For as long as I can remember and up until the moment in the fall of 2022 that I began supporting a loved one through an eating disorder, I did not have breakfast or consume any calories before noon. I did not consume any sugar at all. No desserts, sodas, candy. I did not eat bread or bread-like products. I feared grains, even whole grains. I tried to “eat the rainbow”, shop the perimeter of the grocery store, eat “real, nutrient-dense food” that supposedly sustained my ancestors before there was such a thing as junk food. Although there is nothing whatsoever inherently wrong with any of this, when an eating disorder metasticized in my family, I began to examine it. I realized, for one thing, that I had very little to show for any of this other than an irrational fear of food that would be considered “unhealthy” and a predisoposition toward the notion that most people are unable or unwilling to control their apetites. I was so very wrong. I do not blame myself for helping to cause an eating disorder in my family, but I do recognize the influence of my thoughts and actions around food. I was so very wrong.
The biggest lesson that all of us in my family are learning together is that food is food, period. All foods are neutral. ALL. Kale is not better than Velveeta. A bowl of cereal is just as worthy as avocado toast. I used to think that the worst food on earth was a donut. I do not think this any more. Neither do I think that a donut is the best food on earth. A donut is exactly as good as a bowl of oatmeal, a goat-cheese omelette, an apple turnover, and an intermittantly fasted empty breakfast plate. All. Foods. Are. Neutral.
I’ll say this now and probably again. This is not to advocate an all-treat diet or to ignore nutritional demands. This is to say that restricting oneself in the name of “being good” or “eating clean” can be dangerous and is not necessary and likely damaging. There is an exact relationship between a restricted food and a future unignorable craving. And there is an exact relationship between a craving that was given in to and a feeling of failure, helplessness, inadequate will-power. An inevitable conclusion: I’ll be better next time. Be better next time?
In 2023 at the age of 57 (soon to be 58) I still want to be strong and fit. I want to be healthy and I don’t want a lot of body fat. I am still working out and am as excited about it as I’ve ever been. But I am no longer thinking about “dieting” or “losing the gut” or “gaining a six pack” or of all the “good things” I’ll eat and “bad things” I won’t. As well as I possibly can, I plan to eat when hungry, stop when satisfied, and consume what I feel I need, even if that’s a Twinkie.
Not doing this has gotten me exactly nowhere closer to the body composition I thought I needed but has given me a permanent sense of mild failure and a pile of guilt that is damaging and completely unnecessary. No more of this.
The spring and summer of 2022 were largely about fat loss for me. After I finished the cut, which involved reduced meal frequency and sticking mainly to real food (one large and one small meal per day separated by 3 to 4 hours), I changed direction. To be honest, I finished the cut because it finished me. I lost 20 lb. in about 10 weeks. That weight came off quickly and steadily. Until it didn’t. At the 10 week point there was a, well, weak point. The weight loss stopped and I felt chronically tired, drained, cold even. I knew at this point that I needed to make a change, and I decided to go with High Energy Flux. That is likely not an official term but it should be. That is, high energy input, high energy output. Eat more, move more. I moved back to regular eating. Or rather, I ate when hungry. Knowing I naturally favor real food over fake and not being too full, I wasn’t worried. For training I switched from my usual three hard sets of push, pull and squats daily to a high volume density training approach.
I knew I needed a lot more movement to address all the new calories, and I knew an HIT approach is good for fat burning. But I don’t like burpees, mountain climbers, or jumping rope. I like calisthenics. So I thought density training would be a good way to combine the two. Density Training, or Escalating Density Training, is a concept developed by Charles Staley and described in his book Muscle Logic. I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles on the subject via email a while back. The idea of density training is to build muscle by doing more work in the same amount of time, or by doing the same amount of work in less time. Traditional set and rep schemes go out the window. With density training, the trainee generally chooses two opposing exercises (such as push-ups and rows) and alternates sets of each within a given amount of time (such as 12 minutes), completing as many reps of each in that amount of time. Progress is made when it either takes less time to complete the same number of reps, or more reps are completed in the same amount of time.
Calisthenics Density Training In Action
I consume quite a bit of calisthenics content, and I’ll be honest with you: the athletes working out in the parks in New York City have the best physiques. There, very high volume workouts are the norm, and there I learned the technique of EMOM. Every-Minute-On-the-Minute. 25 dips EMOM, 20 push-ups and 20 squats EMOM. And the most iconic routine is the 5MD or the five minute drill. 100 push-ups and 50 pull-ups in five minutes. (No, I can’t do this.) These are examples of density training in action. Some of the best channels are here, here, here, here, and here’s the 5MD. And how about THIS? And I am relentlessly dazzled by this athlete. And here’s my own humble contribution.
You Can Be Creative
If you keep the volume high and try to keep consistent with your times and rep counts (and feel) you can be creative. No two workouts need be the same unless you are a stickler for measuring progress. Here are a few pages from my shambolic workout journal.
I Gained 2.6 lb. of Muscle Mass in Four Months Using Density Training
In August after my cut, I had an InBody scan at my doctor’s office. I did density training from August to November. I had another InBody scan on 11/17/22 and had increased skeletal muscle mass from 81.4 lb. to 84 lb. Unfortunately my weight and body-fat percentage also increased, so for the current cut I am making a point to keep protein high and calories lower.
An increase of 2.6 lb. of skeletal muscle mass in four months is a strong indicator that density training is a powerful tool for building strength and muscle.
