This is Part 2 of my interview with San Diego Fitness trainer and high frequency basic calisthenics advocate Kyle Boggeman. You can read Part 1 here.
Steve: In my own experience, one of the biggest challenges with frequent training is how to reconcile fatigue with the concept of making “progress”. In fact, you have told me before that the notion of progress changes as the trainee becomes more advanced. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Kyle: Absolutely. I think the strength and conditioning industry has become a bit too focused on a very narrow idea of “progression”, and this has trickled down into the average person’s conceptualization of the training process. This can lead to all sorts of bad habits, both in terms of training technique, and in terms of long term motivation.
I think the best place to start is with actually looking at the idea of progressive overload. Some coaches preach that we need to constantly outdo our previous performances in order to actually make progress, and that only by doing more and more, can we continue to improve. I’m not convinced this is the best way to think about the training process. Personally, I like to think of this in reverse; progress, or our ability to do more, is a byproduct of hard training. When we train, we have to cross a “dose” threshold to stimulate an adaptive response, and this allows us to do more over time. It’s not the fact that we did more that stimulated the progress, it’s the fact that our previous workout met the required threshold which facilitated an adaptation.
Obviously things change over our training career. When we start out, the threshold required to stimulate an adaptation is pretty low, and the resulting adaptations are robust. This is why beginners can make rapid progress, and will often make their fastest gains in their first year or two of hard and smart training. After this, progress slows down. When you accumulate a few years of good training, it becomes very difficult to double your reps on an exercise, for example. At this point, there are a few common mistakes. Since most people have anchored their idea of “progress” to numbers, and they are no longer able to increase numbers at a rate that is motivating, they adopt completely new exercises, new training protocols, or change their training so dramatically that they essentially start from a beginner level again. This gives them a new, but false, sense of progression, since most these new “gains” are an artifact of simply getting better at something novel, and not actually true gains. As soon as the quick adaptions occur, progress will once again slow. On the other hand, some individuals will attempt to force progress, and will often fool themselves into thinking they are making progress when they are in fact adopting progressively worse technique. Both paths usually end up in frustration, injury, destroyed motivation, and a circular/repetitive pattern that ultimately ends up going nowhere.
From the beginning, I always advocate treating form as a training variable that should get more attention than the reps or weight. Reps, movement progressions, and weight come along for the ride, for a while, but eventually slow after the intermediate level. Once you get to this stage, you can still make gains, albeit slower. However, some things actually get easier to progress, like technical improvements, and in fact, you are in the best position to make the most impactful insights and gain the deepest understanding of the subtle intricacies of an exercise. This is because at this point, you will have tens of thousands of good repetitions under your belt, and the motor pattern has literally become ingrained into your nervous system. This level of familiarity brings with it a higher level of body awareness, and now you have the ability and control to productively explore variations to refine the movements, focus on mind/muscle connection, and lead to getting the absolute most out of each rep.
Steve: Is it possible to progress an exercise in ways other than doing more reps or more volume or a harder version? Can one progress an exercise (and consequently get stronger and build muscle) just by improving form and technique? If so, what would be a good strategy to work on this? Do you think it would be possible to make progress without counting reps or sets?
Kyle: Yes. Form improvement is one of the most overlooked aspects of training, and ultimately where I think most of the effort should be placed, especially for more advanced people. Starting out, your rate of progress will allow for fairly rapid increases in repetitions and muscular size. After a point, this slows down. By the time you have been training for a while, I think the best strategy is to introduce more variation into training while emphasizing the focus on the process of technical mastery. Beginners often lack the body awareness, strength, and the motor pattern proficiency to make deep and significant improvements in technique, and the only way to develop these things is by doing tons of reps over years with the intention of improving your form. At the early stages of training, technical improvements are very basic and often limited to things like improving range of motion, reducing momentum, etc. By the time someone reaches the intermediate or advanced stages, thousands and thousands of reps will have been performed. During this process, greater body awareness has been automatically developed, and the motor pattern is significantly stronger, and since there is a surplus of strength, manipulating and modifying technique become easier. At this point, really dialing in on maximizing movement quality across multiple variations with things like paused reps, controlled tempo, with a focus on mind/muscle connection is the way to go.
Improvement in rep quality can increase mind/muscle connection, and it turns out the old school bodybuilders were right about this; mind muscle connect can, in fact, increase muscular activation and lead to greater muscular gains. The path to achieving this simply relies on prioritizing good technique from the beginning, and then accumulating a ton of good reps that will eventually allow you to maximize your technique and utilize the mind/muscle connection for more efficient training. I think this process is best displayed by arched back pull ups. Beginners often perform pull ups with the hips flexed, shoulders elevated and protracted, and the neck extended and reaching. They do not have the strength to keep the hips and back extended while keeping the chest up, and the shoulder blades squeezed back and down. This arched-back position opens the door for a ton of muscular growth across the entire back, but it takes excellent mind/muscle connection and a solid strength base to even start approaching, so it isn’t accessible to beginners. This is exactly how form can be progressed over your training career to allow for continued gains even for those who have been productively training for years. **
** Note from Steve – above emphasis is mine; this is an incredibly important point.
Steve: Sometimes I feel boxed in by the notion that I have to follow objective rules like tracking progress, tracking volume, choosing the proper order of exercises, etc. Sometimes I just want to do whatever I feel like. It can be liberating. But am I wasting my time when I decide, for example, that today I just want to do as many push-ups as I can? Is this hindering my progress?
