Active flexibility

Active flexibility is an important element of both pole and calisthenics. It’s not enough to just passively stretch, we need to work on our active flexibility. What’s the difference, I can hear you ask. Passive flexibility is what most people work on when they are stretching. It is when you use external forces to put you into a stretched position. It can be your weight, gravity, dumbbells, etc. Active flexibility is when you only use your muscles to hold you in a certain position. For example sitting in a front split on the floor and holding it in the air.

Ideally we should train both. If you have a big difference between your active and passive flexibility, the chances of getting injured increases as even tho you might be able to push yourself into positions, you’re not strong enough to hold them without assistance. For example you can lift your leg next to your head with the help of your hands or a band but when you let go, your leg drops significantly. This is the point where most injuries happen as your body is familiar with the position but without external help it doesn’t know (as it’s not strong enough) how to support you in it.

If you have hypermobility you are at an even bigger risk of getting injured if you don’t strengthen your end range mobility. Hypermobility is when your ligaments are generally looser around your joints. (If your knees or elbows bend backwards or you can touch your thumb to your forearm you are likely hypermobile.) To strengthen end range of motion there are different options available to you. For example you can passively lift the body part into end range and by loosening the support you try to keep it in the same position.

Active flexibility doesn’t just look good but makes certain moves a lot easier. Thinking about things like a handstand press, if you can keep your legs closer to your body it will be a lot easier to lift them in the air. As an overhead athlete probably the most important part of your mobility is overhead mobility. Tight shoulders increase the risk of injuries forcing the body to find the lacking range of motion elsewhere leaving other structures not designed for it to take up the slack.

Every training session should start with a thorough warm up followed by targeted soft tissue release. For example if I’m having a handbalancing session, I will target my lats, posterior delts and thoracic spine. At times I might feel tight elsewhere affecting my overhead mobility and roll my pec minor, upper traps or levator scapulae. If I’m working on presses, I give my hamstrings some extra TLC. After rolling/peanutting I’d strengthen the newly gained extra range of motion. Sticking with overhead mobility it would be some arm lifts in a childs position, pullovers, wall angels, overhead band lifts, etc. This step is probably the most important. This will strengthen the muscles at end range keeping you safe and confirming to your body that it can let you use this newly found extra range of motion. This won’t happen overnight, flexibility is the result of consistency. However if you keep to it, you’ll notice a huge difference. Due to time restrictions make sure that you’re prioritising. If you only do muscle ups and front levers, there’s no point focusing on your splits.

Active flexibility is an important part of training. It will make you stronger, bendier, and safer. You can unlock new moves and enhance the ones you can already do. It’ll make you a well rounded athlete. So don’t forget to dedicate a few minutes to it as often as you can – it’ll worth it.

Happy flexing!

Body types

Have you ever wondered why some people don’t seem to get fat no matter what they eat or why others get twice as strong with half the effort? Unfortunately it’s likely due to our genes.

There are 3 main body types (somatotypes): mesomorph, ectomorph and endomorph. Each of these have specific characteristics. Most people exhibit characteristics from two of these categories. To maximize your training effect you can try experimenting with the guidelines for your body type. However as each body is different, there’s no right or wrong, not everything will work for everyone.

The main 3 body types

The main characteristics of an ectomorph is that they are tall and skinny with narrow hips and shoulders, have barely any fat and struggle to build muscle. They have a fast metabolism therefore need to eat a lot. They find losing weight easy but struggle to put on muscle. They are generally more flexible and great at long distance activities.

Mesomorphs have an athletic, muscular appearance with wide shoulders and narrow waist, they are strong and gain and lose both muscle and fat quite easily. They respond well to both resistance and aerobic training however can become overtrained quickly. They are well suited for bodybuilding but generally struggle with flexibility. Putting on weight comes easy whether it’s fat or muscle.

Endomorphs are soft and round in appearance, are strong and quick to gain both muscle and fat however struggle to lose fat due to having slower metabolism. They should train cardio as well as resistance training to aid fat loss/maintenance. They excel at strongman competitions.

The most envied types are mesomorphs as they get the best of both worlds. They can put on muscle but lose weight easily, whilst ectomorphs struggle putting muscle on and endomorphs struggle losing weight. Body types are not an excuse but more like an explanation. Whatever your type is you can still achieve your goals. We can’t change our genes so try working with them. Find your strengths and weaknesses and prioritize them accordingly. Rather than comparing yourself to others, just enjoy the process. For example if you know that you’re most likely an ectomorph and want to put on some muscle, make sure you’re eating plenty, even before going to bed, cut down on your cardio and go for high volumes of training.

