Shifting up a gear … without the gear

Big moves and big hearts on a PCC course

I’m hanging from a bar, lifting my knees to my chest. I try to roll backwards, look at the wall behind, but my weight distribution’s all wrong. Friendly hands guide my feet between my fists. It works. I flip over — rather, I get flipped — and I’m looking forward again, my arms stretched out behind and above.

I let out a whoop, because it just feels awesome.

Skinning that pesky feline

It’s called a “skin-the-cat”, and it’s a bar move in progressive calisthenics — a philosophy of strength training that goes back to ancient Greece, performed sturdy and spartan-like and largely without equipment. To learn it, I’m attending a course called the PCC. In its London iteration it involves thirty-odd students, a training space like no other (Deptford’s Commando Temple) and four instructors fresh off the plane from Brooklyn — including the modality’s monsters of rock: Al and Danny Kavadlo.

I’m not a fitness pro. I’m here because a) over the last year I’ve become intrigued by this stuff, and b) the course is happening minutes from my front door. Which makes me the weakest in the group, by a large margin. But it doesn’t seem to matter a damn to anyone. And the three days ahead turn out to be all kinds of awesome.

Tattoos, triceps, and twinkly eyes

Remember that party you went to that somehow felt right: everyone hitting it off, everyone forging bonds from the opening minutes? Where you felt something was happening, something special, something that mattered?

The PCC’s like that.

Even those with decades in the fitness biz, who’ve done dozens of qualifications, say yes, this one feels … different. Imagine Woodstock with tighter abs. Or pre-2005 Burning Man. Or Studio 54, or CBGB’s, or the birth-of-the-Beats poetry reading on Fillmore St circa 1955. Hell, it’s like being at the Council of Nicea with an inkling of where their little group writing project would go!

Although entry to this room carries a price, the energy in it can’t be bought. People who’ve come from all over the world, spending thousands of dollars to learn more about something they love.

Everyone you know is here. Everyone you like is here. Everyone who’s anyone is here.

Al and Danny are here.

This poster’s seen some use

If you don’t do progressive calisthenics, it’s hard to explain the position the Kavadlo brothers hold. They’re superstars. Everyone’s read their books, practiced their moves, seen ‘em on YouTube. It takes balls to build a business on clips of yourself doing pullups in the park — but that’s what they do. And they do it very, very well.

Al first. Online, he’s known for the beard — he’d make an interesting alternative Santa — but in person it’s the eyes that have it. They twinkle. He’s the twinkliest-eyed guy you’ve ever seen. He just twinkle, twinkles, all the time. They’re eyes that say, brooking no argument, you’re going to have fun today! Slim built, neither short nor tall, he looks surprisingly modest and unassuming — until he hits the bar. Back levers are hard enough, but this guy can hold himself horizontal from one hand.

Alongside twinkly Al is his brother Danny, equally heroically tattooed and with the same mad skills on the bar. Let’s just say in the zombie apocalypse you want Danny on your side. He looks like he could weld battleships by day then front a rock band at night. Whereas Al’s catchphrase is a cheerful “Hey hey hey!” Danny’s is a roared “HELLYEAH!’ Everything’s turned up to 11 with this guy, all the time. He probably repairs his own household appliances. He probably built his own house.

Helping the vibe is the way the brothers are obviously close friends. Some training partners do human flags together; Al and Danny do human flags off each other, one man balancing the other in a tango of trust.

We were just standing around, and they used superpowers on us

The female instructors, weights expert Annie Vo and multiskilled Grace Kavadlo (who happens to be Al’s wife) are chalk and cheese — Grace petite and wiry, Annie a Marvel superhero sprung off the page who could set Hollywood ablaze. Like so many in the fitness community, they’re strongly individual: they’re not following a pattern, don’t fit any template. Both can come out with cheesy lines like “What’s poppin’, ninjas?” and still sound cooler than artisanal icecubes buried in Arctic permafrost. (Don’t try this at home, Brits: this sorta sass is a Brooklyn thing.) Grace glances up at the overhead bars, plotting a route around the gym the hard way. Annie looks hungrily at the barbell plates.

