Continuing from my last article on how to progress body-weight calisthenics strength and muscle building outside of conventional means like increasing reps, increasing volume, and moving to more difficult exercises, I’m taking a look at the Mind-Muscle connection and how we might be able to progress by focusing on it. The Mind-Muscle connection always seemed like a squishy topic to me but the more I read and consume content on building strength and muscle, the more convinced I am that it’s a real thing and can be a critical factor in making progress, particularly once you’ve gotten to a point where conventional progress is slow or stalled. After all, you can’t expect to be adding clean reps to your pull-ups forever. And if you try, at best you will suffer breakdowns in form and technique and at worst you will suffer injury and frustration.
The Mind Muscle connection is fascinating because it may allow us to progress without ever actually adding more numbers. I guess a good way to approach this introduction would be to ask “what the heck can us old people do to get stronger and better and not more injured?” Improving the Mind-Muscle connection might be the answer to that question.
What Is the Mind-Muscle Connection? According to Men’s Health, “Research shows that focusing intently on the target muscle as you contract it can lead to greater increases in size. Known as “attentional focus” (or more commonly, the “mind-muscle connection”), the simple act of consciously feeling a muscle work through a full range of motion can enhance muscle fiber recruitment and activation. And the more fully and effectively you engage your muscles, the more they’ll grow.” In other words, instead of paying attention to getting the weight up or getting the chin over the bar, pay attention to the muscles that are working to perform that task.
How Do You Improve the Mind-Muscle Connection? Check out Kyle Boggeman’s video on movement quality for some really good information. Get used to seeing your rep count take a dive. This is a good thing. The more intently you are focusing on the movement, the better your form will be, and the more stimulation your muscles will be receiving, and the fewer reps you will be able to do. Check your ego at the door and “train with your future self in mind”.
I have tried to focus on the Mind-Muscle connection in the video linked below. Here’s what I did: I chose a simplified version of a single exercise in each of the three movement patterns – push, pull and squat. By “simplified” I mean that I modified the movement to remove challenging aspects that do not directly stimulate the target musculature. I used suspension trainers (or you could use gymnastics rings) so I could adjust the height easily. For dips, I kept my knees bent and feet on the ground. That removed quite a bit of body weight and allowed me to focus solely on the pulling muscles. I kept it fairly slow on the positive and slow on the negative, and did not pause or lock out so I could keep constant tension on the muscles. For pull-ups, I did a modified jackknife pull-up with my feet flat on the ground, the legs again limp and not aiding the movement, and pulled slowly through a full range of motion with constant tension. For squats, I grasped a bar to take the pressure off the lower back and ankles, stopped the movement before standing all the way up (to keep the tension on the quads) and imagined driving my heels into the ground and moving the ground away from me instead of standing up.
Traditional notions of “progress” in strength training are ubiquitous but you need to know that they have an expiration date. In weight training, progress means adding more weight, sets, reps or training days. In calisthenics, substitute harder exercises for more weight. For example, as a beginner, you may start with knee push-ups for two sets of eight repetitions. A few weeks later you are doing regular push-ups for three sets of ten. Then it’s on to diamonds, feet-elevated push-ups, dips, etc. Once you can get a good set of ten pull-ups with good form, it’s on to twelve, fifteen, twenty (rarely). But does this continue indefinitely? No, of course not. It is not conceivable that by the same means you would eventually get to a set of 100 pull-ups with good form.
Good programming begets progress. For beginners, three workouts a week, three sets an exercise, add a rep or two per week. Follow the program, record your progress, eat and sleep to support your training, and you will progress. Until you don’t, at least on the same scale. Factors like age and years spent training put you into a new scale for measuring progress. If you continue to push it in the same manner as you did as a beginner and intermediate, eventually you will break down and sustain injury because you will be forcing more reps (and sacrificing form) where there are no more reps to be had. And injury is the athlete’s biggest enemy.
Instead of progressive programming, think in terms of concepts. Years spent in honest training, improving mind-muscle connection, good health, and lack of injury become your marker of progress. Refining an exercise, improving your form, extending your range of motion, and increasing your frequency of exercise… these are your programs. If you work hard so that your sets are taken a few reps shy of muscular failure, and you manage your fatigue so that you are able to perform again without loss or injury, and you perform the exercises as often as you can with good form, you are guaranteed to have made progress, even if you did not do any more reps than you did the prior workout or the prior week.
Imagine going from fifteen fast pull-ups without lockout and with chin barely above the bar, dropping quickly on the negative — to ten perfectly executed reps performed slowly on the positive and even more slowly on the negative, shoulders back, chin completely above the bar, full lockout at the bottom. That’s fewer reps, but you’ve made progress. Now imagine three sets of these pull-ups three or more times a week.
