Simplicity and the Pragmatic Practice of Calisthenics

by Silvio Bauer on June 16, 2015

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Silvio Bauer Dragon Flag

It is 6 o’clock in the evening. I’ve just come home from work. I slip out of my shoes and take off my backpack. I quickly get into the kitchen, pour myself a glass of water and drink it.

I head to my bedroom to change into a pair of comfortable shorts and a simple t-shirt. On a piece of paper, I briefly note four words: Muscle-ups, dragon flags, shrimp squats and handstands. I get my keys as well as the piece of paper and a pen.

Outside of the house, I start running at a steady pace. At this point, I’m already shaking off the worries of my day. I feel totally liberated, because for the next hour, all I need to focus on is the movement of my own body. Nothing can distract me. As I’m running, I’m getting further and further away from my phone, my digital leash. I soak in the environment.

In about 5 minutes, I stand before two pull-up bars. One of them I can only reach with a slight jump. My heart rate is already elevated from the run. The movements I’m about to practice will work pretty much every major muscle group, so I prepare for it accordingly.

First, I do some joint rotations for shoulders, hips, knees, ankles. I combine this with dynamic stretches like toy soldiers, arm circles and leg swings to prime my muscles.

The exercises I previously scribbled on the piece of paper are the exercises I will put my focus on today. I split them into two groups, muscle-ups + shrimp squats, then dragon flags + handstands.

For the first “super-set”, I get down into a deep squat and simultaneously do wrist circles. I do some push-ups, get up, do side lunges and then I jump up to the bar for some pull-ups. These “easier” exercises get my blood rushing through the muscles I’m going to need for my focus exercises. I never max out on these because I want to retain my strength.

After two rounds I’m warmed up and ready to rock. After a round of muscle-ups and shrimp squats, I shake out my legs and arms. I do a warrior pose to stretch my quads and hip flexors in order to improve my mobility for the next set of shrimp squats, then some shoulder mobility to help my muscle-ups. I count 5 deep breaths. Rinse and repeat.

While I am practicing these two movements, one at a time, my goal is to maximize the precision – not the effort – of each of them. When I feel I lose control over my form, I simply stop. On my piece of paper, I jot down my reps, not to impress anybody, only as a means to record my progress and to recalibrate my focus.

After 5 rounds I go to the nearest park bench. I am more than warmed up from the first two exercises, so I immediately get on the bench and do my dragon flags. After each set, I do a few kick-ups into a handstand, count 5 breaths and repeat.

After 3 sets of dragon flags, I shift my focus solely on debugging my handstand. After 15 more minutes, I call it a day.

To cool down from my practice, I get into a back bridge and counter that stretch with a forward bend. I do this once more and then I take a leisurely walk home.

As I walk, I contemplate over the quality of my workout and what I achieved. Some moves worked well today, with some I struggled a bit more than usual. But I know that this is part of the process. With consistency, I know I will get better over time.

When I approach the front door to our house, my mind gets filled with a rush of anticipation: I am going to enjoy a delicious and nutritious home-cooked meal.

-The End

The Moral of the Tale

Al Kavadlo prayer pushup

This story is not to brag about how Zen my workouts are, but rather to illustrate the key concept of calisthenics: simplicity.

In Convict Conditioning, Paul “Coach” Wade explained how he used advanced bodyweight exercises out of necessity while serving time. There was just no other way to get strong and survive but with his own body.

In our superfluous world with an abundance of options, practicing calisthenics can also enhance our “inner freedom”. By limiting options (not using machines, weights, apps or other equipment), we can liberate our training from being drawn in every direction.

But in order to make progress over time, we have to consistently apply this pragmatic approach to our training. With all the excellent information available about advanced bar calisthenics or bodyweight strength built with nothing but the floor, the variety of calisthenics exercises can be quite seductive to us enthusiasts.

Only by focusing on a few movement patterns at a time, we can ensure sufficient attention to each of these moves.

There is also no need to over-complicate the process of one’s training. Warm-ups are only needed for the specific body parts that come into play in a workout. If you follow an upper/lower body split routine, there is no need to warm up your legs on your upper body day.

The same principle applies to cool-downs. Static stretches are most effectively applied to the muscle groups that were used to generate mechanical tension. Flexibility does not need to be practiced for its own sake. It serves a purpose: making it possible for you to move the way you want to move. If you want to do pistol squats, insufficient ankle mobility will limit your ability to do so. However, if pistols don’t interest you, the necessity of ankle mobility drills is questionable.

