- How to make any bodyweight exercise more or less difficult
- How to Implement a Steady State Training Cycle
- The mobility tools to help you become… a supple leopard.
The need to curtail progressive overload for static positions
When it comes to strength training, one of the fundamental principles we all try to follow is progressive overload. The idea behind progressive overload is very simple: Gradually increase the stress you place on the body either by increasing volume (# of reps or hold time) or intensity (%rep max). With weight lifting, you could do this very simply by adding 5lbs to your major lifts every week. When it comes to bodyweight exercises, since we can’t add weight to a barbell to make things harder, we increase the intensity by exploiting our leverage through progression exercises.
The problem with following the progressive overload principle with static positions are that they are so stressful on the connective tissues that we can’t simply keep increasing the intensity on them, or skip ahead on a progression as soon as we’re able to hold it, and assume we’re safe. Our muscles adapt fairly quickly but our connective tissue remodels much more slowly and we need a modified plan to make sure our body is COMPLETELY recovered before we ever increase the intensity or volume. This is where the geniusness of a steady state cycle comes in.
What’s a Steady State Cycle (SSC)?
An SSC is a fool proof way of training the “Fundamental Static Positions” (FSP) without running into injury. Sounds awesome? Well it is. If your health is worth anything to you, it’s imperative you implement this for the static holds such as the front lever, back lever and planche. This was developed by Coach Sommers and I got all my info from fervently reading his gymnasticbodies forum. Of course there are several ways to safely train for these positions, but I’m promoting this plan cause Coach Sommers gymnasts don’t seem to run into injury. And as you know, health is a big deal for me, so I’m all for it.
What are Fundamental Static Positions (FSP)?
- Front lever (FL)
- Back lever (BL)
There are a few more too, but we’ll focus on these three for now because they put the greatest stress on the elbow and shoulder joints.
How do I create an SSC training plan?
- Test your max hold time for the progression you are currently at.
- Reduce it down to 50-80% and calculate how many sets you need to get 60 seconds of quality aggregate practice in.
- Practice this 3-4 times a week, for 8-12 weeks.
- Let’s say you’re practicing the tucked FL (the easiest FL progression) and your max hold for it is 20 seconds.
- If we half that time to 10sec and calculate the number of sets one needs to get 60 seconds of quality practice in, that means 6 sets of 10 seconds. But 6 sets is a bit much, so let’s just add 2 seconds to each set so we could instead simply do 5 sets of 12 seconds to equal 60 seconds.
- That means you’re going to practice 5x12sec of the tucked FL, 3-4x a week, for 8 weeks.
- Write this down, making sure you include the date/week you are starting this SSC.
Key Point: Once you start the cycle, you don’t change anything. The reps and hold times stay the same for the entire cycle.
Eight to twelve weeks of the same thing? Isn’t this boring?
Absolutely not! On paper, this may seem boring because it’s a minimum of 8 weeks long, but in practice, you still have your mobility and dynamic strength work (dips, pull ups, v-ups, etc.) that you could do whatever you want with. The SSC portion only applies to the FSP’s, so it’s not a huge part of your workout.
Besides, in regards to injury-free training that allows you to level up, 8 weeks is actually NOTHING. Each time I’ve been injured I’ve had to sit out for at least a couple weeks and if I re-aggravated the issue again, it was another couple weeks off again. An SSC allows me to keep training for all 8 weeks and level up without worrying about injuring myself.
Also, just because it’s the same doesn’t mean it’s EASY. In actuality, it’s not easy at all. With the scenario we created above, practicing the 5x12sec tucked FL should be very challenging if you had a 20sec max.
How’s this work?
During one SSC of 8-12 weeks, you will experience three phases:
The following is a simple chart that shows what happens over 12 weeks.
The underload is the MOST IMPORTANT PHASE. This is the phase people don’t normally experience (or want to experience) because they are constantly increasing resistance/intensity or volume. This phase is the entire reason why the SSC works! When you exericise, your muscles may recover in 1-4 days but your connective tissue takes longer to recover. In fact, they have a metabolic rate of 1/10th that of muscular tissue. If you keep breaking down the muscle, the muscle repairs itself, gets stronger, but the tendons are lagging behind, not fully recovered and keep getting asked to perform until they just can’t take it anymore. So instead of just doing “overload, load, overload, load,” we have an underload phase which is simply a built in deload that allows for the complete recovery of muscles, joints, connective tissue, and CNS. Just imagine the mental benefit as well of being able to hold something with GREAT ease that was extremely challenging just 2 months ago! This is just genius if you ask me.
Why 8-12 weeks?
