BOOK REVIEW: Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras

Bodyweight Strength Training AnatomyBodyweight Strength Training Anatomy by Bret Contreras
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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This book combines a calisthenics manual with the anatomical drawings and descriptions necessary to explain the muscle activations involved in each exercise. It takes a very straightforward approach, being organized by body part. Each chapter discusses the component muscles of said part and their unique features, and then gives a series of exercises to work said part. For each exercise, at least one anatomical drawing is provided, showing the primary and secondary muscles being worked in the exercise. In some cases, more than one drawing is needed to convey the full range of motion of the exercise, but in many cases one drawing is sufficient. Each exercise also receives a brief bullet-point description of the action, a textual list of muscles utilized, and notes on issues and cautions to keep in mind to get the most out of the exercise.

Chapter 1 sets the stage for the rest of the book. It discusses general principles to be kept in mind like the need to balance opposing muscle groups, and it also lays out the advantages and limitations of calisthenics, or bodyweight, workouts over other approaches to fitness. Like a number of other calisthenics’ books, this one emphasizes the advantage of not necessarily needing any equipment. In other words, with a little creativity and some quality doors, robust furniture, or park access, one can do all of these exercises without either a gym membership or costly trips to the sporting goods store. Of course, one does need sturdy stationary objects to pull against, particularly to maintain a balanced upper body. What I like about this book more than some others I’ve read is that it emphasizes the need for safety in taking the equipmentless approach. I’ve cringed before in seeing some of the improvised set ups that have been jury-rigged as examples in other calisthenics manuals, but this book uses stout furniture and rafters to get the point across.

Chapters 2 through 9 each focuses on a particular body part, including (respectively): arms, neck and shoulders, chest, core, back, thighs, glutes, and calves. Each chapter starts with some general information on muscle action before launching into the exercises. If you have a particular interest in developing your glutes (i.e. your butt, your backside), then this is definitely the book for you. The author specializes in glutes, and while there are about a typical number of exercises for that musculature, the background information up front is more extensive than for most of the other chapters. For many of the exercises, the author proposes regressions and progressions — that is, easier and harder variants of a fundamental for those who either aren’t up to the basic yet or who need a harder version to challenge them.

The penultimate chapter, Ch. 10, presents whole-body exercises (e.g. burpees, mountain climbers, etc.) and discusses the benefits of including such exercises in one’s workout regimen. Included in this chapter is an introduction to both high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and to Metabolic Resistance Training (MRT.)

The final chapter offers an overview of all the factors to keep in mind when arranging exercises into a program (e.g. number of sets, repetitions per set, and how such considerations are varied depending upon one’s goals.) There’s a lot to consider when putting together a workout regimen, including: the necessary rest periods, balancing one’s workouts to avoid structural imbalances, and how to vary one’s approach depending upon one’s individual goals. A section on exercise for fat loss is included, which is important not only because there are so many people interested in that subject but also because there is so much misinformation out there.

As mentioned, most of the graphics are anatomical drawings showing the muscles in cut-away as the action of the exercise is being performed. There are a few other graphics to help clarify information, as well as tables in the last couple chapters to present information in an organized and easy to use fashion.

I found this book to be informative and well-organized. It’s a straightforward presentation of the skeleto-muscular action involved in various calisthenics exercises. If that’s what one is looking for, or even if one is just looking for a guide to bodyweight exercises, this book will meet your needs.

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BOOK REVIEW: Complete Calisthenics by Ashley Kalym

Complete Calisthenics - The Ultimate Guide To Bodyweight ExerciseComplete Calisthenics – The Ultimate Guide To Bodyweight Exercise by Ashley Kalym
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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“Complete Calisthenics” delivers an overview of body-weight exercises, as well as the information needed to begin a calisthenic workout program. It covers advanced exercises such as planches, levers, and flags, but it also provides simplified modifications and progressions for said advanced exercises for those who aren’t ready to leap into gymnast level practice. I’d say this book is ideal for an intermediate level practitioner or, at least, someone in sound physical shape who can knock out several push-ups and at least a few pull-ups. It offers one the information necessary to gradually progress toward the most advanced levels. While there are simplified modifications, a beginner who is out of shape may need more content on capacity-building and simplified modifications to get started.

