manperson: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Here are the dog leashes attached to the door pull-up grips.
Here are the leashes attached to a tree branch.
And here they are attached to the swing-set.
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.
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.
The older I get (I’m 55) the less complexity I want in the things I like to do. In fact, nowadays I demand less complexity. My job (data analyst) is complex enough; I don’t have patience for complexity in my extracurricular interests. At work I’m known as a hard-core bike rider. That’s because I’ve been commuting by bicycle to work and back home again for the better part of 15 years and the non-lock-down distance is rather sizable (15 miles each way) and I tend to do it in all weather and shades of darkness.
Unfortunately, now I commute to the dining room table, but that’s a different story. And even though I’m known as a “serious biker” when I’m not stuck at home, I’m not a fan of the bike stuff that you typically see out on the trail: Technical bike-wear, gel packs, helmet cams, apps to measure “performance”, too small red bikes with straight forks and unforgiving geometry, little pink booties, trying to go as fast as you can even though it’s not a race, etc. I try to keep a kid’s attitude of get-on-and-go in whatever you’re wearing. I have the audacity of placing my everyday shoe directly on the pedal without any sort of click or wriggle. (Don’t get me wrong. I applaud you if the race mentality is your thing and provides you group membership. But for me it just makes bike riding, a simple activity, seem like it is supposed to be something much more complex than it is, and before you know it you’re hopping on your new $4000 eBike so it can look to others like you’re REALLY FAST without any effort at all.)
Similarly, I play electric guitar but I don’t like effects or pedals or modeling or sound sculpting. And I really don’t care about cars or big houses with lots of stuff. The older I get the more extreme this tendency is becoming. Variety is overrated.
This is probably one of the main reasons why I like calisthenics. You can do it anywhere in any clothing and it doesn’t require equipment. My interest in building muscle hasn’t changed since I started trying to do it some 38 years ago, but my methods sure have. Imagine this: to build a strong chest I used to believe that you had to have a flat bench, an incline bench, a barbell, at least 200 lb of free weights, and several dumbbells varying in weight from 40 lb to 85 lb each. And by weight-lifting standards, THAT’S simple and old school. Most bros would add cable machine and pec deck.
NOW what does it require in my opinion? The ground. Or the floor. And guts. And my chest is stronger now than it was thirty years ago. This is endlessly exciting to me.
But one of the pitfalls of aging, particularly when your interests are similar to those of your younger self, is that you can easily forget who you are and where you are in life and why you’re doing what you’re doing. Hm… maybe I SHOULD become a spandex-clad carbon bike riding leg shaver who puts some kind of yellow powder into his water bottle and posts every ride to Strava. After all, I’m a “huge bike guy”. Isn’t that what huge bike guys are supposed to be doing? Killing it and setting PRs and posting it? Influencing on their way to work? Well, luckily with biking I have managed to avoid this temptation.
And with guitar, I never learned to read music or play a certain style or cover other people’s songs. I like to make up my own stuff no matter how bad or wrong it might be. I started with blues, after all. But I’ve fallen victim more than once to the notion that I really SHOULD learn to read and compose music and play classical guitar for finger-style folk. And so I take lessons for a few weeks and it makes me miserable and helps me part with my hard-earned money until I remember what it is that I truly like to do and am sometimes fairly good at.
Something similar happens with calisthenics. I’ve been at this for the better part of ten years. Hadn’t I ought to be doing muscle-ups, hand-stands, front levers, pistol squats, and one-arm pull ups for all the world to see? In fact, that’s what the pros do. These thoughts occur to me on a fairly regular basis. In fact, I am certified as a progressive calisthenics instructor and have learned all the progressions that make up these advanced moves to the point that I can teach them to others. So why don’t I do them?
This thought bugs me every few months, sometimes to the point where I say “ok, I’m finally going to work on this stuff.” I’ve done that at least five times. It’s like I feel that I’m not legit if I don’t do the show moves. And then, like the guitar lessons, I try for a while and then realize (again) that this is not where my interest lies. Maybe it’s just too difficult and I get frustrated too easily, I don’t know. But I always I go back to doing what I was doing before, the basic moves for reps. And for a refresher, I make myself return to form. I’m a little sick of the skills, honestly. I really don’t need to see another handstand. (Maybe there is some jealousy here.)
So what am I doing? That’s the central point of this post. Bodybuilding, I guess you could say. And it is with some hesitation that I do use that term, as the image conjured is likely one of an oiled, shaved, spray tanned lump-monster with track marks and a Speedo, chasing the pump and worried that his traps aren’t big enough.
That’s not what I mean by bodybuilding, however, and it’s certainly not minimalist. The point is that I’m trying to get bigger and stronger muscles, to build my body. And not only that, I’m trying to do it in the simplest, most straightforward way. This is where I depart from skills training, which certainly gives you stronger muscles. But instead of working on these complex moves, I’m trying to cut through to the core of strength and muscle. And in the larger context of the fitness
marketing empire industry, I’m cutting through the fluff and BS and fake science and dogma, and instead trying to get straight to the damn crux, and stay there. I only have water in my bottle rather than engineered powder that requires a subscription. Can I do with my little brain and a floor what reams of paper and racks of equipment and walls of books and bit-bins full of 1’s and 0’s preaching that you need finely tuned machinery, complex mathematical principles and hours of time per day to do? That’s the plan, and it’s really fun, I must say. I feel that I’m trying to do a service by showing how simple this can be, and how hard it SHOULD be.
I’ve seen SO MANY videos of creative personal trainers and Youtubers showing all these complex exercises with endless variety and glorious names. I’m dazzled by the possibilities. But I’m also overwhelmed. Am *I* supposed to be doing mountain climbers, skater squats, typewriter pull ups, egg beaters (I made that one up), Turkish get-ups, windshield wipers, the stomach vacuum, and the Norwegian double pyramid freak-out (also made up)? How many more of these moves do I need to learn? Am I getting my money’s worth when my personal trainer rolls out so many of these moves that I feel like I’m taking dance lessons and that I need to take notes and go home and study every night? Do I need a choreographer? It depends on your goals, but I strongly suspect not.
I guess it might be a little boring to say it, but I believe that the basic moves are all you need and that there are 3-5 basic moves that are necessary for building strength and muscle. And they don’t have fancy names or multiple components. And the real value is in the individual set-by-set and day-by-day effort. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that the more basic the move is, the more valuable it is for building muscle. And by the way, those basic moves are the push up, the dip, the pull up, the row and the squat. Put more simply, push, pull and squat.
Here’s how my simple little journey (which is anything but easy) has been going for the last 10 years and here’s where I think it’s headed. (And by the way, these lessons, if they are lessons, can easily be applied to things other than calisthenics, such as weight-lifting, cooking and ceramics.)
Phase 1 – choose and master the basic moves, perfect your form, figure out your preferences and stick with them, and build up volume by doing them as often as possible for multiple sets that do not go to failure. Really master the exercises. (Then, for me, wander in the desert without much aim for a long time… I don’t recommend this part).
Phase 2 – tear yourself away from endless volume and move towards high intensity, divorce yourself from the numbers, learn to gut it out, get hooked on failure, measure progress in tiny little increments. Endless volume is when you feel you should still be in the game but you’ve run out of ideas. So you repeat the thing that got you where you are over and over again as if you’re stuck in a loop. Instead, Phase 2 is about breaking out of that loop.
