knew this too. They held out no illusions about what would happen to them – the Persian empire was well established in its brutal methods of dealing with dissidents and they all knew they would be “coming home on their shield” (which is how they carried those killed in battle back home).

But despite the overwhelming odds and stark reality of what they were facing history tells us that when the Persian king looked out on the battlefield the morning before his troops would attempt to get rid of the Spartan roadblock he didn’t see a bunch of nervous, anxious soldiers.

Instead, we’re told they were combing their hair and doing bodyweight exercises to prepare for battle.

I just love this image…a group of 300 Spartan warriors up at the crack of dawn and on the battlefield doing squats, push ups and other bodyweight training drills while calmly combing their hair and pulling it back to get ready for the ass kicking that was about to commence.

Seeing this had to be unnerving to the other side for several reasons but I always imagined that the Spartans, who made bodyweight training a part of their overall warrior lifestyle, were probably good at it. I’d imagine they were pretty high level movers and could do some impressive things with ease.

And, watching this from the other side as a mostly non-professional fighting force, it had to be dismaying to think that you were about to go up against that. They could probably tell from their calm demeanor and ease with which they moved that these were not ordinary men.

As we know the Spartans turned out to be exactly that and held the Persian forces off , inflicting great losses for several days. They eventually fell when a traitor told the Persians about a secret path around the narrow pass the Spartans were defending and they got surrounded, fighting until the last man was using his bare hands since their weapons had all been broken.

Of course, there was a lot that went into what it took to be a Spartan and some of it wasn’t very nice – they relied heavily on slaves and would kill children that weren’t deemed strong enough – but overall they had a lot to teach us about what it took to build a society of “heroes”, or people who could assist their neighbors when called upon.

spartan-training-ground
Spartan training grounds were very minimalist

Part of this was their use of bodyweight training to help build strong, able bodies. In fact, bodyweight training is something that has been used since the dawn of time to improve the strength and movement capabilities of gladiators, warriors and wrestlers in every society around the world.

Bodyweight training was so popular among ancient people because it was easily accessible and could be done anywhere. It also helped improve body awareness and control, which is important for learning specific things like fighting, wrestling or other martial skills.

And while bodyweight training is still used by millions of people around the world, in my experience I’ve seen a lot of people make some big mistakes when trying to use this ultra-effective training method.

Here are the Top 3 Bodyweight Training Mistakes and how you can avoid them:

1 – Not including bodyweight training in the first place.

Some people think that they can get away with just lifting weights. They think that if they are strong enough to move some heavy weights around then moving their own body won’t be a problem.

They quickly find out, though, that when asked to do some basic bodyweight exercises they really struggle. The problem is that the body sees bodyweight training and weight lifting as two very different things.

Like I outlined in this article, the ability to manipulate your own bodyweight is different than your ability to manipulate an external load. This means that you must train both of these skills or else you will have a gap in your real-world fitness, often showing up as a lack of balance and body control when learning new sports specific skills.

2 – Only using bodyweight training for high reps and endurance training.

Even those that use bodyweight training rarely tap into its true potential and instead rely on some high rep push ups, squats and chin ups to round out the bodyweight portion of their programs. They think that bodyweight training is good for building endurance and warm up drills but lifting weights is what you use to get stronger.

Like the ancient warriors and wrestlers found out, though, bodyweight training can be used very effectively to build strength. The reason is that strength is the ability to generate and control tension in a muscle – the more tension you can generate the “stronger” you are.

And while lifting a heavy weight is the easiest way to force a muscle to generate more tension, you can use leverage and advanced bodyweight exercises to generate the same tension levels in the body. These high-tension techniques build the same type of raw strength you would usually associate with lifting heavy weights but without the same stress and wear and tear on the joints.

To show you what I mean check out this push up variation I call the Solsky Push Ups. When done right you generate a lot of tension in the upper body and it is very tough to do more than 5-10 reps, with most people struggling to get 2 or 3 reps.

Using bodyweight training to build strength also helps with improving your stability in your sport. The types of core tension you have to generate translate over very nicely to the ability to “ground” yourself when needed to improve your balance and stability.

3 – Not working on Support and Suspension Exercises.

One of the cool things about bodyweight training is how you can use supports and suspensions to train some unique elements. In fact, most people have never heard of these training elements so I should quickly explain them.

A Support Exercise is where you support yourself in a position with your arms. Holding a plank is a support, but so is holding a headstand or the top position of a dip.

A Suspension Exercise is where you suspend yourself from something with your arms. Hanging at the bottom position of a pull up or an inverted row are examples of suspensions.

You can train a lot of different angles and arm positions using these static holds and, once again, your body views the ability to hold a position differently than your ability to move a lot between two positions.

For example, being able to do 10 pull ups is great but can you hang from a bar for 30 seconds or more? And if you can, how long can you hold the top position of a chin up?

Support and Suspension Exercises add a very important real-world skill element into your training. Your ability to create strength and power is dictated by the stability you can create and these often overlooked elements hold the key to improving that stability.

Here is an exercise I learned recently from Amir Solsky that I call the Solsky Pike Rock that shows an interesting way to train Upper Body Support Strength.

As you can see, bodyweight training not only deserves a place in your program but it also deserves some thought when using it as well. Mindlessly adding some push ups and bodyweight squats into your program isn’t going to get you the results you can achieve with bodyweight training.

Look at bodyweight training as a skill you need to master and embrace the journey. Hopefully you’ll never have to put your movements skills to the test against an enemy army but at least you’ll know you share something with those that have.

Until next time…

Ride Strong,

James Wilson

MTB Strength Training Systems

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