There is always improvement to be made even if you don’t get more reps, and maybe even BECAUSE you don’t get more reps. And you know what? A few years from now if you continue with this concept-based method of improving exercise performance, you are guaranteed to be in a better place, even though you are older, than you were when you started. How’s that for a longevity boost?
I love the micro-workout approach to strength training. There are a lot of ways to approach micro-workouts. For me, they are a way to break up a single workout into several parts and spread those parts throughout the day. For example, a typical full-body workout for me would be three sets of push-ups, three sets of pull-ups and three sets of squats. Done together and with honest effort (each set taken a few reps short of failure), this would be a fairly exhausting routine that would take about 30-40 minutes or more. With the micro-workout approach, I typically would do the push-ups in the morning, the pull-ups in the early afternoon, and the squats in the later afternoon or evening. Each segment takes only 10 minutes or so (and this is one of the many benefits of micro-workouts), and so I squeeze them in when I have time and don’t have to plan my workout for a time of the day where I can spend 40 minutes. Additionally, I don’t have to be intimidated by the volume when I know I’m only doing a third of it at a time.
The Problem with Micro-Workouts The problem with micro-workouts relates directly to the benefits of micro-workouts. If you’re doing them so your workouts are quicker, more approachable, and less taxing, then you may be inadvertently shortchanging yourself. The idea that you can just “get it over with quickly” could be the problem and might mean that you are not putting in an honest effort on each segment and each set.
Additionally, honest productive workouts have a kind of a flow, where you warm up slowly and then start conservatively so as not to waste all your energy, and then build up to the more intense work. This can take time. Everyone is familiar with the feeling of really being “in the zone”, where you’re warmed up and the sets are going well and you feel strong and with each set you want to do more. The feeling that you might be on the verge of a PR or breakthrough can be very intoxicating. At the very least, it reminds us of why we are doing this. It can take time to get to this place and by definition micro-workouts might be over before you have a chance to get there.
Furthermore, it might be as mentally challenging to contemplate having to do three workouts day rather than one, no matter how short they are. I usually save my squats for later in the day. But squats happen to be the exercise where I am really trying to build up to high reps. This is daunting and exhausting, and much more difficult to face when it’s later in the day, I’m already pretty tired, and I just want to eat dinner and relax. The point here is to give yourself the opportunity to put in an honest effort, and sometimes micro-workouts may not be the best way to do this.
Case in point: Ladders. As a refreshing change and a way to try and add to my maximum reps, I’ve been doing a lot of ladders lately. With ladders, you take a single exercise and perform a single rep, rest as long as needed, then do two reps, rest, then three reps and so on until you reach the set where you would not be able to perform another rep with good form. At that point you can quit, or work your way back down the ladder to one. This a very good way to add to your max. reps in an exercise.
Yesterday I did pull-up ladders. In the pull-up piece of a micro-workout, I would normally do a small warmup and then do three sets, taking each set out to one or two reps shy of failure. For me this is usually something like 9, 8, 7 if I’m strict with the form. That’s a total of 24 reps, and I’m seldom eager to push the first set because I know I have two more to go. Consequently I generally don’t make much progress. In the pull-up ladder workout that I did yesterday, I made it to 10. So that’s 1, 2, 3, 4…. 8, 9, 10. That’s a total of 55 reps (over twice as many as in the micro-workout), and what’s more, the more intense sets, by definition, are performed at the end of the workout. Sets of 10 or even 9 would have been very difficult in my 3-set micro-workout approach, but here I was able to get that set of 10 after 45 reps. There was a flow that happened and each set built on the previous one, which in turn fueled my motivation and desire to improve.
Furthermore, with ladders you are really in the moment and are very focused and motivated to keep going. With micro-workouts sometimes I find that I just want to get it over with. This doesn’t lend itself to honest effort or progress. But with ladders, not only do you really want to get another set, which you know if you do will be better than all the others, but you also really want to take it one set further in the next workout. Eleven, here I come!
The down-side of course is that a ladder workout takes more time and you’re likely not going to do much else in terms of strength training that day. But what you DID do was certainly more solid and productive than a rushed 3-set workout.
Micro-workouts are fantastic if you are limited in time and have the self-discipline to make those 10 minute segments as productive as you possibly can. They are also paradigm-busters and show you that working out can be accomplished in many different ways than the standard hour-and-a-half at the gym. But they may not be the best strategy for all of your workouts all of the time, particularly if you are feeling stuck, unmotivated or more focused on the time expenditure aspect of the workout than the effort and effectiveness. If you feel that you may be here, give ladders a try.
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?