In April of 2022 things had gotten out of hand. Or rather, they’d been out of hand for some time, years, really. I’d had enough. I’m a personal trainer. Should I look like this? I weighed 199 lb. (90kg) with plenty of muscle mass from consistent calisthenics but no muscle definition and way too much fat.
The main guidelines: EatReal Food, Prioritize Protein, Reduce Meal Frequency.
You don’t have to be perfect, but the majority of what you eat should be real food. These are things your great-grandmother would recognize as food. It’s a polarized subject and I don’t want to proselytize about diet. I’m an omnivore; I mostly eat plants and I am trying to reduce my animal intake for environmental reasons. I do consume dairy, eggs, fish and seafood. You can certainly obtain the results I got while eating more or less meat than I did and you could do well as a vegetarian, pescatarian, or vegan. Those choices are up to you. Just make sure that most of what you consume is minimally processed, as close to the source as possible, and close to whole as you can get. For me, this includes a wide range of vegetables and fruit, olive oil and sometimes butter, eggs, some grains (usually whole grains), legumes and pulses (big fan!), chicken, fish, shellfish, beef (rarely), and pork (rarely). I should note that I experimented with vegetarianism during the 10 week period and ate no meat for 45 days and had consistent results. Experimenting with vegetarianism, or even just reducing your meat intake to a few times a week, can really help you see plants in a whole new light.
I don’t like to weigh or measure food, but if you don’t eat enough protein while losing weight, particularly if you don’t do strength training, you will lose muscle mass along with fat. And this is a very bad thing. As my doctor put it, muscle mass is “money in the bank”. As we age, we naturally lose muscle mass anyway. Losing muscle mass is associated with a wide range of problems as we grow older. Whether or not muscle can be gained while fat is lost is a subject of vigorous debate, but at the very least muscle mass can be preserved while fat is lost by strength training and eating enough protein. My rule of thumb is to make the protein the centerpiece of the dish. Vegetables and fruit can be eaten liberally because they are high in nutrients and low in calories, but among the higher calorie macronutrients (to also include fat and carbohydrate), protein should take priority. Examples include meat and dairy (if you are including them), beans and legumes, nuts and seeds, and tofu, tempeh and seitan.
Reduced Meal Frequency
You can call it Intermittent Fasting, Reduced Meal Frequency, Compressed Eating Window, or whatever you want. But the idea here is to not eat all the time. Sounds radical, right? There are many other benefits associated with this particular behavior than just weight loss, so if it’s something you are considering, you should look into it. I would also stress that reducing your meal frequency is by no means required for weight loss. But given that it DOES have other benefits, and one of its main strengths in the context of weight loss is hunger management, it seemed like a no-brainer. I was eating three (unmeasured) meals and at least one (unmeasured) snack before. I reduced this down to two, worked towards making one of them a large, unrestricted feed, and the other a smaller, early dinner. The grand goal was OMAD (One Meal a Day) but I never achieved it. But when I did consistently take one large meal and shortly after one small one, this is when the weight came off rapidly. Under the plan, “lunch” came at about 11:00, then noon, then 1:00 and so on until I was eating my first meal around 3:00 PM. It took me a few weeks to get used to this. This lunch would be as large as I wanted and almost always included a good protein source, lots of vegetables, and lots of fruit. Dinner would be a smaller version of lunch at 5:00 or 6:00. No snacks. Once I got used to it, this was fairly easy.
Standard strength training for me is 2 or 3 sets of body-weight push, pull and squats per day, each set taken 2-3 repetitions short of failure. At the age of 57, mobility, flexibility and joint health are highly important, so I do most of my work on gymnastics rings or similar suspension trainers. I also work hard to keep my range of motion complete and my technique good. This for me is the gold standard for building and maintaining muscle mass. In addition to strength training, when I started the diet I made sure to get at least 10,000 steps a day, using the Google Fit app on my phone. Once my weight loss plateaued (to be discussed next), I tweaked both the workout strategy and the step goal.
Plateau, Energy Flux, and Maintenance
At about the nine or ten week point, my weight loss stopped. At this point I was at about 179 lb, which is 20 lb lower than when I started. Despite consistency, I did not see further weight loss for a couple of weeks. Additionally, I was feeling tired, unmotivated, and fairly weak. At this point I decided to stop dieting and instead took a “high energy flux” approach. I went back to three meals and snacks as desired (higher energy in) and increased my step goal to 15,000, and moved from intensity towards volume in my strength training (higher energy out). For strength training, instead of three hard sets of push, pull and squat, I moved to total rep goals for the day, which were usually 100-150 push-ups, 50-75 pull-ups and 200-250 squats. I would perform these workouts as quickly as I could with little rest between sets and each set taken far from failure. The goal here is to accrue volume over time. This is Density Training. For example, I might do 15 supersets of (easy) push-ups and rows, 10 reps each, with little to no rest between supersets. This would usually take 20 – 30 minutes. Then for squats I would do at least 20 sets of 10 with a 3-5 second rest between sets or 10 sets of 20 with 15-20 seconds rest between sets. Sometimes I would also do focused core work, such as 100-200 flutter kicks. But I was not consistent with the core work.
The “high energy flux” approach had dramatic effect. That is, I felt suddenly energized and stronger with elevated mood and increased vigor. Workouts were refreshing and I was able to increase reps consistently. As far as weight and body composition, the bad news is that I did not continue to lose weight. The good news is I did not gain weight. My body seemed to have reset itself at about 180 lb and the high energy flux became a sort of maintenance phase after the weight lost.
