Volume, Intensity and Frequency in Muscle and Strength Building: Some Personal Data

Three fundamental concepts in muscle and strength building are volume, intensity and frequency. Volume is the total amount of work that you do, the number of sets and reps for a given period of time. Intensity refers to how hard you work in each set, or how close you come to “failure” – the point where you would not be able to do another repetition. It is widely believed that there is an inverse relationship between these two, as volume goes up, intensity must come down, and vice versa. Frequency refers to how often you work a particular exercise or muscle group. If you are performing lots of sets and/or some very intense sets, it is believed that you can’t do it very often. Frequency is rarely manipulated in the other direction or used as a measure of progress. The rule seems to be that as volume and/or intensity go up, frequency must come down.

I don’t necessarily believe this.

It’s common in the mainstream strength-building world to strive for progress on the first two dimensions. For example, as we grow stronger we may do more sets and/or more exercises and/or more reps per set. This is an increase in volume. Or we may progress by adding weight or difficulty to the exercises and by coming closer to failure in each set. This is an increase in intensity. But the conventional wisdom always holds that as you increase on any of these dimensions, the others must decrease, and particularly for the present discussion, if you increase volume or intensity, you will need to reduce frequency. You need to rest, and the more work that you do the more rest you need.

I smell a challenge.

It stands to reason that a third way to progress would be to increase frequency while keeping the other two variables constant. And what’s even more intriguing is the idea that we can progress on all three dimensions at the same time if we play our cards right! If I do X amount of work today and then again three days from now, a form of progress would be to do that same amount of work two days from now with the same quality of performance. Following that, I might be able to do the same work every day. And then I might be able to do a bit MORE work every day. This is where it gets exciting for me, as I am an avowed conventional wisdom buster. If you ever tell a weight-lifter that you work the same muscles or exercises every day, you’ll be met with some combination of skepticism, laughter, and shock. But doesn’t it make sense that as I grow stronger, I should be able to do the work more often? Shouldn’t I be able to recover more quickly because I am stronger, better, and more experienced?

Why is conventional wisdom busting so exciting? It’s not just that it gives me a thrill, like an amusement park ride. Although, it does. But beyond that it’s about not blindly accepting as fact something just because it is written somewhere. Meaningful progress throughout history has often come from those who challenged the status quo and who said “if you tell me that I can’t do it, then I’m going to do it!” It’s also about thinking for yourself rather than letting others think for you. Because they may not be thinking at all, but rather selling. More time to rest between workouts means more time to look at advertisements for “recovery products” that are apparently essential to help you bust through barriers and make gains. For example, for only $54.99, you can get the “twisted lemon lime RX-3 Reconstruxion muscle recovery supplement (made with Stevia, although the other ingredients are not readily apparent. Also comes in “Frosty Pina Colada”, “Fruit Punch Fury”, “Raspberry Lemonade” and “Crisp Green Apple”.) You can also get “RX Base Stack Pre / Post Recovery ($129.97), RX-2 X-LR8 Post Workout Protein ($59.99) and the Mechan-X Joint Recovery Formula ($49.99)“. Yum!

In the real world, maybe true gains include the ability to do more work more often (without supplements). I believe that the body works this way. Gymnasts certainly work this way. I believe that we should be able to (gradually) increase volume, intensity AND frequency and as long as we do it in a systematic and incremental fashion, we should be able to make progress on all three dimensions – volume, intensity and frequency – at the same time.

I tested this. In my day job I am a data analyst for a large non-profit community health center in Washington, DC. I’ve applied my experience with data to my workouts over the last couple of weeks in order to test whether or not I can make progress doing the same exercises every day, to or near failure.

I did three exercises: push-ups, pull-ups and squats. I performed one set of each exercise per day and recorded the total number of reps that I was able to do. I tried to go as close to failure as I could while keeping good form, and I tried to exceed my performance from the prior day.

Here are the results:

Maximum reps on push-ups, pull-ups and squats for a single set each day

You can definitely do the same exercises every day to or near failure and still make progress. That said, a few ideas became clear to me as I did this experiment. First, this is almost as much a mental game as a physical game. For example, on the first day I did 20 push-ups, 20 squats and 6 pull-ups. Although I was a bit out of practice when I started this experiment, I certainly could have done more that first day. I think I subconsciously set myself a low bar to start. (However, on the first day I could not have done anywhere near what I did at the end of the two weeks.) Second, with each passing day I was more motivated to beat the prior day’s numbers, so each day I worked a little harder and tolerated a little more pain, burn and fatigue in order to get there. So the actual experience of intensity grew over the course of the two weeks. Third, and most relevant to this discussion, I was still able to improve performance the next day. Each day I knew the totals I needed to beat, and it was never easy to do so, but I never actually failed to nearly match or exceed the prior day’s totals. So again, I’m not sure I ever reached true failure but rather came a little closer to it, and worked harder, each day. And on some days I probably could have eked out another rep or two but may have subconsciously not wanted to set myself up for failure, so to speak, the next day. Any way you look at it, though, my reps steadily increased along with the intensity and burn, while the proximity to failure each day remained about the same after the first few days. This is progress.

In this scenario, volume and intensity were systematically increased in the form of more reps performed in a single set in the same amount of time. It is important to note that I did not systematically increase frequency in this experiment. Rather, I kept it constant. But my squat total tripled, my push-up total increased 2.5 times, and my pull-up total more than tripled. Under conventional wisdom these kinds of gains would require proportional increases in rest. Under this unconventional wisdom they did not.

This experiment really brought into focus for me the importance of effort. We’ve all seen people in gyms merely going through the motions and never progressing and never appearing to work very hard. On the other hand, we’ve seen people try to lift too much weight on their first set, such that they struggle on the second rep, form goes out the window immediately, and they fail on the third rep. At that point the workout is essentially done and you’ve accomplished very little. The true money is in the well executed set where each rep retains good form but the last few reps burn and really challenge you. And when you feel that you’ve really had enough, you should try one more. Muhammad Ali said that “I only start counting when it starts hurting. That’s what makes you a champion.”

If one were interested in continuing this experiment, the next logical step would be to add a second set of each exercise per day. You would also want to keep the timing as constant as possible, so the amount of rest between attempts can be systematically decreased. For example, you might do your first set of each exercise at 8:00 AM each day and then your second set at 8:00 PM. You could progress frequency by moving the second set earlier in the day and then as progress continues, if it does, add a third set per day.

The Next Experiment
I really enjoyed this experiment and was surprised by the results. I expected my gains to plateau after a few days. But one thing I did not like was how easy it was to sacrifice quality for quantity. My rep quality was good throughout the experiment but certainly much worse after 48th push-up, for example, than the 12th. It’s very easy to relax form when that numeric goal is in sight. Therefore, for my next experiment, I am systematically increasing volume, intensity AND frequency, while keeping form excellent throughout.

I expect this new experiment to be much more extensive and the results to be much more revealing. I will explain how it will work in my next article.

Which Diet Is Best? Vegan? Paleo? Keto? Mediterranean? (Just Ask Your Great Grandmother)

Another article about optimal diet is just what you need right now, right? Well yes, actually. And there is a very specific reason why. There is perhaps nothing more rife with BS, politics, and misinformation than talk of proper diet. Most of the diet and nutrition space resembles identity politics. And that’s precisely why it’s important to have a look at this and to climb out of the rabbit hole. I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t feel I had something valuable to say. What I’m going to tell in you in answer to the question of whether you should go vegan, paleo, keto or Mediterranean is that, as far as actual physical health is concerned, it doesn’t really matter that much. And I’m going to tell you why. Politics and bias aside, the distinguishing factors in each of these dietary approaches are trivial in terms of actual impact on health. What’s more, focusing on their dietary restrictions and distinctions actually prevents us from understanding what and how we should be eating in order to be healthy.

Three Films
Last year I completed an arduous exercise. I watched three documentaries about diet and nutrition: Forks Over Knives, The Magic Pill, and Cooked. (I do not recommend doing this.) The exercise helped me to see what is truly important in understanding how diet affects health (and guess what… you already know what that is). It also helped me to understand how we are susceptible to persuasion and essentially unaware of bias towards or against dietary rules and how they may be influencing our beliefs. It became clear that our decision to follow a restrictive diet has far less to do with objective physical health than it does positioning ourselves on one side of the aisle or the other.

Both Forks Over Knives and The Magic Pill attempt to persuade the viewer about what to eat, whereas Cooked does not. Forks and Magic are both “advocacy films”. Advocacy films are “designed to influence public opinion and ultimately policy. They play an important role in the development of political and social systems.” Cooked was not an advocacy file and was by far the most persuasive of the three and the only one that had any kind of impact on me at all. And it had a big impact.

