My new book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment is on sale now!
Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment is now available in ebook format! (Paperback coming in April.)
While my last book, Raising The Bar covers all the essential bodyweight exercises that require a pull-up bar, my new book focuses on my favorite bodyweight exercises that can be done with no equipment at all.
Pushing The Limits! covers dozens of types of push-ups and squats, including one arm push-ups and one-legged squats. The book also goes over back bridges, headstands, handstands and other inversions.
Here’s what people are saying about the book:
When people ask me about bodyweight strength training, I point them to Al Kavadlo. Pushing the Limits! is a must-have for bodyweight training enthusiasts or anyone looking to build strength without lifting weights. Al lays out dozens of effective exercises for every fitness level, while making the journey fun and encouraging.”
—Mark Sisson, author of The Primal Blueprint
“Whether you are an advanced bodyweight conditioning athlete or a wet behind the ears newbie, Al’s Pushing the Limits! has something for you. Easy to follow progressions allow you to master advanced push up, squat and bridging variations. All you need is the will to do it! No gym required.”
—Robb Wolf, author of The Paleo Solution
“In this awesome new book, Al only asks that you find ONE piece of equipment—your body! Stoic, Spartan, perfection…this book is bodyweight strength training for the ultimate purist!”
—Paul Wade, author of Convict Conditioning
“This is the book I wish I had when I first started working out. Knowing Al’s secrets and various progressions would have saved me years of wasted time, frustration and injuries. The variations of The Big Three and progressions Al lays out will keep you busy for years.”
—Jason Ferruggia, author of Renegade Muscle
“I LOVE this freaking Book!!! I will use it with my athletes, with the adults I train, in my own training and with my kids. This stuff reminds me of the old school Strength & Health Magazine, I’m fired UP!”
—Zach Even-Esh, author of The Bodyweight Bodybuilding Training System
“Al is a master at developing the foundations of true strength through the use of the most complex, sophisticated and powerful training tool ever devised – the human body. Pushing The Limits! is a practical and entertaining book that describes ancient methods for building futuristic strength.”
—Elliott Hulse, creator of The Grow Stronger Method
Over the last several weeks, interest in the upcoming PCC workshop this June has grown beyond my expectations.
We’re still more than four months out from the inaugural certification and we’ve already filled almost all of the 75 spots allocated for the event. This is going to be a truly momentous occasion!
As the PCC course material is based heavily on the work of Convict Conditioning author Paul Wade, a key part of earning the PCC title is passing Coach Wade’s “Century” test.
The Century is a strength and conditioning challenge that consists of 100 consecutive bodyweight repetitions performed as follows:
A lot of people have asked about how the test will be judged. Here are some guidelines to make sure you are doing things the PCC way:
- The exercises must be performed in the order listed above. No exceptions.
- Squats must be performed with a minimum depth of top of the thighs parallel to the floor and a full lock out at the top of each rep. Arms may be raised in front, crossed, or placed on top of the head. Heels must stay flat the entire time.
- Push-up depth must reach a minimum of 90 degrees of flexion as measured along the outside of the elbow and a full lockout must be achieved at the top of every rep. A straight body position must be maintained throughout the entire range of motion. No sticking your butt into the air or leaving your hips down on the ground.
- Hanging knee raises must be performed with the knees being raised above waist level and a full extension of the legs at the bottom of every rep. Swinging shall be kept to a minimum. Arms must remain straight the entire set.
- Pull-ups may be performed with an overhand or underhand grip. The chin must clear the bar at the top of each rep and a full extension must be reached at the bottom. Kipping will not be allowed. (Australian pull-ups are to be performed with the bar at waist height and a straight body position must be maintained throughout.)
- Rest may be taken in between exercises, but each exercise must be completed in a single set. You may pause briefly between reps as long as the position is held (i.e. top of push-up position, bottom of pull-up, etc.)
- The reps may be performed as quickly as you like as long as all the above rules are adhered to. Form first!
In the videos below, you’ll see the Century demonstrated in real time by three different people: myself, my brother Danny, and our PCC co-instructor Adrienne Harvey.