So these are two extremely potent tools that I was able to develop and are now securely my tool box: real food, protein priority and reduced meal frequency for weight loss and conscientious hunger-based eating and high energy output for maintenance. Moving forward I can pull out these tools and use them as needed. Very simple and reliable.
I am lucky to have been born without much of a sweet tooth. Many people struggle with this particular “vice” and I feel fortunate that I can easily resist sweets. I can, however, easily plow through a bag of nacho cheese Doritos or potato chips. I did my best to avoid this for the most part, although a little bit from time to time is fine. It’s very important, I believe, to avoid self-punitive thoughts and Puritanical thinking. This includes things like calling food or eating behaviors “good” or “bad”, “clean” or “dirty”. Even the term “junk” doesn’t really sit well with me, as it will always have you feeling at least a little bit bad about yourself if you “give in”. Improving your body composition should not be about will power and resisting what you really want to do. If you really want to improve your body composition, then really wanting to eat an entire cake or family size bag of potato chips at one sitting really isn’t an option.
A bigger “vice” for me is beer and I’m one of those IPA snobs. It was important to me to see if I could achieve my weight loss goals without having to completely sacrifice this particular habit. Moderation is key of course, but I can safely tell you that if you are aware of your limits, you don’t have to give up everything you enjoy just because it might be considered “unhealthy”. Do not make this a contest of will power.
Through a “high energy flux” approach I’ve been able to maintain my 20 lb weight loss while eating when hungry, stopping before completely full, and continuing to enjoy beer in moderation. How I feel overall has improved dramatically as a result. I’m stronger, the workouts are better, I feel more energy, and my mood has improved.
Time for Round 2. I’m going back to the weight loss eating strategy today and we’ll see how it goes. I’d like to get down to 174, which would be about 25 lb total and I think would allow me to get into the mid teens for body fat percentage. I haven’t been there in a very, very long time.
Most people who practice bodyweight squats, or “air” squats, do so briefly. They quickly “move on” to something more “advanced,” after impatiently having asked “how do I make bodyweight squats more difficult?” The expected answers to this question usually involve something like adding weights or working one leg at a time. But to the same question of how to make bodyweight squats more difficult, and without trying to be funny or clever, *I* say “do them correctly and do more of them.” Many, many more.
You see, most people who think they have mastered bodyweight squats can do twenty or twenty-five or maybe more with bad form. And the more they try to do, the worse the form. They do not descend below parallel, and they pop up and down quickly. These are partial reps and are generally done this way out of impatience, inaccurate information (such as that going below parallel is bad for the knees), a lack of mobility and flexibility, an outdated notion that high reps do not build strength and muscle, a lack of understanding about proper technique, or some combination of these factors. In fact, most believe that bodyweight squats are not a “real” or “serious” exercise.
However, of the Big Three Exercises that I perform regularly (the other two being push-ups and pull-ups), squats enjoy by far the highest rep counts per set, yet are by far the most technically challenging exercise that I do. Performed correctly, you should descend below parallel and with a relatively straight back. And you should do many repetitions per set. This requires strength, flexibility, and mobility in the hips, ankles (especially), knees and lower back. It requires quite a bit of practice to master this, and my squats are certainly still a work in progress. I have a long way to go before I master this exercise.
Even if performed correctly and regularly, one can still build up to quite a few squat reps per set, which is not the case for most upper-body exercises. Can you imagine working up to a set of 100 push-ups with good form? Does this fact make bodyweight squats a waste of time? I’d like to suggest here that, rather than being a waste of time, high rep sets of bodyweight squats performed with good technique are liberating, transforming, strengthening, conditioning and worth their weight in gold. And the fact that you *can* perform many reps is what actually makes them absolutely not a waste of time.
Without regular practice I can do a pretty good set of 25-30 squats on demand. WITH regular practice, I have worked up to three sets of 50 reps a day before “moving on to something else”. This is somewhat impressive, especially for a 57 year old, but it certainly stands to reason that I could eventually do more, like working up to three sets of 100. Imagine this. No, seriously, imagine it! Three sets of 100! Although I would not have thought so without a more complete appreciation of this magical and transformative exercise, I now believe that such a goal, three sets of 100 squats a day done with good form, is absolutely a worthy goal.
The required mechanics to pull off three sets of 100 squats a day make proper technique high rep bodyweight squats the best bang-for-buck exercise of them all in this modern world of epidemic sitting and long periods of inactivity. Everyone sits at a computer all day and on the couch all night. Everyone’s hips are tight. Squats fix this. Everyone’s knees are sore and tight and their legs are weak. Provided you can do them, squats also fix this. Ankle strength and mobility? Lower back? Poor conditioning? Check. Check. Check.
High repetition bodyweight squats performed with good technique require equal parts strength, mobility, flexibility and conditioning. It’s like an entire workout in one exercise. This fact is what really helps to lend the exercise its magic. Mobility work, flexibility work, strength work, and conditioning work all in one move!
