Previously I talked about getting back on the exercise horse, and how this lead my to following Gymnastic Bodies as my program. At the end of that post I promised a review of it, and so here it is. I also promised to talk about my nerdy system of tracking it, but this piece ran long so I'll come back to that in a later post.
The short version is this: I bought Fundamentals, since it seemed like the best place to start. It's not great. I don't recommend it. Still, I heard good things about Foundation, so I picked that up and gave it a try. Generally I'm very happy with it, but I've had some UI and tech woes with the website. Shortly afterwards I discovered Gold Medal Bodies, which looks like a good alternative. Since I'd already started it, I decided to stick with Gymnastic Bodies. I've been happy enough with it that I've also paid for the up the Handstand and Stretch Series programs. Lastly, I decided it was worth giving Thrive, their nutrition plan, a try. I'm happy with all three of these, although the quality of the teaching is not as good for handstand as it is for the others. My strength and flexibility are both increasing; gradually, but noticeably.
I'm following the schedule which Coach Sommers (more on him later) recommends, which looks like this:
- Monday: Foundation: Core, and maybe a conditioning workout if I have time;
- Tuesday: Middle Split Stretch;
- Wednesday: Foundation: Lower body, and Front Split Stretch;
- Thursday: Foundation: Upper body, and maybe a conditioning workout;
- Friday: Thoracic Bridge Stretch, and Handstand.
This usually works out to about an hour a day. That's about the same as I was doing before for my barbell training, although that was only four days a week, not five.
A big advantage (mostly) body weight workouts have over barbell training is actually pretty obvious in hindsight: You don't need a barbell (or a rack). Previously, I used keep tabs on the times the squat rack tended to be available in the office gym, and organise my workouts around those. Obviously this was only even possible because the gym I work out in is close to my desk, and working time at my job is flexible (plus physical exercise is encouraged). Now I just rock up at the best time for me. Most (but not all) of the time all I need is a mat and a place to put it.
Despite the fact that I now work out every weekday, progress is very slow and gradual. This is actually by design. Unlike the other exercise programs I've followed, GB puts a huge emphasis on increasing the strength of your tendons, joints, and other connective tissues. These regenerate at about a third the speed of your muscles, so take longer to strengthen and by extension: longer to heal. Injury prevention and sustainable growth are the names of the game here. The upshot of this is that I now spend more time working on flexibility and mobility than I do strength. As well as the three 45 minute stretch sessions, each set of strength exercises is followed by a matched set of mobility exercises. On the one hand: this sucks, because I'm incredibly inflexible. On the other: this is a really good thing, because I'm incredibly inflexible.
How Gymnastic Bodies Works
In practice, everything I'm about to say applies to the Foundation program. Most, but not all of it applies to the other programs as well. I'll note the differences at the end.
A GB program is made up of several skill progressions. For example, one of the Foundation program's progressions is Front Lever or FL.
A skill progression is made up of several exercises. Continuing the example, the first exercise for the FL progression is Bent Leg Hollow Body Hold, which is paired with Cat-Cow as its mobility exercise.
For each exercise you get 9 steps, which increase in intensity. So, your first training session for the Front Lever progression is 3 x 12 seconds. Each subsequent step increases the time or the number of sets. After you show mastery (i.e. complete step 9 without issues) for an exercise you move on to the next.
The core component of the prototypical GB workout is the follow along video, performed by the instructors from (GB master affiliate gym) Awaken Gymnastics in Denver, Colorado. The expectation is that you match the instructors for technique, range of motion, and pace. You get one of these for each step of each exercise.
Coupled with this is one or more detailed technique videos, given by Wesley Tan from Forma GST in West England. In the Foundation program you get two of these for each exercise: One for the strength component; and one for the mobility.
After you finish a training session, you indicate how it went using one of the following options, which decides your next training session for that progression:
- Very Easy. You'll move forward to either step 3, 6 or 9, depending on your current step, or to the next exercise in the progression;
- Easy. You'll move forward 1 step in your current exercise, or to the next exercise in the progression;
- Fine. You'll stay on your current step;
- Too Hard. You'll move back one step;
- Failed Mobility. You'll move forward one step (if possible) in your current exercise, but not advance to the next.
All of the above is presented exclusively via the GB website, with no way to download any of the videos. The upshot of which is you'll need a device with a screen and the internet. No WiFi or signal in your gym? Sorry, no GB workout for you today. Likewise: if the GB site is having technical issues (which does happen) you're not going to have access. Apparently an app is coming, but it's not here yet.
Speaking of the videos, generally they're very good. The technique videos in particular are extremely high quality and very helpful. The follow along videos are very good as well, and shot from two angles, so you can choose the one which gives you the best cues. I do, however, have three complaints (two of which aren't facetious):
- It's not always possible to consistently keep your eyes on the screen (tuck-ups, anyone?), and then you really need audio cues for the pacing. Sometimes they're fine, but sometimes they're really quiet or missing;
- Recently a new feature was added: picture in picture display of the technique videos over the top of the follow along videos. Sounds good in theory. In practice it's in the way, and sometimes hides the controls of the main video;
- The instructors are too attractive. We're talking some seriously physically fit people here. They also seem to be really, really happy about this fact.
