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.
The most interesting, intelligent and innovative people in the fitness industry are often those who started out down a conventional, unchallenged, unquestioned path. The fitness industry is overflowing with information and a lot of it is bad. More importantly, there is a huge machine constantly churning this bad information and pushing it out over and over again. A lot of this bad information is untested and unchallenged but gains its position solely because of the extent to which it is repeated and associated with certain looks and certain tag lines and certain click bait. As a young and eager person aspiring to get strong and fit, it is almost impossible to know what information is good and what information is bad. If you stay at it long enough and get those abs you want, you may eventually position yourself as one who gets to help spread the bad information and make a tidy profit doing it.
Or you might take a step back and ask yourself just what you are doing and why you are doing it. You may also ask yourself if you actually feel good and healthy and if the amount of time that you are spending on strength and fitness is really time well spent. You may ask yourself if you really CAN know that what you are doing (because you read over and over again that you should be doing it) is really what you should be doing. Have you tested it? Has anyone tested it? You might be big and strong but at what cost? More importantly, you might realize that there are probably better ways of doing it. MUCH better.
Philip and Martina Chubb of the Mindful Mover are just about the most exciting, innovative, intelligent fitness couple I have had the good fortune to come across. Philip used to train four to eight hours a day and ate and supplemented himself up to a weight of 187 lb because he believed a fitness coach who told him that muscle size was the key to health and longevity. He also ended up with a heart murmur, insomnia and and a lot of difficulty walking up stairs.
Philip now strength trains once or twice a week (sometimes less often) and works mainly on five primarily body-weight calisthenics exercise progressions (the “Big Five”). Through extensive testing The Mindful Mover has figured out that these are the only exercise progressions you really need in order to make “free gains” in all kinds of other exercises that you don’t even need to do! They’ve also worked out parameters for the “minimum effective dose”, or just how much, or how LITTLE, you need to do in order to continue making gains. You can spend endless hours in the gym if you want to, but you absolutely don’t have to! In fact, you may be better off if you didn’t. Guess what else? If you work smarter rather than harder, you don’t even need separate exercise programs for mobility and flexibility than the Big Five. You’re welcome!
The Big Five exercise progressions are Handstand Push-Ups, Front Lever Rows, Squats, One Arm Chin-Ups, and Planche Push-Ups. But these exercises are advanced and scary. How would I possibly work on these? How much do I need to do? How often? How do I know when I’m making progress? These are certainly the questions I had when I talked to The Mindful Mover.
Let’s get into the details.
Steve: My first question involves the “Big 5” exercise progressions. These are exercise progressions that you have identified as the most productive in terms of “free gains”. That is to say, if you work on the Big 5 progressions, you will also make progress in other, related exercises even if you are not working on them specifically. This helps you to avoid “exercise FOMO” or Fear of Missing Out. This is the feeling that you should be working on a particular exercise that you’re not working on because you fear the gains you’re missing by not doing the exercise. If you do your Big 5, you don’t need to have Exercise FOMO. One example you’ve given is the Planche Push-Up progression (one of the Big 5) gives you progress in bench press even without working on bench press, and the reverse is not necessarily true. This is VERY useful information. Your Big 5 exercise progressions are: Loaded squats, planche push-up, ring handstand push-up, front lever tuck row, and one arm chin-up. My question is would you make any modifications to this list for the aging athlete who is intimidated by these exercises? I understand that these are progressions, but I think a lot of older folks, myself included, would be very reluctant to work on a handstand push-up of any kind because of the dangers of shoulder stress. From my own experience, any time I have worked on a one-arm chin-up or front lever tuck row (very conservatively, I might add) I end up with lingering pain. Do you think for an older person, something like push ups, pull ups and squats would provide all the free gains we would need? Or maybe we should just set our sites on something short of the final version of the Big 5 exercise, such as wall handstand holds rather than ring handstand push-ups?
Mindful Mover: That’s a great question! If you look at our “Big 5 Strength Exercises“, the list can look intimidating. Imagining yourself doing Handstand Pushups and Planche Pushups and One Arm Chin-Ups as an exercise will seem very far off for a lot of people. But our Big 5 Strength Exercises are simply meant to be progressions or PATHS. For example, let’s look at the Planche Pushup. It’s a Pushup but instead of having your feet on the ground, they float in the air behind you. Again, this looks pretty intimidating at first glance. But the exercise is just a PATH. It doesn’t even have to be the end goal. You might START the “Planche Pushup path” with Push-Ups on the knees. Then, maybe you progress to doing Pushups on your feet. And maybe the final progression you do on the Planche Pushup path is the Leaned Forward Pushup which is a Pushup with feet on the ground still, but you lean your shoulders forward of your hands to increase the load. You never even have to allow your feet to leave the ground. You just stop at the progression that is suitable for you and continue working there.
Let’s look at another example with the One Arm Chin-Up. You don’t ever have to actually DO anything on one arm. Maybe you start out doing Assisted Chin-Ups with your own feet spotting you through the movement. As you progress, you might be able to take your feet off the ground. Eventually, you can move to doing something like the Mixed Grip Chin-Up where you simply shift more of the load toward one of your arms. Now if you WANT, you can progress from that to One Arm Chin-Up eccentrics where you go UP with two arms and come DOWN with one arm. And by the time you get to that progression, maybe you feel safe doing that. But if you DON’T, it’s no problem! You could easily stick with the Mixed Grip Chin-Up and keep making gains.
The main idea here is that our Big 5 Strength Exercises are progressions. But many of the progressions on the path toward the most difficult progressions can be performed and used to make progress for a LONG time. So there’s no need to be afraid of those final progressions because you don’t have to ever touch them if you don’t want to. You can make PLENTY of progress with the earlier ones!