But the biggest factor that in my opinion makes bodyweight squats singly supreme may surprise you. It’s about the amount of time, consistency and discipline it takes to master the movement and then to work your way up to very high repetition sets. It’s almost like a cure for one of the biggest afflictions we face today – divided attention and lack of focus. How many times have you worked on an exercise or a workout for a while, maybe two or three weeks, and then once the initial excitement and rapid gains wore off, quickly jumped to something else? I have done this so many times I hate to even think about it, and now I can’t help thinking how good I would be at these exercises if I had stuck with them. Jack of all trades and master of none. It’s a little like using a streaming music service versus playing a vinyl record. There are just too many choices. How many times have you jumped away from a song before it’s over just to get to the next one? Is this a healthy activity? Is this listening to music, or are we just getting really good at being impatient and losing focus?
It takes at least a few months to master the mechanics of the squat because so many factors are involved (and I’m not there yet), but because so many factors are involved, mastering the squat pays high dividends. And once the form is good, it takes yet another considerable amount of time to build up to high rep sets. Presently I’m adding about two to five total reps (across three sets) every few days, and my rep counts per set are in the low 30s. And then if I do something that smokes my legs, like play a game of baseball or ride my bike to work and back, I have to dial it back and work back up again. But no worries!
If I get to three sets of 100, and that’s a Big If, that’s 300 reps and right now I’m at about 90. So at this rate it will be at least a month to six weeks to reach the goal, provided I can continue to add three total reps a day. But that’s not likely. There will be setbacks and plateaus. Is this a reason not to do it? Not, it’s a reason TO do it! Once I get there I’ll be at triple my current leg work volume, and who knows how many times my current attention span.
Recently I listened to an episode of the TED Radio Hour featuring Steven Johnson, whose TED Talk started from the premise that you publish a newspaper only every 100 years and it only has a single headline. So your headline must be about the most important thing that happened over the last 100 years, in our case from about 1920 to present. What would it be? Something about World War II? The Great Depression? Nuclear weapons? Space travel? The Internet? The Chicago Cubs winning the World Series? (This would be my vote.) These all seem like great candidates but none of them was chosen by the author.
What did he choose? Longevity.
Longevity is defined as long life or long existence or service, but this is relative, so practicality speaking it can refer to lifespan, or how long a person lives. And the author pointed out that over the last 100 years we have doubled our lifespan, and such a dramatic change in longevity has never really been seen before now. This is an enormous accomplishment. This is because for a very, very long time, leading up to 1920 or so, average lifespan was about half what it is now.
And this doubling of lifespan is not seen only in richer countries but rather across the globe. Based on the author’s research, the main factors contributing to this seismic shift are things like the development of artificial fertilizer (to grow more crops to prevent famine), plumbing, refrigeration, vaccines, antibiotics, chlorinated water, sewer systems, and medical advancements. You see, it’s not that everyone passed away around the age of 35 or 40 before 1920, it’s that there were many things challenging us back then that most of us are now able to overcome without effort, such as famine, diseases like polio, tuberculosis and scarlet fever, malnutrition and starvation, infections, etc. The author pointed out that back then, only about a third of people survived childhood. And even if you DID survive childhood, if you then contracted one of the diseases for which there was no treatment, that was likely the end of it. We take all of these things for granted now and are very fortunate to have twice as much life as the average person 100 years ago.
One thought experiment would be to ask yourself how long you would live or would have lived had you not had access to the advancements that have led to a doubling of our lifespan. For example, suppose as a child you had a severe infection that required anti-biotics. Had anti-biotics not been available you probably would not have survived. How old were you? In my own case, I would have lasted about 10 days total. I was born with a birth defect called pyloric stenosis, a condition which blocks food from entering the small intestine. Fortunately in 1965, and of course currently, the condition is fairly easily corrected by surgery.
Notice that things like jogging, push-ups, vitamins, and the Food Pyramid are not on the list of things contributing to our doubled lifespan over the last 100 years. And it’s not that such things are not important and do not contribute to a longer life, they surely do. But such things are more relevant to something called HEALTH-SPAN than they are to lifespan. Health-span is the period of one’s life during which one is healthy and free of disease (mental or physical) and physical breakdown that prevents activity and self-sufficiency.
For example, let’s say that because of poor lifestyle someone develops Type II Diabetes at the age of 43. And because of poor adherence to treatment and continued poor lifestyle (such as a diet of processed food and a lack of exercise) the person develops serious complications, and by age 56 is confined to a wheelchair after foot amputation, and neuropathy has led to seriously compromised vision. Let’s say that this person lives another 15 years on public assistance and under constant care, and passes away at the age of 71. This person had a relatively “normal” lifespan (71 years) but a seriously curtailed health-span of about 48 years.
Many people believe that health-span is more important than lifespan. We are largely able to take for granted the factors that contribute to our lifespan, because they are automatically available to most of us and we don’t really need to do anything to have them. Most of us are very, very lucky. But health-span requires choices and on-going, relatively difficult work. That said, the payoffs are enormous. Imagine a world where most people are active, independent and self-sufficient for most of their lives!
How To Improve Health-Span Lest you think this blog has veered too far away from joint-friendly, age-friendly strength training and the healthy lifestyle to support it, now you see the point: The more we are able to build and retain functional muscle and fitness without joint injury, and support that muscle mass through nutrition and frequent activity, the more we are able to contribute to a long and vibrant health-span. Yes, calisthenics, I always knew you had most of the answers!