Phase 3 – once you’ve stopped progressing in Phase 2, find the perfect minimalist progressive overload workout where less is more, keep the form strict, don’t worry about big numbers, exaggerate the time between sets and the space between workouts, and take each set to failure or near it. I’d prefer just 3 exercises in total: one push, one pull and one squat. And probably only 3 sets per exercise, but feel how you feel and operate accordingly. Do it only as often as you are able to make progress at each session. Force yourself again and again to resist volume and variety for its own sake and stick with the plan. Return to form, again and again. Repeat. As progress stalls, increase days off.
With each new Phase of this plan, your workout duration and variety should halve and your intensity should double. Or more.
I am, right now, somewhere in the middle to nearing the end of Phase 2. Probably closer to the middle but I’m anxious to move on. And by the way, this whole thing looks a whole heckuvalot like the calisthenics version of bodybuilding according to Mike Mentzer.
Mike Mentzer was a thinking man’s bodybuilder from the Golden Era (1970s and 1980s). He was an eccentric pumped up genius philosopher. He is well known for being the only person to earn a perfect score in the Mr. Universe contest and also to have lost the Mr. Olympia title to an aging and not-at-all-in-his prime Arnold Schwarzenegger when he clearly should have won. It caused a permanent rift because Mentzer was able to show that the win was a gift to Arnold because he was famous and was not actually based on merit or hard work. Most importantly for present purposes, Mike Mentzer was a conventional wisdom buster, an outsider, a disrupter, who built his physique using rationalized methods that were his own and were at odds with what everyone else was doing at the time, which was all about volume. They worked out six times per week for several hours a day and with multiple exercises per body part and sets per exercise. Long story short, Mentzer’s Heavy Duty method advocated one very intense set per exercise, and one main exercise per muscle group, with intensity techniques such as forced reps, negatives, and rest-pause.
Here’s what the Phases described above have looked like for me over the weeks, months and years, and where I think they may be headed. There would be plenty of opportunity for you to learn from my mistakes here and to avoid wasting years of your time:
Phase 1 – I have detailed my years of calisthenics volume elsewhere. Suffice it to say that a typical day might be 275 push ups spread over the course of the day, or 10 sets of The Century, which was 40 squats, 30 push ups, 20 dips and 10 pull ups, spread throughout the day. This was great and helped me to understand the core exercises. Although I veered from the path plenty of times, I always came back to the three that I love the most: the diamond push up, the chin up and the squat. The great Hannibal for King, in his succinct manner, describes who the exercises should be done, and that they should be practiced for at least six months. In my case it was more like six years, but that’s just a lack of focus.
Phase 2 – several months ago I finally broke out of my volume spread throughout the day approach when I tried a 5MD. This is the five minute drill, and is 100 push ups and 50 pull ups in 5 minutes or less. I never was able to complete them in under five minutes, but I sure did learn a new concept: intensity. Although there is volume here too, the point is that most of the sets that you are doing are near or at failure and you are doing so within a very short period of time. My strength and growth started to jump start when I started doing variations of the 5MD. Importantly, however, I don’t see this kind approach as something I can do every day or even frequently. The burn out potential is way too high. Fortunately right around this time I read Grind Style Calisthenics, by Matt Schifferle. This is exactly what I needed, as it gave me a simple, three set technique to slowly build intensity without increasing volume. I quickly switched my workout to this approach and made steady progress. An excerpt is shown below and taking place from February, 2020 to April, 2020.
Workout 1 Example of Grind Style
Feet inclined diamond push ups: 1st workout – 14, 12, 11; 2nd workout – 14, 12, 15; 3rd workout- 15, 15, 15; 4th workout – 17, 15, 16; 5th workout – 20, 20, 20
Chin up: 1st workout – 12, 10, 9; 2nd workout – 12, 12, 14; 3rd workout – 13, 13, 13; 4th workout – 14, 14, 15; 5th workout – 17, 16, 15
One leg squat: 1st workout – 12, 12, 12; 2nd workout – 14, 13, 14; 3rd workout – 15, 14, 14; 4th workout – 17, 15, 15; 5th workout – 20, 20, 20
It’s notable that I was doing a 2nd workout on alternate days consisting of dips, rows and assisted pistol squats. I have a similar progression for this workout, but the point is that I was working the same muscle groups every day. Old habits die hard. At present I have grouped each exercise together and am only performing those exercises on the same day, like push/pull/squat split. I’m doing two working sets of dips and two working sets of push ups on push day, for example, each with strict form and slow cadence. Pull day is chin ups and rows, and squat day is a 1 minute isometric hold squat followed by max reps (currently around 25) and then two sets of assisted pistol squats. I’m going to failure or close to it in each set. Under this approach the rest is increased and progress of even a single rep from workout to workout is difficult. It’s making me sore, which I haven’t experienced in a long time.
Phase 3 – as progress levels off in Phase 2 I will move on to the third and final phase. I’m still planning this, but I do have enough experience to know that I should never say never. That is to say, I may bring back weights. Not gyms or equipment, but added weight. I used to say I would never do that (because it’s not necessary) but under my present way of thinking, it seems the simplest and most straightforward way to measure progress. Currently I am thinking that the entire workout will be weighted gymnastics ring dips, weight gymnastics rings pull/chin ups, and weighted dumbbell deadlift/squat (two heavy dumbbells on the ground, squat down and stand back up, repeat.) I may even do these on separate days. I would do three sets of maximum reps, going close to failure on the first two sets and all the way to failure on the third. I would do the workouts only as frequently as I am able to add weight each workout. This is very similar to the workout advocated in Mike Mentzer’s last book “The Wisdom of Mike Mentzer“. I may decide to avoid the weight but I’m not sure what that would look like and how easy it would be to make incremental progress. For example, it’s difficult to progress dips other than improving form and slowing the tempo, which is difficult to measure.
I have a poor track record of sticking with a program for any length of time, and with measuring my progress, but this one has had me excited and engaged for quite a few weeks now. That’s a promising sign. I also have felt over the months that the haphazard volume approach I had been taking for years really can’t lead anywhere. Of course it’s always useful to be doing some kind of exercise, but it’s far more useful to be working on a plan and sticking with it. Furthermore, the Phase 3 component can offer many months and years of progress and the more progress that’s made, the less that needs to be done. Makes sense.
Day 1 – 5/4/2020
Described in my previous post. Weight is 194, girth circumference is 40″.
Day 2 – 5/5/2020
I weighed in yesterday (day 1, 5/4/2020) at 194 lb. and today at 190 lb. I do understand that body-weight fluctuates quite a bit largely due to water retention and such. Even so I am down 4 lb. in one day, having weighed myself at the same time of day as on day 1, on the second day and that’s a step in the right direction. Yesterday I did manage to follow the guidelines established in my initial post on the Common Sense Diet. I did a session of pull-ups and body-weight rows. I had two meals with no evidence of piling or mountains shown in yesterday’s post, no alcohol last night, and did manage two short jump rope sessions. My only “snack” yesterday was a small handful of blueberries.
Day 3 – 5/6/2020
I will only provide detail every day for the first week. I am initially interested in how much weight and how many gut inches I lose in one week. Following the first week I will only post changes or notable details. This morning my weight was 190, same as yesterday. Today I did body weight dips using the backs of chairs, pull/chin ups with a drop set to towel rows, ten minutes of jumping rope, assisted pistol squats, and a short bike ride in the chilly rain. I did the whole thing in micro-workout fashion, or spread throughout the day.
