Tuesday, January 13, 2009

The Greatest Exercise Machine of All

There are many effective ways to train. Almost every gym boasts dumbbells--by far the most popular tools--barbells and machines. Recently, kettlebells, clubbells, macebells, sandbags and stone lifting have enjoyed a resurgence.

But with the exception of gymnastic rings, you don't hear much talk about body weight training. When you do see, or hear of, body weight training, it's usually push-ups and lunges in the most grievous form imaginable and it's obvious the average trainer either doesn't take the time to teach proper technique or is himself ignorant of it. The former is indolence and the latter, simple incompetence. Any trainer can plop a client onto a machine, or show even the most overweight person to wave around light dumbbells and three-pound medicine balls (which, in most gyms, constitutes so-called functional training) but it takes a master trainer to bring the deconditioned client around to pushing and pulling their own weight. Hell, most trainers can't even do it themselves!

These feats aren't easy and also require great patience on the trainer's part: I've worked with non-athletic female clients with weight-control issues for over a year's time before they could perform their first full-range body weight chin-up--and the effort is well worth it! For many people, their first chin-up is a cherished milestone in their lives--that's how powerful the feeling of mastering (or mistressing) your own body weight can be. And after the first rep, there's no stopping them! Soon it's two, three, four, five chin-ups--and beyond--and all coming quite quickly.

In my workshops I demonstrate five different chin-up strategies to take you and your clients from zero to hero.

I love the variety of training modalities available and have done it all all, more or less, at one time or another...BUT if I were forced (through bizarr-o circumstances) to choose only ONE, it would be body weight conditioning and training (and when I say conditioning, I mean simultaneous increases in strength, endurance and cardiovascular fitness.)

Strong words from the man who's built his reputation as one of the three kings of kettlebells!

Here are ten reasons why I prefer body weight exercises and training over all else.

1. The gym is always open--anytime and anywhere
There's absolutely no excuse for not getting in your workout! The only feasible excuse is not knowing how to perform body weight exercises, and that, my friends, is why I present my body weight workshops and certifications--because you are not alone in this!

2. Mastery of your own body weight is the foundation of all athletics and sports
Your ability to move the body--with control--through space is called kinesthetic awareness and body weight training teaches you this awareness and control. I highly recommend that before striving to move external heavy loads, you first learn to move your own body through space.

An important athletic quality is strength-to-weight ratio. This is especially important in the weight-class sports, e.g., boxing, wrestling, jiujitsu and MMA, as well as rock climbing and gymnastics. In these sports, the person with the highest strength-to-weight ratio has a huge advantage. In combat sports in particular, a premium is placed on being as light as possible while retaining as much strength as possible. In combat sports, absolute strength can be important, but the type of strength developed through body weight exercise is more important. A perfect example: imagine two fighters, each weighing in at 173 lbs. One can barbell squat an amazing 400 lbs. while the other can barely squat 300 lbs. On the other hand, big squatting Fighter A can barely do 75 body weight squats without undue fatigue in the legs while at the same body weight Fighter B easily performs 500 body weight squats. In a prolonged match, who do you think has the advantage?

Answer: the ability to repeatedly work at a high-level capacity will outweigh max strength any day, in any type of mano a mano combat.

3. Body weight exercise is the height of simplicity in that virtually no equipment is needed
Other than a horizontal bar upon which to pull yourself (which, in a pinch, can be a tree limb or overhang on a bathroom stall) nothing else is required to get a superior, safe and results-producing workout.

4. Body weight exercise encourages and facilitates fat-loss
When you train exclusively with your body weight, you're heavily penalized for excess body fat. Stored body fat feels like wearing a weighted vest or belt and directly reduces your rep counts and mobility. By the same token,
with the loss of only a few pounds, you're rewarded with instant performance increases. This is so encouraging to the average trainee, and there's nothing motivates them more with their diet and fitness programs.

In my 38 years as a trainer, I've trained many clients, and I've noted that those I had on body weight-only protocols always made significant in-roads in their fat-loss goals, as opposed to those I trained on machines, kettlebells or other free weights. Call it psychological exception, but my experience is there's something inherent to body weight exercise which produces fat-loss.

5. Body weight exercise is a de facto body composition check
You KNOW if your pull-up, dip, or push-up numbers decrease you've either lost muscle, gained fat or (gulp) both. There is no fooling the rep counts!