Steve: My second question involves the concept of Minimum Effective Dose. If I have it right, you’ve been able to determine the least often or smallest amount of work that you need to put into a progression or exercise in order to make progress. You’ve been able to show, for example, that you only need to work on your sprinting drop set once every 8 or 9 days in order to make progress (be able to sprint faster and for a longer period of time). I am sure that everyone’s minimum effective dose will vary quite a bit, especially by age. And the only way to really determine the minimum effective dose is by testing. I’ll never really know how well I’m progressing with pull-ups unless I test it. I was wondering if you could talk a little about the testing process and how you go about it. How often do you do it, and what kind of testing scenario would tell you that gains have been made? How would we look for “free gains”. If I’m testing for progress in dips without having done them, for example. This is an important question because most of us read about workout programming and don’t really question it. Is it really optimal, for example, to do an exercise x times a week for y sets of z reps?
Mindful Mover: Another great question! How can you find your own Minimal Effective Dose? The answer to that question is to try an amount and see if you improve NEXT session. So for example, maybe you decide to try 2 sets of 5 reps on week one and you wait 7 days to try again. If next session, you are stronger, then you can stick with that OR you can try doing LESS and seeing if that works. For example, you might try 2 sets of 4 reps and then again, wait 7 days. See if you make gains. If you do, great! You can lower the dosage again. If you don’t, then you can go back to 2 sets of 5.
But that’s just ONE way to do it. Another would be to keep the dosage the same but play with the frequency. So maybe I do 3 sets of 5 reps. Then, I try resting for 7 days. If I make gains, I might try the same dosage AGAIN and then rest 8 days. If I made gains, I can try it again and do 9 days and so on.
Now a key tip for this is to make sure that you give enough time to see if this dosage works long term. There’s a lot of possible nuance and it doesn’t have to be super strict. Maybe you find out that training 3×5 once every 10 days is too infrequent but you can do something like alternating once every 7 with once every 10 and still gain. So you have to play with it and see and there is plenty of troubleshooting that can go into that process. For checking to find Free Gains, that’s a similar test. Take a lift that you want to test and check what your max is on that lift. Then, for the next 8-12 weeks, try your other training. After that 8-12 weeks, retest the lift you were checking for Free Gains on. Did the lift INCREASE? If so, great. Did it maintain? Then that’s ALSO great in a way because if you stop doing a lift, you SHOULD regress to baseline. Maintaining is gaining in a way. The lift could also decrease to a certain point and THEN maintain. So for that reason, it might be a good idea to test it a few times if you suspect that happens. Or it could regress to baseline and if it does, you know that lift doesn’t get Free Gains from the other lifts you were doing.
That’s how you can test for Minimal Effective Dose and Free Gains. Now for “optimal”, it would be really hard to test for this without a VERY large group of similar trainees and even then, this kind of test couldn’t account for all the individuality you may have. So because of that, I favor testing for things we can actually figure out like Minimal Effective Dose and Free Gains. Finding optimal is like trying to throw a dart and hit a bullseye. In the dark. And the dartboard is moving.
Steve: My third question involves workout intensity and frequency. We’re familiar with the idea that you can go long or you can go hard, but you can’t do both. Long workouts cannot be intense workouts and intense workouts cannot be long. If you take a set “to failure” (can’t do another rep), you can’t do too much more. One of the most striking things you have said is that you have been able to move from 4 or 5 workouts a week to one or fewer. Do you mean one single workout a week where you do everything in that workout? Or do you mean that you work on a single progression only once a week but may work on different progressions on multiple days? Either way, your workouts must be intense. Can you give us a sense of what a workout session would be like? From my own experience with volume versus intensity, I find that the more intensely I push it (like taking sets to failure or near it) the more overall fatigue I feel in general, even when I am giving myself enough recovery time. These days I tend to feel better doing some kind of workout every day and in those workouts doing a few sets where I leave a few reps “in the tank” but don’t push it any harder. For me as a 55 year old, being able to get up every day and do something seems best. What do you think would be the main concerns with workout intensity and aging?
Mindful Mover: I had a previous mentor give me a general rule of thumb about this: You can go hard with high intensity. You can go long with high volume. You can go frequently with high frequency. But you can’t do “high” with all three of these at once very long. At MOST, you can have two. And for many people, even two is a lot.
So what we like to do is go HARD in training one day a week. We will train intensely, use accommodating resistance, and take sets to failure and even a bit past failure using extended set techniques. BUT, we do that infrequently. On all the OTHER days, we go do LIGHT activity. We will go for a walk, do some yard work, housework, etc. The key here is that we go hard once a week (or twice since we also do sprints) and then we will go light on the other days.
You can use a similar mindset but you might tweak the training a bit. So maybe you still go “hard”, but it might not be as “hard” as when you were 17 and had less life responsibilities. You might train intensely but still leave a little in the tank. Or you might train close to failure but not quite hit it. The general idea can still apply but you can tweak it and test what works for you just like that Minimal Effective Dose.
For example, I train some people who have other life stressors to account for. Some have chronic issues, some have a lot of life stress with jobs or kids, some have other movements or activities they have to also recover from. For people like that, I might just limit the volume and lower it to a point where they still gain, but they also have gas in the tank left for those other activities!