What I found most enlightening in watching these three films was that the first two, Forks Over Knives and The Magic Pill, followed VERY similar scripts even though the key dietary approaches ultimately advocated by each are about as different as can be. Forks Over Knives argues very persuasively for veganism, whereas The Magic Pill argues very persuasively for a low carbohydrate or “keto” diet. (Note: Although it’s used interchangeably with low carb, the term “keto” has a very specific meaning. “Keto” is short for “ketogenic”, which is the physiological state that occurs after you have eaten a very low carbohydrate diet for some time. Your liver produces ketone bodies in the absence of carbohydrates, which can be used for fuel and other things.)

The pattern in both Forks Over Knives and The Magic Pill was to introduce a cast of characters who are very sick. They are all of us. Their maladies range from obesity to diabetes to asthma to depression to hypertension to ….. They are old, they are young, they take multiple medications. They are our reality: chronic disease. Both films showed that the sufferers for the most part followed the SAD, or the Standard American Diet. SAD is limited mostly to processed convenient foods, sweets, empty calories, sugary beverages, low-nutrient snacks made largely of refined carbohydrates, and frequent eating. Each film then points to a main culprit behind the characters’ illnesses. But rather than to suggest that the health problems are due mainly to a lack of healthy food and surplus of unhealthy food in the diet, each film singles out a food group or a macro-nutrient group (the macro-nutrients are fat, carbohydrate, and protein) as the main source of the problem. In the case of Forks, the enemy is animal products, and in the cast of Magic, it’s carbohydrates. The characters are then put on a strict balanced diet which, in addition to restricting the food or macro-nutrient group believed to be the cause of all the problems, also removes the junk and replaces it with real food. So, in Forks, the participants moved from SAD to a diet full of fruit, vegetables, legumes, nuts, seeds and whole grains. Those in the Magic film ate meat, seafood, low carb vegetables, (to exclude starchy things like potatoes and roots), dairy, nuts and seeds, and low carb fruit (like berries).

Guess what? Meds were discarded, airways cleared, pants fit again, tears were shed. Everyone got better!

Note that in one film animal products are the source of the problem (reduced down to the very very bad macro-nutrient: saturated fat) and in the other they are central to a healthy diet. So each movie really is about vilifying a single macro-nutrient group, either fat (in animal products) or carbohydrates. If you are a history buff and are interested in this subject, then you will find that there is a long cyclical tradition of demonizing these two macro-nutrient groups. Interestingly, the third macro-nutrient, protein, has never really been the villain. This is due in large part to the prevailing, and incorrect, belief that more protein helps you build more muscle.

In my own lifetime I recall fat very much being the enemy for many of my earlier years and in the very difficult nutrition class that I took in college, until Dr. Atkins came along with his revolution. Suddenly fat is fine but carbohydrates are the enemy. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find William Banting advocating a low carb diet in 1863 in his “Letter on Corpulence to the Public”. Similarly, studies dating back to the 1940s linked dietary fat with heart disease, an idea that was etched in stone by the work of Ancel Keys, and certainly helped to bring us standards of today that are seldom questioned by many of us, such as cereal, toast, pancakes, and oatmeal for breakfast; standards, I hasten to add, that do NOT take our health into consideration in any way, shape or form.

I realized that the characters in Forks Over Knives and The Magic Pill who benefited from the dietary changes had FAR more in common than apart in terms of diet by simply replacing junk with real food. This taught me that either of these approaches can be fine and in fact, any diet can vastly improve physical health as long as it replaces junk with a wide range of real food most of the time. This is not to say that each diet doesn’t have individual merit beyond the removal of processed food. You may have ethical or religious objections to eating animal products or you may have certain medical conditions that would respond well to a low carb diet (such as diabetes, obesity, or some cancers). You may be one who easily gains weight, you may not tolerate gluten, or you may not be able to handle the idea that something died to give you your dinner. These are fine reasons for food group restrictions. But the value of the diet on overall health is not the food group or macro-nutrient restriction per se but rather the replacing of processed and junk food with real food. And this speaks volumes.

As far is diet is concerned, and I mean diet in the sense of Lose Weight, Get Healthy!, restriction (and suffering and will power) really seems to be important to our psyches. Obviously to lose weight SOMETHING has to be restricted. But the concept of transforming your health through changing your diet really has more to do with replacement than restriction, and maybe this is where our focus should be. But the idea that it has to hurt and you have to have will power seems to be required.

I first became interested in diet and nutrition when I, a former skinny guy who could eat anything, and did, had to grapple with mid-life unexplained weight gain. I’m not sure how I found it, but I read a book called The Primal Blueprint by Mark Sisson, and it really struck a cord with me. The approach advocated in this book extends and improves upon the very popular and enduring “Paleo Diet”, originally popularized by Robb Wolf in the book The Paleo Solution. The premise of The Primal Blueprint, and then Primal Health Coach program (of which I am a graduate) is that the preponderance of chronic health problems today result from the fact that our diets and behaviors do not match our genes. I’ll spare you the details but the gist is that our genetic blueprint was finalized sometime shortly after the paleolithic era when we were still hunter-gatherers and before the age of agriculture. As such, our genetics are more suited to pre-agricultural foods such as animals and the kinds of vegetables that grow in gardens but not to grains, legumes and other foods that are produced on a large scale via agriculture. These are the foods that are grown abundantly and cheaply in order to feed billions of people affordably. Therefore, the paleo diet excludes wheat, corn, rice, beans, peanuts, soy, oats, barley and any foods derived from these ingredients. This makes it one of the more restrictive diets out there. And in fact, the most restrictive version of the paleo diet is called Whole30. The Whole30 challenge eliminates all grains and legumes, alcohol, dairy, soy, non-essential medications, sugar, sweeteners such as honey and syrup and a variety of other things. This is the ultimate paleo elimination diet.

It is important to note that there are features of the Primal Blueprint that set it apart from healthy behaviors limited to food. The Primal Blueprint discusses factors such as sleep, sunlight, play and stress management.

The extent to which the paleo/primal/Whole30 approach improves health is not actually relevant to this article beyond the fact that it includes real food and excludes junk. To me, things like whole grains, legumes, dairy, and to some extent alcohol are gray areas that do not make or break a healthy diet necessarily. More importantly, the paleo/primal approach is very restrictive and based on assumptions that simply are not tractable for most people in the today’s world. It is very difficult to maintain the restrictions even 80% of the time (as the Primal Blueprint recommends). It’s very difficult to live like a hunter gatherer when there’s nothing much to hunt or gather. Furthermore, is it even possible to KNOW what the paleolithic humans really ate? This is what the main body of paleo diet criticism is based upon – “Paleo Fantasy” argues that we can’t know what paleolithic humans ate and even if we could, our food of today is vastly different. More importantly, it’s not the actual food types or categories (such as meat, vegetables, roots, fruit) that have been important throughout our evolution, but rather overall food availability. “From the standpoint of paleoecology, the Paleolithic diet is a myth,” Peter Ungar writes. “Food choice is as much about what is available to be eaten as it is about what a species evolved to eat.”

For present purposes the point here is that it’s really not worth speculating about what the diet of an ancient human consisted of in order to try and imitate it with foods available 12,000 years later. The paleo diet and particularly the primal diet improve health markedly, but again, it’s because of the vast contrast to SAD. Compliance is quite difficult, however, and whether or not whole grains and legumes are actually a problem for most of us pales in comparison to the extent to which sugar and processed wheat are. So you can try to be a knuckle-dragger if you want but know that it will be very difficult to maintain and may not be entirely necessary.

Take a look at the pictures below. They are graphic representations of the vegan, paleo, keto and Mediterranean diets. You can clearly see how they are virtually indistinguishable from one another and how much more they have in common than not. And it’s not very difficult to distinguish them from the last picture, which is, well, just SAD.

Vegan. Grains included but no meat, eggs or dairy.
Paleo. No grains, legumes or soy.
Keto. No high carb foods such as grains, root vegetables and most fruit.
Mediterranean. Includes whole grains and legumes, meat is eaten infrequently. No processed food.
Reminds me of college

Mediterranean Diet
If you were to take the paleo diet and add back in the foods that it restricts because they were developed after agriculture (things like grains, legumes and dairy), but not junk, you would roughly have what is today referred to as the Mediterranean Diet, which I think can serve as a good template for a healthy diet of today. According to the Mayo Clinic, “The Mediterranean diet is a way of eating based on the traditional cuisine of countries bordering the Mediterranean Sea. While there is no single definition of the Mediterranean diet, it is typically high in vegetables, fruits, whole grains, beans, nuts and seeds, and olive oil.” This sounds great. And it IS great. But what’s Mediterranean about this, really?