Starting yesterday and continuing today I have noticed less bloating and I no longer feel strongly like I need to take a nap right after eating. My asthma symptoms have improved also.
Starting today about mid-day I was having really bad acid reflux. It got worse when I started eating and then went away when I finished eating. Might be an adjustment reaction and I hope it goes doesn’t return. I will carry on tomorrow and see how it goes.
Day 4 – 5/7/2020
It comes in fits and starts my friends. I’m stuck at 190 lb for the third day in a row after a 4 lb drop (of likely water weight) after the first day. However, one inch off the girth measurement. I’ll take it! Feeling good, too, which is even better.
Day 5 – 5/8/2020
Day 6 – 5/9/2020
Last night was breather night, so I had beer (first time in 6 days) and a sub sandwich with fries. It tasted great but felt horrible. Today my weight is back up to almost what it was at the beginning of this whole things, which I think is not surprising. This clearly shows how much weight fluctuates from day to day and hour to hour, particularly in response to a cheat evening. Honestly, I’m happy that it has not matched or exceeded the first reading, and if it stays below, even a pound below, I will call this a success. Losing a pound a week is what is recommended. The real mission at this point is to keep it up.
Day 7 – 5/10/2020
The final readings are below, and after that, my conclusions and plan.
Conclusions and Plan
Body weight is meaningless
I weighed 194 when I started this one week ago and did not have a reading that high again the rest of the week. So something changed. Most of the readings during the week were 190, including today. This does not say much, other than that weight itself doesn’t mean anything except in relative terms and as a reflection of something other than body fat. I feel I lost fat but not 4 lb. of fat. At one point during the week my weight was 192.5. I did not lose 4 lb of fat the first day and gain 2.5 of it back during the week and lose those again. This was mostly water and inflammation playing out on the scale, but the fact that I ended lower than I started and trended down throughout the week indicates that I did lose some fat. But these numbers mean nothing at all other than a way to gauge, literally, whether or not something is changing. Not absolute but relative. I know how I feel and I know what I need to do and I need only to stop and feel to realize it. And to look in the mirror. 190 is just plain old too heavy. I know how it feels to bend over and tie my shoes and I know how my gut feels from day to day. The mirror and how you feel are your best measures.
I probably lost one pound of fat in one week, which is actually pretty good
My highest weight was on day one and my ending weight was 4 lbs less. There was fluctuation in between and that can only be from water weight. But I did not fluctuate back to the highest and in fact I stayed at the lowest so I’ll call it 1 lb of fat. That’s the recommended amount of weight to lose in a week, so I am calling this a success.
The eating rules were too extreme too soon
This is important. I broke the rules a number of times. The eating rules I laid out were two meals a day, no seconds, no piling and no snacking. This was way too strict. It is probably a good rule for something like week 4 rather than week 1, and I’ll keep it in the toolbox for when I get to week 4. I stuck to the rules the first two days and I was incredibly hungry. It was also difficult to stick with these rules in a house full of people who are not following them, and especially when I do most of the meal prep and cooking. This is the Common Sense Diet, of course, so it makes more common sense to conform a bit closer to the habits of those around you, particularly when you are on lock-down. It would have been wiser to start with three meals and three snacks or (if you’re a bodybuilder), six small meals. Then work down week by week to the original proposal of two meals and no snacks. But I was going for glory and wanted week 1 to be monumental.
It’s essential to keep track of things in some way
If you don’t keep track of things in some way you will not really know what you are doing and are not doing, and you will likely under-estimate how much you are eating and over-estimate how nutritious it is. It can be a meticulous diary, tracking app, pictures, or journal entries. It can be scribbles. Just something. Two meals only was too restrictive, but six may be too much. What’s the answer? Track it and see how you feel and go from there. You could try a calorie/macro tracker and not worry about the number of meals and snacks. I have spoken against this plenty in the past but it certainly could be a temporary fix for these problems in the early stages of dieting. Not a permanent plan, but a way to get one’s sea legs.
One of the rules made all of the difference and this is obvious
I think clearly the biggest and most effective change was to avoid alcohol during the week. In fact, you might argue that it alone was responsible for any improvements I saw during the week, given how difficult it was for me to stick to the eating rules and the fact that my exercise did not change. If I can keep this behavior alone intact, I think I will continue to see improvements in the weeks and months to come.
Consistency is boring but it’s the only thing that matters in this game
This was one week but it seemed like a month, probably because it occupied so much of my attention. I made great progress in one week and if I can dial in what worked and what didn’t, I will be on track to reach my target weight some time in late summer or early fall. Although that seems like forever from now, it really isn’t. This is the best way to proceed. I like to watch videos on Youtube of people doing amazing things. Some of my favorites are really strong people who aren’t young doing amazing calisthenics, short guys dunking basketballs, and someone playing amazing guitar. What I tend to forget is that it took the subject of the video years and years of practice to get there, so it’s not a big deal to take six months to achieve this particular humble little goal.
Weight loss is simple but not easy
It really is a matter of paying attention to what you are doing, eating well but not eating too much, and making sure all of the other pieces are in place. It doesn’t have to be complicated and involve avoiding entire food groups or enduring temporary starvation. There is a Common Sense way to do this.
Week Two Plan
I feel good about the results form the week, but I do not feel that good in the stomach. I have a lot of digestive issues like bloating and acid reflux. Like it or not, it’s time to drop sugar and wheat. There’s only one way to find out if these likely culprits are to blame. As for the plan, I’m going to dial back the original plan and then work up to it, so for this week, three meals a day, no piling or seconds, and no snacks. I will do a single weigh in and gut measurement at the end of the week. I will also try to quantify my digestive symptoms each day and correlate with meals. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I have a Before picture, but I’m not publishing that until there is an After picture worth showing.
I haven’t gained the COVID 15 but darn close to it. Fortunately I’ve remained consistent with exercise, maybe even increased it, throughout this pandemic and lock-down. So some of my weight gain is muscle, but only some. However, my eating habits have deteriorated. It’s time to address this.
This article outlines a simple yet carefully considered diet and exercise plan that I am following now and am calling the Common Sense Diet. Today is Day 1. The Common Sense Diet incorporates the useful bits of more extreme and difficult approaches, such as intermittent fasting, mindfulness, moderation, Grandma’s wisdom, healthy choices, mental health breaks, consistency and freedom. It avoids deal breakers and buzz killers, such as clock-watching, dogma, weighing, measuring and recording food, guilt, and macro-nutrient or food group vilification. The idea here is to do things that will make sense and not be painful and extreme and weird but will also work and can be adhered to easily and gotten back to quickly when the inevitable slippage occurs.
Over the years I’ve tried a number of eating strategies, including paleo, vegan, keto, lacto-ovo vegetarian, intermittent fasting, carnivore, OMAD, mindful eating, the Mediterranean Diet, and, sadly, SAD (standard American diet). A person who is searching must try things. And instead of finding the One True Solution, I have discovered that little aspects of each one of these approaches, when combined and seasoned with a modicum of rationality, produces the right dish: The Common Sense Diet. It’s common sense to put together each little nugget of wisdom in these sometimes radically different approaches to produce the best and most manageable and understandable diet. Hard core omnivory meets Common Sense.
