How to implement “Easy Strength” for Bodyweight Movements

I gotta say it: I am stubborn. I believe most internet users can relate. We have been bombarded with so many methods and ideas, and we know very few have actually worked for us. When we actually find one that does, we throw it away and keep looking for “something better”.

The program I have made the most gains with in my entire lifting career is Easy Strength, developed by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline. I broke records on my weighted pull-ups and dips, my front squat and my deadlift. I felt fresh, strong and healthy. I did it for some weeks and then, as Dan John likes to say, “it was so simple and effective that I abandon it”.

Well, as they say, research is a remembrance. This week I’ve been digging again on the methods of Easy Strength, and now I am going to share it with you. Let’s hope you listen more than I did.

What is Easy Strength?

Easy Strength is a philosophy more than anything. The idea comes from the fact that strength is a skill, meaning something that requires constant quality practice for one to get better at it. If you wanted to get good at piano, would practicing 3 hours one day of the week would be better that practicing 20 minutes everyday? Would you change the song you are trying to learn every day? Just realize strength training is learning something, and your whole approach will change.

Therefore, the program that can make you lift heavy, frequently, with quality and focused on a few goals, while keeping you fresh will be the one that provides the most gains. Heavy. Frequent. Quality. Focused. Recovery. Let’s take a look at these five components.

As you know, most strength programs empathize one of this aspects to the extent that they opaque the others. For example, you may do max deadlifts once a week but you never get the change to practice the movement with quality, and your nervous system is fried. Or you may lift everyday but never feel rested enough to do an intense workout, so you end up always doing really light work. Sometimes overworking can actually hide a fear of working hard.

So Easy Strength comes downs to the fact that we need to stop procrastinating and focus on a few worthy goals, and then practice them often. Dan Gable says “If it’s important, do it everyday. If it isn’t, don’t do it at all”.

How do you implement Easy Strength?  

In the book 3 workouts are offered, but they are all based on the same principles. One is the original Easy Strength, the other is The 40 day workout and the last is Even Easier Strength. It all came down to what Pavel prescribed to Dan John:

“For the next forty workouts, pick five lifts. Do them every workout. Never miss a rep, in fact, never even get close to struggling. Go as light as you need to go and don’t go over ten reps for any of the movements. It is going to seem easy. When the weights feel light, simply add more weight.”

It’s that simple. This is how you do it:

#1. Pick a maximum of five lifts: Either weighted or with bodyweight (I’ll talk a little bit about that later). They should be worthy goals of compound movements, so don’t chose something like a biceps curl, but rather a planche or a squat.

#2. Do them on every workout: Do them at the beginning of the session. With the full body movements (deadlift, squat, olympic lifts, press handstand, planche and front lever) you do a total of maximum 10 reps per session, so something like 2×5 or 3×3. With grinding and not full body movements (overhead press, bench press, chin ups) it goes from 15 to 25 total reps per session, so a good 3×5 or 2×10. With kettlebell ballistics (swings and clean) you do from 75 to 100 total reps, so 3×25 or 2×50. Chose loads that feel easy. Antony Mychal says you should “be able to do that rep an hour after you’ve rolled out of bed, without coffee”.

#3. You do this for 8 to 12 weeks: You only move in weight when it feels “too easy”. When you finish the cycle, you may change your program or start again with “same but different” movements, so a Romanian deadlift instead of a conventional one, a High bar squat instead of a low bar one, or a Straddle press handstand instead of a Pike press handstand.

Now, let’s consider the specificities of bodyweight movements. For the record, I consider 1 rep as a 2 second hold (because in Olympic Gymnastics a 2 sec hold is the minimum you must stay on a position on the still rings, so that would be a sort of max). So 2×5 reps is 2×10 seconds, or 3×3 reps is 3×6 seconds. Try never to go below 3 reps/6 secs, as this high frequency will demand you to keep fresh and accumulate volume, but also never higher than 10 reps or 20 secs, if you want to keep this in the strength side of things.

