The most interesting, intelligent and innovative people in the fitness industry are often those who started out down a conventional, unchallenged, unquestioned path. The fitness industry is overflowing with information and a lot of it is bad. More importantly, there is a huge machine constantly churning this bad information and pushing it out over and over again. A lot of this bad information is untested and unchallenged but gains its position solely because of the extent to which it is repeated and associated with certain looks and certain tag lines and certain click bait. As a young and eager person aspiring to get strong and fit, it is almost impossible to know what information is good and what information is bad. If you stay at it long enough and get those abs you want, you may eventually position yourself as one who gets to help spread the bad information and make a tidy profit doing it.
Or you might take a step back and ask yourself just what you are doing and why you are doing it. You may also ask yourself if you actually feel good and healthy and if the amount of time that you are spending on strength and fitness is really time well spent. You may ask yourself if you really CAN know that what you are doing (because you read over and over again that you should be doing it) is really what you should be doing. Have you tested it? Has anyone tested it? You might be big and strong but at what cost? More importantly, you might realize that there are probably better ways of doing it. MUCH better.
Philip and Martina Chubb of the Mindful Mover are just about the most exciting, innovative, intelligent fitness couple I have had the good fortune to come across. Philip used to train four to eight hours a day and ate and supplemented himself up to a weight of 187 lb because he believed a fitness coach who told him that muscle size was the key to health and longevity. He also ended up with a heart murmur, insomnia and and a lot of difficulty walking up stairs.
Philip now strength trains once or twice a week (sometimes less often) and works mainly on five primarily body-weight calisthenics exercise progressions (the “Big Five”). Through extensive testing The Mindful Mover has figured out that these are the only exercise progressions you really need in order to make “free gains” in all kinds of other exercises that you don’t even need to do! They’ve also worked out parameters for the “minimum effective dose”, or just how much, or how LITTLE, you need to do in order to continue making gains. You can spend endless hours in the gym if you want to, but you absolutely don’t have to! In fact, you may be better off if you didn’t. Guess what else? If you work smarter rather than harder, you don’t even need separate exercise programs for mobility and flexibility than the Big Five. You’re welcome!
The Big Five exercise progressions are Handstand Push-Ups, Front Lever Rows, Squats, One Arm Chin-Ups, and Planche Push-Ups. But these exercises are advanced and scary. How would I possibly work on these? How much do I need to do? How often? How do I know when I’m making progress? These are certainly the questions I had when I talked to The Mindful Mover.
Let’s get into the details.
Steve: My first question involves the “Big 5” exercise progressions. These are exercise progressions that you have identified as the most productive in terms of “free gains”. That is to say, if you work on the Big 5 progressions, you will also make progress in other, related exercises even if you are not working on them specifically. This helps you to avoid “exercise FOMO” or Fear of Missing Out. This is the feeling that you should be working on a particular exercise that you’re not working on because you fear the gains you’re missing by not doing the exercise. If you do your Big 5, you don’t need to have Exercise FOMO. One example you’ve given is the Planche Push-Up progression (one of the Big 5) gives you progress in bench press even without working on bench press, and the reverse is not necessarily true. This is VERY useful information. Your Big 5 exercise progressions are: Loaded squats, planche push-up, ring handstand push-up, front lever tuck row, and one arm chin-up. My question is would you make any modifications to this list for the aging athlete who is intimidated by these exercises? I understand that these are progressions, but I think a lot of older folks, myself included, would be very reluctant to work on a handstand push-up of any kind because of the dangers of shoulder stress. From my own experience, any time I have worked on a one-arm chin-up or front lever tuck row (very conservatively, I might add) I end up with lingering pain. Do you think for an older person, something like push ups, pull ups and squats would provide all the free gains we would need? Or maybe we should just set our sites on something short of the final version of the Big 5 exercise, such as wall handstand holds rather than ring handstand push-ups?
Mindful Mover: That’s a great question! If you look at our “Big 5 Strength Exercises“, the list can look intimidating. Imagining yourself doing Handstand Pushups and Planche Pushups and One Arm Chin-Ups as an exercise will seem very far off for a lot of people. But our Big 5 Strength Exercises are simply meant to be progressions or PATHS.
For example, let’s look at the Planche Pushup. It’s a Pushup but instead of having your feet on the ground, they float in the air behind you. Again, this looks pretty intimidating at first glance. But the exercise is just a PATH. It doesn’t even have to be the end goal. You might START the “Planche Pushup path” with Push-Ups on the knees. Then, maybe you progress to doing Pushups on your feet. And maybe the final progression you do on the Planche Pushup path is the Leaned Forward Pushup which is a Pushup with feet on the ground still, but you lean your shoulders forward of your hands to increase the load. You never even have to allow your feet to leave the ground. You just stop at the progression that is suitable for you and continue working there.
