A week ago I had a game-changing one to one session with the one and only Stephen Hughes Landers… the UK number 1 ranked calisthenics athlete. To say he was inspiring is an understatement, and I’m not just in terms of training and physique. Stephen has given up a lot to get where he has. But out of a passion for sharing what he loves with the world, his career is now dedicated to training, teaching, competing, oh and some smutty modelling too. Brilliant.
Two years ago, Stephen gave up his tattoo parlour to pursue his aim to become a professional calisthenics athlete. In that two years, he has built up bags of strength and a catalogue of impressive tricks and transitions and earned one of only 50 places worldwide on the official BarStarzz crew. Living from a suitcase for most of the year, or sleeping on his mum’s sofa (Stephen has a loving relationship with his doting mother), he has given up all materialistic values (well, except for the 100+ pairs of trainers he owns!) to build a lifestyle of doing what he loves, day in day out.
Stephen met me during a busy week of meetings and photo shoots but his tiredness didn’t show as he warmly greeted me. We started with a dynamic warm up that included a series of squats, lunges, push ups and toe touches to get my muscles firing and my brain working. We then did some mobility work while he explained the importance of warming up your hands and wrists – in a style of training where your hands are a key piece of equipment, you have to look after them.
Calisthenics may be known for the crazy tricks you see people doing, but Stephen believes it’s important to distinguish between the showy stuff you see people doing and the content of a typical group exercise class.
“While the iconic exercises, such as the muscle up and human flag, are definitely part of the long-term aims of training, we don’t set out to get everyone doing freestyle flips and tricks as quickly as possible” says Stephen in a recent blog for FitPro, “Like any form of training, we start with the basics, build a sound foundation of technique and strength, and offer a whole-body workout, including conditioning.”
This was very clear to me in the workout that followed. Coming from a background in basketball and BMX, Stephen is no stranger to hard work and training, and addresses everything he does with this same discipline. First up was a push up complex designed to drill technique and pre-load the muscles. Stephen was a stickler for technique and despite having negative opinions of CrossFit when I told him it was my main discipline, he credited my efforts to keep good form. Apparently I’ve restored his faith in CrossFit!
Pull-up Without a Pull-up Bar
Stephen went on to teach me how to do a pull-up without a pull-up bar. Where no equipment is available you have to adapt, and Stephen isn’t the type to let anything hold him back. Lying on my front on the floor I held my hoody between my hands outstretched in-front of me and Stephen instructed me to pull it taut so my hands were just outside shoulder-width. Keeping the tension on the hoody I had to bend my arms to bring them down and in-front of my face, then slightly lift my chest from the floor to allow room for the “bar” to pass below my chin. I then returned to the start position. This was super-setted with another no-equipment back strengthening exercise for a real burn in my lats.
And don’t let the tattoos and moody model looks fool you, in true gentleman style Stephen laid out his hoody on the ground for me to lay on. Ahhh.
Next up he showed me a challenging squat sequence that’s enough to make anyone cry and some leg and glute strengthening exercises that I’ve seen before but with a twist to make them more challenging. Each move had an extra little part to it that made you think “you evil BarStarzz”!
The Flips and Tricks
We then moved on to the parallel bars, where Stephen showed me a transition move to stylistically get from the top of a dip to a dismount. There’s no point doing a really impressive trick and then just jumping down from the bar, you have to make it look good, right?! Then we worked on inversions and trying to strengthen and stabilise in an up-side down position, which is much harder than it sounds, before moving to some core-strengthening exercises.
The core routine was challenging with a mixture of hanging knee raises and hanging leg raises on the bar, and then a double crunch (bringing your upper body and legs in to meet eachother), alternating side crunches, sitting in a v shape and flexing your legs in sharply then extending them again, Russian twists, plank and side plank.
Last but not least, Stephen showed me some progressions for my mission move… the human flag. After pointing out my backwards-bendy elbows (thanks Stephen!) he guided me to hold my top leg out and then try to hop the other one up to join it. While this move does take a lot of core strength, Stephen also pointed out how it takes a lot of focus and practise because of the push and pull aspect of it – you have you pull with your top lat, and push with your bottom one, to hold the move. This is not something our bodies are used to doing and can take a long time to master. I’m determined to try.
Here are three quotes I picked up from Stephen that can easily become a part of your training philosophy:
“Common sense isn’t that common… everyone knows an idiot” – a lot of the time people say “well it’s just common sense really”, but it’s not always that simple and people often need good instruction to get them to where they need to be.
“Practice doesn’t make perfect… perfect practice makes perfect” – if you keep on doing something badly you’re never going to get good at it. Work back with progressions and regressions and keep your form perfect.
“If you’re the best in your gym, you need to find a new gym” – Stephen believes in constantly challenging yourself and if you’re the best at something in your gym, you’re unlikely to get any better at it by staying where you are.
Why Not Try Calisthenics?
The best thing about calisthenics is you don’t need equipment – your body is your resistance. Keep practising – every day do something, even if it’s only small. This method of training is full of clever ideas of how to challenge yourself more and more without ever having to buy any equipment.
And if you’re not sure on how to train? Watch this space… Stephen, in conjunction with Sideways 8 Training, has developed the UK’s first calisthenics training course for fitness professionals to enable them to incorporate effective calisthenics training into their programming. Made up of a mixture of static and dynamic exercises including planche, front lever, muscle up and more, the course combines movement patterns along with the basics of warming up and movement prep, and how to programme. The course is being launched at FitPro Live this year, with a muscle-up masterclass.
So if you’re a fitness professional hoping to learn how to teach, or a fitness enthusiast looking for a good instructor, there’s something big coming for you very soon!