Episode #13: Bodyweight Training for Fighters: An Interview with Calisthenics Expert, Al Kavadlo

Body weight training is a hot topic these days.

Instagram and Youtube is full of guys doing crazy muscle ups, pistols, handstands and more.

You’ve probably seen these guys on the beach, playgrounds and at trade shows around the country.

The Best Part: No Equipment Needed!

This week, we tracked down calisthenics expert, Al Kavadlo and picked his brain about body weight training.


Download the full interview here: Body weight Training for Fighters

In this interview, we discuss…

  • Body weight and calisthenics training
  • Body weight progressions
  • Body weight vs traditional weight lifting
  • Getting strong using calisthenics
  • Where to perform these exercises
  • The benefits of body weight exercises
  • Pillars of body weight training
  • Incorporating into your workouts
  • and much more.

Al Kavadlo is a body weight training expert from New York City.  He has published multiple books, including Raising the BarStretching Your Boundaries and Pushing the Limits.  Al also created a body weight training workshop that he teaches around the globe.  If you are interested in connecting with Al, visit alkavadlo.com.


Full Transcription of Our Podcast with Al Kavadlo


COREY:         Hey guys, this is Corey Beasleywith Fight Camp Conditioning. I’m here on the phone with Al Kavadlo. How are you Al?


Al Kavadlo:   Hey, what’s up Corey? I’m doing great. Thanks for having me.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely. Al, give everybody a rundown about of who you are and what you’re doing.


Al Kavadlo:   Yeah, my name is Al Kavadlo. I’ve been a personal trainer involved in the fitness industry for about 12 years. And I’ve kind of developed a niche for myself in the bodyweight calisthenics community. I published a few books on strength training, with just bodyweight and minimal equipment. I also came out with the book earlier this year on flexibility training, all bodyweight based. And I recently started doing a certification for trainers who want to learn more about progressive calisthenics. It’s called the “Progressive Calisthenics Certification”or PCCfor short. And we’re currently embarking on traveling the world to teach this to anyone and everyone who is an enthusiast, who’s a budding fitness professional or an experienced professional who wants to add this to their repertoire?




COREY:         Right on. So the calisthenics changes, so everybody knows is kind of — I’m sure everybody’s kind of seen through social media and Facebook and Instagram and all that type of stuff; all the guys in the park swinging around doing all kinds of crazy tricks on rings and bars and parallel bars and on the floor and all kinds of stuff, is that right?


Al Kavadlo:   Yeah absolutely, bodyweight training, really the possibilities are limitless. Like you said, you can do it anywhere, you can go to a park, you can use very minimal equipment, and you can train all sorts of different movement patterns and things that you can’t really do in the gym. And I think for a lot of your audience, martial artists and people who are into functional strength, those bodyweight calisthenics often have more carryover than other more conventional types of strength training.


COREY:         How do you mean?


Al Kavadlo:   Well, if you go to a gym and you’re sitting on a machine and you’re pushing against the chest press that’s sliding along the track, you’re not really creating movement in the same way as if you’re doing a push up and you’ve got to stabilize your body. And for someone who’s a martial artist especially, I always like to remind people if you can’t really be in control of your own body weight, how can you expect to control your opponent?So it all starts with self mastery, and calisthenics, getting people off machines that are doing too much of the work for them, the stability and providing the range of motion really empowers the individual to provide that themselves.




COREY:         Right on. So if you’re going to talk about the calisthenics and body weight and all that type of stuff, obviously I think a lot of people realize if they’re in a martial arts gym and a big wrestling room with just mats or jiu-jitsu school, they only have mat sitting there, obviously I think it’s an obvious transfer into classes and even working with their competitive teams if they have those at their place. What are some of the benefits I guess other than — obviously machines are guided, you need to get body awareness and control, using your own body weight. But what are some of the bullet points of benefits you see working with just simply calisthenics versus going to 24 Hour Fitness and working on machines and stuff like that.


