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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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February 03, 2015

Zen and the Art of Calisthenics

By Guest
33 Comments

LeadPhotoThis is a guest post from Al Kavadlo of AlKavadlo.com.

When it comes to exercise, there are a lot of options. With such an abundance of fitness programs and modalities, it can get overwhelming trying to discern which method is best for you. While there are a lot of people out there who will offer you advice on your fitness journey, ultimately it is up to you to make your own decisions. That’s right—only you have the power to change your body and improve your life. Others can help illuminate the path, but the responsibility rests on the individual. Through sharing some of my experiences, however, maybe I can get you asking some questions you hadn’t considered until now.

Throughout my life, I’ve experimented with dozens of different exercise modalities. I’ve used barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, medicine balls, sandbags, and just about every other heavy object I could think of to try lifting.

I’ve done parkour, martial arts, marathons and yoga. I even tried a triathlon.

I believe my various experiences have helped me become a more well-rounded physical specimen, but after all of those things, I always come back to the simplest, most direct way of training I’ve ever known—calisthenics (aka bodyweight training).

I love calisthenics training because it requires nothing more than your body, your mind and your warrior spirit. You don’t need to buy anything, go anywhere or put on any special clothing. Anybody can start right now. As Maya Angelou once said, “Ain’t nothin’ to it but to do it.” (Or was that Ronnie Coleman?)

There’s a lot to love about calisthenics, but my favorite thing is how it keeps you in the present. When you’re working on developing a new skill, you need to give all of your attention to the task at hand. When you are completely focused on your training, the division between body and mind breaks down and everything else seems to fall away. This is what I’m referring to when I talk about Zen mind.

HandstandOnArch

Training with nothing but your own body is about as primal as it gets. It also teaches you to become aware of the subtle nuances of movement. Using machines instead of your bodyweight neglects this key aspect of fitness. When you strip away the extraneous equipment, it directs your focus back to your own body. Don’t get me started on people who read magazines or watch television during their “workout.”

I am continually amazed at how out of touch the average person is with their body. For example, when I ask a new personal training client to try moving their shoulder blades without moving their arms, they usually cannot find the coordination to make it happen. However, these types of subtle movements can be the difference between learning to do a pull-up correctly and injuring yourself.

The term “proprioception” refers to the sensory ability to feel different parts of your body moving through space in relation to each other. This is such a crucial aspect of fitness which is often overlooked. Only once somebody truly learns to feel how their body moves, can they make significant gains in functional strength. You need to pay attention to the nuances of movement if you want to be fit.

There is a Zen parable about a student who asks his teacher for the best way to study the path toward enlightenment, to which the teacher replies, “If you try to study the path, you will be far away from it. You must live the path to enlightenment.”

It’s easy to get caught up in analyzing things in an attempt to find the “best” way to approach your workouts or any other part of your life. We all want to be efficient with our time and make good decisions, and that makes sense, but there is no substitute for actually doing the thing. You learn so much as you go!

AlKavadloPull-up

It’s also helpful to understand that strength is as much neurological as it is physical. Whenever you try to get your body to do something that it isn’t used to doing, it has to build a new neurological pathway to make it happen. Even when you ask your body to perform a familiar movement pattern, it will have a hard time if the leverage has been made less favorable than what you’ve become accustomed to. This is why there are lots of people who can yank a lot of weight on a lat pull-down machine but struggle to do a few controlled pull-ups. If your brain has never had to send that specific message to your muscle before, it must work very hard in order to arrive there. The message often comes in fuzzy.

Imagine using a machete to chop your way through the thick vines of a jungle. This is how hard your brain must work to get your body to do something for the first time. Now imagine you’ve lived in that jungle for ten years and walked the same few routes over and over, gradually clearing away the brush little by little. Eventually the path would be easy to walk and you’d arrive on the other side much more quickly, and with much less effort.

The same thing happens in your brain with consistent training. Over time, the pathway becomes clearer and the message arrives faster. The body adapts to whatever stimuli it is consistently exposed to. A body that is regularly called upon to apply force against resistance will get better at doing so.

Weights have their appeal (and I used them for a long time) but in the end I eventually lost interest and decided to devote myself solely to calisthenics. If you want to excel at any single discipline, at a certain point you will have to set other things aside. Moves like elbow levers and one arm pull-ups don’t happen without dedication and patience!

Bodyweight training is also relatively safe compared to other methods. Obviously, the odds of dropping a weight on yourself are non-existent if you aren’t using any! And as for those fancy looking machines in commercial health clubs—they are all hype. Their sole purpose for existing is to get people to spend money on gym memberships. They don’t work as well as bodyweight exercises, but they sure do look high-tech! Sadly, that’s enough to trick the average person into shelling out lots of money for a gym membership they’ll probably never even use anyway.

Zen Mind CoverThis doesn’t mean you can’t sculpt nice looking muscles using machines, it’s just a ridiculous way to go about it. Selectorized fitness equipment movement patterns are not natural, and will have less carryover into real life activities. Plus you’re much less likely to understand the movement of the human body if you’re never really moving! If everything you do for your workout involves sliding a fixed piece of machinery along a predetermined path, you’re just going through the motions. You’re not truly creating movement.

