To watch Tim Robards go to work on a chin-up bar is a truly astonishing spectacle. Slick showings on The Bachelor and Dancing With The Stars aren’t a patch on the performance he’s putting on this afternoon. Strict-form muscle-ups, spinning clap chin-ups, reverse-grip front levers – all are being snapped out with apparent ease by an imposing physical specimen who stands 185 centimetres tall and weighs 88 kilograms.
There are other moves, too – moves so complex I can’t even conceive of a name for them. So impressive is the display, a busload of Chinese tourists who’ve arrived at this Dover Heights park to take pictures of the Sydney skyline, turn their backs on the sparkling view and snap photos of Robards instead.
What we’re watching is the apogee of The Robards Method, a training protocol that aims to squeeze maximum effect from the humble outdoor gym. And, as the man himself tells me as he perches precariously atop the chin bar, it’s a protocol that’s based on a simple piece of wisdom: “If you can’t control your own body weight, what’s the point of trying to lift something heavier at the gym?”
Method To The Madness
Robards began investigating calisthenics two and a half years ago, partly because he was bored with pushing heavy weights in the gym and partly because his gym sessions had left him hobbled with a clutch of niggling injuries. And it wasn’t just his own body that was suffering: as a chiropractor he was constantly treating men whose bodies had cracked under the weight of a barbell. “That’s when it dawned on me,” he says. “You need to be able to control your own body weight before you start throwing weights around. That’swhat led to The Robards Method.”
He ticks the benefits of calisthenics off on his fingers. You don’t need a gym membership – a set of chin and dip bars will suffice. You don’t need a boot-full of equipment – a TRX trainer is an optional extra. And you don’t need hours of free time – 30 minutes will allow you to hammer every muscle in your rig. “Calisthenics simply doesn’t give you an excuse not to exercise.”
And the results? Well, a cursory glance at Robards’ physique can stand as Exhibit A. But his protocol is about more than mere aesthetics – it’s about functional performance. “It’s all about getting your body up and over an obstacle,” he says. “It’s about explosive leg movements that require fine balance. It’s animalistic; it’s leaping from tree to tree.”
Of course, the rank-and-file can’t simply amble down to their local park and snap out the wild moves Robards is ripping out for us this afternoon. For this reason, his Method is a progressional protocol that awards karate-style “belts” as you move onto ever-more-challenging exercises. Wrap a black belt around your waist and you, too, could attract the lenses of slack-jawed tourists.
In the headlong pursuit of strength and bulk, Robards believes too many men ignore mobility and flexibility. “We get all our big muscles strong and we move those muscles in single planes,” he says. “But until you learn to control multiple planes of motion, you’re opening yourself up to injury.” And when Robards talks about mobility and flexibility he’s not just talking about stretching. He’s referring to the strategic employment of exercises that actively strengthen inhibited or under-used muscles.
Take the Wall Angel, for example. This exercise (featured in the workout overleaf) involves standing with your bum, lower back and shoulders pressed against a wall, then extending your arms overhead while keeping your hands and elbows in contact with the wall. “This is a great thoracic mobility exercise that also engages your core,” says Robards. “It’s perfect for people who sit at an office desk all day. Do this exercise properly and you’re not just stretching – you’re activating your rhomboids to push against the flexibility restrictions that come from hunching over a keyboard all day.”
For Robards, mobility exercises are not only key to improving performance and preventing injuries – they’re also vital for managing existing injuries. Playing footy on the beach years ago, he tore his labrum, a lip of cartilage in the joint between the humerus and the shoulder blade. It was an injury that should, by rights, have ended under the surgeon’s scalpel. Instead, he staved off surgery by assiduously strengthening the small, supporting muscles throughout the shredded joint.
To watch him in action on a chin bar now is proof positive his approach is effective. “Usually, the reason an injury persists is a lack of flexibility or mobility – so, work on that and you attack the underlying issue.”
Talk body-weight exercises and you instantly think chin-ups, push-ups, dips. But what of the legs? Surely the big prime movers like the quads and the glutes require more than body-weight squats and lunges?
Robards shakes his head. By his estimation, more than half of his work as chiropractor involves treating injuries that have arisen from people overloading bars and grunting out sloppy sets of squats or deadlifts. “People come in to my studio, tell me they hurt their back at the gym and I ask, ‘Were you doing deadlifts?’ Nine times out of 10, the answer’s yes.” Invariably, the problem is a faulty link in the posterior chain, with the lower back picking up the slack of under-activated glutes or rhomboids.
In his view, a smarter approach is to focus on brutal body-weight moves like single-leg squats, pistol squats, Sissy squats and duck walks. “These are the sort of moves you want to conquer first before you jump under a loaded barbell. Yes, they require a lot of flexibility and strength. But the best thing about them is that even if you’re still working towards perfect form, you’re not going to injure your lower back because you don’t have 100 kilos on your shoulders.”
It’s a statement that reflects the central aim of any calisthenics program – exerting complete control over your own body. Sound like a worthy goal?
Start with the three mobility exercises as a warm-up, then complete the five strength exercises as a circuit, keeping rest periods to a minimum. Aim to complete three circuits in total. Why the 11-rep count? “In The Robards Method, I want people to push themselves 110 per cent,” says Robards. “So instead of going to 10 reps with each move – 100 per cent – go to 11 reps. Occasionally that’ll mean one arm does an extra rep, but just even that up in the next set.”
1. Wall angel
Stand against a wall, your bum, shoulders and head touching the wall, your feet 15 centimetres from the wall. Engage your core to flatten your lower back against the wall. Raise your arms and bend your elbows to 90 degrees, keeping your hands and elbows touching the wall. Slowly extend your arms straight up. Do three sets of eight reps.
2. Gecko stretch
Assume a deep lunge position, your right knee bent at 90 degrees, your left knee touching the ground. Lean forward, place your left hand on the ground for support and, using your right hand, push your front knee out to the side. Hold for 20 seconds, repeat three times, then change legs.
3. Deep squat
Assume a deep squat position, your hamstrings resting on your calves. Using your elbows, push your knees out to the side. Engaging your core and thrust your chest forward, keeping a neutral curve in your lower back. Hold for 20 seconds and repeat three times.
1. Duck walk
Assume a deep squat position. Engaging your core and keeping your torso upright, place your hands behind your head. Walk forward 10 metres taking small, controlled steps. That’s one rep – do three.
2. Archer push-up
Assume a push-up position, your hand double shoulder-width apart and pointed slightly outwards. Keeping the movement slow and controlled, lower yourself over your right hand, so your left arm straightens. Repeat, lowering yourself over your left hand. Do 11 reps. Too hard? Complete the reps on your knees.
3. Clap chin-up
Grip a chin-up bar with an overhand grip, your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Pull yourself up explosively, aiming to get your belly-button to the height of the bar. At the top of the movement, remove your hands from the bar, clap, then grab the bar again. This is an advanced move, so start on a lower bar with one foot on the ground. Do 11 reps.
Assume a push-up position on a waist-high bar, your hands shoulder-width apart. Walk your feet backwards about 20cm. Keeping your elbows tucked in, lower yourself until your head is just above the bar, then push yourself back to the start position. Do 11 reps
5. Walking negative chin-up
Looking along a chin-up bar, grab the bar with a neutral grip, your left hand closer to you. Hoist your chin to the bar, then remove your left hand from the bar and lower yourself using your right hand only. Grab the bar with your left hand so your right hand is now closer to you and repeat, lowering yourself with your left hand. Do 11 reps. Too hard? Lower with both hands but still “walk” one hand forward after each rep.