My experiences with the more radical diets listed above follow a familiar pattern. First, I read of someone’s amazing transformation and get very excited to find out what they did to get there. The likely fudged photographs of the person fuel the excitement. Second, the excitement overshadows common sense and my own knowledge of my preferences, uniqueness, and weaknesses. Often the more radical the approach the more interesting it is for me, for some reason. I jump right in almost immediately and without much planning. I get frustrated and fail very quickly, sometimes even within days, because I did not take into account much of anything that would ensure some success. However, through all this experimentation and repeated “failures”, and even in the face of extremely challenging present circumstances, I have managed to stay consistent with a couple of key behaviors, including sticking mostly with real food, and not eating very often. But during these current painful pandemic times where the realization that this will last a very long time is starting to set in, and although I’ve continued to stick mainly to real foods, I’ve also allowed plenty of unreal foods, and the frequency has gone through the roof. This is probably aided by the fact that I’m spending all day every day with two hungry teenagers and I’m seldom more than 20 feet from the kitchen. This whole thing is something like an accidental dirty bulk. A dirty bulk is where you eat in a caloric surplus in order to build muscle but the foods you choose are not the best. Here are some bulking plans by some famous bulkers that vary in their degree of dirt.
Before the pandemic I had maintained my weight at about 180 lb. (I’m about 5’11”) without much effort following a looser version of what will be described below. I’d like to be lighter than 180 in the long run but haven’t worried much about it until now. During the seven weeks (so far) of this lock-down I have gained 14 lb. When I get above 190 lb. I really feel it, and I’m at 194 now. I am very bloated and congested with allergy symptoms and fatigue. I start to get certain inflammatory markers like increased asthma, achy joints, and some mild arthritis in the fingers. It is high time to address this before it gets out of hand! What I describe below is a tightened up version of what I have been doing for years now (during non-pandemic times) without much effort, and what has helped me to stay at a good weight and fitness and strength level. I strongly suspect with this simple approach I will produce positive results within a week, if not immediately, and that is what I am planning to show here and in the next few posts.
Girth: 40″ <– that’s compared to a 32″ waist and tells the biggest story about inflammation and troubled digestion and just generally being off track
1. Two meals a day, no snacks, no seconds, no platters or piling
2. Delay the first meal of the day as long as possible
3. Start or continue progressive strength training
4. Do at least one session per day of jumping rope, running or biking
5. Alcohol only twice a week or less frequently
6. Try to stick with whole foods as close to their source as possible
7. Once a week ignore all this and cut loose
Explanation and Details
Two meals a day, no snacks, no seconds, no platters or piling – This is a bit of intermittent fasting and also mindfulness and portion control wrapped in a Common Sense blanket. Aside from the many benefits of fasting, if I eat frequently I overeat frequently. It’s pretty simple. Once you get used to skipping one meal a day it becomes easy, and then skipping snacks, seconds and huge helpings shortly follows. Jack LaLanne lived to be 96 despite bad genes. He ate two meals a day (and did a lot of other stuff).
When you get used to eating infrequently and only because of true hunger, you start to notice that most people are eating most of the time and it’s just habit. It can be shocking. You understand that you don’t need that much food and it’s so easy to lose sight of the real reason to eat and then to start doing it for pleasure or to satisfy some other need. Furthermore, frequent eating forces the body to occupy itself with digestion and fat storage rather than other things such as fat burning, repair, and taking out the trash. One meal a day (OMAD) is tough, very tough. Two meals a day (TWOMAD?) is not tough once you get used to it. It feels right.
And I suppose it goes without saying that if you’re eating one plate of food per meal, that plate shouldn’t be a garbage can lid or serving platter, and that food shouldn’t be shaped like a mountain.
Oh, and if you want to eat some junk or a dessert, go ahead. Just make sure it fits on the plate with the rest of your food. This is one of the best things about the Common Sense Diet. There will be junk. We are human and we can have junk from time to time. But as long as it fits onto the plate and thus into the plan (literally), it’s just fine. Oh, and it shouldn’t take over the plate.
Delay the first meal of the day as long as possible – This is the essence of intermittent fasting for me and it basically translates to skipping breakfast. Some people skip dinner and have breakfast in the morning but I can’t imagine doing this. Jack LaLanne skipped lunch. Dinner is the main meal for me. But you can do it how you wish. The reason that skipping breakfast works for me is that once I eat, I tend to want to continue. The more frequently you eat, the more frequently you get hungry, but it’s not true hunger or a need for nutrition so much as a desire to eat. Putting this off as long as you can is a good way to stay out of that trap. I like coffee and it can be an appetite suppressant, so when I start to feel hungry for my first meal, I will have a cup of black coffee instead.
There are many different approaches to intermittent fasting that are very popular today. Some examples are 16:8, 5:2, alternate day fasting, OMAD, and the warrior diet. Generally speaking the numbers refer to hours or days. For example, with 16:8, you fast for 16 hours and eat during an 8 hour window. If you finish your last meal at 8:00 PM, for example, you don’t eat again until noon the next day. With 5:2, you eat “normally” five days a week and on the other two, keep your total calories very low, around 500. Some of the other examples have you paying attention to calories. What I don’t like about these approaches is that they inevitably lead to clock watching and counting. I’d prefer keeping the general idea and not concerning myself with the burdensome details. The two meal, one plate per meal guidelines will accomplish the same things without the need for counting and watching the clock. It gives you freedom.
Start or continue progressive strength training
I’m a calisthenics guy and I work out every day and it’s my favorite part of the health and fitness journey. This is a whole discussion in and of itself, or many discussions, but I will summarize it here by saying that I spent many years free-styling my workouts. Lately I’ve finally come to accept that I need to follow a plan and track progress. Below is a snippet of my current workout and the progress I have made using a Grind-Style Technique. Grind-Style has you doing three sets and when you are ready, you add reps to the latter two sets rather than the first one. Once you have all three sets equal in rep count, you add a rep to the first set and try again. This is progressive strength training, calisthenics-style. My goal for the three exercises shown below was to get to three sets of 20. The exercises here are decline diamond push ups, pull / chin ups, assisted pistol squats. And on the alternate days (not shown) I was doing gymnastics ring dips, body-weight rows, and hover lunges using the same plan.
Do at least one session a day of jumping rope, running or biking
These are the activities outside of calisthenics that I like to do but you can choose anything, as long as it is a good fat burner. You can do standard cardio but just be careful that it doesn’t become chronic cardio. By standard cardio I am referring to things like jogging, stair-master, or elliptical, where your goal is to get your heart rate up to the “fat burning zone” and keep it there for 20 or 30 minutes. Such is not my cup of tea but I know that many people like this kind of exercise. Jumping rope, running (sprinting) and biking (at least the way I do it) are HIIT rather than chronic cardio. High Intensity Interval Training is now believed to be one of the best fat-burning approaches to exercise that you can do, in addition to its efficiency and strength-building value. Although, its fat-burning value may be overstated. That’s why I say pick the one(s) that you like the best.
Alcohol only twice a week or less frequently
It just makes sense. I recently wrote about this extensively here.
Try to stick with whole foods that are as close to their source as possible
Apples are whole foods. Apple juice is not. Another way to think of this is the great-grandmother approach. The source for much of her food was the back yard.
