I love bodyweight exercise. I love books. I love interviewing inspirational people. Imagine my delight when I get to combine all three! Complete Calisthenics is a book I purchased many months ago now, and it’s a bible of sorts – especially regarding bodyweight exercise progressions, variety and even regressions.
The man behind the book is Ashley Kalym, who is not only responsible for this book but many others too. Here is a comprehensive list of all exercise publications from Ashley. I heard Ashley ‘talk shop’ on a podcast recently and I was thoroughly intrigued. So I reached out to see if he would be cool with me asking him some questions and getting down to business, he was more than willing.
Ashley has a background in gymnastics, is a personal trainer and has spent time in the marines.
In the following interview we cover everything from getting started in bodyweight exercise to tips mastering the most advanced moves. As usual though, the whole spectrum is covered; diet, health, life philosophy and exercise. I sincerely hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
1. Tell us a bit about yourself, were you always into sports and exercise as a kid?
So I was always active as a youngster, riding BMX, playing rugby from a young age, and just generally being outside and doing physical stuff all the time. It felt natural to me to be physical and to try and get stronger and test myself physically.
2) You’ve written over a dozen published books, what led to you embarking on writing your first book? When did you realise you had sufficient expertise to share with the world?
The inspiration for writing came from a client I had a number of years ago, who was very entrepreneurial, and he simply said to me that I should give it a go, and had nothing to lose. So I wrote a book called the Pull-up Bible, that showed readers how to work on pull-up strength, how to perform different types of pull-ups, and things of that nature. After that I had more and more ideas and wrote as much as possible in my spare time. After a couple of years I thought I knew enough about calisthenics to put a book together on the subject, and after about a year or so I had the first draft completed. I first began selling it through CreateSpace and Kindle, but then got together with a publisher and it really took off from there.
Ashley’s first publication
3) With such a heavy background in calisthenics and even gymnastics, what are your earliest memories of bodyweight exercise?
My earliest memories of bodyweight exercise were in playing rugby at a young age. The club I played for would have us doing hill runs, push-ups, dips, sit-ups, squats, and lots of movements like that, working with our own bodyweight and getting stronger and fitter. I never realised at the time, but that might have been the seed that got me interested in pursuing calisthenics when I became older.
4) Is there any exercise you see as a foundational gateway or springboard for success within calisthenics – where should one start?
I think there are a few fundamental movements, mostly taken from the way the human body moves. We have push, pull, twist, squat, and other primal movements that result from the way the human body is put together. So we can do things like push-ups, pull-ups, leg raises, sit-ups, and of course squats, to mimic those fundamental movements. Starting with these movements is the best course of action, as performing them perfectly is harder than one might think! Even if you only did these four for the rest of your training life, you could still stay very strong and physically capable.
5) On the flipside, what is the one movement (either static or dynamic, or a combination) that proved the most difficult on your journey? Many people would assume the planche, but I know different people nail different moves in a somewhat unconventional order sometimes.
Hmmm, I think that the front lever is the hardest for me, as I do like to squat and deadlift, so the legs can get heavy from doing that, which makes any of the levers harder really! The planche actually came quite quick for me, but I think I was training that an awful lot, probably at the expense of some of the other movements. But, we all have our favourite exercises!
6) This is perhaps the toughest question to answer in regards to calisthenics, but could you place these advanced exercises in order of difficulty from easiest to hardest – based on your personal experience training for them……..Front lever, planche, free standing handstand push ups on parallettes, V sit hold, back lever, UNASSISTED Nordic hasmstring curl, STRICT muscle up and the full human flag?
Oh wow! Yes this is a tough one! I think that a order could be the following:
1. Back lever
2.STRICT muscle up
(Note: This is Ashley himself showing an ultra slow muscle up)
3. The full human flag
4. Free-standing handstand push ups on parallettes
5. V sit hold
6. The Planche
7. Front lever
8. UNASSISTED Nordic hamstring curl
There might be plenty of people who disagree with me on this one, but that’s fine! Some of these might also be dependent on flexibility (such as the V sit hold), and others on training history (such as if you spent a lot of time before coming to calisthenics doing leg work, the Nordic curls may be easier).
7) The use of rings are essential to the training of gymnastics, but what are your thoughts on ring work versus bar work? Could you choose one if you had to?
I love ring work, as it rarely becomes “easy” to do anything on rings. Even simple ring supports are tough for me, even after dong them for a long time, but I think this is why I like them so much. I am not an expert on ring by any means, but I think that if people did a little bit of them then they would see huge gains in their normal training. I think that I would choose rings if I had to, but think that many people would prefer normal bars, as these are often easier to find in gyms (unless you have your own set).