Also, remember that with bodyweight movements we advance not with weights, but with progressions. This means that you may start with a planche lean, and only after a few weeks you’ll move to a tuck planche.

How do you figure out your progression? You will see in a moment that we will mostly do 2×10 sec holds, and that progression should allow you to do that easily. This means that you use a progression in which you can do 2 sets of 10 reps or 2 sets of 20 seconds, and that is your progression for 2×5 reps or 2×10 secs. If you want percentages, it should be like 50% of your 1rm, and sometimes you go to 70%.

If you think about it, this is very similar to what Coach Sommer attributes the best strength gains, which is the Steady State template. Also to the Bulgarian method. Some relevant specifics are different, but the mentality behind is the same than in Easy Strength, something that should tell you about it effectiveness.

Let’s see an example.

For this cycle, I have based myself on what I call the 6 fundamental strength movements, which are the Press handstand, Rope climb, Rings routine, Limbers, Hinge and Squat. These are “areas of development” more than specific movements, so I’ll might chose the Planche (for Press Handstand), the Front lever (for Rings routine), the Snatch Grip Deadlift (for Hinge) and the Front Squat (for Squat). Try your goals to be “balanced”, so don’t choose 5 deadlift movements or 5 pressing movements, but rather exercises in various human movements patterns (push, pull, squat, hinge, twist, lunge and gait).

Also, try to focus on movements in which you are the weakest. So for example, I’ve left out anything for the Rope climb, as in my case I don’t need any more strength in this area, and Limbers because they are more skill oriented and would better be practiced on another context. I would do those from time to time to maintain them, after my normal strength training.

My program would look something like this:

Day 1  Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5
Warm up Warm up Warm up Warm up Warm up
A1. Tuck planche (2x10s) A1. Tuck planche (2x10s) A1. Open tuck planche (2x5s) A1. Tuck planche (2x10s) A1. Tuck planche (2x10s)
B1. Open tuck front lever (2x10s) B1. Open tuck front lever (2x10s) B1. Straddle front lever (2x5s) B1. Open tuck front lever (2x10s) B1. Open tuck front lever (2x10s)
C1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r) C1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r) C1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x3r) C1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r) C1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r)
D1. Front squat (2x5r) D1. Front squat (2x5r) D1. Front squat (2x3r) D1. Front squat (2x5r) D1. Front squat (2x5r)
E1. Play (10 min) E1. Play (10 min) E1. Play (5 min) E1. Play (10 min) E1. Play (10 min)
F1. Correctives (10 min) F1. Correctives (10 min) F1. Correctives (5 min) F1. Correctives (10 min) F1. Correctives (10 min)
Cool down Cool down Cool down Cool down Cool down

As you can see, on the third day I reduce the volume by half and use a harder progression (or more weight) so I can shake things a little bit. The original 40 day program has you doing on some days 5-3-2, 1×10 and 6×1, but for bodyweight movements this would require that you figured out a progression for your 1×10 sets (meaning one set of 20 seconds in a easy progression, like the planche lean), then one for 5 reps/10 secs, for 3 reps/6 secs, 2 reps/4 secs and 1 rep/2 secs. The problem with this is that on some days you would be doing a planche lean while on others you would have to do a straddle planche, a template that is not realistic and will lead to more injuries than gains.

Instead, I propose you to have three progressions. A very easy one for accumulating volume (i.e. Planche lean), a medium one for day to day training (i.e. Tuck planche) and a hard one for some intensity peaks (i.e. Open tuck planche). For the easy progression you should be able to do at least 15 reps or 30 secs, for the medium one 10 reps or 20 secs, and for the hard one 5 reps or 10 secs. We will work each one on half that number. This is similar to what is done with CoC grippers, and I believe is a great idea for this program.

Also, see that I don’t superset the exercises but do one, and then the other. Start with the movements you want the most to get strong at, and finish with the lowest priority ones.

