EYC Podcast #23 Text Breakdown
Mid Section Holds
Mid section holds are one aspect of calisthenics that renewed my enthusiasm for core training. The other aspect would be leg raise variations, however I will discuss them in greater detail in a future podcast. Before I discovered progressive calisthenics, I rarely made core exercise a part of my routine, which in retrospect was a huge mistake, but I believe that it was a matter of finding a method of training that worked for me. I believe the main reason that calisthenics made me enjoy core training again is the fact that it encourages developing a synergy in how you use your body. It encouraged me to think of the muscle groups working together as a chain, and I loved that shift in mindset. Anything I was doing for core, which was very little, was only training one area in that chain, and I really came to see that as a huge flaw. I didn’t want any weak links in the chain, and midsection holds are a tremendous way to develop the entire chain. My goal in this episode is to discuss some of the things I’ve picked up in the years of midsection training, so what I am going to focus on today is strength specific training, progression concepts, and back positioning.
In the early stages, I did a lot of Seated Leg Tucks, and lying leg raises before I worked up to any midsection holds. I remember trying an L-Sit during one of my workouts and didn’t even come close. Knowing what I know now, there were definitely things I could have done better and these are what I want to talk about here. Holds with proper technique were very short for me at the beginning, so don’t get discouraged if you can only hold one for 2-3 seconds. The key is doing several sets. For example, because the holds were short, I would aim to do 8-10 sets. The goal was not to exhaust the muscles, but to stay as fresh as possible throughout. That doesn’t mean that you aren’t working hard, in fact, the idea is to work very hard with maximum contraction for those 2-3 seconds, but stopping at that point even though you may feel like you can keep going. It also means that you want to space out your training accordingly, and allow for longer rest periods between sets. This type of training is common among strength and skill based exercises like midsection holds, Flags, and Elbow Levers, due to their high skill cap, but can be applied to any exercise. These high skill cap exercises involve a great degree of things like balance, co-ordination, and proprioception and this type of training is valuable because it allows you to get sets in more often, and repetition being the mother of skill, will help you develop in all of these areas. Just as reference, proprioception is essentially an awareness of where the body is in space, and what is needed, in terms of effort, to get it there. Throughout my training, I used this structure, and still do. Once I developed the strength and skill to the point where I was able to hold a variation for 25-30 seconds, I would then begin to incorporate a progression using the same structure I previously discussed. For example, if I was able to do the Bent-Leg Hold for 30 seconds, then I would begin to incorporate the Raised Tuck Hold into my training, and hold for as long as I could for 8-10 sets. Because midsection holds emphasize the skills that I mentioned earlier, it is important to maintain a high degree of focus during training. One of the things that I wish I did earlier was isolate my midsection hold training. I would often add it to days where I was already doing Pull-Ups, or Squats, and over time I found that it was taking away from my midsection hold training because I wasn’t able put as much focus into it as I wanted in order to really develop the skills I mentioned earlier. This is partly due to my lack of awareness, but also because midsection holds are very physically demanding. I wasn’t respecting them enough, and it slowed me down. Also, when I say focus, I don’t mean it in the general sense in that I am focusing on midsection holds because they are consistently in my routine. I mean focus during each set. That is, being able to really feel what my body is doing, perfecting technique, and controlling breathe. If I could go back, these are the things that I would have put more significance in, and I would have dedicated entire sessions to midsection holds, or at least kept the other exercises light. Furthermore, I would have respected the different progressions, and really got as much as I felt I could from each one. I would have done this by applying some of the different progression concepts that can be used to alter your training as necessary.
