Guest Post by Tim Stevenson: 'Eat Clean, Train Clean' – The Amazing Benefits of Calisthenics

Tim Stevenson in a calisthenic exercise postition

‘Eat Clean, Train Dirty!’ This mantra has risen through the ranks of fitness cliché and become famous; it’s featured on gym walls, t-shirts, mugs and motivational posters. But it’s probably best known for its supporting role on many a tweet accompanying a perfectly filtered ‘swolfie’ (the act of taking a selfie while working out!).

I’m not knocking it. I get it, but I don't agree with it entirely. Healthy eating is a lifestyle and one that I am fully onboard with. But what if I said to you that I don't want to ‘train dirty?’ I can only imagine the look on the faces of the hardcore gym militia if I ever dared to utter that in public. It's basically blasphemy, right...? But bare with me; I’m not talking about a lack of intensity in a workout. We know what eating 'clean’ means, but what does it look like to ‘train clean?’

Humans vs. History 

Humans have been on the earth a long time. I don’t know exactly how long, but Google helped me narrow it down to between 2 and 6 million years! Given the trials and tribulations that the human race has endured during this time, it's safe to say that our ancestors did not rely on barbells to get strong, which evidence tells us we have had since about 1901 (thanks again, Google...!).

As man and woman-kind has progressed, we have become more sedentary. We don’t have to navigate challenging terrain to hunt, or climb trees to set traps and gather food, which is handy, as this would definitely be frowned upon in most public parks. We employ others who have large machinery to build the shelters we call homes, and what we consider as an ‘adventure,' would be laughed at by the explorers who discovered new lands. Funnily enough though, we have taken on the principles of our early ancestors when it comes to eating, and have even given it a name - The Paleo Diet - which pretty much epitomises clean eating, but for some reason, we don’t apply the same early principals when it comes to training.

So what does training ‘clean’ look like? Given that our bodies are designed to move, the cleanest form of training is where we master our own bodyweight, which is where Calisthenics comes in. Deriving from the Greek words ‘kallos’ and ‘sthenos,’ which mean ‘beauty’ and ‘strength,’ it’s much more than just taking pretty pictures (many of which involving some form of flag pole) - the benefits span much further...

Tim Stevenson demonstrating the calisthenic flag

Bodyweight Benefit #1: Complete movement

Your body is an extremely well designed machine; it is intricate and complex; it provides you with all the movement options you will ever need, and whilst it has the capacity to perform isolated movements, its most optimal configuration is found when the systems within it work together.

Broadly speaking, the muscles in our bodies have one of two jobs; stability or strength. In complete movements, which feature heavily in calisthenics, both systems work simultaneously. For example, in a pull-up you have to grip the bar. Gripping activates the stabilisers in the arm and shoulder, meaning that they get trained at the same time as the muscles whose primary job is to produce the force to pull you up.

From a functional perspective, this is important. The shoulder has a huge capacity for movement, but it comes at the expense of stability and many people suffer with weakness and pain because they don't train in ways that promote integration. In a handstand push-up, there is a stability and strength requirement that must operate simultaneously. The same applies in a pistol squat.

Your central nervous system will also only allow you to produce as much force as the joints involved are able to stabilise. So, if your goal is to increase strength, promoting stability through complete movements will also help you to increase your ability to produce force. You don’t have to shift completely to bodyweight training but include some of it in your programme.

Bodyweight Benefit #2: Strength outside the gym 

One of the most common calisthenic benefits promoted by articles and blogs is that you don't require a lot of equipment and in turn, can do it anywhere. It's about developing the strength to allow you to be strong anywhere. I don’t want to only be strong within the four walls of the gym. I want to have strength that I can use in the world. Strength that I can have fun with.

Bodyweight Benefit #3: Embrace your physique

Whilst we can be anything we want to be, our natural genetics will predispose us to be more successful in certain training endeavours than others. For example, some people excel in endurance activities, some in power, while others in developing extreme strength. The world is full of different types of athletes.

Research has shown that humans have a physical limitation on the amount of muscle mass they are able to develop. In men, each kilogram of bone mass can support a maximum of around 5 kilograms of muscle, while women max out at about 4.2 kilograms. Our bodies are setup to handle a certain level of muscle mass and therefore load, so not everyone is designed to squat 200kg. Shifting your own bodyweight will mean you are exposing yourself to loads which are appropriate to your natural physique.

Free yourself from the perception that you have to lift weights. Your body doesn’t know the difference between a dumbbell, barbell or it’s own weight. Resistance is resistance. Gymnasts don’t do a lot of weight lifting and have you ever seen one that doesn’t have a decent rig?

Bodyweight Benefit #4: Longevity 

Bodyweight movements will give you a longer lifespan as an athlete. I want to be physically active my whole life and I want to train now in a way which will promote the chances of this. Calisthenics and bodyweight training will maintain joint function and mobility, increase stability and develop strength.

Jumping and plyometric activity is far more effective at increasing bone density than squatting. It also develops fast twitch muscle fibres that will decline as we age. Why do people tend to fall over more as they get older? Because they lose joint stability, muscular strength and the ability to fire muscles quickly. Eating clean will help us to be healthier for longer. So will training clean.  

Bodyweight Benefit #5: Neural Plasticity

The brain is designed to learn. When we practice new skills and abilities with regular repetition, the areas of the brain responsible for controlling those things grows and develops. When eating clean, we consume foods that aid concentration and brain function. It seems that challenging ourselves to learn new movements means we can stimulate the neural system as well. When you do this you will find that your brain learns at an alarming rate and you will see rapid progress from session to session. It’s addictive! I want to keep my brain sharp, so taking on new challenges and learning to move in new ways will help to achieve this.

Tim Stevenson performing calisthenics on the beach

To Conclude - Training Clean

I’m not suggesting that you have to abandon everything you currently know, and train exclusively with your own body weight. Physical adaptation is specific to the stress you apply, so train according to your goals. However, I do believe that it should form some part of your programme.

My take home message is pretty simple. Learn to balance on your hands. Hang from things. Jump. Climb. Sprint. Train single leg movements. Be explosive. But most of all, challenge yourself to learn something new. Become a more complete athlete by adding some skills to your locker. As humans, our potential for movement has served us well for the last 2 – 6 million years (give or take a month!), so it would be disrespectful to all athletes who went before us, if we failed to preserve the most basic form of training.

If you want to learn how to ‘Train Clean’ and start your calisthenics journey, check out the ‘Strength Training for Survival in the Urban Jungle’ workshops that myself and my colleague, David Jackson (better known as Jacko) are running!

About Tim:

Tim is a professional strength and conditioning coach, working with elite Paralympic athletes, and is part of Team GB for the 2016 Games in Rio. He has coached athletes to medal success at European, Commonwealth, World and Paralympic competitions and is a Be An Athlete Ambassador.
w: Twitter & Instagram: @TimVsGravity

About Jacko:

David Jackson is a former professional rugby player, whose training moved towards calisthenics after he was forced to retire from rugby due to a head injury. He is now a Director at oneathlete, where he provides strength and conditioning, and performance mindset support to athletes. David is a Be An Athlete Ambassador.
w: Twitter & Instagram: @JackoHumanFlag


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