Here’s what I mean. I once belonged to a Facebook group for the Mediterranean Diet. I happily posted a picture to the Mediterranean Diet Facebook group of a wide range of fresh foods I had recently purchased and laid out on the kitchen counter, to include fruits, vegetables, olives, dried beans, pickles, canned fatty freshwater fish and freshly baked bread. I was excited about the post, but it was rejected by the Mediterranean Diet Facebook group moderators. It was rejected because the picture contained bread that was “likely made of white flower” (the words of the moderator). The Mediterranean Diet, they pointed out, only includes WHOLE grains. The funny thing was, the bread in my picture was baked at a Greek bakery in Astoria, NY (Greek town). And indeed it was very much like the bread I’ve enjoyed in Greece many times. The rest of the items were purchased at my regular grocery store. So the rejected item was the only thing in the picture that was actually Mediterranean. Health benefits or risks aside, the photo was rejected simply because it might have violated arbitrary rules about group membership. I quit the Facebook group.

Fortunately I got over the need to belong to a dietary group and realized I can happily benefit from the “Mediterranean Diet” without needing to call it that or believe that what I’m deciding to eat and not to eat has anything to do with those regions near a certain sea.

Just Ask Your Great Grandmother
And of course your great grandmother knew all the things I’m saying here without knowing them. That’s why a good rule of thumb for whether or not something is a healthy food is whether or not your great grandmother would recognize it as food. Imagine being granted an other-worldly sit-down with your long lost great grandmother and when she asks you what you’re eating for dinner, you tell her about your calculated macro-nutrient ratios which you’re tracking in an app, and how you’re keeping your carbohydrate intake under 50 grams a day in order to prevent excessive insulin release and fat storage and how you start each day with a whey protein shake with MCT (medium chain triglyceride) oil and you like to take your fish in pill form. You tell her that strawberries, kale, avocado, arugula and honeydew are just fine but apples, potatoes, carrots and oranges are the devil’s work. Or maybe you tell her that saturated fat is inflammatory, that all your meals are prepared by people you’ve never met and come delivered by UPS every week, and you think you might be lactose intolerant. Tell her you do all your food preparation in a blender or the microwave. Or maybe you tell her that you’re making bread out of almond and coconut flour or that you like burgers made of “Water, Pea Protein*, Expeller-Pressed Canola Oil, Refined Coconut Oil, Rice Protein, Natural Flavors, Cocoa Butter, Mung Bean Protein, Methylcellulose, Potato Starch, Apple Extract, Pomegranate Extract, Salt, Potassium Chloride, Vinegar, Lemon Juice Concentrate, Sunflower Lecithin, Beet Juice Extract (for color).” (Beyond Beef ingredients.) At best she’d look at you like you were speaking in tongues and then she’d give you a stern thimble to the forehead. And you’d deserve it.

The Politics of Food
One side of the aisle has persuaded us that X in and of itself is bad for us. Let’s say X is beef (from cows). Never mind the fact that the human genome is based largely on a few million years of evolution where such a food item was central, and also that beef from cows today might be bad for things other than our health, such as the planet’s health while trying to sustain 7 billion people. Also never mind the fact that beef from cows raised humanely and fed appropriate diets is vastly more healthy than beef from cows raised in feed lots that are given antibiotics, hormones, and food designed to fatten them up as quickly as possible. The sustainability argument doesn’t land a punch so you must be persuaded that beef itself is bad for YOUR health despite your evolutionary history, and is in fact why you are overweight and have high blood pressure (it’s not).

BUT, we love burgers. We’re Americans and burgers are fundamental to being an American. So we must keep this food that identifies us and that we have grown up eating and loving, but we must take the one thing in it that makes it itself (the beef) and throw it away because it’s unhealthy. And in its place we must fashion a burger golem that sort of looks and (maybe) smells like the real thing but is actually made largely of laboratory ingredients and bleeds beet juice. And we have decided that THIS is healthy. Again, planet-sparing? Maybe. Healthy? … (thimble to the forehead.)

Vegan burgers

And of course, the other side of aisle has no problem with the beef from cows, but sees the bun as the problem. It really is ridiculous.

Keto burger. The bun has been replaced by lettuce. And paper.

Let’s go down this rabbit hole for a second. How about the the tofu turkey?

So succulent

How about a nice keto rye?

Can also be used to build a bookshelf

There’s something else your great grandmother knew, and it is seldom mentioned in books or articles about improving your health by eating a certain way. And that is the real meaning of food and eating, beyond body-fat percentage, tribal affiliation, and chronic diseases of affluenza. There’s a really good reason why they used to ring bells at dinner time and the dining room table was the centerpiece of the family and the household. Enter Cooked by Michael Pollan.

In Cooked, Michael Pollan does not tell us what to eat, but rather Why. Not Why in the physiological sense, but Why in the social, emotional and psychological sense. This is why Cooked is so compelling.

There is so much to Cooked beyond healthy eating, but for the present discussion, Pollan points out that the healthiest foods in the grocery store are those on the perimeter. The closer you get to the center aisles, the less healthy the foods are. Produce, meat, seafood and other fresh foods exist on the perimeter of the store, whereas processed and packaged foods are found at the center.

Captain Krunch is right in the middle of the store, next to the candy aisle.

Pollan shows that those center-aisle foods are the ones making the most health claims (“heart healthy whole grains in Cheerios!”, “now with added vitamin D!”, “highest in anti-oxidants!”). Have you ever seen an anti-oxidant? Do you know why it might be good for you?

The foods on the perimeter of the store are very quiet. In fact, they make no health claims whatsoever. But they DO require cooking for the most part, and cooking is, in fact, what the documentary is about. Pollan connects with food and therefore with our reasons for eating that are beyond biological, through cooking. Cooked “becomes an investigation of how cooking involves us in a web of social and ecological relationships. Cooking, above all, connects us.”

“The effects of not cooking are .. far reaching. Relying upon corporations to process our food means we consume large quantities of fat, sugar, and salt; disrupt an essential link to the natural world; and weaken our relationships with family and friends. In fact, Cooked argues, taking back control of cooking may be the single most important step anyone can take to help make the American food system healthier and more sustainable. Reclaiming cooking as an act of enjoyment and self-reliance, learning to perform the magic of these everyday transformations, opens the door to a more nourishing life.” This improves the health of all of us.

What To Do and What Not To Do
I’m trivializing the question of whether it would be best to go vegan, paleo, Mediterranean, keto, or any other of the many fad diets currently or recently in vogue because I think that the real value behind those diets are what they have in common rather than their differences. Let’s be clear. I do not want to insult my vegan, paleo, keto and Mediterranean diet-following friends. And I certainly would not minimize anyone’s successes with the diets. I just don’t think these different “ways of eating” offer anything of true value when it comes to improving or maintaining the individual health of the average person beyond what simply getting away from the SAD diet would do. Rather, what these “Ways Of Eating” offer is dogma, partisanship, and distinctions without meaningful differences. If they offer you a sense of belonging and motivation to continue eating healthy real food, then great. But understand where the health improvements are coming from.

The Blue Zones help to make my point. The Blue Zones are pockets throughout the world containing disproportionately high numbers of centenarians, or people living 100 or more years. Blue zones are found in Greece, Italy, Japan, South America, and California, among other places. The diets of the blue zone inhabitants are markedly different from one another. Tofu, fish and sea vegetables are staples in one, dairy and fruit in another, and corn in a third. Most of them eat animals, but not often, although some eat fish every day. The Blue Zone inhabitants in California are Seventh Day Adventists and as such are largely vegan. Alcohol is consumed daily in some Blue Zones and never in other Blue Zones. Carbs are plentiful in most Blue Zones. Processed food, however, is not. People in the Blue Zones are not concerned much about how healthy their food may be and do not have calorie goals. Importantly, although the diets may vary greatly in the Blue Zones, the lifestyles do not. In the Blue Zones, the individual foods do not matter as much as the fact that they are real, are available and grown or raised locally, are enjoyed in moderation and with family and friends, and fuel a life full of natural movement, adequate rest, hard work, and social activity.

If you are really interested in this stuff and want to make informed choices, I think it’s best to follow science. Which dietary principles are actually backed by research? Take a look at the book called A Grain of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat, Real Clear Science, and the nutrition section of Science Based Medicine.

At the end of the day you need to be motivated and confident about the dietary choices that you are making and they need to make sense and fall in line with your own history and your culture and the preferences and values of your family and your ancestors. They also need to respect the times in which you are living. Reclaim diet from the TV and social media and the test tube and put it back in the kitchen and on the dining room table. You need to eat real food (most of the time) that multiple generations of humans, especially your family, would recognize as real food. And you should probably learn how to cook it and serve it. You shouldn’t think too much about it and you really don’t need to measure it or track it or photograph it unless it helps you to help yourself and others and to earn a living.

