By Alexander Castiglione
Static holds aren’t too common in the Grinder PT or CrossFit community, but they should be.
Toes to bar will be child’s play when you master L-Sits for time, and even big lifts and Olympic movements will come along faster if you incorporate static holds that put the appropriate muscle systems under increased time under tension (TuT).
Just to be clear so we are all on the same page, static holds are essentially what they sound like: you hold a static position, for a set period of time. It sounds simple, but you can scale up or down according to your skill level, and modify the time in position to go from a nice little burn to somebody-shoot-me-and-make-it-stop territory.
The beauty (and anguish as you progress to more advanced movements) of static holds is that they are scalable, but use the athlete’s bodyweight as the primary form of resistance. There is an all too common notion that if there isn’t a weight vest or extra load involved, certain bodyweight exercises cannot possibly help an athlete progress. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Elite level gymnasts are among the strongest humans on the planet, pound for pound, and they rarely touch a barbell.
For the purposes of this article, we’ll lay out certain systems and methods of movement that can translate into CrossFit staples – like pull-ups, toes to bar, and even some of the more traditional lifts like bench presses and cleans.
Static Holds for the Core
If you want to strengthen your midline and be more stable when you go overhead, static holds are the way to go. By placing more TuT on the targeted muscles, they will get vastly stronger than just doing something with a quick concentric, or contracting, motion, like toes-to-bar or sit ups. In fact, the better you get at static holds, the easier midline work will be all around, whether we’re talking GHDs, situps, or even burpees – since you will be training to boost your muscular endurance. And an added bonus, static holds have been known to increase muscular density, and make you more capable of taking a hit.
Newbie – A good old fashioned plank; from the forearms is the easiest, from a pushup position is a bit more difficult. Be sure not to let your back arch.
Beginner – Hollow hold, or hollow rock. There is a plethora of good videos on YouTube. It’s imperative you maintain what’s called a posterior pelvic tilt – which is just a fancy way of saying slightly angle your pelvis so that you functionally get rid of the natural arch in your lower back; pressing your lower back flat to the ground. This positioning and body awareness will help you with virtually every gymnastics movement.
Intermediate – Hanging half L-Sit, Seated half L-Sit: No mystery here, but this is almost a full L-Sit and a good scale to build the endurance needed for more advanced progressions. Simply hang from a bar or support from rings/parallettes, and imitate sitting in a chair, with your legs bent at a 90-degree angle. For a slightly more difficult progression, if you are in a support position on the rings, try and bring your hips to at least even with your hands when viewed from the side, push your hips in front if possible. This will engage a substantial amount of core muscles, some of which you may have never fully activated before.
Advanced – Full L-Sit from support or bar. For this progression, the L-Sit from support will be the best option, as you can engage your core fully and really punish yourself by trying to drive your hips at least in line with your hands, but ideally in front of them. You’ll want your legs perfectly parallel to the ground, with no jittering or jerking out of position. Be warned – even the most seasoned athletes will be shaking like a leaf after 30 seconds.
Ninja – V-Sit, V-Hang – For this hold, you will want to make your body into a V; crazy, right? If hanging from a bar, endeavor to hold your legs at roughly 45 degrees, and the same goes for if you are on ring or on parallettes or boxes in a support position (support position will come up a lot in this article, whenever it’s said, think the top of a ring dip. You can be on boxes or any elevated surface, but shoulders back and spine neutral is key). Be warned though, from atop a box is difficult and rings is even more difficult, as your hips will want to swing back despite your best efforts.
Static Holds for the Back and Posterior Chain
Newbie – Superman hold, superman rocks. Engage the back to keep the chest and feet off the ground as much as possible.
Beginner – Arch Up – On a GHD machine, or even with a partner holding your legs while you pike over a plyo-box face down, arch your upper body, hollow your back, and hold, try to engage as much as possible without pulling a muscle.
Intermediate – Reverse leg raises. Similar to above, but this time face down, and put your upper body on a box. Lift your legs up, really concentrating on activating the glutes and holding the position at above parallel if you can. You can also challenge yourself a bit and hold a very light dumbbell between your feet. Let me emphasize that – a very light dumbbell.
Advanced – Weighted Arch Ups. Be very careful with these, and only do them if holding a bodyweight arch up for 60 + seconds is very easy for you. It’s the same as an arch up, but hugging a plate. Start light, and work your way up. If you immediately go for a 45lb plate, you will be at the chiropractor tomorrow.
Ninja – Back Plank/Reverse Plank. Essentially this is the same as a regular straight arm plank, just reversed. Just imagine an inside out pushup; lay on your back, assume almost a dip position and walk your feet out so you are planked, with straight arms. This will stretch your pecs and shoulders a lot, so if you have a mobility restriction (which you shouldn’t if you are at this level of strength).
Static Holds for Lockout: Straight Arm Strength
Straight arm strength is another gymnastics term rarely given any thought in CrossFit; but it can make a colossal difference between locking out a PR jerk overhead in those last few fractions of an inch. Also, certain straight arm movements require immense upper back strength, and can make cleans and snatches, or even sumo deadlift high pulls, massively easier, especially if you’re hitting a plateau despite tons of rack pulls, and lifts from the hang position. If you don’t believe me, try some of these progressions for a few weeks, and then attempt some heavy Olympic lifts. I almost guarantee you’ll PR.
