5 things we wish we knew when starting calisthenics

Aug 27 / Jacko

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We have learnt so much since we started calisthenics and we want to give you 5 top things you can do to avoid the same mistakes.
  • 1. Bodyweight is all you need
  • 3. Range of movement is key
  • 2. It takes time
  • 4. There is no substitute for being strong 
  • 5. Look after your wrists and elbows

INTRODUCTION

Looking back on our calisthenics journey, there are a number of key things we wish we had known when we started. We’ve learnt an awful lot along the way; we’ve made many mistakes, but we’re better for them now and more equipped to help you as a result of overcoming our own struggles in getting started. We want to share some of those struggles with you so that you don’t have to make the same mistakes, leading to more effective and efficient progress for YOU!
In order to help this all make sense, let me take you back in time to when it all started. After retiring from professional rugby due to a head injury in 2013, I was back in the gym six months later (after I’d fully recovered) doing the same weight sessions I’d always done. I always loved training and lifting weights, but one morning I was doing bicep curls in front of the mirror and looked at myself and asked the question, “What are you doing?” It was a question I couldn’t answer! Why was I training? I wasn’t playing rugby at the weekend, so what was the point? I was a bit bored with no end point or goals for my training. I was looking for something more fun and interesting. The timing was perfect for Tim to introduce me to calisthenics.
That feels like a long time ago now. I’d like to say that I’ve never looked back and that my calisthenics journey has been one amazing success after another. However, that would be a lie. I made a number of mistakes right from the start and continue to make mistakes (and learn from them daily!). Now I want to encourage you to learn from my mistakes.
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5 Lessons TO START CALISTHENICS

LESSON 1: BODYWEIGHT IS ALL YOU NEED!

At first I dabbled in calisthenics. I liked experimenting with different things, but I still carried on bench pressing and lifting weights initially. I was of the mindset that bodyweight calisthenics was good, but surely I’d lose or not be able to build muscle mass with it. I didn’t want to lose strength or muscle mass and thought doing some weights would help with that. Looking back, I realize that it was actually holding me back. There is nothing wrong with weights at all, but if you want to get good at calisthenics and controlling your own body, then you need to be working on bodyweight exercises — you get what you train for. If you want to be good at lifting heavy weights, then you’ll need to be lifting heavy weights!
The idea that I would lose muscle mass or strength was completely misguided. The body responds to the stimulus you place on it. It doesn’t know or even care how you apply that stimulus, whether loading with weights or with bodyweight resistance. You could lift a 10kg box of t-shirts, apples, cotton wool, or anything you want; if it’s 10kg, then it’s 10kg. Your body doesn’t care! It might be easier to change the loads on a weights machine or a barbell (so that’s a reason weight training can be easier in terms of managing the loads you use), but it isn’t a reason why it builds muscle. You can make any bodyweight exercises hard enough that the stimulus created will be enough to increase muscular strength and size. You just have to be creative, and that’s one of the things that makes calisthenics exciting and interesting.
Ways to regress (make easier) and progress (make harder) exercises is what the School of Calisthenics ‘Locker’ is all about.
So the first lesson that I want you to take away is that calisthenics is enough. If you want to get better at it, commit yourself to it, rather than dabble in it for six months and then commit, like I did. Do it right from the off, from today, and I promise your progress will be far better — better than my first six months, in fact!
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LESSON 2: IT TAKES TIME

Calisthenics is a journey that has no shortcuts. Tips on techniques help a ton, and without the right direction you’ll likely get nowhere, or even worse than that — injured. That’s what the School of Calisthenics is here for, to give you that direction and technical help and education.
It takes time to develop the correct ranges of motion, movement patterns, muscle activation, skills, techniques, and strength. It can, however, not seem that way at the start. This is a trap that I fell into, and one I want to help you avoid.
Often you’ll get some easy wins at the start of your calisthenics journey, the degree of which will depend on your previous training history. We often see one example of this at our workshops. Under the correct coaching, people go from not being able to do a frog-stand and thinking it’s impossible for them, to five minutes later hanging out for five seconds in their ‘impossible’ frog-stand. You might have even experienced that yourself. I remember the first time I tried a frog-stand and I landed flat on my face, but five minutes later I balanced for about seven seconds and I was hooked!