Kyle: Not at all. I take a different view on this than most coaches. I believe in a principle- based approach to training, and as long as your training is consistently based on effective principles, it will be effective. As long as you are pursuing perfect form, training hard, accumulating enough weekly volume, moving through a full range of motion, avoiding exercises that are injurious, and training consistently for a long time, you will inevitably make progress over the long term. Changing up the expression and implementation of these principles every now and again is inconsequential. After all, one man’s program hopping is another man’s periodization. The thing that really matters is that 5 years from now, you have 5 more years of good training under your belt.
Steve: It’s a common belief among calisthenics people that one can build strength and muscle in the upper body with body-weight only, but for legs you must use weights. Do you think this is true? You seem to do a lot of very high rep sets of body-weight squats, even a set of over 500 as I recall! Does this approach have a muscle building effect or is this mainly giving you conditioning?
Kyle: Most people can develop a good amount of leg size and strength from calisthenics alone, but I’m not convinced that it is the optimal training method for reaching your genetic potential for leg size. If you want to stand on the Olympia stage, barbells, dumbbells, and even machines, are likely necessary. However, most of us are not actually pursuing this level of size, as it doesn’t meet our athletic, health, or our aesthetic goals. If you want a pair of incredibly fatigue resistant, generally strong and athletic legs that also look great, calisthenics is definitely a viable approach.
I approach high rep sets with the intention of building conditioning, work capacity, and fatigue resistance. From our mechanistic understanding of muscle growth, these high rep sets are generally not regarded to be as effective in terms of their ability to stimulate growth past a certain point (everything stimulates growth to a point, even walking), simply because they don’t approach muscular failure and therefore don’t recruit and train all of the available muscle fibers. However, I don’t think we should ignore the anecdotes that suggest that they might actually have the potential to produce meaningful hypertrophy. I have read several interviews with bodybuilders using very high rep sets and reporting excellent growth. I’ve also read historical accounts of Indian wrestlers, written by Western physical culturists, who note the incredible quad development of these athletes, who happen to be known for doing thousands of reps of body weight squats per day. In this same vein, I’ve also seen a client’s legs improve dramatically from taking up road cycling, despite being well trained in weighted squats and deadlifts. It’s possible that these anecdotes are misattributing the hypertrophy to the high rep training, but assuming they are accurate, it could be that A) Perhaps some people have a genetic predisposition for hypertrophy from this type of training B) something else is going on, like motor unit cycling, which allows a higher amount of total fibers to experience sufficient tension to stimulate growth, C) maybe the growth is largely due to increases in non-contractile components of muscle D) something else entirely. Personally, it is hard for me to attribute my leg growth to any single training protocol, simply because I tend to do a ton with my legs.
Steve: Any advice for those of us in our 40’s, 50’s and above (or anyone else) for avoiding chronic pain and injury?
Kyle: For those of us who are a little older, I think the principles are the same, but adherence to those principles becomes more critical. Your best bet for training as you get older is to manage fatigue properly by not training too close to failure too often, making sure technique is perfect, keeping weekly volume at a recoverable level (which will be lower), and selecting exercises that you tolerate well. The goal is to keep training for as long as possible, and as you get older, this requires you to be more conservative.
Steve: In terms of diet, I find the notion of tracking calories or restricting a macro-nutrient or food group more stressful than the 15 pounds of belly fat that I need to lose. And yet, diet has a whole lot to do with physique goals and performance, particularly as we get older. But on the flip side, feeling like you constantly have to be restricting yourself is no way to live. Do you have any basic diet and nutrition guidelines, particularly in terms of fat loss, that would be approachable and wouldn’t have us weighing food and strictly timing our meals or entering them into My Fitness Pal?
Kyle: Let me first say that nutritional requirements vary significantly between individuals, as determined by genetics, activity levels, disease risk, body composition, athletic goals, metabolic health, stage of life, and preferences. Nutrition is incredibly complicated, so I prefer to look at nutrition through broad principles, much in the asme way I look at training. I think for most people looking to optimize health and body composition, they should start with some basics, such as eating real, unprocessed, nutrient dense foods, consuming enough protein to support and preserve lean mass and body composition goals, develop some sort of intentional habit to build mindfulness around calorie consumption. Strategies like avoiding habitual snacking or utilizing time restricted feeding can bring more attention to what we actually eat, and sometimes this is all we need to do to keep our energy intake in check. However, the needs of each individual are different, so from these broad principles, each person will need to individualize their nutrition to meet their health and fitness needs.
Steve: Lastly, how do we find you? Social media, web site, email address?