Staring down the line of mats leading to the wall, I’m distracted by the shock of once again finding myself as the worst performer in the gym (okay, maybe not the “worst person,” but the “least able to do these moves,” which felt the same at this point). Check your ego at the door, I repeat to myself. Easy advice to give others, but harder to internalize when you’re accustomed to being the teacher, and even harder when everyone watching is younger than you.
I always knew I would be below average at a lot of things when I embarked on this journey, but I was still a little surprised by what it felt like to start from the beginning; especially being accomplished in other areas. I was 30 years old, a successful fitness professional, I was great at what I did…. and yet, here I was, embarrassing myself in front of a bunch of kids.
“Mike, you’re up! Just remember, you’re opening too early. You’ve gotta tuck tighter if you don’t want to lose your brains on the wall.” Strangely, those words of encouragement aren’t easing my nerves as I approach the cinder block tower. “I’m too old for this shit,” I mutter as I spot the exact block where I need to place my foot to project my momentum up the wall. Be sure to push against and not down – check. I forcefully swing my opposite leg up to begin the rotation.
In a blur, the flash of the ceiling, the adjacent wall, the floor. Thinking, don’t open, don’t open, don’t open. Finally, a sense that I’ve become upright again. I open my arms and pull my knees away from my chest. With a thud, my feet land on the ground. Although it wasn’t technically perfect, I’d just successfully landed my first Wallflip, a standard Parkour move. In that moment, nothing else in the world mattered. Turning back is not an option… I was hooked.
My Body Destroyed by Conventional Wisdom
Over the past four years, there have been many moments like this one. I felt that same addictive rush of adrenaline after performing my first Muscle Up. It fueled my Human Flag training; it kept me going through countless hours on the floor practicing different hand balancing techniques. It made up for all the bruises to my body and my ego. It’s this incredible feeling of triumph that comes with achieving every new, difficult move that has completely changed the way I think about fitness.
During my 15 years as a fitness professional, I’ve had the opportunity to explore many different styles of training. Maybe a more accurate description than “opportunity to explore many” would be an “obsession to learn ALL.” My training has ranged from the current popular workouts to the more obscure methods, including kettlebells, Olympic lifts, corrective exercise, sport specific training, German Volume Training, metabolic conditioning, and endless others.
During the latter years of my professional training, I’d begun to focus more on straight strength and hypertrophy training. That’s right, I just wanted to lift heavy things and get JACKED! Starting around a weight of 180lbs, I eventually hit my goal of 230lbs. I’d be lying if I said it was ALL muscle. A few of those pounds packed nicely around the midsection, but I had hit my goal weight and I was putting up pretty respectable numbers in the gym, which gave me the feeling of mission accomplished.
However, the volume I was training each day was producing some undesirable effects: a not-so-tasty cocktail of shoulder impingement with a splash of tennis elbow and a twist of general lower back pain, garnished with some meniscus fraying. I remember saying to myself, “If I feel this way now, how’s my body going to feel at 60?” I was in pain, disinterested, and was undeniably ready for a change.
The Road to Mastering Bodyweight Training
I could have adjusted my training a little, but I decided to go all in and make a huge change. I’d put down the weights and begin bodyweight training. Not just the old school squats and push ups you might think of when someone says “bodyweight training,” but the range of disciplines that include: gymnastics, parkour, hand balancing, breakdancing, and bar calisthenics; the stuff that requires not just strength, but skill. This was far outside of my comfort zone (and according to some of my weary friends, far outside of my age range).
The first day I walked into an adult gymnastics class, I quickly realized that I had indeed left my comfort zone. It was also painfully clear that my flexibility diminished on my quest to lift heavy things. I’d never felt so uncoördinated in my life. I understood what they were asking me to do, I could work out the biomechanics in my head, but what my body was actually doing wasn’t even close. This was going to take a serious commitment.
In the true fashion of the body doing what it’s designed to do, I adapted. It wasn’t overnight and I surely wasn’t ready for the Olympics, but things I previously considered impossible now seemed attainable. In fact, the feeling was so addictive I was ready to discover other bodyweight disciplines. That was how I found myself running up the parkour gym wall; taking night classes in hand balancing; tangling myself up in the silks in a circus arts school. I hired a breakdancing coach, which led to one of the more humbling lessons of my life.
Without actually knowing it, I had stumbled upon a journey of self-mastery and skills practice. I had become a Bodyweight Athlete. While each of the bodyweight disciplines has its own methods, it was clear that these disciplines are highly integrated and complement each other incredibly well. In a way, they all come down to one thing: how the body moves through space.
They are not concerned with moving an external object; just with moving the body itself. The concept of not needing a single thing other than my body and gravity was empowering. My workouts were no longer a workout at all, but a practice. Every single day was an opportunity to progress.
Here I was, someone who had been in good “shape” since I started lifting in my teens, but was only now understanding what athleticism truly was. My immediate thought was that I wanted to share this with other fitness professionals and fitness enthusiasts. I knew that there had been a shift in the industry, and people were expressing more excitement on how they wanted to learn a specific skill, like a Handstand or a Muscle Up. I was sure there was a space for me to teach others who wanted to achieve similar goals in this exciting re-emerging field, and Global Bodyweight Training (GBT) was born.
Teaching Global Bodyweight Training
My first goal was simple: put out video tutorials that will teach someone the step by step progressions to help them hit some of the calisthenic movements (i.e. Muscle Up, Pistol Squat, Handstand Push Up, etc.). Having been a complete novice myself when I began, my bodyweight journey turned into a great asset here; I knew the steps one would have to take starting from scratch, and how to convey the information in a very digestible format. I am still inspired every time I receive an email from someone sharing their first Muscle Up experience by following our YouTube video series.
The Animal Flow piece grew out of my experience learning all those different bodyweight disciplines. I’d noted that each incorporates some type of movement “flow.” Break-dancing has its sets; gymnastics its routines; Parkour its traverses; they all link challenging movements together into fluid, beautiful flows.
Additionally, many use quadrupedal movement, including exercises mimicking animals, as a conditioning practice. I drew upon elements from each to create Animal Flow. By no means do I take credit for creating an animal-movement based exercises. I just put them together in a new format, linking movements in a different way, with a systematized program for structuring the components into a workout.
I’ve learned more in my last four years of bodyweight training practice than I had in the rest of my fitness years put together. I’ve come to realize that I am not a Master at all, but rather am just an athlete who is on a personal journey of self-mastery. I’ve stopped training just to look good or to get bigger; now, I “train to last.” Our body is the only thing we will have for the rest of our lives. We don’t have to “break down” as we get older; rather, we just have more opportunity to progress, to learn new skills, and to complete new moves.
I can’t say that I’ll never return to weight training and I’m certainly not a “weight hater.” I can honestly say that I look forward to each day’s practice and even the smallest amount of progress keeps me coming back. I may never consider myself a master of anything, but every single day, I strive to become a Master of Self.