Ancient wisdom meets modern wit
Beautiful bodies aren’t exclusive to the era of pec covers and treadmills. The ancient traditions of fitness culture have delivered vibrant health and functional physiques for centuries, and much of this was done solely with bodyweight resistance.
Ancient and modern physical cultures use body weight for impressive results
Pahlavani, an ancient fighting art in Iran, made extensive use of bodyweight conditioning methods in his training. One famous wrestler, Pahlavan-e Bozorg Razaz, is said to have performed 1000 Shena (a form of push-up) per day as part of his conditioning regimen.
Already in the V century BC. C., the physical culture that surrounded the fighting traditions of the Indian peninsula was based to a great extent on the exercise with the body weight. Some examples that have been revived by modern fitness professionals include the Bethak (Hindu squat) and the Dand (a form of “push-up”). As with Pahlavani training methods, these ancient bodyweight exercises (/ancient-bodyweight-exercises) were traditionally performed using very high repetitions with no added resistance.
Modern fitness enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that the training methods of these rugged Indian wrestlers completely intersected with the practice of yoga in its oldest and most rigorous form. Our imported and westernized version of yoga tends to emphasize the productive side of the discipline. But that’s only half the equation. The yogis of yore were able to give in and win with incredible strength and grace. As my trainer and mentor Scott Sonnon, founder of the Circular Strength Training system, likes to say, “Yoga was never intended to be a thumb and a blanket, but rather a hurricane and an earthquake.” If you explore beyond the softer side of yoga and apply a little imagination, you’ll discover that old-school yoga can be an incredible source of inspiration for bodyweight-only exercise options.
Today’s Icons of Bodyweight Training
Today, we need look no further than the physique of the male gymnast to recognize the power of resisting the pull of gravity on our own bodies. Moving deliberately 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 her 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 jumping and single-leg lower-body exercises.
Everything is relative
Complete mastery over 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 skilled you are at moving your body. When you can master your own movement, it feels like you can really defy gravity.
But beyond show-stopping tricks, at its core, relative strength is about how well you can apply your force. If you can squat or bench big numbers, but don’t have the ability to transfer that force to performance on the sports field or in the arena of life, then you’re 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 piece of ice, your body must react instantly to keep you upright. This righting reflex is automatic, but the way your body responds and the movement patterns that are recruited to get the job done can be trained by moving your body through all of its possible degrees of freedom. This must be done in a mechanically efficient manner to ensure the correct movement patterns are trained. Anyone who has seen an accomplished martial artist fall fall after fall, effortlessly and noiselessly, 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 come 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 traverse and crisscross the body. These “trains” are lines of tension or attraction that are activated to cause movement, that is, if everything is triggered correctly. Activities like sitting at a desk all day, or doing just two-dimensional strength training and conditioning, can cause our bodies to forget how to move naturally, a phenomenon known as sensory motor amnesia. Over time, those misfirings become habitual movement patterns. Using bodyweight exercises to push your body through its full potential for movement allows you to call upon all those little muscles that should be part of a given anatomical train, but may have become disconnected through lack of use.
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 often strong and fit people, but by taking their bodies through more complete and complex movement patterns using just their body weight, I am able to connect the dots and have all of their muscles firing together throughout the various tension chains. .
This same idea of coordinating force also has implications for the athlete. For example, a football lineman may have a high level of isolated strength pressing with just his legs (as in a squat) or just with his arms (as in a bench press), but bringing that strength together in a coordinated effort must also be part of a complete training program. In the heat of action, the player drives with their legs and pushes with their arms. An interesting example of a bodyweight exercise that can bridge these two actions is the Quad Squat, which we’ll explore later.
Moving through 6 degrees of freedom
When talking about relative strength and your ability to respond functionally to situations in both everyday life and athletic activities, I mentioned the importance of moving the body through all of its possible degrees of freedom. This concept was pioneered by the Circular Strength Training® system. The idea of describing spatial motion through the 6 Degrees of Freedom convention has been in use 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 motion models, but now imagine moving along and around each axis. This gives you the 6 Degrees of Freedom:
- Shaking: Moving up and down on the vertical axis
- Surging: Moving along the axis from front to back
- Roll: Move along the axis from side to side
- Yaw: Move around the vertical axis
- Rolling: Move around the axis from front to back
- Throw: move around the axis from side to side
If we imagine our usual sagittal plane, we can move along it and launch ourselves through it. We swing along the frontal plane and roll on it. And finally we launch 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 take the body through all 6 Degrees of Freedom using many different tools, the most versatile and natural tool for this is the trainee’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 jumping jacks before boredom drives you away. But the reality is that the sky is the limit when it comes to creating innovative exercise variations and designing effective bodyweight-only conditioning programs.
Sources of inspiration include ancient fitness cultures like yoga and martial arts, gymnastics, cartwheels, and of course all the ancient standards we know of from conventional strength and conditioning sources. I consider Circular Strength Training® (http://squidoo.com/cst) system (CST) to be the undisputed leader in absorbing and re-expressing all these fonts in a comprehensive and captivating 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. Essentially, this means continually increasing the quality of movement along with the quantity. Not only do we lift heavier, longer, and more often, we also move in increasingly sophisticated patterns. Movement sophistication 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 to a more sophisticated level of the same exercise rather than simply adding repetitions, sets, or time under tension.
The most eloquent expression of the idea of Incremental Sophistication that I have seen is Scott Sonnon’s FlowFit® program. 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 complete and thoughtful total-body workout. The flow is specifically designed to take you through all 6 degrees of freedom. Beyond that, each individual exercise is presented in four progressively sophisticated versions.
With each version of an exercise, the raw effort required may not be more demanding, but the finesse of the execution becomes more sophisticated and the resulting training effect is increased. More complex movement patterns mean more sophisticated neuromuscular recruitment. The sum of the parts equals not only more work, but also a better quality of work and a greater transfer potential 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 unlimited examples of bodyweight exercises. I have used them exclusively and integrated them with equipment-based training to provide impressive results for clients ranging from weekend athletes looking for an edge to housewives interested in fat loss.