After my Easy Strength exercises I add some time for Play. This is the moment where you let yourself follow all your crazy desires, like sprinting, biceps curls, whatever you want to do, but put a threshold to it of 5 to 20 minutes. Without this time for letting go, I am sure you will give up on the program after 2 weeks.

Finally, I end with some time for correctives, prehab and everything that I need to work on for the weak links the main movements I’m practicing might have.

What about intensification and deloads? The original plan is to never use those, but I personally do a intensification phase every 3 weeks followed by a deload. This is how an intensification week would look.

Day 1  Day 2 Day 3 Day 4 Day 5
Warm up Warm up Warm up Warm up Warm up
A1. Open tuck planche (5x10s) A1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r) A1. Planche lean (1x20s) A1. Snatch grip deadlift (2x5r) A1. Open tuck planche (5x10s)
B1. Straddle front lever (5x10s) B1. Front squat (2x5r) B1. Tuck front lever (1x20s) B1. Front squat (2x5r) B1. Straddle front lever (5x10s)
C1. Play (10 min) C1. Play (10 min) C1. Play (10 min) C1. Play (10 min) C1. Play (10 min)
D1. Correctives (10 min) D1. Correctives (10 min) D1. Correctives (10 min) D1. Correctives (10 min) D1. Correctives (10 min)
Cool down Cool down Cool down Cool down Cool down

In this case, I am doing a harder progression with equal volume on Day 1 and 5, and on Day 3 I do an easier progression with a lot of volume. I suggest that for your intensification you choose a maximum of 2 movements that you want to focus on, and on day 2 and 4 you do some work to maintain the others.

I may do this for 1 or 2 weeks (depending on what my body can take) and follow that by a deload week. I like to deload by doing other activities like swimming, but you could also do some light work for correctives (posture, joint integrity, work capacity, etc). This would sum up 1 month, so I would repeat the whole process 1 or 2 times to total 8 to 12 weeks.

Let’s finish this with some common questions.

Isn’t this too little work?

Yes, it is, and you will find that you have being fooled to believe you must do a thousand things to get better at one. To get better at something, do that something. This is little investment and great return, something so simple and effective that most won’t be able to stand it.

What about hypertrophy, power, endurance, X? 

This program is mostly about strength, but all other qualities can be worked on the “Play” section of the workout. If you are in a stage in which strength is not the limiting factor and you can seriously focus on things like speed, then do your speed work first and then work on your strength. Better yet, let all those other qualities being taken care by your specific sport or movement practice.

I thought for static holds like the planche or the front lever one should hold them for 60 seconds.

That is serious bs. Why that number? In my system of 1 rep = 2 sec, that would be like doing 30 reps. Why that arbitrary number? What matters is to accumulate quality work, day in and day out, over a long period of time. That is what will bring about change, not pursuing a magic number.

Don’t I need muscle confusion to get stronger?

This is a very common misconception. The idea of muscle confusion comes from bodybuilding, and for hypertrophy and weight loss it is a good idea. For strength and skill what you need is focus: that a movement becomes so clear in your nervous system that you can do it automatically.

What about pattern overload? This is a situation in which the constant repetition of a movement may create problems in posture, joint health or being very vulnerable to injury when getting out of that pattern. This is a valid point, but the way in which it is combated is by introducing variety in the play and correctives section, changing the strength movements every 2 to 3 months, including “foreign” movements in your deload weeks, and hopefully having a sports practice where you are exposed to many patterns. A strong body requires a balance between specificity and generality, something that depends on the pursuits of each person.

I want to know more about the mental aspect of this program.

This is the most important part of the program. If you are not leaving the workouts feeling fresh, you are doing too much. But what about “no pain, no gain”? As Pavel and Dan talk about in their book (which is a must read), there is a difference between professionalism and just wanting to get crushed. If you just want to suffer, do burpees (and you can actually do them in the Play section), but for getting seriously strong you need to get clear on your goals and practice them often. You can’t do this if you are always tired.