Steve: My doctor calls muscle mass at my age “money in the bank”. This speaks volumes and alone is a huge reason to start or continue strength training as we get older. But I have found through experience that mobility and flexibility deteriorate dramatically as we age and seem at least AS important as muscle mass if not more so. Most of us have been working in an office in front of a computer for decades (myself included) and even though we may work out regularly, the damage is done. For example, if I drop to the ground and do 40 push-ups with good form, that’s pretty darned impressive at my age, but it’s still really awkward, challenging, and a little painful to stand back up again. Something’s wrong here. Do you include mobility and flexibility in your programs and specifically I am wondering if there is a way to incorporate them into the strength training rather than adding new programming. For most people my age, it’s daunting enough to do any kind of exercise at all, let alone figuring out how to add yoga to lifting, for example. I am wondering if flexibility and mobility gains are part of your “Big 5” and just how you approach this topic in general.
Mindful Mover: Absolutely! We have several key points about mobility:
One: Mobility should be gained IN your strength training whenever possible. For example, doing your Pushups with your hands elevated on parallettes. Now, when you go to the bottom, your shoulders and chest get stretched out and that can let you get strong AND mobile at the same time. The same could apply to hanging at the bottom of a Pull-Up. You get the stretch WHILE you get the strength! A Stiff Leg Deadlift could do the same for your posterior chain. Stretch and strengthen!
Two: You want your mobility to be accessible without always needing a warm-up for it. What good is all the stretching in the world if you can’t access that range without a warm-up? Now I am not saying everyone needs to be able to perform the splits cold. But I do think if you train your mobility smart with strength methods like I mentioned in point one, you will be able to access a good portion of your mobility without warming up first. And that’s great because then you can actually USE that mobility when needed rather than having to warm-up before you need it.
Three: It should be easily maintained. If you follow point one, it won’t take much to maintain your mobility since you’re getting it WITH your strength.
Now for some movements, I think a little extra mobility work can be helpful and we program that for trainees when they want it. For example, if someone wants to be able to perform the splits. But if you are just looking for something like the ability to squat down and get some change off the floor or reach overhead and grab a glass from the cabinet, the Big 5 can cover that for you.
Steve: Let’s say I come to you as a potential client. I’m 55 and have an office job. I do push-ups, pull-ups and squats every day and I’m pretty good at them. I also ride my bike just about every day for fun at a leisurely pace. I’m happy with my strength and muscle mass, but I still have a bit of a gut and feel persistent minor aches and pains most of the time and I’m a little tired most of the time even though I get 7-8 hours of sleep a night. My diet is pretty good. I avoid processed food and sugar and I do 16:8 intermittent fasting. Most importantly, it feels a little more difficult than it ought to to put my shoes on or to sit on the floor (and then get back up). Furthermore, I really don’t want to just try and do more push-ups every day for the rest of my life for workout goals, but the idea of working on handstands and loaded one-legged squats really scares me and I know is a ticket to the Pain Train. (Of course, all of this is totally made up out of the blue …. 😉 What would you recommend?
Mindful Mover: Two things: For the diet and body composition I would recommend getting a copy of Perfect Health Diet by Paul & Shou-Ching Jaminent. That book is my FAVORITE book on health and nutrition EVER. I cannot recommend them enough.
For the aches and pains, I would look into the chronic training. I think we humans have an easier time recovering from ACUTE stressors rather than CHRONIC stressors. So in my opinion, training with an “extremes-based” method where you go hard one day and light on the other days is easier to recover from than going moderate everyday. I have a lot of trainees and people who don’t train with us directly but just follow our advice who say the same thing: When they swapped from the “chronic moderate” training and started going hard infrequently and light on the other days, their nagging aches and pains started to disappear.
Remember, the hard is relative to YOUR abilities and what you can do. So don’t feel like it means you need to go squat 500 pounds tomorrow. But I would give the extremes of intensity a try and staying out the moderate middle. You might find it’s easier to recover from that!
For feet, a lifetime spent in “normal” shoes is a little like a lifetime spent with no exercise and a bad diet. You can get away with it for a while, maybe a long while, but eventually it will catch up with you. For feet, this means that eventually you might experience plantar fasciitis, hammer toes, or Bunyan. Maybe all three. Approximately three million Americans have Plantar Fasciitis. To avoid the fate where it looks like your big toe is reaching across a crowded table to try and give your pinky toe a high five, it is best to allow your feet to operate the way they know best. Naked. Foot on ground, toes allowed to roam, sole allowed to flex.
But we live in a civilized society with sharp things on the ground and one of the requirements of this is that most of the time we must keep our feet covered and protected. And we must try to look good and mostly normal to others. Fortunately, as I intend to point out here, this need does not necessarily doom you to a future of regular NSAIDS, orthotics and podiatry visits.
The fitness industry is full of people selling things, and a lot of it is garbage. It can be difficult to tell what is garbage and what is not. For example, I am sure that some supplements can be beneficial. But I have a very difficult time knowing which ones and for what. Yet, I find that a lot of fitness “professionals” seem to sell supplements, regardless of whether or not these supplements fit with the other stuff the fitness professional is doing and saying. It doesn’t make much sense that a whole foods advocate would sell Berry Blast Powdered Pre-Workout Fuel, for example. The selling of supplements makes me immediately suspicious and drives me away. I have a strong feeling that these people make a lot of “free money” on these supplements even though they may be garbage and the buyer may not have much of a reason to buy them except that they are for sale by someone who looks like they want to look and it’s easy to drop them into the virtual shopping cart and feel like you’ve done something for your health.
I wear barefoot shoes and only barefoot shoes and have for many years because it makes sense to me and aligns with the other things that I do and talk about in the name of health and fitness. The purpose of this article is to tell you why barefoot shoes are best for foot health and to bring you the good news (which has been a long time in coming, I might add) that they don’t all look ridiculous. In fact, some of them look pretty darn good. After I tell you why barefoot shoes are best for feet, I’m going to show you three examples that are good for feet and also look good. I have an affiliate relationship with two of the three companies making these shoes. This means that because I like them and believe they are good for health, you can use my link to buy some if you want, and if you do so I get a small commission. So while I’m not selling you something directly, I’m helping you to understand why you might want to buy it and if you do, I get a small reward for spreading the good news.
