I have been battling lethargy the last couple of weeks. My schedule has been so full of bank visits, meetings, and research that mustering the energy for a good workout – let alone a week’s worth of programmed sessions – has been almost impossible. Part of it is due to what feels like an onset of exhaustion more mental than physical: I haven’t really had a day off in a long time, so my brain hasn’t been able to recharge. Most days the thoughts spinning around in my skull are too numerous and too hectic for me to get a grasp. Although Headspace has been helpful in calming down, I’m still trying to get enough of a grip on the days to follow the program I’ve been playing around with for almost six months.
Instead of being frustrated at how little I’ve accomplished physically, I’ve decided to start making things more manageable. My goal is to complete four to six short workouts a week – ten to twenty minutes of focused, high-intensity effort. To do this, I keep my chosen exercises to a maximum of four and my rest periods only up to ninety seconds. Some days it’s ten sets of pull-ups and push-ups. Others it’s fifteen minutes of kettlebell swings, split jumps, and hanging leg raises. Once I was so lazy that I just decided to see how quickly I could finish a hundred kettlebell front squats.
The nice thing about these unplanned sessions is that while I haven’t exactly set new personal records and don’t expect to do so, I still manage to feel like I’m doing something good for myself. I’ve managed to hold onto a fair amount of muscle, and kept my body fat from spiraling out of control due to the stress eating I’ve been giving in to. My energy levels are brought and kept up, my appetite feels healthy, and I get a decent night’s sleep most of the time.
It isn’t perfect by any reasonable standards, let alone my exaggerated ones, but I’ve spent most of the last year learning to be okay with “enough”. And as I’ve preached often enough – especially to a close friend who has been having much the same problem – what matters is not that you don’t stop, but that you’re able to keep moving forward bit by bit.
30x 4-way JJ
5x Jump Squat
10x TRX Row
10-1x alternating ladders
10m Farmer Carry @ 2x28kg per rung
4 sets / 90s rest:
10x One-arm Bent-over Row @ 35/45/50/55#
3 sets / 60s rest:
10x Curl @ 2×25#
10x TRX W-Fly
- Burpee pull-ups suck. It is still amazing to me that someone looked at both exercises separately and said, “Gee, I bet these would go great together!” Still, I find them an excellent conditioning tool, particularly on back/pulling focused days like this.
- Assistance work like curls, raises, and flys have been appearing more and more in my workouts. Part of it is trying to bring up body parts I feel are lacking in function and aesthetic, while another part is curiosity about the overall effect on my performance. Mostly I have been enjoying how they add to the feeling of achievement after each session: by giving extra work to the smaller muscles while the exhausted bigger ones rest, I have a much more complete sense of effort.
[I came up with this about two hours before I logged onto WordPress and saw today’s prompt for “Clock”. Funny how that works out.]
I finally got around to watching (well, listening to) Bobby Maximus’s appearance on the brUTE Strength Podcast. Not to take away from Maximus as a coach, but I generally find his published work to be laden with more testosterone than insight, and I doubted he’d be any different talking. It was a pleasant surprise to find that he had reigned in the machismo to focus more on discussing training philosophies.
The part I feel bears repeating the most was his discourse on recognizing the time and effort spent by elite athletes to become so. For instance, people look at Michael Phelps and claim his success is due to talent and genetics. Few remember – or choose to notice – that, as Maximus put it, Phelps has spent the equivalent of several years training. If that much work didn’t produce a fantastic swimmer, it wouldn’t make any sense. Similarly, CrossFitters might look at Rich Froning and cite his genetics, background, and education as reasons he dominated the CrossFit Games for 4 years, but conveniently ignore his legendary work ethic.
Something similar may be observed in the world of martial arts. In Brazilian jiu-jitsu, for instance, it takes about four years for someone to climb the 3 ranks from blue belt – the second adult belt – to black. That’s assuming the person has been competing or otherwise proving their increasing proficiency, without which the process would take much longer. The idea here is that as belts are meant to be indicators of skill – with black denoting an expert – practitioners should spend enough time at each level to truly develop their skill. Other martial arts have similar traditions about time-in-grade, with the same rationale.