Uniting the quartet is the way they stand. Relaxed and ready, what I’ve come to recognise as “cali-confident”. It’s the same thing you see among martial artists and meditators: people utterly comfortable in their own skins, enjoying who they’ve become without arrogance or aloofness. These guys are the real deal.

As, it turns out, are my fellow attendees.

Most are in the fitness industry; several own gyms; there’s more than a few record holders in the room. Some are muscled to anime proportions. Hey, let’s not stop at Danny; I want all these people in my post-apocalypse survivalist colony, right now. But that’s not the way it’d happen. In real life, it’d be me knocking bedraggled and desperate on the gates of their upscale wasteland settlement, begging to be allowed to dig their latrines.

There’s some warmup chat and banter. And then we’re off.

Start simple, stay simple

The Progressive Calisthenics Certification has its roots in an unusual 2009 text, Paul “Coach” Wade’s Convict Conditioning. (Whenever his name’s mentioned in class, the Kavadlos do that finger-quotes thing on “Coach”.)

In a fitness world choked by candy-coated exercise equipment on late-night infomercials, CC1 (there have been sequels) took an alternate path: minimalist training, the stuff jailbirds do in their cells on lockdown. (They even shot some video on Alcatraz.) Just imagine that for a second. Stuff you do without equipment! Without gym memberships! Without, even, screwtop jars of amino acid complexes distilled from the harvested excretions of rare desert mammals!

“All awesome, all the time”, that’s Al’s motto. (Well, actually it’s “We’re working out” but let’s not quibble.)

Of course, this created a problem: with nothing to sell but a vision, no brand name pipework assemblages to profit from, the publishers were forced to build a business model from actually teaching something. And that was Convict Conditioning in a nutshell: a self-training course you can do in a jail cell, owing the creators nothing but the price of the paperback. No first-hit-free to get you addicted, no catalogue of seductive matt-black ironmongery to eat your credit score. One promise, one book, one-time-sale.

And if that’s all you’re selling, you’d better make it a good book.

CC1 introduced a “Big Six”. Half a dozen sequences of gradually harder movements based on simple anatomical functions, that build over time towards master strength moves like the handstand pushup and one-arm pullup. Start simple, embed it in your muscle memory by upping the reps and sets over time. Then shift up a gear, without using any gear. Instead of adding plates to a bar, you make the move more intense. Maybe you reduce the leverage your working limbs can exert, as with a close pushup. Or you increase effective resistance, like going at it one-handed. Your skill with each move shows you how close you are to the next step up. It’s like a video game, gathering experience points to reach the next level.

As CC1 took hold, and bodyweight enthusiasts tested its methods and moves to destruction, the Progressive Calisthenics Instructor’s Certification took shape.

Adding a few moves to Wade’s Big Six, the course covers 11 modules and 2 seminars over three days. Unlike many “attendance certified” courses, there’s an actual physical exam to pass. The “Century Test” spans four sets totalling 100 moves, to be completed within eight minutes. And the last set — ten pullups, after 40 squats, 30 pushups, and 20 leg raises hanging from the bar — is a killer. Some approach it confidently, some (*cough*) find it much harder. It’s not essential to pass it on the day, as long as you can prove it on video afterwards, but everyone has to train for it.

The modules span pushups, pullups, handstands, and truly insane stuff like the human flag, where you hold your body out horizontally from a vertical pole. Instead of the front and back muscles that work when you’re pushing and pulling, the flag relies on the sides of the body most gym exercises don’t work. (Flags are missing from CC1, and it’s arguably why few finish the whole book. For all the right reasons: by the time you hit step 4/5 in each 10-step chain, you’re getting interested in bodyweight beyond the possibilities of an 8-by-5 room with bars on the windows.)

