Did you ever ask yourself in which points calisthenics differs from traditional strength training? Bent Arm Strength and Straight Arm Strength is one of the biggest ones!
If you’ve never heard of these two kinds of strength before, don’t be worried. You’re not alone. Bent Arm Strength or abbreviated BAS is the traditional strength one trains when hitting the weights at the gym – Straight Arm Strength or abbreviated SAS is more commonly known in sports as gymnastics. As their name suggests, the most important difference is what happens at your elbows – keeping them straight changes a lot biomechanically compared to letting them allow to bend.
Knowing both and training both offer many benefits not only regarding strength and skills but also for your overall health. Moreover one could even group leg exercises into bent leg and straight leg exercises.
So let’s take a close look at both of these very interesting ways of how your body can create force.
There are two ways your upper body can produce force – with your arms bent or your arms straight. Why is this differentiation important?1
Because both work through slightly different mechanisms and offer different benefits regarding your strength. Don’t get me wrong all of these movements require muscles to contract, the main difference is where the force is produced and which body parts take the hardest beating.
Before we delve into both, it is important to keep in mind that both strengths are dependent on each other – a very strong guy will generally have an easier time building up specific straight arm strength necessary for a given skill such as a planche.
Let’s look at bent arm strength first.
The Muscular Strength: Bent Arm Strength
Bent Arm Strength is nothing else than the force you can produce with your arms bent.
Wow – I bet that came surprisingly. This is the traditional strength you train when you workout at the gym or when training for calisthenics strength. Typical gym goers seldom train straight arm strength but are very strong within bent arm movements such as:
The most beating while performing these movements will take your muscles – such as the biceps, chest and big back muscles. Basically all your big moving muscles.
The Scapular Strength: Straight Arm Strength
Straight Arm Strength on the other hand is the strength you produce with straight arms and locked elbows.
I bet this kind of strength sounds weird at first, doesn’t it? That might be because it is not that good known outside the world of gymnastics, acrobatics, and calisthenics.
The main difference to the former is that your shoulder blade complex is the place where all your strength comes together and is in control. Straight Arm Strength is necessary for certain skills and healthy shoulders. Skills could be:
Different from bent arm strength for most, it is hard to first figure out how these particular exercises work. Because straight arms take most of the necessary forces off your big movers onto your shoulder blade complex, these exercises put a huge strain onto the smaller stabilizer muscles which can fall short in traditional strength training – such as your traps, or your serratus anterior.
That’s also the main reason why straight arm strength takes a long time to build. Your small muscles need to accustomize and get as strong as your big movers. Plus, straight arm movements in general force a bigger workload onto your passive structures. These need to catch up, too. And building up tissues needs even more time than strength.
How can this Knowledge help my Calisthenics Training?
Knowing Both enables you to train Both
Now that we know what bent arm strength and straight arm strength roughly are, we can use this knowledge and set it into action!
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Most importantly, knowing about these two kinds of upper body strength enables you to specifically train both. Remember the old SAID principle?
Specific Adaptations on Imposed Demands
This means that if your goal is certain skills with straight arms – you better should be specifically training for them. Plus, start early, because tissue adaptations require years. That’s one of the reasons many develop nagging wrist pain or elbow injuries while on their #planchejourney or #roadtohandstand. 2
On the other side of the spectrum – only training skills and straight arms while ignoring your bent arm strength can also hinder your process. BAS and SAS are closely tied together and improving one will benefit the other. Think about that the next time your skills plateau – maybe a general bent arm cycle will get you over that plateau!
There are millions of ways to train both of these calisthenics strength kinds. You could run different cycles focussed on each, go for certain skills within a cycle while supporting it with specific bent arm exercises, or what I like the most – train bent arm strength and straight arm strength within one cycle to get the best out of both worlds.
Let’s look at the different benefits for each!
Mixed Bent Arm and Straight Arm Cycles:
At first, you could train both simultaneously – a program style I like very much. It works best with 4+ training days:
You schedule 2 bent arm days
2 straight arm training days
And 1-2 leg sessions
Depending on the other stuff you do you could even squat or deadlift on your SA & BA days. One thing to keep in mind is that this is no beginner schedule, as you will tax your upper body 4 times a week in similar ways. This high frequency could lead to bad technique, immense soreness, and straight arm work should be approached with intent at the beginning.
That said, for a beginner curious to start with straight arm work it would be better to incorporate 1-2 exercises within your basic push/pull workouts.
Specific Work to even out Weaknesses:
Next, you could need targeted bent arm work to even out plateaus when training for a specific skill. Let’s take the front lever for example. When plateauing, it could make sense to head into one bent arm cycle of 2-3 months before going back to the basic progressions.
That is very effective because plateaus often happen when your straight arm strength and bent arm strength deviate from each other – presuming that you are comfortable with the skill’s technique. The hard thing here is to leave your ego behind. For me stepping back off the progressions often felt like a failure. What I found helpful is to think of it as: ‘Rather coming back stronger – than wasting time trying skills I am too weak for now, at the current moment.’
Promote Scapular Health:
Besides all this skill-specific and programming-theoretic stuff, straight arm exercises promote scapular health, as they tax this complex strongly unlike many bent arm exercises. Often injuries happen because of imbalances – these kinds of exercises could help to even out imbalances between the big movers and small stabilizers.
Therefore, incorporate straight arm work into your weekly routines in every cycle, even if skills aren’t your goals. Your shoulders will thank you if you develop strong shoulder blades which you can control on will.
The Takeaway-Points from this Post
Train both. Get strong in traditional bent arm movements and with straight arms.
Ignoring either of them will hinder your progress – presuming you want to nail a certain skill.
Even if no skill might be your goal3, straight arm movements can promote shoulder health because they especially stress your small stabilizing muscles and passive structures.
If you find yourself plateauing while you dedicated train for a skill, chances are that stacking up on raw bent arm strength might bring you over that point
All that said, I got nothing to add. What about you? Did you ever think about these two different strengths yet or naturally incorporated both? Most non-gymnastics-background folks first come in touch with this topic when words as planche, handstand, or front lever appear on their goals list.