Back when I started training calisthenics I was very excited about the potential for building strength and muscle with basic movements such as push-ups, pull-ups and squats. That excitement has not waned ten years later and has served as the basis for my humble little book on the subject. Although calisthenics skills such as the human flag, handstand push-up and back lever are extremely impressive, I was never really compelled to pursue them. I’ve always been leery of injury and more interested in building muscle and conditioning as I age with basic exercises. That’s why I was quite excited to come across Kyle Boggeman’s YouTube channel, as he is using his extensive education and experience training clients to really produce a knowledge-base around building strength, muscle, conditioning and flexibility with basic calisthenics movements and training parameters such as fatigue management, frequency of exercise, and proximity to failure. Below is Part 1 of a two-part interview with Kyle, where he shares the wisdom behind his unique and effective way of training calisthenics.
Steve: Can you tell us a bit about who you are and your experience and background in the fitness industry?
Kyle: I’ve been a trainer in San Diego for a decade now. I originally got into fitness through martial arts training when my first teacher introduced me to basic calisthenics. I was probably 12 years old at that time, and I absolutely fell in love with physical culture and the whole concept of self development. I have been training ever since, and have dabbled in several different training modalities over the years. No matter what I have tried, basic calisthenics have always served as my foundation.
As far as my professional experience goes, I owned and operated a gym in San Diego where I worked mostly with combat athletes, military personnel, and law enforcement. I racked up thousands and thousands of coaching hours working with several hundred clients over that time. It was a hard job in a competitive market, but the amount of experience I gained coaching was the best education I could have asked for. As far as my academic background, I have a Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy and a Master’s degree in Kinesiology. Both have been equally helpful in my career. Philosophy trains you to think critically, and to look at things from a different perspective. It also ingrains skepticism and encourages a systematic approach to analyzing concepts and ideas, both of which are incredibly useful for interpreting scientific literature and sifting through the mounds of terrible misinformation that exists within the fitness industry. On the other hand, my education in kinesiology greatly enhanced my understanding of exercise science and statistics. I’m also certified by the NSCA as a CSCS, a TSAC-F and a CPT.
Steve: I think most people, myself included, think that if they get into calisthenics they need to start learning skills like handstands, human flag, and front lever as soon as possible. I wonder what your thoughts are on this and why we never really see you doing skills.
Kyle: It is certainly understandable. Calisthenics skills are extremely impressive to see, and when you first try them, they feel impossible. They attract a lot of people to calisthenics and serve as a very concrete goal for many. This has definitely shaped the current calisthenics training paradigm. You add to this the fact that basic calisthenics are often dismissed by most people in the community and are seen as a stepping stone to something greater, and it becomes clear why the current love affair with skills exists.
I’m a firm believer in building a foundation first. Prioritizing competency with the basics, and improving your body composition are the best uses of training time for beginners. In terms of exercise selection, skill training is not an efficient way to improve basic health and fitness because it is not efficient method for improving body composition. I know this sounds blasphemous but, I will lay out a logical argument for why this is the case. First, in terms of building muscle mass, exercises that train a muscle through a greater range of motion are superior to exercises that use less range of motion, or no range of motion at all. We also know that the relationship between weekly volume and muscle growth is a dose dependent one, insofar as the more volume you can do and recover from, the more muscle you can build. With this in mind, exercise selection needs to be optimized to allow for higher weekly training volumes. To accomplish this, we need exercises that are easy on the joints, and are safe to take to, or close to, failure. We also want exercises that are limited by the target musculature, not balance, stabilization, joint integrity, limb proportions, or skill. Finally, we want exercises that don’t carry an elevated or unique injury risk. If an exercise fails to check all of these boxes, it is not a good choice for a high volume program. Obviously, many skill progressions fail to check these boxes and are isometric in nature, making them poor choices for high training volumes, and poor choices for muscle building in general. This isn’t to say that they cannot build muscle at all, or that some people cannot perform skill training frequently, just that it is not an efficient path for the vast majority of people looking to build muscle and get into shape while staying free from injury.
Even in your ultimate goal is to perform skills, keep in mind that skills are a display of athletic qualities that are, in a large part, dependent on good body composition. The levers, the planche, the human flag, single arm skills etc. all become significantly easier to develop when the athlete has excellent body composition, or in other words, is very lean, muscular and well conditioned. Once you have gotten lean and muscular, targeted and intentional low volume skill training can quickly develop the particular joint strength, balance, and neuromuscular coordination required by the skill. Improving body composition is the hardware upgrade and raises your potential for strength and athleticism, and skill training is the software upgrade that allows you to get the most out of the hardware that you have built with the basics.
When I was younger, I definitely messed around with skill training. As I got older, I became more concerned with the injury risks associated with my approach to training, and my focus shifted to general health and fitness. As I approached my thirties, a few things became abundantly clear- I was not indestructible, and nothing ruined my gains like getting injured. Because of this, I began to focus more on improving my body composition and general fitness by using exercises and programming strategies that carried a lower injury risk. I realized that the basics and higher training frequencies allowed me to accumulate and recover from more training volume, ultimately allowing for better gains in terms of general fitness, health, and body composition. As my understanding of exercise science deepened, I concluded that skill training was not congruent with my goals, and ultimately would not be the most productive use of my time.
