Untapped Strength Part One: Gymnastic Strength Training and More

By on August 14, 2018

I love discovering new training methods and techniques that can yield exponential improvements in my performance. Conversely, I hate the idea of becoming strong and powerful from training in the gym, while neglecting key aspects of my strength and mobility.

Untapped strength

But this is something that most of us do all the time. As someone who started out with bodybuilding-style training (just because that was taught to me at the time), I’ve since learned that while I might have looked fairly big and strong, I was really falling short of my potential in a lot of key areas. The mission of this site and channel has been at least partly to dig out those less well-known training methods and concepts, in order to tease out gains that might otherwise have been left on the table. I’ve always been fascinated with training things that other people just don’t train, like ambidexterity and proprioception.

I’ve always been fascinated with training things that other people just don’t train, like ambidexterity and proprioception.

Awesome things happen when you go beyond the normal advice given by strength coaches and start looking for more out-there influences. I’m talking Ideas from different sports, from martial arts, from old-time strongmen, from recent research, and from underground movements. Some of these can drastically improve your health, energy and performance… almost overnight. Employ these techniques and you can ‘unlock’ aspects of your own physical performance that had previously been dormant.

Untapped Strength

Here are some of the most incredible examples of ‘secret’ and ‘forgotten’ training methods that will enhance your performance across the board.

(This is part one of a two-part series, so stay tuned for even more lesser-utilized concepts that you can incorporate into your training!)

Grip and Forearm Strength

To get the ball rolling, let’s start with something you’re probably familiar with already: grip strength. Grip and forearm strength training often doesn’t have a place in training splits because we presume we’re training it with every single move. That’s true to some extent, but the truth is that we could be training it a whole lot more. And the fact that grip strength is involved in every single movement, demonstrates just what an important role it plays.

Grip strength training

A strong grip is crucial for countless sports, for self-defence, for climbing and parkour, and for countless scenarios you haven’t yet considered. Like opening jam jars. Strong forearms drastically increase your apparent size seeing as they are the part of your anatomy most on display. And if you want to look vascular, then building stronger forearm muscles will push those veins to the surface beneath the thin skin, right where they’ll be most visible.

Moreover, having a strong grip on a weight means you waste less energy in moving heavy weights. Ergo, you can lift more. Old-time strongmen traditionally placed huge emphasis on the importance of grip strength, and they were capable of pulling off some almost superhuman feats as a result.

Deadlift grip strength

I made a whole video/article on grip strength – and even finger strength. My top tips:

  • Incorporate grip strength into your regular workouts by using moves that challenge it more naturally – deadlifts, dead hangs, and weighted pull ups are good examples.
  • To increase the focus on grip a little more, try using wide bars, or pulling on cables without the attachments.
  • To target this area more specifically, my favorite strategy is to use rock-climbing, bouldering, and traversing – or to build up to pull ups from finger boards. Finger push ups are also a showy way to incorporate this type of training.

Straight Arm Strength

A lot of traditional/common exercises that we use at the gym are based around either having bent arms or bending our arms. If we do lock our arms out, this is considered the ‘end point’ and not part of the movement per-say.

And people don’t seem all that bothered about this type of strength either. Why? Presumably because they’re more interested in getting big numbers on the bench press, or building muscles that people can actually see. The irony is that straight-arm training might be one of the very best ways to accomplish both of these goals…

Straight arm training iron cross

But straight arm strength is immensely awesome when trained properly. For one, it allows you to do those incredible calisthenics moves such as planche, front lever, and even the iron cross. This is a core part of gymnastics strength training – and as we all know, gymnasts are some of the most powerful athletes in the world pound-for-pound. For another, it can actually improve your performance in more ‘conventional exercises’. Remember: you eventually do reach extension during a movement like the bench press. And according to Christopher Sommers straight arm strength is also responsible for the huge biceps that most gymnasts sport.

