Calisthenic Conditioning Boosts Brain Power

by Joe Schwartz, DC on December 15, 2015

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Al Kavadlo, One-Arm Elbow LeverIf you look around most mainstream gyms, you’re likely to see people using fancy-looking machines to try hitting each part of their bodies individually. This “isolation principle” of weight training gained popularity with the rise of bodybuilding, where it is effective in sculpting individual muscles in isolation and hoping to counterbalance that effort with each muscle individually, putting them together in a “Frankenstein” fashion to build a muscular physique.

Putting all the cells and body parts of a cadaver together, however meticulously, will not create a person capable of performing the miraculous feats humans are capable of performing. The problem lies in that a muscular physique alone does not translate into athleticism nor overall health. It is largely for appearance, and in some cases, raw strength. This is not to say that all those with muscular physiques are not athletic. Athleticism is a talent that is either practiced or naturally present. Just as talent alone is not enough, however, a muscular physique is not enough in the pursuit of overall health and optimum performance.

Critics of calisthenic conditioning often claim it lacks a progression element typical in weight training or machine resistance such as plate loaded or hydraulic cam or cable devices. Truth be discovered, there are near infinite progressions for every calisthenic exercise placing greater demand and stimulating progressively increasing power and strength.

So what does this have to do with brain power? Simple: The more you force different groups of muscles to work together to overcome a challenge, the more recruitment of brain, nervous system and muscle activation you achieve. Practicing this pattern over time makes you more efficient in executing similar challenges. It makes your system smarter! This is how we are designed to function, not in individual parts, but as a whole. This explains ancient systems of exercise and conditioning like martial arts, Yoga, and other physical practices dating back to the dawn of man. It wasn’t until recently we became attracted to the notion of isolation training for aesthetic outcomes and thought we were smarter than the ancient wisdom that brought us here.

Danny Kavadlo teaching at a PCC Workshop
The “Chain of Command” Principle

Like an elite military or business system, your brain’s recon teams bring information in for central processing and a proper response. Practicing these responses regularly with varying degrees of challenge builds reactions that are more reflex in nature than thought-based. Receptors in muscles, joints, tendons, fascia and other body parts perform the recon work. They gather information about the environment in response to gravitational stresses. This is where the juice is. Vary those stresses in multiple planes of action with varying degrees of difficulty and bingo! Practice consciously so you can react well in stressful situations.

In my studies and 30-plus years of clinical experience, I see one common element in people suffering the wide array of health problems. This common element is that people do not move enough and when they do, it is not in a beneficial way. All their effort goes into a rather mindless propulsion of a machine typically while seated. No attention is given to practicing consciously challenging movements! Often these efforts to “exercise” are misguided and result in repetitive strain or outright injury, which causes many people with good intentions to quit entirely.

Defining Exercise

My definition of exercise is any activity you engage in regularly that counteracts the stress and strain of what you do most of your day (at work and during leisure time). We sit too much. We do not move our eyes enough. We do not challenge our balance and equilibrium enough. We do not challenge our muscles to work together in synchronized patterns to evoke the brain and muscle “memory” required to sustain optimal brain health and physical conditioning. Calisthenic conditioning directly addresses these deficits. Moving your body and recruiting muscle and joint receptors in novel ways builds protein in these nervous system pathways in unison rather than simply building proteins to make a muscle larger. Keep in mind the age old principle that you either “use it or lose it”. Nowhere is it more profoundly true than in the brain and nervous system. To make the best use of time invested in a conditioning program it makes sense to engage the brain, nervous system, musculoskeletal system, and mind all at once while exercising. Comparing calisthenic conditioning to isolation exercises performed on machines, treadmills or other cardio machines is a “no brainer” (sorry, couldn’t resist the pun).

Clutch Flags at a PCC Workshop
Calisthenic exercises (ideally in a natural setting) provide huge potential benefits and rewards. By moving your body against gravity in various patterns and planes you establish and condition your “chain of command”.  In the absence of a natural setting, the movement of your head and body while performing calisthenic exercises should be adequate to improve your health far better than sitting on a circuit training machine pumping out repetitions of isolation exercises. The “chain of command” I refer to in simplified terms is your brain, nervous system, muscles, joints, and connective tissues, along with the parallel connections between the nervous system and every cell and tissue of your vital organs. A healthy brain and nervous system, an athletic physique, and the ability to perform impressive physical feats into your later years are just but a few side effects of calisthenic conditioning. Healthy blood chemistry, balanced mental state and ideal body composition are but a few more benefits. It is well worth the effort to re-establish your physical and mental potential for optimal health and well-being.

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Dr Joseph A. Schwartz, DCJoseph A. Schwartz, DC has 31 years experience as a practicing chiropractor with an emphasis on neurology, rehabilitation, nutrition, strength and conditioning. His mission is to empower others so they may exceed their expectations for vibrant health and well-being.

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  • Thanks Joe. I read your thoughts & just kept saying yes to myself in agreement. Movement is the key. Working through & around an injury can seem foolish at the time when the inclination is to rest & be sedentary. I’ve repaired a lot of historical damage with calisthenics & have adopted a daily minimum of movements that are preventing reoccurring issues. I did it too late though! The value of just a few push ups or squats over none is understated & I threw away a few years of performance because of being ignorant to what now seems obvious.

    • Joseph Schwartz

      I can truly relate to your comments Dan. As an old dirt biker, snowboarder / skier, rock climber injuries are a reminder of what happens when either unprepared or having your mind write a check your body can’t cash. The beauty of calisthenic conditioning is the ability to put together a concentrated workout in a brief interval of time or to stretch it out longer as desired or needed. I utilize these types of minimized versions of movements as rehabilitative conditioning following injury or illness or arthritic wear and tear for our patients for many years with great success. Even inspired the creation of a few fanatics along the way!