I personally use pull-ups as a gauge: when I'm at my leanest, my numbers are PRs and when the numbers go down it's certain ol' Coachie has shown some impropriety at the feed bag. Because of the nature of the movement, striving to perform a pull-up is a highly motivating factor in getting clients to drop fat. I'll say it again: You never see fat boys doing pull-ups and people performing lots of pull-ups are never fat. The relationship between the two is as inverse as it is undeniable.

6. Body weight exercise teaches core stabilization more effectively than any other type of training
Take the humble push-up, for example--one of the best-known body weight movements--versus the bench press. In the bench press, the body lays upon a stable surface (the bench) with feet firmly planted on the floor, while the triceps, front deltoids and, to a lesser extent, the pectoral muscles, do about 95% of the work. Smart bench pressers will learn to retract the scapulae and engage the lats to assist in shoulder stabilization during the bench press--a technique I teach in my workshops.

Meanwhile, the rest of the body--especially the core--is excluded from the effort. Some skillful bench pressers learn to keep the glutes tight and back arched, slightly aiding the lift with the legs.

Compare the bench press to the push-up, where you must stabilize the shoulders with the lats; the entire core must be engaged to keep the spine (including the neck) from collapsing; and the thighs, glutes, low back, feet, calves and ankles are all involved in stabilization duties. Most people don't stabilize this way and end up suffering low-back, shoulder and elbow problems as a result--this isn't a failure of the movement but a failure to turn on the required muscle software.

All body weight exercises--not just push-ups--require abdominal activation and core involvement.

7. Body weight exercise develops other desirable athletic attributes--BESIDES strength, endurance and cardio conditioning
The type of body weight training I teach develops other, oft-overlooked attributes, such as: balance, agility, grace, stability and mobility. This is especially true of kinetic chain movements, which combine two or more exercises together into a single flow pattern.

8. Because of its low equipment needs, body weight exercise easily lends itself to teaching large groups
You don't have to max out the credit cards buying kettlebells anymore! I've very
successfully taught large groups, in both corporate and fitness sectors, and you can, too. Imagination is the only limit and I've got enough for both of us! It's all about innovation, further proving it ain't about the equipment--it's the instructor.

The problem with equipment-based classes and protocols is when clients travel (as they do) or go on holidays, their fitness programs go down the drain. With body weight training, your clients can take their program with them and keep in shape until they get back to their regular routines.

9. Body weight exercises are versatile and can be added to, and otherwise combined with, other modalities, especially in circuit-style formats
In my kettlebell instructor training program, I teach many effective combinations of kettlebell and bodyweight pairings for the classroom instructor.

10. You can use the same amazing machine--in fact, the greatest machine ever invented, the human body--for all parameters of fitness:
a) increased strength
b) muscle endurance
c) strength endurance
d) power endurance
e) speed
f) explosiveness
g) cardio endurance

You don't need anything more than a pull-up bar to accomplish all of the above.

You can see there are many great reasons why body weight exercise should be included in your training regimen. The reasons for not including body weight exercise are usually:
a) you can't get strong and well built by body weight-only training

and for women:

b) body weight exercises are simply too difficult

These excuses are pure bunk! Gymnasts and martial artists have some of the most beautiful physiques around and many perform body weight exercises exclusively. Most guys are just too lazy to go for it, since body weight training is a lot of work. Big guys especially, with their bulk and excess body fat, struggle mightily to get a single pull-up, and women have a similar experience because of their typically low upper body strength-to-weight ratio. Yet it's a simple matter of education.

Fitness Challenge!!!

If you think you can't get super-strong with body weight training and/or you're a weight lifter who's already pretty strong, take the following fitness challenge and see for yourself how body weight exercise can challenge even the strongest muscles.

1) L-Seat Pull-Up (with overhand grip)
  • Palms facing-away grip
  • Thumbs lined up with the outside of the shoulder
  • Start from a dead-hang
  • Legs held straight at 90-degrees to the torso, knees LOCKED
  • PULL yourself up until the THROAT touches the bar
0-1 = schmoe
2-3 = joe
4-6 = pro
7-9 = all pro!