Steve: You have talked quite a bit on your Youtube channel about mastering basic movements. I think you mean a lot more with this than just being able to do a lot of reps of a basic exercise. When it comes to something like the pull-up, the push-up or the squat, what do you mean by mastering the movements?
Kyle: Mastery is more of a process than a destination. It’s about going “into” the movement and trying to feel all of the subtle things going on during the process of performing a rep. It’s the pursuit of the perfect rep, learning to really feel the muscles contract, and learning to feel and correct the tiny compensations that you otherwise wouldn’t even notice. When you bring this level of intention and mindfulness to something basic like push up or a pull up, it opens up a whole different perspective and allows you to see the depth, complexity, and potential that truly exists within them. Ultimately, it allows you to extract more out of the basics than you otherwise could from mindless and sloppy repetitions.
Steve: There is a lot of dogma in the muscle- and strength-building world around rep ranges and time between sets and “rest days”. Many people believe that an “optimal rep range” for building muscle is 6-12 and lower reps are for strength and higher reps are for endurance, etc. You have indicated many times that you think none of these things are necessarily true. What do you think are the most important factors in building strength and muscle?
Kyle: Optimal rep ranges and the concepts of rest days are two common prescriptions given without context. Research in exercise science has come a long way in the last 20 years and we now know both of these “rules” are not rules at all, but rather incomplete understandings at best. Currently, the literature is quite clear that the muscle building rep range is enormous, and that training frequency (and by extension rest days) are just a function of volume distribution. We don’t actually “need” rest days, because the amount of fatigue we generate from a workout is not fixed. How much fatigue we generate depends on our exercise selection, training volume, proximity to failure, as well as our own fitness, work capacity, and training status. If I’m in shape and used to doing a lot of pull ups, do I really need to take a day off after I do two hard sets? The answer is no, simply because that level of stress doesn’t require a full day of rest to resolve the fatigue it generates. So, by properly structuring a training program, you can distribute training volume in such a way that no single workout ever drives you into a recovery deficit that takes extended time to pull yourself out of. Also, by knowing what it takes to stimulate muscle growth, you can train in a way that provides a sufficient level of that stimulus in a manner that is sustainable day to day.
I think the most important factors are consistency and effort. Nothing you can do in a single session in terms of manipulating training variables compares in importance to consistency and effort over time. Equally important is good exercise selection. This can be make-or-break insofar as good exercise selection maximizes your return on your time investment, and more importantly, reduces injury risk. Nothing derails muscle gains like injury. Good exercise selection is also necessary to maximize the growth response, so if you want good gains long term, pick your exercises wisely. Finally, in terms of program variables, total weekly volume, as measured by high effort sets, is a powerful predictor of muscle gains, but it needs to be matched with your ability to recover.
Steve: You train the same movement patterns pretty much every day. Another common belief is that you must take “days off” from training the same muscle group. How are you able to train the same movement patterns every day, and is it actually better than taking days off?
Kyle: High frequency training relies on good fatigue management. When this is in place, it works incredibly well. There are a few common pitfalls that are common to this approach, and these are doing too much weekly volume, training too close to failure, and not cycling through exercise variations. While a higher training frequency can allow you to accumulate more weekly volume with less perceived effort, the fatigue can still accumulate past your point of daily recovery. A lot of people make the mistake of doing their same 3 day per week workout 7 times per week and come to the conclusion that daily training doesn’t work. What they needed to do instead was distribute their 3 day per week workout over 7 days, then slowly add volume over time.
In this same vein, excessive training to failure will typically lead to excess fatigue in all but the youngest and most genetically gifted among us. With this in mind, I usually recommend training a few reps shy of failure for most sets to reduce fatigue, along with perfecting form to minimize joint and connective tissue stress. The reality is some days you just don’t have it, so taking light and easy days when you need them is another key component of making this system work.
The final piece of the puzzle is rotating through exercise variations. Now, starting out, I prefer to keep exercise selection minimal to encourage rapid development of fundamental motor patterns. After a while though, when training stress increases and people begin to display better technique, introducing variations of movements works really well to manage fatigue as well as stimulate new gains in muscle mass. Variations in grip width, hand orientation, torso positioning, tempo, and even intention, all change how stress is distributed across the tissues. While all the same muscles might be working, the emphasis will be different, allowing for various levels of recruitment and recovery throughout the week. However, if an exercise is too different, you may not be able to perform it efficiently, since the motor pattern is not well developed, and this will ultimately limit your ability use the exercise to deliver a robust growth response. Ultimately, I think it is wise to have a limited number of motor patterns, but a higher amount of variation within that motor pattern.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this interview coming soon.
