Anyone who has been training for a period of time will have a philosophy. Their individual approach to how they want to workout, the physique they desire and what they want to do with their body. For most, philosophies are not fixed but is something that evolves over time.
Personally, we have been on that journey. Hypertrophy, strength training, sports performance and everything in-between. Regardless, the philosophy was fairly similar despite how much weight was on the bar or how many reps we did. But when we started calisthenics we found a new philosophy; Play.
Einstein said that play is the highest form of research. In calisthenics our goal is to explore our physical potential and combine the human body’s natural capacity for movement with its ability to get strong. The result is an athlete who is mastering their own bodyweight and learning to move in new ways. To do that you have to embrace play.
With this being a big part of our training philosophy, we need to seek out the best playgrounds, so the School of Calisthenics planned a field trip to Mike’s Gym – Marbella. There is no other way to describe the incredible training camp environment Mike has created other than just that; an adult playground. There is everything you need from a crossfit box, exercise studio, a dojo and ninja alley to the jewel in the crown; a 100-feature obstacle course basking in the Spanish sunshine. Some would probably describe it as more like a ‘diamond in the rough’ but either way, whatever your philosophy about training and movement, Mike’s Gym has you covered, and it will be almost impossible to get bored.
Mike has built the gym with his own hands based on the training he likes to do. Or put differently, based on his philosophy, and what he has created is a spectacular training environment that he is sharing with others. It’s important to understand this because when you find yourself blowing a gasket as you run through the obstacle course on a hot, dusty afternoon you’re experiencing something quite special. The opportunity to have physical and emotional contact with someone else’s unique and personal vision of how the human body should be trained, but most importantly, what the human body is capable of doing.
Given the trials and tribulations that the human race has endured since our arrival on the planet, it’s safe to say that our ancestors did not rely on barbells to get strong, which evidence suggests were only invented around 1910.
In the developed world, the last 80 years has seen man and woman-kind become more and more sedentary. Void of the need to navigate challenging terrain, climb trees to set traps or gather food, we no longer need to explore our physical potential in the primal ways which were once essential for survival.
Human history tells of wars that have been won, extreme conditions survived and new lands explored, all without the machinery and equipment that has become common place in strength and fitness. Those who went before us also didn’t have the science we now lean on. But they did have a philosophy; they needed to master their own bodyweight. These now often forgotten benefits were extensive. Whilst society and culture has changed, the human body hasn’t, and the benefits of calisthenics and bodyweight training are as alive today as they ever were.
Your body is an extremely well designed machine; it is intricate and complex; it provides you with all the movement options you will ever need, and whilst it has the capacity to perform in isolation, its most optimal configuration is found when the systems within it work together.
Broadly speaking, the muscles in our bodies have one of two jobs; stability or strength. In complete movements, which feature heavily in calisthenics, both systems work simultaneously. For example, in a handstand push up. Having the hand on the floor creates an upper body closed chain which increases joint compression, muscle co-contraction, neuromuscular control and dynamic stability. To perform the push up you need to stabilise the entire kinetic chain from hands to feet and produce significant force simultaneously. These are all good things for the shoulder joint which has a huge capacity for movement, but it comes at the expense of stability.
Your central nervous system will also only allow you to produce as much force as the joints involved are able to stabilise. So, if your goal is to increase strength, promoting stability through complete movements will also help you to increase your ability to produce force. You don’t have to shift completely to bodyweight training but include some of it in your programme.
If you’re going to excel on the obstacle course at Mike’s Gym, you’re going to need strength and skill that you can use in a varied environment. Calisthenics and bodyweight training exposes you to movement challenges and therefore creates movement options.
A training programme limited primarily to exercises like squats, bench press, military press and bicep curls gets you strong in those positions. However, if in Mike’s presence you don’t fancy taking on a big concrete pipe in the dirt, you can expect to be bombarded with a torrent of ‘encouragement’ which includes how it took him a week to put it there and you better go back and run over it!
Calisthenics comes from two Greek words, ‘Kallos’ and ‘Sthenos’ meaning beauty and strength. When movement is effortless, diverse and adaptable we see a picture of what bodyweight mastery looks like. It’s also a lot of fun.
Whilst we can be anything we want to be, our natural genetics will predispose us to be more successful in certain training endeavours than others. For example, some people excel in endurance activities, some in power, while others in developing extreme strength. The world is full of different types of athletes.
Research has shown that humans have a physical limitation on the amount of muscle mass they are able to develop. In men, each kilogram of bone mass can support a maximum of around 5 kilograms of muscle, while women max out at about 4.2 kilograms. Our bodies are setup to handle a certain level of mass and therefore load, so not everyone is designed to squat 200kg. Shifting your own bodyweight will mean you are exposing yourself to loads which are appropriate to your natural physique.
Free yourself from the perception that you have to lift weights. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a dumbbell, barbell or its own weight. Resistance is resistance. And don’t be fooled. Bodyweight training is not an inferior form of exercise for beginners. Calisthenics never stops giving and there is always a new, more difficult challenge waiting that will ensure your ego stays in check.
Bodyweight movements will give you a longer lifespan as an athlete. We should want to keep physically active our whole lives and calisthenics enables us to train in a way which will promote the chances of this. Think of it as an investment in your physical pension. Mastering your own bodyweight will maintain joint function and mobility, increase stability and develop strength.
It’s not just about human flags and muscle ups. The lower body benefits from jumping and plyometric activity as it is more effective at increasing bone density than squatting. It also develops and maintains fast twitch muscle fibres that decline as we age. Why do people tend to fall over more as they get older? Because they lose joint stability, muscular strength and the ability to fire muscles quickly.
The brain is designed to learn and like any muscle it needs flexing. When we practice new skills and movements with regular repetition, the brain gets a workout and this stimulation causes positive adaptation.
Not only is this good for our mental wellbeing but it also exposes a side of training that is exciting. Given the opportunity your central nervous system learns at an alarming rate and you see rapid progress from session to session. It’s addictive! We want our brains to stay sharp, so taking on new challenges and learning to move in new ways is not just about physical health but mental health as well.
The take home message is pretty simple. Learn to balance on your hands. Hang from things. Jump. Climb. Sprint. Train single leg movements. Be explosive. Most of all, challenge yourself to learn something new. Become a more complete athlete.
Mike knows the importance of this. His philosophy led him to create a unique training environment that is positive, supportive and fun. But it has a sting in its tail. There may be nowhere else that holds the potential to put you face-to-face with what you lack both physically and mentally. From a growth mindset perspective this is enticing because only when you know your weaknesses can you make them strengths. Becoming a complete athlete requires you to redefine your impossible, and that is what the School of Calisthenics is here to help you do.