Al Kavadlo:   Well, the most obvious benefit of calisthenics is you don’t need any equipment, so you don’t have to go to a gym, you can do it anywhere, anytime. So there’s really no excuse of, oh I’m out of town. I can’t get to the gym this week or oh, it’s really cold or it’s raining out. You can always just do it at home. And another thing that I love about calisthenics is, it’s kind of self limiting. And what I mean by that is, a beginner could potentially go to the weight room and attempt to deadlift way more weight than they’re capable of, and maybe pull their back out or hurt themselves in some way. But with calisthenics, if you’re trying an advanced move of course the potential is there that you could get hurt, but it’s much more likely that you just won’t be able to do it than actually hurt yourself doing it. So in that sense, I find that calisthenics really can provide people with a framework of keeping them honest with what they can actually do.




COREY:         Right on. Now, you guys started how long ago?


Al Kavadlo:   I started practicing calisthenics myself 22 years ago, I’ve been a professional trainer now for about 12 years.




COREY:         Right on. And then you really — you kind of were telling me a little bit ago how you’re going from mainstream gyms where maybe you’re doing a little bit of that stuff as part of your program to really diving in full force, how long ago?


Al Kavadlo:   Well, I’ve tried so many different things over the years. When I first got started on strength training, I began with pull ups and pushups, when I was 13 and then after that, I started to discover weight training in high school and a lot of the stuff; that conventional fitness, it tells people they should do bench presses, triceps push downs, curls, that sort of stuff. And then as I became a trainer, I wanted to experiment with every modality out there, not only for my clients to see what works, but just for me, I wanted to be as well versed as possible. And over the years, interestingly enough, it kind of came full circle. And I started finding that a lot of the machines and the high tech gadgets were actually just kind of gimmicks that weren’t any better than the basic calisthenics stuff I had been doing at the beginning. So it was a gradual process of checking out the entire spectrum and realizing that the things for me that I enjoyed the most was keeping it simple and just doing my bodyweight.




COREY:         Gotcha. I think a lot of people when they’re trying to, okay cool I see all this stuff on YouTube and Instagram and there are a lot of guys out there that are kind of jumping on that bandwagon now. If somebody is listening right now, and they’re used to doing okay cool, I do pull ups and pushups and bodyweight squats and maybe they got crazy and they learned how to do a pistol, one legged squat. So then what? Like what else is out there for these guys to continue to help their bodies, force their bodies I guess is the better way to say it, to adapt and change and get stronger and improve.


Al Kavadlo:   I’ll tell you something that I’ve observed, the more that I train calisthenics and meet people in the community, is that there really is no limit to how far this stuff can go. The pistol squat is one of those exercises that people ask me about a lot like, hey, how I can progress this exercise now that I can do it. And bodyweight training is all about manipulating leverage in subtle ways to make an exercise more or less difficult. For something like the pistol, I always tell people, if they take their hands and take them from being in front of their body and put their hands behind their back and hold their wrists together, it becomes a completely new exercise that is so much more challenging than the basic pistol. And that same principle of leverage can be applied to anything.


So something just as simple as changing the arm position, changing the height of an apparatus if you’re doing something where you’re pushing off or something. There’s really simple way to keep progressing it forever and ever. I’m always amazed. Like you said, on YouTube you see clips of people doing things and you’re like, I didn’t even know that was possible. But I just saw this guy do it. So now it can be very inspiring in that way.




COREY:         Right on. So there’s obviously systematic ways that you’re teaching people how to progress through these things. So like, for example, if there’s an instructor, a jujitsu instructor or somebody that’s got personal training clients or something that’s listening, there are systematic progressions which you guys put together. So that somebody sees something like, yo dude, I want to do a pistol or I want to be able to do a muscle up. Okay, cool. You guys have kind of laid out a program that helps people kind of systematically work up to that, because a lot of that stuff that people are doing is super advanced.


Al Kavadlo:   Absolutely. Yeah, you’ve got to have like you said, a progressive system of steps to kind of get you up to that master step. And I’ve got a few books out that detail some of those things. I’ve got a book called “Pushing the Limits! Total Body Strength with No Equipment”and the subtitle pretty much sums it up. It’s all bodyweight exercises that you can do with nothing but the floor beneath you. And like I always say if you don’t have a floor, you’ve got much bigger problems.


I’ve got another book, it’s all pull up bar stuff. It’s called “Raising the bar: The Definitive Guide to Pull-up Bar Calisthenics”. And that shows progressions from a total beginner just learning to hang from the bar, all the way up to a one on pull-up and the muscle up, and every step in between to guide you there.


