Finding Strength in Strength

by Steve Llewellyn on December 5, 2017

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Steve Llewellyn bridge

It has been well documented that exercise is good for our physical health but more recently the benefits of exercise have shown to have a great impact on our neurological and mental health.

Stress, anxiety and depression are conditions which are incredibly common in modern day western society. Our bodies and brains are susceptible to becoming overawed by the increasingly demanding pace of our lives as we attempt to manage a career, family life and eating healthily while still finding time to exercise. Add to this the fact that a rapidly increasing number of adults spend two hours commuting to their day job and then spend eight hours or more hunched over a desk–we have more than a few reasons that self-care gets neglected.

And while the general populous are well informed of the psychological effects of traditional cardiovascular pursuits (mostly running), it is less well known that strength training can have a profound effect on the human brain and a recent study made a direct link between resistance training and a decreased risk of dementia.

My own story draws lots of parallels with the points already touched upon.

I am someone who has experienced feelings of depression and generalized anxiety since my teens. I won’t delve into the reasons and just keep it relevant to the article, instead I want to share how strength and fitness has given me the tools to deal with it.

For years I masked these overwhelming thoughts and feelings through self-medication and isolation from situations which were uncomfortable, thus compounding those original triggers and behaviors.

I wanted to change my thoughts, behaviors and environment and escape the mental prison I had built for myself. Self-medicating was the only (albeit temporary) way out I knew. I had also been prescribed various medications which did not help and probably even made things worse.

It was then at the age of 25 that I decided I wanted to join a gym. I figured I could find a new outlet, a new, healthy obsession that built me up instead of dismantling my already frail body and mind.

So, with the support of an old school friend who had recently got back in touch, I took the plunge and signed a contract at a local chain gym.

It was tough going for a few months at least, out of my comfort zone and into a neon lit space full of people who very body conscious and (in my paranoid head) judgemental of skinny newbies invading their sacred space. On closer inspection however, I realized that I was not the only one who was unsure of themselves. There were lots of people pushing weights, sweating on running machines who looked like they were not necessarily enjoying what they were doing but still they were there, putting in the graft because somehow, they knew it was important. This inspired me to not quit when the going got tough, when I didn’t feel like driving to the gym to workout, when I wanted to lie in bed and eat junk food instead.

Steve Llewellyn crane hold

But gradually, things began to change. I started to notice an increase in energy levels, my physique was changing, muscles were starting to appear, and my mindset began to shift. My mood was more upbeat and my ‘stress cup’ was bigger. When the dark clouds did gather in my mind, they didn’t stay as long, and I could tell myself that they would pass instead of crumbling under the feelings. I started to give thought to how the weekend binges were having on me and I began to question whether I wanted to stifle my newly acquired gains with the habits I knew so well. The biggest shift was in starting to look forward to working out every other day rather than a thing to fear and dread like some necessary evil that must be endured to feel good about myself.

Over time, I curbed the drinking (no more binges) quit smoking and a new-found sense of belief and confidence took their place thanks to my now fully ingrained ‘gym addiction’. A few years later I discovered the magic of bodyweight calisthenics and from then I knew that I had found something that would keep giving back to me as long as I paid my dues.

As we draw towards the end of another year, men and women everywhere will begin a period of self-reflection, they will question the way they look, the way they perceive themselves and then tell themselves they really ought to start looking after themselves more in the new year. Many will join a gym (not for the first time) and will tell themselves they must go. That’s all good. However, it’s a sad fact that most gyms are full to bursting in January with eager new recruits but by March too many have lost patience or will to succeed and fall off the fitness wagon before repeating the same cycle next year.

The irony is that nobody actually needs a gym membership to improve any part of their health. Part of the beauty of bodyweight calisthenics and all the progressions taught at the PCC require nothing but something to pull on and the floor beneath you. And as Al Kavadlo says, “If you don’t have the floor beneath you then you have much bigger problems”.

Steve Llewellyn dragon flag

Even thirty minutes of brisk walking a day in the fresh air can have a hugely positive effect on both physical and mental wellbeing. These days, my training equipment checklist consists of little more than a skipping rope, a pair of gymnastic rings and a tree in the park to hang them from.

Of course, I am not suggesting that doing a bunch of push ups and pull ups will completely rewire your brain and make the pain of having a mental health difficulty go away. I still have days where I feel low for sure. No, I am saying that training my body gives me the most incredible coping mechanism imaginable, which means I can accept myself, my thoughts and feelings without drowning in them. Strength training has given me self-respect and made me a better husband and father, not to mention a pretty decent body for a guy over 40. I am truly thankful for having found strength in strength. Now, as a coach and personal trainer, my mission is to inspire other men just like me to be the best they can be.

