Keep Your Chin Up, Hit the Bars and Get Money
by Benjamin Wachenje
One morning in early August whilst scrolling through my timeline, I saw a picture of a friend balancing all the way up on top of a basketball hoop. Several questions came to mind:
1. Surely he must be in his early 30’s by now?
2. How come he looks healthier than when I last saw him 12 years ago?
3. How the hell did he get up there?
After a bit of research I discovered that my friend, Leon Bernard, was halfway through performing the very demanding ‘muscle up,’ a calisthenic benchmark exercise. It soon became obvious that he had submerged himself in the fast spreading calisthenics movement focused on pull up and parallel bars called bar hitting. This was not the first time I had come across Bar Calisthenics. A few years earlier I had seen the gravity-defying ‘Hannibal for King’ video on YouTube. But Leon’s videos had a different effect on me. It was somehow easy to pass off Hannibal as a superhuman that could outwit the laws of physics, but what about somebody I knew?
Within minutes I found myself subscribing to channel after channel on YouTube as my preconceived notions of what man and woman could achieve through bar craft were shattered. Hypnotic beats had been edited to score handheld footage of ghetto superheroes, mostly in New York playgrounds, finding ways to push their incredible physiques to perfect definition. It was to gymnastics what hip-hop was to classical music. No classical training, just innovation and jamming on the spot to see what you can conjure up with the means at hand. The range of exercises possible went way beyond the core syllabus of dips and pull-ups.
To my surprise there was a way of exercising and strengthening every muscle, and judging by Hannibal’s 12-pack, calisthenics created new muscle groups altogether. I mean these guys looked like shredded Mixed Martial Arts fighters, only their ears looked better. But unlike Mixed Martial Artists, most of the stars of this world are not yet receiving the respect they deserve, probably because there have been few high profile commercial partnerships. But make no mistake, these are athletes. And while this may not be typical of the fitness industry, this is fitness in the streets.
There is a hip-hop-esque requirement within the bar community that every athlete develop their own style and even invent their own exercises. It is very academic in that you cannot plagiarise; if you use someone’s move you give credit to its originator – you do not attempt to pass it off as your own to gain notoriety. This framework has resulted in not just the functional strength and muscle building exercises, but also the innovative, the comical, the spectacular and the sometimes magical.
There was no doubt that I was about to start hitting the bars, but there was only one problem, my BMI (body mass index). I was in the process of rehabbing a back injury, and my memories of being bedridden and trying to drag my heavy body up were still fresh. I had to face facts: I was too fat and heavy. The pull up bar was the reality check that I needed.
At 38-years of age, and just shy of six-foot, I weighed 16st 7lbs; 32% of the weight was pure body fat. This was never a problem at the gym because I could massage my ego by lifting heavy weights. However, despite being able to dead lift twice my body weight and bench press 120kgs, I could only perform a single properly executed pull up. I guess my bar hitting workout, shamefully, was only going to take 30 seconds before I was maxed out. It was like a little payback for all of the times I had hopped on to the bench at the gym and used the skinny guys maximum weight as my warm-up.
Strength and functional strength are two totally different things. See, you can practice lifting weights every day and you will become very good at, well, lifting weights. But, if you perform calisthenics and plyometric exercises that demand you force every muscle to work together, you become more athletic. Since I would rather be a Jasper Benincasa than a Ronnie Coleman, I knew that I would have to put down the barbell and start a new system of training on the bars.
So I humbled myself and took to the park to work out. While my dips were slowly progressing, my chin ups and pull-ups were still a source of humiliation. I started to contemplate that since I had seen no overweight practitioners, bar hitting was just something you do to show off when you are already in shape. I knew this was a comforting yet defeatist attitude. Furthermore, I could not ignore the fact that I had seen people strap weights, proportionate to my body fat, to their slim waste and perform dips and chins.
In an attempt to think positively, I thought to myself why not look at my extra weight as something to help me achieve additional strength without having to strap on weight. Positive thinking was a good start but there was still little movement after one week. There had to be some secret technique that I was not in on, right? Well, as it turned out, beyond determination and positivity there was a whole list of things that I could be doing to help me achieve my targets.
First up was my eating habits. I started cooking less. Literally. Eating my veg more crunchy, woking or lightly steaming so that the colours were still bright. By cooking this way the minerals are not lost and you will start to feel fuller a lot quicker when you eat. If you listen, your body will tell you when you are full or have replaced lost energy. I placed emphasis on the presentation and quality of my food not the quantity. Eating less also means you can afford to eat more expensive but healthier foods. Soon I found that I only needed liquid fruit smoothies and one meal a day to feel full and be strong enough to train hard. I discovered that I had been mistaking the feeling of dehydration for the feeling of hunger. I now had a new motivation to lose body fat. Every pound lost made a chin up easier.
