Calisthenics and Body Awareness

There is a lot to love about calisthenics and bodyweight training – besides being fun and cost-effective, zero equipment workouts are also convenient for travel.

My favorite aspect of bodyweight training, however, is how it teaches you to become aware of the subtle nuances of movement.

Using machines instead of your bodyweight (or free weights) neglects this key aspect of fitness. Don’t even get me started on people who read magazines or watch television during their “workout.”

Lost in Space
I am continually amazed at how out of touch the average person is with their body. For example, when I ask a new client to try moving their shoulder blades without moving their arms, they usually cannot find the coordination to make it happen. However, these types of subtle movements can be the difference between learning to do a pull-up correctly and injuring yourself.

Proprioception refers to the sensory ability to feel different parts of the body moving through space in relation to each other. I almost always do some yoga with my strength training clients to help with their proprioceptive capabilities. Only once somebody truly learns to feel how their body moves, can they make significant gains in strength.

Clearly I’m not a fan of exercise machines, especially when compared to bodyweight strength training or weight training, but those of us who feel that way are on the fringes. Go into any commercial gym and you’re bound to see way more machines than free weights. In some of these places, you’re lucky if there is even a pull-up bar or an open space to do push-ups.

Throw out your treadmill!

Rise of the Machines
Most commercial fitness facilities are not designed to get you fit – they are designed to get your money. The fancy looking machines you see in these clubs are all hype. They don’t work as well as bodyweight exercises, but they sure do look high-tech! Sadly, that’s enough to trick the average person into shelling out lots of money for a gym membership they’ll probably never even use anyway.

This doesn’t mean you can’t sculpt nice looking muscles using machines, it’s just a ridiculous way to go about it. Selectorized fitness equipment movement patterns are not natural, and will have less carryover into real life activities. Plus you’re much less likely to understand the movement of the human body if you’re never really moving! If everything you do for your workout involves sliding a fixed piece of machinery along a predetermined path, you’re just going through the motions. You’re not truly creating movement.

Less is More
While modern exercise equipment has only existed for a few decades, human beings have achieved fantastic physiques since the days of the ancient Greeks. If you want to build a better body, the only piece of equipment you’ll need is something you already have – YOU! Stop making excuses and start working out!


For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.

54 thoughts on “Calisthenics and Body Awareness

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  • By Jbarkley82 -

    Great article once again Al!! This is what body weight training really comes down to….mastering and having complete control of your body through space. That’s certainly my goal :).

    Funny that you mentioned the physiques of ancient Greeks. I was just watching the movie Troy last night. I doubt Brad Pitt, Eric Bana or the rest of the cast trained with exercise machines. The 300 cast trained by doing tons of pullups, big tire flips, I wanna say climbing ropes, and lots of other body weight movements. Back in ancient Greek times it was probably picking up and flipping/carrying large rocks, climbing large structures, etc. The coordination and body awareness required to battle with sword and shield could not be mastered by using the pre-determined motion of exercise machines!!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Jeremiah!  I like this quote: “The coordination and body awareness required to battle with sword and shield could not be mastered by using the pre-determined motion of exercise machines!!”  Keep training hard!

      • By Jbarkley82 -

        Thanks Al :). I was wording it in my head to make it sound cool and effective lol.

    • By Anonymous -

      I like that you brought up ancient times– did you know the term “medicine ball” was coined back in ancient Greece?  They may not have practiced modern, western science and medicine (much of which is fake bullshit anyway), but they sure knew that using every muscle in the body to throw a big heavy thing around makes you stronger and healthier.

    • By RobbyTaylor -

      I know this post is old, but I have to say it. The ancient Spartans were a secretive society, especially when it came to their training. Little specific knowledge is known about how they trained, however several independent sources have made it clear that the Spartans heavily employed calisthenics in their training. With warriors as intense and legendary as these guys, I can totally see them doing one arm pull ups on a tree with that huge shield on their back.

  • By Jimchuong -

    Does bjj help bodyweight training or vice versa? I find that bjj helps my bodyweight training, but not so much the other way around as good opponents rarely go ‘head to head’ against directly applied force. Opinions?