I didn’t follow a traditional midsection hold progression early on, and actually for a good amount of time into my training. It was more of an assortment of core exercises like Seated Leg Tucks, Hanging Knee and Leg Raises, but the reason for it was I just wasn’t aware of a progression. I found that I relied heavily on Hanging Leg Raise progressions to develop my core, and my intention is not to make that sound like a bad thing per se. However, as related to midsection holds specifically, they are isometric in nature so they are static, as opposed to the isotonic nature of something like Leg Raises which involves concentric and eccentric movements. Because of this, I could have benefited tremendously by incorporating some early midsection hold variations like the Jackknife Hold, Bent-Leg Hold, and Raised Tuck Hold into my training. I essentially began training midsection holds in earnest at raised N-Holds, and while I did have a foundation of strength in key areas like the hip flexors, rectus abdominis, and psoas, I needed to build further strength specifically with midsection holds, I needed to develop my technique, and the skillset. Furthermore, I found I was having trouble maintaining proper technique, which was very discouraging. Now, I always take this as a sign that I may need to regress. While I would have gained strength over time by fighting through this, I feel like I would have developed bad habits, or perhaps injured myself. And when it comes down to it, If you want to improve in a specific area, you have to practice that area, so I found that I had to take a step back, and work on techniques like the Bent-Leg Hold, and Raised Tuck Hold. What I want to emphasize is, it is key to develop a strong foundation, and taking a step back to ensure this is never a bad idea. Once I realized that, I had a lot of fun with midsection holds, and would train them wherever I could. If I was sitting on a set of stairs, I would throw in a couple sets. If I was at the corner of the countertop in my kitchen I would jump up and get a set in. Even if I was sitting at a desk, and I felt like the chair was strong enough to hold me, I would get a set of Bent-Leg Holds in, and I still do that to this day. This all came from being able to better manage the techniques, and I developed confidence, which is very important in the psychological aspect of training. So, if you find that you are really struggling with a variation, try a regressed version of it, and refine your technique. When it comes to midsection holds, don’t avoid key early variations like the Jackknife Hold, Bent-Leg Hold, and Raised Tuck Holds. Progressions are there for a reason, no matter what the exercise, and they also have the potential to make you aware of something that you didn’t expect at all.
That, for me, was flexibility. This might not be something that you even think of as related to midsection holds, I know I didn’t, but it’s very important. It became very apparent to me that I had some mobility issues when performing Lying Leg Raises. I noticed it when I was trying bring my legs straight up, perpendicular to the ground, to complete a repetition. Due to the lack of flexibility in my hips, and hamstrings, I would need to keep my legs bent, and couldn’t get them quite as vertical as I’d like. I also found that I was using momentum to bring my hips off of the ground a little bit, which definitely isn’t ideal. The goal is to keep the movement controlled, and to maintain proper technique to get the most out of the exercise. This is particularly true for the straight leg variation. If it is a strength issue, and you need to become proficient at the earlier bent leg variations, that is one thing, however if you do have the strength but are finding that you simply lack the mobility, that is another. Luckily, I was able to see fairly quickly that it was the ladder situation for me, and could work to correct it. This involved supplementing my training with stretches in key areas like the hips, and hamstrings. Keep this in mind if you are in a similar place, and are finding that you aren’t quite able to achieve the technique you want. Your flexibility might need some work, and putting the time in to improve it will pay dividends further into your training.
The final progression concept I want to discuss is the height of the pressing base in which you perform the midsection hold. Going back to the situation I mentioned earlier where I attempted the L-Sit early in my midsection hold training, and failed miserably, I demonstrated this concept, but I had no idea I was doing it. When attempting it, I first tried with my palms on the floor, but when I found that I wasn’t able to do it, I tried again by using my closed fists on the floor as a pressing base. While the change is subtle, I did notice that this made the hold a little easier. Nowhere near easy enough for me to hold it, but still easier, and this is because I raised the height of the pressing base. It wasn’t until much later that I realized why this is the case, but it was an important realization because it allowed me to tweak my progressions even further in order to customize them to my capabilities. This is why the parallel bars became instrumental in my training, and still are. I have a set of low and high bars so I was able to use them throughout my progressions. I definitely recommend picking up a set, or utilizing them in a local park, or school if they are available. Increasing the height of the pressing base mitigates some difficulty because it allows for changes in the positioning of the legs and feet. In an exercise like the Raised Tuck Hold, the feet are below the torso which makes the hold much easier because the midsection has to do less work. As the height of the pressing base is decreased, the feet are forced in front of the torso, putting more work on the midsection. You can further increase difficulty by straightening the legs with the feet positioned above the hips, or do this one leg at a time for Uneven N-Holds, or you can go even further by also shifting the hips forward which will give the triceps a tremendous workout. So there’s a lot to play with when working on your midsection holds, and I encourage you to experiment with variations at different heights in order to take full advantage of the progression concepts, and customize the workout to your capabilities.
On a final note, always try to keep the back upright as you progress. Allowing the shoulders to shift forward and the back to arch is conducive to shifting the hips backward which will affect the difficulty, and can divert emphasis from key muscle groups. The goal is to maintain proper technique in order to develop these key muscle groups, and this will become more and more important for progression to advanced holds. The earlier you can develop the habit of keeping the back upright, the easier it will be down the line, even if it means having to regress in order to do so.
Keep in mind you can find pictures of the different variations that I’ve mentioned on the Facebook page, as well as the website. I have been all over midsection holds lately so I hope this episode helps you see how cool they are and helps in your progression, no matter what level you are at.