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Planche

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I’ve been fairly lazy recently and haven’t made much progress at all with my gymnastic strength training. I blame the lack of motivation partly on the fact that I don’t feel I’m making any progress. Therefore, I have decided to do an all round benchmarking now, before the summer, and then use this as a guide for what to practise during the summer. Then, after the summer, I will do the routines detailed below once again and see how much I have improved.

If I haven’t provided a video myself, YouTube typically gives you an idea of what kind of exercises I’m talking about. If you really want to know and can’t find anything, just ask.

Strength related

The following tests were made. Time for each cycle is given for each session. Note that the number of repetitions are often pre-determined, i.e. I decided to do 9 12 9 9 10 pull-ups before I started the session. The final set in each session are always a maximum (until failure). Exercises performed in isolation (i.e. not as part of any routine) are found after the others. I have provided video clips when available, sometimes old ones simply to show what I’m talking about. All exercises are done fairly slowly and with full range of motion when applicable.

Routine A

Advanced tuck planche / front lever progressions:

  1. Warm up (at home)
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Advanced tuck planche: 10 20 20 20 20 (final sets very hard)
  4.  Front lever cycling: 10 15 15 15 15 (okay)
  5.  Light leg work in between


Straddle planche is still quite a long way away.


This is a complete failure. At best, I can maintain the horizontal position for one second, no more. Straddle is cool, though.

Chin-ups / handstand push-ups (against a wall):

  1. Warm up
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Alternate pull-ups / chin-ups: 9 12 9 9 10 (final set very, very hard)
  4. Handstand push-ups: 8 10 8 8 10 (okay)

Routine B (with at least 48 hours rest after A)

Dips / body lever / back lever

Warm up (one hour gymnastics)

  1. New cycle starts every 4:00 minutes:
  2. Dips (in rings): 5 5 5 5 8 (can be increased)
  3. Body lever: 9 12 9 9 13 (can be increased)
  4. Back lever: (can hold the position no more than a few seconds)


Routine C (with roughly 24 hours rest after B)

Weighted chin-ups (30% body weight) / L-sit

  1. Warm up (at home)
  2. New cycle starts every 3:00 minutes:
  3. Alternate pull-ups / chin-ups: 3 4 3 4 4 (final set very hard)
  4. L-sit (in rings, seconds): 20 20 20 15 17 (hands outside hips)

Miscellaneous

Human flag: 13 seconds facing right, 11 seconds facing left


Wall run: Completed 5 minutes in 9 minutes and 12 seconds

Sargent’s jump: 45 cm with hands on hips

Press to HS: Have almost managed two from handstand position

Skill related:

Front flip


This is where I’m at currently. Need more height!

Back flip


The sad thing is that I did this much, much better a year ago. :(

Front handspring


As you can see, I’ve never practised this at all. This is merely meant to define how much I suck now so I can be proud later. :)

Back handspring


I can do this slightly better on a good day, but not much better.

Conclusion

As you can see, I do some things fairly well, others not so. I’ll post something similar to this in about three months, hopefully there will be some significant improvements!

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This is the third post I write about my current workout, see the first and the second post for more background information. I’m writing this post because I want to say that the fifty pull-ups program is more or less impossible to finish on time, but also because I want to give you a general update on how things are going. I’m going to separate the post into a vertical and a horizontal plane, just like I did last time.

Vertical plane

The exercises here have stayed more or less the same since last time, meaning that I still try to follow the fifty pull-ups program as best I can. I have stepped back a week or two in order to stop doing the exercises too quickly and that feels quite good. That means that I’m actually at the same level as I was five weeks ago, with the “slight” difference that the form is a lot better throughout the entire routine.

When I started the program, I was more or less convinced that it was impossible to complete on time. It simply doesn’t make sense to be able to go from 15+ pull-ups to 50+ in just seven weeks. Still, I decided to try. I finished week five of seven with the slightest possible margin (meaning pretty lousy form on the last few reps of the heaviest sets). Week six was completely impossible and will probably remain so for quite a few weeks more. I went from 19 to 26 pull-ups in six weeks, which is quite good. Going from 15 to 50 in seven is just not even close to being realistic.