  • Mattias Östergren

    Wow great read. I am a believer – also from the results of my own training. I have a question – I am curious – although it’s not my field I suspect that there is tons of further reading to back up your claims. To you have any advice on where to find that?

    • Joseph Schwartz

      Al politely reminded me how dry and academic my articles tend to be. One possible reason might be my choices for reading materials and academic pursuits. In practice I’m far more entertaining 😉 My observations and opinions on the subject of human
      movement as it relates to brain health are derived from an ongoing number of
      referenced resources ranging from the field of neuroscience, strength and
      conditioning, psychology, chiropractic health care, sports performance science,
      Chinese and Ayurveda systems, martial arts, Yoga, and more. When asked about references
      for this particular blog article I will provide a few of my recent reading resources for
      references as they apply to my personal and professional experience in applying
      these principles in my chiropractic practice.

      Neck Muscle Responses to Stimulation of Monkey
      Superior Colliculus. II. Gaze Shift Initiation and Volitional Head Movements.
      Corneil, Olivier, and Munoz Canadian Institute of Health Research Group in
      Sensory-Motor Systems, Centre for Neuroscience Studies, Dept. of Physiology,
      Queen’s University, Kingston Ontario; and Laboratory of Neurophysiology, School
      of Medicine, University of Louvain, 1200 Brussels, Belgium

      Neurophysiology of Gait: From Spinal Cord to the
      Frontal Lobe; Movement Disorders Vol 28 No. 11, 2013; Kaoru Takakusaki, MD, PhD
      The Research Center for Brain Function and Medical Engineering, School of
      Medicine, Asahikawa Medical University, Asahikawa, Japan; and University of Tokyo
      Department of Precision Engineering, School of Engineering.

      New Roles for the cerebellum in health and
      disease; Stacey L. Reeber; Tom S. Otis, and Roy V. Sillitoe; Frontiers in Systems
      Neuroscience November 22013 Volume 7 Article 83

      Plasticity in the Developing Brain; Implications
      for Rehabilitation; Johnson M. ; Developmental Disabilities. 2009

      Sensory Convergence in the Parieto-Insular
      Cortex; Journal of Neurophysiology 2103

      Vestibular function in the temporal and parietal
      cortex: distinct velocity and internal processing pathways; Jocelyne
      Ventre-Dominey;INSERM U846, Stem Cell and Brain Research Institute, Lyon University,
      Bron, France

      Dysmetria of Thought; Clinical consequences of
      cerebellar dysfunction on cognition and affect; Jeremy D. Schmahmann Trends in
      Cognitive Sciences- Vol. 2, No. 9, September 1998

      Cognitive-motor interactions of the basal
      ganglia in development; Leisman, Braun-Benjamin, and Melillo; National Institute
      for Brain and Rehabilitation Sciences, Nazareth, Israel; Department of Mechanical
      Engineering, ORT-Braude College of Engineering, Karmiel, Israel; F.R.Carrick Institute
      for Clinical Ergonomics, Rehabilitation, and Applied Neurosciences, Hauppauge,
      NY, USA; Frontiers in Systems Neuroscience February 2014 Vol. 8 Article 16

      Principles of Neural Science, Kandel, Schwartz,
      Jessell Third edition

      The Synaptic Organization of the Brain; Gordon
      Shepherd 4th Edition

      Basic Neuroscience; Guyton

      Gray’s Anatomy

      • Mattias Östergren

        Besides being a calisthenics fan I am also bit of a dry academic. This suites me fine. I have for a long time looking serious literature on the subject you bring up here. The internet seems not a great place for that.

        Thank you so much for your efforts in putting this together. I appreciate it.

        Happy holidays!

        • Joseph Schwartz

          You are very welcome Mattias. Although I have a passion for the neuroscience a it better explains the mysteries of humanism, I always come back to Einstein’so comments. “What is very complex in its content is often very simple in its context .”

  • Nick297

    A very interesting article. Always good to read about health benefits from calisthenics.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Great read Joe. This is one more piece of evidence to my theory that fitness is all about the relationship between the mind and the body, not the body to equipment.

    • Joseph Schwartz

      Agreed Matt. The overemphasis on building muscles in isolation without regard to compound movement and activating the full array of senses required to maintain balance, coordination, and strength while changing your position in space results in imbalanced muscular and neurologic development.

  • Really good points — definitely more reasons to keep doing what we’re doing with calisthenics! 🙂

    • Joseph Schwartz

      Hence the term “progressive” calisthenics! As we age, we progress. The direction in which we progress depends on what environmental stimulus we choose to engage. One of my workout partners is in his mid 70s. He is incredible. Grew up in Austria and is an experienced gymnast and ski jumper. talk about vestibular conditioning! He’s a beast. Motivates my to aim higher. Nothing says “Let me try that” better than watching a 70+ year old execute a move with great form. Keep it on!

      • It’s great to see older people like that continue with their success in calisthenics, it lets me know that all this practice will continue to pay off — 🙂

  • Emily

    Good read Schwartz! As I was reading I was adapting the principles of mind-body connection and the calisthenics-brain function relationship to my every day audience ….geriatrics! So much potential in people with these principles over all. Thanks for sharing.

    • Joseph Schwartz

      Thank You Emily! Glad to provide “food for thought” as movement appears to provide 90% of the nutrition to the brain..

    • Joseph Schwartz

      And thank you for sharing the wealth with our geriatric partners in humanity!

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