(Be advised that these moves smoke your central nervous system [CNS] – do NOT couple these with high volume metcons or Olympic lifts)
**Frontal plane means working the muscle groups that you would ultimately use for pushing in the front of you – think bench press. Overhead plane means working the muscle groups for overhead work, this OHS or jerks/presses.
Newbie – Frontal Plane: Scapular pushups – these are a spicy little variation of a pushup. Assume a pushup position at the top, and keep your arms locked out. Ever so slightly use your shoulders, not your arms, to initiate the motion ever so slight pushing/pulling motion you are striving for. This video does a great job of illustrating it from multiple angles.
Overhead Plane: Scapular shrugs – another tough variation, these will actually translate very well into handstand work. Assume a handstand, and keeping the arms straight, shrug. Be controlled, don’t jerk around. These movements aren’t precisely static, but they are close. This video does a good job illustrating the range of motion you should strive for. Scale if need be to take the weight off your shoulders by piking with your feet on a box behind you instead of in a handstand against the wall.
Beginner – Frontal Plane : A good ‘ol plank again. Arms straight, core tight, hold it as long as you can.
Overhead plane: Handstand Hold, ideally freestanding but a wall is fine, just maintain minimal contact with the wall.
Intermediate – Frontal Plane: Single arm plank – same as a plank, but use only 1 arm to support yourself, and make sure you switch arms. This will engage your core too, and fight the urge to over-torque to one side. The closer you put your feet together, the harder this movement becomes.
Overhead Plane: Shoulder taps against a wall – assume a handstand position, ideally chest to wall, and shift your weight from one arm to the other and tap yourself on the shoulder; controlled, but quick. This shouldn’t be frantic, but should be done at a pretty good clip. To make it harder, move slower. This video shows a good pace, as well as showing the shift needed in the hips to maintain balance.
Advanced – Frontal Plane: Planche Lean.
Overhead Plane: Tip-toe presses, or wide handstands: for tip-toe presses, assume a pushup position, and pike at the hips, dragging your toes towards your hands, using your upper back to do most of the contracting. The first phase will seem somewhat like a planche, but eventually you will pike. Once you pike, pushing your hips to the ceiling, use your lower back to bring your feet up and to the wall. Maintain straight legs and a solid core. Wide handstands are just what is sounds like, similar to a Japanese handstand – place your hands at about 1.5x shoulder width, and kick up. And pray you have the strength. The wide handstand is phenomenal for adding stability to your overhead squat or catch in your snatch.
Ninja – Frontal Plane: Elevated Planche lean, or Full Planche if you have it.
Overhead Plane: Press to handstand. Technically not a static move, but move slow enough to where every muscle in your upper back is screaming. With this movement, you want to bring yourself from a pushup position or pike position to a handstand, with only your hands contacting the ground. In theory it sounds easy, but rest assured, it is not. This video has a good take on it.
Static Holds for Strength in the Support Position:
Support position, just to reiterate: think the top of a ring dip. You can be on boxes or any elevated surface, but shoulders back and a neutral spine is crucial. If you’re on the rings, try and make it a true gymnastics support by slightly turning out your hands, making your elbows contact your torso, and have your palms facing forward as much as possible; but be advised, this is a tough movement. You will need a considerable amount of bicep strength to do this correctly.
That being said, you can build a lot of shoulder strength that will translate very well into any movement you have to support your body in. Try doing static holds on a set of rings in the support position, and also in the bottom of the ring dip position. Holding the bottom position builds both flexibility and strength, and you will thank yourself for it next time you don’t get a big enough pull on a muscle up, and catch real low. I like to do tabata holds with this particular complex; 8 tabata rounds in support, shake out, 8 tabata rounds in the bottom position.
And last but not least, the bent-arm hang. If you are severely lacking with pull-up proficiency, bent arm hangs are a great way to increase your endurance and strength. Hang from a bar with either a reverse grip (chin up) or pronated grip (standard pull up), and hang for a set amount of time – I’d start with 10 seconds for beginners, and work your way up to 60 seconds. Make sure your chin does not make contact with the bar. To reap the benefits you’ll want all your weight being supported entirely by your arms. The ancillary benefits are an increase in grip strength. I like to mix this one with a rock climbing move called a crucifix. Get on the floor, face down and spread your arms wide (the wider you spread, the harder the movement), and press into the ground elevating your chest and body off the ground. Hold this position for as long as possible, that is, until your chest and lats start burning. If you mix reverse tabata (10s work, 20s rest) crucifixes with bent arm hangs, watch your performance and stability all around go through the roof. This translates into bigger lifts, better pull ups, and more endurance all around.
You can train statics with your lower body, like wall sits or holding a pistol in the bottom position, but given the fact that you support your bodyweight everyday on your legs, this won’t be nearly as much of a challenge as the other items above. Glute bridges are another great “static” exercise, and get even harder if you use only one leg. Give them a try pre-wod to activate your stabilizer muscles and glutes, and watch your squat numbers and lifts in general start increasing because you primed the motor pathway, and got your body accustomed to more TuT. To scale up, use one leg only when you do a glute bridge, and extend the other leg out.
In conclusion, static holds and static movements are great tools in an athlete’s arsenal to break through plateaus, activate otherwise inactive muscle tissues and motor patterns, and a good way to mix up your training. The bonus, you really don’t need much equipment, and can smoke yourself without access to a gym. Give it a try, make some gains.