Neck Bridges, Squats and the Changing Nature of Ambition

by Dan Earthquake on August 18, 2015

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Dan Earthquake Wrestler's Bridge

At three years old I wanted to be a wrestler. The local judo club was the focus of my ambition until I was seven and could join the class. The instructor–Ted Spacey–was a large jovial man. Among the calisthenics that he imposed upon us were neck bridges. I complained once to him that they hurt the top of my head. “Then you’re not doing enough of them,” was his reply.

Family legend puts me in the sea with my Granddad at 5 months old and I’ve always swam, mostly for leisure. Vanity lifting caused a few injuries which directed me into doing more swimming and as I found I could go further, my ambitions became more aquatic. Eventually I swam the English Channel at 39 years old. On the way to France I had a lot of time to quietly reflect upon what I wanted to do next.

A little unfinished business with a 40-mile hike was concluded nineteen months later by which time I had started watching pro wrestling again online. My wonder at the spectacle now increased by knowing what injuries feel like and having some idea what strength it takes to lift people overhead. The conditioning aspect of the sport still intrigues me. The volume of calisthenics that many of the wrestlers do is impressive. Throughout all my other activities I’ve continued to do neck bridges, and since the age of sixteen have enjoyed doing pull-ups and dips. Lately I added push-ups, leg raises and bodyweight squats (which I had largely ignored for most of my life).

Pro wrestling legend Ric Flair has spoke of doing 500 bodyweight squats and 200-250 push ups and leg raises daily for about ten years during his busiest period as NWA World Champion. Admiring his longevity & ability to take bumps into his early 60’s, I decided to see if I could get near those numbers. It hasn’t been easy.

Dan Earthquake Backyard Workout

Slow sets of five repetitions are my preference and have been my habit for nearly twenty years. I used to do these in an intense manner so as to struggle to get the fourth and fail on the fifth. This was a once a week program which fit in with an otherwise physical job and active lifestyle.

Last October I bought a copy of C-MASS, which inspired me to look at different strategies. I love that book! I decided to start as if I were a novice, using some basic strength sets multiple times a day, then do a few months of muscle building in the 15 rep range. Coach Wade posted his “Diesel 20” article in January which inspired me further to go for the 500 squats in one day.

Initially a few sets of 15 were as much as I could manage. I’d given up on my training diaries a few years ago but it was Coach Wade saying “Do it for old coach” that made me restart. I’m glad I did.  I started out by putting a set of 15 squats between other exercises and I found I could do a hundred and fifty during a session. Soon it was twenty five reps, then thirty and so on. As the reps got bigger, the sets reduced.  Some days I do five sets of a hundred. That’s not everyday–I’m not Ric Flair!

Sometimes I combine other movements using bars or benches and squat down whilst pulling on the lats as I descend. At the top I change grip and move forwards into a slow incline push up. This feels like an ideal movement to do in between sets of my favorite exercises: dips, pull-ups and push-ups.

Dan Earthquake Bodyweight Dips

Following the PCC blog is very encouraging. Recent articles of regression, simplicity, focus on the basics and the Replek concept have stimulated my imagination. Danny Kavadlo’s assertion that calisthenics is a creative discipline had me smiling and nodding in agreement.

I didn’t always realize the importance of calisthenics and in hindsight should have favored them more over the lifting in my early days. Big ambitions can distract a person from doing the right thing in many aspects of life. I’ve worked myself into a lot of dead ends. Most importantly I’ve never stopped, always finding something productive to do.

I never became a pro wrestler but I had a taste. Judo, drug-free powerlifting competitions and heats of the UK Strongest Man were as close as I ever got. I wasn’t very good at any of those things. I’m not very advanced in my calisthenics either. Rather than worry about that, however, I enjoy the experience and savor struggle.

Sometimes the small ambitions are the ones that endure to provide the most value. Impressing the judo instructor was once an ambition. I often think of Ted Spacey when I do wrestlers bridges and it always makes me smile. Two years ago I realized that my head had stopped hurting. I guess I’m finally doing enough of them now.

Dan Earthquake English Channel Swim

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Dan Earthquake is involved in event safety and hosts winter swimming training camps for Channel Swimmers. In 2013 the Channel Swimming Association awarded him the trophy for “Greatest Feat of Endurance” for his 21hr 25 minute crossing of the English Channel.

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  • Nick297

    Nice article! It was nice to read about high volume training. High volume and calisthenics are made for each other. And this: “Two years ago I realized that my head had stopped hurting. I guess I’m finally doing enough of them now” is made me smile.

    • Thank you Nick. I used to be a high intensity low volume sort of person. The wonderful thing about calisthenics is it can be whatever you want it to be. I’m still finding new things to do – I’m looking all the time for another set somewhere unlikely, roadside furniture (such as the bridge rail pictured above) being my latest interest.