And then there’s also the certification that I mentioned earlier, the “Progressive Calisthenics Certification”, that’s a three day weekend workshop where we break down in detail and work with people individually to get their skill set as tight as it can be and to show them what the next steps are going to be in the months ahead, as they progress and get stronger. And then it’s a toolbox to use to train clients as well. We got a lot of guys that come to the workshop who want to learn these things for themselves, and also for their clients. And now we get some people who are more just want to do it for themselves and they’re not even trainers at all.




COREY:         Yeah, right on. Al, so obviously you can get I guess is the term relative strength, like how strong you are for your body weight, being able to do one arm pull up versus being able to just simply hang from the bar and maybe get five pull ups, is a significant strength difference there, right?


Al Kavadlo:   Absolutely. Yeah, most guys who are doing one on pull ups could probably bang out 25 or 30 with two arms.




COREY:         Right on. It’s those types of things. You’ll see that, like that dude is strong. Maybe it’s a lot of times maybe we’ve seen the guy on YouTube or rock climber and it’s like, how the heck do they do that? They’re obviously strong. In a lot of combat sports, wrestling and jiu-jitsu and MMA in particular, you’ve got somebody else’s external weight on you. Right? And they’re trying to manipulate you in variety different ways, whether it’s takedown or submissions or just positioning and control. When working with that type of an environment, does the body weight training transfer?


Al Kavadlo:   Absolutely. And it’s interesting what you were saying about — strength is not always an absolute thing. Strength is about how you apply it. That’s about using it properly in the right context. So you can have a guy who maybe is going to be the world deadlift champion, but he’s probably not also going to be the best guy at pull ups. Because the strength to weight ratio matters much more for the pull up whereas as something like a deadlift, it’s just raw strength, pulling as much external weights as possible.




So when you’re talking about martial arts and MMA, definitely you need to have that ability to move an external weight, i.e someone being on top of you, but you also have to have the ability to move your own weight. Furthermore, you guys know this if you trained martial arts, technique is such a big part of it too. The strongest person isn’t necessarily the best fighter. The most technical fighter who also is the strongest will be the best fighter, right? If you take two guys, and their skill set is pretty even the stronger guy will probably dominate. But if you take two guys and one guy is much stronger than the other guy but the other guy has better technique, the guy with better techniques is going to win anyway.


So calisthenics does have that technical element to it as well. It’s not just about pure brute strength when you do a move like a one arm pull up or a pistol squat. It’s about that harmony between all your different body parts, your core strength, your upper body strength, your lower body strength, your balance, your flexibility, these things all come into play too.




COREY:         Right on. Now for people that are listening, I still have a lot of guys who if we do a lot of bodyweight type stuff, a lot of kind of unconventional change stuff at our gym in particular, a lot of people will still have the need or feel that they have the need to go and lift.


Al Kavadlo:   That’s fine. I want to be clear that I’m not opposed to weight training. I’m not saying weight training is bad or a waste of time or detrimental. It’s just not my preferred modality. And I think there are people who do hybrid programs where they do calisthenics and weight training and that works really well for some people. There’s other people who do just calisthenics and that works really well for them. And there’s other people who do just weight training and don’t really mess with calisthenics and those guys can sometimes get really strong too. So definitely I’m not trying to perpetrate like this is the only way to build strength. This is just a way that a lot of people aren’t aware of and I’m trying to make people more aware of that.


For people who don’t like the whole culture of going to the gym and lifting weights, it sometimes opens up this whole new world for them when they realize oh, wait a minute, I can still get really strong without having to do that. And that’s really all I’m trying to put out there.




COREY:         Now are there positives I mean, obviously we talked about a lot of the positives for calisthenics and bodyweight training and stuff. Are there any negatives? Like for a guy, let’s say that you got 25 people to stand in [incomprehensible] in a class, there’s 25 different abilitylevels, there’s obviously some of them if somebody is competing at a high level, we need to fine tune their program and maybe fix some weak links and stuff. Are there any downsides or holes in the calisthenics game that maybe a combat athlete would maybe need to use weights or kettlebells or sandbags or other implements to kind of fix or improve more efficiently?