Getting good at things takes time. That, more than anything, must be what you are most prepared to invest. No matter how advanced your program, expensive your machines, or certified your coach, you will not go from Gabe Newell to Chris Hemsworth overnight. There are numerous reasons behind this: your body can only burn so much fat and build so much muscle in a day, and your brain can only learn so many movements at one time. You also have to be aware of progression: no one is going to go from crunches to the dragon flag in their first session. Each step will take time to develop.
There are a couple of particularly good psychological benefits to obeying the clock.
First, being fully aware of the process of progression – the multiple steps leading to the goal – provides a more realistic view of the goal. You are less likely to be disappointed and discouraged from continuing if you know – really know – that you aren’t going to go from couch potato to Olympian in a month. Set high standards, yes, but realistic ones.
Second – and I know this seems almost self-explanatory – training actually gets easier in a sense the longer you do it. Pain and soreness become less scary, and psyching one’s self up to go hard and heavy becomes almost second-nature. This is one of the reasons athletes are able to perform on game day: they have become so accustomed to the rigor and pressures of training that the actual event almost seems like just another training session.
A final note: this does not mean you get to be lazy as long as you stick to it. All those other factors – programming, nutrition, recovery – are very important. It just so happens that time is the most critical factor. Without obedience to the time – without a degree of patience and respect for progression – you can’t reasonably expect anything but an empty wallet made worse by disappointment in yourself.
Find time. Obey it. Enjoy the trip.
30x each 4-way JJ
10x Close Squat
20m Cross Zombies
10x Side Lunge
20m High Knees
Pistol to Lunge Combo
10m @ body weight / 10lbs / 15lbs
8m @ 25lbs
3x6m @ 16kg
Kettlebell Swing @ 16kg
Goblet Squat @ 16kg
Burpee (no jump)
- I am so much worse at pistols now that it genuinely upsets me. A few months ago, I literally did that rep scheme with twice the weight. It is a hard-earned skill and hard-built strength that I now have to re-develop.
- The circuit is actually a modification of a workout Mark Twight used on the cast of 300 and on Henry Cavill for Man of Steel. The sledgehammer slams replaced jumping jacks because I find those too easy for real conditioning work, except in enormous amounts. Also, the original is meant to be done either for a single round of 25 reps (as a finisher) or four rounds of 25 reps each, which I am not currently conditioned enough to take on.
The line between passion and obsession is blurry, and for the most intense personalities it very quickly disappears with each passing moment. There comes a point where everything is surrendered in the name of achievement, of desperate success. The fire burns you, but you fear losing it lest nothing remain to light your way.
But at some point, you will be forced to choose between an obsession that is steadily destroying you, or a life less consumed and more fully lived.
Mark Twight fled to the mountains as a crucible, seeking the clarity that comes from either succeeding in an attempt to summit difficult routes or dying on the snow-covered slopes. Many of his achievements remain untouched – the Reality Bath, for instance, remains unrepeated, although many argue this is due to the route’s suicidal nature rather than any significant difficulty – but he has also documented perhaps more than his fair share of failures.
In 1987, Twight and climbing partner Jeff Lowe failed an attempt on the South Pillar of Nuptse in the Nepalese Himalayas. Despite their best efforts, the pair was forced to concede defeat, starting back down without having hit the summit. In spite of his desperate drive to reach a peak that had already beaten him earlier that year, Twight “gave way to fear, trading [his] dreams for the bland taste of survival.” It was a difficult choice, and one seemingly at odds with his philosophy of success or death.
It wasn’t the last time he made it. “Glitter and Despair”, the article in which he details the failed climb, is not the last piece in Kiss or Kill containing one of Twight’s failures. Faced with the very real possibility of the end, even the cynic nicknamed Dr. Doom chose to give up and save himself for another day.
Five years have passed since the last time I handed in a letter saying I was forced to make a difficult call. Another uniform, another dream, another life I thought I could live – gone because I knew it was destroying me. Whether it was the nature of the job – the hours, the numbers – my hellbent personality, or simply poor timing, a career as a personal trainer at Fitness First simply wasn’t the right thing to chase. I could not separate the drive to succeed from the reality that it simply wouldn’t happen overnight or day after day.
It began to cost too much: the expense of the hospitalization is almost insignificant next to the expressions of the loved ones forced to watch as I tried to explain myself over and over again. The price of the bottle of brandy paled next to hearing someone describe their fear at finding me face-down in the garage next to it.