Let’s look at another example with the One Arm Chin-Up. You don’t ever have to actually DO anything on one arm. Maybe you start out doing Assisted Chin-Ups with your own feet spotting you through the movement. As you progress, you might be able to take your feet off the ground. Eventually, you can move to doing something like the Mixed Grip Chin-Up where you simply shift more of the load toward one of your arms. Now if you WANT, you can progress from that to One Arm Chin-Up eccentrics where you go UP with two arms and come DOWN with one arm. And by the time you get to that progression, maybe you feel safe doing that. But if you DON’T, it’s no problem! You could easily stick with the Mixed Grip Chin-Up and keep making gains.
The main idea here is that our Big 5 Strength Exercises are progressions. But many of the progressions on the path toward the most difficult progressions can be performed and used to make progress for a LONG time. So there’s no need to be afraid of those final progressions because you don’t have to ever touch them if you don’t want to. You can make PLENTY of progress with the earlier ones!
Steve: My second question involves the concept of Minimum Effective Dose. If I have it right, you’ve been able to determine the least often or smallest amount of work that you need to put into a progression or exercise in order to make progress. You’ve been able to show, for example, that you only need to work on your sprinting drop set once every 8 or 9 days in order to make progress (be able to sprint faster and for a longer period of time). I am sure that everyone’s minimum effective dose will vary quite a bit, especially by age. And the only way to really determine the minimum effective dose is by testing. I’ll never really know how well I’m progressing with pull-ups unless I test it. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the testing process and how you go about it. How often do you do it, and what kind of testing scenario would tell you that gains have been made? How would we look for “free gains”. If I’m testing for progress in dips without having done them, for example. This is an important question because most of us read about workout programming and don’t really question it. Is it really optimal, for example, to do an exercise x times a week for y sets of z reps?
Mindful Mover: Another great question! How can you find your own Minimal Effective Dose? The answer to that question is to try an amount and see if you improve NEXT session. So for example, maybe you decide to try 2 sets of 5 reps on week one and you wait 7 days to try again. If next session, you are stronger, then you can stick with that OR you can try doing LESS and seeing if that works. For example, you might try 2 sets of 4 reps and then again, wait 7 days. See if you make gains. If you do, great! You can lower the dosage again. If you don’t, then you can go back to 2 sets of 5.
But that’s just ONE way to do it. Another would be to keep the dosage the same but play with the frequency. So maybe I do 3 sets of 5 reps. Then, I try resting for 7 days. If I make gains, I might try the same dosage AGAIN and then rest 8 days. If I made gains, I can try it again and do 9 days and so on.
Now a key tip for this is to make sure that you give enough time to see if this dosage works long term. There’s a lot of possible nuance and it doesn’t have to be super strict. Maybe you find out that training 3×5 once every 10 days is too infrequent but you can do something like alternating once every 7 with once every 10 and still gain. So you have to play with it and see and there is plenty of troubleshooting that can go into that process.
For checking to find Free Gains, that’s a similar test. Take a lift that you want to test and check what your max is on that lift. Then, for the next 8-12 weeks, try your other training. After that 8-12 weeks, retest the lift you were checking for Free Gains on. Did the lift INCREASE? If so, great. Did it maintain? Then that’s ALSO great in a way because if you stop doing a lift, you SHOULD regress to baseline. Maintaining is gaining in a way. The lift could also decrease to a certain point and THEN maintain. So for that reason, it might be a good idea to test it a few times if you suspect that happens. Or it could regress to baseline and if it does, you know that lift doesn’t get Free Gains from the other lifts you were doing.
That’s how you can test for Minimal Effective Dose and Free Gains. Now for “optimal”, it would be really hard to test for this without a VERY large group of similar trainees and even then, this kind of test couldn’t account for all the individuality you may have. So because of that, I favor testing for things we can actually figure out like Minimal Effective Dose and Free Gains. Finding optimal is like trying to throw a dart and hit a bullseye. In the dark. And the dartboard is moving.
Steve: My third question involves workout intensity and frequency. We’re familiar with the idea that you can go long or you can go hard, but you can’t do both. Long workouts cannot be intense workouts and intense workouts cannot be long. If you take a set “to failure” (can’t do another rep), you can’t do too much more. One of the most striking things you have said is that you have been able to move from 4 or 5 workouts a week to one or fewer. Do you mean one single workout a week where you do everything in that workout? Or do you mean that you work on a single progression only once a week but may work on different progressions on multiple days? Either way, your workouts must be intense. Can you give us a sense of what a workout session would be like? From my own experience with volume versus intensity, I find that the more intensely I push it (like taking sets to failure or near it) the more overall fatigue I feel in general, even when I am giving myself enough recovery time. These days I tend to feel better doing some kind of workout every day and in those workouts doing a few sets where I leave a few reps “in the tank” but don’t push it any harder. For me as a 55 year old, being able to get up every day and do something seems best. What do you think would be the main concerns with workout intensity and aging?
Mindful Mover: I had a previous mentor give me a general rule of thumb about this: You can go hard with high intensity. You can go long with high volume. You can go frequently with high frequency. But you can’t do “high” with all three of these at once very long. At MOST, you can have two. And for many people, even two is a lot.
