Thursday, October 10, 2013

The Fitness Dive and the Ten Wharfs - III

What makes ordinary people like you and me into superhuman soldiers aka the US Navy SEALS who save the world in a week’s work? What built a delinquent young kid into ‘the world’s most dangerous man’ aka MMA legend Ken Shamrock? What sculpted actor-athlete Woody Strode into the ‘most beautiful male specimen of his time’ and prompted Adolf Hitler to exclaim that Woody had ‘…the greatest physique of any athlete ever seen..”

Ladies and gentlemen, put your hands together for the humblest fruit-seed on the fitness tree –b-o-d-y-w-e-i-g-h-t-c-a-l-i-s-t-h-e-n-i-c-s!

What? Why did you all stop clapping? Not cool enough? I know… I know… For those of you who’ve been brought up on images of beefy men benching a mountain and ladies in leotards beating the beats with hand-weights as the ideal path to fitness, calisthenics are merely an old fashioned way to warm-up…

In the third episode in this countdown, we will explore the oldest, and to its champions, arguably the best form of exercise known to man – bodyweight training, or as the old timers call it – ‘freehand exercises’.

What’s new about free hand exercises? Push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups and squats… that’s all there is to them, you say… ok for beginners or to supplement a weight-training program but it can’t sustain a comprehensive fitness life-style. How can push-ups compare with bench presses or clean and presses when it comes to building lean muscle or athletic strength?

Well, here’s how…

First up, the endurance hound’s holy grail – The Special Operations Warrior Workout! This freehand training method has evolved from the trenches. Soldiers in the field of battle, from when they were fighting with rocks and clubs to assault rifles and grenades, they’ve always known that the key to surviving most life and death situations, be it cutting through enemy positions, crossing a desert or a swamp, surviving a plane crash or a ship wreck or years as a prisoner of war, the most essential ingredient to survive it all is endurance – indomitable and unstoppable mental and physical endurance that refuses to accept defeat until the goal is reached or the body gives up the ghost.

To this end, elite super soldiers like the Navy Seals and martial artists like Matt Furey and those from Shamrock’s Lion’s Den gym crank out push-ups and pull-ups and crunches and squats till their whole body is reduced to a quivering gob of jelly. They might throw around some weights too but the cornerstone of their workout is the extremely high repetition workout plan where numbers routinely cross a few hundreds and often get into the thousand plus zone. This kind of training not only builds great muscle tone and endurance but it does something which few other relatively low rep or training to failure type methods can achieve. High rep whole body training, which is usually infinitely more intense than high rep, single joint machine or weight training, with the mind focused on a certain goal or number, trains not only the body but also the mind to keep fighting and not give up - even as the mouth goes dry and the muscles burn with lactic acid build up; when cranking even one more rep seems difficult and you have almost a hundred to go; when every cell in your body screams out for a reprieve but you just clench your jaw and keep going.

This kind of training will tomorrow help a soldier with a bullet lodged in his thigh still grit his teeth and carry his severely wounded buddy through a swamp and a forest over days without food to safety.

What good is it for you when all you want is a chiseled bod to show off in a Versace gown or in your Speedos by the pool? Well, for starters, if you have a mountain of lard to lose, then high rep goal oriented training is not only your best bet for building high octane fat burning muscle while giving yourself a great cardio workout, but it also gives you micro goals that will keep you motivated while the mirror takes its own sweet time in revealing the truth.

And for those of you who are already in good shape, there is nothing as liberating as getting a great workout anytime, anywhere, with nothing but your own body.