Generally whole foods can be picked from the ground or from a tree and eaten. They may have to be dug up, or they ran around or scurried or swam around or flew around and should be cooked. That’s about the extent of the processing. During your great grandmother’s time, people had gardens and perhaps some livestock, maybe fruit trees. They went fishing and ate the catch. There’s a whole foods extravaganza right there, requiring little more than going outside and picking or catching what you want to eat, and maybe a little cooking. Maybe weapons. Certainly no bleaching, grinding, extracting, extruding, centrifuging, extrapolating, or colorizing. The more processing required and the more fractured the food item is, the less whole it is. Do you think your great grandmother would recognize much of what we are eating nowadays?
Why is the whole food greater than the sum of its parts? In essence, whole foods have a lot more of the good stuff and a lot less of the bad stuff than processed foods, while having the same or fewer overall calories and producing more satiety and stable blood sugar. Furthermore, our genes expect and want whole foods.
You must understand that processed foods are engineered in labs to serve one purpose: to compel the buyer to buy more. They are chemically engineered to appeal to the same parts of our brains that underlie drug addiction, which in my opinion makes them drugs. And there is only enough “real food” in processed foods to allow them to legally be called food, with the help of a team of lawyers and plenty of fine print. This is what we are eating, in large part because we can’t help ourselves. We need to break out of this and start using more Common Sense.
Generally speaking most of us don’t have gardens or livestock in the back yard. Therefore, the best way to keep to a whole foods diet is to shop the perimeter of the grocery store. The perimeter is where you find the produce, the meats and dairy, eggs, and cheese. The closer you get to the interior, the more likely you will encounter processed food. It is non-perishable, conveniently packaged, and often shouting “health benefits” such as “HIGH IN ANTI-OXIDANTS!” The items in the perimeter of the store actually have the health benefits, although these foods are very quiet about it.
Fortunately, as explained in the book A Grain of Salt: The Science and Pseudoscience of What We Eat by Dr. Joe Schwarcz, we can have our cake and eat it to. That is to say, a little junk is ok as long as the good stuff is there too. Just don’t replace real food with junk. According to Schwarcz, “roughly one in five premature deaths can be attributed to diet, with a low intake of healthy foods being a greater contributor than a high intake of unhealthy foods.” Pay close attention to this statement. It explains that the health problems are not so much from eating the bad stuff as from NOT eating the good stuff! We are starving ourselves to death as we get fat. So it doesn’t bother me that I have a cookie on my plate, because I also have a salad, an apple, and some chicken and it’s a normal sized plate and roughly half of my calories for the day.
Once a week ignore all this and cut loose
In order to be the Common Sense Diet it needs to be sustainable. To be sustainable, we need to be able to take a break. That’s what the last guideline is all about. Once a week just forget about all of this and take a breather. Don’t worry about losing ground. You wouldn’t adopt an exercise program that you only do once a week and expect much progress. It might even be a reset. You can call it a “cheat” meal or a “cheat” day if you want, but I don’t really like the implications. The point is, take a time out and enjoy yourself without restrictions.
The point of the Common Sense Diet is to be understandable, manageable and healthy without requiring a lot of tedious work. If a more radical approach such as paleo, keto or veganism appeals to you and you think you can sustain it and have some support, by all means go ahead. Just make sure that you are getting enough healthy foods, and make sure you are being honest with yourself and assessing your progress. I believe that the Common Sense Diet makes this easy.
I will report my progress in the coming days and weeks.
I think we might need to talk about our alcohol consumption. My own alcohol consumption (more on that later) has not changed due to the COVID19 pandemic, but that is not the case for many others, from what I can see. And it does not absolve me at all (again, more later). Alcohol sales are up markedly. Stress drinking is up. At the liquor store, there are people leaving with lots of boxes; I never really used to see this very often before the pandemic.
My liquor store has the aisles closed off and the employees ask you what you want and they will fetch it for you while you stand behind a taped line on the floor. They are doing a LOT of fetching! What’s more, there are shopping carts near the cash registers packed to the gills with bottles of booze. I asked why and the employee told me they are the more popular items so it simplifies the fetching. Lots and lots and lots of Jack Daniels, various bourbons, some scotch. Middle to bottom shelf stuff. And Vodka. Oh, man, the vodka.
And of course, alcohol delivery is booming.
Alcohol: Let’s Call It What It Is. But What Is It?
Alcohol is the fourth macro-nutrient. Is alcohol good for you or bad for you? The answer is Yes. Yes is the answer. Or maybe No. Health and fitness circles give alcohol an undeservedly bad rap. Few people are brave enough to speak honestly about it while advocating health and fitness at the same time. In social circles the opposite is true. So, alcohol is synonymous with evil and also with coolness. We must conclude from this that clearly it’s not the substance itself that is bad or good, but rather how it is interpreted and how and why it’s used. Let’s take a look at those things.
Everybody Likes a Quitter
The preponderance of books and confessionals and testimonials and bleedingly honest videos about quitting follow a familiar and predictable line. Started at age 13, blackouts, fights, violence, stealing, property damage, poor judgment with vehicle, arrests, near death experiences, financial loss, unintended parenthood, malfeasance…. Then a wake up one day and never again sort of triumph. This makes great reading and listening. I also know it’s rare. The person who downed a fifth of Jack at age 13 and enjoyed it likely had it in the cards to be on the far end of the spectrum. This narrative is extreme, and I suppose that’s what sells books and attracts attention. But I think the majority of people who buy the books and listen to the podcasts aren’t quite so extreme. Evidence indicates that successful quitting can be a gradual and mindful process done by one’s own devices and can be a successive moderation in behavior rather than a hard stop. But that would be a boring book.
My favorite book on the subject is Drinking, A Love Story by Caroline Knapp. She was an high achiever and had a serious problem for many years which she was eventually able to solve with AA and much effort and turmoil. It was a very well written book that spoke to me. After I finished I was excited to read more about the author, but I found out that she died of lung cancer not long after the publication of her book. She was a smoker. As much as I loved the book I couldn’t help thinking that she picked the wrong vice to quit and if she’d quit smoking and kept drinking she might still be here today. A damaged person but still here, maybe. What does this say about alcohol, if anything? Confusing.
All Vices are Not Created Equal
My home base here is health and fitness. If you know nothing on the subject of drinking and tried to research whether alcohol and health and fitness can coexist, you would get an equal number of extreme yeses and extreme nos. Very few maybes. EVERYONE knows a glass or two of red wine with dinner is a ticket to perfect health and longevity. In fact, moderate drinkers live the longest, but even heavy drinkers live longer than abstainers! Yet chronic alcohol use ravages the body and WILL kill you. Two glasses of red wine a day is chronic alcohol use. Is it all in the amount? The poison is the dose? Is it OK as long as you track it? Can you be accountable? Does it even make sense to talk about calories in the context of drinking? Some can, but I think it’s very difficult.
Cheat days are common in the fitness world, even advocated. Epic cheat days involve Pop-Tarts, Donuts, Whipped Cream, candy and vats of soda. But seldom large quantities of alcohol. Why is that? Which is worse, really? Clearly no jacked bro in his right mind would advocate a cheat day filled with cases of beer and a few shots of Jim Beam. Not that it hasn’t been done. Yet if junk food were equivalent to alcohol, then most Americans would be at about 8+ drinks a day. They serve donuts at AA meetings for goodness sake! Non-alcoholic fatty liver disease is a big deal. It’s possible that one in three or maybe up to even 46% of Americans have it. Even children have it. Is it somehow better than alcoholic fatty liver disease? Is it the less naughty version of this deadly disease?