Current pull-up maximum: 26 (performed in week five of the exercise program)

The handstand push-ups have seen even bigger changes. Firstly, I decided to stop doing lots of them against a wall and start practising doing them free standing instead. This is of course a lot harder, so my current goal is doing five sets of three push-ups. I’ve never been close to finishing all five, but I have managed several of isolated sets with all three reps successfully carried out.

Current handstand push-up maximum (guess): 10/12 (over four sets)

Horizontal plane

In this plane, we have my old “favourites” planche and front lever. Planche is at the very top of my list of things that seem easy but are excruciatingly hard. Going through the various progressions, I think most people with some balance can manage the frog stance for one minute without practising too much. Moving on to the tucked planche, most people can’t even raise their legs off the ground. It has taken me roughly two years to achieve the advanced tucked planche I have now, which I haven’t timed, but should be well over 30 seconds with good form, perhaps even 40 if I’m well rested. Straddle planche now? Forget it. Full planche? Dream on.

Current planche status: 5 x 25 seconds advanced tuck

The front lever is a lot easier in many ways. It’s hard to measure improvement here, because I do this exercise in the same cycle as the pull-ups and they do really make use of similar muscle groups. I don’t think I’m that far away from being able to hold a full front lever for a few seconds. I think I simply need to focus more on this if I want to make quicker progress.

Stopping too early?

I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon in the gym. Why is it that some people do exercises that are way too easy for them? I don’t mean to say that other people are weak and that they should exercise more, that’s up to them, but if they have decided to spend time in the gym, why don’t make the most of it? I’ve seen people do assisted chin-ups where they literally fly off the top. I think the problem is that they don’t know or don’t feel that they are doing the exercise at a level which is too easy for them. Using about 50% of maximum capacity is not a good idea if you want to get stronger (and no, these people are not doing tons of reps focusing on endurance).

Might I be guilty of the same thing? For pull-ups, most definitely not. I’m pretty sure that I’m within one or two reps of my absolute maximum at least twice a week, which might even be too much. But what about planche and front lever? I think there is a risk. Thus, I’m going to make an effort from now on to time myself more, to try to push myself to hold these positions for longer periods of time. I don’t think I’m anywhere near the 50% of maximum strength I talked about above, but even if I’m at 80%, there are still 10-15% more I should use.

More core!

Some more core components have sneaked their way into my current routine, albeit separated in time by around an hour or so. The above-mentioned exercises are performed before gymnastics practice twice a week, plus once during the weekend, but the following core exercises are performed after the gymnastics practice is over.

The exercises are quite simple: body lever, some back related exercise (usually skin the cat to inverted hang in rings) plus human flag. The body lever is quite cool and feels very much like the ultimate front core exercise. I do 3 sets of 10 reps now, but I think I might start adding weights shortly. I’m not that happy with the back exercises, mostly because I haven’t found a good exercise that will help the planche without using exactly the same muscles (which is too exhausting). Handstand to tucked planche might be a goo idea. Hopefully I will have something more to say about this next time. The human flag is progressing slowly (doing it on horizontal bars rather than a vertical). I can hold it 5-10 seconds on my good side on a good day, 3-5 on my bad.

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Four weeks ago, I wrote a post (read it here) describing two new physical challenges that I would undertake, both related to vertical pulls and presses, namely handstand push-ups and ordinary pull/chin-ups. I also said that I would report regularly, and seeing that exactly four weeks has passed, this seems to be as good an opportunity as any.

Adding a horizontal component to the same workout

Over the past four weeks, a steady exercise routine has been established, which is performed three times a week (twice before ordinary gymnastics practice and once before diving on weekends). I do the following four exercises in the following order.