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      You’re right that a skilled BJJ practitioner will usually beat someone stronger than them who is less skilled.  However, I definitely think the two things can help one another.  When skill is equal, strength can be the difference maker.

  • By Xxx -

    “The coordination and body awareness required to battle with sword and
    shield could not be mastered by using the pre-determined motion of squats and benches.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Haha good point!  Skill specificity is definitely important for those moves!

    • By Jbarkley82 -

      Good point xxx!! Although exercises like the squat are great for boosting testosterone in the body, which does hurt :)

  • By Mattman -

    I LOVE this post, not that I don’t like your other posts, just that this screams true for most of my clients right now. Machines and general laziness have de-conditioned them so much.
    Most can’t (like you said) move their shoulder blades, or even do a simple squat.
    I think before you touch any weights you should master (somewhat) your own bodyweight, no excuses!
    I assess every client on their BW strength first, simply because knowing BW exercises feeds into alot of weighted exercises, for example, being able to sit back in a squat feeds into setting up for a deadlift. 
    If they can’t do the basics then there isn’t much hope.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Matt!  It’s good to know there are quality trainers like yourself out there.  Stay patient with those beginners and keep practicing the basics.

      • By Mattman -

        Don’t get me wrong, I am patient. Had 2 clients come back and say they find everyday tasks alot easier now because they’re improved their proprioreception =)
        But each time before any of my clients touch weights, I get them to do a few reps of the basics, pushups, pullups (negative ones if they can’t do a pullup yet) and BW squats.

        Always a good way to start their workout, they love it now.

        • By Al Kavadlo -

          For sure!  Didn’t mean to imply otherwise.

  • By Michael -

    Hey Al, Have you heard of Marv Marinovich? His method of training athletes focuses on training the nervous system as well as a lot of plyometrics of various sorts. His style of training is all about making massive gains in proprioception http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WEHnNVom_HI
    What is your opinion on this kind of stuff. 

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I had not heard of Marv before, but I enjoyed this clip very much – thanks for sharing!

    • By Max Bronson -

      Hey Michael,

      Thanks for sharing this. I think that kind of training makes sense as long as you work your way up to it slowly. The risk of injury is higher, because so much coordination is needed and high speed. However, as long as one progressively increases the speed of those movements only after they’ve mastered proper form, then I think the sky would be the limit.

  • By Adam -

    “If everything you do for your workout involves sliding a fixed piece of
    machinery along a predetermined path, you’re just going through the
    motions. You’re not truly creating movement.”

    Great quote. Sums up the whole problem.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Adam!  That’s my favorite part of this post, too!

  • By ShavedApe -

    Hi Al, yet another great post by you.  “Truth” should be your middle name (is it?).

    Awhile back I was on a trip and stayed at a new, upscale hotel.  They had a workout room that was as big as most health clubs and it was filled with gleaming, sexy works of art otherwise known as workout machines. 

    I had a 2 hour workout and tried every machine, the whole while knowing that my excessive use of all these isolation machines would mean that I would be very sore the next day.  Although being sore while on a trip worried me I stubbornly kept working out on the machines. 

    Low and behold the next day I felt nothing — no soreness, no fatigue, simply nothing.  I kept waiting for the soreness to set in because I know that I didn’t take it easy while working out.  But DOMS never happened, ever!  To this day all I can think that happened is that the machines, while looking like sculpted works of art, actually did little in the way of challenging my muscles.  It’s like they were designed to give the impression of a hard workout, but without the workout itself. 

    Using machines I was kept out of touch with my body and how it moves.  Listening to Al I’m now back in touch with my body and delighting in its ability to move.  Thanks Al.  You rock!  

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks for the kinds words – and the anecdote!  Glad to hear I’ve helped you get back in touch with movement!

  • By Eddie -

    Awesome Al love it, also still lovin those smoothies haha! thanks for holding it down!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Eddie!  You got it!

  • By Jed Idan -

    Great Article Al!

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Jed!