So there is no clear message about alcohol and there is a lot of bias and prejudice. And a diet filled with junk can be just as bad for you as a diet filled with beer, but it is somehow given a much bigger pass. I’m trying to sort this out. So what’s my point in writing this? My point is to try and figure out what drinking alcohol is to me and what I should do about it, if anything. And maybe you can figure something out too. At the end of this writing I hope to have an idea.
What Does Drinking Really Look Like?
The commercials and movies make it look really cool of course. They not only make it seem possible to drink and still be jacked and ripped and beautiful, they almost suggest that you MUST drink and drink often to be cool and beautiful.
Some even suggest that drinking and fitness can go hand in hand.
What do you think?
I can tell you this, if you really look closely at the messages we receive from the media and advertising about alcohol, and then look clearly at what is really happening, a giant chasm will appear. I’ve done this. I’ve been at parties while not drinking (seldom) and have taken a look around me as the evening progresses. It’s not the prettiest of pictures. The point being that drinking might actually be the opposite of cool.
My alcohol consumption is quite consistent and that’s what I’m changing. The pandemic hasn’t made me drink more as it has apparently done to many people, but that really just speaks to how ingrained the little routine is for me. I don’t have any alcohol horror stories. There are no teen aged dalliances, crashed cars, arrests, incidents of violence, gutters, rock bottoms, unintended piercings, amnesic wake-ups, or epic anythings. But I do drink a little something every day and nearly always at the end of the day as a wind down. I like beer or Irish Whiskey. But that perfect little buzz has gotten harder and harder to find. Or maybe the seeker has gotten far less keen in the senses. Or maybe the buzz is harder to find because there’s actually no substance to it? Maybe the emperor has no clothes.
What To Do?
I know two things about what to do, or rather what NOT to do, during this lock-down: 1) don’t start something that is too extreme and 2) don’t (for HEAVEN SAKES) give up trying at all and let the chips fall where they may (because you know where they may fall). This can start the snowball rolling and before you know it, giving up on everything healthy becomes a whole lot easier and then you’re getting an endoscopy for acid reflux and increasing your blood pressure medication. So I say this: try something, but make it small yet meaningful and consistent. Understandable, logical and do-able.
Put a mind to the mindless and decide whether or not it’s worth doing. Here’s a plan: drink only on the weekends. This may be a no-brainer and perhaps obvious to most people, but maybe not to someone who has fallen into a routine. I’ve never been a day drinker or binge-er so I’m not worried about pushing the limits of quantities and what the weekend means. Call the weekend what you want but know that it does not include Thursday or Monday. Beyond that, use honesty and common sense to dictate what you do and don’t do. This seems like a good start at examining behaviors that are ingrained and might not be too healthy.
The COVID19 pandemic and lockdown have been going on for several weeks now and as we continue to endure this, several things have become clear to most of us. First, this will not be over and we will not return to our normal lives for a very long time, if ever. Second, if we’re going to survive this pandemic and this lock-down, we need to get or remain healthy, and one of the best ways to do that is to follow an exercise program. Yet, the gyms are closed and most people do not have equipment. We are now barraged all day by home workout programs and techniques, yet where does one start? Third, and perhaps most importantly, in order to manage the stress and survive these challenging times, we need to practice mental focus and living in the moment. Yet, how do we do this? We have more distractions and more time to be distracted than ever. What should we do? Enter Zen Mind, Strong Body, by Al Kavadlo.
As I think about my own mental and physical health during this lock-down, I am encouraged by the fact that I remain committed to and rewarded by my daily calisthenics workouts, and I am motivated to continue them. I am also frustrated by my inability to be consistent with meditation and my perceived failure to live in the moment and the here and now. My understanding of the importance of meditation during this time seems to be equaled only by my inability to stick with it. In considering these things I was reminded of Zen Mind, Strong Body, which I first read quite some time ago. I was thinking that it might offer some useful and specific information for navigating these challenging times where we need to stay strong and focused and to be consistent with our exercise, strength training and eating habits, and to be able to screen out all the depressing and negative information that seems to be everywhere all the time. So I re-read the book, and it was a very good move.
I gave up the gym about 18 years ago, so the concept of working out at home is a natural one to me. But I think for many people, from those who don’t do any form of strength training at all, to those who rely on weights and machines, the idea of a home workout is foreign and confusing. At the very least it might seem impossible to get a good workout at home. Some may even give up.
But I say that is oh so wrong, and there is no better time than now to do this, and Zen Mind, Strong Body can be the perfect guide to developing the right attitude toward strength training, eating, and living in the moment. As Al said in the book, “Your body reacts to the signals you give it every single day, so stop waiting for things to fall into place and start taking action today.”
At the beginning of the book, Al describes a pivot point that he came to some years ago because of frustration with the mainstream fitness industry and its empire of marketing and false information. At the time he was advised by a friend to start a blog and to make videos, to “be a solution to the problem”. Once he got his head around the concept, he was motivated to develop content in this at-the-time new and burgeoning scene. Al has been a dedicated blogger and Youtuber (in addition to authoring several books and leading exercise seminars and certification programs and being a personal trainer) ever since, and this book represents a collection of 26 of his articles.
I’ve been familiar with Al’s work for about 10 years now, and I can tell you that during that time about the only thing that has changed about him is his facial hair configuration. (Which actually changes fairly often.) He has been totally consistent in his message, his instruction, the example he sets, his physique and his attitude. There has never been anything like “Al goes keto!” or “Al has decided to go back to weightlifting” or “Al Kavadlo did 100 push ups a day for 30 days and here’s what happened.” This is why a collection of 26 different articles written over the span of years can fit together perfectly into a single book. This speaks volumes.
What I like best about Zen Mind, Strong Body is not that it is a manual for exercising and programming workouts and focusing the mind. It’s not. There are no prescriptions here, no formulas or algorithms or diet programs. There is no instruction on how to meditate or advice on how many minutes a day to do it. Rather, this entire book is one Zen strong-man body of work. I realized in re-reading the book that I need NOT feel conflicted or ashamed that I’ve been consistent in exercise but not at meditation. Rather, I realized, maybe exercise and meditation can actually be the same thing! What an exhilarating and satisfying thought. Maybe my exercise program IS my meditation. They are different things and yet they are the same thing. A Zen mind is a strong body and and a zen body is a strong mind. Like Al says in the book “when you are completely focused on your training, the division between body and mind breaks down and everything else seems to fall away.” This is just what we need in these uncertain times.
One of the things I really like about the work of Al Kavadlo and his brother Danny, is that they are BS busters. The fitness industry is loaded with BS and dogma. BS makes the fitness industry a lot of money, just like sick people who need medication make the health care system a lot of money. So we should just pony up and take our pills, right? Wrong! Al and Danny will have none of this. One area of dogma very common to the fitness industry is that you will not make any progress unless you have specific goals and you chart your progress towards those goals. You must keep an exercise journal and write down every thing you do (and eat) every day. There is no point to any of this without a goal, so the dogma barks. I need to fit into this swimsuit by May. There is no other reason to work out. And fitting into this swimsuit is all that is important and I will only do exercises relevant to this goal and will quit when I fit into the swimsuit. Right? Probably not. Here’s what Al says: “The goals themselves aren’t really important, but working towards something specific might help you stay focused. After all, goals are just a fantasy; the training that you do today is real… the journey matters more than the destination.” Maybe the journey IS the destination. Hm….