  1. Planche
  2. Front-lever
  3. Handstand push-ups (HSPU)
  4. Pull/chin-ups

The first two should be familiar to anyone who has read anything about what I practice during the past three years or so, but I still have quite some way to go before achieving planche, but a significantly shorter time before I get the front-lever. I’m currently focusing more on form for the planche, meaning that I’m doing five sets of 15-20 seconds with what I consider to be almost perfect form. When I have increased this to around 25 seconds, I will start moving out into straddle planche, which still seems a long way away.

Building strength in the vertical plane

I started out four weeks ago with a maximum of 19 consecutive pull-ups and 14 consecutive handstand push-ups. I have followed the exercise program over at 50 pull-ups, both for pull/chin-ups and HSPU, starting from level 5 for chins and level 4 for HSPU. In general, things are going quite well, or at least better than I thought it would. Let’s look at chin-ups first. Considering that my maximum before starting was 19 and what week four looked like, I’m quite satisfied. This is what the progress looks like so far:


Green crosses for completed sets.

Starting with week number four, I have doubted that I will be able to finish one or more sets on any given day, but so far I’ve been able to do the required number of repetitions. Week 5 looks quite daunting, with starting repetitions of 22, 24 and 26 respectively. That means personal records three times in one week with a considerable number of reps to do after that. It’s doable, I think, but not easy. It’s interesting to note that from now on, the strain keeps increasing on the first set, but is actually reduced on the middle three. It’s usually a very demanding first set, then relaxing for three sets and then maxing. I have no idea if this works, but we’ll soon see.

What about the handstands push-ups, then? Admittedly, starting from week 4 for HSPU has been quite easy and I have never been close to failing any set during these four weeks. However, I haven’t jumped ahead in the program simply because I know the perils of advancing too fast with heavy handstand workout. It’s worth to take a few extra weeks to be on the safe side. This is what it currently looks like:


Green crosses for completed sets.

Some final remarks

The best thing with all this is that I feel that the combination of vertical and horizontal components cover almost everything except leg strength. These four exercises are very efficient and can be done four five sets each in less that forty minutes. I feel that the only thing I need strength-wise apart from this is some leg workout and perhaps some extra core, but that’s about it. Managing all the strength training I crave in one program done three times a week. Actually, it feels great!

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It was a while ago now I started relying on what Coach Sommer calls a “Steady State Cycle”, which basically means that one designs a workout problem which is quite demanding and then sticks with exactly the same exercises, repetitions and sets even after they begin to feel too easy, giving the body enough time to build the necessary strength before moving on to more the next, more demanding cycle.. For some reason, this kind of planning seems to work exceptionally well for me and I’ve been able to stick with a reasonably strict schedule for almost four months, much longer than any previous attempt to gain control of individual strength training (I wrote more about this when I finished the first cycle in February). I have soon completed five weeks out of at least eight on the second cycle, so that is what this post will be about.

Before I talk about the second cycle itself, I’d like to share with you some benchmarking I did between cycle one and two (I spent one week trying out maximum reps/duration for the exercises to have something to compare with later). These figures are worthless on their own and the goal here is not to show what I can do, but rather to show the difference between now and one cycle ago, and perhaps more importantly, to function as a reference for future similar checks. The only truly remarkable result is for the chin-ups, where I managed to make a 50% increase from 16 to 24 in two months without ever doing a set with more than three repetitions!

Exercise: After first cycle (before first cycle)
Chin-up: 24 (16)
HSPU wall: 11 (5)
Adv. tuck planche: 36 (24)
Adv. tuck front lever: 51 (N/A)

Having dealt with the benchmarking, let’s take a look at cycle two. Since most information is stored publicly (click here to see the document), I won’t restate anything already there. As can be seen, the second cycle is very similar to the first. There are some differences, mostly for the core/leg exercises because I’ve finally found a routine which covers what I want to cover without requiring anything else than a chin-up bar and an ab wheel. There is also a heavier focus on handstand this time, partly because I like the exercise, but also because I really want to accomplish that one hundred metres of handwalking I set up a long time ago.