2) One-Arm Push-Up
  • Starting at the top of the Plank position
  • Non-working arm behind your back or alongside the body
  • Feet spread shoulder-width
  • The feet may NOT turn out sideways at anytime, but remain balanced upright upon the toes
  • LOWER down until the chin touches the floor, then
  • PRESS back up until the arm is FULLY locked out for a 1-sec pause
0-3 = schmoe
4-6 = joe
7-9 = pro
10-12 = all pro!

3) Single-Leg Squat aka Pistol
  • Without holding on to anything
  • Non-working leg held out in front
  • Perform as many free-standing Pistols as you can
  • The second the elevated leg touches the ground, the test is OVER!
  • You must lower down until the butt rests upon the heel--none of this half-to-two-thirds rep stuff, ass-to-heel only. This is a mobility test as well.
0-5 = schmoe-level leg strength-to-weight ratio
6-10 = joe
11-16= pro
17-21 = all pro!

4) Hanging Leg Raise
  • A real test of total core and hip development.
  • It's important you keep the hands fairly close together--not a wide grip.
  • Keep the head forward--not thrown back--throughout the movement
  • Bring the toes only to the bar--not the ankles or shins--no excessive swinging or sway is permitted.
  • Anything other than the toes touching the bar is a no-count!
0-1 = schmoe
2-4 = joe
5-7 = pro
8-10= all pro!

Two other tests of total body strength-to-weight ratio and core fitness are the One-Arm/One-Leg Spetsnaz Push-Up (1 is good; 2 excellent; 3 superior; >4 is world class upper body strength) and the One-Arm Hanging Leg Raise.

The above four exercises can be combined into an excellent workout--one of my favorites, in fact.

If you find yourself at the Schmoe or Joe levels, don't despair! I can help you make the All-Pro team in no time! Come to my Body Weight Trainer's Certification at Sacramento's Body Tribe Sunday 7 February.

In Strength & Health!


Stephen Gurtowski said...

Terrific post, Steve! A few years ago I did nothing but bodyweight exercises and bike for 6 months. I was the leanest I've ever been, and I felt like a superman!

Mich said...

Great Post!!
I agree with Stephen--a few years ago I trained bodyweight only according to Ross Training and felt great! Are you going to put out any DVDs from your BodyWeight Cert courses for those who cannot attend?

Clint said...

Excellent post, Coach! You are a monster, period.

To Stephen and Mich: Both of you say you exclusively trained bodyweight a few years ago and felt great. Did you stop, or just incorporate other training methods along with bodyweight training? Do you still feel like supermen?

Deanmc said...

Damn, I'm a total Schmo on the OAP, and Pistol.... I'm going to sign up for your class this May in Philly. See you there!

Stephen Gurtowski said...

Clint, I took a break from all types of lifting...barbell, kettlebell, dumbbell, etc. I added them back into the mix starting with barbell deadlifts and KB snatches. At present, I do a little bit of everything. My weight and bodyfat has crept back up and my ability to do high rep bodyweight drills has diminished. I still feel pretty good...more like Iron Man. Funny thing is I was recently thinking about switching back to a bodyweight only plan for a few months as a means of "active recovery" from strength training and the little aches and pains that come with it, but now I'm enthralled with Indian clubs and gada swinging...and so it continues.

Steve Maxwell said...

Stephen, I've done BW only for months at a time as well. I always cycled KBs back into training before seminars and I always liked the change of pace between the two. usually when I put KBs back in, I'd work in clubs and now, the gada.
Right now I'm concentrating on BW again because of my upcoming seminars. I'm sticking w/ 1 or 2 of my fave KB movements to keep in touch with it. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Hey Mich! I won't be releasing my certifications on DVDs, you need to be there to believe it! - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Thanks for reading, Clint! My ex-wives all concur! My mother, too, now that I think of it...Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Dean, the schmmoes are those who can't do the moves and don't do anything about it! It's a very powerful position to recognize your weakness and do something about it. When you finish the course, you'll have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge on BW conditioning and training and I'm looking forward to seeing you there. - Steve

Fatherof4 said...

Coach, I agree with earlier comments you are a beast and a huge inspiration to this 40 year old. Any plans to come to Texas in the near future? I would love to attend one of your bodyweight cert. seminars.

Fatherof4 said...

Coach, I agree with the earlier comment, you are a Beast! You are a huge inspiration to this 40 year old. Any plans to come to Texas? (Houston would be great) I would love to attend one of your bodyweight cert. seminars.