Here is a preview of the questions Kyle will be addressing in Part 2:
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?
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?
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?
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?
Any advice for those of us in our 40’s, 50’s and above (or anyone else) for avoiding chronic pain and injury?
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?
Now that many of us are working from home and are now masters of the home workout, these joggers are perfect for any day and every day. I received them not long after I agreed to review them, no strings attached. Well, that’s not entirely true. There is a draw string around the waist. But Born Tough was generous enough to give me the joggers for free in return for an honest review.
These are now my favorite workout bottoms, and I am *NOT* just saying that. The fit is like nothing I own. Streamlined without being tight, loose enough to allow complete freedom of movement. And I really like the fact that workout-wear makers are providing colors other than black, gray and white. These military green joggers are quite stylish.
The material is durable and flexible and the quality of the joggers is very high. And my favorite thing of all has to be the pockets. They have something between a regular pocket and a cargo pants pocket. It’s on the side and horizontal but not large and billowy like a cargo pants pocket. I have a few pairs of cargo workout pants and find that my phone and keys flop around when I keep them in the side pockets. In the Born Tough joggers, this is not a problem at all. They are snug and are secure because of the very high quality zipper.
Another very surprising feature of these joggers is the price. They are currently going for $29, less than a third the price of comparable workout clothing on the market.
In a Nutshell – This guide is for those who are just getting started and/or those who want to build muscle and strength and are not necessarily interested (yet) in complex skills such as handstands, front levers and muscle-ups. This is a summary of my book The Progressive Calisthenics Program for Everyone with video accompaniment.
In a nutshell, you will choose a pushing, a pulling and a squatting exercise, each being appropriate for your strength and experience level. This means that you are able to perform at least five repetitions of each exercise with good form. Once you have selected the appropriate exercises and have practiced them with good form, you will do three workouts a week, doing three sets of each of the three exercises per workout while maintaining good form. Once you have reached a target number of reps for the three sets, you will move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression and repeat the process. This is progressive calisthenics.
Step 1: Choose your pushing movement
How many regular push-ups can you do with good form? Legs are outstretched, toes on the floor, back straight, core tight, glutes tight, hands shoulder-width apart, elbows tucked. If it’s less than five, then start with knee push-ups or incline push-ups. Can you do eight or ten, but your form starts to deteriorate at the end? Great, start with regular push-ups. What if you can’t do a single regular push-up and knee push-ups or couch push-ups are still too difficult? We’ll start with negatives. Check out the video below to see all of these.
Let’s say you can do ten push-ups fairly easily and can maybe even squeak out twelve. Great, let’s start with decline push-ups. The stance for decline push-ups is similar to the stance for regular push-ups, except that you have your toes on an elevated surface such as a stair or bucket rather than the ground. This places more weight towards your chest and makes the push-up more difficult.
Another option would be to do diamond push-ups. With diamonds, your hands are close together under your chest so that your thumbs and index fingers form a diamond. The angle is such that the exercise is more difficult and relies on more effort from the triceps (the muscles on the back of the arm) than the chest. Diamonds are great for building big triceps. Of course, you can progress the diamond push-up as well by elevating the feet.
If your push-ups are fairly advanced, meaning you can handle diamonds, declines, and offset push-ups, it is time to start with one-arm push-up variations. With one-arm push-up variations, your primary pushing arm is positioned under the mid-line of the body and your other arm is used as assistance. You can vary the amount of assistance such as putting your assisting hand on a basketball or other object versus having the assisting arm extended straight out, perpendicular to the mid-line of the body. This “archer push-up” would be the most difficult variation. Of course, with assisted one-arm push-ups, you need to do a set for each arm, so you are doing six total sets (three for each arm).
Step 2: Choose your pulling movement
Can you do a pull-up? Most people cannot do a single pull-up. It is a more advanced movement than the push-up. Fortunately, we have the push-up’s flip-side – the row, or Australian pull-up. If you can get good at rows, you can approach getting your first pull-up with confidence that you will achieve it. Rows work best under a bar that is about waist high. The higher the bar the easier the exercise, the lower the bar the harder. Position yourself under the bar and hold it with arms about shoulder width apart or a little more. With legs straight out in front of you and heels on the ground the exercise will be the most difficult. With knees bent and feet flat on the ground it is easier. If you can do five to eight rows with knees bent and feet on the ground then start there. If you can do eight or more, start with straight leg rows.
Not everyone has access to a waist-high bar. There are other options, such as a table-top (make sure it’s stable) or a tree limb or fence. Additionally, you can buy suspension trainers or gymnastics rings that can attach overhead and be adjusted. Such a setup is ideal for the beginner because it allows a wide range of foot positions that alter the difficulty of the exercise.