The videos are not the only resources you have available to you when carrying out or preparing for your workouts. There's a comprehensive set of forums where you can ask questions, post videos to get form checks and ask for advice. They're frequented by other members, the instructors and Coach Sommers himself. If you've listened to the two Tim Ferriss Show episodes which feature him, you should have a good idea of what to expect. If not: expect to read phrases like "Champions find a way" quite often. He's not what you'd call "compromising".
The rest of this post has more detailed notes and opinions on the different GB programs which I've tried. You can also find a more detailed (and somewhat more negative) review from someone with more experience of the programs here.
I've added the price for each program, but I should note that GB have a bunch of bundles which apply retroactively. Which is to say: the cost of the programs you've already bought is removed from the price of the bundle.
Fundamentals is a four week program, which should take less than 15 minutes a day to complete. Including changing into your gym gear, most days. On weekdays, that is. Saturdays you get a quiz and Sundays are off. There's not a lot of content here.
The one good thing I took from this program was the daily limber routine from the last workout, which I still do before strength training. If you only want to dip your toe into Gymnastic Strength Training this might be a good way to sample Gymnastic Bodies' teaching methods. In my opinion, it's not worth $99, though. Go straight to Foundation instead.
IF you buy one Gymnastic Bodies product it should be this one. For the most part I've described it above, but here is a rundown of the actual progressions:
- Front Lever;
- Side Lever;
- Lower Body:
- Single Leg Squat;
- Upper body:
- Hollow Back Press;
- Rope Climb;
- Straddle Planche.
Each of these progressions contain six exercises, except Single Leg Squat which has five. Obviously that isn't the whole story, though. There are three more Foundation programs which come after this one.
It's also worth noting that while the program is mostly bodyweight, you will need some equipment:
- A small dumbbell (around 2.5kg) for some of the mobility work;
- Gymnastic Rings (I bought these ones) and something to hang them from. You might get away with a TRX setup, but that's less ideal;
- Stall bars, ideally, but anything immobile and grip-able at around chest height will work;
- A solid, level, surface at around waist height. A kitchen counter would actually work fine.
First of all: this one has neither follow along nor technique videos, just brief example videos. There's no getting around the fact that the quality of the teaching here just isn't as high as Foundation 1. The follow along videos wouldn't be much help in my experience, but the technique videos would be really valuable.
It's also structured a little differently. There are four wrist conditioning progressions, which advance as above, but don't have additional mobility exercises paired with them. Each has eight exercises in their progression.
Then there is the Free Handstand progression, which also advances as above, and does have paired mobility. There are a whopping twenty-six exercises in this progression. That's almost five years worth of programming, which is pretty impressive and should tell you the sort of time scales Gymnastic Bodies thinks in.
In terms of equipment you'll need a narrow weighted bar. Something like a broom handle passed through a 1.25kg barbell weight will work.
Stretch Series ($85 each)
There are three different stretch programs:
- Middle Split. Referred to as "Abductor Series" in the video;
- Front Split. Referred to as "Hamstring Series" in the video;
- Thoracic Bridge.
There's no active progression here, you get a single 45 minute follow along video for each, this time lead by Coach Sommers himself. Three models of varying levels of flexibility perform each movement under his guidance. You do get detailed individual technique videos for every single movement which makes up the series.
I have mixed feelings about these. Mostly because they really hurt. As noted before, I'm very inflexible. The least flexible of the models in the videos is much more flexible than I am. One of the reasons for that is that I've never had a regular stretching routine before, so I really have nothing to compare these to. That said: I can't deny that I am starting to see some results here. I touched my toes with straight legs (albeit very briefly) for the first time of my life a couple of weeks ago. I'm also slowly reducing my reliance on stretch straps and blocks.
Again, you're going to need some minimal equipment here:
- Stretch Blocks (I bought these ones). You definitely need these for Front Split, and there's a good chance you need them for the other two as well;
- Stretch Straps. You might need these for Middle and Front Split;
- Bungie cords. These are needed for Thoracic Bridge. You can get away with using a cable machine, but it's really not ideal;
- Theraball / Swiss Ball. Needed for Thoracic Bridge;
- Stall bars. Again: Thoracic bridge. You can almost get away with an elevated service, such a some very sturdy shelves, for some of the movements, but not all.
Thrive Level 1 ($99)
This is Gymnastic Bodies' nutrition program, and it's quite interesting. Unlike many others it involves no counting of calories or macros. Instead it's habit based. You start with a single habit to complete every day (except Sundays, which are a "cheat" day). Every Monday and Thursday you get a new habit, assuming you completed all your current habits on the six previous days. There are nineteen habits in total.
I've gone right through the program and I'm still meeting all nineteen habits Monday-Saturday. I'm definitely a fan of it. It's very pragmatic and feels very sustainable. A "Level 2" is mentioned in a few places, but not yet available. I've found Level 1 effective enough that I will move on to Level 2 when it does become available, I think.