So what’s the story with Kesh Patel’s third book ‘The Complete Guide to Bodyweight Training‘? The plot can be summarised something like this: “Once upon a time, as we grew up, our own bodyweight was the only tool we had to develop our movement ability, strength and other basic abilities. Through playful experimentation we began to make better and better shapes with our bodies until we mastered complex skills such as walking, running and jumping. We were meant to develop these skills this way all along – to ensure everyone in our species would be ready to survive in a changing world. But then we began to forget these skills and as our environment changed, and became less wild and more predictable, we began to make wrong shapes. Our movement economy suffered and our injury risk increased. We tried to replace these lost abilities through poor practice and structured repetitive training but this only exacerbated the problem. Far from being the plastic and adaptable movers we once were we ended up as inefficient and fragile – no longer fit for purpose.”
Author Kesh Patel suggests in his preface that ‘as modern humans, we are literally running software (behaviour) that is incompatible with our hardware (anatomy and physiology)’ and that we need to ‘update and reboot our operating system by changing our behaviour to run more in line with our developmental (and ancestral) design’. The rest of the book seeks to position bodyweight training as perhaps the most effective way to manage this ‘reboot’ and, in this reviewer’s opinion, in this he succeeds masterfully.
“Technology has also led to the development of over-complicated exercise equipment, which has subsequently led to the creation of over-complicated training methods. There, re-educating and further developing our bodyweight attitudes as adults would seem the most natural and efficient way of restoring health.” – Kesh Patel
Most similar books I had read in the past where focused more narrowly on classical calisthenics such as push-ups and hand-stands. In the ‘Complete Guide to Bodyweight‘ you will be introduced to a much wider movement system which includes jumping, vaulting, running, rolling, hanging, pull-ups and crawling patterns. In this way it opens up a window on each of the unique areas of the human movement experience – rather than drilling down into a segment of it. This is a book either for generalists who want to learn a bit of everything or for specialists who want to get started at a novice level.
In fact, I would suggest that the cause of all acute and chronic injuries can ultimately be boiled down to inappropriate loading of tissue due to lack of skill in applying body-weight (either yours, someone else’s or some things!). – Lee Saxby, foreword to ‘Complete Guide to Bodyweight’
The above quote was one of the reasons I was so excited to have been given the opportunity to review ‘The Complete Guide to Bodyweight Training‘. Like many runners, and perhaps some of you reading this review right now, I began running because I did not want to do anything else. The desperation of injury forced to me to learn new ways and through a long and convoluted journey I ended up educated in a wide spectrum of movement practice learning from institutions such as MovNat and industry leaders such as Ido Portal and the above-quoted Lee Saxby. Through the realisation that we cannot really keep ourselves injury free and healthy if we cannot move our own body-weight around competently, ‘movement practice’ rather than ‘gym training’ became a standard part of our own coaching practices here at ChampionsEverywhere.
I hoped Kesh Patel’s comprehensive guide would be a valuable resource both for our coaches and for those of our athletes looking to explore the topic of bodyweight training for themselves. I am glad to report I was not disappointed.
Not just for superheroes
When you search for videos of ‘body-weight training -‘ or the old Greek term that may be more familiar to some of our readers – calisthenics – you often find seemingly superhuman feats such as one-arm handstands and human flags (although ironically the cover features such a ‘superhero’ exercise – but I get it – we need catchy covers!). Beyond the cover, Kesh Patel aims to bring us a few steps back from that with his book – starting us off on our journey with exercises that are more approachable, less daunting and ultimately more practical for the person looking only for an all-round basic movement (re)-education or the runner or other athlete looking to build an injury-proof body by reacquiring his basic movement vocabulary.
So do not fret – you do not need to be a gymnast or have the ability to jump from root-top to roof-top to pick up this book – but perhaps by the end you’ll feel like it!
Content at a glance
‘The Complete Guide to Bodyweight‘ is short by the standards of today’s publications at 191 pages and even these will fly by as you read through the book the first time – only the first three chapters focus on theory after which the practice chapters start. From here on almost every page has at least two images of exercises with step-by-step instructions.
This approach works in favour of the reader here – the brief theory on exercise considerations, programme design and training formats leaves you with all the critical information you need to structure a bodyweight progression for yourself without overwhelming you with physiology and periodisation jargon. By the time you arrive at Chapter 4 – ‘Warm-up’, you know this is a book for those who want to ‘practice bodyweight’ rather than a scientific discussion on the topic.
Kesh Patel’s background as educational director for both Premier and VivoBarefoot show in his writing style – topics that are often described in a very complicated manner are crystal clear here. For instance: ‘What is good biomechanics’ or what does ‘skilful movement’ mean? Kesh offers the simple definition of ‘it’s simply making the right shape’.
“Making the right shape = skilful movement.” – Kesh Patel
The ‘Complete Guide to Bodyweight‘ is divided into the following chapters:
- Why train with bodyweight?