  • By Chris Tamme -

    Amen brother.  Better health doesn’t have to include the cost of a gym membership.  I constantly preach change your diet first and then follow with the exercise.  I see to monay unhealthy overweight people that believe they are going to run themselves thin.  Heck that was me.  I have now seen the light and enjoy my short 30 minute body weight workouts that take me outside when the weather is nice.  Keep it up Al I love your blog.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Chris!  Keep it up!

  • By Jason -

    Can’t agree with you more Al. The Greeks, Spartans, Native Braves, etc. were the strongest human beings on the planet and they never touched a exercise machine. I’m still a huge believer in functional fitness instead of the workout programs the are purely cosmetic. Pushups, Pull-ups and Squats can go a long way. Love the blog

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Jason!  You could definitely stay fit and healthy for life without doing any exercises other than push-ups, pull-ups and squats (or as I like to say, “The Trifecta”).

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, Jason!  You could definitely stay fit and healthy for life without doing any exercises other than push-ups, pull-ups and squats (or as I like to say, “The Trifecta”).

  • By Thenin0007 -

    Your attitude and charisma is so inspirational not just for training but for everything else…Keep up the great work,please :)

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thank you very much!  More to come soon!

  • By Jimmy Gee -

    I like the approach of using body weight.  I myself use a combination of body weight and dumbbells.  Doing this and eating more whole foods has helped me loose ~40lbs.

    One question I have though has to do with muscle imbalances.  In particular, how does one approach training (with weights or by body weight exercises) and safeguard against imbalances?   For example, quadriceps versus hamstrings.  Alternatively, how does one know if they are setting themselves up for a potentially dangerous muscle imbalance?

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  • By David -

    Great stuff, Al. I’m looking at doing more body weight workouts. Wondering if this could help me more mobile. I am inclined to have tight hamstrings and weak lower back which affects my  mobility in the back squat/deadlift.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks, David!  Bodyweight training can definitely help improve your mobility.

  • By Michelvandenhoek -

    While I believe bodyweight exercises are superior for the upper body, for the lower body we need a heavy Olympic barbell. I can’t do a pistol squat yet, but I am patient and I plan far ahead. When you can do more than 20 pistol squats you should really move to barbell movements for the legs or else they won’t be able to further improve in strength and size.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      I still do some barbell and kettlebell work for my legs.  I even blogged about how I love deadlifts: http://www.alkavadlo.com/2011/01/all-about-deadlifts/

      There are several bodyweight exercises that are harder than standard pistols though.  The strength one can build with bodyweight training has no limitations.

    • By RobbyTaylor -

      I disagree; you’re neglecting the possibility of adding weight to pistol squats. Doing a pistol squat in good form puts roughly your entire bodyweight (BW) as resistance for one leg in an entire range of motion. Using both legs at once, you would need to do a barbell squat of your weight. Now, to demonstrate the effectiveness of weighing pistol squats, let’s just say you weigh 200 pounds. If you do a pistol with a 20 pound dumbbell in good form, it puts 220 pounds of resistance on one leg in a full range of motion. You would have to squat a total of 440 with both legs. 440 – 200 = 240, so you would have to do a barbell squat of 240, ass to grass, just to get the equivalent of a pistol squat with a 20 pound dumbbell. Let’s say you’re really hardcore and can do a pistol with 100 additional pounds (2 x 50 pound dumbbells or kettlebells). That’s 300 pounds of resistance on 1 leg in a full range of motion. With both legs you would need a total resistance of 600 pounds. 600 – 200 = 400, so you would have to squat 400 pounds to get the equivalent of a 100 pound pistol if you weigh 200 pounds.

      Clearly, the benefit here is that you can get very strong legs with relatively light weights, meaning you don’t necessarily have to go to the gym or get a squat rack in your house to get super powerful legs, and you don’t have to load all of that weight on your spinal column. A lot of people will still make arguments for that, though, but hey to each their own. I think the pistol is definitely worth learning for anyone who is serious about fitness, because, really, who wants to go to the gym all the time just to get a leg workout? You can do pistols anywhere, without anything.