The most difficult rowing option will be with feet elevated so that the body is horizontal at the starting point. If you can do ten rows with knees bent, start with this one. Once you are good at these you can move to assisted one-arm rowing options such as the archer row. Again, keep that ten to twelve rep guide as your cue to move on to the next exercise in the progression. After one-arm rows, you are ready to get your first pull-up!
The suspension trainers or gymnastics rings discussed previously will work well to assist you with your first pull-up. Set them at about chest height and use your legs to assist you with the pull-up movement. Additionally, you can do Jackknife pull-ups with your feet on an elevated object and your body bending at the waist.
When you are ready to try pull-ups using your full body weight, you should start with the negative. Each complete movement of any strength-training exercise has a positive and a negative component and, in the case of the a pull-up, the positive is when you are pulling yourself up and the negative is when you are letting yourself down. We are usually much stronger in the negative portion of a movement, so this is the place to start. If you have a bar or can adjust your rings to chest height, you can position yourself at the top part of the movement and then remove your feet from the ground and let yourself down as slowly as possible. This will not be very slow at all the first time you try it, but you will quickly grow stronger. Once you are able to do a slow descent, try holding yourself at the top for as long as you can before letting yourself down. If you do not have the suspension device or a bar at chest height, you can use a pull-up bar. Position a chair or stool under it and then (carefully!) stand on the stool so that you are at the top position of the pull-up. Slowly step off the stool and hold yourself up as long as you can and then slowly descend. At this point you are ready to try your first pull-up.
Step 3: Choose your squat
Squats are different from push-ups and pull-ups. The body-weight squat, or “air squat” is a fantastic movement, but most people are not as limited by strength like they are with push-ups and pull-ups, but rather with mobility. Despite what many people believe, a proper body-weight squat involves squatting below parallel with feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly outward. The squat should go all the way down (parallel is when your thighs are parallel to the ground) and your back should remain straight and upright. This is much more difficult than it sounds. It is best to keep your arms outstretched in front of you as a counter-weight. This proper squat requires a great deal of ankle mobility to allow for the movement and keeping the back straight without falling over backwards. That’s why it is best to perform the movement at first in a doorway or with some object in front of you such as a pole that you can hold on to as you go down. Concentrate on keeping your back straight and head up and practice this until you have achieved the required mobility to do it without grasping the doorway or object. You can also elevate your ankles an inch or so to help with this problem. But eventually shoot for keeping your feet flat on the ground.
Once you’ve mastered the squat movement and can do 15 or more body-weight squats with good form, you are ready to move on to one of the many one-legged squat variations. But don’t think about rep counts too much with air squats. Again, just about everything here is about form and mobility and flexibility. And I guarantee you that once you have the form improved to the point that you can squat deeply with a straight back, your legs will feel it! Strength building will occur, but correct form must be in place first.
One legged squats are nothing like two legged squats with twice the weight. Doing squats on one leg not only adds load but adds an additional mobility challenge and a big balance requirement. And these are good things! There are many options here that vary quite a bit in terms of posture and difficulty. Each option adds a balance requirement that can be approached by using a support such as a wall or door to hold you stable while learning the movement. Your reliance on the support can be systematically reduced to help you build the balance and mobility to perform the movement without help. At first, grasp the support with both hands. Move to one hand and then a finger or two for balance.
A couple of examples of one-legged squats would be the lunge and the pistol squat. The lunge involves keeping the non-squatting leg behind you and in contact with the ground. You can remain stationary and lunge forward or backward, or you can do walking lunges. The pistol squat is the mother of all body-weight squatting movements, and involves keeping the non-squatting leg straight at all times and, as you squat down, it is extended out in front of you. Pistol squats lend themselves well to assistance, as this advanced movement takes a very long time to master. Between these two movements is the hover lunge, which is like a lunge but with the non-working leg staying just above the ground rather than in contact with it.
One option to intensify squats without going to one leg would be to progress to an explosive or plyometric movement such jump squats. I do not train these or necessarily advocate them because, at 55 years of age, I am careful not to introduce a movement that might be hard on the knees, particularly as the exercises is progressed. However, if your knees are healthy and you perform your jumps squats on a forgiving surface such as the ground, you should be ok. Just make sure to back off if you feel any knee pain.
Step 4: Practice the movement to master the form and improve mobility
This step is primarily for the beginner or one who has been away from strength training for some time. But it could not be more important and should also be regularly revisited by the experienced trainee. Form is everything, after all. How you do an exercise is much more important than how many reps you do. A single rep properly performed is more stimulating and effective than five poorly preformed reps. Additionally, proper execution of the exercise helps to spare the joints and avoid chronic stiffness, pain and damage. This is because mobility and flexibility in addition to strength are built into a full range of motion. Performing exercises with proper form gives you these three benefits at the same time and is therefore a superior way to train.
