Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Strongfirst Bodyweight Certification: Review and Recap

“One mind…any weapon.” 

The Strongfirst Bodyweight Certification was my first course taught in person by Pavel, so I approached this weekend brimming with anticipation (I did the RKC by Pavel with Brett Jones as the acting chief instructor).  With the course hosted locally by my friend and kettlebell instructor Danny Sawaya, SFG II at Evolution Fitness, this was a rare opportunity to experience world class training education without leaving home!

Foremost, this certification is an instructor course.  To become a certified SFB (Strongfirst Bodyweight Instructor) you must demonstrate proper technique in the one arm one leg pushup (males) or the one arm pushup (females).  In addition, you are constantly evaluated for your conduct and abilities throughout the weekend.  That said, the course has a relatively casual feel; almost a friendly gathering with bodyweight strength as the centerpiece.

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The overall student body level was extremely high.  Nearly everyone was familiar with foundation SFG principles (most were level I or II instructors) and even those that weren’t certified instructors were at a high level.  Several students also with varying degrees of black belts in different martial arts.  And it says a lot about the course when you have multiple Team Leaders attending as students, not instructors...    

If I was to distill the weekend into one thought it is the coherence of the Strongfirst system.  “Tactics are many, principles are few.”  The principles are the same; we merely swap out the chosen tool…bodyweight, kettlebell, or barbell.  This elegant continuity cannot be overemphasized.    

A musical analogy….Becoming a musician (learning principles of musicianship) versus merely learning pieces of music?  Great musicians sound great no matter what you ask them to play.  Someone can memorize countless pieces of music without being a good musician.  This course operates under the same philosophy…its not about teaching exercises; it’s about teaching universal strength principles as expressed through the purity of a select few bodyweight movements.     

Learning to fish vs. giving someone a fish...In this course you learn tools to “reverse engineer” movement, not simply recycle exercise variations for entertainment value.  The same strength principles that get grandma off the floor are the same principles that help someone achieve a single arm handstand.  The same strategies used by the baby to achieve upright posture are the same strategies used by the strongest people in the world to achieve very strong feats.  With reverse engineering you can effectively teach at the extremes (become a better fisherman…not better at shopping for fish).   

The course is a participatory yet cerebral.   As Pavel warned, both your body and your mind will be tired by Sunday afternoon…And right he was!  I obviously can’t replicate the hands-on experience in writing, but I can offer glimpses into the wisdom shared by Pavel and the instructors…(see also, Notes from Pavel Tsatsouline Interview and Notes from Dan John Seminar)

Not tools…PRINCIPLES.  Essence of the Strongfirst approach. 

“Knowledge of principles excuses not knowing many facts.”  Deeper knowledge of fewer principles; not superficial knowledge of many exerciese.  

Face and neck remain impassive during exercise (quiet professionalism…)

Endurance is important…it is StrongFIRST…not StrongONLY


  • Ying tension vs Yang tension
  • Ying = moderate level (ie sparring)…tight but not TOO tight.  
  • Yang tension = explosive (punch)
  • Just like turning a light bulb brightness up or down.  Same technique but different intensity of contraction

If you train longer durations, the brain begins to subconsciously pace your efforts.  Longer durations aren’t wrong…just not the optimal way to train strength (impossible to maintain max effort for 30 seconds)

Power breathing = every “hiss” is like tightening a screw.  "Hiss don't kiss" 

“Skill of strength reverse engineered from the most powerful practices all backed by neuroscience”

“Video is one of the few things of technology that I respect” – Pavel  (Using video troubleshoot technique was emphasized repeatedly in the course)

3 areas in the body are neural generators (Neural overflow = irradiation)

  • Grip
  • abs,
  • glutes

“Fatigue is not a good instructor” – Practice quality technique (again, the skill of strength)

For conditioning, use speed endurance

  • measured doses of higher repetitions with appropriate rests to ensure technique and lift speed remain consistent)
  • Don’t confuse strength and conditioning with “conditioning and more conditioning”
  • Get enough conditioning in your sport…no need to add conditioning in the gym!  Use gym for strength.

“Pantomime technique” = practicing movements without load.  

  • Great approach both to practice yourself but also to make you a better instructor.  How you demonstrate movement is critical.

Bracing must occur before contraction

  • Zipping up – (Example…pull biceps and triceps into shoulder)
  • Psychological reasons to zip up = form of bracing
  • Core preactivation = crush water bottle in free hand

If you can do 10 quality pushups, there is no need to use pushups as strength exercise.  Improve push up reps through strength (though for super high reps of pushups and pullups, specific high rep training may be needed)

Air compressor analogy

  • Pull air into your abs from your palms
  • Synchronize movement with your breathing

Ways to get down to the ground

  • Drop (overspeed eccentrics, plyometrics)
  • Yielding (generally not advised)
  • Active negative (pull yourself down)

Heel of palm into the ground (push up plank)…Imprint the ground… Using the ground for strength

Corkscrew joints into place (Very similar to DNS joint centration concepts)

Hands are rich with mechanoreceptors.  You lose strength in hands if hands lose contact with the ground. (See also Hand Position for Ground Based Exercise)

Safety and performance work together

  • No exercise is worth doing if there are safety issues (example: pistol could be bad for knees if big bellied, large quads)

Tension cue for hallow position – point belly button up to face (but without going into pike position)

Good medicine can also be poison...