Your Great Grandma would approve.

You Should Try Mechanical Drop Sets

Drop sets are exquisite.  Drop sets are brutal.  Drop sets are so efficient, they are a way for you to get an entire workout from just one set!  They are also a way for you to include ALL rep ranges in a single set!  

Rep ranges are a hot topic in strength training circles.  If you have the patience you can google it, but the gist is that different rep ranges are thought to have different effects on muscle building and strength development.  An exercise or weight that is difficult enough for you to only be able to do five or fewer reps is thought to be best for building pure strength, whereas a higher range such as 10-12 is believed better for building muscle.  An even higher range is best for conditioning and endurance. I think they’re ALL important, but do you have time and energy to practice them all?

Drop sets allow the entire range in a single set. In the weightlifting world, you would pick an exercise and a weight that allows only a few good reps. At that point, put that weight down and pick the next lighter weight and keep going. Do this all the way down the rack until the final weight is a fraction of the starting weight. In the end you have done a set of 20 or more reps, but each one of those reps was very difficult and near the limit of your strength and ability.

But with calisthenics we don’t use weights, so how can we do drop sets? The answer is that we do Mechanical drop sets. Rather than changing the weight, we change the angle or hand position or foot position to make each phase of the set slightly less difficult than the preceding phase. You can also accomplish this with exercise selection, as long as the exercises you choose are in the same general grouping, such as push, pull and squat.

Here’s a video showing a mechanical drop set in the push group. I start out with dips, but because dips are relatively easy for me, I made sure the form was good and the tempo was rather slow. Once I couldn’t do another, I move to diamond push-ups, then to regular push-ups, then to incline push-ups. As you can see, it got difficult very quickly. The sky’s the limit here; you can keep going as long as you have variations to add and energy in your tank. Believe me, you will really feel it if you try these.

Below is a video showing a mechanical drop set for pulling exercises. It’s a little bit more difficult to orchestrate drop sets for pulling exercises with a bar, as you would need bars at varying heights. However, you can easily accomplish drop sets for pulling exercises using gymnastics rings or suspension trainers. Although exercises in general are more difficult with rings or trainers because you do not have the stability of the bar, you are able to easily vary your body position without needing to change the height of the rings or trainers. Put them at about waist height or a little higher. This will allow a pull-up with your legs out in front of you, or an L-Sit Pull-Up (a VERY difficult exercise). From there you can put your feet to the ground and change their position as well as the position of your upper body to accomplish a variety of rows.

Single Leg Squat Progression

Body-weight squats are a fantastic exercise for so many reasons. The squat is a natural human movement pattern that serves many functions. Once you have the mobility and flexibility to master the correct form, you can quickly build up a great deal of leg strength so that body-weight squats eventually become as much a conditioning or fat burning exercise as a strength-building exercise. For my progressive calisthenics instructor certification test, for example, we had to do 40 full-range-of-motion squats to start the test.

Once you have gotten to the point of sets of 20 or more two-legged body-weight squats with proper form, it is time to start working on single-leg squats. Single leg squats more than double the difficulty of regular squats, as they require much more strength in addition to mobility, flexibility, and balance. The pistol squat is the king of single leg squats. It is an advanced move that takes quite a long time to master. Additionally, it can be stressful on the knees if trained improperly and particularly if you are older. I don’t train the free-standing pistol squat regularly for these reasons. But there are many variations of single-leg squats and lunges between the two-leg variety and the free-standing pistol squat. This post discussing two of these variations: the Bulgarian Split Squat and the Hover Lunge. At the end of the post is a video that demonstrates all of the exercises necessary to master these two moves.

Bulgarian Split Squat
Stand about two to three feet in front of a raised surface such as a chair, bench, stair, or foot stool. Place the non-squatting leg behind you and bend it so that the toes are resting on the raised surface and the sole of the foot faces upward. To assist yourself and reduce the difficulty (particularly if balance is an issue), you can perform this movement with something in front of you such as a wall or a chair to hold on to. Squat down until the non-squatting leg’s knee just touches the ground, and then raise yourself back up.

Hover Lunge
The hover lunge is a free-standing single leg lunge or squat that is a bit more forgiving than the pistol squat and is a very natural and athletic movement. It is a strength-building exercise that requires quite a bit of flexibility and balance. The hover lunge is performed similarly to the Bulgarian Split Squat except that the non-squatting leg is not resting on a surface. This requires you to lift your entire body weight with the squatting leg and also requires you to retain your balance throughout the entire range of motion. You can progress to this exercise by mastering assisted Bulgarian Split Squats and then free-standing Bulgarian Split Squats, and then you can assist yourself with the hover lunge by holding on to an object in front of you such as a wall or chair. This will take some of the weight off the squatting leg and will also remove much of the balance requirement. As you improve upon practicing the movement, try to provide less and less assistance. For example, you can switch to holding the assisting object with one hand then simply touching it with one finger before removing the assistance entirely.

“Comfort Wants You Dead”: An Interview with Brian Hunter of Coastal Calisthenics

I met Brian Hunter at the Progressive Calisthenics Clinic in NYC in October 2019. While most of us were quite challenged by this rigorous two-day instructor certification course, Brian was one of a select few “standout students”, for whom the whole thing seemed like a casual weekend retreat. At the clinic I learned that Brian was graduate of the Primal Health Coach Certification program, which I was finishing up at the time. We’ve kept in touch and when I recently learned that Brian was on a fat-shedding mission, I knew I wanted to interview him for this series. I hope you enjoy the fascinating information to follow.

Steve: Tell us a little bit about yourself.  Your name, age, where you live, and what health and fitness activities you currently participate in.  Have you won any awards or set any records?  If so, please tell us about those.

Brian Hunter: Brian Hunter, 51, live on gulf coast (Biloxi, MS) – PHC, PCC  BA, RRT. Former obsessive weight lifter.  Bench pressed double my body-weight, squatted and deadlifted triple. All in my 40’s. Gym records. 

Obsessive weight-lifter

Currently follow (Mark) Sisson’s plan fairly closely, not intentionally, just keep progressing toward ‘natural’ and ‘useful’ and this is where I currently am.  I use bodyweight and weights/bands/vests/monkey bars, etc for progressive resistance, sprint twice a week, walk a LOT, stand a LOT, and spend a lot of time in the sun (some of my workouts are done on the beach). Nothing I do requires a gym, although random equipment is a plus and creativity is required.   I can also function perfectly well in a commercial gym. I find movement entertaining. 

Steve: Can you tell us a bit about how you got from 40ish 220 lb gym-record-setting obsessive weightlifter to the current 166 lb ripped instinctive trainer?

Brian Hunter: Being a conscientious person with no historical health challenges, I simply thought— ‘experience a health problem, go to doc, do as told, problem solved’. The early to mid 40’s were tough and I learned, first hand, we have a ‘sick care’ or ‘symptom management’ approach to ‘health care’ (and this was BEFORE I became a clinician). I lost my career, my title, my house, my zip code, my savings, and my marriage. At 38, I was Director level for a development firm, living in one of the wealthiest counties in the US, at 41 I was living in my parents’ basement, going through a divorce and commuting 154 miles, round trip, to school.  My health suffered and I lacked the knowledge to untangle the emotional from the physiologic. Docs prescribed pills for sleep, anxiety, depression, acid reflux, etc etc. I honestly can’t list everything I was on. As I asked questions about side effects and how long I would need to medicate all these challenges, all docs in my network of experts fumbled the answers. I started to contemplate educating myself a bit more. Around this time also: Tore my pec bench pressing:

Discovered ‘Mark’s Daily Apple’ (thank you to my sweet, hyper intelligent bride 🥰), Discovered Al Kavadlo. I have always been curious and coachable so Mark’s blog just blew me away. As I rehabbed my injury, Al’s ‘enjoy the journey’ approach to fitness (the injury prevented my former training modalities for probably 18 mos), really slotted in well with Sisson’s philosophy.  open minded but critical, allowing for ‘updated’ information to change methodologies, non dogmatic. I think many people miss Sisson’s true message and it’s slowly turning into an ideology but I don’t think it’s his fault and perhaps its the price of such large scale success. At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I think I ‘get it’.  It’s been life changing for me. As I realized I could modify my diet and lifestyle to treat root causes (rather than manage symptoms), I started to fire my meds and docs. I also started to consider all the ‘little things’ I had never considered—sleep (I now use a cpap and am meticulous about my sleep hygiene), parasympathetic stimulation, meditation, philosophic re-calibration, the profound importance of micro nutrients (not just macros, bro), sunshine, being outside, walking, standing (who knew!?!). I also firmly believe that the science and studies are a small part of the process, you MUST stop listening at some point and start doing, with yourself as the ultimate N = 1. What works for you WILL be somewhat custom and it’s okay to go against expert recommendations (and not even bother arguing with them online). Do. YOU, with some backbone. Program and philosophy-hopping will result in mediocre results and frustration. Do your homework, trust your process, be compliant, be patient. It works! I have been through many permutations (with Al and Mark as the foundation) and continue to pivot as life presents me with new opportunities. I simply love to move, love to be in the sun, and feel good when I eat real food, with an emphasis on protein. I don’t take any medications currently but will consider all options as situations evolve. Docs are fine, but my health is my responsibility; I’ll own the failures and the successes. Hoping I can do it a little better today. Every day. 