Interestingly, Al Kavadlo says mighty and powerful things while remaining humble and happy and, frankly, pretty small. As in, not big. This is not an accident and it speaks directly to me. Similar to Al, I got interested in building muscle as a scrawny teenager who wanted to get better at sports and defend myself. So I got my first weight set made of plastic and sand and started reading Muscle and Fitness. And naturally I started doing the workouts advocated by Arnold, Frank and Lou. Never mind that I didn’t know what I was doing and didn’t realize that these workouts require pharmaceutical support. The point became clear very quickly: You must get as big as possible. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the whole point to bodybuilding is to isolate parts of the body and make them as big as possible. Function be damned. Bigness is IT. I understand only now that bigness really wasn’t what I wanted, but that concept was lost in the details of the workouts and thinking about bicep peaks and deltoid mass (produced by “hitting” the deltoids from all angles, of course). When I finally found calisthenics at the age of 45 I finally began to understand that the body works as a whole and isolation works against this, and most important, bigness is not only not important, it’s also not attractive and not useful. Fortunately for me this idea exists only as a dialog or argument inside my own head. But Al has an audience, and has to face criticism on a regular basis that he “does really cool and awesome things but isn’t jacked enough” (I paraphrase). But if you understand Al, you know that non-bigness is partly the point. Getting strong but not huuuuge while staying focused and mindful is like, as you will see in a moment, getting lean without dieting. Hm….
On diet, Al says the following. (Get your pens and paper so you can write down every detail here. This is the diet you will want to follow to get lean, so pay attention): “Personally, I follow a very simple diet: I eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full. I avoid mindless snacking and stay away from processed food.” Oh man. Oh man. I. Love. This. No powders? No supplements? No counting? No compressed eating window? No macro-nutrient group avoidance? No weighing my food? No tracking? No way! Further, “People love to ask me how many grams of protein I consume each day or how I time my carbohydrate intake, but the truth is I don’t concern myself with such trivialities.” That said, Al does recommend all things in moderation, defends the almighty peanut, and does provide a list of approved foods. They are, in order of importance, vegetables, fruit, roots, seeds, nuts, nut-butters, grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and other poultry, fish, pork, lamb, eggs, olive oil, dairy, teas, coffee and red wine. Please stop to contemplate for a moment that maybe all this attention to the details and body parts and objectified components of what we eat and when (that the “wellness” empire is built upon) are totally unnecessary. Maybe things like pandemics and other semi-apocalyptic events help to show us that what we’ve been obsessed with when we weren’t under constant threat might have been, well, a waste of time and resources. Maybe it’s time to focus on what’s truly important.
Al says the best way to get lean is simply to “eat foods that are as close to their original state as possible”. Again, think long and hard about this small yet powerful statement. There is nothing here about amounts or timing or nutrient ratios or weighing or counting. Yet, this is his advice on getting lean. Just eating the right foods and nothing much else can get us lean. How can this be? Because the point is if you eat natural whole foods, your body will receive the nutrition that it needs and will not be compelled to eat more or overeat or eat in response to things other that nutritional need and true hunger. Your body will naturally regulate its own weight and composition. Eating the right foods, only enough, in response to true hunger renders “dieting” totally unnecessary. This could not be a more profound BS-busting statement. All you need to know about diet can be written on the back of a business card.
In the fitness space cheat days are quite common. Epic cheat days are the stuff of legend. The script goes like this: You adhere strictly to your diet and workout routine so you can get ripped and jacked. You weigh and measure everything that goes into your mouth so you can be sure to “fit your macros”, which have been calculated for you by an app or web site. Your “macros” fit you perfectly and are the precise grams of fat, carbohydrate and protein that you need for your age, sex, exercise habits, body size and goals. If what you eat “fits your macros” (IIFYM, or “If It Fits Your Macros”) as nicely as it fits into your mouth, you are good to go. This is hard work and requires dedication and concentration and above all, WILL POWER. You must not be weak and you must not crumble. Except for one time per week. You can be weak and crumble one time per week. It’s called a “cheat meal”. During the cheat meal anything goes. Into your mouth, that is. Captain Krunch, Ho Ho’s, Ring Dings, Ding Dongs, Fling Flings, cheez whiz, gee whiz, super-sized all of the above, Big Gulps, and a bucket of Skittles. Some bros are so epic that they make cheat meals into Cheat Days. Cheat Daze I tell you! The goal here is to get to 20,000 calories or more without necessarily having to go to the hospital. Does this sound like a good idea? Should marriages have cheat days? Probably not. And yet, we are all human and while we want to be lean and healthy, hot dogs taste good dog gone it! So why not recognize that we are human and be human and have a donut every now and then but not make it epic and not call attention to it and not attach it to the concept of weakness or try to work off its calories or regard it as a small failure of will power. It just is, and if it just is but just isn’t often, it IS, well, just fine. Thanks Al.
Another dogma in the strength training and gettin’ ripped space is that you “do cardio”. What does that mean? It used to be called aerobics and it’s often done on a treadmill or StairMaster or some other 900 lb $2000 piece of equipment that will end up as a clothes drying rack. And if you have really arrived, you do your cardio on a machine that sits in your bedroom and has an internet connection and one or more holograms of people shouting encouragement at you to pedal that bike nowhere while you pretend to be in a class with other them. But again, aside from energy and financial expenditure and clique-ism, what is the point? The point is to do steady state exercise that gets your heart rate up to a certain point (hence the term “cardio”), which supposedly means that you are in the “fat burning zone”. Most people like to get their cardio “out of the way” by doing it first thing in the morning. Is more cardio better? But check this out. Al Kavadlo does not do cardio and never will. He also ran a marathon and did a triathlon and speaks fondly of both things in Zen Mind, Strong Body. How is this possible? It’s all in how you look at and what your intentions are. In addition to being strong, people need to be in condition, able to sustain a strenuous activity for a period of time beyond a minute or two. What’s more, people need to be able to run. When my son was little he was known for making interesting and humorous observations. One of them was “old people never run!” He was simply making an observation that struck him as strange. Yet, it’s pregnant with meaning.
In many ways running and swimming are the ultimate body-weight exercises. They are natural, they can save your life, and if practiced regularly, can help you be very healthy. Sure, these activities can burn fat, but that’s not really the point. The point is, in a Zen mind and body, running is a good thing and helps contribute to the overall picture of good health and a focused mind.
Mastering This Moment
Zen Mind, Strong Body has all we need to master this moment and survive this time. You can buy colorful padded dumbbells if you like, but all you really need is a little floor space, a desire to master your own body weight, and a focused mind. This fantastic book will help you with these.
Now that I have a lot of extra time in the day and many fewer distractions than usual such as getting up at 5:00 AM to prepare for the day, hour-long commutes, and driving and picking up the kids to/from their many activities that are currently on hold, I have managed to calm my wandering mind enough to really focus on a program and monitor my progress. This is as opposed to freestyling everything and consequently half-assing most things. I have been working on a Grind-Style calisthenics routine that incorporates my own flair into the mix. “My own flair” would be working the same muscle groups every day (gasp!) and doing micro-workouts. In Grind-Style calisthenics, among other things, you pick a simple routine and keep it consistent and then make progress by adding a rep or two in the final set rather than at the beginning. Then you try to bring the final sets up to the first one in terms of rep counts and then in the next workout, increase the reps in the first set and start the thing over again. So, for example, with push-ups, if you did 12, 10, 8 in one workout, the next workout you would shoot for 12, 10, 9. Once you nailed three twelves, you would bump the first set up to 13 or more. This is very smart because it prevents you from spending yourself on the first set and forces you to make progress in the gritty, gut-busting section of your workout. But in tiny little increments.
