Bodyweight training is fast, effective, accessible, and the best way into training. With a progressive, consistent approach, elite levels of fitness can be forged in this manner. After all, the body and its environment are really all most humans have ever had to train with.
Bodyweight calisthenics is the backbone of Georges Hebért’s Natural Method and the training of nearly every elite fighting unit throughout time. This type of training typified the physical education of all great Western societies going back to ancient Greece. It is the training every citizen was once expected to do. Yet no one is doing it.
What adults need is what our kids need—at least a few days a week in a classical PE model. This is probably nothing like what comes to mind when you think of your PE experience. Today’s PE curriculums push instructors to all day yo-yo training.
I wish I was joking—four hours of yo-yo based curriculum. By contrast, a classical PE model is built to create well-rounded, movement empowered citizens who are physically literate and capable of physically contributing to the community. This was once an expectation of all people. Damn automation.
The Thirds of PE
Exemplified by Stan LeProtti at La Sierra High School in the early ’60s, classical PE focused on three equally important thirds: restorative arts (including traditional fitness, calisthenics, and correctives), defensive arts (self and national defense), and pedagogical (sports, games, play, and theory).
Each day at La Sierra began with a 400-meter jog and a 12-minute strength-endurance routine. That was the bulk of the daily physical training dose responsible for creating a truly remarkable standard of physical fitness.
These were followed by either defensive arts or pedagogical activities and finally finished with a run through the obstacle course—a gauntlet of pegboard walls, ropes, and unique manipulatives that honed bodyweight mastery. They called this 5 minute period their “off-the-ground” time.
Characteristic of “grease the groove” training, La Sierra students achieved a staggering level of fitness through consistent daily immersion in this short, simple training regimen. Training videos demonstrate the awe-inspiring feats like the extension press-up that La Sierra students famously demonstrated on Johnny Carson and in Look Magazine.
A sophisticated testing and shorts system helped appropriately progress athletes in intensity while creating a motivating atmosphere that demanded mutual support and student leadership. Shorts groups were known as teams. The three basic groups were the white short team, red team, and blue team, although there was also a gold and even a navy short team for the extremely elite.
All ninth-grade students began in white shorts and every student had the opportunity to level up twice a year by hitting the “ceiling performance in all fitness tests” of whatever test battery they were attempting. For example, to move from white to red shorts groups, a student needed to test at or above all these ceiling performances:
Pull-Ups: 10 Push-Ups: 32 Bar Dips: 12 Sit-Ups (2 min): 60 Standing Broad Jump: 6’9” Shuttle Run (200 yds total-50 yards down and back twice): 34 seconds Rope Climb (18’ standing start): Hands only Agility Run: 20 sec (50 yards and back with barriers every 10 yards) 880 Yard Run: 3 minutes Mile Run: 7 minutes Man Lift and Carry (carrying a man within 10 pounds of your own bodyweight): 880 yards Pegboard (vertical): 6 holes Swim 50-yard freestyle: 36 seconds
LeProtti demanded that each standard was hit to move forward, making it clear that balanced fitness was more useful and desirable than being elite in a narrow few physical qualities. Every athlete improved through a level-appropriate daily 12-minute strength-endurance (S-E) routine.
The foundational S-E program that every white short La Sierra student began each day with looked like this:
Side Straddle Hop (aka jumping jacks) – 5 sets Push-Ups – x5 Windmills – 5 sets Push-Ups – x5 Full Bends – 5 sets Straddle Hops (jumping jacks w/o arms) – x50 Push-Ups – x5 Stride Hops – x50 Push-Ups – x5 Toe Hops – x50 Push-Ups – x5 Squat Thrusts – 5 sets Mountain Climbers – 5 sets Push-Ups – x5 Agility routine – 4 rounds of sprint in place; first two whistles drop to plank – third whistle drop to supine position and roll-over to stand
This entire routine requires no equipment and can easily be inserted on a daily basis to make fitness, flexible, and portable. I highly recommend adopting this chief habit. A daily 15-minute habit is sustainable, extremely effective, and the sort of thing we can all find the time for.
This La Sierra routine is perfect other than having too little back work. LeProtti accounted for this in his “off-the-ground” time. If you are not getting on the bars every day, I recommend substituting Supermans for every other push-up set in order to force more posterior chain activation. These postural muscles are essential in our sedentary world.
Use the Strength-Endurance Program
For those who want to challenge themselves more, you have a simple, fast daily program and a test to measure your progress. So, give it a shot. Take a couple of weeks to go through the test battery.
Then commit to doing the La Sierra S-E routine five days a week along with a short daily jog or bike ride. Also, get a pull-up bar and do daily grease-the-groove pull-up practice. If you aren’t great at pull-ups, practice these steps. After 10 weeks, re-test and compare your scores.
This is a simple, effective, and complete training program to help you operate better in the world. It’s the program we should all try.