For Step 4, choose your target exercise in each of the three categories and simply practice that movement with your attention to form only. Do not perform enough reps to exhaust your muscles. Instead, practice the movement and master it. You can do this as often as you like. If your chosen push movement is the standard push-up, and you can do a max of 10, practice in sets of 3 or 4 with perfect form as often as you like. You will find that the comfort level and muscle memory will grow quickly and you will be ready very soon to start your workouts.
Step 5: Do three workouts a week and three sets of each exercise per workout, record your reps
Three is the minimum number of sides required to enclose a geometric shape with straight sides and is the minimum number of legs to allow a stool to stand. It is also, perhaps, the minimum number of workouts per week, exercises per workout, and sets per exercise to allow muscle growth. This not set in stone and is more of a context or reference point than a strict rule. But there is a very long history of muscle and strength success in this model, and it has certainly served as my main approach and that to which I return on a regular basis.
Working out once a week as a beginner will have little value, as you will not be equipped to perform the amount of volume and intensity needed to spark growth. On the other hand, working out five times a week as a beginner would quickly lead to exhaustion and defeat. Three times a week with a day between each workout is a great place to start.
The most important things are that you need to work as hard as you can in the workouts, you need to give your muscles time to recover, and you need to make progress. The 3 sets / 3 exercises / 3 workouts scheme is a framework for you to reach these goals and to assess your progress. You can change it later but it’s a great place to start.
For each set of each exercise, you need to work hard enough so that the last couple of reps are difficult but not impossible. That is, leave a few reps “in the tank”, meaning you could do another or two more if you had to. But refraining from going “to failure” (couldn’t do another rep) ensures that you can continue the workout and will not exhaust yourself too much. And coming close to failure will insure that you will build strength and muscle.
Your goal should be three sets of twelve repetitions for each exercise. Once you have reached this goal, you will move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression. Once you have progressed enough that you are approaching this goal, it is best not to spend all your energy on the first set or the second set. That is, let’s say in the last workout you got 12, 11 and 10 for your push-ups. That means three sets of twelve are in sight. In the next workout, if you could do 14 reps on the first set, don’t. Save it for the last two sets. Try to expend most of your effort on the third set. Using this “back fill” method will help you reach the milestone much more effectively.
Step 6: Once target reps have been achieved, move to the next exercise in the progression and repeat Step 5
This is the essence of progressive calisthenics! Once you have achieved your target reps on the three sets of an exercise, you have “graduated” from that exercise, and you are ready to move on to the next most difficult exercise in the progression. This is a little like adding a weight to a barbell that you’ve never tried before, although it’s much more interesting.
To illustrate, let’s say that you started with regular push-ups, and after a couple of weeks you reached three sets of twelve. It’s time to move on, and moving on means adjusting your posture or limb positions in order to either remove advantage or increase load. For example, if you moved from a regular push-up to a diamond push-up, you would move the hands closer to the mid-line of the body, thereby increasing the requirement of the triceps (muscles on the back of the arm) and decreasing it for the pectorals (chest), making the exercise more difficult. You are removing the advantage of having the larger muscle group (the pectorals) do most of the work. Alternatively, you could keep the same hand position but elevate the feet. This will increase the load over the pushing muscles, making the exercise more difficult.
At some point your progress will take you far enough that you will need to move to unilateral movements. Unilateral movements place the focus on one of the working limbs at a time. Examples here would be one-arm push-ups, pistol squats, and archer pull-ups. But here’s the thing: one-arm push-ups and pull-ups are MUCH more than twice as difficult as their two-arm versions. The increase in load alone is dramatic. By load standards alone, it would be like going from a 185 lb bench press to a 370 lb bench press. This, in addition to the balance and mobility requirements making a move from a two-limbed movement all the way to a one-limbed movement in one step completely impossible.
Fortunately there are many steps between the bilateral and completely unilateral versions of each movement. Each of these steps serves as a notch on the progression. For example, the king of all one-legged squat variations is the pistol squat. When you perform this movement, the non-squatting leg stays off the ground during the entire execution of the exercise. There are other aspects of the pistol squat as well that make it difficult. But take instead the lunge. The lunge can be performed in many different ways, but all of them involve the non-working leg staying in contact with the ground. The lunge should be your next leg exercise after the air squat.
The down-side of unilateral movements is that you must perform each working set twice, one for the left and one for the right. But the trade-off is that you are building immense power and balance, and you are naturally overcoming any strength imbalances you may have on one side or the other. For example, if your left leg is weaker than your right, this problem will not be overcome with air squats, as you will likely compensate by working harder with your right leg. This is not possible with a unilateral movement.