The first six chapters form an introduction and give essential background information on equipment, nutrition, rest / recovery, warming up / mobility, and flexibility. The warming up and stretching sections provide many photos and explanations of key points, just as the latter exercise sections do.

Chapters seven through twenty describe and demonstrate the various exercises. These chapters can be divided into the first five chapters (ch. 7 through 11) that cover upper-body push and pull exercises (i.e. push-ups, pull-ups, dips, muscle-ups, and handstands.) Each of the aforementioned exercises has a range of variations offered–some easier and many harder than the basic. Chapters 12 through 16 explore levers (planche, front lever, back lever, half lever, and human flag) and these offer progressions, variations, and various approaches to entering the pose—since most practitioners will not be able to proceed straight to the full expression of the technique. Chapters 17 through 20 delve into the core, lower body, and full-body exercises. These are: floor core exercises (17), leg raises (18), lower body / leg exercises (19), and conditioning exercises–i.e. the full-body exercises that get the heart pumping (20.)

The last two chapters suggest an approach to building a training program and offer an FAQ, respectively. The approach suggested involves four levels. The first is called “the fundamental five” and it is built around push-ups, pull-ups, dips, hanging knee raises, and squats. The next builds upon the first and prepares one to transition to the third, which focuses on learning to do the levers. The final is called “complete calisthenics” and it incorporates all the advanced. The author also describes how one might approach optimizing one’s program to one’s needs and abilities.

The one thing that I missed is a discussion of intervals. Even if the author doesn’t use or recommend such an approach (timed work/rest), I expected he would discuss his rationale. In the FAQ, he does mention that the reason that he doesn’t discuss periodization (having occasional light spells for long-term recovery) is because they must be tailored to the needs / fitness level of the individual. At any rate, the role of time in workouts was conspicuously absent.

That said, I found this book to be quite well done overall. The pictures are explicit. The write-ups mention important points of consideration—e.g. safety challenges. There’s a thorough coverage of progressions and modifications. I’d recommend this book for anyone who practices calisthenics. Again, it’s probably a little more suitable for someone who either has an existing practice that they’d like to ramp up, or at least someone who has a reasonable level of fitness starting out.

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5 Exercises to Wed Your Yoga and Calisthenic Practices

5.) Anything plank (a.k.a. adho mukha dandasana / santolanasana): Who knows how long planks have been a feature of yoga? Plank postures are a fixture in Hatha Yoga, playing a role in most versions of Surya Namaskara (sun salutations), and being used to both to build core strength and to prepare for arm balances.

Planks have also gained immense popularity with calisthenic practitioners. In my gym class days, sit-ups and crunches were the go to ab exercises. No more. Now many bodyweight fitness practitioners are ditching sit-ups and crunches altogether for a number of exercises deemed more effective–include many variations on the plank.

High plank (adho mukha dandasana)

 

Low plank (chaturanga dandasana)

 

Forearm plank variation with leg up

 

High plank variation with alternating limbs extended

 

Side plank (vasisthasana)

 

4.) Back bridge (a.k.a. Chakrasana): This is another yoga classic that’s being brought into calisthenics training in a big way. You may note a recurring theme in my selections for this post, exercises and postures (asana) that help to build shoulder joints that are strong, stable, and yet sufficiently flexible. This is a big challenge for bodyweight workout practitioners. One can get stability by bulking the muscles up, but if you don’t have the range of motion to achieve proper alignment, it’s not going to do one a lot of good.

The back bridge (chakrasana, or “wheel pose”)

 

3.) L-sit (a.k.a. Bramcharyasana): Of course, the other recurring theme (besides building shoulder stability) is core strength. This exercise is both a yoga classic and is probably as old as gymnastics itself. Its Sanskrit name, Brahcharyasana, means celibate’s pose–but as far as I’m concerned that’s purely optional.