 

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Steve Llewellyn is a personal trainer and PCC Instructor from Birmingham, UK who specializes in helping men over 40 discover a passion for becoming stronger, healthier and changing mindset around nutrition and recovery. He runs 1:1 and small group training at The Bodyweight Basement. He can be contacted at bodyweightbasement.co.uk or email: stevellewellyn99@hotmail.co.uk Follow him on Facebook facebook.com/trainersteve99/

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How to Build Your Own Suspension Trainer

by Matt Schifferle on November 28, 2017

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Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer

Suspension trainers are the multi-tool of the calisthenics world. You can do hundreds of exercises with them for almost any goal imaginable. They are ideal for mimicking classic weight machine exercises like chest flys, triceps extensions, and core work. Suspension trainers give you hundreds of exercises that can enhance and supplement your training. Suspending your feet, like in the image on the left, can make planks much more challenging. You can also simulate weight machine exercises, like the triceps extension on the right. A suspension trainer is the closest thing you can get to a truly portable gym. They really come in handy when you need to do pull-ups, rows, and dips while traveling.

Almost a decade ago, I purchased some of the easiest suspension trainers to come on the market. But, I quickly became obsessed with creating my own customized designs. I don’t even want to think about the time and money I’ve spent trying to develop a suspension trainer I was happy with. Every version I created had flaws and drawbacks, so I would scrap the design and start all over again. I quickly became obsessively picky with my designs and drew up a list of qualities I wanted. These included:

  • Dual anchor points so the straps can be set up at any width to accommodate your unique build and what’s best for each exercise.
  • Full vertical handle adjustment so the handles can go from an inch above the floor to an overhead reach.
  • Small and lightweight, so it’s ultra-portable.
  • Super easy to set up and take down within a minute.
  • Strong, safe and durable enough for weighted dips and pull ups.
  • Ergonomic without any rough edges or elements that impede movement.
  • Universal anchoring so you can hang it from points above that are within and beyond your reach.
  • Quick and easy infinite handle height adjustment so you can place the handles at any height.
  • Can easily accommodate a variety of accessories.
  • Can be made from inexpensive and readily available materials.

I lost a lot of sleep trying to figure out how to make all of these requirements work within one design but I finally got it right with what I call the prusik trainer.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer

The prusik trainer uses rope instead of nylon straps like most other suspension trainers. Rope is the ultimate smart device. It’s reliable, inexpensive and readily available. It allows you to easily customize every characteristic of the trainer to your specific needs, because rope gets its functionality from knots. Nylon suspension straps use metal hardware and stitching which work, but they add bulk, weight and cost. Hardware and stitching also compromise the versatility of the suspension trainer. Once you stitch a loop into a strap, you can’t make that loop bigger or smaller later. Knots give you all of the functional qualities you need without the weight, bulk, cost and lack of versatility. Metal hardware can also wear out nylon straps over time. Knots have much more longevity.

Materials You’ll Need:

  • Two lengths of 8mm climbing rope 9-12 feet long
  • Two lengths of 4mm climbing rope 3.5 feet long
  • Handle material from either PVC or a weight machine handle
  • Small razor blade and light grit sand paper if using PVC handles
  • Climbing tape

I buy my rope from outdoor supply stores like REI, where they can cut it to the length I need. If possible, have a professional cut your rope there at the shop. Most shops cut the rope with a heated tool that melts the ends and prevents fraying.

Knots You’ll Need to Know

  • Bowline knot
  • Fisherman’s knot
  • Prusik knot

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Knots

These knots are cinch knots, so the more weight you place on them, the tighter they hold. They are not too complicated, but I do recommend practicing how to tie them correctly before building your first suspension trainer. You can find videos and instructions on how to tie these knots at animatedknots.com.

How to Build a Prusik Trainer

Once you understand how to tie the knots, building a prusik trainer is quick and easy. First, take your 8mm anchor rope and tie a bowline knot into one end to create a two inch diameter loop. This loop will serve as the anchor point you will throw over an overhead bar and feed the handle through.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Step1

Tie a bowline knot into the end of your 8mm rope ensuring the loop is large enough to fit your handle through. This will allow you to set up and take down your trainer without having to remove the handle. Be sure to leave some extra rope at each end of the knot to reduce the risk of it coming undone.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Step 2

Throw the bowline knot over a sturdy overhead support that can easily support your weight. Thread the other end through the loop and pull it down to lock the rope around the support.

Next, take the 4mm handle rope and feed it through your handle and connect the two ends with a fisherman’s knot.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Step 3

Run the 4mm rope through the handle you’ve selected and tie the ends together with a fisherman’s knot. Rotate the rope so the knot is inside the handle.

Next, tie the handle rope to your anchor rope using a prussic knot with 3-4 loops. I find it’s easier to tie the prussic knot around the anchor rope when it is hanging with some tension pulling down on it. You can stand on the end of the rope or ask someone else to gently pull down on the rope it to keep it tight.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Step 4

Place some tension on the hanging 8mm rope. Wrap the handle around the 8mm rope 3-4 times. Do this by feeding the handle through the loop on the other side of the handle.

Finally, smooth out the overlapping handle rope so it hugs the 8mm rope. Be sure your prusik knot loops are flat to securely grip the 8mm rope.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Step 5

Move the two ends of the prusik knot together and smooth out any overlapping loops so they all lay flat and hug the anchor rope securely.