So here is my challenge to you. If your health-span is lagging behind your lifespan, if you wake every day and feel older than you did the day before, if your joints hurt a little more, if your pants are just a bit tighter, your face puffier, your willingness to take the stairs a thing of the past, understand that it’s not too late to fix this. It’s not too late to get your health-span back on track. This is not really the case with lifespan. Serious lifespan challenges usually end up stopping the lifespan. But health-span challenges are gradual, building up slowly over time, barely noticed day to day, until one day the pain and lethargy are just too great and you think “how did I get here?”
If you’re young and serious about calisthenics, you’ve got fresh joints and a few decades ahead of you. It’s ok to take the slow road and work (wisely) on the money moves, such as handstand push-ups, the human flag, one-arm chin-ups and the back lever, after you’ve built a base level of strength and muscle mass. These exercises are all very impressive but if attempted hastily are a recipe for disaster.
If you’re in your 40s or 50s and just starting out, you’ve still got to build the base of strength and muscle mass before you move on to other things and honestly, those skills are probably not in the cards. You may not have enough time to safely learn them, they are likely far too hazardous to the joints and connective tissues, and frankly, you’re likely not best served working on skills at this point in your training life. You don’t have to rule them out completely, just understand that skills training should proceed very slowly and is not the best builder of underlying strength and muscle.
What are you best served working on when you’re in your 40s and 50s? Building and maintaining strength and muscle mass with intelligently programmed basic calisthenics exercises with strict adherence to a few basic rules.
Here are the top 5 rules to visit and revisit along your journey:
5. Drop the numbers mindset Most of the calisthenics internet content that generates a lot of traffic is numbers oriented: my set of 40 unbroken pull-ups, here’s what happened to me when I did 200 push-ups a day for a month, the thousand rep workout, etc. It’s very easy to click on these things and watch them and get excited. But this does not mean that you should use them as a recipe. In fact, you shouldn’t. Chances are the content was generated by someone half your age who is more interested in clicks than in the wellbeing of the 50-something trainee. More importantly, such goals can be damaging for an older trainee, and they can lead to repetitive use injuries and can promote the sacrifice of technique and proper form in favor of a numeric goal.
Dropping a numbers mindset does not mean that you ought not to have a numeric goal or to count sets or reps entirely, it just means that you do not sacrifice what’s truly important (good form, injury prevention and fatigue management) in favor of an arbitrary number. If you do three sets of ten well executed push-ups a day and those reps are strict enough and with a complete range of motion such that each set was taken two or so reps shy of failure, you have been successful, even though 30 reps wouldn’t likely generate a lot of clicks. Here’s an example:
4. Be careful of skills training and iffy exercises As discussed, skills training serves a purpose other than maximizing muscle and strength building and can be quite rough on the joints. Additionally, I have found that exercises such as parallel bar dips can cause lingering shoulder pain. Similarly, a steady diet of straight bar pull-ups or chin-ups will give me lingering elbow pain. Pay attention to your aches and pains if you do these exercises. Most of the time, I use suspension trainers such as gymnastics rings for pull-ups and dips, and find that the freedom to rotate my arms during the movement helps to prevent these pains.
I have also found that any exercise that specifically targets the shoulders, such as handstand push-ups, pike push-ups, and suspension trainer lateral raises, will give me persistent shoulder pain. I avoid these exercises, and fortunately, the shoulders receive adequate stimulation from push-ups and gymnastics ring dips.
3. Manage your effort and intensity wisely We all know that volume and intensity lie on a continuum. The more intense the effort, the fewer sets and reps you will be able to do, and vice versa. In fact, if I take a set to or close to mechanical failure, that’s it for me for the workout and I may need a couple of days or more before I’m ready to repeat. The older I get, the more my body seems to prefer easier exercises performed for higher reps higher volume with lower intensity. For example, three sets of 20 jackknife pull-ups with rings serve me better than three sets of 8 regular pull-ups on a bar.
2. Form is Everything Good technique and well-executed reps with complete range of motion give you so much bang for the buck. A good set of 12 push-ups with controlled tempo, full range of motion, and mind-muscle connection is far more effective at building strength and muscle than a set of 30 fast reps with partial range of motion.
Here’s an example of a good set of pull-ups that you probably wouldn’t write home about:
Three words: Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
ABOVE ALL ELSE, SHOW UP EVERY DAY. You need be compelled far less by traditional notions of “progress” such as more volume, more weight, harder exercises than you do by consistency and repeated effort. It’s far more important THAT you do it than HOW. At this point in your training career, think of progress as years spent in honest training.
Notice that I didn’t say anything about programs, rest, specific exercises, progress, workout journals, or splits. That’s because these specifics are secondary to the above. They should all be manipulated in order to serve the principles outlined here. That is, if a daily full-body workout is best for your preferences and schedule, do that. If not, don’t. Just make sure you get the work in without dreading it, you don’t have lingering joint pain, you are fresh each time you hit your training session, and you are able to recover and do it again. And again. And again.
And if you must watch videos by people half your age for motivation, keep reminding yourself that what they’re doing should not be what you’re doing.
So my gift to you is this – at a certain age and after a certain number of years of training, you really don’t need to worry about all the usual stuff like how often you should be training and how many reps you should be doing…. Just do it again tomorrow (and do it well) for the win!
We need to talk about your New Year’s resolutions. The reason is that this time of year is when most people have abandoned theirs. The extremely poor success rate of New Year’s resolutions is largely due to the fact that we choose unrealistic and/or non-specific ones, such as “I will quit eating sugar”, “I will cut out all carbs, or “I will become a runner” or “I will eat healthy from now on”. If you like sugar, hate running, and are not sure exactly what “eating healthy” means, these resolutions are doomed to fail by about mid-February, if not before.
