I stumbled upon a striking post from someone who has suffered from anorexia at least in part due to relatives criticizing her weight. There is no shortage of posts on the Internet about body-shaming, but this one stood out specifically because of how it began by describing an all too familiar situation: that of a relative calling you fat.
Now, this hasn’t happened to me in a very long time. If anyone comments on my weight, it’s to say that I’m looking thinner. This isn’t surprising, given my increased power endurance work, but it’s a bit disappointing to hear people tell me that I should stay thin because it’s a good look for me. Leaner, yes – I want my body fat down to around 15% – but personally I dislike being on the slim side. I think it looks weird on my broad shoulders, and I don’t like the look of loosely hanging sleeves on myself.
Mainly I dislike looking anything like I used to feel: powerless.
That’s what being unfit was like. I felt incompetent, incapable of anything significant. I couldn’t run ten minutes without risking an asthma attack, and the thought of ten push-ups was downright terrifying. There are many other things I could say about that time in my life, but it should suffice for me to say that one of the reasons I value the roughly 58 kilos of muscle I have so much is that the process of developing it, strengthened my mind as much as my body.
Being fit is about more than looking good. It’s about feeling good, whatever that may mean to you. If fitting into a size 0 – and I call bullshit on that being a thing – actually makes you feel good, hey, who am I to say it’s wrong? So long as you don’t push it on others – so long as you don’t force them to accept that everyone should be the same – then more power to you.
The thing is, I think very few people fully appreciate what it means to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It doesn’t just mean that we accept others have different physical standards of beauty, but that others also find different meaning in those standards. The common ground is hard to find and often narrow, which is why appearance is such a controversial topic in the world of fitness.
Personally, my appearance is only important insofar as it is representative of what I can do. I associate my relative muscularity with the things I can do: one-arm push-ups, pistol squats, 300+ pound deadlifts, and 2000m rows are within my abilities, and I am glad to look like it. Thus, I dislike being told to get thinner or lose more weight because I refuse to sacrifice these things for the sake of someone else. I can do 10 handstand push-ups, and that’s more important to me than your approval.
Similarly, I find athletic women far more attractive than thin ones. Melissa Benoist on Supergirl, for example, has wonderfully muscled arms and legs. Her physique is undoubtedly feminine, but still projects strength, power, and capability. I would say the same about certain females I’ve trained and worked with – not that they were thin enough for the catwalk, but that they understood strength and hard work, and it showed. It’s the same thing I keep trying to tell a certain co-worker with concerns about her physique: women with muscular arms and legs can be quite attractive, as she is.
But guess what? You don’t have to give a single shit about what I think regarding your looks. If you’re healthy and comfortable with what you look like and what you can do, honestly, you’re a step above me. If I have a problem with body-shaming, it isn’t so much because it’s unrealistic, as because it assumes standards that have no place existing and wouldn’t be agreed on by everyone anyway. It’s especially ridiculous because the fittest people on the planet – the ones who presumably have the best reasons to look the way they do – would fall well outside the “normal” standards of beauty. Female runners would disagree with the desirability of a thigh gap. Men who squat think skinny jeans are stupid. And if you’re one of those designers who thinks everyone should have tiny shoulders and be rake thin, you’re dumb and I hate you.
But I digress.
I realize that I sort of turned this into a rant about how fit people shouldn’t have to justify how they look to anyone, but what I have (perhaps poorly) been trying to say is that we will always be most comfortable when we understand why we look or act a certain way. I don’t worry about people who tell me to be thinner because I know what’s important. Similarly, the blogger I mentioned at the start of this post, learned to love herself because she realized that arbitrary numbers don’t equal happiness.