However, be warned…don’t be like me! Yes, be excited, but don’t be fooled; not all of your calisthenics progress is going to be that quick — far from it! Things like front levers and planches might take you years to master rather than minutes!
This is because at first (as a beginner), the neuromuscular co-ordination is what you are seeing improvements in. Building strength comes next, and that takes more time. Too often I get too excited and think that I’ll be able to master all of the ‘impossible’ things in just a few minutes! My progress often slows down because I’m trying to do things that are too difficult, and it becomes a waste of time.
So don’t be like me; help me be more like you.
We must ‘earn the right to progress’ if we want long-term, safe, and effective progression.

LESSON 3: RANGE OF MOTION IS KEY

Unless you’ve been doing years of yoga or gymnastics at some point, your shoulder mobility will likely restrict you. The ability to get your hands over your head (full flexion) and your arms up behind your back (extension) without compensation in shoulder or spinal posture is key. First we must have range of motion, then we must work to be strong through that range of motion.
It might not be sexy at the start to be spending more time on shoulder mobility than on the cool stuff, but put in the time and effort at the start and you’ll thank us for it. Otherwise I promise you’ll come unstuck in your handstands, human flags, levers, etc., and then have to come back and address this at some point anyway!
Below is a video from our last workshop trip to Marbella explaining the principles we use to help create range of motion and keep it:
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LESSON 4: THERE’S NO SUBSTITUTE FOR BEING STRONG!

There is certainly no substitute for strength. At the start of your journey, this can sometimes be a hard pill to swallow. You might be great and well aware of your weaknesses, but like most blokes I thought I was pretty strong. I’d played 14 years of professional rugby and could throw a bit of tin around the weights room with the best of them. How humbling calisthenics can be! You think you’re strong but you can’t even hold your own bodyweight up.
Be prepared to see people who don’t look as strong as you or with less muscle mass doing things you’re still working towards. When this happened to me, I made excuses: “Oh I can’t do a muscle up yet because my technique is poor” or “I’ve just not learnt the skill element yet.” In reality, I just wasn’t strong enough! There is no substitute for strength, and you also can’t hide from it. If you ignore this like I did, you’ll spend too much time on the skill elements until you realise you still can’t do it, and it’s because you’re not strong enough. When we find ourselves here, we must go and work on the key strength attributes we need (be it pulling, pushing, statics, etc.) and then, presto! We come back and we can now do the things that once felt impossible!
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“But Jacko, you’ve shown us videos of someone doing a muscle up in only 5 or 10 minutes; surely they were strong enough and they just needed to develop the skill or movement patterning?” Yes, if you were thinking this, then you are correct…but it’s not the norm. True, we all have skill and movement patterning aspects to our calisthenics movements that we need to improve and develop, but 9 times out of 10 it’s not what’s holding you back.
Take a deep breath in, relax, and accept the fact that the reason you can’t (yet) do some of the calisthenics movements you want to is because you’re not strong enough! Then get working on those strength elements you’re lacking in.
Strength takes time to build — be consistent but patient.

LESSON 5: LOOK AFTER YOUR WRISTS AND ELBOWS

The final lesson is one that you’ll never thank me for if you get it right! If you ignore this last lesson, however, I promise you, you’ll wish you had!
One thing that calisthenics does is place a greater demand on your connective tissue. The body must adjust to this demand. It’s not bad for your joints, as long as you work safely and progressively and allow for adequate rest and adaptation between workouts. It is actually quite far from bad for you; when done correctly, it will help keep your joints active, healthy, and stronger as you grow older.
An important point to note is that elbow issues can occur not because of a problem at the elbow itself, but rather because the elbow joint is compensating for lack of range of motion elsewhere (at the shoulder, particularly if we’re missing internal rotation at the shoulder, or at the wrist from repetitive strain or over-gripping).
Compensation of lack of shoulder range, for example, could create a dysfunctional movement at the elbow as a result of that compensation. So lesson 3 (range of motion) is doubly important, not just for shoulder health and care but also for the health of the joints below it in the chain.
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Thanks for reading

We really hope you enjoyed this blog article and that you can take some help, tips, and advice from the five lessons that we wish we learned when starting out so you don’t make the same mistakes that we did. Our hope it that it helps your training journey progress smoothly and allows you to enjoy it even more!
Class dismissed
Jacko

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