I began to read Al Kavaldo’s ‘Raising the Barz’ so I could find out if there were any secrets to total body strength that would help me battle gravity. The drills and exercise prescribed by Kavaldo and his contemporaries reaped benefits at a faster than expected pace. Some of the most beneficial were ‘dead hangs.’ You just hang from the bar for as long as you can every day and your grip strength will increase. Grip strength is key because sometimes we can only do two pull-ups simply because our grip only lasts for five seconds. Also the ‘flex hang,’ where you hang, but this time holding your chin above the bar for as long as you can. Another favourite of mine is doing ‘negatives,’ where you jump up or step off a crate holding your chin above the bar and slowly lower your self inch-by-inch and then repeat.
I was no longer embarrassed by my weakness at the bar, not because I had become strong and lighter, rather, I was buoyed knowing that I was moving in the right direction. I was proud that I had made a start.
Every time I hit the bars I tried to talk to someone new, or rather listen, and see what I could learn. I found that if you lower your gym-ego shield and talk to other people instead of slyly competing against them, you gain even more. I had become like a sponge and found that most people were more than willing to have a little chat in between sets. Bar hitting practitioners come from all walks of life and I have shared the bar with everyone from semi-pro footballers, hip-hop heads, hippies, the homeless and hipsters.
All of the tips I have received started to join together. The weight was slowly melting off. I stopped punctuating every movement with a groan or moan as my 38-year body became less painful. Cheek bones started to re-emerge, and behold, the faint traces of a lost six- pack began to resurface. There was a stranger in the mirror. After only 3 weeks of exercising daily, I had lost over a stone. I could do 3 sets of a respectable 6 pull-ups and tons of push-ups. I was even venturing into headstands, handstands and other difficult ways of holding my body weight. I had initially set out with the goal of being able to ‘Muscle Up’ within a year. I thought that this target was ambitious but on day 33 of my training I Muscled Up over the bar and pressed my body up to the sky euphorically shouting ‘Yes’. I felt triumphant and now at 14st 7lbs and 23% body fat it was undeniable, I was stronger, healthier and leaner thanks to Calisthenics. Now that I had achieve my first mile stone what was next? I felt like with dedication I could achieve any goal that I dared to set. So after enjoying a brief moment of ‘Muscle Up’ glory it was on to the next target, to quote one of the UK’s bar-supremos Chaka Bars ‘You cannot propel yourself forward by patting yourself on the back’
I was beginning to see the parks of the world as a huge franchise of well-equipped gyms, with each calisthenics station awaiting a creative enthusiast to unlock its potential. I began to see my gym subscription as unnecessary. It was like swallowing the red pill. Suddenly I began to see the ‘N’ shaped bars that bikes were padlocked to as potential dip stations, I would catch myself gazing at scaffolds and suddenly I was more enthusiastic about taking my children to the playground a.k.a. my new gym. The entire time saying in my head: “You can get money right there,” like I was Peter Clarke in the “Thug Workout” video. “Yeah that’s money right there.” In this context, ‘money’ being slang for muscle and strength.
I knew that this was finally an activity that my wife was going to love. My first pursuit in a long succession of my mid-life-crisis crazes that actually required me to cancel a direct debit and not buy any must-have equipment. No expensive fixed wheel frames, Muay Thai pads, Jiu-Jitsu Gi’s or kettle bells – just a £2.99 pair of workman’s gloves if I wanted to avoid blistering.
Furthermore if I ever have the time and money to get back to any of my other sports, surely this would only make me stronger. Staying dedicated to a fitness pursuit is a hard thing to do, so we have to find the activity that works best for us in order to be dedicated. I know people that cannot jog 400 metres, but if you put a football at their feet they will run all afternoon in any weather. I know others that use the deadline of making weight for a fight as their focus. Some even dislike sport altogether yet achieve an amazing physique break dancing. It’s all about finding the activity that you enjoy or gives you the focus that you need.
Bar hitting works for me because a hard workout can take less than 30 minutes, and the bars are closer to me than any gym. I do not need to pack any clothes, towel or toiletries, and I get out in the fresh air. Bar calisthenics might not be right for you, but if, like me, you find it hard to frequent the gym, do not get down and out of shape again. Try keeping your chin up by hitting the bars.
Learn more about Leon Bernard at HYPERLINK “http://www.badself.co.uk/hardbody-iron-gym/” www.badself.co.uk/hardbody-iron-gym/
For more information about Chaka Bars visit HYPERLINK “http://www.spartanfam.com” http://www.spartanfam.com/
Al Kavaldo’s ‘Raising the Barz’ HYPERLINK “http://www.alkavadlo.com/2012/05/raising-the-bar-on-paperback/” www.alkavadlo.com/2012/05/raising-the-bar-on-paperback/
Benjamin Wachenje is an illustrator and knows nothing about sports science, lactic acid or any of the technical stuff. He just wanted to share his positive experience, Bar-hitting. You should always consult a physician while having a midlife crisis and contemplating taking up an extreme sport.