I Am Not A Gymnast

by Al Kavadlo on September 17, 2013

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When people see me performing bodyweight feats of strength like freestanding handstand push-ups or the front lever, they often ask a familiar question:

“Are you a gymnast?”

I don’t blame them for the misunderstanding – gymnastics is the only context most people have for what they’ve witnessed. However, there is so much more to the world of bodyweight training than gymnastics!

Though I’ve never been one to dwell too heavily on labels, I am most certainly not a gymnast. I am a fitness enthusiast who specializes in Progressive Calisthenics. To the casual observer, this may seem like a minor distinction. Allow me to elaborate.

Gymnasts participate in formal gymnastics, a highly-specific, competitive sport involving strict rules and guidelines. I participate in Progressive Calisthenics, an open-ended, individualized fitness modality centered around the concept that one’s own body weight (and the proper manipulation of leverage) can provide ample resistance for strength training, regardless of one’s current fitness level.

Of course the two things do have something major in common: Both can get you in the best shape of your life without the need for weights or very much equipment.

al_Straddle planche

The mindset is probably the biggest difference: I train to be strong, robust and healthy. I train to make day-to-day physical tasks easier. I train for enjoyment. Gymnasts train to win – oftentimes at the expense of their health and fitness.

Competitive athletics are funny like that. Professional athletes are the fittest people in the world, but they are frequently forced to train through injuries. Many wind up pushing their bodies beyond what they can safely handle. The irony is that these people may get to be the best in the world for a brief, shining moment, but will often suffer for it later. The higher the high, the lower the low.

I prefer to take the middle ground. If I feel pain, I back off. If I need rest, I take it. By using this approach, I’ve managed to avoid any serious injuries or major setbacks in my training, despite over twenty years of strength work.

I have tremendous respect for the sport of gymnastics. Pro gymnasts are some of the strongest people on the planet. Their tenacity and dedication to their sport is second to none. My most impressive moves like muscle-ups and back levers are considered entry-level skills in gymnastics the same way that push-ups and squats are entry level moves in calisthenics training. A pro gymnast’s warm-up is more grueling than some of my workouts.

AlKavadlo-backlever

These athletes provide inspiration and motivate me to continually challenge myself, but I have no interest in being a gymnast. I train for fun and function. My only competition is within myself. The joy of movement matters more to me than whether or not my toes are perfectly pointed.

Progressive Calisthenics and gymnastics are two different things, each with their own set of pros and cons. If you want to learn the sport of gymnastics, there are people way more qualified to teach it to you than I am.

PCC is for exercise enthusiasts and fitness professionals who want to utilize bodyweight training to get stronger, feel better and move more freely. At PCC, we focus on how to progress and regress universal movement patterns for everyday people. We encourage fun over formality; presence over perfection.

Regardless of what you choose to call it, bodyweight strength training offers something for everyone. Whether you do gymnastics, calisthenics or any other bodyweight-strength modality, we are all more alike than we are different, and we all share one thing in common:  The need to challenge ourselves and test our physical potential.

al_not_gymnast2

With the right amount of effort, it’s amazing what the human body can achieve.

***

About Al Kavadlo: Al Kavadlo is the lead instructor for Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification. Recognized worldwide for his amazing bodyweight feats of strength as well as his unique coaching style, Al is the author of three books, including Raising The Bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics and Pushing The Limits! Total Body Strength With No Equipment. Read lots more about Al on his website:www.AlKavadlo.com.

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  • jpujjayi

    great writing and clarifying progressive calisthenics as a useful way of maintaining and improving health, movement, strength…etc.. i’m so glad i crossed paths with PCC as it’s principles are so functionally adaptive to any age.. i like that definition of progressive calisthenics !!… keep on keepin on !!!

  • Marcus

    Hey Al,

    Thanks for the distinction and the good read.

    I’m going to be at the PCC in Sweden in November and I’m wondering if you could suggest how I can get my pull ups into higher figures?

    I’m confident about squats, pushups and knee raises, but I’m worried when it comes to the century my pull-ups will let me down. I currently have a 1 set maximum of 11 pull-ups and I’ve been ‘greasing the groove’ (5 pull ups at least 5 times a day) and doing two sets of close push-ups followed by 7 pull ups twice a week during my Convict Conditioning sessions.

    Any tips greatly received =)

    See you soon.

    Marcus

  • It’s an honor to read this. I genuinely think this post is a landmark moment in modern bodyweight training. For so many years–decades–those of us doing strength calisthenics have been asked: isn’t that just gymnastics?

    No–it’s not. On a number of levels. Like Al, I have maximum respect for gymnastics, but what we do IS NOT THE SAME.

    Very, very important post for the growing bodyweight community. Well done, Al. Proud to have you as PCC Lead Instructor.

    • Thanks, Paul! You’ve probably been hearing that question for even longer than I have!

      • Since before you were doin pullups on your crib bars, brother!

  • Al,

    • Thanks, Jamie! Hope to see you at an upcoming PCC event!

  • Gilberto Gil

    Subtle but very powerful distinction. Also, I love that it conveys health in body and attitude. Keep on inspiring, Al!!!

  • Matt Schifferle

    This post is gold for any and every fitness enthusiast. The objective of an activity can greatly alter the outcome even if it appears that the action is the same. Two people can do the same exercise but accomplish different goals much the same way we can use the same vehicle but end up at different destinations.

  • Carter Doud

    I get told that I should do gymnastics by those who watch me work out (that’s one of things that happens if you go to a gym from time to time). I usually take it as a compliment over people telling me what I’m doing is silly. A lot of people don’t realize that gymnastics is just a very specific form of progressive calisthenics. Just about everything has evolved from progressive calisthenics and some people act as if it’s a new trend. Thank you Al for making a distinction between the two.

    • Thanks, Carter! That’s part of why I tend to avoid working out at a gym!

  • Danny Kavadlo

    Truly world class, Al. Brilliant and succinct–no one could’ve said it better. Word up.

  • Thanks, Aleks! I look forward to meeting you one day at a PCC event!

  • Great post, during the frequent debates I have with some of my mates who prefer weight pushing I often get told I’m just doing gymnastics and will never pack on some serious strength without lifting heavy. You’ve put in words there exactly what I try to tell them, that whilst calisthenics has similarities to gymnastics, it has very different goals. I also like to point out that gymnastics and calisthenics probably have one of the best strength to weight ratios of any sport, which to me is much more important than how big the training will get you.

    • Right on, David! I’d rather be stronger than I look than look stronger than I am.

      • Zach Gheaja

        Its really still amazing to me that the biggest guy i ever knew,… who was in a picture next to Ronnie Coleman and made him look small… struggled to help me pick up a patio table, that i was holding with my finger tips. I will never forget that moment.

        • Zach Gheaja

          like a waiter with a plate

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