Bodyweight training is one of those universal training methods. Pretty much everyone who has ever “trained” on any level, from ancient man to modern day Olympians, has used bodyweight training. Doing a chin up, push up and bodyweight squat are exercises that have been done by Spartans, Greek Athletes, Roman Gladiators, Medieval Knights, Old Time Strong Men and you. When you think about it, bodyweight training is a pretty cool legacy that we share with an impressive list of men.
I recently picked up the book Convict Conditioning since I wanted to learn more about hardcore bodyweight training. Written by Paul “Coach” Wade, it is an outline of the lessons and progression he learned about Old School Calisthenics while serving 20 years in prison. He used his time in prison to hunt down anyone who could teach him about training using just the tools available – namely, his bodyweight and stuff in his cell – and over the years developed a progressive system to teaching and mastering different bodyweight exercises.
In the beginning of the book he makes a very persuasive argument for the need to go back to the roots of strength training and learn to truly master your own bodyweight. He points out that up until the modern fitness culture, strength was often built and displayed using bodyweight, not machines and barbells. The term Calisthenics come for the Greek Kalos and Thenos, which roughly means “beautiful strength”, and it was originally the term used for hardcore feats of bodyweight strength.
Over time, barbells and machines replaced the hardcore bodyweight exercises and the term Calisthenics came to mean light, high rep exercises that you did to warm up or do in a group class. The ability to master your own bodyweight was lost – old school strongmen, powerlifters and bodybuilders were often able to execute handstands and handstand push ups, something most of the modern group of these guys can’t claim. He says that something has been lost in our athletic development along with these exercises and I tend to agree.
He then goes on to lay out the Big 6 Bodyweight Exercises and the Master Level for each:
Bodyweight Exercise Master Level Variation
1) Push Up Single Arm Push Up
2) Pull Up/ Chin Up Single Arm Chin Up
3) Squat Single Leg Squat
4) Hanging Leg Raise V Up
5) Bridge Stand-to-Stand Bridge
6) Handstand Push Ups Single Arm Handstand Push Ups
Within each exercise is a 10 step progression plan to build you up to the Master Level Variation, complete with Beginner, Intermediate and Progression level rep goals. If you can’t get at least the Beginner level reps then you are not ready for the exercise yet – go back and work on the previous level. If you can get the Progression level reps then you are ready to try the next level.
I have to say that this book changed the way I look at my training programs on some level. I used to pay token attention to the maxim “Master bodyweight before adding load”. While I use a lot of bodyweight based exercises in my programs but I usually load them pretty quickly and this book made me realize that I may be doing it too quickly.
As mountain bikers, mastering our bodyweight is especially crucial. While building strength using external load is important, the truth is that on the bike our performance is heavily dictated by your ability to control your bodyweight. Your ability to perform the basic bodyweight exercises is also a good indicator of your overall function and can help you keep the detrimental effects of hours in the saddle at bay.
There is another level to the term “master your bodyweight” that I was not really paying attention to and this book inspired me to step up my own level of mastery and to make sure I emphasize that in the programs I write. I’d strongly recommend picking up a copy of Convict Conditioning and resurrect the millennia old tradition of Hardcore Calisthenics in your own training.