Originally published on February 13, 2010
The body weight boom is on. To hear people talk you’d think that calisthenics and body weight exercises, in general, had just been invented last year and were the best thing since the campfire. Gymnastics skills have been joined to the traditional and well-known exercises to create a very popular market. A perfect example is the handstand pushup. A Google search will reveal countless articles and also a great many very expensive products supposed to teach you to achieve one. Since such exercises look impressive, the central message of bodyweight training marketers is easily carried along: Bodyweight training is superior to weighted exercises for strength and for fitness.
Handstand Pushups: The Wide-Eyed Effect
Handstand pushups certainly do look impressive. They create this wide-eyed wonder effect and the idea of achieving this type of skill can create instant motivation in many. Handstand pushups are only one of many. We like the Pistol (one-legged) squat here at GUS and it’s no slouch either in terms of impressing your friends.
The video below would probably motivate many couch potatoes to instantly get up and stand on their hands. Those are impressive skills and they may have as much sell in the strength training world as Arnold in “Pumping Iron” did in the bodybuilding world.
By the tone of this post so far you’ve probably guessed that I have a problem with some of this. But it is not my intention to tear down any kind of bodyweight training and in fact, I think the average strength trainee could do well to put more of it in their training.
Strength and Skills
Strength is skills, right? Well, that depends on who you ask. We are and should be, allowed our own personal definition of strength, within reason. And reasonably, equating displays of skill to strength is failing to perform a cost-benefit analysis. By that definition, dramatic and awe-inspiring skill will tend to win out, which is the advantage certain body weight skills have overweighted exercises. Yet, displays of specific strength as strength defined seems to be a theme these days.
Although many of these bodyweight skills are borrowed and modified from gymnastics they are essentially ‘closed skills’ which are skills that are executed in a predictable setting under rote conditions. When you hear talk about ‘real world strength’ keep in mind that this implies open skills which means that the conditions may be unpredictable. The real world requires quick and precise adaptations to those conditions. So while a powerlifter performs closed skills in a predictable setting, a Martial Artist performs in an unpredictable and “open” environment.
Bodyweight Propaganda: Skills Equals Strength
The above comparison of a powerlifter to a martial artist is more than just an apple and oranges one. Martial Arts combat relies on open skills. After all, your opponent is a changing and unpredictable factor. Performing a deadlift, squat, or bench press is a closed skill. These are two decidedly different competitive environments.
Skills as strength is a subject for an entire article but consider that most strength training movements are meant to improve different aspects of strength development and one of those aspects is fundamental movement. Skills themselves are the specific abilities needed to perform in one’s chosen sport or activity. So to simply say that skills are strength is like saying that an MMA fighter who beats a powerlifter is stronger than the powerlifter. After all, it was the fighter’s skills that got him the win. But when the powerlifter out-lifts the fighter, of course, he is stronger. In reality, both of them are very strong but neither is skilled at the other’s sport. Sounds like a no-brainer when I put it like that doesn’t it? This is why I am careful to use the term “maximal strength” when speaking of the kind of training that is about lifting as much weight as possible.
Yet, the idea that simply mastering a set of skills not only makes you ‘strong’ but that this strength is superior to other ‘types’ of strength is at the heart of body weight propaganda.
Proposed Benefits of Bodyweight Training
There is so much ability needed just to control and stabilize your body weight in various ways, let alone perform movements, that the skills involved have a built-in mystique and attraction. But let’s look at some of the assumptions that the more vocal of body weight only crowd works from:
- Bodyweight exercises are inherently superior to weighted exercises
- Bodyweight exercises are inherently safer
- Bodyweight exercises equate to “real-world” strength better than weighted exercises – they have more functional carryover into everyday activities
- Bodyweight exercises improve core strength and stability
- Bodyweight exercises improve balance and coordination
In some cases these assumptions are valid and in others, they are not. Most of the claim made for the more dramatic skills are so generic they could be pasted on to any skill.
Balance and Coordination
Balance and coordination from handstand pushups? Really? Is this in case you lose both your legs and must walk on your hands? Handstands pushups make you balanced and coordinated ON YOUR HANDS. Yet I have read aficionados asserting that this skill, among others, will actually improve your general balance and coordination. It’s a ridiculous idea. Balance is as specific as anything else.
Right now, assuming you can stand up and walk around normally, you have balance and coordination. If you want to be able to jump from one post to another Ninja style you’ll have to practice your Ninja post jumping. Handstand pushups won’t help you walk better nor will they make you a Ninja.
Core strength and stability
Could something like a handstand push-up improve your core strength and stability in a general way? Absolutely. The problem is in the claim that it has special efficacy in terms of core strength. The biggest areas of improvement will come in the area of the specific skill with a small carryover into other skills. The further removed one skill is from another the less carryover.
Are Bodyweight Exercises Really Superior to Weighted Exercises?
Some bodyweight exercises can be demonstrated to be superior to their weighted counterparts in some instances. The body weight “movement” likes to claim that all body-weight exercises are more effective than alternatives. In this way, they are much like generic fitness claims. The key is the misuse of the word effective.
Effective, as a word, could actually be considered one of the spots like I talk about in the Bad Fitness Articles series. When someone says bodyweight exercises are effective but they fail to say what they are effective FOR…that is a spot. Effective, in the general sense, means something produces a certain effect. So what is the effect? One exercise could have several effects.
For instance, handstand pushups are effective at increasing upper body strength. Especially upper body vertical push type strength.
