EYC Podcast #28 – Transitional Techniques for Progression
When I first began training calisthenics, I had a very narrow view of progression and what was available. Accomplishing some of the advanced variations that I knew about seemed almost unreachable because I didn’t know how to break down my progression. The idea of progressive calisthenics was a foreign one, so I didn’t really know where to start. When it came to weight training, all it was really about for me was adding more weight. Once you can lift that, then you just add more weight, and away you go. For calisthenics it was a bit tougher because I wasn’t looking to add weight with things like weight ed vests, or foreign objects, so I would think how do I progress? Is it just about being able to do more and more reps of the limited amount of exercises that I knew about? As an example, when it came to Pushups, the only variations that I knew about were the Standard Pushup, Close Pushup, and One-Arm Tripod Pushup. What I didn’t know was everything that can go between, so achieving the One-Arm Tripod Pushup, as an example, seemed way out of reach. It all changed for me when I was introduced to the idea of manipulating things like leverage, weight to limb ratio, or symmetry, which are some principles of progression that I’ve spoken about in the past. It was a way to break down my training, and progress at a pace that was not only manageable, but predictable, in the sense that I knew if I applied the principles of progression to whatever I wanted to achieve, there was no doubt in my mind I could do it.
In my previous episode on Hanging Leg-Raise progressions, I touched on the idea of using asymmetry in your routine in order to progress, and I want to use this episode to talk about it in more detail so it can be applied to a broader range of techniques. It is about providing tools that can be used to approach your training in a more strategic way, and achieve goals that at the moment may feel out of reach.
At the base, a technique is:
- Bilateral, where it is affecting both sides of the body and limbs evenly, making it symmetrical
- Transitional, where both sides of the body, and two, or all four limbs are involved, but one side of the body is exerting more force, making it asymmetrical, and
- Unilateral, where, most commonly, a limb, or two, is taken out of the movement, making it an asymmetrical technique
For example, the Standard Full Bodyweight Squat is a bilateral exercise because both sides of the body are exerting force evenly. The Split Squat is a transitional, or asymmetrical variation, in which one leg is taking on more of the load than the other. This illustrates the transitional nature of the variation because it helps the practitioner to work toward a more difficult transitional variation, and then to the unilateral Pistol Squat by continuing to shift more and more weight to the single limb.
Another example would be the Push-Up. In this case, the Standard Pushup is the bilateral technique, the Uneven Pushup an example of a transitional or asymmetrical technique, and the Tripod One-Arm Pushup an example of a unilateral technique.
The reason I am stressing the importance of the transitional technique is because it helps bridge the gap between exercises that can seem too far apart in difficulty. Referring back to the terms I used earlier, transitional techniques are very often used to achieve a more difficult unilateral technique, after you’ve mastered the initial bilateral technique. They do this by breaking progression down into smaller stages that allow for more control, and customization to ones own capabilities. With this, one can progress, or regress, at their own pace safely, and effectively, while also developing the necessary muscle groups that are key for future progress. It’s important to note that not all asymmetrical techniques are more difficult than their bilateral counterparts. Good examples are the Uneven N-Hold, or the Uneven Pike Leg Raise. The L-Hold, and Pike Leg Raise which are bilateral techniques respectively, would be more difficult.
I touched on it earlier, but what asymmetrical techniques do is apply one or more principle of progression to make the exercise more difficult. This difficulty isn’t arbitrary. Transitional techniques have a beginning and end goal. For example, in the close pushup, bringing the hands only half way together acts as a halfway point between the standard pushup, and the full close pushup in which the hands are touching. In this case, leverage is more favourable in the half way close pushup. Another example is the Assisted Pistol Squat which involves using a non-working limb like the arm to hold onto a fixed object, helping with the necessary strength and stability to perform the movement. Over time, less and less assistance can be used, eventually transitioning to the full pistol squat. These are examples of two principles of progression, leverage, and assistance. My goal is not to go into all of them in detail, but a couple other principles include weight to limb ratio, which I’ve discuss in episode #13 of the podcast, and technique, which I’ll discuss in a future podcast. The main goal here is to understand the concept of transitional techniques, and get an idea of how they can be used.
Another benefit that transitional techniques offer is the knowledge that there is a path in which to follow. The beauty of progressive calisthenics is that there are many ways to progress, and everyones path is different. Some people manage to achieve more difficult variations with relative ease and skip a few progressions, while others may have a more difficult time and need to follow a specific progression. Some like a very structured approach, whereas others are more loose with their training. In the end, a path is there if you need it. You just have to follow it. Transitional techniques are part of that path, and can allow you to break down your training very specifically to make the incremental steps that you need to. I can’t understate the benefits that transitional techniques have had on my training and the whole world that they have opened up. A movement that I have always wanted to do is the Tiger Bend Pushup. When I first encountered it, I had absolutely no idea how one would even work up to it. But with the knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years, I have a clear path that I am taking. The way I think of it, all of my pushup and handstand work is a transitional technique to the Tiger Bend Pushup. It will take years, but knowing that as long as I stay the course, I will achieve it, and that offers a huge benefit and keeps me motivated.
The final area that I want to touch on is targeted training. Our bodies aren’t perfect, and sometimes can grow asymmetrically, or sometimes a muscle group on one side of the body can feel weaker than the other. This is where transitional techniques can come into play because they allow for greater isolation of a muscle group. Knowing this, one can more effectively tackle strength discrepancies. I’ve done this extensively in pull-ups because I found that early on in my training my right side was pulling to a greater degree than my left. Over time, I developed a strength imbalance, and had to make use of transitional techniques like the Mixed Grip Pull-up, Uneven Pull-up, and Archer Pull-up to to bring it back in line. Another example would be the Split Squat. If a muscle imbalance exists in the legs, one can use the Split Squat in order to target the weaker leg to a greater degree. There are many possibilities, and the main point to take from this is that transitional techniques can be used to target areas that may need a little more love. Now, one final note on isolation. In bodybuilding terms, an isolation exercise generally refers to targeting one muscle group, very often using only one joint. In calisthenics, the idea of allowing fewer muscle groups to aid in the movement still exists, however the use of only one joint is rare. The only scenario I can think of where this may be an issue is the aesthetic side of bodybuilding, where a specific muscle may need to be worked in order to achieve a symmetrical look for competitive purpose. If that is the case, isolation weight training may be the best solution for you.
To sum up, it’s important to understand the transitional techniques form a bridge between bilateral exercises, and more difficult unilateral, or in some cases, bilateral variations. They offer the ability to break down your training in very specific ways, with an end goal in mind. It comes down to taking advantage of the principles of progression, and using them to tailor the workout to your needs and capabilities. Not only do they offer a physical benefit, but they offer a psychological one by allowing you to forge a path with a greater degree of predictability, offering motivation, confidence, and clarity. Transitional techniques can also be used for targeted training allowing you to fine tune your workouts based on your results.
Some more examples of asymmetrical techniques include Self-Assisted Pistol Squats, Australian Pull-Ups in which one leg is lifted, Archer Pushup, One-Leg Pike Lift, and so many more. Take advantage of them, they are amazing.
Keep in mind, you can learn more about weight to limb ratio and leverage in episode #13 of the podcast, and be sure to subscribe to learn a lot more about the wonderful world of calisthenics.