EYC Podcast #29 – Technique and Progression
I’ve always considered technique a very important aspect of my training, as I’m sure most do. Even when using weights, I really enjoyed learning new techniques and put a lot of time and effort into strictly improving and maintaining them. I was fortunate enough to have the importance of technique engrained into my brain through previous martial arts training, so it translated really well into calisthenics. As I began to learn more about progressive calisthenics, I was delighted because there is an abundance of techniques that one can employ. What I began to discover through my training, and further study, is that technique in and of itself can be used to measure progress. On a general level, what I mean is that when we are first attempting a technique, we want to be able to achieve its ideal, however that is unlikely, especially when we get to more and more difficult techniques. This can be because of a lack of strength, flexibility, or balance, for example. What I want to demonstrate in this episode is that ideal technique is something that is worked up to, and it is ok to not be able to perform a technique perfectly at the beginning. The important thing is that you constantly strive for its ideal. One thing I want to stress before I continue is safety is always the primary concern. It is not wise to attempt a technique that is way out of your league due to the risk of injury. This is where the concept of progressive calisthenics becomes even more important. Just like you wouldn’t jump from deadlifting 100lbs to 300lbs without the proper training and strength development, the appropriate progressions are there within calisthenics, you just need to build the necessary foundation. With all of this being said, the discussion points in this episode will be experimentation, technique as a principle of progression, and overarching considerations around technique.
I touched on this in episode #13 of the podcast, but experimentation is an important aspect of training. It is a way to test the waters, and see not only where you stand when it comes to a certain technique, but it will also help you discover what you enjoy doing. A question that I’ve been asked in the past is, how do you know when to progress? Experimentation plays a big part in this because one of the ways I determine this is how successfully I can perform a more difficult variation with proper technique. More often than not, I am able to perform the more difficult variation, but with loose technique. At that point, if I feel that I can perform this loose technique safely, I acknowledge where I need to improve then use regressions to help build a stronger foundation. As I develop strength over time, I will begin to incorporate the more difficult variation in my workouts to a greater degree. A good example of this from my experience is the pistol squat. To this day, I use regressions to improve my technique, but when I was first performing it, I was always testing myself to see where my technique was at, and pushing it just a bit further to see whether it would hold. I still do that with different pistol squat variations but at this level, I experiment with things like arm placement. It’s also important to consider that it might not be strength that you are lacking. Mastering many techniques within calisthenics requires development in skills such as balance, proprioception, and coordination, or it could be a matter of flexibility. So it’s important to include them in the overall equation. That is why it is so important to experiment, it gives you a snapshot of your current capabilities. It was because I began to appreciate the value of experimentation that I employed the training method of having three techniques within a certain muscle group that I would prioritize. I’ve discussed these before but the first is a variation that I can perform very comfortably, maintaining proper technique throughout, the second being a more challenging variation that I can perform with proper technique, but less comfortably, and third a variation that is the most challenging. More specifically, the third variation is generally one in which my technique can be much improved, and I am working toward achieving its ideal. The first two variations are there in order to build a greater foundation for the third. So have fun with them. Carefully analyze where your weaknesses are when you try a new technique, and begin to improve them using regressions. Not only that, by performing the new, more difficult variation, that will also help develop the necessary confidence, skill, and strength you need to tighten up technique. What constitutes tightening up you ask?
This is where the concept of progressive calisthenics comes to the rescue. My goal here is not to get too philosophical, but cleaning up your technique is being able to perform the movement closer and closer to its most difficult method. Similar to all other principles of progression, an exercise can be made more or less difficult based on how technique is executed. This becomes especially apparent as you get to intermediate and advanced exercises. As you run though the chain of progressions, improvements in technique become smaller, and the degree of difficulty larger. This is why the smallest tweaks to a technique can make it sufficiently difficult. For example, in the front lever it is common for the practitioners back to arch due to insufficient core strength. While it may seem like a slight detail, straightening the back requires a tremendous amount of core strength, making the hold much more difficult. Similarly, on a more beginner level, it is common for those new to the pushup to either sag at the hips, or push the hips too high, both due to an inability to stabilize the core. The goal here for both then is to begin tightening technique by straightening the back, and further engaging the core. I reiterate, this may seem like a simple thing to do, but it can take weeks, or even months to make meaningful progress in improving technique. What I want to illustrate here is one can use technique as a gauge of competency. If you are approaching its ideal through hard work, you are on the right track. It may require a bit of patience, but the more you can master the technique of less difficult variations, the more it will pay off when you get to intermediate and advanced techniques. I know for myself, my urge to move on to more difficult progressions has come back to bite me, and I learned it the hard way. The pistol squat is again a great example. I was so anxious to perform it that I neglected to incorporate assisted, or self-assisted variations, which would have really helped to tighten up my technique. In other words, I didn’t build a strong enough foundation. I found that my technique was too loose for my own standards and because of this, I’ve had to take a step back and rebuild. This was an important lesson. One of the main concepts within progressive calisthenics is understanding how to make a variation less, or more difficult, and all I was focusing on was getting to the next level, without putting in the time, or using the principles of progression available to me. Regarding technique as a principle of progression, I generally wouldn’t recommend loosening technique in order to make an exercise easier when you are able to perform it properly. It should be challenging, but if regression is required, I would recommend making other principles of progression like leverage, or weight-to-limb ratio more favourable to preserve technique. Breaking form can cause bad habits to develop we wouldn’t want to sacrifice our hard work, or risk injury. The lesson to take from this is, it’s ok to not be able to perform a new technique perfectly. Mastering it is a progression within itself. As long as you are aware of the ideal, you can use the improvements to gauge your progress.
You may ask, is it really that important to pay this much attention to technique? Other than the benefits of safety, efficiency of movement, and maximizing muscle contraction, it comes down to building the necessary foundation for progression. Each step in the chain is there for a reason, and will help you develop in a predictive, manageable way. For example, if I want to progress from the overhand pull-up, to the close overhand pull-up, I can begin to bring my hands closer together in small increments, say inches. It behooves us to pay close attention to how we are performing that movement as we move our hands closer to asses whether technique is suffering. Am I introducing more momentum, am I not able to bring my chin over the bar, is one side pulling more than the other? If one or more of these things is occurring, it doesn’t mean that we abandon it all together, it just means that we are arming ourselves with the knowledge of where improvement is needed. Technique is a great indicator of where we are, and because there are so many different variations within calisthenics, it is crucial to develop it as much as possible within each progression to set the stage for the next. Just as it is important to look at technique at a micro level, it is important to consider it on a macro level. What I mean by this, is that there are overarching considerations when it comes to proper technique that apply to the vast majority of variations. Here’s a listing of some that are valuable to keep in mind:
- Tense the body and contract the core
- Maintain focus and be aware of your surroundings
- Keep the back straight and scapula retracted
- Understand limb placement and function
- Control the neck
- Generally, speeding a technique up will make the exercise easier due to momentum, while slowing it down will demand greater endurance, thereby increasing difficulty.
- Always be willing to regress an exercise to build greater strength
In the end, it’s about taking the leap and attempt a new, more difficult technique. It’s important to know that you will likely not perform it perfectly, but that is the essence of progressive calisthenics. It is understanding where you stand at the current time, and using the principles of progression to add, or mitigate difficulty. Technique is one of these principles, and is a valuable tool to not only get the most out of your workouts, but to gauge your progression.