Frank Medrano sometimes suggests unusual methods when it comes to achieving your fitness goals. “You can even work out in the bathtub,” he says. “Do triceps dips by pushing yourself up and down off the sides of the bath. That’s good exercise.”
Thirty-seven years old, shaven-headed, with muscles straight out of a biology textbook, Medrano has dedicated his life to inspiring people to work out. Now, the American gives advice to six million fans on social media. His sport is called calisthenics, and his mantra is, “The time for excuses is over.”
Calisthenics athletes work out using just their bodyweight and gravity. When it comes to the exercises, the level of complication ranges from simple squats to variations of the pull-up, reminiscent of a gymnastics routine.
The Spartans used calisthenics – from the Ancient Greek for beauty (kallos) and strength (sthenos) – to harden their bodies for battle.
YouTube videos posted by the BarStarzz in 2010 helped revive the trend for fitness exercises using only bodyweight.
The Harlem crew added hip-hop beats and freestyle elements to calisthenics, boosting its popularity all over the world.
Medrano is the superstar of the calisthenics scene. This former pole-vaulter from Los Angeles is vegan and has a body-fat ratio of five per cent. His YouTube videos get as many as 35 million clicks, and 690,000 Instagram followers and 4.7 million Facebook fans follow his workout advice. The secret of his success?
“I teach calisthenics as a school of life,” he says. “You learn to deal with setbacks and to achieve your goals more quickly. And you can join in even if you can only do one repetition. We all start at one.”
Here, for the first time, Medrano sums up his training philosophy in seven easy points.
- Don’t attempt to copy others
- Your body is a gym
- Study your pain
- Repeat what you enjoy doing, modify what you don’t
- Become an expert on lentils
- Turn bad days into good days
- Develop a vision of yourself
He even offers advice on how best to read this article. “You should read it in the plank position,” he says. “It’s the basic calisthenics exercise. If you can hold the posture until point three, you’ve reached your first goal.”
That should take you around a minute. No skimming now…
1 Don’t attempt to copy others
“My job is to get people in shape using calisthenics training. This is where my main tip for every area of your life comes in: find out what you’re good at. Most people who want to achieve a goal start emulating their idol, whether that be a fitness model or a successful start-up founder. The snag there is that even if you imitate your idol in minute detail, you’ll still only be a copy at the end of the day.
When I started doing calisthenics, seven years ago, I used to marvel at the videos made by my fellow American Devin Sosa, a hulk of a man who’s famous for his explosive muscle-ups [a type of pull-up where you push yourself from a hanging position into a dip]. I started to learn his exercises, like thousands of others, but I discovered that my strengths actually lay elsewhere.
So I worked on typewriter pull-ups [where your chin bobs up and down over the bar like the carriage on a typewriter] and I kept on training until I’d made this extremely tough exercise look extremely easy.
I created my own aesthetic calisthenics style, made a video, and then put it online. The video got 35 million clicks. Most people underestimate how strong and creative they are. In calisthenics, you start with a single rep. After that, you decide where the journey will take you.”
2 Your body is a gym
“Calisthenics is all the exercises you can do alone with your bodyweight and gravity, from standard push-ups to one-arm push-ups to the human flag. The best thing is that there’s no excuse not to train. Don’t have any money? Calisthenics is free.
Not sporty? There are workouts where you don’t even have to get up off the floor. Get bored easily? There are 200 different exercises you can do using the pull-up bar alone. Don’t have a bar? Pump some push-ups on the stairs, or pull yourself up on the branch of a tree. The world is a fitness park. And you can raise the level of almost any exercise to super difficult.
At the beginning, I told you to read this article in the plank position. It’s the basis of every calisthenics exercise, because it strengthens the core. You should hold the position for as long as you can. Are your abs hurting already? Good. Pain is important.”
3 Study your pain
“Lots of people think athletes don’t feel pain, because their exercises look so easy. But the opposite is true: athletes study their pain and use it in training.
Pain is a compass: it shows you where your potential is. If your biceps burn after eight pull-ups, that’s a sign that you can do more than eight.
Just think how disappointed you’ll be if you give up for the sake of two silly little reps. The pull-ups that hurt are doubly important; they’re the ones that build muscle.