Your body type isn’t an excuse – it’s an explanation.

Calisthenics

You’ve probably heard about calisthenics. It’s gained huge popularity recently. But what exactly is calisthenics?

The word calisthenics comes from the ancient Greek words kalos (κάλος), which means “beauty” or “beautiful”, and sthenos (σθένος), meaning “strength”. Put together it would mean “beautiful strength”.

When you hear the word calisthenics, the first thing that comes to mind are crazy moves performed on a bar or on the floor. These moves are generally compound exercises requiring strength, coordination, balance, agility, endurance and power. Due to the nature of these movements you will not only be working the main muscle groups but your core and stabilising muscles too.

One of the biggest reasons of it’s rise to fame is that it can be performed pretty much anywhere, only minimal equipment is required. Rather than using heavier weights you play with your body position. Manipulating the lever (angles, how “long” your body is) will make an exercise harder or easier. You’ve already done it when doing push ups on your knees vs your feet. If you further want to increase difficulty you can add extra weights in the form of a weight belt, weight vest, resistance bands, etc.

Gymnastics, cross fit, poledancing and street workout is based on calisthenics principals. The main components are pushing and pulling and plyometrics. Bigger focus is normally placed on upper body development, however a well rounded athlete will perform lower body exercises too. The reason for this is that there are less lower body exercises and after a while you will need to incorporate some heavy weights in order to keep improving.

Due to the compound nature of the exercises it’s not possible to perform split training like with conventional gym exercises. You can either break it into pull and push days or upper body and lower body. Adequate rest periods between training sessions is necessary.

Calisthenics requires a great deal of skill development. As most exercises are compound, it takes time to learn how to use your body as a whole unit. Learning the basics of pushing and pulling is extremely important. All other upper body exercises build on these two fundamental principles. Only after you’ve built strong basics can you progress to the next level of moves. This desire to progress is another reason why calisthenics is so popular. Whilst in a gym environment if you want to progress you’d just increase the weight you lift, here you’d learn something new which keeps things interesting and fun.

A lot of calisthenics moves can be well translated into our everyday life too, for example carrying your shopping will become a breeze. Each progression requires correct muscle engagement. To achieve that a huge focus is placed on injury prevention by stretching and strengthening key muscles. Correct movement patterns will not only help you become a lot more efficient and get that new move a lot quicker but will reduce your risk of injuries and improve your posture. Greater recruitment of stabilising and core muscles will have a great carry over to the unpredictable every day movements.

Communities are another big part of calisthenics. Likeminded individuals get together to achieve their goals. There are also several competitions where based on specific scoring systems a winner is chosen. Most competitions require participants to put a short routine together. This will challenge your endurance even more as you’ll be performing moves back to back. There are several calisthenics parks being built all over the world. These are very popular due to being outdoor, easily accessible and free. Street workout comes from here.

So calisthenics is basically compound bodyweight exercises with the aim of getting stronger and learning new skills whilst having fun often in a group environment.

How to structure a handbalancing session

Handbalancing has gained huge popularity recently. It’s the ultimate sign of strength and control. Long gone are the days when it was only performed by gymnasts or circus artists. It is a staple part of crossfit boxes, breakdancers, calisthenics athletes, pole dancers, yogis, and the list could go on…

Handbalancing is an umbrella term used for different types of balances that only require your hands. For example frogstands, elbow levers, handstands, etc.

Whether you want to learn a new skill, get stronger, improve your balance, have a party trick or just have fun, you will need to start with the basics. Everyone’s starting point will be different, however it’s very important that you don’t skip progressions as it will bite you later on.

The 3 main components of a handbalancing are balance, strength and mobility. When starting out focus on each of these elements and your progress will be a lot quicker.

Mobility. Start each session with a thorough warm up. Shoulder and wrist care is of utmost importance as you’ll be putting a lot of weight on them in positions that they are not used to. You can use a foam roller or peanut to mobilise your lats and thoracic spine and a corkscrew for your forearms. Move them in all different directions and once they start getting warmer, start putting more weight on them. Follow this with active flexibility exercises focusing on your wrists, lats and shoulder end range. The biggest restricting factor is normally your latissimus dorsi. This is the muscle that comes from your back and attaches to the front of your shoulder. If it’s tight it won’t let you put your arm straight overhead making you compensate elsewhere and this is how a banana back was born.