L-sit (Bramcharyasana)

 

2.) “Supermans” (a.k.a. shalabasana [locust pose]): Another core exercise, but one that strengthens the back muscles.

“Supermans” (shalabasana)

 

1.) Handstands and Handstand Preppers (a.k.a. adho mukha vrksasana): This practice isn’t just about looking impressive. As mentioned above, it’s hard to build shoulder joints that allow enough stability and range of motion to have the command of one’s body that one would like. Our shoulders are optimized to maximum mobility. That helped our ancestors to be awesome throwers of spears and rocks, but it makes it tough to support our weight in an inverted position. The handstand is a good way to build stability in the shoulders.

Handstand (adho mukha vrksasana)

 

If it’s too hard, use your legs to stabilize you (but still try to get that straight up-and-down arm position)

 

If it’s too easy, start doing push-ups

BOOK REVIEW: You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren

You Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercisesYou Are Your Own Gym: The bible of bodyweight exercises by Mark Lauren
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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As the title suggests, this is a guide to bodyweight exercises, and—specifically—periodized callisthenic training without equipment. Periodization is an approach in which the volume and intensity of workouts is in constant flux, as opposed to the regular approach that used to be the norm. It’s with regard to coping with a lack of fixed equipment that this book really seeks to separate itself from the many high-intensity interval training (HIIT) books in bookstores today. Obviously, calisthenics require much less equipment than weight training. However, without at least a pull-up bar and dip bars, it’s hard to get a well-rounded bodyweight workout. You Are Your Own Gym shows the exercises done with makeshift apparatus where necessary. Some of the suggested substitutes look safer than others, and a few of them (e.g. door pull-ups) work muscles a little differently than the basic. However, the examples get one into the habit of considering how one can use one’s environment creatively to get a good workout. [I would recommend exercising caution and safety when using the demonstrated improvised methods.] Even if one has access to equipment in day-to-day life, frequent travelers often have trouble getting a good workout in on the road. This book can be helpful in assisting one in avoiding the dead spots in one’s training regimen due to inability to get to a fitness facility.

The author, Mark Lauren, is a former Combat Controller and Special Operations fitness instructor. For readers who aren’t familiar with the US Air Force, Combat Control is one of two special operations career fields in the Air Force (excepting pilots and crew who fly special operators around.) Combat Controllers usually serve with Army Special Forces, facilitating the provision of air support in the midst of combat operations. Lauren certainly has the bona fides to write intelligently on the subject.

The book consists of 12 chapters, but it’s the penultimate and final chapters that present the meat of the work. Chapter 11 presents a thorough collection of bodyweight exercises organized by the area of the body worked. In most cases, the exercise descriptions include a photo, as well as modifications to provide a more or less strenuous version of the exercise. The latter feature makes Lauren’s program nicely scalable. The reader can optimize exercises to his or her needs.

The last chapter lays out the program. Because varying the characteristics of the workout is the key to the periodization approach, varied workout structures are discussed. These include well-known approaches such as interval sets, super sets, and tabatas, as well as less familiar approaches such as stappers (cycling through a fixed number of repetitions of a few exercises for a set amount of time without rest periods—but with a low enough number of reps to avoid failure) and ladders (i.e. long sets in which one does on rep, rests for one, does two reps, rests for two, etc. up to just before the point of failure, and then working back down to one rep in a symmetric manner.) While one can certainly make up one’s own workout with the knowledge gained to this point in the book, there are 10-week sample programs at four different levels (starting with beginners and working toward advanced practitioners of calisthenics.) If you’re not sure which level is right for you, the author provides a set of exercises that one should be able to carry out as a minimum to begin work at a given level.