Workout – Skill + Strength / Power Endurance
60x each Jumping Jacks, Front Jacks, Twist Jacks, Seal Jacks
6×6 Ring Dip – focus on depth and control
For time – finished in 14:34
10x DB Bench Press @ 2x60lbs
30x Burpee Pull-up
20x DB Bench Press @ 2x50lbs
20x Burpee Pull-up
30x DB Bench Press @ 2x40lbs
10x Burpee Pull-up
10x 30s Plank / 30s Rest*
* Hands on TRX every other round
- I need to improve my dipping strength if I want to clean up my muscle-up.
- The open circuit turned out much harder than I thought it would be. The bench press weights aren’t anything special, but bench pressing anything even remotely heavy is far worse when you’re still trying to recover your breath. I wound up breaking those into sets of 10, giving me more time to breathe. Fucking burpee pull-ups.
- My isometric core work tends to be neglected due to the glamor of toes-to-bar and similar strength-oriented ab work. I can’t help but wonder how much of my deficiency in the front squat is due to a weaker core than the one with which I squatted 120kg, about two years ago.
This is a post that has been bouncing around in my head for a few days. I usually write white hot, preferring to let the message figure itself out along the way. This time, however, even I couldn’t figure out what I meant to say. Now I feel that while I could jump straight to the point, it would be incomplete without describing the evolution of the idea.
Originally I wanted to discuss how situational fitness – and perhaps life in general – can be. I meant to open with a comparison of what a 100kg / 225lbs squat looks like when done by a 6’2″ powerlifter-type versus when done by a lean 5’8″ calisthenics disciple. Either way, it’s an objectively impressive weight that doesn’t change regardless of how large the man hefting it may be. Both men deserve and receive some kind of acknowledgement and praise. However, while the former is certainly impressive, the latter seems to defy physics, earning a greater or otherwise different level of recognition.
Even then, though, we don’t know enough of the story to really make the call on whose lift was more impressive. The big guy could be on the last of ten sets, while the smaller man might just be testing his 1-rep max. The big guy could be in a deload (read: light recovery) week, while the smaller man could be focusing on pure strength.
If we go beyond programming, there are even more reasons that the larger man might “only” be able to lift the same weight as the smaller. He could be returning from an injury, still re-learning how to move heavy weights. He might have had too little sleep and feels doubtful of his strength under the bar. He might simply be having a bad day and doesn’t feel up to the pressure.
On the one hand, this may seem like I’m trying to excuse this person’s apparent lack of ability in comparison to another, which – based on certain entries in this blog – would seem out of character. On the other, however, I am well aware that one cannot go 100% all the time.
To put it another way: maybe this guy could, if pressed, squat a much heavier load than 100kg. That doesn’t mean he always will or would.
The fact that you have done it, doesn’t mean that you can or could do it over and over again.
A major part of fitness is figuring out how hard you can go for how long. Say you can run a kilometer in less than five minutes – could you do that for half an hour? You can deadlift 140kg – can you do it ten times?
And even if you could do both those things, could you repeat them the next day? And the day after that?
Hopefully by now you can see where I’m going with this.
There are limits to strength and power. No one can be at their best – or even close to it – around the clock for an indefinite period of time without risking serious collapse. If we fail to heed the warnings – to check our speed, our effort – we stand to lose more than we can imagine.
This happens to the best of us as often as to the rest – perhaps more often, given their predispositions to give their all. To borrow a line from Supergirl,
Sometimes heroes fall.
It’s scary to admit that: to say that someone greater than we are can fail is to concede that we are just as likely to break down. We ignore that truth because doing so allows us to similarly ignore our own weaknesses. By pretending we have no limits – just like our heroes – we can pretend that our vulnerabilities don’t exist, or aren’t dangerous enough to threaten us.
Part of understanding that we are different is accepting that we have different limits. We have different goals, and different ways by which to reach them. Some of us can go farther, faster, longer, harder – even if by doing so, we risk more and more. It doesn’t mean anyone is better or worse, just different.