Maintaining perfectly straight arms under load means remaining in muscle flexion. And specifically, it means developing muscles that often go ignored. Those include the muscles around the shoulder girdle, as well as the muscles surrounding the elbow such as the brachialis. Not only will you build power and stability in all your pushing and pulling movements, but you’ll also prevent numerous imbalances and aches and pains as a result. What’s more, is that straight arm training will build ligament strength (the capsular and ulnar collateral), which is hard to train in any other way (and excellent for injury prevention).

Straight arm strength is responsible for the huge biceps that most gymnasts sport

You can train this type of strength by incorporating some body weight skills training into your workouts. Try just holding positions with your arms locked-out straight: one good example would be the crow pose/frog stand which you might normally be tempted to perform with a slight kink in your arms. Leg raises in a dipping station also work well if you take the conscious effort to ensure your arms are completely rigid as you perform them (this way you are training two aspects of your strength at once). Similarly, straight arm dips are also very useful for building up lower trap strength. Dead hangs are likewise great for encouraging shoulder mobility, building grip strength, and toughening those ligaments. Dead hanging is something that great apes do an awful lot of, and most of us would agree that they tend to be pretty strong as a rule…

A classic progression leading up to planche is to hold yourself in the upper push up position while leaning yourself gradually forward. Basically, planche but with your feet still on the ground. Or ‘pseudo planche’ as it is known.

Psuedo planche

Likewise, you can also use exercises such as the straight arm pull down, and RTO push ups (rings turned out). RTO push ups are a very useful tool for building the connective tissue and supportive muscles surrounding the elbows, to provide the strength and stability necessary for moves like the iron cross and high-volume rope climbing.

Targeting the forearm flexors will have some crossover here, as will training the biceps in different ways. Hammer curls are excellent for targeting the brachialis for instance.

Hollow Body Position

Straight arm training hollow body

An extension of this concept is the hollow body position. Here, you’re going to be locking your torso rigid along with your arms, giving your entire body an amount of stability that can be immensely useful in a range of scenarios. Here, the abs and upper back are contracted and shortened and if you’re doing it properly, you’ll feel as though you could hold up the weight of the ceiling were it to collapse on you while you were performing press ups.

You’ll feel as though you could hold up the weight of the ceiling were it to collapse

To get into this position, lie flat on the floor and then bring your belly button inward in an attempt to press your lower spine into the floor (there will naturally be a gap here). Now memorize how that feels, so you can utilize it when you’re in a range of other positions. This has locked your body into a rigid position, plugging gaps in the kinetic chain, and help you to avoid wasting any energy.

I’m working on all this myself right now and still have a ways to go. But you can bet I’ll be creating more videos on this subject in future, so stay tuned.

Work Capacity

When it comes to fitness, it seems that people largely fall into two camps. Those who completely neglect their cardiovascular fitness, and those who are all about cardiovascular fitness (cardio bunnies).

Lots of people concerned with building muscle primarily will completely ignore cardio because:

  1. They’re worried it will ruin their gains
  2. It’s boring

The truth is though, that improving your cardio fitness is crucial if you want to perform optimally at the gym. If you have reached the point where you can perform lots of pull ups, then you might know this intuitively. Often, you fail to continue doing pull ups not so much because your muscles have fatigued, but because you’ve become tired. The same thing goes for a range of compound lifts like deadlifts – where fatigue can result in injury.

Pull ups cardio

Building work capacity is one of the main benefits/goals of CrossFit, but you should consider it in every type of training you do. In fact, building your cardiovascular performance will even improve your productivity. So many of us are looking for ways to increase our energy during the day, but few ever think about training their ability to expend energy over a long duration.

This is why powerlifters and others incorporate ‘general physical preparedness’ into their training. While they might specialise in moving large amounts of weight, they recognize the importance of building a base of fitness to support the rest of their training. I’ll be looking into increasing work capacity and VO2 max in future videos.

Work capacity

Next Time, On The Bioneer…

So those are just a few examples of concepts that could benefit your training if you’re currently following a more traditional strength or fitness program. By adapting ideas from gymnasts, old-time strongmen, and CrossFitters, you can see profound performance gains both in and out of the gym.

Next time, I’ll be looking at Shaolin monks, powerlifters, modern strongmen, and more for even more ‘untapped’ strength secrets. Stay tuned…

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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