Step 7: Repeat Steps 5 & 6
As you progress from one exercise to the next within a category (such as going from feet-elevated rows to pull-ups), your rep totals will drop back down. If you got three sets of twelve regular push-ups and then move on to feet-elevated push-ups in the next workout, do not expect three sets of twelve. You will work your way back up to three sets of twelve (more quickly than before) and move up once again. That’s how the whole thing works. Lather, rinse, repeat. You never have to worry about not knowing what to do next. Isn’t it beautiful?
Post-Script: Advanced Programming and Splits
At some point you will outgrow the three-workout-per-week program described here. Your work will be so advanced and so intense that you will need more time off between workouts than a single day. This is a good thing. At this point you may want to either take two days off between workouts or switch to a split routine. With a split routine you divide the exercises up across days. You may do the pushing and pulling movements on one day, squats the next, and then take the third day off. This is commonly referred to as upper/lower (upper and lower referring to body). Another option is the very popular push/pull/squat. Pushing movements one day, pulling the next, squats the third. Then you can take a day off or start over if you feel ready. With the upper/lower and push/pull/squat, you may want to see if you can handle more sets per workout.
Don’t get overwhelmed by all the possibilities, and don’t worry too much about numbers. To be perfectly honest with you, I spend most of my time doing basic push-ups, basic pull-ups, and air squats. Write things down if it makes you feel better but you don’t have to. Three workouts, three exercises, etc., those are just reference points. Twelve reps per set as the signal to move on… again, just a reference point. You might feel better with eight or with twenty. The point is to find a place to start and to actually start and to keep at it. BY FAR the most important things you can do are use good form, work out out as often as you can while still maintaining consistent progress, and push your sets to near failure. Oh, I almost forgot the most important one – keep it up! Get to a point where it’s second nature to you to do strength training. Design a program that does not stress you out but still meets the main requirements. And by the way, age is not a factor. I didn’t start training calisthenics seriously until I was in my mid 40s and didn’t get certified as an instructor until I was 54. Now that you know how simple it can be, you can do it anywhere, any time, at any age. But most importantly, just do it!
This incredible move is quite possibly the only push movement you ever need for strength AND flexibility! Why? Because it encompasses two yoga moves and two calisthenics strength moves. It starts with Downward Dog, dives down to a vertical push then Upward Dog and then to a pike push-up. WOW.
The “dog” components are great for mobility and flexibility. Really take your time with these and change your hip position. As you’re going from Downward Dog to the dive, really try to keep your nose just above the ground and flex your spine. Next, push your upper body almost vertically as if it were a body-weight dip, then hold this Upward Dog position. Try to reverse the dive and if you’ve ever practiced pike push-ups, the last component of the move will feel very familiar. If I’m really taking my time and feeling the components, I can’t do more than five of these.
My spinal and shoulder flexibility leave a lot to be desired here, but I’m getting there!
Towel rows involve using a towel draped over a sturdy elevated object such as a door frame, table, or tree limb. You grasp each end of the towel and perform the rowing movement. This is a great exercise for two main reasons. First, towels are quite common and there are many places throughout the inside of the house and outside where you can drape one and do rows. This allows you to do rows without a need for any added equipment. Second, they are fantastic for grip strength. You must grip the towel hard enough that you do not slip off the towel and fall on the floor. This is important because grip strength is one of the most accurate indicators of health and vitality in older adults.
As with any row, the more upright your body, the easier the exercise is. The closer your body is to horizontal, the more difficult.
The Jackknife pull-up is a fantastic exercise for a couple of reasons. First, it can be used as a bridge exercise to help you on the journey to your first full body-weight pull-up. Second, it is a kind of hybrid between the horizontal pull and the vertical pull movement patterns, which are two essential movements in the pulling family. The horizontal pull includes the row, where your feet are on the ground or a raised surface and your body is roughly parallel to the ground. The vertical pull includes the pull-up and the chin-up, among others
If you are training for your first pull-up Start with rings or suspension trainers at about armpit height. Grasp the rings and position yourself so your legs are out in front of you and your body is an L shape. If you straighten your legs out and your body is roughly parallel to the ground you are doing a row. The more you bend at the waist, the closer you are coming to the true Jackknife pull-up. You can start with rows and as you get stronger, move closer and closer to the Jackknife position. When you get comfortable here, it is time to elevate your feet.
If using this for your main pulling exercise Find an object to put your feet on that is between 2-3 feet high. The higher it is, the more difficult the exercise will be. Place the object relatively close to the rings or trainers, probably about 2 feet away. The closer the object is to the trainers, the more vertical your upper body will be when performing the movement. This more closely approximates the pull-up and will be the most difficult variation. Don’t worry about keeping your legs straight but make sure you are bending at the waist as much as you can. Try to keep that Jackknife position. You can use your legs to some degree to assist you with the movement.