This is knowing yourself at the most painful but most honest level. This is the hardest, yet most useful form of comparison. Knowing you cannot do what others can do means accepting that you will not succeed the same way or to the same degree. On the other hand, you can go hard and fast in a way that others may not even be able to comprehend. Your strengths and weaknesses are different. Your limits are different. Your success will be different.
In training, we adjust different variables to address weaknesses. We change loads, duration, rest, leverage, and complexity to improve. We do this because we understand enough anatomy, physics, and similar topics to do so.
What do we need to learn to do the same for life?
Workout – Strength, Strength/Power Endurance
30x each Jumping Jacks, Front Jacks, Twist Jacks, Seal Jacks
10x Pike Push-up
15x Close Squat
5x Pistol Squat
5x Pistol Squat @ 15lbs
3x Pistol Squat @ 20/35lbs
5x 4m Pistol to SLRDL to Lunge @ 2x25lbs
Double KB Clean @ 2x16kg
KB Front Squat @ 2x16kg
Push Press @ 2x30lbs
5min Foam Rolling
- I used to be able to hit the walking combo with a pair of 16kg bells. One step per leg, true, but still hit it, while this one had me struggling to make 4 steps with a pair of 25lbs. My single-leg ability has deteriorated.
- I was surprised to find that my forearms were what caused me difficulty with the cleans. I’ve read about forearm strength endurance being a limiting factor with long kettlebell work, but this is the first time I’ve experienced it. I suppose it doesn’t help that I’m actually a bit out of practice – it’s been a while since the last time I went for more than 10 reps with a kettlebell.
- The Feet-to-Hands / Toes-to-bar ladder remains one of my favorite ab workouts, and a good indicator of where I am strength endurance-wise. If I’m sore the next day, I’m behind on my core training.
Everyone who’s ever taken on a fitness program has at least one really terrible workout that they wouldn’t repeat if their life depended on it. Originally this post was going to be my Top 10 list of those workouts – the ones that leave you barely conscious and completely broken.
A quick Facebook chat with someone, however, made me rethink the list. These workouts are terrible, yes, but they aren’t special because of that. They’re special because there’s something beyond the physical exertion that sets them apart. Perhaps it’s some kind of epiphany partway through, or the real gut check needed to finish. Either way, I’ve decided that this isn’t going to be about the ten worst workouts I’ve ever done.
Instead, this is a list of 5 workouts that hit the mind as hard as the body, if not more so. Most of them you will need to train for: without a strong base of strength and power endurance, and solid technique, these will become physically impossible to complete. All of them, however, will demand more from you than an average weights session, Zumba class, or a 10-kilometer run.
Other than the psychological factor, one thing these workouts have in common is simplicity. Nothing has more than three exercises, albeit for multiple rounds or considerable distances. Complexity is the enemy of physical challenges: the obstacle here has to be the effort required, not the presence of mind.
5) “The Triathlon”: 50x Burpees + 5km Ride + 500m Row for time
I previously described this as a “power endurance fuckfest” based on the Gym Jones workout of the same name. Lacking a SkiErg and fan bike, I improvised. A fairly fit person can burn through the 50 burpees in a couple of minutes. The bike part will take maybe 8 minutes if you go hard all the way, and the row will be over in less than 2.
For someone who hates cardiorespiratory work – partially due to his relatively weak, asthmatic lungs – this is a real bitch to struggle through. I finished in less than 10 minutes, barely able to breathe by the time I dropped onto the rower. You’ll be tempted to rest during the transitions, and that’s where your time is put at risk. Do you take the hit in exchange for a breather, or do you sigh and keep going?
4) 4 sets of Push-ups to failure
This is something I had trainees tack onto their workouts as a finisher called ‘Burnout’. The exercise itself depended on the trainee’s goals: the girl whose goal was 5 pull-ups did TRX or band-assisted pull-ups, while the one who wanted to be able to do full push-ups did them on lower and lower surfaces. That being said, I prefer push-ups because there’s no way to completely unload the weight without total form failure, which makes for a better mental battle. Planks are also a good choice, although nowhere near as terrible.