The first ten chapters deal with a range of subjects including: diet, strength training myths, motivation, intensity, and the nature of bodyweight exercise. These short chapters lay out basic concepts helpful to engage in the program. There are three appendices that discuss equipment issues, a summary of guiding principles, and a discussion of the science of the program. The latter is beneficial, given some claims by the author that old school fitness buffs might find hard to accept–such as the lack of need for high volume endurance activities for cardio (i.e. one doesn’t need go for a run to get cardio benefits.)

I found this book to be beneficial. I like the fact that Lauren addresses the science of the approach rather than just throwing his approach out there with all the fad workouts. I found the advice to be sound, and have become more creative when considering how I can get a good workout on the road as a result of reading the book. As I write this, I’m in the 10th (and final) week of one of the sample workout sequences. I believe I’ve gotten good strength workouts from the program. I enjoy the scalability of the program, and have taken advantage of both easier and harder variants of the exercises.

I’d recommend this book if you’re looking for a bodyweight exercise program—particularly if you travel a lot, don’t have access to fitness facilities, or just like to workout at home.

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BOOK REVIEW: Zen Mind, Strong Body by Al Kavadlo

Zen Mind, Strong Body: How To Cultivate Advanced Calisthenic Strength--Using The Power Of Zen Mind, Strong Body: How To Cultivate Advanced Calisthenic Strength–Using The Power Of “Beginner’s Mind” by Al Kavadlo

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This book discusses issues related to a calisthenics-centric approach to fitness. The first thing that one should be aware of is that the book has no such unifying theme as would be suggested by the title. Really, this is a sort of “best of” collection of Al Kavadlo’s blog posts, but—of course—that makes for a really unsalable title. The title is a take-off on Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, which is quoted in the front matter. Don’t expect Zen or the mind to formally enter the picture in a major way. I will say that Kavadlo has a Zen approach in that he emphasizes simplicity and paying attention to what one is doing throughout (so many people try to drown out their workouts with music or entertainment.)

I had mixed feelings about this book. On the pro side, Kavadlo is clearly knowledgeable and has a sound and pragmatic approach to fitness. Not only is he not trying to sell you on supplements and fitness fads, he tries to discourage such profit-driven nonsense. You’ll get some good information and sound advice from reading this book. You’ll find out why Kavadlo eschews dietary supplements, how he prepared for a marathon and a triathlon, what advantages calisthenics hold over other strength building activities, and how to avoid injuries.

So what’s the problem with the book? The first problem is rooted in the fact that I paid full price for the book soon after it came out, and–at said price—it’s overpriced for what it is—a rehash of blog posts. It looks like Amazon has dropped the Kindle price. As I said above, I respect Kavadlo’s approach to fitness, and think that he offers some useful insights, but the question is whether you couldn’t get the same insights for less–I think you can. At half the price I paid for this book, I would have been much happier with it. Alternatively, if they had beefed it up a bit—particularly with useful graphics—I might have found it a good buy at the price I paid. The bottom line is it’s a thin book of blog quality material.

My second problem is that they waste too much space with pictures of Kavadlo standing around shirtless in front of random minor NYC landmarks. I understand that a cut, muscular body is the ultimate resume for a personal trainer. However, I suspect that even the ladies and gay men will at some point say, “Enough with the standing around shirtless photos, Al.” For us heterosexual males, the number of these shots is way over the top.

Now, I’m not saying that the number of photos is excessive. They could have used some of that photo space for instructional photos of how to better do the exercises, or to build up to the more challenging exercises. Kavadlo has an excellent YouTube channel, so I know it would be possible to get more photos of him actually doing exercises. (They do have some pics exercise pics, particularly in the sample workout section at the back.)

The book’s 26 chapters are arranged in four parts that deal with background information, calisthenics, cardiovascular workouts, and diet respectively. There is a section at the back that presents a series of sample workouts divided into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels.

As for my recommendation, I’d say that if you are interested in fitness and see this book at a price of around $4, buy it. However, if it’s at $10, it’s overpriced for what it is. Of course, your views of a fair price may vary. (I should note that I purchased it in Kindle e-book format.)

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