Friday, April 20, 2012
Dragon Door: What originally attracted you to pull-up bar calisthenics?
Al Kavadlo: As a teenager, pull-ups were the first exercise that I really caught my interest. I never thought they would lead to a career path, it was just fun. I feel really lucky that I can help people with their fitness, because I really feel passionately about it.
Dragon Door: What are your own workouts like?
Al Kavadlo: My workouts are very informal most of the time, and that’s part of why it's fun. People often over-think their workouts, that’s why I didn’t want to be too specific on workout guidelines in the book. Also, I wrote the introduction to Raising The Bar to help people realize they have to actually do the exercises to achieve results. People constantly look for external solutions to their problems, when the best way is often more from the inside out.
Dragon Door: Definitely. You were talking about the informal nature of your personal workouts. Could tell me more about that? Is it intuitive in real-time or is there a plan?
Al Kavadlo: I always have some sort of game plan, but there's room for improvisation. Sometimes an idea hits me in the middle of a workout, or something doesn’t go as well as planned so I shift gears and try something else.
Dragon Door: I really liked your pull up progressions. You have a lot of incremental approaches and variations in Raising the Bar, how did you come up with them?
Al Kavadlo: I learned a lot from the experience of working with many clients over the years. Also, just seeing what works for clients and myself. I used to put people on machines a lot and do all the things that you see from mainstream gym trainers. My clients would make a little progress for a while, but it would always stop. That's when I began to try other things. Pull-up bar exercises provide an intense workout, and intensity is the key to getting strong. Bodyweight strength training is also a type of skill training, especially in terms of familiarity with a movement pattern. Obviously, muscular changes occur when you train, but there's also improvement in body awareness and coordination.
Dragon Door: If you only had to pick one bar exercise to do, what would it be?
Al Kavadlo: The muscle-up—it’s the ultimate upper body exercise—a push and a pull, plus so much more! Many people think of the muscle-up as being a combination between the pull up and the dip, but it’s more like a pull up, a hanging leg raise and a dip. I get more into this idea in the book.
Dragon Door: I noticed in every picture in Raising The Bar, you have a giant grin on your face. It looks like you’re having a really good time.
Al Kavadlo: That’s the point I was trying to convey: pull ups are fun! I’m not pretending, and I think it comes through in the pictures. It’s more about having fun than getting a workout, the workout is just an added bonus. I don’t understand how people wouldn't want to exercise.
Dragon Door: What's your next personal goal?
Al Kavadlo: Goals are tricky. My plan for now is to keep doing what I’m doing: training, making YouTube videos and working on my writing. I'm taking things one day at a time. I think it’s very hard to plan anything too far ahead. I do what I have to do on that day, then move on to the next day.
Dragon Door: In NYC, you’re very lucky to have a lot of public parks; it seems like there’s a real history and culture out there for bar training. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Al Kavadlo: There's definitely is a culture emerging and a lot of interest right now in this kind of training. In general there’s some backlash against the idea that high-end, expensive gyms and specialized products are required to get in shape. The internet is a big part of it, too. Now, people are able to connect and organize meet-ups. When 20 or 30 people come out to the park together to motivate each other it can turn it into a big all-day thing. Then they post pictures online, and more people get interested.
Dragon Door: Do you train clients mostly with the pull up bar, or do you use anything else?
Al Kavadlo: Absolutely. A lot of people have the misconception that I only do pull up bar and bodyweight training. I see a lot of different clients throughout any given week, and we do what my clients want to do. Some people prefer to train with weights, and I also have a very extensive background in weight training. Kettlebells, barbells and dumbbells are great ways to build strength. At the same time, I like to keep it simple. The human body has only a few natural movement patterns, but within each of those there’s a million subtle variations. In Raising the Bar, I talk about how there are really only three possible movements on the bar. Off of the bar, there are only about four or five. We have the ability to push, pull, squat, lunge, twist, and that’s about all. Everything else is just a combination or a variation. A favorite quote I used in the book is from Da Vinci, "Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication."
Dragon Door: I totally agree. What's a simple way to know when to progress in a movement or variation?
Al Kavadlo: I love Paul Wade’s answer to that question in Convict Conditioning: move on to the next step when you’ve milked the previous step for all you can. Of course, someone can still benefit from pull ups even after they’re strong enough to do muscle ups. Sometimes knowing when to move on is a product of trial and error. Usually, when someone's ready, they're ready and it’s that simple. I’m really into the idea of intuition, I feel like intuition is our sixth sense. A lot of people ignore their intuition or just haven’t cultivated it. Sometimes the best thing I can do as a trainer is to let someone figure it out on their own, they might fail a few times, but that's how they learn. Of course I give people cues, encouragement, and make sure that they stay safe, but I can’t do the work for them!
Dragon Door: Earlier, you picked the muscle up as your go-to exercise. Is it also your favorite?
Al Kavadlo: Actually, the pull up is still my favorite. The good old regular pull up is a classic. It’s also more universal. The muscle up is kind of esoteric, it’s not something that everybody can work towards right away.
Dragon Door: Agreed, everyone at least knows the pull up. How often do you recommend training on the bar?
Al Kavadlo: Individual conditioning has such huge variables. The more someone trains, the more they can train, but it's important to ease into it. I work out every single day, but I don't do pull ups every single day. Sometimes it's a leg day, or I'll go for a swim, recovery activities, or go to a yoga class. I like to do some sort of formal exercise every single day—formal in the sense that I’m making a conscious effort to set aside time for exercise. There’s still a lot of fun and there’s a lot of improvisation.
Like a lot of young guys, I started out with the bodybuilding mentality. All I was concerned about was getting big arms, a big chest and a six-pack. It wasn’t until I became a trainer that I considered there was more to fitness than aesthetics. If someone just focuses on aesthetic results, they'll never be happy with how they look. Focusing on eating and enjoying clean food, enjoying a good workout, and doing it for the enjoyment of doing it often brings about great aesthetic changes anyway.
Dragon Door: It’s a different mentality, and unfortunately not really mainstream yet. I think performance-based goals can be incredibly empowering for many people.
Al Kavadlo: Everyone has the potential to be better than they are today. In Raising The Bar, I talk about how there was a time when I couldn’t even conceive of doing a one-arm pull up. I just couldn’t imagine that the human body could do it. I had to actually see it performed in person to realize it was possible. Then, my desire to train toward it became much stronger. Now, I try to keep my mind open. Anything is possible, and we need to remember that in our training. Don't fall into the trap of thinking, "I’ll never do that."
Dragon Door: How long did it take you to write Raising the Bar?
Al Kavadlo: It seemed to happen quickly, but that’s because much of the book comes from conversations that I’ve had over and over with clients. It was just a matter of writing down those thoughts. Writing is a lot like fitness—it gets better with more practice. My first book took me a long time to write because I was also learning to be a writer. I’m a better writer now, and definitely plan on writing a lot more books, because it's fun. Like I said, there is always room for growth and progress.