But are they efficacious? Well, they would probably be efficacious for gymnasts. The difference is that efficacious implies that something is effective for a certain population given certain goals or needs and that it is efficient. There is not a lot of wasted time and effort since for something to be efficacious we assume that the circumstances are IDEAL.
Do you see the difference? Many things can be said to be effective in strength training. Pushing my car is effective at getting my car to move. Since handstand pushups are directly compared to the overhead press, we have to ask before we compare. We are not talking about a small, controlled population with defined weaknesses and goals. We mean a general training population. Therefore the word effective, if unqualified, means absolutely nothing.
People say they are superior to overhead press for increasing upper body strength. The two movements are contrasted but not compared. They are both similar. One has you pressing your body weight and the other pressing an implement. If your goal is pushing something overhead then you can probably do that already with an appropriately weighted barbell or dumbbell, provided proper instruction and some initial quality practice with the press.
So, acquiring the skill (and safely) is relatively straightforward. Progression is simple and quick so it is efficient. And the result is increased overhead pushing strength so overhead pressing is effective and efficacious if your goal is to increase vertical pushing strength.
Let’s assume right now that you cannot do a handstand and that you cannot even support your body weight. You maybe do not like being upside down and have a fear of landing on your head. With a proper plan and a lot of time, effort, and risk you will eventually achieve ONE free handstand pushup.
Let’s assume also, that you can overhead press a certain weight a certain amount of times. Since we are comparing the exercises, for the handstand pushup to be superior to the overhead press all the effort toward one should have resulted in considerable improvement in the other. After all, the movement is the same except for the distal end being fixed or free. So how much does acquiring that one handstand pushup improve your military press? No telling. You won’t know until you invest a considerable amount of time and effort into acquiring the skill.
Much of that time will be spent on simply supporting your body weight, then balancing it statically, then dynamically while developing the great amount of strength needed just to move the body in this way. In terms of just pushing strength, it is by no means efficient and there are many risks involved, not the least of which is knocking yourself out or worse.
The problem, to my way of thinking, is the focus on the acquisition of dramatic skills rather than on efficient ways to get the benefits from the movement. The fact is that most will lose interest and give up long before acquiring these skills and even when they do achieve them they’ve expended a lot of resources to achieve what amounts to a party trick.
On the other hand, a simple jackknife pushup, such as shown here can be learned very quickly and easily and simply progressed, resulting in much of the supposed benefits of the handstand pushup. They can be fitted into a training routine without undue changes to the existing setup and the benefits and cost of them toward your strength and conditioning as a whole can be weighted much sooner. The only benefits that one would not achieve are those that are quite specific toward achieving the handstand push-up itself.
So, if your goal is to increase upper body strength than putting forth herculean efforts to learn a fancy skill may not be very efficacious for you, considering the fact that simply grabbing some dumbbells or a barbell, learning to press it overhead properly and then progressing in a straightforward manner will begin increasing your upper body strength from day one. And considering the fact that you are more likely to carry a free object overhead than you are to stand on your hands and press it is sensible.
Why Am I Knocking Fancy Body Weight Skills?
I’m not! To be honest I think handstand pushups and other such skills are way cool. I find such achievements impressive and inspiring and I think that choosing to develop such skills, if that is your wish, is quite valid. You will be stronger. You will develop great torso control (provided variety). You will have a lot of fun and you will likely feel great about it.
See, to my way of thinking, the achievement of a dramatic, high-performance skill, for its own sake, is quite a valid goal. And when your goal is based solely on specific performance, you will tend to stay on course much better than when you put a lot of effort toward a hard skill only for the sake of “general performance benefits”. There are easier and more efficient ways to get the same performance benefits, from a cost/benefit standpoint. So I am not saying there is anything wrong with working on something like a handstand pushup. Not at all! I am saying there is something wrong with doing using such a big, specific tool for a general effect.
On one hand you have guys like Matt Furey who uses, for lack of a better word, propaganda and “poisoning the well” to try to shove body-weight skills down people’s throats and on the other you have guys like Jim from Beastskills who feels no need to tear other types of training down to build himself up. As a matter of fact, I just checked before finalizing this post and he recommends a foundation in general strength training for beginners and even then he doesn’t get all precious about it. Furey’s ad for his handstand pushup course, which costs over 70 bucks (for ONE exercise folks!) starts by letting you in on a ‘secret’ and proclaims in HUGE letters: BENCH PRESSING SUCKS! This kind of thing is a “spot” like no other spot!
Among his many fantastical claims are that his course will instantly double your balance and coordination and will correct the ratio between arm and leg strength in which he seems to be claiming he will, make your arms as strong as your legs or at least alluding to such. Of course, there is no usable information in these types of ads only inflated and overwrought claims and emotive language designed to sell you something. He even manages to make “fear of being upside down” sound like a general problem that handstand pushups will solve rather than just an obstacle for the skill itself.
The moral is, don’t buy into body weight propaganda and the quite exaggerated claims of general strength benefits. Beware of words like “functional” and “effective” out of context. These words are about as useful in strength training as “all natural” and “organic” is in nutrition. If you are interested in learning difficult bodyweight skills, be sure that you are clear on the benefits and costs of investing in such a skill. And remember, it IS an investment. This takes time, it takes risk, it impacts your other training activities. The best reason to achieve a handstand pushup? Because you really want to! If you do want to, then I’d recommend you head to Beastskills for a tutorial and save your 70 bucks for something good.