So what we like to do is go HARD in training one day a week. We will train intensely, use accommodating resistance, and take sets to failure and even a bit past failure using extended set techniques. BUT, we do that infrequently. On all the OTHER days, we go do LIGHT activity. We will go for a walk, do some yard work, housework, etc. The key here is that we go hard once a week (or twice since we also do sprints) and then we will go light on the other days.
You can use a similar mindset but you might tweak the training a bit. So maybe you still go “hard”, but it might not be as “hard” as when you were 17 and had less life responsibilities. You might train intensely but still leave a little in the tank. Or you might train close to failure but not quite hit it. The general idea can still apply but you can tweak it and test what works for you just like that Minimal Effective Dose.
For example, I train some people who have other life stressors to account for. Some have chronic issues, some have a lot of life stress with jobs or kids, some have other movements or activities they have to also recover from. For people like that, I might just limit the volume and lower it to a point where they still gain, but they also have gas in the tank left for those other activities!
Steve: My doctor calls muscle mass at my age “money in the bank”. This speaks volumes and alone is a huge reason to start or continue strength training as we get older. But I have found through experience that mobility and flexibility deteriorate dramatically as we age and seem at least AS important as muscle mass if not more so. Most of us have been working in an office in front of a computer for decades (myself included) and even though we may work out regularly, the damage is done. For example, if I drop to the ground and do 40 push-ups with good form, that’s pretty darned impressive at my age, but it’s still really awkward, challenging, and a little painful to stand back up again. Something’s wrong here. Do you include mobility and flexibility in your programs and specifically I am wondering if there is a way to incorporate them into the strength training rather than adding new programming. For most people my age, it’s daunting enough to do any kind of exercise at all, let alone figuring out how to add yoga to lifting, for example. I am wondering if flexibility and mobility gains are part of your “Big 5” and just how you approach this topic in general.
Mindful Mover: Absolutely! We have several key points about mobility:
One: Mobility should be gained IN your strength training whenever possible. For example, doing your Pushups with your hands elevated on parallettes. Now, when you go to the bottom, your shoulders and chest get stretched out and that can let you get strong AND mobile at the same time. The same could apply to hanging at the bottom of a Pull-Up. You get the stretch WHILE you get the strength! A Stiff Leg Deadlift could do the same for your posterior chain. Stretch and strengthen!
Two: You want your mobility to be accessible without always needing a warm-up for it. What good is all the stretching in the world if you can’t access that range without a warm-up? Now I am not saying everyone needs to be able to perform the splits cold. But I do think if you train your mobility smart with strength methods like I mentioned in point one, you will be able to access a good portion of your mobility without warming up first. And that’s great because then you can actually USE that mobility when needed rather than having to warm-up before you need it.
Three: It should be easily maintained. If you follow point one, it won’t take much to maintain your mobility since you’re getting it WITH your strength.
Now for some movements, I think a little extra mobility work can be helpful and we program that for trainees when they want it. For example, if someone wants to be able to perform the splits. But if you are just looking for something like the ability to squat down and get some change off the floor or reach overhead and grab a glass from the cabinet, the Big 5 can cover that for you.
Steve: Let’s say I come to you as a potential client. I’m 55 and have an office job. I do push-ups, pull-ups and squats every day and I’m pretty good at them. I also ride my bike just about every day for fun at a leisurely pace. I’m happy with my strength and muscle mass, but I still have a bit of a gut and feel persistent minor aches and pains most of the time and I’m a little tired most of the time even though I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. My diet is pretty good. I avoid processed food and sugar and I do 16:8 intermittent fasting. Most importantly, it feels a little more difficult than it ought to to put my shoes on or to sit on the floor (and then get back up). Furthermore, I really don’t want to just try and do more push-ups every day for the rest of my life for workout goals, but the idea of working on handstands and loaded one-legged squats really scares me and I know is a ticket to the Pain Train. (Of course, all of this is totally made up out of the blue …. 😉 What would you recommend?
Mindful Mover: Two things: For the diet and body composition I would recommend getting a copy of Perfect Health Diet by Paul & Shou-Ching Jaminent. That book is my FAVORITE book on health and nutrition EVER. I cannot recommend them enough.
For the aches and pains, I would look into the chronic training. I think we humans have an easier time recovering from ACUTE stressors rather than CHRONIC stressors. So in my opinion, training with an “extremes-based” method where you go hard one day and light on the other days is easier to recover from than going moderate everyday. I have a lot of trainees and people who don’t train with us directly but just follow our advice who say the same thing: When they swapped from the “chronic moderate” training and started going hard infrequently and light on the other days, their nagging aches and pains started to disappear.
Remember, the hard is relative to YOUR abilities and what you can do. So don’t feel like it means you need to go squat 500 pounds tomorrow. But I would give the extremes of intensity a try and staying out the moderate middle. You might find it’s easier to recover from that!
Thanks so much for having me on and I hope this helps you and your readers! For more information, people can find us at: @The_Mindful_Mover on Instagram and our website is www.mindfulmover.com. And if you want to know more about our online coaching you can send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org
Phil & Martina