The Bodyweight Arm Training Revolution

by Matt Schifferle on July 29, 2014

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Al and Danny Kavadlo bare their calisthenics arms

PCC Lead Instructors Al and Danny Kavadlo showing off their calisthenics arms.

“Matt I thought we were friends. How could you do this to me?!”

My buddy Tony is standing in front of me, all 295 pounds of him. He’s a powerlifter who considers benching 315 a warm up.

“My biceps feel like they are going to explode. I can hardly get my triceps to relax they are so pumped up. How could you do this to me?” He says with a smile on his face.

Tony’s just gotten a taste of two of my favorite arm blasting exercises. They are simple, efficient and they don’t require a single ounce of iron. They are also somewhat backwards to classical strength training for the biceps and triceps. So when Tony said it was his arm day and wanted something different, I didn’t pull any punches.

The classic approach to weight lifting work involves holding a weight or cable attachment in the hand. Good technique is classically done with a body that doesn’t move much and a neutralized elbow.

Classic Arm Training Diagram

The bodyweight approach works the opposite way. The objective is to lock the hand in place, neutralize the body and move the elbow as much as possible.

Bodyweight Arm Training Diagram

This New Approach Has Some Big Advantages:

Less stress on joints.

The joints of the body typically become more stable and less likely to move into stressful positions when the extremities are against an unmoving object and the body itself moves through space.

More energy on target muscles.

Since there is less energy spent trying to prevent the body from moving (you actually want it moving around) you can spend more effort towards actually performing the movement and working the muscles in the arms.

More functional carry over to pull ups and pressing movements.

The curling exercise is still very much a pull up style movement. The triceps extension is also a style of push up. Just like with pull ups and push ups, you keep your hands in place and move your body using the action of the elbow joint. This is neurologically similar to push ups, dips, rows and pull ups. This means that you’ll program your nervous system to engage your biceps and triceps more during all pushing and pulling exercises. So you won’t just be hitting your arm muscles during these two moves, but you’ll also place more emphasis on those muscles with almost every upper body bodyweight movement in your calisthenics arsenal.

Carry over to Olympic lifting.

Some of my clients who practice Olympic lifting report a carry over to exercises such as cleans. I believe this is due to the fact that both of these moves train you to become more conscious of using your elbow as opposed to just trying to move the hands into an ideal position.

It’s easy to adjust resistance mid-set or even mid-rep.

Both moves have a variety of ways you can adjust the resistance on the fly. You can dial-in the perfect level of resistance and make adjustments as necessary even during those last few reps.

The bottom line is this–by reversing the classical weightlifting arm strategies with calisthenics, you open the door for unbelievable levels of tension applied directly to your biceps and triceps with more comfort and safety. How’s that for a formula for success?

The first exercise is the triceps move known as the Tiger Bend. You can do this move on any elevated platform or edge of a counter. Park benches and sturdy table tops work particularly well.

Place both hands about shoulder width, palms-down with a thumb-less grip. If you’re using a narrow surface, your hands may need to be placed next to each other, which will be fine.

Bend your elbows downward and forward without letting them flare out to the side. The key is to keep your elbows pointing down to the ground, creating a gap between your arm and torso as indicated with the blue triangle in the picture. Tense up your triceps and shoulders as hard as possible, and tense your lats to stabilize your back.

Low Bar Setup Position ArmTraining

Apply resistance by stepping your feet back so some of your weight goes directly to your hands. Once your feet are firmly planted, push directly down with your hands and push your elbows up and away from the surface your hands are pressing down on. (See blue arrow below.) This should cause your body to lift up and back as indicated by the orange arrow. Once your arms are fully straight begin coming back down by bending your elbows down and forwards.

Low Bar Arm Training Top of Movement

Regressions and Progressions:

I love this exercise because it’s so easy to progress and regress it. Moving your feet back will place more weight on your hands and increase the resistance. Moving them closer will do the opposite, making the move easier.

You can also change the resistance by putting your face in a different place in relation to your hands. Bringing your chin between your hands will be easier, while bringing your nose or forehead between your hands will be respectively more difficult. You can also make this move much easier or harder by selecting hand placements at different heights. Just like the push up progressions, the more your body tilts towards the floor, the harder the move will become. Placing the hands on a higher surface will stand your body up more and take away some of the resistance. If you want some additional assistance, you can simply place one foot in front of the other to help lift you into position on those last few reps. Lastly, you can also bend your body in half a little at the hips. Again, this will bring more of your body weight to your feet to make the exercise a little easier. Straightening out your body into one straight line will make the movement more difficult.

The biceps exercise is very similar, only now you face the other way. Since this is technically a pull up style exercise, so bars or handles you would usually use for moves like Australian pull ups will be ideal.

Place your hands on the back side of the bar with your fingers on top of the bar. Once again, a thumb-less grip may be ideal, but I’ve also used a thumb grip without much trouble.