Coach Sommers says that if you were to continually keep increasing your hold times and moving through the progressions as fast as possible, in roughly 8-12 weeks, pain or injury may be experienced. So we utilize an 8-12 week steady-state-cycle to ensure we are bomb proof.
Can I get away with less than 8 weeks?
Coach Sommer recommends 8-12 week cycles. The guy knows what he’s talking about so I would listen. For the lower elements (e.g., tucked levers) one might get away with 6 week cycles but why risk it? Are you training for the Olympics and have a time limit? Probably not! It’s just your ego that wants to keep pushing through. (There is no END to this journey so just enjoy the ride.) For the more difficult stuff (e.g., full lay versions), I would recommend the longer 12 weeks.
If I feel it’s getting easy, can I increase the intensity and/or the hold time?
NO! The whole point of the SSC is to NOT adjust anything and to give the body time to go through the complete adaptation cycle. The underload phase is there ON PURPOSE to allow the connective tissue to catch up while the muscle tone is maintained. You’re not going to lose muscle-mass just because you feel it’s getting easier. You’re simply maintaining your muscular strength and allowing the rest of the parts to heal up.
When making your SSC plan, if you cut to only 80% of your max hold rather than 50%, this will give a lot more intensity in the beginning of the cycle and perhaps less of a feeling you need to change after 4-6 weeks. It might even make it such that you have to extend the SSC.
What if, after 8 weeks, I’m still working hard to finish all the sets?
Extend the SSC plan to 10-12 weeks.
When do I practice this and how often?
- Incorporate this into your regular workout, doing it immediately after your warm up.
- Start with two or three times a week. Whether you could do more or less is dependent on everything else you’re doing and your own recovery rate. Learn the power of auto-regulation. Learn to pay attention to the signals of your body. More is not always better.
Why is this special routine needed specifically for the FSP’s?
There is a drastic difference in intensity between these progressions:
- Advanced Tuck
Emphasizes mastery of the progression without skipping ahead: In practice, one doesn’t easily transition from a full tuck with a rounded back to an advanced tuck with a flat back. Their intensity is very different and it only gets more intense as we go toward the full version. So for example, the load on your elbows, during BL work, is FAR greater when it comes to practicing the straddled BL rather than the advanced tuck version. If you practice the advanced tuck BL for a couple weeks, and realize you could hold a straddled BL for a few seconds, you will be tempted to simply start holding the straddled version now. And while your muscles will adapt to this quickly, your connective tissue won’t. Overtime, because you rushed through the progressions, you will end up feeling some sort of pain and have to back off, effectively putting some training to a halt.
Emphasizes mastery of form: Working the same progression for 8 weeks, allows you to work on your form which is imperative for good efficiency. For example, it is a godsend that I’m spending 8 weeks in the advanced-tuck FL position. I can spend all 8 weeks getting super comfortable with being able to retract and depress my shoulder blades together and locking my arms straight. I wouldn’t have paid attention to these tiny details without a SSC cycle because before, my only goal was to get to the “end” as if it was a race or something.
What if my max hold time turns out to be only 12 seconds for a low leverage movement like the tuck planche? Wouldn’t 10 sets of 6 seconds be a little ridiculous?
Yes, that’s too many sets. Anything more than 5 sets starts becoming a bit arduous. Your best results will come from frequent training that is fairly intense but fairly low volume. That is why in the original example, I showed we could simply do 5×12 instead of 6×10 with our 20 second max.
If you have only a 12sec max, I think you should go back to an easier progression. So if you have a 12 sec max hold for a tucked planche, it would behoove you to go back to the easier progression and instead work on your planche leans for 6-8 weeks to make your body more bomb proof before working on tucked planches. If the exercise in question is already the lowest progression, have you worked on the prerequisites at all? In my routine they are marked in red for good reason.
What about L-work and handstands since those are static positions too?
You could apply steady state cycles to L-sits, straddle-L’s, and handstands but those moves are not as stressful on the connective tissue compared to the levers and planche. For what it’s worth, I would say that an SSC can also be applied to the straight-armed frog stand (“advanced FS”) and German Hang (palms down) as that conditions the elbow as well.
Here is a more complete list of FSP’s in no particular order:
- German Hang
- Front Lever
- Back Lever
- Frog Stand
- Iron Cross
Can you apply this concept to dynamic exercises such as pull ups and dips?
Yes you can. However, it’s not usually necessary for dynamic movements because you can very easily adjust the intensity or volume with them as opposed to static holds. So if 5×5 weighted dips were too much last time, you could easily just do 5×4 instead the next time, or use less weights, or, if you were doing dips on the rings, you could scale it back to dips on the parallel bars.