The inaugural workshop will be held in St. Paul, MN on June 7-9, 2013. I will keep you posted as more dates are added. (Click here for more information or to reserve your spot.)
The PCC was created by Convict Conditioning author Paul Wade, along with Dragon Door founder John Du Cane and myself. The curriculum covers everything from pull-ups to pistol squats as well as dozens of other bodyweight exercises. (More info on the curriculum can be found here.)
Unlike weight training, where you simply add more weight to the same movements to increase the intensity, progressive calisthenics involves changing your body position to create more or less favorable leverage in order to adjust the resistance.
Through gradually working toward more challenging exercise variations, you can continue to grow stronger without using anything but your own bodyweight.
If you want to know more about how progressive calisthenics works, check out the video below to see me demonstrating a push-up progression from a beginner’s incline push-up, all the way up to some pretty advanced variations.
I’ll be posting new video clips on pull-ups and squats in the next few weeks, so stay tuned!
Hand strength is arguably the most functional type of strength out there. From carrying grocery bags to opening jars and packages, we use our hands in day-to-day activities more than any other part of the body. The hands are also a crucial component of most upper body exercises, so having strong hands will help your training all around.
The fingertip push-up is a classic exercise that can take your hand strength to new heights. If you don’t have the ability to do fingertip push-ups yet, I recommend practicing the isometric plank position on your fingertips. Start with a few seconds at a time – eventually you should be able to build to a ten-second fingertip plank. Once you’ve achieved that, you’ll be ready to start practicing fingertip push-ups. Begin with just a few reps and slowly add more over time. Eventually you might be strong enough to try holding a fingertip plank on just one hand. A few select individuals can even perform a one arm push-up in this fashion.
If you aren’t able to hold the plank on your fingertips, try placing one hand flat on a slightly elevated object while the opposite hand is supported on the fingertips. Hold for several seconds, then switch hands.
It’s important to note that the term “fingertip push-up” is a bit of a misnomer. You don’t actually want to be all the way on the tips of your fingers, but rather on the pads of your fingers with the tips slightly bent back. Just don’t allow any part of your palm to touch the ground if you want it to be legit.
Pull-ups and Bar Hangs
Fingertip push-ups and hanging from the bar go together like peanut butter and bananas. Pull-ups can do a lot for your grip on their own, but if you want to give your hands some extra attention, try doing additional dead hangs after your pull-ups. When you’re strong enough, you can practice single-arm hangs as well. With any type of dead hang exercise, make sure to stay engaged through your shoulder blades. Don’t allow your chin to collapse into your chest.
Once you can hold a fingertip plank for thirty seconds or more, I recommend experimenting with more difficult isometric fingertip holds. L-sits, elbow levers and even handstands are all fair game for the fingertips once you get strong enough.
Remember to tread slowly with fingertip exercises and don’t expect too much too soon. It’s a fine line between making your hands stronger and injuring yourself. Fingertip holds and bar hangs will be challenging, but they should not be painful.
Progressing from a basic fingertip plank to a fingertip L-sit or fingertip handstand can take years of practice. Always listen to your body and take things slowly.
Watch the video below for more:
I’ve met a lot of guys over the last few years who’ve been banged up from lifting weights and wanted to try switching over to calisthenics-based resistance training. Though these folks recognize the benefits of bodyweight training (improved joint health, increased mobility, greater proprioception, etc.), putting down the weights for good often comes with some hesitation.
One of the most common concerns I’ve heard about dropping the iron in favor of bodyweight training is that there’s no way to replicate the classic deadlift. Push-ups can replace the bench press, squats can be done on one leg to add resistance and pull-ups are better than any pulling movement you can do with a weight anyway. But that deadlift is a bit of a doozy.
Though the specificity principle still applies, you can in fact work your posterior chain and strengthen all the same muscles as the deadlift without any external weights.
Anyone who’s got a solid back bridge can probably deadlift a respectable weight without too much trouble, though you’re unlikely to see too many guys who are even capable of getting into a full back bridge if all they’ve been doing is lifting for years. The bridge will challenge your flexibility as it simultaneously strengthens your hamstrings, glutes, lower-back, upper-back and shoulders.
Click the link for more info on back bridges.
One-Legged Bodyweight Deadlifts
While many weightlifters dismiss this exercise as being too easy, the one-legged bodyweight deadlift is a fantastic way to build strength in your hamstrings, glutes and lower back. If done slowly and with strict attention to detail, performing a dozen or two one-legged bodyweight deadlifts can be a serious challenge even for someone who’s used to moving some heavy metal. They’re also an excellent balance and stability challenge.
Click the link for more info on one legged bodyweight deadlifts.
That’s right, the pistol squat is such a well rounded exercise, it can fill in for both squats AND deadlifts. The pistol also requires considerable core strength (that means lower back too, not just abs!) in addition to strong glutes and hamstrings. Of course the pistol is a big time quad exercise as well – you get a lot of “bang” for your buck with pistols!
Click the link for more info on pistol squats.
There are many ways to perform lever holds and they all require a strong back, powerful core and total body control. The elbow lever is typically the easiest for beginners to start with, though the more advanced back lever is especially demanding on the posterior chain. Try pulling into a back lever from the bottom up and tell me it doesn’t feel as hard as deadlifting a bar with twice your bodyweight.
Click the link for more info on back levers.
While exercises like pistol squats and back levers require some strength to even begin training, newcomers can start practicing one legged deadlifts and back bridges early on in their training. As you get stronger, you can add assisted pistols and modified back levers into your routine, eventually working to the full versions.
Anyone who consistently trains these four exercises will no doubt build a powerful posterior chain that any weightlifter ought to respect. And if you really love deadlifts, there’s no reason you can’t use them in addition to these other moves; it doesn’t have to be an either/or scenario. Bodyweight training and weightlifting can happily coexist in the same program.
Watch the video below for more:
For more information, check out my book, Pushing The Limits! – Total Body Strength With No Equipment.
I first addressed the question last year, but things have changed since then. A lot of my training had been dedicated to preparing for the NYC Triathlon, but since finishing the race, I’ve shifted my primary focus back to strength-based calisthenics. I still do some yoga moves to warm-up, but I am no longer using any weights in my workouts (though I do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work with some of my clients). Weight training is a great way to build strength, but for now my interest lies solely in bodyweight training.
I’m Working Out!
Lately I’ve been enjoying longer workouts with more rest between sets and less structure than ever. I can easily spend two hours on a summer day at Tompkins Square Park just practicing various moves with little concern for the specifics of sets, reps, rest times, etc. And wouldn’t you know it – my skills have been improving!
The main things I’m currently focused on are hand-balancing (including elbow levers), finger strength, and lever holds on the bar. As I discussed in my recent post on why I don’t do cardio, these days I’m all about treating my workouts more as skill practice than anything else. I’m avoiding structured “sets and reps” workouts and staying away from training to failure (not that there is anything wrong with structured workouts and training to failure – in fact, I’d recommend both of those things for beginners). At this point in my training, however, my focus is on refining my skills and improving my body awareness during my movements, so I’m taking my time with things. I’m not so much concerned with getting stronger, but rather learning to utilize my strength more effectively. I’m still exercising pretty much every day (I take a rest day only on days when I am particularly sore or particularly busy) but I vary the intensity and duration of my training from day to day. Some days I’ll train for a couple of hours, other days I’m in and out in thirty minutes. Listening to my body is still a cornerstone of my philosophy, so when I feel like I’ve had enough, I call it a day. I’m also still doing some running and swimming for active recovery.
Those of you who know my fitness philosophy are aware that I am not a fan of the goal-centric mentality that dominates the fitness world. Focusing on goals is often a distraction from the process itself. There are skills I’m looking to improve, but the best way to go about it is to take things one day at a time. With that in mind, my training on any given week might look something like this:
Monday: Muscle-ups, pull-ups, back levers, various fingertip holds
Tuesday: Handstands, handstand push-ups, elbow levers, hanging leg raises
Wednesday: Jump rope, pistol squats, back bridges, fingertip holds
Thursday: Low intensity swim
Friday: One arm pull-ups, one arm hangs, front levers
Saturday: Handstands, push-ups, dips, fingertip holds
Sunday: Pistol squats, shrimp squats, back bridges
What I am doing is basically a modified version of the classic bodybuilding style three-day split: mostly pulling exercises on one day, mostly pushing on another, with legs and low back on the third day. Then an active recovery day, then it repeats. This allows me to train daily while still allowing my muscles adequate rest. Isometrics like elbow levers, handstands and fingertip holds can be practiced more frequently, as the hands are very resilient and all of those skills involve balance and coordination as much as strength.
I’ve done a lot of different types of workout regimens over the years and this is by no means a strict protocol. I’m prone to improvise and go with what I feel on any given day. And of course, I still do the human flag on a regular basis, simply because people are always asking to see it, and I like to give the people what they want.
Like most fitness enthusiasts, I’m always in search of a physical challenge. Pushing myself out of my comfort zone has allowed me to experience a lot of personal growth. Besides, if you only do things that you’re good at, you probably won’t get to do that many different things.
Though I’m known primarily for practicing bodyweight strength training, I’ve also been a recreational runner for several years, having completed multiple races such as the Brooklyn Half Marathon and the NYC Marathon. In fact, I’ve often said that running is the most basic form of bodyweight training in existence. It’s an essential life skill that any fit person should be capable of doing. The same can be said for swimming and cycling. With that in mind, I’ll be participating in my first triathlon this summer. The NYC Triathlon is less than two weeks away and I am ready to rock!
Try to Tri
Triathlon training can be very demanding both time-wise as well as logistically. Arranging to train in three different modalities that all require unique parameters and equipment is overwhelming on it’s own, to say nothing of actually doing the workouts.
Add to that my continued dedication to my strength training during all this and we’re talking about a huge time commitment. Good thing I love working out!
Sink or Swim
Like most triathlon first-timers, the swim was the part I needed to work on most, so I’ve practiced swimming at least three times a week since I got accepted into the race last fall. Nine months ago I could barely swim 100 meters in a pool without a break; in less than two weeks I’m going to attempt to swim almost a mile in the Hudson River.
The rest of the race consists of a 25 mile bike ride, followed by a 6.2 mile run. While neither of those things is too daunting on their own, doing them back-to-back right after the swim is going to be a serious challenge. Though I’ve been running and cycling on and off for years, I’ve recently increased my milage in preparation for this race. My cardiovascular endurance feels solid and my legs are ready to go.
Strength and Conditioning
Of course I’ve also been doing strength work 3-5 times a week. But by treating those workouts strictly as skill practice (low reps, lots of breaks and only working on one or two things at a time), I’ve managed to maintain most of my strength and even improve at a few things like lever holds and hand balancing.
I’ve become a much better swimmer since beginning my triathlon training, and my running and cycling have felt as natural and fluid as ever. If you define physical fitness as being fit to do various physical things, then I am the fittest I’ve ever been. I’m not looking to set any speed records on this race – just finishing will be enough satisfaction. I’ve dedicated my career to calisthenics and bodyweight strength training, the triathlon is something I’m doing just for fun.
Watch the video below to see some highlights from my triathlon training:
If you’re interested in to getting a pair of running sandals like the ones I’m wearing in the video, check out Invisible Shoes.
This question comes up often in strength training circles. When clients ask about rep tempo, my answer is usually to focus on proper form and not to worry about speed. If you can do fast reps and keep them clean and controlled, then go as quickly as you like. If you start losing form, then slow down.
How Slow Can You Go?
While fast reps can be helpful for building agility and explosive power, slow training can be a nice way to work on form and alignment. In fact, just three or four slow reps can often be as challenging as twenty fast ones. Going slowly also requires extreme focus, adding a meditative quality to the workout.
One who’s mastered an exercise can do reps at whatever speed they feel like. As far as I’m concerned, true mastery is only attained once the move can be performed with control at any tempo.
Not So Fast
While there are some strength coaches who claim that super-slow training is the best way to work out, I would certainly not make that assertion. As I’ve stated before, there is no one best way to do anything. There are lots of effective techniques and it’s good to mix it up.
With that in mind, I set out to challenge myself by practicing some of my favorite calisthenics moves much slower than usual. I started with basics like pull-ups and dips, then got to work on super slow muscle-ups, pistol squats and even dragon flags.
Watch the video below for more:
During a recent workout at Tompkins Square Park, I observed a father and son playing catch. The dad was around my age and the boy looked to be about three years old.
At one point the child missed the ball and the dad went to retrieve it. I watched him bend down with his back rounded, shoulders slumped and knees pitched way over his feet. (What you might call “bad form” on a squat or deadlift.)
A few minutes later, the boy missed the ball again, but this time the father let him retrieve it himself. When the tot picked up the ball, he squatted down from his hips with his chest up tall and lifted it without the slightest bend in his back – or any overt awareness of the movement pattern. It seemed to happen very naturally. He certainly had no idea what he’d just done can be difficult for many personal training clients!
Lots of the exercises I teach my clients are movement patterns that children instinctively know, yet through years of neglect, the adult body has forgotten. However, with practice the movements usually return, and with them come increased strength, flexibility and of course, functionality.
Kids typically perform squats and deadlifts without anyone having to show them how. Yet when a deconditioned adult tries to perform these movements, they may feel very unnatural. We’ve spent our entire lives sitting in couches, chairs and cars, steering our bodies away from natural movement patterns. We’ve done this to the point where we’ve unlearned instinctive habits like lifting from the legs, and replaced them with lower back pain and hip ailments.
The best exercises are those which mimic natural movement patterns, like the aforementioned squat and deadlift, but sometimes functional exercises aren’t natural movement patterns. A pistol squat certainly isn’t something the body “naturally” does, but it’s a fantastic exercise nonetheless. The pistol takes a natural movement pattern and exaggerates it, making it more difficult, thereby causing the body to adapt and improve. That’s what makes it a functional exercise – it has carryover into real life scenarios. The pistol improves balance and makes each leg individually strong, so when you need to use them together, they can be an even stronger team.
Function or Fashion?
While taking a natural movement pattern and adding difficulty to it is a great way to bring a practical element to your workout, sometimes “functional training” gets so far removed from the original source that it misses the point. Standing on one foot on a bosu ball while doing an overhead dumbbell press is probably less functional than just using heavier dumbbells on stable ground.
Don’t fall for a “new exercise” just because it looks complicated or involves high-tech equipment. You don’t need anything fancy to get functionally fit. Real-life scenarios might involve standing on a shaky surface or pressing a heavy object, but they rarely involve both at the same time. A heavy standing overhead press is already a stability exercise – it demands that you use your entire body!
If you want to mix up your pressing routine, a handstand push-up might be a better choice. Admittedly, being upside-down isn’t something that will come up in day to day activity for most of us either, but the HSPU demands a high strength-to-weight ratio as well as stability and full body control. The HSPU also requires you to push yourself away from the ground, rather than pushing a weight away from your body, which will automatically engage your scapular musculature and build rotator cuff stability. You’ll be much less likely to make the mistake of pressing with your neck instead of your shoulders. Like all inversions, another benefit of the HSPU is that it can improve circulation.
Have Fun(ction) With It!
There are many ways to take natural movement patterns and increase their difficulty in a functional context. Adding weight, bringing in a plyometric element or using a stability component are some of the best ways to accomplish this. But remember, you don’t need wobble boards and other such gadgetry. Be weary of any fitness equipment that isn’t a weight or some type of pull-up apparatus. As a general rule, the more equipment that is required to perform a given exercise, the less functional it’s likely to be.
Below are some examples of functional exercises in each of the categories mentioned above:
This list is just the tip of the iceberg! The world of functional fitness includes endless variations on these and other exercises. There might be some that are more effective for you than others. Experiment for yourself and let your body be your teacher.