Not long after I started doing calisthenics regularly (some time in 2011 or so), or perhaps just before, I pulled my head out of the hole in the ground that it was buried in and learned to stop assuming everything I read about exercise and strength-building is correct and applicable to me. That would be a distinct change from when I started lifting weights back in the early 80s by idolizing those in “Muscle and Fitness” and then trying to do the workouts as described in the magazines. I believe this is not an uncommon narrative, there are many recovering “golden era” bodybuilder aspirants. It fits with my personality that I would finally find a home in rogue exercise practices, being the never-read-instructions punk curmudgeon that I am. At the age of 54 I am full of piss and vinegar and the one thing you will likely find me NOT doing is whatever someone tells me to do. Unless I don’t have a choice. But I won’t like it.
So naturally I’ve been interested for a few years now in exploring, or rather DEVELOPING, strength building exercise techniques that really go against the grain. Or rather that screw the grain entirely. Being told (by someone I’ve never met) that I have to do it this way is a bit of a prison. If it’s dogma, I want to challenge it. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I have a strong affection and appreciation for those who figure out that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way or that way. I am also a process man as opposed to a goals man and it’s the process that keeps me in the game. And the process of taking as doctrine something that someone I don’t know and will never meet has said about something is not a good process at all.
Three areas of dogma in strength/muscle-building involve volume, rest and rep ranges. Volume is roughly the total amount of work done in a given period of time. Rep range refers to the number of reps in the set right before you can’t do any more without help. And rest is the amount of time between training sessions. All three of these assume that there is one distinct “workout” session and when it’s done, that’s it for the day. There are a few exceptions but for the most part this is the assumption. Today I go to the gym for this amount of time and do this workout and that’s the end of the working out for the day. Volume would be the total number of exercises and sets per session. This gets us to things like frequency and splits. In the old days it was a full body workout every other day and three sets of 10 reps per exercise. Then splits came in and generally more volume was done less frequently with more days between doing the same workout. As far as rep ranges it is widely held that low rep ranges like 3-6 are for strength building, 6-12 for muscle building (hypertrophy) and over 12 for muscle “endurance” (whatever THAT is). What if I did 6.5 reps for everything? Hm… And for rest, it is widely believed that the same muscle cannot be strength-trained on consecutive days and the more rest between sessions the better (up to a point).
Taking all of this into account, a fairly typical structure for an intermediate strength/muscle-builder would be a push/pull/legs split where pushing exercises are done one day, pulling the next, and legs the third. Then the cycle repeats itself and a day of rest ends the week. A day’s workout would likely involve 4-10 different exercises with somewhere around 3-8 sets per exercise, giving a total volume of the day to 12-80 sets of work. Muscle exhaustion and pump are the goals and often sets are taken to failure such that another rep could not be completed in that set without help. The work load is high enough that the muscle groups must be rested before the workout is repeated. This takes a lot of time (probably an hour or more) and effort and is exhausting. Aside from other responsibilities, the rest of the day is spent resting and eating. In fact, there is such a strong belief in the direct relationship between eating and exercising and muscle building that many worry excessively about meal timing and composition (i.e., how much protein, how many carbs). So in this very typical scenario, you have one big blast of a workout per day and several frequent small meals to feed the muscles and (supposedly) keep the metabolism revved (whatever that means), where timing and macro-nutrient content are of utmost importance.
I’m turning this on its ear and I couldn’t be more excited about it. For me, micro-workouts are short (10 minutes or less) calisthenics sessions done multiple times throughout the day. In a session I like to do three exercises: 1 push, 1 pull and 1 squat. I do one set of each and don’t worry about the amount of rest between sets. I take the set to about 60%-70% of failure (if I went to failure I wouldn’t be able to do it again the same day). For example, with a gun to my head I could probably do a set of 18-20 pull ups with decent form before failing, so for the micro-workouts I do 12 per set, at least now. Decent form but not great and quick reps (note: improving form and range of motion and slowing the reps are great ways to progress an exercise, to be visited under this paradigm at a later time). Usually I do push ups (right now around 30-40 per set), pull ups (12-15) and one-legged squats (10 per leg) with assistance. I don’t want balance to be the limiting factor and pistol squats hurt my knees even when assisted, so I do a kind of hover lunge on an elevated surface. And if even this makes my 54 year old joints creaky, which it usually does, I will switch to air squats with a pre-exhaust. Air squats alone get easy quickly, even with great form and birdie legs like mine. Once you get to sets of 40 it’s really more like jogging, so I do a single static hold (squat down to where thighs are parallel to ground and hold it) for 30 seconds and then a set of full range squats. Oh, the burn!
I’ve seen more and more discussion these days about micro-workouts and “greasing the groove”, which is widely believed to be a good method for skill acquisition and strength development (nowadays often talked about as if they were the same thing). So if you want to get good at handstand push-ups and can do 2, then do sets of 1 multiple times a day. Another common way that micro-workouts are talked about is to “stay fresh”. So, here are at least two agreed-upon reasons for doing micro-workouts that I know of: (strength as a) skill acquisition and “staying fresh”. I am interested in a third: muscle-building…. or…. whatever it is that got me to lift weights in the first place those many years ago. (Please note that I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between strength-building, hypertrophy and muscle endurance, so I suspect that one goal of this experiment would be to show that they are essentially the same thing, or maybe neighborly points on a continuum. That is, maybe I get bigger (hypertrophy) and stronger with sets of 40 push-ups which sounds like muscle endurance to me.) To be clear, in everything I’ve seen thus far about micro-workouts or “greasing the groove” the goal is skill/strength acquisition and staying fresh. Always a conventional workout is done or advocated for in addition to the micro work in what I have read. I am suggesting that the micro work BE the work and the conventional workout goes away.
I’m not big on rules but there needs to be some here so I’m actually figuring something out rather than spinning wheels. So I’m declaring here that I need to do at least 3 mico-workouts per day and for each exercise, I need to have a rep goal to build towards, after which I move on to a more difficult exercise. I could move on to more reps but that would eventually wear itself out. So, for starters I am doing regular push ups, pull (or chin) ups, and one-legged squats (with assistance) or with too much pain the pre-exhaust air squats. I’d like to set fairly lofty “move on” goals, so I’m saying 50 for push ups, 20 for pull ups and 20 for one legged squats (or 30 seconds followed by 20 for air squats). Once I get the 50 push ups I move to diamonds, for example. Then work my way back up the rep ladder.
Here’s a quick FAQ: can I do other work throughout the day? Yes, but if it makes you start to miss your target reps and/or causes pain, back off. Can I do additional sets? Yes, same as the last one. How will I know I’m making progress? Not sure. But if the reps go up and an honest self-assessment of form is acceptable, that’s gotta be progress. Do I hope a whole new paradigm for strength-building comes of this? Uh… yeah! Why? Because it means we can drop the BS and over-think and just go for it any time of the day all day. The more the better, without pain, without measuring protein grams or clock-watching meal planning.
Again, what’s the overall life goal? Sorry for the subjectivity, but it’s something like to get the same results (or better) as compared to a standard weightlifting volume/split scenario described above and without the gyms, increasing joint pain, exercise overthink, budget busting athleisurewear expenditure, food scales and macronutrient calculators, and obsessive social media tethering. Right now I’m around 30-35 (just got 40 this morning) for push ups, 12 for pull ups and 10 for squats (just got 15 chin ups this morning) and 30 second hold followed by 12 air squats. I’ll get back to you…