Child To Champion

Calisthenics for the Youth Athlete: Part 1

Kalos, from the Greek word meaning beauty. Thenics from the Greek word meaning strength.

Some may scoff at calisthenics as being simple bodyweight training…and building up towards seemingly superhuman feats of athleticism, such as a human flag, handstand push-ups or one arm pull-ups, is simple..but not easy.

Yet people often confuse the two.

When using calisthenics with athletes, especially ‘beginner’ or youth athletes, it is often confused with being a watered-down version of strength training…or worse still, only used for muscular endurance.

Now calisthenics is not a poor choice of training modality for strength training, or muscular endurance.

Far from it in fact.

But as always, the devil is the detail.

After reading this blog and next weeks blog (Part 2)  you will learn:

·       Why misconceptions of calisthenics are based on flawed logic

·       The unique benefits calisthenics can bring to the youth athlete

·       How to apply it into yours, your child’s or your youth athletes training

 Part 1: Misconceptions

Misconception Number 1: Calisthenics Are Only for Muscular Endurance

To quote the author of Naked Warrior, Pavel Tsatsouline:

\”There is nothing magical or mysterious about your bodyweight versus iron that suddenly changes all the laws of strength training.\”

Strength is often defined as the ability to exert force against a resistance; and if you go by most textbooks the a typical way of improving strength is to lift heavy loads (>80% of the maximal load you can lift) for 1-5 reps…

..and this is where people often go wrong in their thinking with calisthenics.

Often when using calisthenics, we run out of ideas and just simply add reps.

Now if we were training with the goal of muscular endurance, then that would be perfectly logical.

Let’s take a look at an example…

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Athlete A can perform 20 strict press ups.

What this means is that when athlete A has to perform 5 strict press ups this will not be sufficient for them to develop strength.

So how do you make this harder whilst still adhering to the principles of strength training?

You’ll have to patiently read on to misconception number 2 for the answer…!

But for now, stay with me as I introduce athlete B, who can only perform 5 perfect press ups before their technique breaks down.

For athlete B then performing 1-5 push ups for said person will be a strength exercise.

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Suppose athlete A and athlete B attend an exercise class where the instructor has them perform 10 push ups as part of a workout of the day…which athlete’s push ups will end up resembling a seal first?

This is one of the reasons why a workout of the day approach or attending an exercise class leaves athletic performance gains in the table.

In the above scenario, athlete A is training so sub-maximally they aren’t developing strength or muscular endurance, whereas athlete B is not adapting to the workout, they are simply trying to survive it.

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And if Aristotle is anyone to go by, both athletes are developing poor habits; whilst one athlete is training well below their capabilities, another is repeatedly ingraining poor exercise technique as they attempt exercise parameters that are well above their current physical and technical capabilities

If you aren’t demanding excellence of your athletes in training…don’t expect it to magically show up in their competition.

Misconception Number 2: You Cannot Build Strength Using Bodyweight Alone

So how exactly do we modify bodyweight exercises when we only have so many lbs of our own bodyweight?

How do we make the exercise hard enough that we can only complete ≤5 reps?

1) Redistribute your weight between your limbs (pistol squats are a prime example of drastic redistribution, although archer pull ups,  and archer push ups show how you can gradually progress from bilateral to unilateral variations)

2) Manipulate range of motion (although handstand push ups fall into the strength bracket for most athletes, performing handstand push ups on a box that allows for deeper range of motion is another means of continuing to enhance the strength requirements without adding external load)

3) Train in an unstable environment (I.e. more asymmetrically loaded) ­– this does not mean perform your movements on a swiss ball, it simply means using exercises that bias one side of the body more. A pistol squat is much more unstable that a traditional bodyweight squat

4) Vary the leverage – elevating the hands or feet increases the difficulty, for example, feet elevated inverted rows

5) Minimise bounce and momentum – building strength from a dead stop (i.e. no bounce) is much harder than using momentum, this is where strict tempo work or pausing at the bottom of a movement can come in to play.

Irrespective of a person’s understanding of training, I think you would be hard pressed to find someone who wouldn’t agree that a person who could perform (for example) a one-handed chin up and wouldn’t call them strong…yet as I mentioned earlier, people misinformed on calisthenics can mistakenly assume that calisthenics is all about maximum number of repetitions and muscular endurance.

The remainder of this post will talk about the unique benefits of calisthenics that are difficult, if not impossible, to realise with other modalities of training.

Come back next week for Part 2!

Key Resources:

School of Calisthenics Virtual Classroom

The Mindful Mover

Gold Medal Bodies

Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline

School of Calisthenics 2018 UKSCA Presentation Bombproof Shoulders

About The Author

Todd Davidson is a UKSCA accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach currently undertaking a PGCE through St Mary’s University, with the longer term aim of introducing athletic development into the national P.E curriculum. Todd\’s current interest on youth athletes was sparked by gaining experience with University, Paralympic and Olympic athletes as part of his internship roles with Durham University, Middlesex County Cricket Club and the English Institute for Sport, with GB Boxing and Paralympic Table Tennis, and speaking to other practitioners as to how this journey can be scaled more effectively to reduce injury risk, enhance performance and improve athletic development in youth athletes.

Todd can be found via:

Twitter: @todddavidson93
Facebook: search Todd Davidson P2P coaching
Instagram: @ToddDavidsonP2Pcoaching

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