In short, this is by far the most successful way of designing a program I’ve ever encountered. My guess is that it’s because it’s divided into manageable sections (eight to ten weeks) that the mind can handle easily. Setting a goal to do a certain routine for roughly two months is not a superhuman task, but setting the goal to do the same exercises with gradually increasing difficulty indefinitely is a lot more daunting. Focusing really hard on few selected exercises and then evaluating the result, designing a new program and moving on is a lot more realistinc, if not physically, then at least psychologically. If you’re interested in any of this, you can glean some information from my previous posts about steaty state training (or click here for a list of posts related to exercise), but more importantly, you should consult the coach himself, either by reading his book Building the Gymnastic Body or by checking out the forum.

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Disclaimer: This post is about physical training and is not meant to explain the whys and hows of what I’m doing to those who aren’t already familiar with gymnastic strength training. If you aren’t, but would like to know what I’m talking about. YouTube searches will most often give you a good idea. The forums over at GymnasticBodies is a veritable gold mine of information, check it out! If you want to see some of my long-term goals, check out the Project page.

Ten weeks ago, I said that I would start what Coach Sommer at GymnasticBodies call a “steady state cycle”, which sounds fancy, but in reality simply means designing a strength program and sticking with it for eight weeks, without increasing any sets or reps. This means that after a while, a steady state is reached where the body has adjusted to the demands of the programme. I have now, with one exception, reached a state where I think the exercises I started doing ten weeks ago are quite easy (ten weeks rather than eight because of illness and final exams). This means that it’s time to start a new cycle, but before I can do that, I need to evaluate where I stand now.


There is no such thing as bad weather, only bad attitude.

In short, the programme (see the initial post for details) has two basic exercises which are present at all times, meaning four times a week: planche and front lever progressions. Regarding the planche, I have made progress, but very slowly. At the beginning of the cycle, I had to work really, really hard even to complete 6×10 seconds of advanced tucked planche, and then the hips where far below the shoulders. Now, I can hold the first three sets with really good form, but still feel the last three sets are killing me. Thus, I will probably keep this exercise exactly as it is, but will add the PPPU (pseudo planche push-ups) to the program to make it a little bit harder.

Front lever is a lot easier and I reached a steady state many weeks ago. To be honest, the biggest problem for the last set is my forearms, which tend to be tired after both planche and front lever workout. I will try to move forward here, either by going for the straddle front lever or for some variant with one leg still tucked, because straddle requires flexibility I don’t really have.

Monday and Thursday has meant upper-body workout, in addition to the exercises above. I have established some sort of basic strength for chin-ups, which means I will move on to continue work towards the one-arm chin-up I’ve worked towards before. The road is very, very long, but I’ll get there in the end, just you wait and see. The steady state for the chins was reached almost immediately, but yet again, grip strength was lacking. In addition to this, I’ve done handstand push-ups, 5×3, which have turned out to be really easy the last three weeks or so. I might replace these with other handstand-related exercises, but I might also keep it. Hm…

I’ve also done specific finger/hand strength by doing fingertip push-ups. I need this and will do the same thing next cycle, just ingrease the reps. It took a long time to reach the steady state here, which is expected since tendons take longer to strengthen. The last exercise is dips, which is a great exercise when done on parallel bars, but which will be difficult to do practically next semester. It will be replaced by the PPPU I mentioned above. This concludes the upper-body routine.


This is my advanced tucked planche as it looks right now.

On Tuesdays and Fridays, I planned to do legs and core (in addition to placnhe and front lever, of course), but most of the time I only did the general exercises. Why? Mostly because I didn’t have good exercises, but also because I was lazy. It took me around eight weeks to find good exercises I can do at home (I usually do all these exercises on the university campus, i.e. outdoors). This means I will stick to the exercises I’ve found and use the next cycle to reinforce them.