In order to be healthy and strong, feet need three things. They need room for the toes to spread and support the movement, stability, and activity of the body. They also need to remain flat on the the ground rather than with the heel constantly elevated and the Achilles tendon and calf muscles constantly flexed. And finally, they need to feel the ground beneath them in order to bend and flex in adaptation to the terrain and how the body needs to function in the world. Standard shoes do not allow any of this. Standard shoes jam the toes together, prevent the sole of the foot from feeling and flexing, and elevate the heel, thereby keeping the associated tendons and muscles contracted. This is referred to as “support” and is believed to be essential in footwear. Such “support” is not only not essential, it’s damaging.
You may be tempted to say “Oh, I’ll just wear my Vans or my Chuck Taylors.” Sorry. I wish. I love the look of Vans and Chuck Taylors, and they are certainly sparse in the “support” department. But sadly, they still jam the toes together and elevate the heel.
But Barefoot Shoes Are Funny Looking I’ve often thought that most barefoot shoe styles look like something that someone from the 50s would think that someone from the future would wear. I have to think that because barefoot shoes are so far out of the mainstream that many makers consider this a badge of honor and deliberately make them look very strange. Take, for example, Vibrams. The foot-glove. I. Just. Can’t.
Some Barefoot Shoes That Look Normal, Even Good To me, the Bramford by Birchbury is the best looking casual barefoot shoe available. It works in a business-casual office or for a night out. And I can definitely picture a pair on a skateboard. Here is my affiliate link to the Bramford.
And my absolute favorite of all, given that I am a Vans and Converse fan, are Muki Shoes. These are made in Portugal, of canvas and rubber, like the shoes of my youth.
How to Transition to Barefoot Shoes If you’d like to give barefoot shoes a try, your feet will need a gradual shift. For starters, try going in sock feet or barefoot around your house for a half hour at a time. Once you are used to this, you can try to spend more time without shoes on. Pick up a pair of your favorites and then wear them in the house for increasingly longer periods of time. Once you’re used to this, put them on and wear them outside for a walk or a short trip to the store or something like that. Don’t try to wear them for long periods of time right off the bat. Your feet will need time to adapt.
I love gymnastics rings. They are the best piece of exercise equipment I have ever acquired. If you have gymnastics rings and somewhere to hang them, you have a superior gym. The reason that they are so good is that they can be used to perform or assist with just about any calisthenics exercise that you can think of, from advanced gymnastics moves like the iron cross or the planche to intermediate moves like muscle
ups, dips and L sit pull-ups, to basic moves like push-ups and rows. They can also give you access to a new set of exercises that you cannot do with a high bar or the ground, such as lateral raises and tricep extensions. And because the height of the rings can be quickly and easily changed, you have available to you a nearly infinite number of possibilities for exercise selection and difficulty. Furthermore, gymnastics rings are cheap and they travel well. Most importantly, because gymnastics rings move rather than being fixed like a bar, they require you to stabilize yourself while performing the exercises, which helps to develop strength. And, because you can vary your hand position throughout the range of motion of the exercise, they can be much easier on the joints than a rigid bar.
Advanced exercises like the iron cross or planche are not in the cards for most people, including me. But that is just fine, because rings can be used for just about everything else as well, including basic exercises that anyone can begin working on right now. Additionally, rings can be used as an assistance tool for exercises not normally requiring equipment, such as the pistol squat. The purpose of this article is to demonstrate all the basic exercises that you can do using gymnastics rings either as the apparatus or as assistance.
I should point out that although suspension trainers such as TRX bands will give you some of the same benefits as gymnastics rings, they are not a great substitute and do not offer nearly as much.
If you are considering buying gymnastics rings, you should first scout out a location from which to hang them. You need a stable object that is at least seven feet high, but higher is better. A good strong tree branch that is parallel to the ground is optimal. I have a lot of trees in my yard but they are old trees and mostly poplar, which means the cross branches are all too high to reach. I have my rings hung over the top of my kids’ swing set, which they outgrew years ago. I’d like the height a little higher but it works well for me and I enjoy exercising outside. I have also hung from the iron support beam in my basement but this is a bit too low to be optimal. You do want to make sure that what you hang them on does not have a sharp edge that could cut the straps.
Getting Ready: Stabilizer Exercises
If you’re new to rings you’ll want to spend some time getting used to stabilizing yourself. Performing a simple exercise on gymnastics rings for the first time can be very sobering because of the stability requirement. The best way to get ready is to get yourself into the starting position for some of the more basic exercises and just hold that position while varying the position of your hands and shifting your body weight. Try to hold the position until it feels less awkward to you. You can do this with the push-up starting position and the pike push-up starting position. You can also position the rings for pull-ups and practice hanging. Once you are comfortable and used to this, you’ll become less wobbly and feel stronger. At this point, and if you are strong enough, you can try holding your entire body weight at the top position of a dip and then lowering yourself back down slowly (a negative rep). These methods are shown in the video below.
Push-up hold, pike push-up hold and dip hold
Push-Up – there is a very wide range of options with any push-up simply by varying the placement of the hands and the feet. This is also true of gymnastics ring push-ups, with the added benefit that you are able to change the position of your hands while executing the movement. Turning the hands outward towards the end of the push-up can add a challenge and extra stimulation to your chest. Similarly, you can start with a fairly wide spacing between the hands and then bring them in toward the midline of the body as you approach the end of the push-up, which you cannot do with a floor push-up. This is an excellent way to work the chest muscles, as one of their functions is the help pull the hands toward the center of the body, as you would do if you gave someone a bear-hug from behind and tried to lift them off the ground.