This is a test of what Mark Twight calls “Can’t or Won’t”. For most people, going to failure means going until you feel tired and decide to save yourself. Some, however, understand that failure means you shouldn’t be able to do a single additional rep, however sloppy it may be, without some rest. I took a sick kind of pride in proving just how little people understood that by tricking trainees into one, then two, then three reps past the point when they claimed to be hitting failure.
Here’s the simple key: if you really went all the way in your first set, you will not be able to hit that number again any time soon, and certainly not within the allotted 2 minutes of rest. Think you can drive yourself that hard? Hit the floor and find out.
3) 2000m Row for time
On the surface, there’s nothing special about a timed 2000m row. In fact, it’s a pretty standard challenge in plenty of so-called functional gyms, with a time of 7:30 considered respectable.
What makes this one different is that it’s too long to go all out, but too short to justify careful pacing. The first 500 meters feel easy, and your target time will seem within your reach. The last 500 meters are perhaps easier to throw yourself at: it’s easy to put all your energy into the final seconds. It’s the middle kilometer that puts you in a bad place. That’s where your lungs give up, your arms start shaking, and your legs seem too heavy to keep kicking. If you’re still able to keep your eyes open – and that’s not a given – you’ll watch in dismay as your target time slips away second by second.
It’s especially difficult to maintain a high level of effort when despite your best efforts, you realize your goal has slipped out of your deadening fingers.
The real test of the 2000m Row isn’t whether you hit the final time, but what you do when you hit that point of despair. You can give up right then and there – or you can pull harder.
2) 100x Back Squats @ body weight
This is from the Mass Gain Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. There is obviously a considerable strength endurance requirement to supporting your own bodyweight in iron on your back for however long this takes, but the duration makes for an intense cardiorespiratory effort as well.
The hard part about this is the penalty: every time the bar leaves your shoulders before finishing the 100, you need to hit a 250m row (In the original version, you did 20 burpee pull-ups, but hard rowing scares me far more) as fast as possible before picking it back up. Take a breather if you want, but keep that bar on your back unless you want to make it far worse.
The trick to administering this workout is making the penalty more terrifying than pushing through the 100 reps. Every time you start considering reracking the weight, the fear of having to do the penalty will shove you back on track.
That being said, I had to pay the penalty several times. Either the 250m row wasn’t as scary as I thought, or I just needed to prepare myself more. When I administered this test to my trainees, no one had to pay more than two penalty rounds. I think I got it right with them.
There is a similar workout scheduled a week after this one, only using front squats instead of back squats. That version also removes the penalty, probably because the increased complexity of front squats increases the probability of failure without the trainee necessarily giving up.
1) 20s Thrusters, 10s Rest, 15 rounds using 35kg / ~77lbs
This absolute nightmare is from the Leaning Phase of Gym Jones’s Man of Steel training program. You need some solid shoulders and powerful lungs to keep going. As if it wasn’t terrible enough, there’s a stipulation that during the 10-second rest periods, the bar has to stay on your shoulders – no real rest here. 35kg doesn’t seem like that much weight for a strong guy, and 7.5 minutes – the total time of the circuit – isn’t that long.
Combined, though, the two make for an absolute hell.
The first few rounds, I averaged 7-8 reps. By the fifth, I was struggling to hit 5. The last few rounds were barely triples. Once the timer beeped on the final interval, I dropped the barbell and promptly collapsed to the floor, where I lay for about an hour trying to recover.
This workout needs a serious gut check to finish. The rest periods feel useless – the weight of the bar keeps your chest from fully expanding and bringing in much needed oxygen.
Like #2, it also feels like those periods in life when there’s so much weighing on you that you don’t really have time to cool off. It’s a struggle to finish each and every rep, let alone stay true to the “rest”. Once it’s over, you need a nice long nap just to feel vaguely human again.