8)The one arm pull up is a coveted move in the bodyweight world, I’ve seen people trying to work out what kind of bi-lateral (2 arm) pull up strength is potentially required to equate to sufficient strength for the one arm pull up. Some say you need to be able to do pull ups with 60-70% of your bodyweight added to you in order to have any real shot. Did you find weighted pull ups to help the one arm pull up, or did you just train specifically for the one arm pull up? What numbers did you manage to reach in terms of weighted pull ups?
Yes this is a tough one as well. I think that there is so much variation in terms of peoples physiology that it might be quite difficult to work out which number would be more accurate. I think doing both (training one arm pull-ups and weighted pull-ups) help, as the stress put on the muscles and the connective tissues during the one arm pull-up is extreme. I often suffered from tendonitis when training for them, which was something that I did not get when training weighted pull-ups. I think my max for weighted pull-ups was bodyweight plus 50kg, and bodyweight plus 60kg for chin-ups. I always found my chin-ups a little stronger than pull-ups, probably due to the body position.
A one arm chin up
9) In your book, complete calisthenics, you place a strong emphasis on flexibility, mobility and stability. Just how important is flexibility for progress in the bodyweight world, is it a coincidence that some of the best bar guys are very flexible?
I think with the calisthenics competitions the flexibility element is very important, but perhaps for more standard strength type movements then it is not that important. Certainly for things like V sits, or back levers, then the flexibility in those areas of the body is definitely needed.
10) Putting you on the spot again, if you could only perform one exercise for the remainder of your life, what would get the honour?
Oh wow, that is a tough one. I think it would have to be the burpee, as we could put a push-up at the bottom (to work the push movement), a jump (to work the legs), and a pull-up at the top (to work the pull). But I’m not sure if that is allowed! If it can only be a standalone movement then I think some form of squat, as this can help work the rest of the body as well.
11) Being lean obviously compliments calisthenics work wonderfully. One’s diet is obviously the major factor in being lean. What’s your personal approach to eating and nutrition? Do you track calories, practice any sort of eating style/diet (intermittent fasting, paleo, low carb, zone, keto etc)??
I don’t really follow any sort of diet religiously, but kind of follow my own. I call it the single ingredient solution. I basically eat anything that consists of a single ingredient, so eggs, meat, dairy, fruit, vegetables; anything non-processed basically. I eat for recovery, as I do lots of training, physical activities, etc., so need the food! Some of those diets you mention do work well though, and some people rave about them!
12) What other projects are you currently working on? I see you’ve got some new releases out such as The Gym Journal. Do you have your eyes on any more future projects, maybe you can tease us a little bit?
Yes so The Gym Journal has just been published, and that is starting to do well. I have other projects totally unrelated to fitness, like an archery company that I run with a buddy of mine. We are starting to do CNC machined equipment for archers, so that is a lot of fun, learning CAD programs, learning how to engineer things to be functional and ergonomic. I also have other books on different subjects that I am working on, but I don’t know if they will be published or if I will self publish. I would love to tackle a diet book at some point, but I really want to do something different than all of the others out there, so it will take a little planning before doing that one!Complete Calisthenics is also being translated into a few languages now, so we have English, German, Spanish, Polish, and Chinese which will be out soon.
13) Do you have any mistakes in your training career that you would go back on and do differently if you could? Maybe the biggest mistake you made?
Oh yes loads! These are more to do with what I should have spent time doing, maybe working on weaknesses instead of exercises that I do well, that sort of thing. I think I would have gone out of my way to try more different disciplines as well, such as Olympic Lifting (which I really enjoy doing), strongman perhaps, and other types like that. I think overall the biggest mistake is not doing enough flexibility work. This is something that most people are lacking in, and it is simply the result of not spending enough time doing it, and I am definitely guilty of that!
14) If you have taken one lesson or truth away from your life as a whole, from training, from the marines or even from business, what would it be?
One lesson, and the rule I always stick to, is to be a man of action. If something can be done, no matter how slim the chance of success, you have to do it. I heard Elon Musk (Tesla and Space X CEO) say once that even if there is a tiny chance of success, if you think it is important enough then you should do it anyway. It is very easy to get distracted on the modern world, as there are so many things you could be doing (internet, social media, TV, video games, etc.), but life moves quickly, and if you don’t devote time to becoming better (whether that is physically, mentally, business, work, etc.) then it will soon pass you by!
And that’s a wrap!
I’m sure you’ll agree that was an incredibly inspirational interview, regardless of your interest in calisthenics and bodyweight exercise, there’s plenty of wonderful wisdom to digest. I would like to say an enormous thank you to Ashley for taking the time out of his busy schedule to answer my questions with such diligence.
I love interviewing great people because there’s so much inspiration on offer and much to learn. My only regret is not being able to talk to him all day.