Balance. After this whilst your body and mind are still fresh I would work on some balance drills. This section completely depends on your level but things like a headstand to get used to basic balancing, frogstand for using your fingers, a kick up against a wall trying not to touch it for learning how far to kick or shifting shapes if you can already hold a freestanding handstand. This will have to be adjusted to your individual level. If you can’t even hold a headstand there is no point kicking into a freestanding handstand. The idea here is to make you master a progression before you move on. A good indicator would be if you can talk whilst holding a move. If you can that would mean that you don’t need 100% focus as your body (and brain) knows what it’s doing.

Strength. Handbalancing requires a great amount of upper body strength. It can be classed as a pushing session (if you’re doing splits). You need strong triceps, delts, rotator cuffs, upper traps and serratus anterior. You need strength in order to support your bodyweight by your arms and endurance to hold it for a period of time. Depending on your level you can start by doing banded rotator cuff exercises, wrist strengthening drill, holds, dynamic movements (wall walks, cartwheels, etc) or other exercises (L sit, compression drills, push ups, etc).

The great thing about handbalancing that it doesn’t require a great deal of space. To get better at it, you need to practice it regularly. However always listen to your body and have rest days when you need it. Especially when starting out you need extra time to strengthen your tendons which will take longer than strengthening your muscles. Overuse injuries are common however can be avoided.

How to set your pole goals

The new year is fast approaching and you’re thinking about taking your training serious next year. You reflect on the past year and conclude that as much as you’ve made improvements you could have done better.

Setting your goals the right way will speed up your process. Just writing down your goals will get you closer as your brain will unconsciously help you make an effort. But how do you set goals the right way?

I give you an example of an aerial invert to guide you through. You’ve probably already heard that your goals need to be

S pecific – describe exactly what you want to achieve, for example with an aerial invert describe whether you want your legs straight, into a static V or just foot on pole, are you starting it from a specific move or going into a specific move after, etc

M easurable – refers to any variables that you can compare – in the pole world as we work on a lot of skill this can be difficult at times to specify. With an aerial invert try thinking of things like extending lever ie leg positions, reps or part of a combo, etc

A chievable – think about whether it’s achievable – for example you have a shoulder injury and have to avoid hanging off your arms – until the injury is dealt with probably it’s not achievable

R ealistic – ask whether given the timeframe is it doable – if you can’t even climb but set yourself the goal of aerial inverting in 2 weeks is not realistic

T imebound – set a timeframe – you need to give yourself a deadline of getting your first invert

E njoyable – do you enjoy what you’re doing – if you like what you’re doing it’s a lot more likely that you’ll succeed as you won’t look at it as a chore. If you hate doing sit ups to strengthen your core then do something else that will have the same effect but you like doing

R eviewed – keep checking your progress – set aside time at a regular interval to see how you’re progressing, are the invert lifts you’re doing getting easier, can you do more, does your programming work, if not you need to think why not and make necessary adjustments

Now that you refreshed yourself on the basics of goal setting you can go into more details about how to fit it into your training.

  • Pick your goals – don’t work on too many goals at a time. Focus on no more than 3. You can still list a few more and if you don’t feel like working on the main ones at least you have back ups.
  • Break your goals down into manageable chunks – For example sticking to the aerial invert example it can be broken down into stabilising to hang, compression and rotation. Think about what is hindering your progress. Can you hang comfortably engaging the correct muscles? If not, work on your rotator cuffs and back muscles, improve your grip strength, practice hanging on a bar, etc. Are you struggling with compression? Work on your core, practice compression exercises, strengthen your hip flexors, stretch your hamstrings, etc. If it’s the rotation that let’s you down, practice it off the pole, on different apparatus, etc.
  • Put a programme together – Once you worked out what component is that you need to work on you can put a programme together. Try to focus on the two main elements which are strength & mobility and skill. For example if your goal is an aerial invert you could start your session with some active flexibility and mobility exercises with a lacrosse ball focusing on the problem areas, then move over to some light rotator cuff exercises to get them fired up, then work on some skill drills, followed by conditioning the weak areas (core, back, rotator cuffs, etc) and finishing it off with stretching. Make sure that each session gets progressively harder and that you’re allowing enough rest to recover between sessions.

If you follow these steps I guarantee you will get closer to achieving that illustrious deadlift or rainbow marchenko…

Happy goalsetting!