Another great benefit of push-ups done with gymnastics rings is in range of motion. With regular push-ups, you are only able to lower your body to the ground or floor whereas with rings you are able to lower your body further, which makes the exercise more difficult and provides more stimulation to the muscles involved.
As with any kind of push-up, elevate the upper body to make them easier and elevate the feet to make them more difficult.
Dip – dips require you to push your entire body-weight and are made much more difficult with gymnastics rings because of the need to keep your hands in close to your body and stable. This is a very challenging exercise at first and will take quite a bit of practice to master. Fortunately gymnastics rings are so versatile that you can place them low enough so that you can use your legs to assist you with the dip. Once you are used to this assisted dip, move the rings up a bit so that your legs are providing less assistance. You can also try assisting with a single leg as your build your way up to full dips. You can also use negative reps to help you get stronger and used to the movement. Get yourself into the top position of the dip either by jumping or using a chair, and then lower yourself down as slowly as you can.
Chest Fly – as mentioned earlier, one of the functions of the chest, or pectoral, muscles is to bring the arms in toward the midline of the body like you would have to do when bear-hugging someone. Therefore, one of the best exercises in weightlifting to build the chest is the dumbbell or machine fly. You can perform the same movement with body-weight calisthenics using gymnastics rings. I find this exercise very challenging on rings, so I usually keep the rings higher off the ground than I do with push-ups. Small changes in ring height make a big difference in difficulty with this exercise.
Triceps Extension – this push exercise removes the chest from the equation. Bending only at the elbows and not at the shoulder puts all the work on the triceps, which are the horseshoe shaped muscles on the back of the arms. In weight-lifting this exercise is sometimes called the “skull crusher” because it is performed while on lying on the back on a bench and with a weighted barbell lowered down to the forehead and then pushed back up. The skull is not at risk, however, in the gymnastics ring version of this exercise. Again, ring height makes a big difference in difficulty here.
Pike Push-Up – this exercise got its name because you put your body into a pike position to perform it. The idea here is to get your upper body as close to perpendicular to the ground as you can by bending at the waist and keeping your feet as close to your head as you can. The smaller the angle formed by your upper body and legs, the more difficult the exercise will be. This exercise primarily targets the deltoids, or shoulder muscles, and is a good way to build up the strength necessary for the handstand push-up. To make the exercise more difficult, you can elevate your feet on a stool or bench. In the weightlifting world, the overhead or military press would be the corresponding exercise. Many weightlifters choose dumbbells over barbells for this movement because of the extra effort required to keep the dumbbells stable. The same benefit is also available when using rings for pike push-ups rather than the ground or floor.
Row – I used to think that because I am pretty good at pull-ups, I don’t need to do rows because they are significantly easier. But this is really not true at all. Rows are actually as important as push-ups and the different angle afforded by the body position in the row versus the pull-up makes them a great way to work the many muscles of the back and also the biceps. Furthermore, if you can’t do a pull-up yet, rows are a great way to build the strength necessary to get there. Ring height and also whether your legs are extended or bent allow you to vary the difficulty of the exercise. Elevating the feet and keeping the legs straight will make it the most difficult.
Full Body Tuck Row – this is probably the most difficult exercise included here because of the strength and balance requirements. On a good day I can get maybe five reps. Don’t try this unless you are good at rows with your feet touching the the ground. In this exercise you are lifting your entire body-weight. Once you can do at least 12 good reps of regular rows, try getting yourself into the tuck position and holding it for as long as you can. This exercise is a great way to prepare for the almighty front lever.
Assisted Pull-Up – I love gymnastics rings for assisting with just about any exercise. If you can’t yet do a pull-up, adjust the rings to about chest height and use your legs to assist you with the movement. It is really easy to vary the amount of assistance that you give yourself and once you are feeling stronger, you can work in some negatives. Once you get to the top position, take your feet off the ground and hold yourself for as long as you can and then slowly lower yourself to the starting position.
Chin-Up – once you are pulling your entire vertically-positioned body weight up, you are doing a pull-up or chin-up. Generally speaking, if the palms are facing your back you are doing a chin-up. In this position more emphasis is placed on the biceps than when the palms are facing forward for a pull-up. But keep in mind the gymnastic rings give you the unique opportunity to change your hand position while performing the exercise. This provides a range of stimulation and also helps to spare the joints. Keep a relatively slow tempo and do not kick your legs or jerk your body while performing the movement.
L-Sit Pull-up – this is one of the most difficult movements included in this article. Sometimes done of necessity because you cannot raise the rings high enough, the L Sit pull-up is a king maker. Keep your legs straight out in front of you throughout the entire range of motion. You will feel a strong core activation and will likely have sore abdominal muscles the next day. To build up to the full L Sit, you can start by bending your legs (more of an “N Sit”).
Bicep Curl – like the tricep extension, the bicep curl is an exercise that targets a specific muscle of arm, the biceps, and can be made very easy or very difficult depending on the placement of your feet and height of the rings. The closer you are to standing straight up the easier it is. Keep your elbows tucked in rather than flared out.
Lateral raise – one of the main functions of the deltoid, or shoulder, muscles is to move a straight arm out to the side of your body, much like you would do if you were trying to flap your wings and fly. In weightlifting, the lateral raise is a key exercise for the deltoids. You can simulate this movement using gymnastics rings. Again, the more upright your position when starting, the easier the exercise will be. The easiest version is shown in the video below.
