Saturday, April 2, 2016

Aerial Bodybuilding - Jan Dellinger (2016)

Because I'm now more able to read and think about strength and conditioning training than I am able to actually do it, I admit to surfing various websites, blogs and forums on the subject matter. Sure, I encounter a fair share of baloney advice aimed at keeping some internet personal trainer's name in front of the online public. On the other hand, one also encounters the occasional pearl of wisdom.

An example of the latter was a piece titled, "All Muscle, No Iron" which debuted on in 2004 and was authored by Chris Shugart. 

"All Muscle, No Iron":

Chris Shugart Articles:

Basically, the aforementioned article was a Q&A between Shugart and Christopher Sommer, an elite caliber gymnastics coach working out of the Desert Devil National Team Training Center at the time.    

While Shugart did not state the point of this interview in the following terms, the crux of what I found so interesting was the suggestion that many of us who got into serious weight training as young males by buying a barbell and the Arnold Bodybuilding Courses, might have been just as well off by enrolling at a nearby gymnastics academy, and allowing the barbells to wait for a while.

Heresy, you say!

Read on.

Shugart's real thrust stemmed from the observation that one of the signature sights of every summer Olympic Games is the array of male gymnasts sporting granite-like arms, shoulders and torsos, tiny, crisply delineated waists and trim, athletically-muscled lower bodies moving with supreme power and agility over and around pommel horses, still rings and parallel bars in search of glory. To those witnesses who rightly admire extraordinary physical development in its many forms, their utterly incomprehensible physiques which permits these expressions of world class functional strength, are their true glory!

To sum up the almost universal admiration of these great physical specimens in bodybuilding rhetoric borrowed from the Weider magazine ads of the 1950s and '60s, what red blooded male would not want to sport the tremendous muscular development of these gymnastic gods! Or, and this was more in keeping with the tone of the aforementioned Weider mag ads, what female would not want to be linked to such granite-like examples of manhood!

Pardon the foray into "overcooked" evaluations of male musculature, but there has been a clear divergence of opinion of what -- a.k.a., how much muscle -- comprises the ideally developed male physique, among both the exercising and non-exercising public, for decades.

Before the days when average folks saw grand-scale bodybuilding (pre-Arnold and "Pumping Iron"), many thought the "Mr. America" physiques of the 1950s and '60s might have been overdone. Of course, afterward when what I like to call the "Mr. Olympia" era was ushered in and the bigger is better mentality was clearly en vogue, even much of the traditional exercising public thought the level of displayed muscular development excessive, if not freakish . . . including Arnold himself!

Looking at this another way in more contemporary terms, the physical description of someone being "jacked" has different connotations to different segments of the muscle-worshiping culture in the 21st Century. (Author's note: will someone please explain what the description "swole" means?)

Getting back to Shugart and Sommer, the prime question was how do these great strength athletes train to achieve these marvelous physiques? Per Sommer . . . "they train almost exclusively on bodyweight exercises," which makes sense as the bulk of their training time and energy has to be devoted to perfecting the skills of their sports specialties. 

I know what many readers have to be thinking: "What, no barbell curls? Or presses of any kind? All of this arm development, in particular, comes from just pullups or bar dips? Are these guys genetically gifted?" Again, per Sommer, no weighted barbell curls are performed in training, and their arm development, even the biceps, is attributable primarily to the straight arm leverage work they do, especially on the still rings.

Competitive ring movements like the iron cross, planche, maltese, the cross pull and their connecting movements which comprise a presentation routine, all involve moving the body without the advantage of bending the joints, which is a foreign concept to the traditional weight training public. The "secret" to mastering these movements, which requires the extra muscle, is progressively increasing training intensity over time, which is accomplished by increasing the length of the lever, which means being able to perform them with straight, locked arms.

Of course, being able to hold these exceptionally disadvantaged positions isometrically, and then move with deceptively graceful muscular force to other positions of difficulty is what promotes those ripped and bulging muscles.

Sommer does admit that extra resistance can come into play in the training of the best of the best among this upper echelon of bodyweight strength training practitioners as he has seen the most powerful among them capable of holding a quality iron cross for time with 60 pounds attached to their feet.     

Other of Sommer's insights, which he has compiled in a book (as well as DVD set) titled "Building the Olympic Body: The Science of Gymnastic Strength Training", include his assertion that the bulk of their abdominal ("core") work is devoted to the practice of hanging leg raises (sometimes weighted if necessary) and pullups. In his opinion, pullups are as much a quality ab building movement as they are an upper back/arms/shoulder builder. 

Chris Sommer's Gymnastic Strength Training:

And regarding the lower body, they do considerable plyometric jumping and vaulting, along with single-leg squatting movements ("pistols").

On paper, this route to the pinnacle of gymnastics looks rather straightforward . . . and familiar if you know anything about achieving the pinnacle of muscular development or strength. In all cases, the difference-maker is the long slog of arduous work needed to arrive at that pinnacle. As well as some natural gifts in the genetics department, a reality Sommer acknowledges for performing at the national-international level of gymnastics. Nevertheless, he contends that even more average fitness enthusiasts can benefit greatly in terms of improved muscle development, flexibility, muscular power and other athletic qualities if one starts with the basics of gymnastics and builds upward.

