Age-Old Wisdom Meets Modern Ingenuity
Beautiful bodies are not exclusive to the era of pec decks and treadmills. Age-old traditions of physical culture have been delivering vibrant health and functional physiques for centuries, and much of this was done exclusively with bodyweight resistance.
Ancient and modern physical cultures use bodyweight for impressive results
The Pahlavani, an ancient wrestling art in Iran, made extensive use of bodyweight conditioning methods in its training. It’s said that one famous wrestler, Pahlavan-e Bozorg Razaz, performed 1,000 Shena (a form of push-up) per day as part of his conditioning regimen.
As early as the 5th century BC, the physical culture surrounding the wrestling traditions of the Indian Peninsula were based largely around body weight exercise. Some examples which have been revived by modern fitness professionals include the Bethak (Hindu Squat) and the Dand (a form of swooping “push-up”). As with the Pahlavani training methods, these ancient body weight exercises (/ancient-bodyweight-exercises) were traditionally performed using very high repetitions without added resistance.
Modern fitness enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that the training methods of these rugged Indian wrestlers intersected fully with the practice of yoga in its more ancient and rigorous form. Our imported, westernized version of yoga tends to emphasize the yielding side of the discipline. But that is only half the equation. The Yogi of old were able to yield and overcome with incredible strength and grace. As my coach and mentor Scott Sonnon, founder of the Circular Strength Training system, is fond of saying, “Yoga was never meant to be a thumb and a blanket, but rather a hurricane and an earthquake.” If you dig past 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 body weight only exercise options
Today’s Icons Of Body Weight 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 awe-inspiring control, results in unbelievable physical development.
According to renowned gymnastics coach, Christopher Sommer, the overwhelming majority of a gymnast’s training is done using only the resistance of his or her own body weight. Sommer attributes much of the impressive gymnast’s physique to straight arm manipulation of the body, the plyometric nature of many of the exercises, and a lot of jumping and single leg exercise for the lower body.
It’s all 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’s dependent upon 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 appears as though you can actually defy gravity.
But beyond show-stopping tricks, in essence relative strength is all about how well you can apply your strength. If you can squat or bench huge numbers, but you don’t have the skill to transfer that strength into performance on the sports field or in the arena of life, then it’s not necessarily useful strength. 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 to increase your performance in life and sport.
When you slip on a patch of ice, your body must react instantly in order to keep you upright. This righting reflex is automatic, but the way your body responds, and which movement patterns are recruited to do the job, can be trained by moving your body through all of its potential degrees of freedom. This must be done in a mechanically efficient way to ensure that correct movement patterns are trained. Anyone who has watched an accomplished martial artist take fall after fall, effortlessly and soundlessly, has seen one example of the end result of such training.
What do I mean by “movement patterns”? This refers to the way our bodies are put together and how they generate force. A very smart fellow named Thomas Myers popularized a concept called Anatomy Trains, which essentially refers to slings of muscle and connective tissue that traverse and criss-cross the body. These “trains” are lines of tension or pull that are activated to elicit movement-that is, if everything is firing correctly. Activities like sitting at a desk all day, or performing only two-dimensional strength training and conditioning, can cause our bodies to forget how to move naturally, a phenomenon referred to as Sensory Motor Amnesia. Over time, those misfirings become habitual movement patterns. Using bodyweight exercises to take your body through its full movement potential allows you to solicit all those little muscles that should be part of a given Anatomy Train, but which may have become disconnected through disuse.
One of the most frequent comments I hear from new clients who already have an extensive training history is, “Wow, I discovered some new muscles after our training session.” My clients are often strong, fit people, but by taking their bodies through more complete and complex patterns of movement using only their body weight, I’m able to connect the dots and get all their muscles firing in concert along the various chains of tension.
This same idea of coordinating strength has implications for the athlete as well. For example, a football lineman may have a high level of isolated strength in pressing with the legs alone (as in a squat), or with the arms alone (as in a bench press), but tying that strength together into a coordinated effort should also be part of a complete training program. In the heat of the action, the player is both driving with his legs and pushing with his arms. One interesting example of a bodyweight exercise that can tie these two actions together is the Quad Squat, which we’ll explore later.
Moving Through 6 Degrees of Freedom
In talking about relative strength and your ability to respond in a functional way to situations both in day-to-day life and in athletic pursuits, I mentioned the importance of moving the body through all its potential degrees of freedom. This concept was pioneered by the Circular Strength Training® system. The idea of describing spatial movement through the convention of 6 Degrees of Freedom has been in use in the field of aeronautics for a very 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 we already know and understand from three dimensional movement models, but now imagine moving both along and around each axis. This gives you the 6 Degrees of Freedom:
- Heaving: Moving up and down the vertical axis
- Surging: Moving along the front-to-back axis
- Swaying: Moving along the side-to-side axis
- Yawing: Moving around the vertical axis
- Rolling: Moving around the front-to-back axis
- Pitching: Moving around the side-to-side axis
If we imagine our customary sagital plane, we can both surge along it and pitch through it. We sway along the frontal plane and roll on it. And finally we heave along the axis of the transverse plane and we 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 spatial orientation changes. Although you can take the body through the 6 Degrees of Freedom using many different tools, the most versatile and natural tool for this is the weight of the trainee’s own body. This is a powerful mechanism for creating vast pools of bodyweight exercises which address the degrees of freedom most important for a given sport, activity or client.
The greatest problem with conventional bodyweight exercise programs is 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, the sky’s the limit when it comes to creating innovative exercise variations and designing effective bodyweight-only conditioning programs.
Sources of inspiration include age-old physical cultures like yoga and the martial arts, gymnastics, tumbling and of course all of the old standards we know from conventional strength and conditioning sources. I consider the Circular Strength Training® (http://squidoo.com/cst) system (CST) to be the undisputed leader in absorbing and re-expressing all these sources into a comprehensive and captivating approach. Most of my own vocabulary of body weight exercise either 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. We don’t just lift heavier, longer and more often, we move in increasingly sophisticated patterns as well. Movement sophistication is also the key to creating variety in bodyweight exercise programs. As you, or your clients, progress in 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 well thought out and complete full-body exercise routine. The flow is specifically designed to take you through all 6 Degrees of Freedom. Beyond that, each individual exercise is presented in four progressively sophisticating versions.
With each version of an exercise, the brute effort required may not be more demanding, but the finesse of execution becomes more sophisticated and the resultant training effect is increased. More complex movement patterns mean more sophisticated neuromuscular recruitment. The sum of the parts equates not just to more work, but to better quality of work and greater potential for carryover 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 the 6 Degrees of Freedom and Incremental Sophistication to create almost limitless examples of bodyweight exercises. I’ve used them both exclusively and integrated with equipment based training to provide impressive results for clients ranging from weekend athletes looking for an edge to stay-at-home moms interested in fat loss.