The world of strength training is an exciting and varied place of discovery. There are as many schools of thought on strength training as there are languages (ok, maybe not that many but you get the idea). One of these schools is gymnastics and this is where we begin to understand the importance of what gymnasts call “straight-arm strength.” The explanation for what straight-arm strength is directly in it’s own wording. It’s any strength exercise where your arms are completely locked out (not even a slight bend in the elbow). So, what are straight-arm exercises and what’s the point of including them in your program?

 

Some of you are currently performing straight-arm exercises. Here’s a few examples:

 

  • Farmer’s Walk
  • Handstands
  • Deadlift
  • Turkish Get-Ups

 

Now, here are some straight-arm exercises you might not have heard of:

 

  • Planche
  • Front Lever
  • Back Lever
  • Manna
  • Iron Cross

 

So, why bother with straight-arm exercises? For starters, and arguably the most important factor, they help develop your connective tissue (ligaments and tendons) along with your musculature. Have you ever had joint pain from training? How about an injury from your workout program? One of the reasons is that your body lacks connective tissue development and conditioning. Many of us over train our muscles compared to our ligaments and tendons. At some point the body is going to say, “I can’t handle this. I’m going to give you a little joint pain as a warning.” Some of us take the advice and ease off the exercises causing the pain and regroup. Some of us keep going and that’s when the body makes the pain unbearable: damaged tendons, strained ligaments, torn muscles.  Straight-arm training forces your body’s ligaments, tendons, and muscles to adapt simultaneously. But, and here’s the bad news, it’s a slow process.

 

The rate of adaptation for connective tissue is about 1/10th of muscle fibers. So, if it takes 2 weeks to increase the strength of you biceps it will take 20 weeks for your elbow flexors/extensors to adapt to the load. One way you can tell if your connective tissue is adapting is through straight-arm work. No amount of bicep curls can change this. A good example of how you can see this happen in real time is to take someone who is very strong. Let’s say this person can do weighted dips on parallel bars with 50lbs attached to their body. Let’s say 100lbs! They can knock out 5-10 dips with this weight. Now, let’s put them on gymnastic rings and simply have them hold themselves up at the top of a dip position with completely locked out arms. Guess what? They can’ do it! I’ve seen this firsthand and these people shake like guinea pigs in a 3rd grade classroom, or, worse, they can’t even hold themselves up. This is a prime example of someone lacking connective tissue development and strength (and, maybe, some muscle stabilizers).

 

Another benefit to straight-arm strength training is having the ability to create an enormous amount of tension throughout your entire body. Unlike traditional exercises, which typically work 1 or a few muscle groups, straight-arm exercises require a multitude of muscles. Let’s look at training the biceps (everyone’s favorite). If you perform a barbell curl you a primarily working the biceps. Yes, other muscles are helping hold you in place but for the most part it’s your biceps doing the work. Now, let’s perform a planche lean (picture below), the straight-arm answer to the barbell curl. To perform a planche correctly you have to protract your shoulder blades (chest and shoulders), press your hands firmly into the ground as you lean forward (triceps and biceps), lock your legs completely straight and hollow your body (abs and quads), and depress/lower your scapula (back and traps). Now, hold this position for 30s or as long as you can with proper form.

 

Ok, this is a FULL planche but the concept is the same. LOTS of muscle tension. Keep your feet on the ground as a beginner

 

Keep in mind this is a BEGINNER exercise. Experienced gymnasts can perform this with their feet OFF the ground (pictured above). And, guess what? This isn’t considered a difficult move for a gymnast! The good news is that you don’t have to be an elite level gymnast to reap the benefits of straight-arm exercises. Here are a few to help get you started:

 

  • Planche Lean 
    • Step 1: Scapula Pushups –> Goal 3 sets x 15 reps
    • Step 2: Planche Lean –> Goal 3 sets x 30s
    • Step 3: Feet Elevated Lean –> Goal 3 sets of 30s
    • Step 4: Advanced Frog –> Goal 3 sets x 30s
    • BONUS –> Once you’ve mastered “Step 4” try to take your knees off your arms and hold a tucked planche

 

  • L-Sit Hold
    • Step 1: Static Hold –> Goal 3 sets x 60s
    • Step 2: Knees Bent –>  Goal 3 sets x 30s
    • Step 3: 1-Leg Straight –>  Goal 3 sets x 15s/leg
    • Step 4: L-Sit  –> Goal 3 sets x 30s
    • BONUS  –> Once you’ve mastered “Step 4” you may move onto rings

 

  • Front Lever
    • Step 1: Barbell or Kettlebell Pull Overs  –> Goal 3 sets x 15 reps
    • Step 2: Cable or Band Lat Pull Down  –> Goal 3 sets x 15 reps
    • Step 3: Floor Neg. Levers  –> Goal 5 sets x 5 reps (5-10 neg. on each rep)
    • Step 4: Floor Levers  –> Goal 5 sets x 5 reps
    • BONUS  –> Once you’ve mastered “Step 4” begin inverted hangs on a pull-up bar

HOW SHOULD I ADD IT TO MY CURRENT PROGRAM?

There are 2 options to easily include these 3 movements into your workout routine. First, set aside 1-2 training days per week where you just focus on these movements. Second, add 1 of these movements to each of your training days. For example, if you train 3x week (M/W/F) then add the planche lean to Monday, l-sit to Wednesday, and front lever to Friday. You can perform the exercise at any point in your routine but I would suggest beginning your workout with the straight are exercise while you’re fresh and at full strength to give it as much attention for improvement as possible.

 

STAY FIT MY FRIENDS!

About Josh Jarmin

Originally from Washington, D.C. (NOVA) Josh moved to Atlanta to be a Middle School history teacher after graduating from James Madison University. He joined the Marine Corps infantry as a reservist and served in Iraq honorably. Josh then turned his attention to personal training after his tour in order to help others reach their health/fitness goals. At one point he was 275lbs and 28% body fat. Now he's 195lbs and 13.5% body fat. Josh worked for several fitness facilities in Atlanta and developed a loyal following of trainees. He's created a training program of his own personal design and has established himself as one of the top kettlebell and body movement experts in the Atlanta area. Josh is currently the Co-Owner and Director of Fitness at Blueprint Fitness.

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