But there’s the glorious after-effect that many of the Man of Steel workouts produced: once you know how hard you can push, you will have discovered your strength and find the future much easier to take on.
Workout – Strength Endurance
30x each 4-way Jumping Jacks
Push Press Interval
1 block each @ 2×15, then 2x20lbs / 2min between blocks
Do 5x Pull-up after each block
2x 30s Push Press / 30s Overhead Hold
Complete 1 round every 3min for 15min (i.e. 5 rounds)
5x Close-grip Chin-up + 5x Handstand Push-up
4x Close-grip Pull-up + 6x HSPU
5x Close-grip Chin-up + 4x HSPU
4x Close-grip Pull-up + 4x HSPU
8x Close-grip Chin-up + 10x HSPU
10 rounds / 90s-2min rest
5x Close-grip Chin-up
5x DB Press @ 2x45lbs
5×10 One-arm Press @ 16kg / 30-45s rest
I have never been asked for reading recommendations as much in the rest of my life as I have in the past few months. It says something good, I think, about the people I’ve been spending time around.
Reading recommendations cannot be made lightly, though. It seems odd to filter one’s reading list, but necessary to ensure some sort of connection is made to the material. I cannot offer a thought-provoking piece to someone who just wants a brand new strength program – he doesn’t care and won’t appreciate it in the least. On the other hand, fitness professionals seeking a new approach don’t necessarily want a new program or technique, but a new point of view on something tried and tested.
I’ve mostly listed Internet sources here for convenience, divided into the two main sections of fitness literature: training for the body, and training for the mind.
I’ve added a separate list for books, but those tend to be more difficult to acquire.
The list is in no particular order – I wrote each entry as it came to mind.
Fitness – The Body
- ExRx.net – A nifty online fitness resource that includes a well-sorted exercise database, multiple exercise calculators (including 1-rep max calculators), and articles on programming.
- Bodybuilding.com – An online fitness resource and store. Although it’s obviously geared towards weight training and bodybuilding, the site has a lot of useful and even insightful articles. The latter are mainly interviews with guys like Duffy Gaver and Mark Twight.
- T-Nation – This website mainly caters to those seeking strength through iron, but does have a good mix of information to offer from guys such as Dan John.
- Breaking Muscle – A far more diverse training resource site offering articles on strongman training, bodybuilding, functional athletics, bodyweight training, and many more.
- Be A Game Character – A fun site filled with workout programs inspired by video game characters. Ever wondered how to develop Sam Fisher’s athleticism? Try this guy’s suggestions and see what comes out!
- Kemme Fitness – A good site focused on movement-based, minimalist fitness. There are a couple of free foundation programs that provide a nice base of movement training.
Fitness – The Mind
- Gym Jones – This is the realm of Mark Twight – former lunatic mountaineer and revered/hated coach. You need to pay a membership fee to access the entirety of what this place has to offer, and even then you might not get it. The site has several training plans and a daily training calendar, but I’ve specifically linked to the “Knowledge” section for the insights presented by those articles accessible to the public or those with a free account. I recommend passing over Rob MacDonald’s writing – I respect the man as a trainer, but his writing just isn’t as rich in insight.
- Grit and Teeth – Michael Blevins is a disciple of Mark Twight who moved to L.A. to take on a new training challenge. His writing is similar to his mentor’s, if less venomous. His main purpose is introspection – which, as a friend pointed out, isn’t dissimilar to my own writing. Blevins also has a “Training” section, but its contents are too technical for anyone with less than two or three years of hard training experience.
- Paul Chek’s Blog – Paul Chek is probably the ultimate expression of the phrase “holistic health and fitness”. Chek draws connections between physical exertion and mental or emotional well-being – certainly a good way to keep training interesting. That being said, I find his writing and beliefs a bit too New Age for my taste, so I don’t hang around here quite as much as the domains of Twight and Blevins
- You Are Your Own Gym, Mark Lauren – An excellent bodyweight training book including multiple progressions and regressions for various exercises, as well as detailed training programs for different levels of trainee.
