Speak to most guys trying to get in good shape, and you hear the same story, over and over again. They miss workouts due to too many commitments—school, work, family, social stuff, work again, etc. (Photo: Getty Images)
They get lured away from the gym by Game of Thrones, Xbox, and a million other things. They often massively overeat; cheap artificial garbage is available on every corner, and it forms the bulk of modern diets. And when they do get to the gym? Hell, they are beaten around the head with far too many choices; a hundred different machines, a hundred programs, a hundred voices. Kettlebells? Bodybuilding? New School or Old School? CrossFit? Powerlifting?
No wonder the average trainee makes virtually no progress year-in, year-out—unless they are doped up with enough liver-melting steroids to poison a small town’s water supply. Now, take a breath and forget all this and imagine if things were different. Imagine if you were locked in a tiny cell, for years—with no equipment, no dissenting voices, no bodybuilding drugs, no gimmicks, no distractions. Just your body as your gym, a pressing need to make yourself bigger and stronger, a regulated diet, tons of sleep, and a seemingly infinite amount of free time.
How much progress could you make, if you trained under those conditions for just one year? I’ll tell you: you could revolutionize yourself. Even more interesting, just how much do you think you could learn about training?
Well, when it comes to the latter, I’ve got your back, Jack. I spent years of my life in those sweaty cages, ranging from San Quentin to Marion. I can’t teach you everything I learned in a short article—that’s what my books and the Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC) is for—but I can try and squeeze the sweet stuff into six lessons. So listen up, handsome.
Lesson 1: Your body is the ultimate piece of training equipment
To this day, coaches and athletes—mesmerized by the plethora of useless multi-million dollar crap that passes for gym equipment—still find this hard to swallow, but it’s true: done right, bodyweight training makes you bigger, faster, stronger and better more efficiently than any other form of training. Further, it does it in a manner which strengthens and builds the joints, rather than wearing them down.
So, what about barbells and machines? Well, machines we can discount. Even the father of mechanized training, the late, great Arthur Jones, admitted that chins and dips would produce maximum size in the arms and torso, without the need for machines. And sure, barbells DO build huge strength (if you can swallow all the shoulder, back, knee and hip problems the heavy pounding will eventually give you). But bodyweight training can also build gigantic strength—if you don’t believe me, try to do what an Olympic gymnast can do. Check out the guy’s guns while you’re at it.
Sure, you could argue that there are “different types” of strength, and that the gymnast can’t deadlift what a powerlifter can put up. But out of the two examples, bodyweight strength must be considered primary. The human body evolved over millions of years, and every second you are alive, your body is with you. Barbells are only about a century old, and you only have to lift them in the artificial environment of the gym. What good is it being able to bench press 500 pounds if you can’t pull yourself over a wall, or if you wheeze when climbing the stairs? Not much.
Related: Top 10: Foods For Muscle Growth
Lesson 2: You want strength and mass? Stick to the ancient basics
Die-hard strength athletes will understand the “basics” all too well—but it applies even more readily to bodyweight training, where the “basics” have been around for thousands and thousands of years. Pick a handful (five or six, no more than seven) of basic movement-types, and get stronger and stronger in them over time. In that last sentence, I have given you the entire secret to bodyweight strength training.
What kind of basics? How about:
- Upper-body horizontal pressing: Pushups, dips, planks, elbow levers
- Upper-body horizontal pulling: Australian pull-ups, front levers
- Upper-body vertical pressing: Handstands, hand-balancing, handstand pushups
- Upper-body vertical pulling: Pull-ups, muscle-ups, hanging and swinging
- Posterior chain: Bridges, table bridges, wall bridge walking, back levers
- Anterior chain: Sit-ups, leg raises, all hanging work, front levers
- Leg exercises: Bodyweight squats, pistols, shrimp squats, lunges, explosive jumps
That’s a helluva roll call of productive exercises, son—the kind of exercises that were building Spartan warriors thousands of years ago, and that will STILL be building impressive bodies in a thousand years, after the zombie apocalypse, when all the Hammer machines have rusted away.
Related: Top 10 Chest Exercises
Lesson 3: Be progressive!
This is the one most folks need hitting on the head with. To this day—when they should know a LOT better—some writers and coaches still disregard bodyweight training, because they believe that it’s not progressive. “Sure,” they say; “you can add reps, but you can’t get stronger”.
False. Every bodyweight movement-type is scalable from “rehab/ridiculously easy” all the way up to the very limits of human performance. Take the pull-up. Too hard for you? Begin with your feet on the ground, pilling your chest into a low bar (the Australian pullup). Then perform your pull-ups jack-knife-style, with the hips bent and straight legs up on a chair. Then move to transition stuff like uneven pull-ups, holding the bar with one arm, and holding your wrist with your spare arm. (You saw this in Rocky II, right?) Eventually, you can build up to strict one-arm pull-ups.