While modern exercise equipment has only existed for a few decades, human beings have achieved fantastic physiques for thousands of years. If you want to build a better body, the only piece of equipment you’ll ever need is something you already have—YOU!

Check out Al’s new ebook, Zen Mind, Strong Body, available now on Dragon Door Publications

Prefer listening to reading? Get an audio recording of this blog post, and subscribe to the Primal Blueprint Podcast on iTunes for instant access to all past, present and future episodes here.

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33 Comments on "Zen and the Art of Calisthenics"

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Jacob
2 years 2 months ago

Really enjoy hearing from Al. The feats of strength he can do are truly impressive.

Sana Shanti
Sana Shanti
2 years 2 months ago

good article.

yes, his strength is impressive.

sana shanti

Jim
Jim
2 years 2 months ago

Great article, Al! Can’t wait until March to get the paperback!

Blue Ajay
2 years 2 months ago

I always enjoy Al Kavadlo’s guest posts.

Jeff
Jeff
2 years 2 months ago

Great read, I couldn’t agree more! Maybe its time to cancel my gym membership…

Jaws76
Jaws76
2 years 2 months ago

I Have come to really enjoy body weight exercises. Though I am currently focusing on deadlifts , bench and squats I will always sprinkle in chins,dips and burpees as adult “playtime” and a sure fire elixir for stress reduction. Al’s point about forging new neural pathways was very well explained.

JoseRgz
JoseRgz
2 years 2 months ago

Very, very good post!

Tom B-D
2 years 2 months ago
Al, you’ve been a great inspiration, and it was great to work out with you in Tompkins Square a year ago. Funny thing for me though–after 2.5 years of bodyweight training, I decided to go back to free weights to build strength. After going through progressions up to pistols and 1-arm pushups (no 1-arm pullups though!), I actually felt that, at 50 years of age, it would be better and possibly safer to work with weights. One thing I couldn’t get with bodyweight was deadlifts, and after a couple hours of snow shoveling this past weekend, I think I need… Read more »
Tom
2 years 2 months ago

Working out and getting physically fit always starts with the right mindset. Great post Al!

Keysersoze
Keysersoze
2 years 2 months ago

I really love this guy and his bro too! I have always trained with my bodyweight but they really have opened new doors for me with all these moves I had no clue I could do (handstand pushup, bridges, lever, one arm stuff, etc) instead of just adding reps. It makes bodyweight training more entertaining and challenging and that’s important for not getting bored !!

Yukon
Yukon
2 years 2 months ago

I do both bodyweight exercises and weights, I get good things from both.
When someone comes along and says things like “using machines, it’s just a ridiculous way to go about it” red flags go up. It’s just the other side of the gym rats saying their way is the only way. Find what works for YOU and your body and stick with it.

Donald Mundo
Donald Mundo
2 years 2 months ago
All the red flags should go up when someone advises you to use machines, period. The are unsafe during use, on your joints and they do not transfer over to real world strength. Al is not saying his way is the only way, he is saying body weight calisthenics are one of the best, safest and cheapest ways to train your body with the ideal carry-over to daily activities. Body weight exercises work for every human body, even YOU. I use bodyweight exercises for 75% of my workout time, the other 25% is for a variety of deadlifts, carries, and… Read more »
Vagueness
Vagueness
2 years 2 months ago
Donald Mundo “They are unsafe during use, on your joints and they do not transfer over to real world strength.” Citation? Sounds like just another unsupported assertion to me. N=1 for me: not true at all. And: “Al is not saying his way is the only way…” Maybe not, but he did just engage in a myopic put-down: “…a ridiculous way of going about it…”, not to mention his thinly veiled distain for those who want to “sculpt nice looking muscles.” What’s the matter with that? Why does everyone have to have Al’s goals and methods? He’s clearly a marvel… Read more »
Donald Mundo
Donald Mundo
2 years 2 months ago
I just punched up exercise machine injuries on google and found about 9000 articles on the subject. I could send you exact location addresses for articles if you like but you could do the same thing yourself. I’ve studied many books on related subjects that say exactly why body weight moves are better for you than machines. More importantly, you could perform dozens of experiments on yourself while utilizing any selectorized exercise machine and then performing a similar movement to work the same muscle groups using body weight or free weight exercises. Notice how your joints, limbs and spine move… Read more »
Yukon
Yukon
2 years 2 months ago

Donald, the point is, there are many forms of exercise that work, not just Al’s. If he has to resort to making statements to discredit other forms then I have to question where he’s coming from. He discredited himself with that comment.

MarielleGO
MarielleGO
2 years 2 months ago

Thanks for the brilliant post… once the book is printed I’ll pick it up. looks very interesting

Nocona
Nocona
2 years 2 months ago

Thanks Al, great stuff. I really agree about the awareness aspect. Everyone’s running around with their earbuds in and mostly oblivious.

I remember an old adult cartoon when the Sony Walkman first came out. A person was getting raped in Central Park and everyone else in the park had on headphones and couldn’t hear the yells for help.