Although January 1 is just another day and New Year’s resolutions are an invitation to disappointment, I do think it’s useful to take stock of the prior year and think about some positive changes you should make for the next one. If and when you do so, keep in mind that small changes done consistently can have a big impact over time. For example, if you regularly eat sweets, shoot for only twice a week. Better still, if you like dessert after dinner, exchange it for fruit on the weeknights. And then when you do eat sweets, say, twice on the weekend, don’t feel guilty. Feel happy because you’ve earned it and you’ve stuck to your plan.
New Movement for the New Year I left 2021 quite frustrated at my lack of success in keeping a really tight eating window. I finally realized that I just wasn’t in the right mindset for strict Intermittent Fasting, and the more I tried to force myself to do it, the more I felt like it was a prison of my own making. So when the new year came around I asked myself what change I could make that would be valuable and that I would actually be likely to stick with. That turned out to be a significant increase in my daily movement.
I really like doing calisthenics and I really dislike sitting for long periods of time, so an increased movement goal seemed like a no-brainer. Normally I do 3 sets of push, 3 sets of pull, and 3 sets of squats per day, and depending on the difficulty of the exercises, my total rep counts are usually 150 – 200 for everything combined. I don’t have a Fitbit or anything like that, but I do carry a phone, so I installed a step counter. Without trying my steps are usually 5000-6000, so I decided to shoot for 10,000 a day. I didn’t make a new calisthenics rep goal (foreshadow: that was a mistake) but decided instead to shoot for more sets per day. (Note, if you are doing more reps with the same amount of “rest”, you need to decrease your intensity. Something has to give. So where I normally did 3 sets of close to failure exercises per movement pattern, I made sure my sets under the new plan were less intense.)
I also decided to try NOT to get my steps all in one or two large walks. I dislike walking for its own sake, and more importantly, although 10,000 is just a number, it is a high enough number that to reach it you’re forced to get up frequently from sitting, particularly if you’re not getting most of your steps in one session. And frequently breaking up your sitting sessions is where I believe the real value is here. For me this meant two or three more dog walks than usual per day and frequent breaks from the computer to do small chores around the house that require walking. And of course, I did more sets of push-ups, pull-ups, rows, dips and squats.
My Progress and the Mistakes I Made Overall the new movement felt great and I had more energy and less fatigue throughout the day. However, and perhaps predictably, I tried to do too much too quickly and peaked pretty early. 10,000 steps per day became a relatively easy mark to hit as long as I took the dog for at least three walks, parked far away from the entrance to the store, and did chores throughout the house. As predicted, the frequent sit stoppages were beneficial. But once 10,000 steps were easy, I bumped my goal up to 11k, then 12k, then 13k. Similarly, with calisthenics, I started doing easy sets, and this quickly led to “junk volume”, or non-productive sets done just to reach target numbers. Eventually I found myself doing easy reps and walking around the house for no reason just to make sure I met my target. Chasing numbers.
Revisit Your Abandoned Goals and Make Them More Realistic At about the third week was when things began to go downhill. I would guess that this is about the upper limit of “will power”, or forcing oneself to do something one does not want to do just to reach some arbitrary goal. This is the point at which most people drop their goals and let them fade away. Shortly after this point is when I began to stop counting and stop caring.
At the first inflection point, I suggest you sit down and reassess your goals and decide, after the experience you’ve gained, whether they are still worthy goals and if they can be modified slightly to be more realistic and remain something you wish to continue. I can see that 13,000 step days and 1000 rep days are not something I can or want to sustain. Furthermore, they’re not necessary to fulfill the goal of increasing movement. Without trying I’ll get 5000 or more steps a day and 150 or more reps a day. Two to three times these totals is excessive and an invitation to burn out.
So now, near the end of February, I’ve dialed my step goal back down to 10,000 and my rep goal to 300. I plan to leave them here. And I’m setting a calendar event for June 1, 2022 to revisit these goals.
The two best upper body calisthenics exercises for overall strength and muscle building are the pull-up and the dip. They’re best because of the range of motion allowed and the strength required to lift the weight of the entire body. Being vertical push and pull exercises (although some people do not consider the dip a vertical push because of the possibility of forward lean) the posture at the beginning of each movement allows a full stretch and at the end of the movement a full contraction with the weight of the entire body.
Both of these movements are required for a complete calisthenics training program. The problem is that many beginners will not be strong enough to perform the exercises with proper form and enough reps to stimulate strength and muscle gains.
The solution to this problem is to practice the Jackknife variation of each movement. The Jackknife variation preserves the range of motion and the direction of movement but takes some of the body-weight and stability requirement out of the equation. In the Jackknife pull-up (or chin-up) and the Jackknife dip, the feet remain in contact with the ground throughout the exercise. With the easiest variation, the feet are flat on the ground and the knees are bent, and for a more difficult variation, the heels are touching the ground and the legs are straight and you hinge at the hip as you are performing the movement. An added benefit is that you are able to use your legs to assist yourself if needed. To make each exercise more difficult, keep the legs straight and elevate the heels on a bucket or short table.
To perform these movements properly, you will likely need a set of gymnastics rings or other suspension trainers that can be adjusted. For the Jackknife dip, adjust to a height that is just below your waist and for the Jackknife pull-up, adjust them to chest height.