This is a vastly superior method of training than using external weights. With a barbell you make progress by doing the same exercise over and over and over—you just add more iron plates on the bar. But with bodyweight, you are progressing by mastering increasingly sophisticated ways to move your body through space. As a result, as you become more expert in calisthenics, not only building huge strength and muscle, but also generating superior balance, coordination, proprioception and so on.
The real key to this kind of training is to have as many progressions in your training toolbox as possible. To learn the finest techniques, grab a book by Al Kavadlo, or watch his library of free videos. If you are really serious about becoming a black belt in bodyweight progressions, you should think about taking the Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC) by Dragon Door.
Related: Top 10 Tricep Exercises
Lesson 4: Train your legs the natural way
Everyone knows that bodyweight has some amazing exercises for the upper-body—pull-ups, push-ups, dips, handstand push-ups, and so on. But it’s not true that you are doomed to “chicken legs” with calisthenics. That said, I’m not a fan of modern leg training—super-heavy deadlifts and squats.
This philosophy is a pretty new one, and it’s come from the powerlifting and bodybuilding community. You don’t have to accept it. This will sound like sacrilege to many, but what good are giant, tree-trunk legs anyway? Really? All that crushing with a giant barbell will destroy your knees, hips and vertebrae eventually (just ask a veteran powerlifter). In the real world, humans never have to perform slow, deep, heavily loaded squatting movements: we need to kick, jump, run. This is all bodyweight.
If you want strong, athletic, powerful legs that you can really use—without joint pain or a future of arthritis—do what my students do. Use progressive techniques to build up to the point where you can perform pistols (deep one-leg squats) perfectly for multiple sets of 20 reps. Once you have built that strength base, branch out to power movements. Use vertical jumps, broad leaps, suicide jumps; build leaping balance and agility, like a parkour athlete. This will allow you to continuously unlock your legs’ real power—which is strength x speed.
My mentor always drummed into me the fact that an athlete is only as young as the “spring” in his legs. Follow my methods and you will have healthy, strong, springy legs well into old age, just like he did.
Related: Top 10 Leg Exercises
Lesson 5: Regulate your diet
So much crap is talked about diet and supplementation, it’s beyond belief. I don’t have time to go into my full rant about it here (if you want my full reasoning, check out Convict Conditioning 2 and C-MASS), but I can give you a few pointers I learned as a prison athlete:
- Eat at regular times, so your body learns what to expect.
- Three squares (maybe with a snack) is superior to the whole five or six times a day jazz.
- Eat a balanced diet—foods high in protein, carbs, and fats at each meal (the modern protein mega-dosing religion is completely useless)
You don’t need to eat “clean” the whole time. Foods like sausage, burgers and pizza contain cholesterol: and far from being bad for bodybuilders, cholesterol is the major building block of testosterone.
Don’t eat a heavy meal in the evening—go to sleep a little hungry.
Supplements are garbage. Don’t even bother. That includes post-workout whey.
As for “pre-workouts”…well, if you gotta pop a pill just to get your ass killing pushups, you are in the wrong business. Take up f***ing knitting.
Related: Top 10: Pre-Workout Foods
Lesson 6: You’re not sleeping enough
Nope, you really ain’t. Testosterone is dropping like a stone in every new generation, and dwindling quality sleep is the reason why. Until a few centuries ago, our species slept when the sun went down. Jail is a modern analogue of this: when the lights go out, you sleep. On the outside? You just turn the lights on. Or your smartphone, or the DVD, or Netflix, a dozen miniature suns keep us awake and bleary-eyed.
If you are a natural athlete (smart decision) and you really want a “steroid alternative”, you really aren’t going to get it from a pill or a bottle, but you might get it from your bunk. Testosterone—muscle juice—is ONLY produced by the testicles at night, specifically during REM sleep. The majority of REM sleep occurs later during periods of sleep; so if you wake up earlier, you miss your shot. Want some more gains—get and extra hour (or two) in bed.
Yep—I know what you’re probably thinking: most of what I’ve just told you is probably garbage. Why? Because it’s 180 degrees different from the status quo. Who is this ex-junkie jerk telling me not to lift weights, eat junk food and that I don’t need supplements? That sleeping is as important as training? He must be freaking nuts!
Yeah, probably. But you know what? This stuff I’m trying to get into your head really works. Feeling like you’re not getting the results you want from training? Try my way. I’m here for you, if you stumble. You got nothing to lose but weakness, stud.
More from AskMen: