Category Archives: Strength and Conditioning

The Top 5 Pull-up Variations for Building Strength and Muscle

Al Kavadlo Pull-up MuscleIt’s no secret that pull-ups are my favorite exercise. There are an endless number of ways in which you can alter or modify the classic pull-up – and I love them all!

Still, the question remains: What are the very best pull-up variations for building strength and muscle?

Though all types of pull-ups work the entire upper-body (including the abdominal muscles), the following 5 variations are the very best for building strength and size:

Pull-up
The classic overhand pull-up has been a strength training staple for as long as the concept of “working out” has existed. Focus on driving your elbows toward your hips to fully engage your lats.

Chin-up
This underhand version of the classic pull-up is a great way to add emphasis to the biceps. It can also be a less difficult variation for beginners who struggle to perform pull-ups with the overhand grip.

Commando Pull-up
For this variation you will grasp the bar with your hands facing one another in a close grip, and your body positioned in line with the bar. This means you will have to pull yourself toward the side on the way up, which creates a unique challenge. Make sure to alternate which side of the bar your head passes with each rep.

L-sit Pull-up
The L-sit pull-up is a fantastic way to increase the demand on your abs, while also increasing the strength and muscle building potential for your entire upper body. Due to the change in leverage, all of your muscles will have to work harder than in a standard pull-up.

Archer Pull-up
The archer pull-up is an advanced variation that involves keeping one arm straight while relying primarily on the opposite side to do the bulk of the pulling. Begin like you’re performing a very wide pull-up, but bend only one of your arms as you pull your chin over the bar. This means your torso will shift toward that side while the opposite arm stays straight. The hand of your straight arm may need to open and roll over the bar at the top of the range of motion, depending on your wrist mobility.

Watch the video below for more!

Hand and Wrist Warm-ups for Handstands

Al Kavadlo Straight HandstandWhen performing handstands, elbow levers and other handbalancing exercises, the hands and wrists bear most of the burden. For this reason, it is important to warm them up properly before your handbalancing practice.

In the video below, I demonstrate six simple warm-ups you can perform for your hands and wrists before beginning your practice:

–Wrist rocks
–Wrist rolls
–Wrist circles
–Side-to-sides
–Reverse side-to-sides
–Fist spreads

I recommend performing each of these movements 10-15 times in each direction before beginning your handstand training. Also feel free to perform additional reps while you rest in between efforts.

The exercises in the video go by fairly quickly, so you may need to watch it a few times.

Happy Handstanding!

Strength Rules

Strength Rules

The wait is over! My brother Danny Kavadlo’s new book Strength Rules is now on sale in both paperback and ebook formats!

Strength Rules showcases Danny’s colorful personality and out-of-the-box philosophy on strength training and nutrition. It’s my personal favorite of Danny’s books so far!

Here’s what others have to say about Strength Rules:

“If you are a bodyweight master, this is the bible you will want to go back to again and again, to keep you on the straight and narrow. If you are raw beginner—Jeez, then get this book right now, follow the rules, and save yourself years of wasted effort! Strength Rules is as good as it gets!”
—PAUL WADE, author of Convict Conditioning

“Strength Rules by Danny Kavadlo is so good you can’t ignore it. It’s minimalistic. It’s low tech. It’s simple. It’s right.”
—DAN JOHN, author of Never Let Go

“I can’t say enough good things about Danny Kavadlo. I just love his entire approach, mindset and overall vibe. And Strength Rules has to be one of the coolest, most badass fitness books I have ever seen.” —JASON FERRUGGIA

So what are you waiting for? Go get your copy of Strength Rules right now!

Pushing The Limits! Ebook

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.

Click here for more information or to purchase your copy of Pushing The Limits!

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


Click here for more information or to purchase your copy of Pushing The Limits!

The Century Workout

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:

Men                                       Women
40 Squats                              40 Squats
30 Push-ups                         30 Knee Push-ups
20 Hanging Knee Raises     20 Hanging Knee Raises
10 Pull-ups                           10 Australian Pull-ups

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.

Progressive Calisthenics Certification

I’m excited to announce that my brother Danny and I have partnered up with Dragon Door to bring you the world’s first ever Progressive Calisthenics Certification (PCC).

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!

Click here for more info about the PCC!

Hand and Finger Strength

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.

Fingertip Push-ups
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.

Hold Everything
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:

Bodyweight Deadlift Alternatives

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.

Back Bridges
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.

Pistol Squats
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.

Levers
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.

Alternatives Rock
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.

Ask Al: How Do YOU Train?

Other than how to do a muscle-up and what the “trick” is to doing the human flag, the most common question I get asked is what I do in my own workouts.

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.

Goal Digger
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.