- Training strategies
- Training formats
- Warming up
- Cooling down
- Stability skills
- Manipulative skills
- Locomotor skills
- Transitional sequences
- Locomotor sequences
To wrap-up an appendix showcasing sample workouts are included. The book is printed in full-colour on glossy paper with each chapter marked by colour-coding making it a breeze to flick back and forth through the book. This fits the book: this is a piece you will be flicking backwards and forwards through as you use it – rather than reading just once cover to cover.
“The Complete Guide to Bodyweight could just as well have been called ‘The User Manual to Your Bodyweight’ but its not as complicated as the manual for the DVD player!”
Motor skill milestones
The book follows the same progression principles that we applied ourselves as children to master the motorskill milestones that all humans have to progress through – by learning ‘micro’-skills and putting them together into a larger ‘macro’-skill. Whatever sport you are doing many of these basic shapes are so fundamental that you can barely do any modern sports movement without requiring it.
Static exercises are often prescribed for dynamic sports without any real understanding or consideration of how they will (or can transfer) into more dynamic movements such as vaulting or kicking – static exercises have little practical application in themselves – unless in case when you’re asked to hold a box, hang on for your life after falling off a cliff or getting a heavy load dropped on top of you and trying to hold off the weight. In ‘The Complete Guide to Bodyweight‘ these static movements are put into their proper perspective: they simply serve to drill in and understanding of the correct shapes. Kesh uses the example of the ‘hollow body hold’ – this shape is adopted as part of more complex movements such as muscle-ups and cartwheels. The message is clear: learn the static exercises but then implement them into practical movement flows. How to do this makes up the last two-thirds of the book.
” A new breed of fitness is evolving – one that aligns with our evolutionary heritage and early motor development.” – Kesh Patel
Innovative training formats
Before going into the specifics shapes and movements, Kesh presents the reader with a comprehensive list of training formats. Some will be familiar to most people interested in sports and fitness – such as metabolic conditioning workouts (a run would qualify), general fitness and conditioning (your run of the mill – lift a weight 3 x 10 reps) and biomotor skill-based workouts (sessions focused on developing one component of fitness such as a bodyweight circuit focused on developing strength endurance) but then introduces four formats that have only recently begun to come back ‘in vogue’:
- Movement skill-based workouts (sessions to attain fluidity and control in specific movements)
- Play-/Exploratory-based workouts
- Task-oriented workouts (such as ‘climbing a tree’ or ‘overcoming an obstacle course’)
If you want advanced program design you will need to do some additional reading but with this basic overview and the sample workouts in the appendix, most readers will be able to get themselves off to a good start.
The warm-up and cooldown chapters are refreshing for the absence of traditional stretching methods, now widely discredited, and the inclusion of several exercises and drills that will be new to the majority of readers. I was delighted to see the ‘Toe-ga’ drills included – these foot preparation drills were developed in the VivoBarefoot coaching system and since integrating them into our training system in 2011, has been part of all our daily routines. They work and now readers will have a written resource to reference with these drills and many more.
Logic and ‘flow’
When you attend a weekend with the world’s best movement teachers one thing always stand out: nothing is done at random and each little block of skill you are thought seamlessly flow together into more and more complicated movements. By the end you find yourself executing a movement you thought was far too complicated – but because it was fed to you bit by bit, it became easy.
Very few books succeed in bringing this across but the ‘Complete Guide to Bodyweight‘ comes very close – the warm-up movements are well explained and the reader has no doubt how it fits in with the preparing for the more complex and specific movements in later in the book. By first introducing stability movements, these are ready for use by the time the reader arrives at the more dynamic manipulative and locomotive movements such as running (which receives a very informative 2-page treatment that many runners should find novel).
“If walking is the first gear of natural human locomotion, then running is the second.” – Kesh Patel
Putting it all together
Once each of the three major categories of movement – stability, manipulative and locomotive – have been introduced the book turns to sequences and flows for its final act. The transitional sequences are to quote Kesh Patel: “seamlessly moving from one body and/or position to another”. Because the reader has already been introduced to the pull-up and the dip, they can now combine them into the ‘muscle-up’. The even more fundamental shapes that are part of this sequence – such as the hollow body position – were introduced even earlier.
Locomotor sequences make up one of my favourite parts of the book and finishes it on a high – in essence they are simply combinations of different types of locomotion – such as transitioning from a crawl into a run or from a jump into a roll or walking into a cartwheel.
“From a developmental perspective our bodyweight was the only tool we had to shape movement behaviour during our early years. “- Kesh Patel
It was hard to be critical of this book because it achieved exactly what it set out to do. Where there minor areas I would have liked to seen explored more such as running and jumping, sure, but the book did not intend to go down any of those rabbit-holes. Other small things I missed was hand and wrist preparation drills to go with the foot and ankle drills but again the book had to limit its scope somewhere and information is freely available online about a host of such exercises – especially from the Parkour and martial arts community.
The book will succeed in its mission if novices can pick it up and begin to explore and improve their abilities in the exercises covered within and if they put down the book inspired and motivated to make bodyweight training a core part of their regular practice and activity. In this I feel it succeeds to such an extent that I would not hesitate picking a session straight out of the book and run it as a class for our athletes. So if you’re interested in changing your fitness practice and supplementing with bodyweight training, you should buy this book.