      • Nick297

        Your body is your own gym, definitely 😉

      • Xman

        Do you think a single set to failure (stopping when I can’t move in good form) routine of about 10 exercises (therefore multiple sets of different exercises per muscle group) once every three days would be a good no-equipment bodybuilding option? It seems to be good for cardiovascular fitness, as well as hypertrophy.

        • Hi Xman.

          I’ve had to think a bit to answer this because my focus has for many years been to have a combination of brute strength and long distance (running or swimming) ability. Splitting between these two has meant that I haven’t excelled at either, but I have enjoyed the experience. My interest in bodybuilding has been largely as an observer though lately I’ve decided to work on the physique now my distance ambitions have been achieved.

          Failure is the subjective component here. For bodybuilding the exercises need to be sufficiently difficult to use up the chemical energy in the muscles which in turn encourage growth as the muscles repair themselves. If the last rep is so tough you can’t do it – I’d describe that as failure. A single set to failure as you describe might not achieve achieve what you wish in the 10 to 15 rep range. Two rotations of the exercises – everything through once then again might work better, but only you will be properly be able to assess how this suits you and your personal circumstances.

          Be mindful of the speed that you move at – if failure hasn’t come by rep 15 slow down or make the exercise more difficult with a harder progression.
          If you’re knocking out 500 reps then you’re conditioning your body for strength and endurance with muscle growth in third place. Obviously if you are doing 500 reps to failure a second set is not required.

          Also the amount of recovery between sessions is important. If you’re still sore on the day you intend to repeat the session reassess the intensity and length of rest period.

          Ten exercises seems a lot to me – I’d be more inclined to do two rotations of the basics of Pull ups, Push ups, Squats, Bridges and Leg raises with variations of these that are either harder or easier depending on your ability. I prefer dips to push ups though I do more of the latter. I also find handstands a nuisance to practice so don’t do them – but they are definitely useful exercises to master and something I intend to improve on in the long term.

          There was an argument I read recently in favor of daily training that suggested that it gave the tendons and surrounding tissues more chance to recover due to the increased movement and blood flow. Muscles worked on days after a big effort naturally protest so the work that can be done for them is much less – more a light set of movements rather than the big efforts is possible. This is active recovery. I did heavy sessions every seven to ten days for a number of years and spent a lot of those days being sore not doing the same movements. I regret that now I’ve learned the benefit of regressions. There was a time that I felt the idea of doing something like incline push ups was beneath me as I did deep slow dips to failure. I thought there was no point in doing what I thought to be easy beginner exercises. Now I do a lot of incline push ups and I’ve found that I’m better at my dips.

          Please keep in touch and let me know how the program goes.

          Thanks,

          Dan

          • Xman

            Thanks Dan!

            My aim is to train without equipment and without much programming, tweaking etc. The idea behind this programme is that once every three days to positive failure is generally sufficient for recovery with solid nutrition and sleep. Also, it’s not too little for protein synthesis. There is no scientific confirmation of rep range/set length importance for hypertrophy if the set is taken to failure. Even if the set length doubled, let’s say from 1 minute to 2, or more, it’s manageable. I won’t change exercises much either but I’ll try different range of motion and speed/slow turnarounds to make it easier/harder and the set reasonably short. For example squats, like described here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9qftPrMeYco

            Squat
            TSC Pullover
            TSC Arm Curl
            Push Up
            Heel Raise
            TSC Simple Row
            Pike Push Up
            Prone Trunk Extension
            Crunch
            TSC Neck Extension
            TSC Neck Flexion

            All 1 set to failure, slower tempo. TSC are Timed Static Contraction exercises for 45:30:15 seconds with increasing effort. Good to train back/neck without equipment. So not all exercises are compound and I guess the volume is ok.
            But overall I’m looking for simple hypertrophy no equipment routine I can do for years, consistently, without much adjustment. You may be right with fewer movements being better. Regarding heavy sessions, that’s why I won’t push past failure, just good form, stopping when I can’t move. I’ve been doing HIT so I need to dial intensity down because the need for recovery raises too much while not bringing any benefits.
            Anyway, we’ll see what happens. Thanks.

          • Thanks for the video, I follow your reasoning and think that your plan will be very effective in the manner you describe. We’re both in for the long term so let’s talk again in a year or so & see how things are progressing. With best wishes, Dan

          • Xman

            Today I did 2 sets of squats, straight bridges, pike pushups, leg raises and push ups outside.
            Feels great, no weights allow me to focus more on form and fatique. I’m ony considering adding lat movement at the beginning, either no-quipment variant or pullups.

