Zen and the Art of Calisthenics

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.


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!


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

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33 thoughts on “Zen and the Art of Calisthenics”

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    1. good article.

      yes, his strength is impressive.

      sana shanti

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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 DLs!

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

  5. 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 !!

  6. 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.

    1. 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 ballistic kettlebell moves. My career (firefighter/EMS), my sport (MMA), and my recreational activity (obstacle course racing) require those added weight type of movements. I have to be able to pick up, maneuver, and carry human bodies and other odd objects in all of my disciplines. I still will no longer touch a machine in my quest to get stronger and more resilient to injuries.

      1. 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 and has taken his passion to a high level. Isn’t that enough? Why does he feel the need to be insulting when writing about other methods, particularly progressive resistance? And Donald, you seem similarly overheated in your defense of him. For my taste, this article is marred by a little much zeal.

        1. 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 during each movement and then ask yourself which one is safer, healthier and more natural for your body. As I said, I also use some free weights (dumbbells, Kettlebells), and odd objects (sand bags, tires, rocks, other humans bodies) to have functional real world strength. Pressing 500 lbs. on a leg press machine is going to help you very little when you go to pick up a 200 lb. person off the floor. I’ve been a trainer for 30 years now and I can easily say that if a client came to me with a resistance exercise induced injury it was caused by a machine 90% of the time. By the way, there is no such thing as “sculpting” muscles you can add muscle mass and/or density but sculpting can only be done by an artist making statues. Muscles are meant to be functional, “nice looking muscles” are a side effect of that, not a goal. No one has to have Al’s goals and use his methods but if you want a body that is strong, injury free, resilient, and able to perform then body weight exercise are your best bet. I’m not just defending Al Kavadlo, I’m defending body weight exercise in general. Check out a method of human body conditioning called MovNat for one of my favorite approaches.

      2. 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.

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

  8. 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.

    1. 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.

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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!

  12. 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.

  13. 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.

  14. 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.

    1. 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 muscle.

    2. 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

  15. 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.

  16. 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).

  17. 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 strength, without the corresponding tendon strength, which takes much more time to develop.

    The bodyweight calisthenics make it “harder” to put you body in a stress situation focusing on one part, but it can be done (take a look at the cross fit inspired kipping chinup, if you try that without the tendon and muscle strength, you will get injured, same as a lot of the more advanced calisthenic moves.

    A lot of the moves just simply can’t be done unless your whole muscle “chain” is strong.

  18. 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.

  19. 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!