SteveTell us about your current workouts or fitness routines.  What does a typical day or week look like for you in terms of fitness and exercise?

Brian Hunter: None of my training is explicitly written or programmed.  I work 12 hour shifts — on shift I do 100 squats, 100 push ups and 10 min. walks post meal. On days off I keep a loose journal to track activities/times, with a goal of 60 to 90 min of activity overall. I simply try to vary my activities day to day, alternating between progressive resistance, skill training, sprints and walking (walking happens everyday)  Any time possible, I train/move/play outdoors.  I also strive to be inefficient (e.g., take the stairs instead of the elevator or park far away from the store) and drive up my NEAT; I think this is much more critical than ‘athletes’ realize. 

About 40 lbs down from the obsessive weightlifting stage

Steve: Can you tell us a little more about what you mean by NEAT and why it is important to be inefficient?

Brian Hunter: NEAT is important for two main reasons:1) modern life is super convenient and efficient—you are moving and burning way less calories than you think
2) As you lower your calories and put yourself in a caloric deficit (we all must obey the law of thermodynamics to lose weight), the body will adjust down movement incrementally to offset the deficit. This can be unconscious and insidious (such as moving more slowly or even blinking less). 

You just aren’t moving as much as you think and, when you do move, often it is in ways in which you are practiced and efficient (minimizing metabolic demand). NEAT can be (is?) the crucial difference maker in weight loss/revealing muscle but also in improving overall health—movement is medicine!

Some NEAT tips: 1) frequent, shorter training sessions throughout the day.  I keep an informal log to track total time. 2) along with your fave movement patterns, slot in new stuff. Your lack of expertise and inefficiencies will create a higher metabolic demand. 3) make your life inefficient as possible. Stand (aim for at least 3 hours a day), skip elevators for stairs, walk anywhere you can. This requires a little thought and creativity, as it flies in the face of modern life. Approached correctly, this can become something of a game—‘x amount of pushups at every bathroom break’ etc. 4) back to walking—convinced this is king. Establish a base of walking throughout the week, with a priority of 10 minute walks post meal. These mitigate blood sugar, control blood pressure and partition nutrients to the muscles being used, making the calories less likely to be stored as fat. Another benefit—improved sleep. Post meal walks are almost a magic pill; I cannot promote this concept strongly enough.   Hat tip to Stan Efferding—the guy is a meathead version of Mark Sisson. His ‘rhino rants’, which are 10 minute videos on youtube, are life changing, no hyperbole. 5) as your weight drops and your metabolism drops, consider adding the weight/metabolic load back with a weighted vest as you do your ADL’s (raking or vacuuming with a 40 lb vest is no joke). Also, of course, consider doing some of your walking with a weighted vest. 6) train (and move) with focused intensity.  Lowering calories and upping NEAT often results in reduced intensity (the body is very clever in its attempts to reduce caloric expenditure and the brain is complicit— ‘I’m too tired and hungry to move intensely’). Don’t listen; move with bad intentions!  I like to imagine what I’m doing is acutely crucial to my survival—if I’m sprinting, I’m chasing dinner, etc. 

So, NEAT means moving frequently, with focused intensity, standing a lot, walking a lot (always 10 min. post meals), doing things you suck at, and, put simply, adopting the mantra of being comfortable with being uncomfortable. 

SteveWhat is your diet like?  Have you discovered any important rules in the area of diet that pertain specifically to people over 40 that have helped you succeed or make progress?

Brian Hunter: Not sure how different the rules are for my age group but I prioritize protein. 1 g per lb of bodyweight, minimum. I seem to perform better with lower carbs and generally keep them between 40 and 60g net per day. Fat fluctuates but I generally keep it moderate and rarely eat over 1800 calories, total, spread out over 8 hours and 3 ‘meals’.  Lunch is kinda big and the other two are much more modest.  Nutrient dense whole foods will make you feel good, but no magic food/ratio/fatty acid/pill will cut weight and reveal muscle if you are over eating. I still go through periods of tracking calories/macros in order to monitor myself. Every time I do it, I’m surprised to find out I’m eating more than I need.  I think people over 50 need to be more comfortable being uncomfortable*—it’s okay to continue to challenge yourself and continue to push yourself. Comfort wants you dead!  

SteveWhat do you think are some of the key guidelines or rules that are necessary for someone over 40 to be successful in fitness and health?  What things do you do differently now compared to what you would have done when you were in your 20s and 30s?

Brian Hunter: I preface this with the confession that I have no original thoughts; I am imitating others who seem to be getting results I want (regardless of age) and then titrating based on my N = 1.  The biggest shift for me has been mindset; I now look at my lifestyle through the lens of ‘will this improve my movement and/or cognition?’  If you can think and move, you have all you need to happily navigate life and people seem to surrender these qualities too easily as they age (I clearly see this pattern in people much younger than myself). *

I no longer lift heavy weights (although I see others older than myself do so very successfully) but I sprint, do weighted muscle ups and engage in other activities considered ‘risky’ for my demographic. Oh well; if you never challenge your limitations,

you are incrementally diminishing. Strength, power, speed, mobility, balance and coordination are all considered as I choose movement patterns. I also pursue creative outlets and challenge my brain to stay young.  Music is my primary outlet but, as with movement, choices are endless. 

The athlete/musician (in a former iteration)

SteveFitness-wise, where do you see yourself and what do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?  20 years from now?

Brian Hunter: My goal is always incremental improvement. ‘Future me’ is leaner, more balanced, more efficient and continuously challenged mentally and physically. Thinking I will do ‘it’ better gets me out of bed every morning so I can’t imagine not having that mindset, simply based on age.  

SteveWhat are your current fitness goals?

Brian Hunter: currently working to lose all baby fat. Once I’m satisfied with my body-fat %, I plan to add 5 to 8 lbs of muscle, simply as an “FU” to sarcopenia. Also working to straighten up “banana back” on my hand stand, nailing a 15 second front lever, and various weighted muscle up permutations. Really enjoying sprints more and more. Becoming fascinated with carrying, tossing heavy stuff. 

SteveWhat are your biggest challenges presently in terms of health and fitness?  Any plans in place to overcome those challenges?

Brian Hunter: My biggest challenge is mindset; I have to constantly remind myself to not ‘act my age!’  The niggles I have at this age seem suspiciously similar to random impediments I’ve had at any decade of my life. I am certainly more mindful of volume and regulating intensity***. I’m also very happy to avoid injuries so I try to pay attention to the feedback my body is giving me. 

SteveWho are some athletes or role models who inspire you?  Why?

Brian Hunter: Mark Sisson, Al and Danny Kavadlo, Wim Hoff, Yuri Marmerstein, Stan Efferding, Paul Carter, Alex Honold, Shawn Baker, Robb Wolf, Kyle WeigerDavid Goggins, Mark Bell. I simply find these people fascinating and inspiring in one way or another. I particularly like the fact that they do not necessarily agree with one another.  

SteveWhere can we find you?  Web site, email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter?

Brian Hunter: IG @coastalcalisthenics*

Form Is Everything “Fit Over 40” Interview: Orlando Ortiz

Not long ago I was trying, and failing, to complete my first 5MD. The 5MD is the “five minute drill”, and although it has many faces these days, the original 5MD is 50 pull-ups and 100 push-ups in 5 minutes or less. If you have been doing these exercises for as many years as I have, you might think that this challenge shouldn’t be too difficult. You’d be wrong. It is intense and exhausting and I have yet to crack seven minutes. This prompted me to ask Zef Zakaveli, who invented the 5MD, if anyone in my age range (I’m 55) has completed it. Zef pointed me to the Instagram page of Stoic O, or Orlando Ortiz. You don’t have to spend much time on his page to know that Orlando Ortiz is the real deal. So I knew I had to interview him for my series “Fit After ???(40, 50, 60, 70)”. Real, solid, valuable information about fitness and health for people in their 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s and up. Here is my interview with Orlando Ortiz.

Steve: Tell us a little bit about yourself.  Your name, age, where you live, and what health and fitness activities you currently participate in.  Have you won any awards or set any records?  If so, please tell us about those.  Any certifications?  Are you a fitness professional?