Anonymous said...


As usual, excellent information for anyone. I would like to ask two questions:

1. How frequently would you suggest doing BW work? There's a confusing amount of information on the market...daily, every other day, etc., and wondered what your thoughts are?
2. Could I ask about the wraps (elbow, knee)?

Thanks -

Ryan said...

Coach, what do you think of handstand pushups? I find that they really help me break through plateaus on pullups and bring surprising results to the physique. Plus, many of us spend the bulk of our day surrounded by four walls, so there's no shortage of places to execute these.

When I started to break away from being a gym rat in college and focused more on consistently executing handstand pushups against a wall and pullup routines seeking new PRs I soon ran into a gym buddy and the first thing he said was, "What have you been doing in the gym? You look pumped." Never thought I'd hear that when I first started things I considered yogi-esque. I think they did help make me get bigger, but also helped immensely in bearing and stature, presenting the body in its proper form; something getting bent under barbells tends not to do.

Thanks for yet another great post. I went to your joint mobility and body weight training last May in Vegas and you blew my mind with all that these machines we walk around in can do. Then in this post I saw the video for the one-arm/one-leg spetsnaz push-ups... Jaw dropping!

I definitely need to check in at another class, maybe even go after my cert... It's crazy to look around at people spending hours in gyms but still not understanding how to do a proper pushup, can't do a pullup, and one-leg squats and hanging leg raises are complete revelations. There must be something very inspiring in seeing someone break down those barriers and progress to mastery of all those movements and their own machine. Thanks especially for sharing such success stories!

Steve Maxwell said...


No plans yet to come to TX--why not come to Gym Jones for the weekend? It's a BW cert in addition to the KB and JM work. thanks for writing. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...


1) Frequency depends on your goals. For general mobility and conditioning, you could potentially train some BW exercises every day. For example, a few squats & push-ups, the five Tibetans, etc. The exercises would be done more as a tonic, not really in an effort to tax the system. I know many people who derive great pleasure in this type of training. In some cases I've known, people have built to high volumes, but it's never done in a taxing way.

OTOH if you're trying to increase muscular size, OR trying to build great strength in the difficult moves, you're better off giving yourself more rest and recuperation. I personally do some form of BW exercise almost everyday but much of it is mild and non strenuous. I reserve a couple days a week for pushing myself to the limits.

2. The wraps. I'd been training a lot of BJJ before taking these clips and had slightly irritated my knees and elbows. The knee sleeves are a simple neoprene useful for heat on the joint and the forearm straps take some stress of the elbows. They're the same sort of thing tennis players wear for tennis elbow support. Generally I don't like wearing braces but when my joints are aggravated or injured, I'll wear one as extra support. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Ryan, I love handstand push-ups. i think they are fantastic. As a college wrestler, I did them all the times. When I can, I still work them into the equation. I never found them to help my pull-ups much but I highly recommend them. If someone doesn't have the strength to do one, just holding the handstand staically for time, against a wall, is a great upper body workout.

Get yourself to one of the upcoming certs! Each of them is a fantastic value. I heartily concur with you about what goes on in the average gym. I'm not surprised your friend observes more muscularity and leanness from your handstand Push-Up and Pull-Up regimen. I hope you join me at Gym Jones or Body Tribe, or even Maxercise.
It's a great opportunity. - Best, Steve

Anonymous said...


One more question: clearly, the training is important but you know how to "put it all together" with your diet. Your appearance is amazing.

Can you share if you're still doing a higher protein version of the "Warrior Diet"?

raysugar said...

great post coach , you are a inspiration to some of us 40 + 50yr old hardcore fitness fanatics, when you do a one leg pistol is the objective to get your ass as close to the ground as possible ? keep up fine work

Steve Maxwell said...

The Pistol is basically a single-leg full squat. Similar to a power lifting squat in that the torso must lean forward in order to keep from falling backwards. The depth of the pistol is decided by several factors, including bone length, the ratio of femur length to tibia, and muscle belly insertions. For example, a shorter legged guy, with long muscle bellies in the hamstrings and fully developed quads and calves wouldn't be able to get so deep as someone with short muscle bellies and longer legs.
The idea is to get as deep as YOU can, not compared to someone else. The standard is pretty much is butt-to-heel. What you DON'T want to get in the habit of is doing half-squats, ie, partial reps. - Steve