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

StrongFirst Bodyweight User Course: Review and Recap

A couple weeks ago I was fortunate to lend a hand at the StrongFirst Bodyweight Course, taught by Master SFG Karen Smith and hosted by SFG Team Leader Yoana Teran.  The setting for this day could not be any better at Fitwall La Jolla!

As I have written before, the bodyweight curriculum is a hidden gem within the StrongFirst system, though hopefully it will continue to grow in popularity.  I was fortunate to attend the very first StrongFirst bodyweight certification last year with Pavel and was very excited that I was in So Cal when Karen brought the course to La Jolla. 

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Some thoughts on the course:

*For those unfamiliar, the course is based around the one arm pushup, pistol squat, tactical pull up, and hanging leg raise.  But it really isn't about learning exercises for the sake of learning exercises (though adding to the party trick arsenal is never a bad thing!!).  The bodyweight curriculum embodies strength as a skilled practice.  With no equipment to worry about (other than a pull up bar and some bands and dowel rods for teaching), the focus moves squarely onto strength principles. ("Tactics are many but principles are few")

*How does "Course" differ from "Cert"?  There is no skills testing at the course, which is only one day (versus two for the cert).  But the core of the curriculum is very similar, which can be tailored to the level of the group.  

*Other than one’s interaction with the ground or high bar, bodyweight skill is purely a matter of inner reflection.  It is certainly not the only way to train and not even a universally superior way to train.  But as an application of the system it adds texture to the overall curriculum (kettlebells-bodyweight-barbell). 

*The progressions before the main “lifts” are great exercises in themselves.  Most people will improve simply by learning tension with a simple plank and handshake drill.  The same things that help a kettlebell or barbell go up, are the same things required to master bodyweight progressions.  The real magic (the "what the hell effect?!") is not in the exercises but in how the exercises are done.  

*This course brings the Naked Warrior book to life.  Here is a brief synopsis from Gray Cook on the interaction of the Naked Warrior philosophy with the Functional Movement Screen princIples.

"Pavel’s coaching, teaching and overall wisdom goes far beyond the use of a kettlebell.  I often ask my readers to look into Pavel’s work, The Naked Warrior, where he deconstructs athletes to reduce them to single-limb symmetrical competency. He also proposes the concept of a “naked warrior” as an athlete or fitness enthusiast who trains without weight or the individual who develops fundamental competence in all four quadrants of the body. This individual will focus on symmetry and movement achieving competence with bodyweight before ever lifting a weight. Pavel requires us to work toward a single-leg pistol or a single-leg squat on each side, as well as a single-arm pushup on each side. What a wonderful example of a wise coach providing a self-limiting activity that results in balanced development."

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*Attention to detail defines the course.  Amazing how smallest technical cues can make the simplest exercises become savagely difficult (in a good way!).  The same things that make simple drills very hard are the same cues that place students on the path to limitless performance.  Very reminiscent of quality gymnastics instruction…

*An added bonus is how the tension drills can be applied in a group exercise settings without sacrificing quality control.    

*Safety comes before performance.  Proper spotting technique on the pull up bar is an integral part of the course.  Fortunately, spotting can also be performance enhancing, particularly for those striving for their first pull up, as safe spotting also provides the right amount of assistance.     

*There is a deep connection between the bodyweight skills and KB lifts.  Troubleshooting BW often reveals the same energy leaks and/or mobility deficits as with the bell.  This is particularly useful for continuity during time away from the bell and is a true audit on ownership of one’s movement. 

*Especially valuable reminders about not overdoing things (which is easy to happen with BW!).  Though programming often gets back to the simplicity of “Grease the Groove”, many people are not realistically in a position to make this happen if you don’t work in a gym.  That said, there are many creative ways to incorporate GTG into different schedules and lifestyles.

*Getting endurance athletes to take rest…Temptation is to do everything on short rest.  Yet this goes against the mindful practice required for optimal skill development (sure, high rep-low rest calisthenics training is appropriate for a few people…but not for endurance athletes or most athletes already putting in high volume workloads).

*Related point…no distractions when training (Borrowed from Simple and Sinister”You are to do nothing else during this practice – only lift the kettlebell and move for active recovery.  There is no chatting, looking at members of the opposite sex, watching TV, fooling around with your phone (absolutely no phone)…") 

*Another related point: There is nothing easy about a maximal tension bodyweight exercises.  If you do it right, they can be savagely difficult.  BUT…the fact that you don’t have a weight in your hand can minimize residual fatigue into the next workout as compared to hoisting a barbell or even a kettlebell.  This theory can be useful in programming when strength is not the main goal, but is a support quality (i.e. training for a marathon).  

*What if you want to train for high rep PRs, such as pull ups?  Consensus is that perfect technique and weighted pull ups are often enough to hit 18-20 (males) but beyond that requires specific high rep training. 

*Karen’s Iron Maiden background was helpful in discussing periodization of exercises.  Everyone wants to improve everything simultaneously but it is generally impossible to focus on too many exercises simultaneously.  Key point is to pick one or two as a focus while maintaining others.


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*Utilitarian value in bodyweight training.  Great way to maintain strength when traveling without equipment.  

*Tension drills can be more effective for pullup and pushup progressions than assistance exercises and are often underutilized.  This is key for helping some females achieve their first pull ups, not only for the physical strength but for the mental strength of feeling solid on the bar! 


This course is only one day, but it over-delivers on quality.  This recap hardly does it justice, as it is very much a "learning-by-doing" experience.  Even if you don’t plan to specifically train these exercises yourself or use them as a trainer, these are universal strength principles applicable to nearly any form of movement. The techniques are merely conduits through which the principles are expressed.  And as we say in StrongFirst, strength is not a number, it is an attitude.