          • Sounds like a good session. Outdoor training is great. I love the winter nights with the frosty air & some stars – even in the city the stars show a bit in winter. I do a lot of “other pulls” – variations of Australian pull ups on anything I can find, sometimes slow vertical pulls on a roadsign are all I can find. Adding a pulling movement to partner the pushes is always a good idea in my opinion.

  • Paramesvara Dasa

    Hey Dan, great article. The flexibility and open-endedness of calisthenics training does indeed make it a creative discipline. The seemingly endless variation is staggering.

    I am happy to see that you included neck training in the title and discussed in the body of the article. After flags, neck training is my favorite part of the CC ‘system’ and of calisthenics in general. After a year of solid training, I’ve progressed from one set of 5 to one set of 23 for both front and wrestler’s bridges, and the benefits are very noticeable. Thanks for the inspiration, Dan. Cheers.

    • Flags! Paramesvara those are beyond me for a while yet. I have a little wrestle occasionally with them but they’re more an isometric exercise whist I’m trying to position my bulk against gravity. I think I might need another decade of practice to get there, so well done if you’re popping them up. I had a little help with Al with the title (thanks Al).

      I realized that the neck training was important early on. I did them at Judo class because I had to, but didn’t start doing them voluntarily until I saw Mike Tyson doing them on a short news article when he was preparing for a fight. I was thirteen and liked the idea of having a neck like his. Everytime I saw him on TV it reminded me to continue. I’m glad I did. I had an accident when I was 19 on a building site – a girder fell and hit me on the head, cracking my safety helmet and swelling my boot up inside my boots. I went to hospital fearing I had broken my foot. They were more concerned with my neck. The young (female) doctor examined my neck and said she had never seen muscles like it on the XRAY. The conclusion was the force that damaged my foot should have broken my neck. Thinking about how impressed the doctor was and happy that I had escaped injury I took the bridges a lot more seriously after that! A few years ago a truck wrecked my car from behind. I got thrown forwards and yanked back by the seatbelt – but had no whiplash. I’m smiling now as I type, grateful to Ted Spacey yet again.

  • Matt Schifferle

    Dude! You da man Dan! I can feel the strength just pouring out of your words. It’s a deep, subtle sort of strength but it’s so there in your attitude and approach. As the saying goes, confidence is quite while insecurity is loud.

    All I can say is I’m glad you’re on our side man. Your story is very inspiring and I loved reading it. Thank you so much for sharing.

    • Thanks Matt. I’ve noticed you’ve got the sort of physique I’m looking to build now that I’ve finished doing long distance swimming. I’m not as solid as I want to be yet, but I’m making progress. I spent twenty years carbo loading and like strength training more than muscle building. Luckily, I’m in no hurry.

  • I love doing neck bridges 🙂 How often can an exercise be good for you AND look super freaky at the same time! Seen you around the forums, so glad you shared an article with us – that photo of the channel swim with the cargo ship is just incredible! How did you come up with the design of your backyard workout rig?

    • I had a short experience with training in gyms, but I’m vain so the mirrors distracted me and the temptation to move the full stack on any machine always (to this day) is too appealing to seriously get any benefit from visiting such places. Fresh air in the garden seemed a better option. I figured that a pull up bar and dips bars would be easy to manufacture & bought some second hand scaffolding. I used to train with a larger man with much wider shoulders so made the dips bars V shaped to accommodate us both. The step up means that you can fully lower yourself without having to hold your knees up and save yourself if you fail on the last rep. The lower horizontal bars are supports and work well for incline push ups and h pulls. The pull up bars are also in a V shape for ease of changing grip. The bent upright bar at the back is my best trophy – I bent that trying to lever a 5 tonne concrete staircase over an obstacle in a building in 2001. I used to have an old car in the garden back then too which I had on a scaffold frame to deadlift. Those were the days! The configuration is probably on it’s 20th incarnation and I have plans to alter it again shortly. The extra upright in the middle of the section nearest the camera needs moving to widen the pull up bars.

  • Charles

    This was a great article! Very motivating and positive. Thankyou for this, it makes me want to do the same. Inspiration!

  • kiwikidaus

    Good article, thank you. I have just started doing neck bridegs this week and the difference in posture is incredible. Plus a number of other benefits as well.