Functional fitness

Functional fitness… The term gets thrown around a lot. It’s that fancy buzzword that everybody’s talking about. There are over 1 million hashtags on Instagram, every workout video has to include some functional fitness exercises and every gym has a functional fitness area.

So what does functional fitness really mean?

Let’s start with the word functional. It means having a special activity, purpose or task and designed to be practical and useful, rather than attractive. This description actually have a slight negative ring to it by focusing on the usefulness over the looks. It indicates that if you do it, you’ll benefit from it but you wont like it.

The second part, fitness means the condition of being physically fit and healthy.

So if you were to put the two together it would mean that you’re usefully fit and healthy. Useful is different for everybody but there are certain tasks and situations where everyone benefits. These are for example climbing stairs, carrying shopping, picking things up, etc.

In the fitness industry functional fitness is referred to as something that mimics everyday life. In our every day life we rarely isolate muscles and joints. Most tasks require multiple muscle groups and joints to work together in harmony. Even if you think of things like getting up the sofa or walking upstairs you can see that you’ll be working from your calves through your hips to your core. So the aim of functional fitness is to make your body work more efficiently in order to complete everyday tasks. It achieves it by building strength, stability, balance, stamina and mobility across the whole body and makes it work as one unit.

It’s not a new term but got picked up by the media due to the popularity of crossfit, ninja warrior training and calisthenics. As functional fitness in general doesn’t require a great range of equipment, more and more smaller and garage gyms are popping up focusing on functional fitness.

There are several exercises that can be done without any or minimal equipment using your own bodyweight. For example

  • Pull ups – a whole upper body exercise, using several of the back, shoulder, forearm and core muscles at the same time. As well as improving general strength and coordination within your upper body and core, it also improves your grip strength.
  • Squats – can be performed with or without weights using several variations and progressions. To get up from a sofa, chair, desk, etc you’re sitting down and standing up which is pretty much a squat. By working on your patterns, strength, balance and technique in the gym you will make your life a lot easier every time you sit down or stand up.

And there are exercises that you will need equipment for. For example

  • Deadlifts – have you ever had to lift a box? Well, I thought so. Deadlifts are the perfect exercise to teach you how to safely do it. If you’ve ever completed a manual handling training at work, you’ll know that they are basically teaching you how to deadlift. Correct technique can save you injury both in and out of the gym.

However when we label an exercise functional we need to be able to explain how it will transfer into everyday life for the client. For example a client is very overweight, has never been to a gym and is very self conscious could be better off using the leg press machine first before we introduce them to a squat. In this scenario using a machine would actually benefit the client. As they get more and more competent we can start introducing compound exercises and free weights. We always need to bare in mind that whilst something might be beneficial for one person, it might not be for another one therefore what we deem functional can change from person to person. This is also true for people with limitations (for example muscle imbalances or limited range of motion) or recovering from injuries. For example I do wrist curls to improve strength in my forearms and wrists to build up strength after an injury. It’s an isolation exercise with a good old dumbbell therefore people wouldn’t think of this being functional but it helps me in my daily life by increasing grip strength to pick up my shopping or open a jar (as well as with my training).

Functional fitness also focuses on how your joints are moving along different planes to enhance each movement. A big emphasis is placed on proper muscle length to ensure smooth movement patterns, improved balance, posture and mobility which in turn helps reduce injury.

The good news is that apart from making your day to day life easier, functional fitness exercises can be tailored to suit your individual goal whether that be losing weight, getting fitter or stronger. Due to the different demands placed on the body it will make you more well-rounded in terms of the different components of fitness (such as cardio, strength, speed, etc).

A general misconception is that functional fitness is basically crossfit or using fancy equipment in innovative ways. Whilst crossfit incorporates a lot of exercises that can have a positive effect on your daily life, unless it’s individualised it doesn’t necessary mean you’ll improve your quality of life. The same applies to using the most recent cool equipment. Just because you were sold a TRX as a functional fitness equipment, a plank won’t be any less functional on the floor than on the TRX. And this is where you need to think about whether it will help or potentially hinder your day to day life. If you haven’t got the strength, form, technique, mobility, etc by progressing too fast you are increasing your risk of injury, not mentioning that you won’t get the relevant benefits from the exercise.

All in all functional fitness means exercises that enhance your day to day life. Whilst in general people think of pull ups, push ups, TRX, bosu ball, etc exercises, this is true for some gym goers, however for a complete beginner or someone struggling with limitations it might be something a lot more simpler for example isolation exercises. You always need to think how an exercise will have a carry over effect and don’t progress too fast, learn the basics first.