  • Irradiation from left side to right side can be good for strength but left right crosstalk is not desirable when limbs have different tasks (i.e. high stress shooting)
  • Disassociation is opposite of irradiation

Irradation = squeeze energy from different muscles and direct to prime movers

  • protect spine
  • rigidity to deliver strength
  • baroreceptors = “volume control” for muscles (Signal to turn up the “volume”)

If you own the starting and end points of a movement, everything else fills in the middle (similar concept to FMS correctives….ie. leg lowering)

One arm one leg pushup key – point heel of raised leg (dorsiflex ankle)…neurological carry over from Single leg deadlift

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Another tactic…stopping mid point in different ranges of motion (this audits for ownership of the movement)

Cues to get into good hallow position are similar cues to centrate rib cage via DNS

Handstand pushup – same principles as double KB pressing

Bodyweight training encourages you to get healthier; challenging yet achievable goals for corrective exercise; more motivating to achieve one arm pushup, one arm one leg pushup, pistol, tactical pullups w/ weight, handstand, hanging leg raise…correctives can help you achieve these, but correctives are not the goal

Bodyweight pistol not efficient training (good goal to work up to, but BW pistol requires too much volume for any benefit)

Hallow position can help counteract Olympic lifting (hyperextension)

Wedge – starting position perfectly poised to be strong  

  • demands PRECISE application of force
  • Example…1000lb deadlift attempt----you won’t move the bar but the effort is similar to wedge technique
  • Less margin for error with big weight or high tension (fewer ways to lift a heavy weight incorrectly than a light one…)
  • Wedge should make you feel like you are doing a machine exercise
  • Limited use of machine training can be helpful for elite level athletes

Stretching – use exact opposite of power breathing (relaxed...)

  • Patience for stretching….takes a long time; research hasn’t looked at long stretching effects; stretching common in explosive sport of gymnastics and martial arts

Not the sound of breathing that matters, it’s the compression effect (air compressor)

If pelvic floor is not flexible, your hip flexors won’t be

  • (pelvic floor cue…”push the pockets outward”)
  • Pelvis must separate (goblet squat drill)

Doesn’t believe in band for assisted pull up – band helps you in range where you don’t need it but doesn’t help you where you do

Everything in SFG system has been around forever, but some of it appears “new” because principles were not accepted by mainstream coaching in the west

Internal vs external focus – Pavel not convinced by the modern research on external focus…has not been applied to high level athletes in extreme feats of strength (example…Dr. Judd Biasiotto drew cartoons of the different muscles he wanted to emphasize during heavy lifts)

Handstand key – rooting fingers and hands into ground

Why no dips?  Hard to do consistently safely

Get strong first and all exercise variations become easier

  • Front lever = test of strength (assistant instructor Cole Summers – could do 2 x 24 KB pullup before able to master front lever).  Common prerequisite 2/3 bodyweight pull up

Mental approach...

  • Having to get amped for a lift is not repeatable
  • “Workout” mindset is destructive for strength
  • The word “workout” is not present in other languages
  • If you need a “Beat down” don’t use the weight room to accomplish it…
  • If you really want to test yourself, join the military
  • Tough Mudder is not character building

Attention to detail...

  • Don’t practice shooting so long that your gun overheats and your trigger finer gives out...so don't train until you blow up in the gym!
  • Sloppy strength practice is like going to shooting range just to enjoy the noise
  • Dry drill shooting = mindset for strength practice (practicing going through shooting movements with no ammunition).
  • Tactical law enforcement operator …ten rounds in ten minutes on the range.  Make every round count!
  • Always do everything correctly (ie, always pick up the bell correctly…attention to detail and situational awareness are constant!)
  • “If you don’t have a skill, then you can’t stress proof it” (stay away from the “workout” mentality)

Testing and training are not the same thing!

Grease the groove works like a miracle for bodyweight training (stay fresh, have fun!)

  • Why grease the groove works…myelination
  • “As much work as possible, as often as possible, as fresh as possible” Zatiorsky
  • Practice tension strategies throughout the day

Good training = Money in the bank to spend it on fight night!

Most people live between the on/off switch (learn to toggle between tension and relaxation)

  • Muscles trained in endurance fashion take longer to relax

Whatever speed/cadence you have chosen for the set, it must remain consistent throughout (Doesn’t matter if steady or dynamic)

  • Whatever happens last is what is retained the most.  

Specialized variety can be useful but only if there is carry over (yes: different grip pull ups/chin ups; No: pull ups vs rows)

BW, KB, barbell…choice often depends on logistics, not which mode is inherently superior

The more complex your program, the harder it is to see what is working

And once again….

“Tactics are many, principles are few”

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