I’ve been doing this Grind-Style workout plan with push ups, pull/chin ups, hover lunges, ring dips, full body-weight ring rows, and assisted pistol squats. For my own special flair, I’m working each muscle group each day (because dangit, you should be able to do that!) and generally doing these as micro-workouts. So I may do the push stuff in one session and the pull in another session later in the day and so on. Each session takes about 5-8 minutes. I’m not a fan of timing things but I do try to keep the rest between sets consistent by waiting until my breathing rate returns to near normal before attempting a new set. This is likely about 30-60 seconds. I chose three sets for each exercise as a starting point because I knew I could handle it from outset. If I had chosen more sets I would likely burn out on volume before making much progress. I chose the exercises below because they are difficult enough for me that I can’t usually get more than 12 – 15 reps a set, and in some cases significantly fewer. Already, just a few days into this, I’ve surprised myself. (Each exercise below links to a video showing how to do it.)
Exercise Grouping 1
Feet elevated diamond push ups: Sunday 4/5/20 – 14, 12, 11 Tuesday 4/7/20 – 14, 12, 15 ** , Thursday 4/9/20 – 15, 15, 15 ** (note: my feet are elevated about 2 feet, or on the 2nd step of the stairs)
Pull/Chin Ups: Sunday 4/5/20 – 12, 10, 9 Tuesday 4/7/20 – 12, 12, 14 ** Thursday 4/9/20 – 13, 13, 13 ** (I usually do either neutral grip pull ups or chin ups as regular grip pull-ups give me a sore elbow)
Hover lunge: Sunday 4/5/20 – 12, 12, 12 Tuesday 4/7/20 – 14, 13, 14 ** (usually I have my hands resting on a chair or wall so balance is not the main challenge in this exercise)
Exercise Grouping 2
Ring dips: Monday 4/6/20 – 14, 15, 12 Wednesday 4/8/20 – 14, 14, 14 ** Friday 4/10/20 – 15, 15, 16 **
Full body-weight ring rows: Monday 4/6/20 – 5, 5, 4 Wednesday 4/8/20 – 5, 5, 5 ** (this is a very difficult exercise for me and relatively new in my repertoire, but I like it because I see it as the pull analog to the dip)
Assisted pistol squat: Monday 4/6/20 – 7, 8, 7 Wednesday 4/8/20 – 8, 8, 8 **
In the 2nd completion of the first day’s workout and the 2nd completion of the second day’s workout I was able to increase the reps significantly. This tells me two important truths that Grind-Style calisthenics seizes upon as justification for its existence: 1) you can and should make progress in small measurable steps in the more challenging portion of your workouts, and 2) you likely can do more than you think you can. Much more.
We’ll see how this goes. The challenge now is to stick with the plan. Looking ahead, I anticipate that progress will certainly stall at some point, at which time I think it would be useful to add some rest between repeats.
I have two exercise groupings here and I chose those after careful consideration. I really want to distill this workout down to its most potent and effective components. So you don’t see any exercises where the rep ranges would be high, such as body-weight squats or standard push ups, where I generally do 30 – 50 per set. I want the difficult exercises only, so the attainable reps per set are fairly low, but not too low. The full body weight row is a challenging one for me because I have not practiced it consistently. But I expect the reps to increase there rather quickly. You could choose more exercises if you wish, but if you do, I recommend that you group them together and maybe add a third day.
If you want to try this and you are fairly new to body-weight training, I recommend choosing three exercises in total, one from push, one from pull and one type of squat. Choose a variation (such as hand and foot position) that allows you to get at least 6 or 7 reps and up to 15 in a single set using good form. If you choose standard push ups and can do 10 with good form for example, I recommend starting with 8 on the first set and then see what you can get on sets 2 and 3 with consistent rest times between sets and go from there using the Grind Style technique described above.
Here are all the videos in order:
** = way to go, champ!
I was very excited to get an advance copy of this book because I have been looking for a book such as this to recommend to my clients and to use when teaching classes on beginning calisthenics. I’ve also been familiar with the author’s work for some time now and have always been very impressed with it. Matt Schifferle is the founder of the Red Delta Project and author of many intelligent and sensible books and videos on exercise, fitness and nutrition. I have also read and loved his book Grind Style Calisthenics and have benefited greatly from his Youtube videos and podcasts. Matt is also a Progressive Calisthenics Team Leader for Dragon Door.
Calisthenics for Beginners is Matt’s best work yet, and that is saying a lot. One of the many reasons is that the book is appropriate for the absolute beginner, the intermediate level practitioner, and even the advanced athlete. This book could accompany you through your entire calisthenics journey.
Calisthenics for Beginners includes a very sensible preparatory section called “Getting Started”, which defines calisthenics and justifies its use, describes the relevant muscle groups to be developed, and advises the reader on how to prepare for the programs to follow. I especially liked the material on safety and preparation, gear and equipment (which is delightfully minimal for the calisthenics athlete), and how to monitor your progress. But best of all in this section is Matt’s treatment of diet and nutrition. I usually have to brace myself when this topic comes up no matter the context. It’s such a loaded, political and frustrating mix of opinion, dogma, bias and religion. How many times have you encountered extreme dietary advice such as “you must go vegan” or “you must go keto” from people whom you respect in the fitness space? Not so here. Matt gives no specific rules on what you must and must not eat, nor how often and how much. Rather, he gives you a brief but comprehensive set of guidelines on eating right and general nutrition, such as preparing your own food, watching liquid calories, embracing plants and protein, and controlling your “red light foods” (that are unhealthy and difficult to avoid.)
What follows the introduction are step-by-step, progressive exercise programs that employ all of the basic movement patterns that Matt describes: core, hip-driven, knee-driven, push/pull and heart-rate boosting. Level I is “Start Strong”, Level II is “Go Deeper”, and Level III is “Power Up”. And each of these three sections is color-coded on the edge of the page so you can easily turn to them. A very nice touch indeed. Matt then includes a section on flexibility and restoration, followed by exercise programming advice, helpful information about understanding progress and mindset, and sample workout logs. I’m telling you, this book really is all you need.
At the outset of the book, Matt rightly advises that you read the whole thing from start to finish before you begin to follow the program or judge your own abilities or the effectiveness of the exercises. I followed this advice and it was the right way to go. I got a feel for Matt’s unique approach and quickly could see that this was not just another book on beginning calisthenics with the same old exercises and programs that I see over and over these days. The ideas are fresh, the writing is clever and straightforward and utterly lacking in B.S. and the programming is unique and thorough without being intimidating.
One thing that pleasantly surprised me about Calisthenics for Beginners was the choice of exercises. Most beginning calisthenics stick with some sort of basic exercise set such as planks, push ups, pull ups and squats. These are essential but you are missing quite a bit if you stick with just them and their variants. Instead, Matt cleverly includes things like bridging, wall hand stands, and towel hangs for grip strength. Even better, the program includes cross-punching, marching in place, and the almighty squat thrust! These are exercises that my grandfather (if he were still with us) would know and greatly approve of. I love it!
In reading this excellent book I realized a few important things: there are definite gaps in my own programming that I need to fill, I’m really closer to the beginning of my own calisthenics journey than the end, and I have a new go-to resource for my students, clients and myself. Calisthenics for Beginners is a must-read.