‘What have you got in your locker?’ is a phrased often used questioning; ability, skills or tricks that an athlete may or may not have. Every athlete should have a locker full of ‘tools’ that allows them to find solutions to challenges they face in various circumstances. A calisthenics athlete is no different, we need a full spectrum of tools in our calisthenics locker we can use to help us perform and progress along our calisthenics journey.
The ‘locker’ outlined contains a number of training tools to help you develop certain strength and movement abilities. More reps is one approach but we can train smarter by choosing from a selection of options from your locker which will ensure appropriate progression towards your goals.
Explanation and application of each tool in ‘The Calisthenics Locker’
Each “tool” in the calisthenics locker can be used to either regress (make easier) or progress (make harder) any of the exercises outlined in our training programs. The most important phase of the School of Calisthenics Framework where the locker becomes very effective is in the Applied Strength phase.
As previously explained the Applied Strength phase contains all the exercises progressions geared towards helping you master the movement and strength necessary to perform a certain calisthenics movement, in this case handstands. As you go along your journey you will realise that some progressions are easier to master than others, which will be partly dependent on your training background. The use of the “tools” in the locker are to allow you to adapt any of the exercises to make the transition between progression in the Applied Strength phases as smooth as possible.
It maybe that after you master the first progression you need to make the second progression a little easier (regress) initially or in turn you could make the first progression harder (progress) using one or more of the “tools” in the locker. Smooth transitions produce healthy sustainable progressions, helping us reach our goals more quickly and efficiently as well as helping to reduce risk of injury. Whereas trying to jump through the progressions and not using the locker, will only reduce your rate of progression and increase your risk of injury. Each person has their own strength and weakness so depending on what you find personally easy or difficult in the progressions will dictate which “tools” in the locker you use or combine together. Below is a explanation of each “tool” and an example of how it can be used.
Eccentrics or ‘negatives’ are effectively the lowering portion (deceleration) of a movement, when the muscle under tension is in fact lengthening. An eccentric can be defined as “when the muscle is exerting less force than is being placed upon it”. It’s an essential tool in your locker as it allows you to develop the applied strength and movement pattern before you’ve actually acquired enough strength to be able to perform the concentric (acceleration) phase of the movement.
The effectiveness of an eccentric movement is determined by the control and time under tension for the muscles being used. Slow controlled movements with a lowering duration of 5 seconds per eccentric repetition are recommended. When a new exercise progression feels ‘impossible’ the use of eccentrics initially can be a great way to get the muscles accustomed to the movement, thus developing some basic strength and neuromuscular patterning. Soon the impossible will become possible!
Isometric muscle contractions can be defined as “when the developed tension in the muscle is equal to the force acting upon it, with therefore no visible movement”. In simple terms they are static holds. Isometrics are a great tool in your locker for developing new strength and getting over ‘sticking points’ in movements.
This is because isometrics have also been shown to increase strength 15 degrees either side of the stationary position you hold, therefore you’re not just getting stronger in that position, but also above and below that point, which can be very effective for building strength in the bottom portion of your handstand. Holding an isometric position for 5 to 10 seconds is recommended for each repetition.
The simplest and most common form of progressing an exercise is to add additional weight. This can be in the form of a weighted vest or a weight belt. Before deciding to add more resistance you should ensure you have mastered the movement pattern with appropriate postural control. Training with poor form and additional weight is not going to aid in your long term progression and will increase the risk of injury. Once again try to see the locker as a flexible support system so weighted training can also be combined with other tools such as an isometric.
The stability tool is one of the most interesting options within your locker, if used correctly! We can make an exercise more difficult (progression) by reducing stability or make it easier (regression) by increasing stability. Having the ability to either make an exercise harder or easier to fit your current strength and skill level is what the locker is all about.
Decreasing or increasing stability makes an exercise harder or easier respectively. The more emphasis we place on the stabilizing musculature by reducing our stability during an exercise the more difficult it become. In traditional weight training we see this in the use of resistance machines Vs free weights, as free weights as less stabile and therefore more difficult (you can lift more weight in a leg press machine than your can squat for example due to the increased stability that the leg press machine provides). If we increase the strength and control of the stabilizing muscles surrounding a joint then it can help the primer movers, by controlling the joint, to produce more effective force. We can challenge the stabilizer in the way with the use of stability balls and gymnastics rings, for example, where the surface or contact point is not a stable as the floor or a fixed bar. Different hand positions on a fixed surface like the floor or unsymmetrical objects is great way of reducing stability and making handstands for example, more difficult.
This tool involves providing you with some additional assistance whilst you develop the strength and movement required for your control handstand. The assistance allows you to ‘feel’ the position or movement pattern helping to ‘connect the dots’ in the neuromuscular patterning. It also helps to develop the required strength as the total load you have to support whilst pushing out into or holding the handstand is reduced, meaning the movement becomes less demanding. The assisted tool is effectively used for calisthenics holds such as the reverse lever and human flag where you are holding yourself in an isometric (stationary) position, because the assistance of a resistance can help you ‘feel’ the Movement Pattern to therefore activate the correct muscles in the right order.
Biomechanics: Levers & Angles
This tool uses the basic principles of biomechanics, where engineering meets Calisthenics! By changing the length of the object being moved and the angle at which it is moved through means we can alter the strength requirement (torque). If we shorten the lever or alter the angle we can reduce the amount of torque required at a joint. What does this mean? Less torque required at a joint means the muscles controlling that joint require less strength in that position or alignment.
In practical terms for calisthenics reducing your lever length or angle in a handstand, human flag, reverse lever, front lever, or planche can make the movements easier and less demanding so that you can develop your strength progressively, whilst you are learning to master the full movement. Altering levers and angles is very simple and effective way to adapt an exercise to help bridge the gap from one exercise or progression to the next, keeping your development smooth, on track and individual to your strength and movement abilities. Never forget to ‘earn the right to progress’.