Be sure the fisherman’s knot remains inside the handle rather than outside it. One reason is the knot won’t rub against your arm while doing push-ups and dips. The other is to prevent the knot from moving to the prussic knot and jamming it. Jamming will compromise the safety of the prusik knot.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Handle Knot Diagram

What Kind of Handle Should You Use?

You have two options when making the handles for your suspension trainer: PVC pipe or handles from a commercial weight machine. I’ve used both and each option has its pros and cons.

Like rope, the advantage of using PVC is that you can custom build your handle in any length and diameter. People with larger hands may prefer a beefy handle about 1-1.5 inches in diameter and 5.5-6 inches long. Smaller hands tend to work best with a 3/4 -1-inch diameter pipe that’s about 5 inches long. PVC is also inexpensive and available in most hardware stores.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Taped PVC Handles

PVC handles are inexpensive and highly customizable, but they do take a little more work to produce a finished handle that works properly.

The disadvantages of PVC are that it is a bit tricky to cut with smooth edges that won’t wear into the handle rope. If you use PVC, you must make sure each cut is at a 90-degree angle to avoid angled ends that can make rotating the handle feel uneven. More importantly, you’ll need to smooth out the inside and outside edges of the handles to minimize wear on your rope. I cannot stress enough how important it is to make sure the rotation of your handle is as smooth as butter under load. If not, you’ll risk wearing out your rope which can lead to it fraying and failing under load.

I’ve been able to smooth out the ends of PVC with a razor blade and a sanding block. Creating a smooth edge takes a little practice. Shave off the inside lip so that there are no nicks or bumps. Sanding down the ends of each handle takes time and patience, but it’s well worth it for a smooth finish.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Handle Cuts

Once your handles are cut and smoothed, wrap them in climbing tape to give them a grip texture that won’t slip. Climbing tape has a similar feel to hockey tape but holds up better. The tacky adhesive won’t bleed through over time and it won’t get on your hands. You can also pick up a roll when buying your rope at the outdoor store.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Trainer Tape and Handles

Climbing tape is a useful way to add some grip to the smooth texture of PVC. It’s also more durable and doesn’t leave a tacky residue like hockey or duct tape.

The other option for handles is to buy weight machine handles with a nylon strap. You can find these in many fitness equipment stores or online.

Matt Schifferle DIY Suspension Weight Machine Handles

Commercial grade weight machine handles are perfect for building your own suspension trainer. Just cut off the nylon strap and you’re good to go!

These handles are more expensive than PVC, but they are a commercially produced product designed for physical training. They are a good fit for most size hands, have smooth edges and provide a sure-grip texture. Most of them will come with a nylon loop attached. You can feed your handle rope through the D-ring on the loop, but I just cut it off to save bulk and weight. The D-rings can also get in the way of your arm or elbow during pushing moves.

So, that is my DIY prusik trainer. In a future post, I’ll share some of my favorite exercises along with some fun accessories you can add to the trainer. Feel free to drop any comments or questions down below.

 

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Matt Schifferle, PCC Team Leader a.k.a. The Fit Rebel made a switch to calisthenics training 5 years ago in an effort to rehab his weight lifting injuries. Since then he’s been on a personal quest to discover and teach the immense benefits of advanced body weight training. You can find some of his unique bodyweight training methods at RedDeltaProject.com and on his YouTube channel: RedDeltaProject.

 

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Borrow These Calisthenics Cues From the Recent NYC PCC

November 21, 2017
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And you may find yourself in another part of the world… That’s what tends to happen when we instruct Dragon Door’s Progressive Calisthenics Certification, the first and best bodyweight training certification on the planet. In fact, in the nearly five years since its inception, the PCC has taken place in dozens of cities and numerous […]

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Embrace the Journey – Lessons from the Pull Up Bar

October 3, 2017
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“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” – Shunryu Suzuki Too often in life we want to rush ahead. We want to be better, more informed, more polished. What we don’t always want to respect is the process required for getting to that point. Our strength and […]

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Bodyweight Badassery Meets the Sideshow at the Seashore

September 19, 2017
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A few nights ago, as summer was coming to a close, my son and I went to the beach one last time this season. We sat on the sand and looked into the sky. Slowly, I closed my eyes and reflected on the rapidly dwindling summer days of 2017. Times come and times go. All […]

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Progressive Calisthenics Returns To Beijing

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Last week, the Progressive Calisthenics Certification made its return to Beijing, China for the third time in just 18 months. Once again, I had the esteemed pleasure and honor of traveling to the Far East to lead a group of forty calisthenics enthusiasts through the school of Street Workout. And what a thrill it was! […]

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Take Hold Of The Flame

July 18, 2017
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Recently I received an email from a friendly fitness follower. This is what he asked: “Hey, Danny, how do you stay so motivated?” Well thanks for asking! But the truth is: I don’t! That’s right. I don’t. There is a fire burning deep within me. It’s in you too! This fire makes me move, helps […]

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