In calisthenics, leg exercises are primarily squat-based and the gymnastics rings can be instrumental in assisting you with the more difficult movements such as one-legged squats or lunges. They can be used as support to help with the balance component and/or to make the exercise less difficult by taking some of your weight off the legs.
Sissy squat – the sissy squat was a staple exercise a few decades ago and with the increased popularity of calisthenics I have seen it make a comeback. This exercise is performed in such a way that the quads are almost completely isolated, as in the leg extension weightlifting exercise. You bend only at the knees with this exercise, taking the back and hamstrings and glutes out of the equation to some extent. Use the rings to stabilize yourself and bend only at the knees so that your upper body slowly moves down toward the ground. Go as low as you can without experiencing knee discomfort, then raise yourself back up.
Assisted Drinking Bird – the drinking bird, or one-legged body-weight deadlift, is an excellent exercise for the glutes and hamstrings. However, I find it very challenging because of the balance and flexibility requirements. You can use your gymnastics rings to help with this. When viewed from the side, the proper execution of this exercise will have you looking like a toy bird that dips down and drinks water and then comes back up.
Assisted Pistol Squat – the pistol squat is the mother of all calisthenics leg exercises and as with the drinking bird, the challenge comes from balance requirements AND strength requirements. I find regular pistol squats almost impossible to do on a regular basis, but assisted pistol squats are very manageable and really help me get a good leg workout. Lower the rings to about waist height or a little lower and then stand back a bit and keep your arms outstretched in front of you while holding the rings. Perform the pistol squat while keep the ring straps tight and use your arms to provide as much assistance as you need. Once you get stronger and more comfortable, you can try it with one ring only. If you are using this method to train for the unassisted pistol squat, make sure your upper body is leaning forward while performing the movement.
Assisted Hover lunge – the hover lunge is a bit like the pistol squat but with the non-squatting leg behind you rather than in front. This makes the exercise easier than the pistol squat but still demanding a lot of strength and balance. Use the rings to assist you with the balance component. Try to lower yourself far enough that your non-grounded leg’s knee almost touches the ground
Hack Squat – the hack squat is a variation of the squat in which the back is stabilized and the body moves at an angle rather than straight up and down. When there is a load on the back, the hack squat removes the stability requirement that you have with the regular squat; the body cannot lean forward in the hack squat and therefore, the quads are isolated and the movement allows a greater range of motion. This is very effective at allowing an intense quad stimulation. You can simulate this movement using gymnastics rings. With the rings at about waist height, grasp them in the hands and lean back about 15 to 30 degrees. With your arms extended in front of you and holding the rings, squat down as far as you can without leaning your upper body forward. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Toes to Bar (Ring) – This is one of the more difficult core exercises that you can perform on rings or a pull-up bar, and it’s a great way to train for the front lever. I don’t have the optimal setup in my back yard as I can’t quite get the rings high enough, but the important thing is to keep your legs straight throughout the movement. It is best if you can get the rings high enough that your body can stand upright while holding the rings.
Hanging leg raises (L Sit) – this is a good exercise to practice if you plan to do the L Sit Pull-Up, discussed above.
Hanging Knee Raises – this exercise is the most accessible if you are new to core exercises and hanging from a bar. In fact, hanging from the bar might be the most challenging aspect and might warrant some practice. Bring the knees up toward the chest and then lower them back down. To prevent, swinging, return to the starting position with your feet a bit out in front of you rather than straight down.
AB “Rollouts” – this exercise is similar to what you would do with an ab rollout gizmo and even has some overlap with the pullover from the weightlifting world. It’s a great core exercise. The lower the rings, the closer your body is to parallel to the ground and the more difficult the exercise is. You can also do this exercise with your knees on the ground to make it easier.
In progressive strength training, focusing on sets and reps is absolutely essential. And sets and reps could not be more important. When I first started chasing muscle as a young twenty-something back in the early 80’s, I did what the muscle magazines said that the bodybuilders did. On bench press, for example, they recommended a set of twelve reps with 135 lbs, then ten reps with 185, eight reps with 205 and six reps with 225. This is a standard pyramid for an intermediate lifter. Once I could handle 135 lbs fairly well I would try this pyramid. The first set would go well, but by the third rep of the second set (with 185 lb.) I was done. I would fail on the 4th rep of the second set. I’d get frustrated, wondering why I couldn’t do what the magazines said to do, so I’d rest a bit and try it again. I’d maybe get one additional rep. This kind of failure showed a tremendous lack of insight and humility. I paid no attention to how the weight felt or how the muscles felt or maybe what weight *I* should be lifting. I just wanted those sets and those reps at those weights like the magazine said.
I eventually managed to get that pyramid but I spent a lot of time lost and frustrated as to why I couldn’t progress as quickly as I wanted. The problem was that I saw the people in the magazines that had muscle that I wanted and I saw the printed workout as a kind of recipe. It didn’t occur to me that that recipe might not work for most people or that it might take a very long time to even try it. Just about everything in weightlifting is oriented towards numbers. From the very beginning I focused on how many sets and how many reps I should do and what was a respectable number of pounds to be lifting.
Now I realize that sets and reps are really just measuring sticks or a place to start. When I chase sets and reps now, particularly totals that exceed my current abilities, I lose sight of what I’m actually trying to do and I begin to focus on numbers for their own sake. What I should have done to accomplish the pyramid described above without wasting time would have been to forget about the sets and reps and instead become very familiar with the weight itself. Become very good at lifting 135 lbs, or maybe even 100 lbs. Or 60. I never would have known at the time that this is what I should have done.