    • Thank you very much. As children Ted Spacey used to insist we put our hands on our faces – this stabilizes the neck from lateral movement and is a good habit when starting out. The mattress of the bed (so long as it’s not too soft) is a good place to do bridges, last thing at night ensures a good sound sleep with any aches from the day ironed out nicely. I still put my hands on my face a lot out of habit but you can play around with arm positions to get more weight for effectiveness once you’re happy with the position. I’ve tried all sorts of rep patterns over the years, from singles up to sets of 25, or as many as 50 in a row etc. I’ve even had my training partner hand me a scaffold tube with a car wheel on each end to bench press whilst holding a bridge – I’d been doing them for about 20 years then so it’s not a thing to be rushed into. If I do a set of five or ten it’s done slowly, but I’ve come round to enjoying a static bridge hold for ten breaths. That’s working well for me at the moment, but it could change tomorrow! Nothing is set in stone. You’ll notice many better examples of the bridge than mine – some people have a much better arch on their backs and this comes from bridging with the hands. I never tried one of those until this year when I saw a picture on this blog – it didn’t work for me. At 7 years old Ted Spacey used to shout at me “My granny is more flexible than you are. You’re the most inflexible person I’ve ever seen.” I don’t think I’ve improved any!

      • kiwikidaus

        Hey Dan, thanks again for that snippet of info. I also started by putting my hands on my face, great to know one is on the right track. I can be difficult with hours and hours of trial and error when youre doing it on your own.
        thanks again!

  • Love the article! I can’t get enough of bridging! Brings back memories of a high school wrestler and I teaching stuff to each other. It was crazy how many types of pushups we did and how many. Like you, I’m in awe of the training volume that wrestlers go through.

    The creative pursuit is certainly something I jive with, as well!

    • Hi Owen, I’m interested in how many sets of bridges and push ups you used to do in wrestling training. How many times a week? I used to push to failure on everything and be sore for a week or more. That suited me for a long time, but now I like daily multiple efforts. Have you seen Ric Flair’s daughter bridge the figure four leglock (they call it the figure 8)? I think its the most impressive variation I’ve seen yet.

      • We did did a few sets of bridges during training – nothing wild. Pushups we would do usually upwards of 10 sets total, of 20-25 reps each, or a few super high rep sets, depending on the difficulty. Back then my training partners and I did a lot of super high reps. I’m of the same thinking you are now. Spread the efforts out over the day, and making sure I’m working intensely enough for gains.

        Haven’t seen her leg lock variation, but I’ll look it up – sounds impressive!

        • 250 reps in a day of anything are good numbers in my opinion. I got 12 sets of 5 on the road the other day – mostly incline push ups on a crash barrier or farm gate, a few sets of flats and a set of dips on a random piece of concrete roadside furniture. I used to think inclines too easy to bother with until I slowed them right down. I always look to partner any push with a pull movement – even a one armed pull leaning away from a vertical pole can do the job. Anything solid will do. Thanks for the info.

  • pixelzombie

    Your swim alone is very impressive!!! I’ll have to try doing that many squats when the riding season is over. I’m curious to see how quickly I can get to that number.

    • Thank you very much pixelzombie. Let me know how it goes.

      • pixelzombie

        Tried it out last week, did one set of 100 squats with bare feet on cement, waited about a minute and then did 2 reps each leg of pistol squats. It was a good day to say the least.

        • I’m impressed Pixelzombie, especially with the pistols afterwards, that is a good day which I’m sure you’re going to build on.

          Something you might want to try that I’ve found useful: I’m heavy like a hippopotamus so I do pistols in the shallow water of a swimming pool – I can move slowly & really work the muscles without falling over or worrying about aggravating some old injuries that are doing well. The best I’ve done is in knee high water, so I know that it’s not really supporting me, but the landing is soft.

          Thanks for letting me know your progress & best wishes.

  • Today I did 501 free squats – hamstrings to calves, bare feet on grass – in 54 minutes, no support pulling. I had to pause a few times but never for more than ten seconds.. The first 100 were hard and getting to 250 took some commitment. At 300 I was moving very slowly utllising mountaineering breaths (2 breaths per movement). A few times my head felt light and the sweat poured off me. Rain overnight had left some water drops on the bars next to me – I gratefully used these on the back of my neck a few times. Between 300 and 367 the arches of my feet ached a bit, but at 368 I told myself that I only had to count past 68 once more and it would be done. At 440 I was starting to feel elated and I hit 501 as a reminder that ambitions can be surpassed. Next time I hit 501 I’m intending there to be less pauses.

    Swimming and running long distances over the years has revealed that there is a discomfort two fifths of the way in to an effort that sometimes lasts until three quarters of the final distance achieved. That middle section is the place where the love of the discipline has to be found.

    Thank you to all who commented and shared their thoughts so far – you’ve given me some extra motivation to keep moving onwards. 250 push ups and leg raises in a day is the next target to aim for. I haven’t got a timescale for this, as I didn’t for the squats. There is work to be done everyday for a good while yet.

  • Breana Hartin

    Excellent article – Talking of which , if someone is searching for a service to merge some PDF files , my business partner found announcement here http://goo.gl/3shSsR

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