Orlando Ortiz: My name is Orlando Ortiz.  I am 47 years old (as of Monday 6/29/73).  I live in Brooklyn, NY.   I enjoy calisthenics, lifting weights, riding bike, among other activities.  I came in 2nd at the 5B’s calisthenics competition in 2016.  I’m a 22 year high school physical education and health teacher.  On my free time, I also teach spin and a variety of group workout classes at Bad Ass Academy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn. 

Steve:  Tell us about your current workouts or fitness routines.  What does a typical day or week look like for you in terms of fitness and exercise?  

Orlando Ortiz: My current workouts are mainly total body calisthenics routines.  I do like to add kettlebell functional movements to my mix, as well varied forms of HIIT.  

Steve: Have you successfully completed a 5MD and if so, what was your time? Do you think it’s a good workout for people our age or is it too intense? 

Orlando Ortiz: Yes, I’ve completed a 5MD. 100 push-up and 50 pull-ups under 5 minutes is tough. My times vary, but I’m usually under 4 minutes. It’s a good workout for anybody, but not everyone will complete it. I’d say the 5MD is not for beginners, or people just getting back into the swing of things. The intensity is very high, so it’s best to attempt once we’ve been exercising consistently with calisthenics.

Steve: You said your workouts are mainly whole body calisthenics. What would a typical workout look like in terms of exercises, reps and sets? 

Orlando Ortiz: One of my favorite total body calisthenics routines is burpees and pull-ups. I like to use a modified ladder of 1,2,3,4, then 10. After that, 9-5. Example: 1 burpee, 1 pull-up, rest. Then 2-2 and rest. After 4-4, I like to go right into the 10’s. That make the 1-4 like the warm-up and I can stay strong for my 10’s. I like to also workout in phases, so that would be phase one. I’d then get into another routine.

Steve:  What is your diet like?  Have you discovered any important rules in the area of diet that pertain specifically to people over 40 that have helped you succeed or make progress?

Orlando Ortiz: My diet is based on the Primal Diet.  It’s similar to Paleo.  Slow carbs with lean meats and healthy fats.  The best advice I’d give is to eat real food, and stay away from sugary drinks.  I’d also say be very careful with alcohol. 

Steve: Regarding alcohol, can you be more specific?

Orlando Ortiz: I do not drink. 100% is always better than 99% LOL. For those who do drink, I’d say limit it to one day a week and alternate water with drinks. Easier said than done, of course.

Steve: In terms of diet, part of the paleo diet is to avoid grains and legumes. Do you think this is important?

Orlando Ortiz: As for my diet. I’ll have rice, bread or pasta, but very rarely. When I do, it’s usually on a weekend. Nothing is set in stone. I like the Primal/Paleo diet. That’s the key. To find a diet that works for your fitness goals and that you enjoy it. Simple, but not always easy

SteveWhat do you think are some of the key guidelines or rules that are necessary for someone over 40 to be successful in fitness and health?  What things do you do differently now compared to what you would have done when you were in your 20s and 30s?

Orlando Ortiz: The key is consistency and listening to your body.  Always be humble enough to listen to your body and confident enough to keep your ego in check.  Being older means risk to reward should be taken into account more often.  If it doesn’t feel right, skip it.

Steve: Do you have any specific advice on how people our age can get and maintain low bodyfat % like you? Do you count calories? Avoid carbs? Intermittent fasting?

Orlando Ortiz: The best advice I’d give someone our age is to eat real food. I’ve tried counting calories (my fitness pal), and also fasting (Dr. Jason Fung is the guy to follow). Both work well and serve a purpose. are worth a try. Everyone’s different, so you have to see what works for you. Carbs are the key though… I prefer slow carbs. My main go-to are sweet potatoes. I usually have one fist sized sweet potato for lunch every day. Tim Ferriss has a cool article on the Slow Carb diet. Google it, if you’re interested.

Steve:  Fitness-wise, where do you see yourself and what do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?  20 years from now?

Orlando Ortiz: I’m always thankful for how much my body has allowed me to do through fitness.  I see myself as continuing to be adaptable to what’s possible as I age.  To continue to find new ways to challenge myself, while improving my health.  It’s about evolving and always problem solving. I think the best approach is to realize everyone runs their own race. As long as you’re on the path to progress, the pace as not that important. The rabbit and the turtle win this one. Besides, we’re in this for the long haul. Our goal should be to beat yesterday. To be better. To create the person our future self will thank. So, no matter slow or fast, make it last. Stay the course and, like when you finish that 5MD, the rest is simply a matter of time.

Steve:  What are your current fitness goals?

Orlando Ortiz: My current fitness goals are to stay lean and keep striving for improvement both physically and mentally.  To continue to enjoy the journey. 

Steve:  What are your biggest challenges presently in terms of health and fitness?  Any plans in place to overcome those challenges?

Orlando Ortiz: Desserts!  Desserts are my biggest challenge.  Nothing to get stressed (desserts spelled backwards) over though.  The way I go about it is rewarding myself once a week with a treat, and reminding myself the rest of the week with a trick.  The trick?  Thinking about my future self.  Visualizing my future self. 

Steve:  Who are some athletes or role models in our age bracket (40s, 50s, 60s) who inspire you?  Why?

Orlando Ortiz: I’m inspired by many athletes and role models.  Lately it’s been David Goggins, Ryan Holiday, Kobe, Seneca, Lebron, and Marcus Aurelius. There are plenty more.  Inspiration comes in many forms for me.  It often depends on what I’m trying to do.   

Steve:  Where can we find you?  Web site, email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter?

Orlando Ortiz: You can find me on Instagram @ Stoic.O and at Facebook @OrlandoOrtiz

Steve:  Anything else you’d like to add?

Orlando Ortiz: I’ll leave you one of my favorite quotes from Seneca.  “Let no one rob me of a single day who is not going to make me an adequate return for such a loss.”  Time is of the essence.  The reps don’t’ matter.  What matter is that you make the day count. 

Form Is Everything “Fit Over 50” Interview: Chris James

Steve: Tell us a little bit about yourself.  Your name, age, where you live, and what health and fitness activities you currently participate in.  Have you won any awards or set any records?  If so, please tell us about those.  

Chris James: I’m Chris James. Currently 52 and living in the UK with my partner, our son and two huskies. I don’t have any major accolades or titles but I was the first European to reach 50 and then 75x Tough Mudder events (a 10 – 13-mile obstacle challenge/race). I’ve also completed 4x World’s Toughest Mudder events which are the 24hr version (you complete 5-mile loops with obstacles in a 24hr period) and finished 50 miles or more at each in a variety of weather conditions from the desert heat of Vegas to an extreme cold event in Atlanta.

I take part in various endurance and challenge events so I can see what I can do and see where my limits are. As long as I can remember I’ve been interested in mental grit (resilience) and endurance and believe as humans we are capable of extraordinary things. Our ability to adapt and overcome is unparalleled, no other species is even close and yet most of us don’t even attempt to reach our potential. I’m currently writing a book about personal transformation through mental grit and resilience but it’s also something I’m continually exploring for myself.

I currently have a day job in Branding and design but fitness and Grit is where my passion lies. I’ve got PCC (Progressive Callisthenics Certification) in calisthenics instruction, a very old qualification in gym instruction and have reached a masters grade in Chinese martial arts where I teach classes and occasionally seminars. I love seeing people transform their lives through fitness and overcoming mental challenges to find more from themselves.

Steve: Tell us about your current workouts or fitness routines.  What does a typical day or week look like for you in terms of fitness and exercise?

Chris James: My current fitness routine is mostly callisthenics (bodyweight) using pull-up bars and gymnastic rings although I do like to swing a kettlebell and maybe the odd truck tyre around now and then. I’ll typically train 5-6 days a week at different intensities with two days of push workouts and two days of pull workouts. The other two workouts will be legs and skills-based (levers and flags etc), fun and playing around or HIIT.

Although I like some ‘trick’ moves such as the human flag most of my callisthenics training is about getting stronger and more functional. I also run at varying distances and perform burpees (with push-up) several times a week as I’m endeavouring to beat my PR time of 5mins 4seconds.

Steve: What is your diet like?  Have you discovered any important rules in the area of diet that pertain specifically to people over 40 that have helped you succeed or make progress?

Chris James: I’ve been training in one form or another since I took up martial arts 37 years ago. So, when it comes to nutrition I’ve seen it, read it and probably tried it. Honestly, I hate cultish behaviour around food and with the internet being what it is, it has gotten much worse.

I’d still say after all my empirical study the best thing is to eat a balanced diet of mostly healthy foods (and I believe we all know what that means but like to pretend we don’t as its lets us off accountability), drink (alcohol) in moderation if you want but be aware of what you’re putting in your mouth at all times.