A Numbers Game So much about body-weight calisthenics helps me get away, if temporarily, from the trappings of numeric goals. I’ve had enough time now to get good enough at push-ups and pull-ups and dips and squats to be able to handle a progressive workout, and so I don’t tend to make the same mistakes that I did decades ago with the weights. Nevertheless, from time to time I still find myself chasing numbers for their own sake. For example, I’ve thought many times that if I could do three sets of 25 chin-ups, I’d really be a superstar! A few weeks ago I decided I wanted to be able to do a set of 50 push-ups. And I eventually did. But you know what? The closer I got, the more I cheated. Form dropped off, pace increased, elbows were not locked, range of motion left much to be desired. If I’d seen a video of myself getting that set of 50, I would not have clicked the “like” button. And making it to 50 brought no magic with it. It’s not that I hadn’t accomplished something, it’s that I had lost sight of what I was really trying to do for the sake of an arbitrary number that seems impressive but really isn’t. Fifty push-ups is a warm-up for some and completely impossible for others. It doesn’t mean much.
If I HAD made it to 50 push-ups with great rather than mediocre form, what would be next? 100? Then 200? Do I want to, at the age of 55, some day be able to do push-ups all day long, like Herschel Walker? I’d be strong, to be sure, but I think there might be a better use of time.
Breaking Free of the Numbers Fortunately there is another way, and it’s called Density Training. With Density Training, sets and reps go out the window. In a nutshell, Density Training refers to the amount of work you do in a given span of time. While traditional strength training focuses on load (how much weight you use or how difficult the calisthenics exercise is) and volume (the numbers of sets and reps), this approach focuses on the density of the work, or how much work you can pack into a fixed amount of time.
Pick a span of time, say 10 minutes, and during that time do as many quality reps as you can of an exercise or two. Don’t worry about how many sets you do or how many reps in a set. Pre-ordained rest periods are also out the window because you rest only as long as you must in order to keep going. Only the final rep count really matters. With Escalating Density Training (EDT), in the next workout you either try to do more total reps in that same amount of time, or do the same number of reps in less time. Or you may try to do more difficult exercises for the same number of reps in the same amount of time. These are three different ways to increase density in a workout. The chart below, designed for weightlifting, shows how powerful increasing density can be.
The first time I tried density training, I did push-ups for five minutes. Since I normally do sets of 30 or more reps of push-ups in a workout, I assumed I might be able to get 200 or so in five minutes. I got 94. EDT is intense.
What Is the History of EDT? The concept of density training was developed by Charles Staley, who published a book on the subject called Muscle Logic in 2005. Given that 15 years is an eternity in Internet terms, I was disappointed at the lack of historical information available on density training and its impact on the strength training world. In an attempt to get some useful background for this article, and to understand the ideas leading up to the development of the concept, I emailed Charles Staley directly. He was kind enough to answer not only my questions about the context and history of EDT, but also how the concept has evolved and changed over the last fifteen years.
Here is a summary of our email conversation:
Steve: I am writing a piece for my blog on applying escalating density training to body-weight calisthenics and wondered if I could ask you a few questions. I primarily want to know what the context was for you conceiving of the idea and what kind of impact it had on the muscle building scene after the book was published. Was it considered controversial? Did you (do you) use it today? Was there anything prior to your book similar to EDT? Any other resources I could look at for some background on EDT?
Charles: In 2002, I first wrote about a training concept I had been developing, called “Escalating Density Training” (EDT) ( https://www.t-nation.com/workouts/escalating-density-training). Instead of utilizing more conventional forms of progression focused on gradually increasing intensity or volume, the hallmark of EDT was its focus on increasing the density (work/rest ratio) of each training session.
Charles: Taking a 30,000 ft view, the underlying principles if EDT were borrowed from time-management and personal-productivity literature: since ultimately, fitness is the result of the work you perform (both the difficulty and the amount), any tactic designed to improve work output applies quite well to resistance training. For the unfamiliar here are the crib notes on EDT:
Workouts consist of between 1-2 15-minute work sessions where the lifter seeks to accumulate as many total reps as possible with 2 “antagonistic” or opposing exercises (examples include bicep/tricep, upper body drill/lower body drill, etc).
In order to accomplish the above, the lifter identifies or approximates a 10RM load for each exercise, and starts out performing not sets of 10 (which quickly elevates fatigue, reducing the overall performance), but sets of 5, initially moving back and forth between exercises. As time elapses, the lifter gradually shifts from sets of 5 to 4’s, 3’s and so on, while simultaneously increasing rests between sets, to offset the accumulation of fatigue.
When the 15 minutes is up, total reps are counted, and the next time these 2 exercises are repeated, the goal is to improve upon that number.
Charles: EDT quickly grew in popularity, but it had shortcomings, which include:
The “rules” of EDT are simple, but require making intuitive judgements about when to lower reps, how long to rest between sets, etc.
Reaching high levels of fatigue on relatively technical movements like squats, deads, etc., can be risky,
EDT can be tricky to implement in busy gym settings.
Metabolite training (which EDT is a form of) tends to lead to adaptive resistance after 4-6 weeks.
How EDT Has Evolved: Charles: These days, my default training approach is known as “Primary Pattern Programming” (PPP) ( https://www.t-nation.com/training/the-primary-pattern-workout-plan ). Unlike EDT, which is mainly focused on loading organization, PPP is mostly a method of populating workouts with the smallest number of exercises that train the most muscular topography, with minimal redundancy. In its current form, PPP utilizes 4 “compulsory” exercises per session, each representing one of the following four “primary” patterns: • Squat: (Knee/quad-focused) • Upper-body push •Hinge: (Hip/glute/hamstring-focused) • Upper-body pull.