Tense up your biceps and push your elbows away from your rib cage with your hands right next to your chin. It’s still ideal to keep your elbows in front of your torso as you can see from the blue triangle below. This position will ensure maximum tension on your biceps.

Chin Up Position Flexed Bodyweight Arm Training

I recommend using a slight kink in the hips rather than keeping your body straight. This will allow a bit more flexibility in your motion and lend itself to a more natural motion.

Chin Up Position Bodyweight Arm Training

Lower yourself down and back by bringing your elbows out and upward (blue arrow) which will cause your body weight to fall away from under the bar(orange arrow). Return to the starting position by bending your elbows down and forward to maintain that elbow position in front of the ribs.

Performance Tips:

-It’s a good idea to keep tension on your target muscles at all times. It’s tempting to relax at the bottom or top of each rep, but maintaining tension on the muscle is key in maximizing your progress.

– A little goes a long way. If you need to adjust your resistance, just moving your body an inch or two can make all of the difference in the world. Sometimes even moving your feet a couple of inches or slightly straightening your knees can be more than enough.

– Towels are a great addition to these moves. They can provide a neutral grip which many people find more comfortable. Plus they are great for building up that grip. Nothing complements your bis and tris like a pair of beefy forearms.

Bodyweight Arm Training Towel Variation

– Once you’re more comfortable with the motion of the exercises, work on tensing other muscles in your body as much as possible. Adding more tension to your back, shoulders, hips, hamstrings and even your chest can bring these moves to a whole new level and your results will follow.

– Be patient and use light resistance for the first few weeks. These moves can take some practice to get everything dialed-in just right. Making the movement of the elbows the focus of the exercise can feel a little strange at first, especially if you’re used to the classic method of curls and extensions. Keep tweaking the position and movement of the elbow, and it will feel natural before too long.

– Listen to your joints. both of these moves can place a massive amount of tension through your biceps and triceps. Sometimes people find their joints need some time to become accustomed to the high degree of tension running through the muscles. It’s always okay to use a shorter range of motion and a lower level of resistance at first to allow the tendons around the elbow to strengthen up. Take your time easing into the exercise over a few weeks. Once they are accustomed to the exercise, feel free to use a big range of motion. By then your elbows will be bulletproof!

Good luck with these two movements. If you have any questions please don’t hesitate to ask in the comments down below.

****

Matt Schifferle 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.

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  • Carla Jurgensen Schwerin

    great article…….thank you!

    • Matt Schifferle

      Glad you enjoyed Carla. Let me know if you have any questions on these techniques.

      • Carla Jurgensen Schwerin

        Thank you Matt….I am an HKC and have signed up for the PCC in Nov. in Milwaukee…I can’t wait to learn more!! You explained things very well in this article…..

  • Nicola Pinna

    Good article! I read with enthusiasm:)

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks Nicola!

  • Allisha – NYC PFT

    Fantastic Matt! What I respect and greatly appreciate is the attention to detail and that safety is paramount here. The article walks us through precisely what we need and in a manner that is easily comprehensible. I look forward to reading more with great anticipation.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks Allisha and big shout out to NYC! Great city!

      Safety is essential, not just in injury prevention, but I really do believe that the safer and more comfortable you are during an exercise the easier it is to work harder, which is one of the reasons why I love calisthenics.

  • NOBODY knows bodyweight bodybuilding like Matt Shifferle!

    I really wish I coulda written this article. to this day I get bodybuilders saying to me “yeah, but you can’t train stuff like arms, right?”

    Well you CAN, and here’s the proof. And Matt’s techniques are STILL safer for the joints than heavy curls and pushdowns! Beautiful job, FR.

    • Matt Schifferle

      Thanks so much Coach! When I first got into calisthenics I used to take old body building routines I found in magazines and wanted to see if I could match every exercise in them with a BW equivalent. Not only did I find I could match every exercise, but I found I could match each weight move with many different BW variations.

      I get the same question like “yea but can you work legs, hamstrings, glutes yadda yadda” now I just smile and say “Dude you have no idea!

      • That is friggin epic, kid.

        We need to get you on board for a Dragon Door DVD with the Kavadlos. I think that is desperately needed.