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  • By Kingofbaconandeggs -

    I was pretty heavy, had wrist surgery, and injured my shoulder (both right side of body).  My body hated me and I it.  I felt so disconnected.  I changed how I ate and started to go on long walks.  I dropped over 50 lbs.  I completed CrossFit OnRamp and did 3 classes a week for a month.  My body felt out of tune and I could really see how immobile my right side of my body was.  So I put CF on hold and started physical therapy.  Simple things like the plank position destroyed me (still does).  Your site and energy is such a blessing.  I know work the low and slow movements in push ups and pull ups, as well as the plank.  Its been a month and slowly I getting there.  Thank you so much for all you do.

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks for the comment – it sounds like you’re doing great!  Keep taking it day to day and be patient.  

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  • By John D -

    Al
    I couldn’t agree with you more !
    Just did my 1st front lever ( have back lever, ring muscleups and superman pushups down ) at 62, and am working on the bar muscleup and kip up.
    Your philosophy is great and you are among the few genuine fitness trainers whose honesty and integrity stands out along with their skills and abilities.
    I have worked as a personal trainer in the past and was fired for taking a stand against all the BS, supplements and worthless “training”.
    Thanks for all the inspiration and free sharing of yourknowledge and experience.
    All the best
    John D

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks for the comment, John – It’s great to hear from others in the fitness industry who support what I am doing. And congrats on all your progress!

  • By Rivu -

    I love the beauty of calisthenics ,I still remember the day when I threw a small party when CC2 released……haha

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Right on! I celebrated the release of CC2 too!

  • By RGraham -

    Hi Al! I just started reading your blog-found you on youtube(pistol squat tutorial), and I just wanted to say you are really awesome! I love the radiant energy, and the useful information you provide! I am seeing fitness in a whole new way, so thank you :)

    • By Al Kavadlo -

      Thanks! Glad I could be a positive influence on you!

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  • By Thần Quay Tay -

    Can you show me the benefits of calisthenics excersizes compare to weight training? In my opinion,I think calisthenics grants you better endurance and the ability to keep balance, but it’s harder to get bigger and stronger muscles like weight training.

    • By RobbyTaylor -

      There are two ways that your body adapts to resistance training, and both of those ways result in you becoming stronger. The first, and more obvious, way is muscle growth. The second is increased neural efficiency. Both weight lifting and bodyweight training result in both of these advances, but you see the movement patterns in weightlifting are easier, which means it does not stimulate neural growth as much as bodyweight training. Additionally, since weight training is not hindered by additional bodyweight as much as advanced bodyweight training is, it is easier for your body to just grow more muscle in order to gain strength for the exercise. Thus, more of the gains you will see from weight lifting will be from muscular growth, with some being from neural efficiency. With advanced bodyweight training, additional body weight can be a hindrance because of the extremely disadvantaged positions of leverage in which your body must support itself. So any muscle you do put on will be both highly efficient and essential for your body to execute the movements that you are training (a certain amount of mass is necessary to protect the joints and simply maintain the forces involved in exercises…Olympic gymnasts get huge biceps from practicing moves like the Maltese Cross, not from doing endless bicep curls). Additionally, because the positions can become quite complex and require higher levels of kinesthetic awareness, it is easier and necessary for your body to adapt via increased neural efficiency. Thus, a lot of the gains you will see with bodyweight will be from increased neural efficiency, however a certain amount of muscle mass is physically necessary to perform these exercises, and your muscles will still respond by growing regardless. Furthermore, strength you develop with bodyweight training tends to carry over better to weightlifting than strength from weightlifting does to bodyweight training. Not only is this because of the hindrance of the additional, and relatively inefficient, muscle mass of weight lifting, but also because bodyweight training increases your joint and tendon strength just as much as it does your muscular strength. It’s not uncommon for a person who can do a planche to be able to bench press 2x their bodyweight without much difficulty, even if they never bench…but I’ve never heard of someone who benches all the time who can just do a planche without training.

      So, you see, it can be easier to get bigger with weightlifting, however either method will make you strong in a general sense…endurance is all about the level of resistance you use and how many reps you do. Obviously hand balancing skills will give you better balance than pretty much any other kind of training, and that is precisely why old time strongmen did lots of hand balancing. These men typically did not limit themselves, though; it was not uncommon for them to do copious amounts of hand balancing and other advanced types of bodyweight strength training in addition to lifting.

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