I’m nowhere near a full human flag. But I manage the simpler “clutch flag” variant, and that’s the point. Progressive calisthenics underlines the progression part. You go as far as you can … and with practice you get better. Wash, rinse, repeat.

And it’s hard to describe how uplifting it is.

Awesome as an attitude

I’ve rolled out of aircraft in flight, stood sixty feet underwater on the ocean floor. But nothing’s ever been like this, nowhere have more butterflies swarmed within my intestines than … on a matted floor in Deptford SE8, doing pushups. But somehow it’s still fun. It’s blasting, uproarious fun.

How can doing a few gym moves feel so life-affirming, make you ready to explode with a child’s love of life?

Danny and the art of the pushup

One word explains it: embodiment. Like the instructors with their stance of confidence, you feel cognitively involved without dissonance getting a look in. While you’re doing a move you find challenging, you’re “in the zone”: fully self-aware within your own skin, fostering a complete connection between mind and body. Knowledge plus skill plus strength, working together. And fractal-like, each zoom in reveals new horizons to explore.

Just as a wine lover glories in the small differences between Burgundies, calisthenics enthusiasts find fascination in small changes to stance and hand position, little shifts in limb leverage or the angle of a joint. It breeds a deeper understanding of how the body works. And a delicious feeling of mastery over the whole damn meat puppet.

Pink Floyd sang about being “Comfortably Numb”. Once out of their 20s, that’s how most people spend their lives. Settled, routine-driven, happy enough within their sphere of existence. But there’s something missing from that. The sheer joy of reaching your limits … and discovering how to extend them. This course is one way of doing it.

A lot of PCC participants seem happy people. Not because they’ve had easy lives, but because they’ve made a deliberate choice to lead harder ones. To step out of the comfortably-numb zone and push themselves.

Most of my peers are in their homes right now worrying about school fees and cholesterol scores, while I’m hanging upside down with my ankles between my wrists like a low-rent Batman impersonator. And it’s an experience I’ll take with me throughout life.

Self-actualisation through strength

The accompanying manual runs to 600 pages. (No, you can’t buy it on Amazon.) Most of my newfound friends will take their experience straight back to the gym, introducing their clients and classes to the bodyweight vibe. But I’ve got smaller ambitions: my only student is myself.

The obligatory team photo

That’s why I came. There’s only so far you can go with books and YouTube: it’s the difference between downloading a studio album and visiting a sweaty basement with the woofers a-thumpin’. Your connection to the material being learned is strengthened by viscerality, being there and doing that with other people. And when those other people include the masters, it takes it up a lot of notches.

This is living, this is life. This is what it’s all about.

In the months to come, stirring some fresh know-how into my workouts, I’ll start feeling genuinely different. A stronger connection between upper and lower halves, a sense of greater balance between right and left sides, with the front, back, and lateral chains working as a team. And hugely stronger, with that folded-in, all-over feeling that makes you want to punch the sky. If you want to feel the same way, I’d recommend the Progressive Calisthenics Certification, or at least some sessions with a personal trainer. (They’re better than classes.)

The Big Secret of the fitness industry: you don’t need to be a pro to do its professional qualifications. And in many ways, non-pros will get more out of the exercise.

“That was awesome!” twinkles Al. “Now, let’s have a push-up jam!”

Chris Worth is a London-based “marketing hobo” whose interests include calisthenics, kettlebells, and Kindle. Days he writes campaigns and content for marketers in between chapters of his upcoming textbook for freelancers, 100 Days 100 Grand. Photos used with permission from Michelle Steenhuis. This article is a personal opinion: he has no business relationship with Dragon Door and paid for the PCC course himself.

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Chris Worth

Dreamer-with-a-day-rate authoring and creating at chrisdoescontent.com. Objectivist, minimalist, libertarian; into calisthenics, kettlebells, and Kindle.