The mental part of this program is about the perceived effort. When something that used to feel hard now feels easy, you have gotten stronger. Keep this in mind when doing the workouts: if you never get the feeling of “this is too easy”, you are using too much weight.

How do I not get bored?

I have done two things to combat boredom in this program. First, the “Play section”, and second, having some days and weeks of intensification and deload. Also, remember that this program is best if you have a sport of choice, so you can easily increase your strength in the weight room and then practice your shot put, gymnastics, krav maga, handbalancing or yoga on a different section (this is where a pm session would make sense). This is optimal for a movement practitioner: you stop spending all of your time pursuing strength, and you actually start moving.

This is the best part of this program: you are suddenly going to have more time and energy and you are going to naturally look for things in which to spend them. This can be your work, your family, meditation, or it can be any type of movement practice.

Should I ever go to failure?

No. The intensity at which you work the movements should become a normal everyday effort. You get stronger when something that used to be extraordinary becomes ordinary. In the “hard days” like 2×3 reps/2×5 secs, exert more effort but don’t crush your body.

Easy Strength was thought for people who are moving everyday, like soldiers or athletes. This means that you can’t give yourself the luxury of being too beaten up from your strength work, as you know that same day or the other day you will have to perform.

What we don’t usually realize is that we are all part of this group, not only because we are always moving but because strength is just a part of a greater life that includes leisure, work, dreams, etc. Don’t ever let your physical training take away from your life’s purpose, whatever that is.

Isn’t doing deadlifts/squats/front levers/etc everyday too much?

Anything can be done everyday at the right intensity. If you feel it is too much, it means you need to do less everyday, not the other way around. Also, you can always take a day or more off.

Can I just do this one month? 

Yes, you can, but listen. Sometimes we talk about how static holds like the planche are hard on the connective tissue, but actually with every movement we are working on our muscles, nervous system, fascia, tendons, ligaments and bones. Connective tissue requires longer than your muscles to repair, and for that Coach Sommer says one should have a period of overload, load and underload (each of about 4 weeks) to actually let the strength gains solidify in all of our body systems. The short answer is you should at least do this for two months.

Can I move from one progression to another on the same cycle?

You normally shouldn’t. That is why I have included days with a easy progression, many with a standard progression and some with a hard progression, so your body doesn’t set in one adaptation. The only reason to move up in the progressions or weights during the cycle would be if you choose the wrong ones at the start, and it really feels like nothing. If that is the case, increase the weight/progression. More than specifics, the idea is that the intensity allows you to work on the five elements we mentioned at the start, which are Heavy, Frequent, Quality, Focused and Recovery.

The key is to keep making the easy, medium and hard days feel easier and easier. So, feel free to add (or remove) weight as long as this perception of easiness remains there. This will be a lesson in auto-regulation: going hard when its right, and stepping back when you need to.

Needless to say, if you are already in the last four weeks (the “underload” period) it is normal to feel the weight is easy, and at this moment it is more beneficial to stick with it. Just increase it when by the start of the cycle it feels like something you could do all day.

Am I becoming a pussy?

For real? Haha. The strongest people in the world, like Andy Bolton, Kohei Uchimura or Usain Bolt, all agree that to get good at something you need years and years of practice. I recommend the book Mastery to really understand this process. The only way to reduce this in any way is to get clear goals, practice them often (and with quality) and have a weak links approach.

Also, you can always peak for a competition. Train soft, compete hard.

We have been fooled. We don’t need to do TrX and Marathons to get better at deadlift. What we need is to deadlift often and with quality, in a way that gives us strength returns and leaves energy so we can focus on our sport or movement choice.

In other words? General strength training, specific skill practice. Get strong in the movements that matter and everyone recognizes are the key to strength, and then practice your foot work, hand placement, and anything else in the specific environment of your sport. Make strength easy, so you can focus on skill harder.

Any more questions, ask them below!

Kinema Project products

Pliable body (Get flexible fast!)

The Dynamic Structure (Bulletproof your joints!)

One thought on “How to implement “Easy Strength” for Bodyweight Movements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s