If you would like to apply the SSC for the dynamic moves, choose a variation that will allow high intensity and low volume. So something that challenges you in one of the following formats: 3×3, 3×5, 5×3, 5×5. Good rule of thumb I’d like to insert: Always increase volume first before intensity to continually make progress and avoid injury.
How would one incorporate a deload week into the SSC?
With the way the SSC is setup, the deload is built in for the static holds because those last couple weeks should feel a lot easier. However, since you’re probably doing much more than just the static holds in a single workout, a deload week (or at the very least, extra rest days) is still very welcome to give the body time to recover for everything else you’re putting it through. I’ve written more about deload weeks and rest days here: The Importance of Rest Days and Deload Weeks.
What’s a sample routine that includes SSC training look like?
1. Warm up, bodyline drills, skill work
2. SSC training… for example:
- Planche Lean: 2x30sec
- Advanced Frog Stand: 3x20sec
- Advanced Tucked Back Lever: 3x20sec
- Advanced Tuck Front Lever: 4x15sec
3. Strength Work / Fundamental Bodyweight Exercises (FBE)… for example:
- PB Dips (Push)
- Pull Ups (Pull)
- V-Ups (Core)
- Wall Walks (Multi-Plane)
What do I do after 8 weeks?
A good rule of thumb is to test your max again in 8 weeks since you will have a much greater max hold time. Don’t test it before 8 weeks though. I know you may have an inkling to “just test” but just accept that when during the SSC, you’re keeping things the same on purpose. Just be patient and you’ll be able to easily tell how much better you got at the exercise towards the end of your cycle.
So let’s say at the start of the SSC, you could hold a tucked FL for 20 seconds, and now at the end of the cycle, after practicing 5x12sec for 8 weeks, you test your max and it is all of a sudden 60 seconds long. Congrats! That’s SOLID, INJURY-FREE IMPROVEMENT for just 2 months of training.
So if you did reach a 60 second hold, you can now actually safely move to the next progression which would be the advanced tuck version. On another day when you are fresh, test your max hold for the advanced tuck and start a whole new SSC cycle with that new position. (Also, take a video of yourself and post it on /r/bodyweightfitness for a form check! It will help a lot!) Like this, you will be well on your way to holding a FULL FRONT LEVER with proper form AND without injury. If you did NOT not hit a 60 second hold, you could do a new SSC, recalculated with your new max hold time so it is challenging on a whole new level again.
Is my goal always going to be 60 seconds before progressing to the next exercise?
In general we try to shoot for 60 sec for everything below a straddle and 15sec for above. A 60sec hold is very draining for a very advanced position and it becomes moreso about endurance at that point. Nevertheless, if one follows through with a 60-second goal for everything up to the straddled, it makes everything else easier down the line by reducing the intensity gap. Also, different moves have different intensities. A straddled BL is not analogous to a straddle planche. Some people may never progress beyond the straddled planche, but many will get to the full BL.
For what it’s worth, the initial end goal for a technically-correct, full planche is 10 seconds. It requires enormous strength and at that point can just be maintained at that level unless for some reason you want a longer planche hold.
How do I time myself?
I personally have had great success using the countdown timer feature on this digital casio watch. It’s the best $11 bucks I’ve ever spent in regards to cutting out all of my fuckarounditis. Honestly without it, I probably would have a hard time adhering to my training as well as I do.
For training the static holds, if I have to hold something for 15 seconds, I let the counter go down to 20sec, pause it and start it when I’m ready to go up into the position so I get a good 15-20 seconds before it starts beeping to let me know I’m done. I also use it to make sure I get enough rest between sets because quite honestly, without it, I get antsy and want to do the next set without even a minute of rest.
When I first got into static training, I had a mindset that I wanted to go through the progressions quickly. I associated progress with the level of the progression I was at. So I wanted to get to the “full lay” version as fast as possible which was wrong. Now I understand that doing this extra work is an investment in my future performance. If I do this work in a hurry, I’ll eventually have to back off due to injury because my body simply isn’t ready. Or maybe I’ll get there but my form will be terrible, which won’t allow me to progress on the more advanced elements.
So there’s no need to be in a rush really. You won’t get stronger if you move on to the next harder progression with a weak base. You’ll just injure yourself, have to stop training for a while, and then have to start back at a lower level than what you were doing. That may demotivate and frustrate you depending on how passionate you are about this. Anyway, just remember, there is no END to this. One thing leads to another and just keeps adding on. So enjoy the journey.