You can also use calisthenics to prevent pain, of course. Maybe you sit at a computer all day and suffer with back pain. My tip is to hang a pull-up bar in your office and do the dead hang. All you do is hang off the bar with your arms stretched. Ideally, you should be doing this for 10 to 20 seconds a day. The dead hang stretches your back out. And at some point you’ll automatically feel like doing a pull-up.”
4 Repeat what you enjoy doing, modify what you don’t
“If you’re looking to improve, you have to persevere with those exercises you don’t enjoy. Of course, you could always remove these exercises – let’s say push-ups, for example – from your training programme altogether, but it’s much better if you modify them.
If you find push-ups too difficult, do them on your knees. If that’s too easy, try diamond push-ups [make the shape of a diamond with the thumb and index finger of both hands] or archer push-ups [hold one arm stretched out to the side].
It’s important to break your routine to give your body fresh impetus. Have you ever noticed how you always take the same route to work? Try to change your route by just 100 yards by taking a different street. You’ll be amazed at what you discover. Maybe you’ll come across a new store, or spot some piece of graffiti you haven’t seen before. You’ll see something new and you’ll pay attention to it. Your body does the exact same thing when you modify your exercises.”
5 Become an expert on lentils
“When I started out in calisthenics, I was achieving my training goals even though I was eating whatever I felt like. But my results only began to improve when I changed my diet. There are thousands of different pieces of advice when it comes to healthy eating. Here’s mine: I’m vegan, I drink three litres of water a day, and I cook with quinoa, beans, broccoli and spinach a lot.
Obviously you don’t have to be a vegan to be fit. But you can become a lentil expert. Lentils are my superfood. They contain high-end proteins and dietary fibre, which promote muscle growth. I recommend a lentil salad with carrots and tomatoes.“
If you want to make another change to your diet, give up milk; it’s bad for you, regardless of what your parents told you. I’ve replaced it with almond milk, which the body can igest more easily than the lactose in cow’s milk.
And while we’re on the subject of drinks, of course you can have a beer after training. The bad news is that beer prevents muscle growth, because your body breaks down alcohol before fat. You don’t become athletic without making sacrifices. Sorry.”
6 Turn bad days into good days
“Of course, there will be times when you miss your goals. Everyone who is successful will have failed at some point. But that’s just fine, because your reaction to failure is a test of your passion; it helps you find out if you really want to reach your target.
I had to train for five months before I could do my first muscle-up. Over that period, I failed to perform the exercise hundreds of times. I don’t mind admitting that there were even evenings when I cried about it. I was frustrated. But the muscle-up is a damned cool exercise, and that’s why I didn’t give up.
One evening in April 2010, I was working out at the gym in Whittier, Los Angeles. I grabbed the bar, pulled myself up and expected the worst, like so many times before, but that evening I didn’t just manage my first muscle-up, I almost tipped forward over the bar because I’d built up so much strength. It was one of the best days since I started working out, and I wouldn’t have had that experience without the bad days.”
7 Develop a vision of yourself
“There are four staging posts on the road to your goal: vision, inspiration, action and mission.
Let’s say you’re a fairly sporty guy with a desk job, and you want to learn how to do the human flag to impress your girlfriend. Here’s what you’ve got to do…
- STEP ONE: create a vision of yourself. Come up with an ideal concept. Visualise raising yourself on the bar as if you were as light as a feather and stretching yourself out. A vision isn’t about what you can do; it’s about what you want to be able to do in an ideal world.
- STEP TWO: stock up on inspiration. This, exceptionally, is where idols can be of use. Watch human-flag videos on YouTube. Study to see what’s possible and how easy it can look.
- STEP THREE: get down to action. This is when the real work begins. Find out what the training schedule is for the human flag. You should be able to do at least 20 pull-ups. Then strengthen your shoulders and back with handstand push-ups and work on your lateral abdominal muscles with side planks. Also, buy yourself a rubber band to support your legs as you move them down into the right angle.
- STEP FOUR: set off on your mission. Now you have to go through with this. You’re going to learn how to do the human flag, even if your back hurts, and it takes five months, and you end up lying in bed crying in the evening. Your mission is only complete when you can stretch out horizontally from the bar.”