        • Halil Mutlu

          Wuddup coach shout out to you from turkey man
          I am teachin the CC to youngbloods like me I am 18 ı am a 8 month new born CCer:D I wrote a question to the comment section on Calisthenics Grip Training post but you probably didnt see it or ignored it 😀 after that ı read some of your comments and you were sayin that ı am tryna stay away from people who would get me in trouble and ı thought maybe you thought ı was a bad guy but ı really admire your all works and book man.Since readin your books ı improved a lot man.When I started ı was stiff as hell in my legs ı wouldnt squat but now ı can do full squats really comfortably really thanks bro and now ı am writing here my question after the digression ı made with squats:D in hope that you will answer these :
          1/when doing hanging leg raise you tell to keep your gut in but ı cant do that .My belly looks like this: http://www.musclecontrolexerci… is it bad?
          and another question
          2/I have been keepin a trainin log since ı started workin out and 6 months ago ı had measured my body parts.My arms were 33 cm and İts now 35 cm coach ı ve been doin veteran routine for like 6 months and ı have gained only 2 cm in a whole 6 months.Dont you think it is a little for 6 month ?
          3/I have been doing veterano routine for 6 months after each workout ı never felt sore even once but yesterday ı did 3 sets of max wide pull ups and 3 sets of max straight bar dips and today Since ım feelin really really sore on chest biceps and back and lats do you think it is better for muscle building?
          4/I ve been doin upper lower body routine you mentioned in C-MASS but since there are 2 push exercises or 2 pull exercises in one session my reps dropped drastically such as in handstand pushups from 2×8 to 2×4 do you think ı better keep training with veterano routine?
          PS: Da man !!! One of my biggest dreams is to meet you in person one day and workout with you .Do you think there will be a dream-come-true?Hope you answer all these question after the energy draining time ı spent while fasting:)

          • Halil for some reason your messages keep getting caught in the system, sometimes this happens when there are links to other websites in them. Just letting you know that there’s a chance that Coach hasn’t seen some of your other messages because of that —

          • Halil Mutlu

            reaallly thanks adrienne you think he will see this? or if he wont what can ı do to make him see this? (remove the link?)

          • Halil, I am sorry I’m late seeing your questions my man! I always answer all questions but I can only do that when I see em.

            Email support@dragondoor.com and ask tell em I asked em to pass on your email please. When I get it I promise to email you back and answer all your questions as well as I can buddy.

            In the meantime keep rocking those pullups, kid.

          • Vasily

            Hey Coach! Hope you have a great summer and vacations! I’m just missing the opportunity to speak with you:) In the last time i thought that maybe you should make your own blog or forum, where will be only your articles and all your students and studettes may ask you questions and don’t bother other PCC-authors. What’s your thoughts on it? Because, i think that most of us want some stories and training tips from and, but you can’t give your e-mail to everybody and posting every other day (maybe you can but in this blog there is a trend of long posts, not a shots of an information) By the way, did you read the book titled “Yoga for men only” by Frank Rudolph Young (1969)? And in general, what’s your thoughts on yoga? Was there where you been inmates that practised it? Or maybe it’s not so manliest as old-school BW-training?:-)
            Like to see that you are still there and answering our questions.
            Love and peace from Belarus. Your *perhaps* friend in pushups and pullups. Vasily

          • Great to hear from you Vas! As for my own blog, nah. Older dudes like me need to learn to step away so the you guns like Matt, Al and Danny can take center stage.

            Not read the book you said, but I’m gonna try and find it! Believe it or not in the West Coast jails several guys did yoga! My view on yoga is very similar to the position of Al’s book, Stretching your Boundaries. I advise ALL cal athletes to check it!

            ALWAYS your friend in pushups,

            Paul

          • Vasily

            Great to hear you again, Paul. If you are really interested in that book i can send you an electronic copy of it. I really want to know your opinion on it. Thank you for answering again, it’s great that you don’t miss any question that you can see. And as for me, and i think most of your students, we just want to keep your heritage and bring it to our followers like you bring us some of Joe Hartigen’s. We hope that you will share your and his wisdom with all of us.
            Vasily

          • God bless you, Vas!

            (I ordered the book!)

          • Vasily

            Ok, Mr.Wade, hope you don’t forget to share your thoughts of it to us (or to me). Have a good time this summer (especially while handbalancing and pushups and pullups *maybe on a sunny beach*). Keep pleasing us with your articles in this blog. God bless you and all of us.
            Vasily

          • Halil Mutlu

            i did it Coach hope you see it this time.:DD

          • Bless you Adrienne!

        • Matt Schifferle

          It would be an incredible honor to do any sort of project with Al and Danny. Count me in and I’ll do anything to help of course. Maybe we should do a C-Mass DVD special.

  • Giuseppe DIMITRI

    Excellent article, thanks a lot Matt !

    I’ll add those moves to my training.
    Calisthenics have no limits…the only limit is you.

    I would like to thank all of you people, who changed completely my vision of bodyweight training (I’m a “Calisthenics junkie” and I don’t want to heal ^^’) and particularly Coach Wade, Kavadlo Brothers and all of the readers of this amazing blog (=^-^=) /

    • Matt Schifferle

      “The only limit is you” damn! I’m so going to put that on the wall of my gym……just as soon as I build one.

  • Boulderman

    Hey, solid article, being new here I’m soaking up all the knowledge, much appreciated. I may be in the wrong spot, but would appreciate some advice on an issue I’m having. I’ve been training straight bar dips for a while, and recently started training them with hands very close. I appear to have developed carpel tunnel-like symptoms in one hand, and wonder if this is related to the dips. Coach Wade endorses these dips, and I enjoy them greatly, however I did read him warning of the dangers of pressing while gripping a bar, benching for example. Thoughts? Advice? Thanks for an epic blog guys.

  • Dan Söderberg

    solid classic tho

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