In short, this means two pairs of exercises. The first is L-sit, which will be 5×12 seconds or something like that. This will be paired with headstand leg raises (it’s a bit tricky to explain, but imagine standing on your head and then, with straight legs, lowering your feet to the ground and raise them up again), which target the lower back. The second pair is pistols or SLS (single-leg squats), probably 5×2 or 5×3 on each leg. together with ab wheel (oh, yeah!), but I haven’t been able to specify a certain number of sets or reps here.

In addition to all this, I plan to add some general handstand training. I’ve seen many people recommend extended static training here, so I will give it a try. I’m not sure exactly what to do, but it might be something like 10×1 minute with 30 seconds rest. Because of this, I also intend to reverse the order of the two routines. I should add the handstand to the upper-body days, otherwise the muscles won’t get time to rest, but that will make me more tired. I’d rather be exhausted on Wednesdays and Saturdays when I can rest, so I’ll simply switch days.

I will spend the two weeks still remaining to the start of the next semester experimenting with these exercises. I will also try to go all out on some of them to use as some kind of benchmark. When I’m done with all this, presumably in two weeks, I’m going to write a new post introducing the second cycle. It’s time to round this off now, and I’d like to do that by saying that even though it’s hard to compare ways of exercising, I’m very happy with this method so far and it feels great to be able to plan and start a new cycle!

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It’s now six weeks since I said that it’s time to shape up. Since then, I have followed the schedule I devised, at least in general, except for one week I rested because of a troubling pain in my back. I said I would write something about how it’s going later, when I actually have something to say, and that would be now.

First, a general observation. This exercise regimen (see the previous post) is extremely demanding for the forearms and hands, something I anticipated, but didn’t really understand until I had tried it properly. Even now, after six weeks, I still feel that my forearms are not strong enough (or in other words, for some of the exercises, the limiting factor is not strength or endurance in the target muscles, but rather in the forearms and hands). Each session starts with one minute planche progressions and one minute front lever progressions, which perhaps don’t sound that stressful for the forearms. They aren’t, except perhaps at the very end of the last front lever when my grip starts feeling weak. However, I don’t regard this focus on hands and forearms as something bad, because it’s useful for almost any other kind of practice and probably prevents injuries later.

Moving over to the the first of the two routines, the arm/shoulder part of the program has worked very well so far, both regarding self-discipline and actual progress. There were some parts I had difficulties completing the sets (advanced tucked planche and handstand push-ups come to mind), which I can finish more or less easily now. At last, I feel that my planche is progressing, something I haven’t felt for a long time. For the earlier sets, I feel strong and can strive for better posture and raising the hips, whereas at the beginning of this period, I had to struggle even to complete the sets. The planche workout is still exhausting and I still find the latter sets almost hopelessly difficult at times.

Regarding the core/leg program, I’ve had some problems, partly for practical reasons, but also due to lack of self-discipline. I have recently begun playing around with different exercises here, modifying some, removing others. I think I’m homing in on something I like, but it’s too early to be sure. My main problem is finding good core exercises which work well with leg exercises, but perhaps the key is to separate these parts entirely. The only truly good exercise I’ve found apart from L-sit (not really new), is back arches, which for some reason make my lower back feel a lot better (even though my old back problem is mostly gone, it still haunts me, and back arches seem to make it better).

Looking ahead, I plan to finish the eight weeks of the program (three weeks left) and then spend one or two weeks just playing around with various exercises, testing new limits and trying to assess how far I’ve come. I’ll advance some of the progressions, but I’m afraid I still have a very long way to go both for planche and front lever, but these sections will definitely remain on the program in roughly the same manner as before. Other things might change, for instance I might start focusing on the one-arm chin-up again or focus more on handstands. To round this article of, I do feel a lot more in shape than six weeks ago, but I think I need to complete these eight weeks and then forage further ahead before I feel that I’m firmly on the road towards accomplishing some of my long sought-after goals.

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