Now, when we get older things may change a little but the basics are still there… it’s just you perhaps don’t need as much as you once did.

You’re fat? You’re eating too much (as in calories) – Eat less. Do more.
Too skinny? You’re probably not eating enough (quality) calories) – Eat better. Train more.
Want more muscle? Train harder or more efficiently. Eat better.

Try different diets if you like, you may find the one diet that works for you… Just don’t go spouting that sh*t like it’s a religion because it may not work for others. For example, I have found that intermittent fasting works for me in that it helps me balance my energy and manage food intake easily. I also found I train better fasted. Now you can throw all the data you have at me but I KNOW it works FOR ME. The end.

8 years ago I also gave up wheat (and by default gluten). I’m not claiming to be coeliac or even intolerant as such – BUT what I do know is that after 2 weeks without it I felt so different and much better that I won’t add it back into my diet. It wasn’t that I’d felt bad with it, just that I felt better without it. And, when I did inadvertently eat some – I had a very bad day (guts – it wasn’t pretty).

Steve: What do you think are some of the key guidelines or rules that are necessary for someone over 40 to be successful in fitness and health?  What things do you do differently now compared to what you would have done when you were in your 20s and 30s?

Chris James: I’m not the greatest person to answer this as I can’t remember a time since I was 15 and took up martial arts that I wasn’t training/conditioning one way or another. I’m perhaps wiser and certainly more knowledgeable/experienced than I was in my 20s and 30s and I accept this could just be me, but generally, I don’t do anything differently now.

There is possibly one exception (now I’m OLD) and that is I’m more in-tune with my body now and will listen to warnings about rest and injury. If I feel a twinge in a muscle or something doesn’t feel right I will assess and decide whether it is wise to carry on or not with whatever was causing it. I will either immediately change something or stop with zero f’s given. For me, health and performance come first… Not my training ‘ego’.

So, my advice is simple, if someone were to be starting and/or coming back to fitness after a long time sedentary (or at least not performing as they once were) when they are 40+ I’d suggest working into it slowly. Be sensible. You only have to watch those video-clip TV shows of someone now overweight tries to dance like they used to and end up falling off a table or something. Funny, but stupid. And to my mind unnecessary if people just kept fit and active.

You can’t undo twenty years of sitting on your butt in 6 weeks despite what popular programmes tell/sell you. Yes, you can undoubtedly make a lot of progress but be sensible and take it slow. You’ll get there but it’s a journey, not a race. You don’t finish a 24hr event by going fast… And I can guarantee you this because I’ve watched many people fail due to their over-exuberance. This is the same with getting back into training, I’ve watched many people suddenly get inspired and go so hard at it for 3 or 4 weeks then it’s all over – either due to injury or burn out.

Steve: Fitness-wise, where do you see yourself and what do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?  20 years from now?

Chris James: I don’t spend much time looking into the future as it’s kind of mental masturbation. Sure, have goals, plans and even dreams but they ultimately mean nothing. Every day I wake up is a temporary victory. If I have to make a plan I’ll say that in ten or twenty years from now I’ll still be doing what I’m doing, that is, working hard breaking the stereotypes and challenging myself to do more, not less. It’s often said less often demonstrated that age is just a number and I often have to think before I remember how ‘old’ I am… but maybe that’s just my age 😉. Training and fitness is a lifestyle and it’s one that I enjoy with zero intention of growing old gracefully and fulfilling the standard paradigm. That’s for other people, not me.

Steve: What are your current fitness goals?

Chris James: I can perform strict pull-ups and push-ups until anyone watching would get bored and wander away however I’ve been struggling to get a bar muscle-up. I’m working on that. As for the rest of my goals… To stay ‘badass’ and increase my miles at the next World’s Toughest Mudder I can get to.

Steve:  What are your biggest challenges presently in terms of health and fitness?  Any plans in place to overcome those challenges?

Chris James: In terms of fitness, I want to keep getting stronger and be able to run further easier. My health has thankfully been good, I presume as a result of lifestyle and maybe some luck because I’d not claim to have great genetics. I currently have no injuries and I’m healthy as far as I can tell. My resting pulse is 42-44 most days so I’ll take that as a sign my heart is OK, my vo2 max (measured by a watch) is in the 50s and my blood pressure is great. I had a recent call to the doctors for a ‘health check’ as they haven’t seen me for so long (I think they wanted to make sure I was still around) and was given a ‘keep doing whatever you’re doing’ comment with a note that if they had to comment on anything it was that my ‘bad’ cholesterol could be a little lower even though it was nowhere near at risk of anything. The nurse admitted she was just looking for something to “get me with” as we were laughing about my ‘poster boy’ status.

Steve: Who are some athletes or role models in our age bracket (40s, 50s, 60s) who inspire you?  Why?

Chris James: I could probably throw lots of names in here of guys and gals 50+ that inspire me when it comes to fitness that I’ve met at Tough Mudders/World’s Toughest Mudders. Notably, Jim Campbell who keeps turning up and doing events despite almost being killed in a motorcycle accident a few years back. He’s earned the moniker Da Goat because he’s just so goddam tough… We’re talking almost Chuck Norris status here. His fitness may not be as it once was due to the injury but his heart, soul and spirit are unbreakable. When I grow up I want to be that tough. There is also my friend and fellow athlete/competitor Mark James, a retired Navy SEAL that I met via Tough Mudder. He’s the same age as me and still out there kicking ass and training Navy SEALs. I have another friend via TM called James Brown that’s a couple of years older but you’d never know it… Although he’s not a thin and skinny marathon runner, that guy can put in some serious miles and runs Ultra-Marathons for breakfast. I think I’ve got him when it comes to push-ups and pull-ups though (so if you’re reading this Jimmy – up your game 😊 )

I can’t think of anyone that’s a widely known public figure and I don’t tend to idolise anyone but my single biggest inspiration most people know of would be Bruce Lee, I’d love to see what he would be right now if he hadn’t died so young and tragically.

Although not quite one of us old folk’s yet I’ve been inspired by people like David Goggins and Jocko Willink. If I’m feeling demotivated all I have to do is put them on YouTube or a Podcast. I also love the work of Steve Maxwell and Mark Divine as when reading and watching them I’m reminded I’m right, we don’t have to give up and get old, so I guess we can count them as inspirations.

Steve: Where can we find you?  Web site, email, Instagram, Facebook, Twitter?

Chris James: web: https://survivalofthegrittest.com/
email: getgrit@survivalofthegrittest.com
Instagram: @survivalofthegrittest
Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/getgrittest/
Twitter: I don’t do Twitter 😊

Steve: Anything else you’d like to add?

Chris James: I’m just a guy doing my thing… If I can help or inspire anyone along the way that’s great as It’s kind of a mission of mine. I’m about to launch a book about mental grit and what it takes to get sh*t done. People can find out about that or contact me through the socials listed. Thank you for wanting to hear about me.

The Plainclothes Athlete

Plainclothesmanperson: Noun. A police officer, especially a detective, who wears civilian clothes when on duty. And so I declare the Plainclothes Athlete to be one who wears regular clothes while exercising. Put another way, perhaps one who does not need to change clothes to exercise.

Calisthenics is the perfect form of exercise. (I’m not biased.) Calisthenics was “invented” by the Greeks several thousand years ago. They named it, developed it, and perfected it, as they did with most things worth knowing, doing and having. Kalli (good, beautiful) sthenos (strength). And they definitely used it to their advantage in times of battle. Callisthenes was the Greek historian who accompanied Alexander the Great on his compaign. The Spartans used it. Modern Greeks are reviving it. But everyone who moves their bodies in space and time reinvents calisthenics and knows what it is even without knowing its history. When you run, when you climb stairs, when you crawl, when you get up off the ground, when you climb a tree, when you squat, you are doing calisthenics. When you systematically practice the movement patterns underlying these activities as a way to get stronger, more flexible, more mobile, and healthier, you are a calisthenics practitioner. An athlete.

If you really think about it, athletes wear funny clothes. I play baseball, I know this.

This shirt was a prize in a box of cereal
They’re from the future
Alien, director’s cut

Uniforms show group membership and may have originally offered some kind of strategic advantage, but for a solitary sport, they are not necessary. Yet many people, even people who do not consider themselves “professional” or “serious”, would not consider running without skimpy running shorts or biking without a spandex Mr. America costume and click-in shoes that you can’t walk in. For many people, if not most people, the uniform has to accompany the activity, no matter how much of a novice we are at that activity. In fact, sport uniform is now nearly inseparable from everyday dress. Oh, Athliesure! (If I’m being honest I really wouldn’t mind never seeing another pair of yoga pants again. Ever.)