And if the extreme athlete in you feels that squats without weights is for sissies, pick up Ken Shamrock’s book –Inside the Lion’s Den. Flip to page 36. “Give me 500 squats”, Masami Saranaka, talent scout for a Japanese fighting circuit, had demanded. The scout knew that high rep squats test the two most important weapons in a fighter’s armoury – legs and heart. Shamrock of course had obliged, but if you want to know if you are fit to fight, go ahead, give the 500 a try. Elite international fighters usually manage 500 squats, a 100 push-ups and about a 100 crunches. And Navy Seal tests need athletes to swim and run for miles, do hundreds of push-ups and crunches and manage about 20 pull ups at least to be competitive. Now I’ve given you the goal. See how you match up… And if this isn’t incentive enough, even an iron-warrior like Arnold Schwarzenegger has asserted in ‘The Education of a Bodybuilder’, that not only do freehand exercises build a great foundation of muscle but sculpt the body in the tradition of the heroic Greek ideal. Now do you have a problem with looking like the Farnese Hercules? I don’t!

So if high repetition bodyweight exercises can give you superhuman endurance, excellent cardiovascular fitness and a lean muscular physique then why would you need anything else? What’s missing in the mix? 

And the answer is strength. A 100 pushups in five minutes still wouldn’t necessarily translate into the kind of strength you would need to manage a single one arm push up. Traditional body weight training makes it difficult for athletes to increase resistance once a certain level of strength has been attained. Once you can do 50 pushups or 15 pull ups, the only way to progress further is to keep increasing repetitions. While that is excellent for improving overall fitness, such training does little for building strength.

But in penitentiaries around the world, many criminals who are confined without access to modern gymnasiums still want to keep themselves fit and strong. For some, it is a way to ward off boredom while for others it is a way to acquire strength and respect - vital weapons if one wants to survive in the brutal dog eat dog world behind bars and steel doors. These prison athletes began experimenting with bodyweight training methods with greater leverage challenges. One arm push-ups and pull-ups, one legged squats and the like. On the outside, acrobats, gymnasts and circus performers had also been training with these techniques to build enormous strength without becoming too bulky. The focus was on improving the body’s power to weight ratio. There are many names for this game. Some authors call it ‘convict conditioning’ while others call it ‘freehand acrobatics’. In essence, it is extreme bodyweight gymnastics.

Today, extreme bodyweight athletes like Jim Bathurst, Al Kavadlo and Bulgarian superman Encho Keryazov are exponents of an extreme bodyweight training lifestyle that not only sculpts fit and beautiful bodies but is one of the few training methods that make for great viewing for bystanders too. Some of the things that these athletes can do are straight out of a ‘Ripley’s believe it or not’ episode. And their lean and muscular physiques are almost impossible to replicate with conventional weight training.

Then why are freehand exercises figuring in the middle of the list instead of at the very top? No gym required. Extremely healthy training methods which are both comprehensive and relatively safe. The physiques they build are unique and aesthetic. So what gives?

Well, granted that all you need for these workouts is your body but to achieve exceptional levels of aesthetics and strength, you need a very fit and strong body to even begin some of these exercises. Most people reading this would find it difficult to manage even one pull up or one-legged squat. And I w if any wonder how many would have the mental fortitude and physical endurance to crank out 50 consecutive pushups. The problem with freehand exercises, while excellent for beginners looking to build a foundation before moving on to weights and cables, is that they are too demanding. Freehand exercises, contrary to the belief that they are too easy, are in fact a lifestyle choice for a select few only who have the willingness to forge both body and mind in a foundry that is a little too hot for most and therein rests its Achilles’ heel.

Ten reps and three sets of a moderately loaded bench press bar and about 20 minutes of running on the treadmill are nowhere near as intense as three sets of ten one arm pushups and 500 squats. And when the apparent results, at least on the aesthetic plane are pretty much the same, then why should one strive that much harder.

As long as ‘fabulous fitness’ is all you seek, indeed why should you, for there are better bargains to come in the countdown. Just hang in there for a week more… and if from a pull up bar is too much to ask, go get yourself a hammock instead.



  1. hey nice post meh, I love your style of blogging here. this post reminds me of an equally interesting post that I read some time ago on Daniel Uyi's blog: Good Openers For Approaching Girls .
    keep up the good work friend. I will be back to read more of your posts.



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