I have always admired the physique of gymnasts.
Aesthetically, I think they look so much better than bodybuilders - just as impressively strong and muscular, yet much more athletic and definitely more functional.
I'm not alone.
The overly-muscled, restrictively-bloated meathead look is no longer in vogue. In 2016, it's all about functional 'street' strength and having the appearance of an all-round athlete.
It's why cross-fit has exploded in popularity in recent years.
And now there's an even faster growing movement in the world of fitness. It's one that I've followed for the last 6 months and, at just shy of 40 years young, I've never been in better shape.
What is it?
Advanced bodyweight training. Or advanced calisthenics as it's also known.
No dumbbells. No resistance machines. Just your big bad self and a set of bars!
And if you think 'bodyweight only' means limited muscular gains, take a look at the co-creators of the training program I currently follow. They use exclusively bodyweight (but in a very structured way)...
Co-creators of the Bar Brother training system, Lazar Novovic and Dusan Djolevic
The rest of this page is a short review of advanced calisthenics - and why you should consider it if you're determined to create an incredible physique that is both head turning and healthy.
The program I follow is called the Bar Brothers System. There are others. This is the one I choose for the reasons below.
When I refer to advanced callisthenics or advanced bodyweight training from now on, what I'm referring to is a progression towards signature moves like one handed push ups and pull ups, muscle ups, hand stand presses, the human flag, levers, planches and so on. See some of them in the images below.
You may have heard of some of these already. You've definitely seen some of them if you've ever watched a male gymnastic routine.
These moves and holds are the end goals you travel towards. You'll sculpt a phenomenal body while you're on the journey, and well before you reach the final destination.
First of all, there's nothing wrong with weight training. Nothing at all. I'm a big proponent that resistance training, plus a high protein, relatively low carb diet is the best way to transform your body.
But there's something different about bodyweight-only training.
It's refreshingly simple, especially if you've spent many years in a gym. And, I believe, advanced calisthenics makes it possible for ordinary people to achieve extraordinary results.
Here's 3 reasons why...
I can't back this up with science but there's something about the physiques of gymnasts and bodyweight street athletes that stands out from bodybuilders and weight lifters. At least the majority of them.
They are all, almost without exception, extremely muscular, incredibly well-proportioned, exceptionally lean and sport a very athletic presence. Their athleticism is almost intimidating.
You don't see the same consistency in gym buffs and amateur bodybuilders. You see horrendous postures. You see overly developed chests and rounded shoulders. You see knee straps and anterior pelvic tilt. You see guys bench pressing 100kg plus with ease and then struggling to do more than a handful of chin ups. Outside the competitive arena, a six pack is a rarity.
Bodyweight athletes have stunning postures. They don't carry an ounce of dead mass. They're chiseled and they're healthy.
Plateaus plague the weight lifter.
You can get past the first few with a bit of patience and determination but there comes a point where you feel like you're busting your ass just to maintain what you've got.
God forbid you get the flu. Or go on vacation.
It takes you 4 weeks to get back to where you where before the break. And if you get injured (when, not if) I guarantee you'll try to train around it for fear of taking too much of a backward step.
I think the lack of progress most of us see after lifting weights for a while is a mental phenomena, not a physical one.
You go to the gym and 'hope' you lift more than the last time. There's no real purpose. There's no laser-focused, crystal-clear milestones for you to hit. And how could there be? Your long term goals loosely consist of "Maybe one day I'll be lifting from the bottom row of dumbbells". Inspirational!
Bodyweight training has its plateaus. Of course it does. But advanced calisthenics has an in-built set of milestones that are far more meaningful than forever striving to lift just that bit more poundage.
Signature moves like muscle ups and human flags and back levers and one arm pull ups are all very clear, very purposeful goals to aim for.
They are also much easier to visualise and to keep firmly in the front of your mind than lifting X kg for X reps. I think that is crucial for both long-term motivation and the goal achievement process.
And when you understand how progression works in advanced calisthenics (how you go from a two-handed push up to a strict one-handed push up for example), you'll see it's not just about more reps or more weight. You advance through a series of ever-increasingly difficult moves, each one a clear and self-motivating mini goal in and of itself.
Virtually no one gives the potential for chronic injury the respect it deserves.
And unless you're doing something very different than 99% of amateur bodybuilders and gym goers, long-term injury to your shoulders, elbows, back and/or knees is basically inevitable.
With every session you're creating greater imbalances. Imbalances that probably originated outside the gym but that are exasperated by lifting weights the way most people do.
You'll get away with it for a while. Maybe even a long while. But eventually it will catch up with you. And when it does it's a downward spiral that looks something like this:
Nothing stifles progress, and your day-to-day life, like a chronic nagging injury.
The mentality I hear all the time is:
"I've been doing what I've been doing for years and it's never done me any harm".
Like that has any bearing on whether you'll get injured tomorrow or next week or next year!
You need to protect yourself - your joints and your back. You need to start now even if you're in your twenties.
I'm not about to say that bodyweight training is a guaranteed way to do this. You can destroy your elbows with too many chin ups and your shoulders with poor muscle up technique. Calisthenics is not immune to creating imbalances either.
But I guarantee that if you follow a calisthenics program created by a reputable coach, your whole body will feel healthier and more fluid than ever before.
First and foremost, I like their training plan. I like how it progresses. And I like how they fanatically emphasise technique.
I'm still sports scientist at heart and I know what solid training methodology looks like (even if I am still relatively new to advanced calisthenics).
The fitness world is full of hype. The Bar Brothers System isn't and neither are its founders.
Ask co-creators Lazar Novovic and Dusan Djolevic if you can shortcut this, or fast track that, and they'll tell you no. No pandering to your impatience - just the facts about what it takes to succeed.
Call it cheesy, but they really do make you feel part of a movement.
Sport at its best brings people together, regardless of race, gender and background. And that's what is at the core of the Bar Brothers movement. There's even a 4 minute challenge to become part of the 'brotherhood' (I'm not quite there yet).
And here's a little motivational video, to give you a taste what Bar Brothers is about:
Lastly, they understand the importance of nutrition.
You don't build your best body without changing your diet. I don't care what training program you follow.
It's resistance training for muscle gain and diet for fat loss. And advanced bodyweight routines demand that you lose excess fat.
The recommendations in the Bar Brothers nutrition program are very similar to the recommendations coming from a growing body of research... research that shows higher protein, good fat and low carb intake is the best for losing body fat.
And not a protein shake or supplement in sight!
Follow Bar Brothers on Facebook / Instagram and you'll see enough before and afters to leave you in no doubt the power of bodyweight only.
Here's a few:
And then of course, there's 'that' transformation video with 20 million views:
It's not just the Bar Brothers system that gets results. Google "calisthenics before and after" and won't be short of examples.
Tip: their home page consists of video and a 'Get Access' button. The video has no player controls so you can't see how long it is. It's 22 minutes. It's well worth watching but if you don't have time, skip the video and click the 'Get Access' button.
It's for anyone who is in decent shape, has no shape or is out of shape. The only caveat I'd suggest is that if you are significantly overweight you should consider addressing that first, primarily through diet. See Tim Ferris' blog post for the most efficient way to do this.
It's for anyone vein enough to want to create an outstanding physique. Your best ever. And I say that only half joking - we're all a little bit vein.
It's for anyone that values the health of their back and joints as much as their appearance.
It's for anyone that wants to workout in the time it used to take them getting to and from the gym.
It's every ordinary man and woman that wants to create an extraordinary result.