Al Kavadlo:   Well, two thoughts on that. One, like you said, when you have a big group, regardless of what kind of modality you’re instructing, it can be challenging to make a workout that’s effective and appropriate for such a big range of fitness levels. But I actually think that with calisthenics, that’s a good thing. It’s much easier to scale a move and say, hey beginners, you guys are going to do knee pushups; intermediate, you guys are going to full pushups; and advanced, you’re going to do close grip or diamond pushups and then you can kind of just have everybody doing more or less the same exercise, scaling it to their level. But as far as limitations, I would guess the only real thing that I could see as a limitation with calisthenics, it’s sometimes for people who are very overweight, they have to regress exercises so much to compensate for their body mass, that it can take some of the fun out of it.


If you take a beginner who’s overweight and all they can do is knee pushups and partial squats, it might be a little bit more encouraging for them to give them a weight and have them press it overhead just for like that satisfaction psychologically of not feeling like a total beginner.




COREY:         Yeah, I hear ya.


Al Kavadlo:   Other than that, I think calisthenics is really a great modality that anyone and everyone can jump in wherever they’re at and get started and begin the journey towards those advanced moves.


COREY:         Right on. So give us an idea Al, you’ve been doing this for a little while now, you’re working out, when you work out, you go where?


Al Kavadlo:   My favorite place to train is this park near where I live in New York City. It’s called Tompkins Square Park. That’s kind of one of those places that thanks to YouTube, a lot of people are starting to recognize is one of the best outdoor training spots that I know of. I’m always running into people who are coming from the Ukraine or other places all over the world. And they’ve seen it on YouTube and they’re like, how to come here and do my pull ups here at Tompkins Park. I feel really grateful that I’m in the neighborhood, and that’s just my local place.




COREY:         That’s cool. And when you go over there, what kind of equipment, how many people are sitting there?


Al Kavadlo:   It’s one of those things where — just like the gym, if you go during peak hours on a really nice Saturday afternoon, there might be a lot of people that are getting their reps in. But if you go on a Tuesday morning when it’s kind of cold, there might be only one other dude there. But I mean, they just have pull up bars at various heights and angles, monkey bars that you can climb cross and parallel bars to do dips. And really, those are about as much equipment as anybody needs to practice calisthenics and get pretty advanced.




COREY:         Right on. And then as far as programming and stuff like that, you got pull up bars, you got monkey bars, you got the dip bars. Obviously, you guys are still working legs, right?


Al Kavadlo:   Absolutely. Well, we talked a little bit about the pistol squat before, and that’s my favorite body weight leg exercise. And there are a lot of variations on one legged squats. Like I was saying, just changing leverage, changing the position of your body can really make the exercise a lot harder. I always get a kick out of it. When I meet guys who are really strong in the squat rack, guys who can squat 400 or 500 pounds on their back and they try to learn the pistol and they get humbled, they fall on their button. They can’t do with the first bunch of times they try it. And it just goes back to what I was saying before about how the bodyweight training is not just about brute strength. It’s about that harmony between your strength and your balance and your flexibility and your body awareness.




COREY:         Right on. And Al, when let’s say you go to that – it’s Tompkins Square Park, right?


Al Kavadlo:   That’s the spot. Although, having said that, anybody can train anywhere. Don’t feel like oh, I’m not near that park so I can’t do this. There’s parks all over the world and even if you don’t have a park you can just build a pull up bar in your backyard or get a doorway pull up bar, and no excuses.


COREY:         Yeah absolutely. Well, let’s say you go over there. Normally programs vary in intensity, you’re working on different movement patterns throughout the week, different tempos, different planes of motion, there’s a lot of factors that come into play, right? So you’re going over there during the week, what does a typical week look like for you?


Al Kavadlo:   For me in my own training, there really isn’t a typical week. I don’t have as much structure to my training as I did earlier on. As you get more advanced on some of these moves, you get to a point where it almost becomes a skill practice, more than it becomes strength training after a while. So I try to approach my training with that regard; less of these are the body parts I’m training today, and more of these are the moves I want to work on.


COREY:         Right.


Al Kavadlo:   So having said that, I might have one day where I’m mainly just training my hands and then I might have another day that’s mostly focused on pull ups and pull up related movements. And then I might do another day where I’m doing all my pistol squats and my leg exercises, and then maybe another day where I’m practicing back bridging and final twists and things like that. So I try to just kind of feel where my body’s at on any given day and go according to that.