Stacie
2 years 2 months ago

The triathlon I did last summer didn’t allow headphones for obvious safety reasons, so I ditched them while training to get used to it. Now, I never have music/headphones in while working out; I prefer to be focused on what my body is actually doing, or enjoying the sounds of nature if I’m outdoors. I don’t know why we feel the need to be distracted while working out.

Karl Nilsson
2 years 2 months ago

Always great to read anything Al writes. Great to see Al reach out with his positive message and philosophy to MDA readers! Go Al!! 🙂

Casey
Casey
2 years 2 months ago

Excellent post!!!

BodyweightFan
BodyweightFan
2 years 2 months ago

I made the switch from weights to body weight training last year. Love the results I’m seeing and don’t see myself switching back ever. I’ve seen better results and the workouts are more fun.

Granny Gibson
Granny Gibson
2 years 2 months ago

I’ve been exercising for years and as I get older I have been tweaking gym workouts to suit my ailments. Last year I decided to try bodyweight workouts. It was supposed to be just for the winter, but I never went back to the gym. I’m not an athlete by any means, but I have enjoyed this post!

Jack Lea Mason
Jack Lea Mason
2 years 2 months ago

I like the passion of opinions. It would be nice to have the discipline and zen to just do body weight workouts. I find I like the variety of machines and free weights. I see more and more trainers working in more primal movements, ground work, core balance and TRX type stuff. I think I would get really good at body weight workouts if I were incarcerated in solitary confinement. With that said, I think the pull-up is the ultimate test of strength and/or the need to shed the spare tire.

Amy Baggett
Amy Baggett
2 years 2 months ago

You could call yoga ancient Indian calisthenics. Don’t know why he lumped it into the list of other exercises he’s tried – exercises that take machinery/equipment, etc – exercises he leaves to go back to calisthenics.

dailyapplereader
dailyapplereader
2 years 2 months ago

Sounds really great, but one straight forward question re legs:

What are the best ways to work the legs just using body weight? ie. I weigh 170 lbs and therefore there is a relatively low maximum weight I can possibly squat or lunge or whatever. A lot of recommendations for building muscle involve lifting heavy weights with your legs.

Thank you for any suggestions.

Jason
Jason
2 years 2 months ago
I rarely use weight and I have difficulty finding pants that fit my thighs at 175lbs. Sprinting, plyometrics, and working towards pistols are all you really need to put on size in your lower body. Concentrate on explosive, driving movements and make sure you utilize the full range of motion. Using some simple back of the envelope math, a one legged squat is the equivalent of a 170lb backsquat (170 for your body weight + 170 lb bar weight / 2 legs). That doesn’t count the extra stabilization and range of motion. Do that for reps and you’ll put on… Read more »
Storm
Storm
1 year 11 months ago

Go through doing pistol squat progressions – to the point where you can do a strict form pistol where you lower down for 2 seconds, butt to floor, hold for a 1 second, and then raise up over 2 seconds, and hold at top for 1 second – i.e., full ROM and no bounce. For calves, the one legged calf raise done the same way standing on a couple of bricks or small ledge

Salata
Salata
2 years 2 months ago

Since almost 1 year ago I started my adventure with body weight fitness, I found few exercises that can build a significant amount of muscles. For legs, in my opinion, “sissy squat” is the most superior when done correctly. Do this exercise in really slow pace and 10 reps are max you can do with your bodyweight.

Storm
2 years 2 months ago

I bought Al’s book a couple of years ago called “raising the bar”, and haven’t looked back – and what led me to his book ? – Marks daily apple of course when I started to do the basic bodyweight exercises and wanted to “crank it up a notch”.

The only weights based exercise I do now is deadlifts and the occasional squats, but in truth, I can do all these things using just body weight (or combo, try doing a pistol squat with a barbell on the shoulders for example, if the pistol is not “enough” for you).

Storm
2 years 2 months ago
Just on injuries – I’ve seen plenty of injuries in Bar calisthenics, like any sport, injuries are usually caused by trying to go too far, too soon, and not being patient. Unfortunately, “machines” allow more opportunity for this as you can focus on particular body part into an over-stress situation, so you really need to understand you limitations and listen to your body. “A man’s ‘gotta know his limitations” (Dirty Harry – lol) If you get injured doing weights, it is usually your own damn fault (primal rule of taking responsibility). Machines allow you to rapidly increase muscle size and… Read more »
Evan
1 year 8 months ago

Just came across this post and I love it! I started my calisthenics journey a little over 3 years ago and it has changed my life in so many ways.

Check out my YouTube channel that I just started. I post different movements and routines for all skill levels.

https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCoC1vyGw5JVmXl6XmHgZK3A

http://www.entropywear.com

Luke
10 months 6 days ago

I really share his enthusiasm for body weighted training. Before when I was weight training, the most pull ups I could do was around 15. But after a year of kung fu, which I didn’t practice doing pull ups, but developed the neurological pathways in the body, when I went to do pull ups, I found I could do 23. Keep up the good stuff Al.

Jason Maine
10 days 15 hours ago

Good stuff! I’m a big fan of calisthenics. Martial arts are another example of natural body movements and based on practical needs of our ancestors!

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