I recently let myself off the hook, and it was probably one of the best decisions I have made for my health. I was coming off my umpteenth “failure” at trying to seriously tighten my eating window. A tight eating window is another term for “intermittent fasting”, which means some flavor of not eating for longer periods of time on at least some days of the week than most people normally do. The most widely practiced version of intermittent fasting is 16:8, which means you don’t eat anything for sixteen hours a day and eat during eight. What’s “intermittent” about this I’m not really sure.
For the many thousands of years that fasting has been practiced, until recently, it has been primarily for religious purposes and/or to clear the mind and/or to recover from illness. Now the practice is generally done for weight loss and/or appetite control and/or because everyone else seems to be doing it. For a few years now I haven’t eaten for a longer period of time than about eight hours a day and a few weeks ago I was really trying to narrow this down to five, four and even one. Eating for only one hour a day essentially allows a single meal, and this is called OMAD (One Meal a Day). There are many health benefits associated with the OMAD diet, and you can’t beat it for simplicity.
But if I’m being honest, I’m not exactly sure why I have been on an eight hour eating window for so long, nor do I really know why I was trying to reduce this eating window. And that fact really is the impetus for this article. When you get to be a certain age, you really must ask yourself why you are doing certain things for which the reason is not obvious. I had vague notions of improved health and weight loss and increases in growth hormone and other things that people who love fasting talk about. But honestly, I’m not really sure why I was doing it. But I do know that in the process of trying to do it I learned to frown upon breakfast and snacking (even though I snacked) and other “normal” eating behaviors. One salient thing I also noticed is that on the rare occasions that I decided to “cheat” and eat breakfast or otherwise not worry about the clock, it was a thrill. Just contemplate that.
In addition to such things as eschewing breakfast, I learned to question, second guess, doubt, and feel guilty about just about everything I put in my mouth based upon what the thing was, how much of it there was, and at which time it was put. Days were colored by clock watching and attempts to ignore or distract hunger. There were plenty of awkward attempts to explain to other people why I don’t eat breakfast. “I’m just not hungry in the morning.” (That’s not true at all.) Inopportunely scheduled social meals were either avoided entirely or scheduled around these constraints.
Finally, about four weeks ago, I just quit all this. I guess I’d had enough. Will power is supposedly a finite resource and my well was dry. I decided I’m going to eat when hungry, I’m going to eat what I want and feel I need, I’m going to try to eat until I am almost full but not totally full, and I’m not going to worry about any of the rest. Imagine that! You see, in addition to running out of will power, I decided that my body really MUST be a lot smarter than my mind is about what it needs and how often and how much. I sure hope it is. How else would I as a (fairly) evolved person and we as a species have made it this far? I just no longer can see how my fad-susceptible hyper-conscious over-thinking mind can possibly engineer a process that could be any more successful than the one my physiology has hard-wired into it based on countless generations of experience.
Most importantly for purposes of daily functioning and relatively stress-free existence, I ought to be able to figure out for myself when and what and how much I should eat rather than relying on someone I’ve never met to tell me.
It turns out that what I’m describing here actually has a name, because of course it does, and it has books and coaches and blogs designed to help you do it. It’s called “intuitive eating” if you want to look into it. I feel good that I came to my decision without having been taught to do so by such resources because it feels much more genuine and honest to me, but they may help you if you are having similar thoughts.
Here’s what I realized. I’ve been following an eight hour eating window (or less) for several years now. What do I have to show for this? Other than a frustrated Greek mother-in-law, I really don’t know. My body composition is pretty good, especially for my age (56 as of this writing), but I believe that has far more to do with daily calisthenics and walking and avoiding long periods of sitting than dietary self restraint. I feel like my body, deep down, knows where it needs to be. I’m pretty athletic and always have been, and I like working out, I’m naturally pretty slim, and strength training comes naturally to me. I rather enjoy it. I don’t like sitting for long periods of time. And I recognize that I’m lucky that these things are true for me. I didn’t earn them or develop them, they are just true. And because they are just true, I feel that my physiology knows what it needs to do to maintain this condition.
If I’m hungry, honestly hungry and not just in the mood to snack, then I should eat. I need to get back to respecting that hunger signal. It is, after all, buried deep within the primal brain. I’m also fortunate that a preference for real food also comes naturally to me. If I’m hungry, I’m more likely than not to go for something my great-grandmother would recognize as food rather than something bleached, pounded, extruded, reconstituted, sweetened, fortified and boxed. I grew up around farmers and gardens and livestock. I don’t restrict junk, I just don’t have much of a weakness for it and so I don’t think I should worry about it.
In the month since hopping off the restrictive diet hamster wheel I have neither gained nor lost weight. I do feel more free and seem to have more energy and feel significantly less like napping during the day than I did. My mood is better and I feel like I have less stress. Mostly it’s really comforting to not feel guilty about eating when hungry and stopping when full. It’s helped me focus on what I think is much more critical for health, fitness and longevity, which is strength, mobility and flexibility training and frequent movement that is fueled by the right amount of (mostly) real, great-grandmother approved, food. And I also recognize only now the importance, for me, to feel like a I am really a part of the world in which I live and a grateful product of my upbringing.