- Starting Strength, Mark Rippetoe – Basic barbell training supposedly for beginners, although I disagree with the inclusion of the power clean. May be too technical for the lazy reader/trainee.
- Kiss or Kill, Mark Twight – Either annoyingly angsty or too easily relatable, this collection of Twight’s essays from various points in his climbing career displays the mentality needed to paint the line between impossible and merely extremely, perhaps needlessly difficult.
Take and use these recommendations as you will. A beginner would probably do well to restrict himself to the science section – or better yet, find a trainer and come back here in a year or so. More advanced trainees and coaches would, I have found, benefit greatly from exploring the mind driving the physicality.
Workout – Recovery
5000m Row @ moderate pace (finished in 20:57)
2×1-5 Pull-up (focus on getting chest to bar)
5 sets / 90s – 2min rest
10s L-Sit, transition to 10s Tuck Planche
5min Foam Rolling
5min Static Stretching
- Originally I meant to take it easy on the row, but I felt encouraged by my ability to hold ~2:05/500m for ten minutes without yet feeling winded. It turned out to be a very good session.
- My static core strength is surprisingly good, considering how little time I’ve spent directly training it lately. I imagine this is a by-product of all the unilateral and hanging work I’ve been putting in.
Something that I will always bring up in a serious conversation about training is the concept of carryover. In designing a program with a certain objective, I will always look for the exercises and systems with effects that transfer to a wide range of results. For example, if I were looking to put muscle mass on someone, most of that person’s workouts would involve multiple sets of compound movements. A client requesting mass gain can expect to work up to 10 sets of 10 reps of bench presses, or timed sets of front squats. This would ensure that all major and most minor muscle groups would be trained without having to work through a billion different exercises per workout, as an isolation-training mindset would entail.
Similarly, it would benefit someone to train movements with results that would positively improve others. It takes some understanding of exercise science to do properly, but it’s a very good way to improve one’s fitness.
Take the deadlift. There are enough articles on the benefits of the exercise that I won’t bother listing them here, so I’ll just say that everyone could use a little deadlifting in their program. It’s a good measure of overall strength because it requires the use of so many muscles: the posterior chain (hamstrings, glutes, spinal extensors) are the prime movers, the quads provide assistance, the upper back and biceps have to tense up, and the forearms have to be able to hang onto hundreds of pounds of iron.
Because of this, the deadlift benefits greatly from improving other exercises. Pull-ups are an excellent exercise for strengthening one’s forearm, bicep, and upper back muscles, which minimize grip problems. Single-leg work such as pistol squats are a weight-free way to build lower body strength – including strength in the posterior chain, which obviously improves one’s deadlift.
To prove the point, I pulled 160kg / 352.64lbs yesterday despite not having deadlifted in over a month. My previous 1RM was 145kg, meaning I added 15kg without actually working on the movement. In that month, I focused on bodyweight strength, mainly pistol squats and uneven chin-ups. Now this isn’t the heaviest I’ve ever deadlifted, but the last time I pulled 160kg, I weighed 85kg. This time, I weighed 75. Pound for pound – or kilo for kilo, as the case may be – I’m stronger now than I’ve ever been.
This is something worth reflecting on outside the gym as well. When was the last time you developed a skill that helped out somewhere unexpected?
30x 4-way JJ
Alternating 10-1 ladder
TRX Chest Press
Alternating 10-1 ladder
Bench Press @ 2x60lbs
TRX Row (deep as possible)
- This workout is an abbreviated version of something I did in late 2013 as part of my Man of Steel Mass Gain experimental program. It’s one of the best upper body pump workouts I’ve ever done, but requires a considerable level of strength endurance. Worth a look now that – while I appreciate my strength – I am trying to put some mass back onto my arms and shoulders.