And so in the face of the storm, I chose to survive. I chose to cut my losses and live with the disappointment rather than die trying to summit an impossible peak.
There are other mountains. Other routes. I tend to lose track of that when I’m in a particularly intense mood – which, as a full-time trainer, was basically every day of every week.
I was a cadet officer for three months. I was a trainer for six. Maybe some day it’ll be a year, then two, then four. I have to believe that some day I’ll be whoever and wherever I’m supposed to be.
For now, I can breathe. Regroup. Recover. And one day – maybe not too far off – I will have to rise again.
30x each 4-way JJ
1×6 each @ 35/40/45kg
3×20 Back Squat @ 50% 1RM
Avoid setting bar down during rest
15x20s Thruster @ 35kg / 10s rest
- This is from Day 2, Week 3 of the Gym Jones Man of Steel training plan’s Leaning Phase. It quickly became the worst workout of my life when, partway through the fourth round of thrusters, I realized I was barely able to breathe. I was sure I was going to pass out, but the fear of dropping the barbell on my head in an empty gym kept me going. Afterwards, I lay there for an hour before finally locking up. It was quite an experience.
I haven’t had much reflection on the fitness world lately.
Truth be told, I haven’t had much reflection on anything but one very dark topic lately. For whatever reason – and my therapist came up with a couple of good ones – my depression has chosen to rear its head and start ruining things again. That discussion is for another time and place – I mention it only to provide context.
The hardest part about a mental illness is that there is no cure. You just have to accept that you’re going to have to learn to live with it. You will have to get used to the pitfalls, learn to navigate the roadblocks, and become accustomed to dragging yourself out of the holes your mind digs for you. It’s a daunting realization, and becomes more and more so every time it reappears.
Sometimes – more often than I am comfortable admitting – it’s all too tempting to just lie there and give up.
Now, what does this have to do with a fitness blog?
This may be just me and my experiences, but fitness – strength – is much the same way. You will have to work at it to keep it. You will have to slog away even when you don’t feel you have the energy. And sometimes it will fail you, and you will be sorely disappointed.
You don’t know why you finished that race three minutes slow – you beat your previous best on a training run!
You don’t know why you couldn’t hit that deadlift – last week you pulled ten kilos heavier.
You don’t understand why, despite all the hard work – all the dieting, all the training, all the deprivation and sacrifice and effort – you aren’t everything you wanted to be.
And you want to quit.
I can’t say I’d blame you. I can’t say I blame any of the people who give up on gym memberships after a year of little or no result. I can’t say I blame people who refuse to take on new trainers because their last one barely did anything for them. I get why you’d rather sleep in than get up early to hit the iron: what’s the use if it’s barely working, right?
I’m going to keep getting fat. I’m going to keep getting tired. I’m going to keep watching my performance numbers yoyo unless I slog through the muck day after day after fucking day, and I don’t know why I should bother.
That feeling of despair is me every day. And every day I once again have to decide to haul everything together for a few hours – just a few hours until I can disappear into my dark room and the safety of sleep.
The challenge, then, is to hope that you will come out better.
It isn’t easy. Your trainer says it’ll take six months to lose that excess weight. Your coach says you’ll need to work on your lifts for a year before you can consider competing.
Your therapist says it could be decades before you’ve even come close to everything you think you should be.
Possibly my favorite scene in Man of Steel was the one where Clark learns to fly. He doesn’t manage it on his first try, which ends with him crawling out of a crater. If he had successfully flown right away, it would have taken away a very real – if painful – factor sorely needed by the Superman mythos.
Superman failed, too. He tried to be everything, but couldn’t. Not at once. Not right away.
And maybe that’s the message we need to hold on to.
It’s a struggle to keep rising. I feel like I’ve hit those fucking mountains more times than is fair.
But as long as I can find a reason – even a small one – I will crawl out of that goddamn crater at least one more time.
I may not be a hero. I may not learn to fly. You won’t ever look like Stephen Amell. You may never hit a thousand-pound squat.
But that doesn’t mean it’s over.
10x Handstand Push-up
10x Decline Push-up
- This is by no means a formal workout. It’s something I did this morning to force myself to get energized to go to work. If I hadn’t, I don’t know that I might have made it – although the thought of someone there certainly helped.
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