Like other extreme diet practices such as keto, paleo, Whole30 or veganism, intermittent fasting can be a powerful tool to address a specific problem such as obesity or addictive eating or insulin sensitivity or a myriad of other things. It can also be a great tool for those of us who are dedicated and goal driven, and most importantly, tolerant of rather severe restriction, to achieve a finite goal without too much complexity. But if you’re an active person with good body composition and don’t necessarily suffer from any of the aforementioned problems, you may not need to follow these practices just because they are popular. And you might be better off giving your physiology a chance to tell you what it needs and when it needs it.
Here at Form Is Everything we are about basic calisthenics exercises and programs for building strength and muscle with minimal injury risk and for any age and experience level. Rather than progressing towards skills or more and more difficult versions of the exercises, we build strength by improving technique, adding manageable volume, and increasing frequency of movement. We avoid injury by avoiding risky exercises, by carefully monitoring and addressing fatigue, and by constantly varying hand and foot position to avoid repetitive stress. We measure progress by weekly productive volume of sets performed with good technique and with effort that approaches but does not reach or exceed technical failure on each set. Fatigue is managed by varying proximity to failure over the week’s effort.
With this approach, progress comes mainly in the form of added sets and repetitions performed with good technique. The strength and muscle-building sweet spot is ten to twenty weekly hard sets of each of the three movement patterns of push, pull, and squat, and the programming allows the trainee to spread these sets evenly throughout the week. An advanced level is achieved when the trainee can perform two to three hard sets of each of these movement patterns per day every day of the week while still managing fatigue and making slow but measured progress. This approach has many advantages, including low time commitment per workout (about 20 minutes), and keeping one’s whole body fresh and energized every day rather than exhausted and fatigued. Focusing on technique also builds flexibility and mobility improvement into the mix. It also provides a nearly infinite amount of variety in exercise variations and effort levels.
The purpose of this article is to illustrate how a beginner of any age can progress to this advanced level in approximately one year.
Provided that you are healthy enough to begin a strength training program, I will assume that you have no experience and are starting from scratch.
Month 1 For month one you will perform three exercises: push-ups, rows, and squats. For the first two weeks you will dial in your technique using the Grease the Groove method. This method allows you to practice a movement multiple times throughout the day without fatiguing yourself so you can master the technique and build strength. First, choose the push-up that is appropriate for your strength level, as illustrated in this video:
Then, practice push-ups by doing as many sets as you are comfortable with throughout the day with no more than half your maximum repetitions per set. For example, if you are doing incline push-ups, and your max is six, do two or three per practice session. Feel free to scatter these sessions throughout the day.
Follow the same guidelines for rows:
Months 2 and 3 You will do 3 sets of push-ups, three sets of rows, and three sets of squats per workout. Use the best form you can, and take each set one to two reps shy of mechanical failure (which is when you would not be able to perform another rep). So that’s nine total sets each workout, three each for push, pull and squat. For month 2, do this workout twice a week, and record your reps. Each week try to exceed the rep totals for the prior week.
For month three, perform the same workout but do it three times a week instead of two, with at least one day off between workouts. Again, try to exceed your rep totals week to week.
Months 4-6 You will do three new exercises: dips, pull-ups and/or chin-ups and lunges. These exercises are more difficult than the three you have been doing up until now as the load is greater for each. Take a week to work on your form for each exercise using the Grease the Groove technique.
Some examples of dips:
Examples of pull-ups and chin-ups:
For the remainder of months 4-6 you will follow the same template as in months 1-3. Once you have mastered the form, do two workouts of three sets of each exercise per week for the remainder of month 4. For months 5 and 6, move up to three workouts per week of dips, pull-ups and lunges. Again, record your rep counts and try to exceed the totals week to week.
Months 7-9 In month 7 you will begin to mix the workouts and you will begin to work out on consecutive days. For these months you will do the first workout on day one, the second workout on day two, rest on day three, the first workout on day four, and the second workout on day five, rest days six and seven. For example, Monday is 3 sets each of push-ups, rows and squats. Tuesday is three sets each of dips, pull-ups and lunges. Repeat this for Thursday and Friday. As always record your reps and work on adding a few from week to week.
Months 10-12 Here is where you will put it all together. You will do each separate workout every other day of the week. So Monday is push-ups, rows and squats, Tuesday is dips, pull-ups and lunges, Wednesday same as Monday, Thursday same as Tuesday, etc. It’s as simple as that. Feel free to mix and match. You can switch your push-up and dip days, for example.
Some tips for success If you feel lingering fatigue and stop making progress, dial back your intensity but not your frequency. That is, continue to do the workouts on schedule (rather than adding rest days), but take it easy on the sets, like 4-5 reps shy of failure. For variety and joint health, you can vary your hand or feet positions. Always keep your focus on form and revisit your form every month. Once a month, take a video of yourself performing each of the six exercise and check your form. Make the necessary corrections. Also, from time to time go back and look at early workout rep counts. You will be surprised at how far you have come. Also, I haven’t talked about rest. I do not believe you should worry about timing rest between sets. Rest as long as it takes so that your performance from set to set of the same exercise is about equal for that day.
In the first phase of the program, you did six total hard sets per movement pattern per week. You moved up to 9 and then 12. This is the lower end of the sweet spot for building strength and muscle, and what you are doing with this approach is distributing your hard sets throughout the week rather than concentrating them on one or two days. This distribution allows you to insure that each set is top quality and not rushed or cheated. By the final phase of the program, you are at 21 hard sets per movement pattern per week, which is the upper end of the sweet spot for muscle and strength building. Congratulations!