Shugart next ventures into an area of discussion with Sommer which will probably raise a lot of eyebrows among bodybuilders, powerlifters and long term serious weight trainees in general: Specifically, the degree of carryover gymnastic/bodyweight-forged strength which can be applied by the uninitiated (to weights) to limited-technique lifts such as the bench press, squat or deadlift. Due to the fact that much of gymnastics seems upper body-oriented, a strong bench press performance hardly seems plausible by a male gymnast upon his first crack with a barbell in his hands. Likewise, despite the bodyweight-only training background, Sommer claims that when pressed many male gymnasts can do full chins with as much as 50% of their bodyweight hanging from their frames.

Okay, stellar and mind-bending as these performances are, gymnastics is seemingly all about upper body strength, so they seem possible for the physically gifted. But what about a real crude test of overall body power like the deadlift? In doing his research for this interview, Shugart found numerous instances of male gymnasts capable of deadlifting two and occasionally three times bodyweight on their first tries at deadlifting a barbell! When asked to verify this phenomenon, Sommer quickly admitted to having seen this play out on many occasions as well.

My guess is that long-suffering barbell men in general would counter with something to the effect that elite level male gymnastics is the "land of little or light guys." While this is true, as a male in the 5'7" and 170-lb. range would be considered supersized in that world, deadlifting two or three times bodyweight, and especially on one's first try, is quite commendable. Remember, it is all relative, even if small male gymnasts would get lost (if not trampled) in the typical crowd at a bodybuilding contest or powerlifting meet.

One gets the impression that barbell folks generally do not have that much respect for the exceptional physiques and demonstrable strength of the gymnastic community, or the more grass roots offshoot, bodyweight trainers, for that matter. Perhaps it is attributable to the fact that each has traveled vastly different roads.

Perhaps if we had a role model who had a foot in both worlds, could some mutual respect be forged. As luck would have it, there are two monsters from powerlifting who engaged in competitive gymnastics before getting busy with weights.

One is Mr. Powerlifting himself, Larry Pacifico.

 It is doubtful that most iron admirers were aware of his pre-lifting endeavors, but he has a verifiable background in gymnastics.  


Verifiable? One great indicator was certain of the exercises contained in his powerlifting courses he made available to the public a couple of decades ago.

[Note: A copy of one such manual of Mr. Pacifico's will soon be posted in full on this blog.]

His primary auxiliary pressing movement (after bench pressing) was handstand pressing between two benches . . . and for somewhat higher reps! If one can do these, and especially at the conclusion of a bench pressing session, overhead pressing with barbells or dumbbells might become redundant.

Larry also subtly made another point with these full-range handstand presses, which was that they are attainable by larger men, too! That is not an insignificant item.

I met Larry for the first time in the late 1970s at a seminar he gave at Kutztown College. One of his more memorable remarks on that occasion was that in his opinion, the latissimus dorsi muscles and their development were key to maximum performance in all three powerlifts. So, referring back to his published bodybuilding courses, what "lat" movements did Larry himself most rely on? Overhand-grip chins, (pullups in the lexicon of some people), and front levers on the chin bar, which clearly came from his gymnastics background.

[Note: Here is a short article on a 1980 Pacifico clinic -      

And here is another tidbit thrown in for good measure: When Larry was inducted into York Barbell's Hall of Fame at one of the Strength Spectaculars in the late 1990s, a chin contest was also announced as part of the overall program. Getting wind of this, Larry, who was in his early to middle 50s at the time, called us in advance to find out just how early in the day's events the chin contest was to be held as he really wanted to enter. As he himself said, "I'm still pretty good at chinning."

For someone of Larry's reputation desiring to compete against all comers at a public strength fest signaled to me that his self-estimation of "pretty good" really meant PRETTY GOOD! His participation would have added a lot to the whole proceedings, but unfortunately, he could not arrive much before the actual awards ceremony.

Example # 2 with the dual background of gymnastics and powerlifting is Fred "Dr. Squat" Hatfield, who competed in the former while in college before matriculating to competitive Olympic lifting and then into big-time powerlifting. As such, Fred experienced the "full monty" of competitive strength-oriented sports.  

I find it quite telling that if one gets on his "Dr. Squat" blog, you will quickly notice that his signature photo icon shown whenever he responds is a snapshot of himself holding an iron cross on the still rings, rather than his more closely associated 1000+ pound squatting. And yes, he is flashing the trademark crisp, clean extraordinary musculature of a top caliber gymnast! Seems we know now which image Fred personally values more! 

Following up on this notion that advanced bodyweight strength training is the province of only the smaller men, note the example of Bud Jeffries, or more specifically pro wrestler Karl Gotch, a sizable grappler in his day who valued gymnastic movements over a lot of heavy weight training, and personally trained one or two generations of Japan's best professional matmen. Want an eye-opener, view Gotch's "Combat Conditioning" tape filmed at his Florida home sometime in the mid-1990s. He is shown personally working out three of Japan's biggest mat names with very innovative bodyweight movements and techniques. The bottom line is, this stuff works! 

I'll close with the reiteration that it might have been more beneficial for some of us when we got interested in bodybuilding training to have sought out the local gymnastics academy.

It's not an inferior way to go!

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