The story above most probably differs from your own. It’s not necessarily better or worse than yours, it’s simply the template I found works best for me. It is merely an example of an application of the underlying pragmatic principles that calisthenics have to offer.

Everybody has a different story. What’s yours?

Move freely.

-Silvio

****

Silvio is a full time medical engineer who loves to practise and teach calisthenics in his free time. He enjoys creating workout plans for his friends and spreads the word about PCC over at his blog, neatstrength.com. You can follow him on facebook.com/neatstrength, twitter.com/neatstrength or on instagram.com/neatstrength/.

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  • Matt Schifferle

    This was a great read to wake up to first thing this morning Silvio! I especially took to heart your point on maximizing your precision rather than your effort. Totally going to crochet that onto a pillow 🙂

    I like these “stories” about how other’s train. It’s always fun to read about the journey other’s are on. I think stuff like this should become more of a regular feature on this blog. We can learn so much from others.

    Rock on, peace out!

    • Thanks, Matt. I’m glad you liked it. And I definitely support your demand for more workout stories. I find them super inspiring.

    • Fit Rebel on the damn money as ever…

  • Billy

    Great article simple and focused

    • Thanks, Billy. That was the plan 😉

  • One of my favorite articles of all goddam time!

    I’m gonna go and train right now! YEAH!

    • Just made a screenshot of this. The Coach loves my article! Coach, you’ve been an inspiration to me for years. Now it’s time to return the favor 😉

      • I appreciate it more than you know, buddy!

  • Dan Earthquake

    What a good article Silvio, thank you – I like it. I have some bars in the garden & use the park equipment when I take the children to play there – warm up with pushing them 100 times on the swings & then onto some basics. I don’t really do any complicated exercises – push ups or dips, pull ups or Hpulls, leg raises, slow free squats. At bedtime I do some static exercises & simple calisthenics most nights. Leg raises & neck bridges, static push & pulls. The better I feel, the slower the reps are. Coach inspired me to keep a record again (“do it for old coach” he said) – I’d stopped for a few years. Surprisingly it does make a difference.

    I tried a normal bridge for the first time the other week & it felt horrible. Good to try new things occasionally.

    I’m starting to notice more people doing exercises in the parks here in the UK – like me, using the play equipment or benches etc. I used to get a lot of quizzical looks, but it’s becoming the norm now & no one seems surprised anymore. The other day I was doing some movements on a frame & a college girl with a bag of shopping stopped at the bars, inverted & did some impressive upside down pullups & levers before quietly picking up her shopping & continuing on her way. Nearby there was another chap doing some movements & as I left 2 others turned up to do their thing. Coach Wades bodyweight army quietly goes about its business.

    • That’s an awesome story, Dan! Thanks for sharing that. When I started to go to playgrounds to work out, people always looked at me and made me feel weird when I trained. Now there are entire parks dedicated to calisthenics, and the lazy-ass people walking by and watching are the weird ones!

      • Dan Earthquake

        There’s a bit of a change here lately in the parks. A few outdoor machines are being added (though some are completely useless) & some calisthenics bars that are really good. Anything though will do for me. I have an imagination honed over a few decades to look for anything that will support 100kg+ at the top of my reach or armpits for dips. It really is amazing what you can find out & about.

  • Great stuff, yet again, Silvio! Real world examples of how workouts can be assembled and joyously performed are incredibly powerful. I love how this flies in the face of the typical mainstream approach to fitness as a dreaded chore. 🙂 Can’t wait to see what you do next!

    • Thanks, Adrienne! I always love to give mainstream a smack in the face 😉

  • I was introduced to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/5BX when I applied for RMC in the early 70s, and this seems very similar isn’t it (Made in Canada 🙂 ). It’s all good stuff and is what I can use more input on. Thanks Silvio it’s a help, reminder and blessing of practical proportions.

    • Glad I could provide you with inspiration =)

  • LOVE this! Who needs a gym membership when you can just run over to the park? There’s a local park where I do literally *all* of my solo training these days, with rare exception. Dragon flags are a LOT of fun and quite rewarding – yet people are surprised at how difficult it is to get right, especially since all you need is a bench!

    • Right on, Owen! You’re doing it right when you make it look easy.

  • Great article mate. Think you’ve nailed on the head exactly what I love about calisthenics here.

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