COREY:         Gotcha. And you mentioned some of the movements right now. If you had to break down like here are the five pillars of bodyweight training so that everybody knows they’re hitting on the basics? What are some of the pillars of your program?


Al Kavadlo:   I think all strength training programs need to include the following movement patterns, whether you’re doing them in body weight, or whether you’re doing them in any other modality and those are just basic human movement patterns like squatting and pushing and pulling, and flexing and twisting. And what’s great about calisthenics is you can take something like a squat, and for a beginner, just doing a good two legged bodyweight squat with a full range of motion can be a challenge, but soon that will no longer be a challenge and then you progress eventually to the one legged squats and beyond.


Same thing with the pushups; you take a beginner; you’re starting with the very beginning, maybe just doing a wall push up. And eventually a more advanced practitioner is doing one arm push up variation, but those same movement patterns, that squatting, that pushing, that pulling those are just fundamental patterns that no matter how strong you are in the continuum, you’ve got to do them in some way.




COREY:         Right on. Very cool. So Al, I know you spent a lot of time out there in that park. You’ve traveled around; you’ve seen a lot of different things. Give us one story or one person that you saw him or you saw something that he did and it absolutely just like tweaks your mind you couldn’t believe it happened. Like guys that are just doing stuff that looks so ridiculously — they’re so ridiculously strong or coordinated or fast or what that it just blew your mind.


Al Kavadlo:   I’ll tell you there’s one guy who I’ve become pretty good friends with over the years, we train at the Tompkins Square Park. He’s not the strongest guy in the world, but you would look at him and never think this guy could do what he does. This fellow is named Bob. And I actually included some pictures of him in my last book, “Stretching Your Boundaries”, because he’s just so amazing to watch.


He’s an elderly fellow, I think he’s about 65 years old. And he’s this nice, sweet, gentle old man who’s so the farthest thing from intimidating. And then you see this guy get on the bar, he’s [incomprehensible] down muscle ups, and back levers and human flags. And the first time I saw this guy, and I love seeing people see him for the first time because every time anyone is new at that park, they see Bob and they always do a double take like;What? This little old man just did a muscle up? What?


So Bob is a huge inspiration to me. And I was really grateful to him that he allowed me to take some photos of him for my last book, I got this great shot at him just holding a back lever. And it’s just such an amazing feat to see a man of his age. And not just that he’s aged, but just he’s a fairly small, modest looking dude, but he’s just so incredibly strong.



COREY:         That’s cool. Well, I think that’s good to hear too, because maybe guys don’t fight MMA much pass their 40s but I know there’s a truckload of guys that role jiu-jitsu and do a lot of other stuff well into their 50s and 60s and even 70s. And I think it’s important for some of the guys listening I’m sure that maybe they don’t want to do certain workouts because they’re like, look, dude, I just don’t want to get hurt. Or maybe as they’re aging and stuff, we all gather a myriad of injuries along the way so maybe there are certain things that they just shouldn’t do.


So it’s cool to hear that if there are progressive ways and there are things that they can do to still get strong and condition themselves well but without the risk of getting hurt. It’s cool to see guys I’m sure well into their 60s still doing this stuff.


Al Kavadlo:   I love it and I get inspired by it. I’ll tell you Corey, one of the things I always tell people is that, the only limitations that we have are the ones we impose on ourselves. I get so many people who email me or ask me, hey, I want to start training but I think I’m too old or I think I’m too fat or I have this injury or whatever myriad of excuses people come up with to convince themselves that they shouldn’t begin an exercise program. And when you see a guy who’s in his 60s doing these high level moves, it completely destroys that whole oh, I’m too old to do this sort of talk. And that’s what’s so inspiring about it.




COREY:         Well, cool man. Well Al, if guys that are listening, they want to learn more about calisthenics and what you’re doing, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?


Al Kavadlo:   They can just go to my website, it’s just my name, alkavadlo.com, A-L-K-A-V-A-D-L-O, or they could just Google me, and there’s plenty of information out there.


COREY:         Cool. Well guys, I’ll put some of Al’s links below this podcast so you guys have those resources available. And once again Al, thanks so much for your time dude, that was ton of killer information and I’m sure everybody appreciates it a ton. Thanks so much.


Al Kavadlo:   Thanks Corey, my pleasure.