There’s nothing wrong with group membership, and if the spandex sausage casing makes you feel like you are part of a group and motivates you to ride a bike, then more power to you. My problem is that it has become synonymous with bike riding and has set the standard for the activity. But this kind of dress goes with a very specific kind of biking – racing. The point is to go as fast as possible, safety and comfort be damned. Racing bikes are small, light, expensive, uncomfortable, delicate, and impractical. The very opposite of what a bike should be, in my opinion. Again, if racing is your thing, fine, but racing is NOT why most people ride bikes and why most people SHOULD ride bikes, and so it should not be the default format for biking. Yet, Google the word or go to the bike store and most things you see will be related to racing, whether it be on mountains or roads.

My preferred form of exercise is body-weight calisthenics done in micro-workout fashion (pun intended). This means whenever possible, all day long. It requires no uniforms, no equipment, no memberships, no travel, no large expenditures of time, and no real planning. If I had to change clothes for this, I’d be changing clothes three to ten times a day. And if I had to change clothes to do it, I probably wouldn’t do it.


Here are some pictures of some of my favorite calisthenics athletes, in uniform.

The great Hannibal for King
Al Kavadlo
Not sure who these guys are, but I like their style

Lately I’ve been spending a lot of time learning more about Hassan Yasin. He is the founder of a movement called Giant Bartendaz. He is Giant. They are a world-wide community and a social movement. Below is a recent Instagram post of Giant at the gym in strict uniform doing his highly orthodox, by-the-book routine. 😉 Note that this is not a young man, and yet he seems to float above the bar…

The motto of the Bartendaz is “health is wealth, movement is medicine.” The pull up is the central movement but it is also a metaphor for pulling oneself up to a better life. Aside from the fact that there really isn’t a more important message to be found anywhere, the Bartendaz do exercise in a whole new way. They don’t focus on sets and rep schemes and routines and body-part splits and hypertrophy and all that other stuff that we become so obsessed with at the expense of the big picture and what’s really important. Rather they focus on form, on creativity, on mastering the movements. To the Bartendaz, calisthenics is life. It’s strength-building but it’s also inner-strength-building. We don’t care about the size of your bicep, we care about the size of your character. And so we do not say that we have succeeded because we can do 20 strict pull-ups. We say that we have succeeded because we have mastered the bar, we can do things now that we could not do before and we can create moves that no one else has ever done. And we have inspired others. And how do we conquer the bar? We practice and we grip the bar and we pull and we move and we improvise and we get SO good at pull-ups that they become like breathing. The bar is integrated into our every day. There is no uniform for this.

Do me a favor. Get up from where you are sitting right now and do a set of push ups. Really feel it, don’t worry about how many reps, just feel it. Change your hand position a little mid-set, keep going. Do it until it feels natural. I bet you could do this all day long. Oh, and by the way, what are you wearing? Guess what? You are a plainclothes athlete.

Body Weight Pull Exercises You Can Do At Home and the Basic Equipment Needed

The Big Three basic calisthenics movement categories are push, pull and squat. From these simple groupings can be found an endless variety of movements with every difficulty level imaginable and all you need for a lifetime of progress. Pushing exercises include all variations of push ups and dips. Squats include all manner of one- and two-legged varieties made more or less difficult by varying the foot position, number of legs involved (only two choices here), whether or not you leave the ground, surface elevation, and just about everything else. Pulling exercises include varieties of pull ups and body-weight rows. In today’s challenging times we have two big problems: we need exercise more than ever, and we are stuck at home. NO PROBLEM AT ALL! Home is my favorite place to exercise! Pushing and squatting are easy; they require only the ground or the floor. Pulling is a little more difficult as you need to be able to pull yourself up using some kind of external object. But don’t worry, there are plenty of options available in your home. In preparation for a series of introductory calisthenics classes that I am offering, this post will take you through many of the pulling alternatives that you can do from your own home with minimal equipment. You will find more than you need here. In some cases I will recommend what you might want to buy and provide the links. But honestly, you can get a good workout without having to buy anything, and a great one with endless opportunities for progression with expenditure of $40 or less and no installation.

Body-Weight Row
Also called the Australian pull up, this is a basic pulling movement that anyone can do, regardless of your strength or experience. This would be the place to start. It is called the row because the movement pattern is the same as what you are doing with a set of oars while seated in a boat. You can also think of it as an inverted push up. So for this movement you are underneath a bar or some other object that you can grasp with your hands. If your legs are straight, then your heels are planted on the ground; if they are bent, then your feet are planted on the ground. Generally speaking, the closer to horizontal your body is, and the lower the bar is to the ground while still allowing full extension of your arms, the more difficult the exercise is. If you are able to rest your feet on an elevated object and your body is completely parallel to the ground, then that would be the most difficult version if using a straight bar. An even more difficult version can be performed using gymnastics rings or suspension trainers, which allow your entire body weight to be lifted and do not require your feet to be touching anything. This will be explained later.

In terms of equipment, there are two options for rows: 1) a bar or object that is stationary and you can grasp with your hands and is roughly waist high and parallel to the ground, and 2) a set of straps or ropes (even a towel) that can be affixed to something like a tree branch or top of a swing-set or door. Both are good and the latter offers many more feet positions to make the movements easier or more difficult.

Here is an example using a piece of equipment you likely already have: a dining room table. Note that my knees are bent and so my feet are planted on the floor. This would be more difficult with legs extended. This is a great alternative because everyone likely has this equipment, but it can be challenging to crawl under the table and does require finger strength and resilience.

Also allows you to scan the underside of your table for gum

This video shows the exercise using gymnastics rings. These are probably the single best piece of exercise equipment that I own because I can use them just about anywhere and for just about any purpose. Here I show how varying your feet position, body angle, and distance from the center allow you to make the exercise more or less difficult. You can even use these to train for a pull up (discussed later), which is also shown here. Here are the rings that I bought.

I have also mounted my rings in the basement over the iron support beam, shown here:

And here are rows using a found object: in this case a rope attached to my kids’ swing-set:

Suspension trainers also work. I do not recommend TRX bands for this purpose, but I have been experimenting with a cheap alternative. That is to say, two nylon dog leashes and a set of door-way pull-up grips. Here are some examples of how you can use this solution, attached to various things in various ways. Note: I bought 6′ dog leashes, but I would recommend shorter. Thicker is probably better. Four foot would be best.

Two 6-foot nylon dog leashes and pull up grips
I need to adjust my glasses. If you use the grips, make sure you attach them to the front of the door so it would open AWAY from you.

Here are the dog leashes attached to the door pull-up grips.

Here the 6′ dog leashes are clearly too long

Here are the leashes attached to a tree branch.

Make sure you choose a strong limb

And here they are attached to the swing-set.

Here you can see that they are too long. The 4′ straps would have been better.

Make sure the object you are attached to is strong and stable. It is best if you can get under the straps or bar and can vary your angle.

The two chair solution – this one is a good one if you have the right chairs and the right stick. I originally tried it with folding chairs, which are probably pretty common, but they were not sturdy enough and the back was too slick to support the rod. You need to make sure the chair is sturdy such that you can put your weight on the back of it straight down and it will not tip. You also need a sturdy rod. This is an aluminum rod that I found in our basement. And the back of the chair is padded so the rod stayed in place. I have tried this before with a broom handle but it broke and the result was painful. I don’t recommend a broom handle.

Pull Ups
In my opinion, the pull up is the mother of all exercises. It’s quite a thing to pull yourself all the way up on something. If you can’t do one, it’s a worthy goal to get your first, and you can. The best way to get your first pull up would be to get really good at body-weight rows, described above. If you can do ten or more in good form, you are ready to train for your first pull up. I’ll cover the progressions in another post; for purposes of this discussion I will talk about options. You can get a cheap doorway-mounted pull up bar that works fine, but is permanent and will not allow the door to close. My favorite affordable and easy to use pull-up bar is the portable doorway pull up bar, like this one. Mine is shown below. They are very easy to pop in place.

There is a small metal brace on the back side. Note that they are a little rough on the surrounding moulding.

I really like the gymnastics rings for pull ups, as they are so mobile and can be mounted in many different places. However, because of the stabilization required, pull ups are more difficult on gymnastics rings. But this has a plus side. The fact that the wrist can move and change positions throughout the movement tends to be better for the joints. Additionally, if you are training for your first pull up, you can adjust the rings to be about chest-height and then use your legs and feet to assist you in the movement. This is shown at :37 of the video below.

Note that if you wanted to spring for the gymnastics rings or suspension trainers AND the doorway pull-up bar, you could mount the rings on the bar and train rows and self-assisted pull-ups on the rings until you are strong enough to do pull ups on the bar.

Here’s my best set of pull ups, this time on the edge of my kids’ swing-set.