Charles: In addition to the 4 compulsories, PPP also allows for up to 2 “optional” movements per workout, to allow the lifter to customize the program to individual needs, and also to provide a place for exercises that don’t easily fit into the 4 primary pattern categories (ex: Olympic lifts, famers walks, etc.)
Charles: Conveniently, PPP can be paired with almost any type of loading scheme, including EDT. It’s strength that it provides structure while still allowing for maximum flexibility.
Charles: Despite the fact that most of my training today is based on PPP, ETD continues to have great value for lifters, especially those who are:
Focused on work capacity, fat-loss, and/or anaerobic endurance
Looking for a change to their usual training routine.
Charles: I urge lifters to avoid fixating on the specifics of either system, but instead look deeper to understand the underlying principles of both, which include:
Emphasizing work output, not the pain that is often associated with it.
Focusing on fatigue management rather than fatigue acquisition.
Prioritizing progressive overload, and ensure that all training decisions are based on facilitating a continuous increase in intensity, volume, and density.
EDT in Body-Weight Calisthenics Whether it is intended or not, whenever you see calisthenics gods and godesses attempting to perform a certain number of push-ups and pull-ups in a short period of time, then you know that the concept of EDT is alive and well in the city parks, in gyms, and in basements around the world. Probably the most iconic example is the 5MD, developed by the great Zef Zakaveli of the Bar-Barians. The 5MD is the “five minute drill”, which is 50 pull-ups and 100 push-ups in five minutes. It’s a killer. I’ve tried it twice and never gotten below 7:30.
Here’s one of my favorites:
What Does EDT Do? EDT may seem like a simple, temporary break from standard sets and reps dogma, like a free-for-all or a cheat meal, but it is actually much more than that. Rather than asking your muscles to move heavier loads or do more difficult things, you are asking your muscles to work harder with the same load or exercise difficulty because your muscles are performing this work under increasing fatigue, like a runner trying to beat her time in mile. This happens with a standard sets-and-reps workout as well, but density training accelerates and compacts the process. By adapting and doing more work with successive workouts, you are able to accumulate a lot of volume in a small amount of time, which is a magic formula for hypertrophy. It is widely believed that “time under tension” is the key to muscle growth, and EDT is a superior way to increase time under tension, even if you don’t have much time.
How to Apply EDT to Your Body-Weight Calisthenics Workouts Choose antagonistic exercises such as push-ups and rows, dips and pull-ups, squats and bridges. Let’s go with push-ups and rows. For simplicity sake, let’s say your maximum on each is twenty reps. For fifteen minutes, do sets of ten reps, alternating between each exercise. You will likely fatigue pretty quickly so you will want to manage your time and remaining energy. After each completed couplet of push-ups and rows, write down the number of reps for each. You will likely need to decrease the number of reps per “set” as you go along. At the end of the fifteen minutes you will be exhausted and you will have an incredible pump. Make sure you note the date and total reps for each exercise so you know what to try and beat the next time you try this workout.
Equipment An adjustable-height pull-up bar, suspension trainers or gymnastics rings. Alternatively, if you can find a bar that is roughly waist-high and another that is chest-high you will be able to perform the exercises here. If you have a full-height pull-up bar (about head-high or higher), you can use a long towel, two dog leashes, or some other form of makeshift suspension trainer to perform the rowing exercises.
If you cannot do a pull-up: Shoot for 20 reps per day of each exercise described here. At first, you may only be able to do a few reps at a time. If so, practice this throughout the day. Let’s say, for example, that you can do five total reps of the exercise. Throughout the day do sets of three until the exercise begins to feel easy. Do more reps as you are able but do not go to failure in these sets. Make sure you stop each set with at least one “rep in the tank.” When you can get 20 total reps in two sets or fewer, move to the next exercise.
Start with high angle rows. With the bar or trainers about waist high, stand with your feet below the grips and then walk back until, when you extend your arms completely and your feet remain planted on the ground, your body forms roughly a 45 degree angle with ground. This is an approximation but understand that the higher your head is the easier the exercise is. When you are able to get 20 reps in two or one set, move to medium angle rows. Move your feet closer to the grip so that your body is closer to parallel to the ground when your arms are fully extended. After you have mastered this, move to a position so that your upper body is parallel to the ground when the arms are extended and your knees are bent so that your upper and lower leg form a 45 degree angle. After you have mastered these knees bent rows, extend your legs so that they are straight. Your body should be straight and the backs of your heels on the ground for these rows.
You have now mastered the row and it is time to move to the pull-up. Adjust the grips to roughly chest height, if possible. Stand up while holding the grips; they should be roughly at your arm pits. Lower yourself down while bending at the knee so that you are performing a pull-up with your legs assisting you. Make sure you do not do the majority of the work with your legs. Only assist enough so that you are able to get two or three reps of these assisted pull-ups for starters. Once you are comfortable with the movement and are able to get 20 reps in two sets with minimal assistance from your legs, you are ready to move on to the final exercise.
Negative Pull-Ups: The negative pull-up is really a let down. Not in the psychological sense but in the physical sense. You start at the end position of a pull-up and then slowly lower your body to the starting position. At first this will not be slow at all. Get yourself into the starting position of the assisted pull-up and then slowly take your feet off the ground while strengthening your hold on the grips. Hold yourself off the ground for as long as you can and then slowly lower yourself under control to the point where your feet touch the ground. Work on slowing this movement and even pausing at the top. Once you are able to get the movement to 10 seconds or more, you are ready to try your first pull-up.
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.
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:
Conclusions 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.
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.
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.
Paleo/Primal/Whole30 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.
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.)
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.
Let’s go down this rabbit hole for a second. How about the the tofu turkey?
How about a nice keto rye?
Cooked 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.
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 Doand 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.
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.