You Should Try Mechanical Drop Sets

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

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

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

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

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

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

Single Leg Squat Progression

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obsessive weight-lifter

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

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

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

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

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

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

About 40 lbs down from the obsessive weightlifting stage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The athlete/musician (in a former iteration)

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

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

SteveWhat are your current fitness goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Hunter: IG @coastalcalisthenics*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve: Regarding alcohol, can you be more specific?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve:  What are your current fitness goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve:  Anything else you’d like to add?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Steve: What are your current fitness goals?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chris James: web:
Instagram: @survivalofthegrittest
Twitter: I don’t do Twitter 😊

Steve: Anything else you’d like to add?

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

My New Calisthenics eBook

A Progressive Calisthenics Program for Everyone is now complete! Fill out the form below to get your own free copy.

The Plainclothes Athlete

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here the 6′ dog leashes are clearly too long

Here are the leashes attached to a tree branch.

Make sure you choose a strong limb

And here they are attached to the swing-set.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Took a Long Time to Get Here: Confessions of a Minimalist Bodybuilder

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.)

You DID it, Sparky!

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.

Can’t you just smell it?

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.

Nice gym

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.

You forgot your pants

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.

Oh look, there’s a guitar hiding behind that technology

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.)

Handstand factory

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.

Hannibal for King knows that Form is Everything

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.

Impressive menu. I’ll take five Bird-Dogs and a Crouching Tiger please. And I’ll cut it with a Body Saw. And then I will Run and Sprawl (obviously).

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.

Mike Mentzer with Arnold

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.

The Common Sense Diet: Week One Documented With Conclusions and Plan

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.

Meal 1 today: Fried eggs, sweet potato, peppers, pear
Poor little dinner today was a busted attempt at a Cinco De Mayo meal. I forgot that we live in a crowded area and everyone would be trying to do the same thing at the same time. We tried 3 restaurants and two hours later, nothing. So we found what we could from the freezer, having nothing to do with Mexican cuisine. But although I was starving (it was 8:00 by the time we gave up on Mexican food) I kept it to one plate and no mountains or seconds. This is pizza, broccoli, falafel, cheese, olives and Tiropita (Greek cheese pie). I feel just fine right now. Had I eaten as much as I thought I wanted, I would be in a food coma.

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.

Meal 1: Eggs, potatoes, sausage, pear, orange. No piling but some crowding. I only ate half the orange.
Meal 2: Burritos with ground beef, spinach, tomatoes, peppers, refried beans, cucumbers. Not pictured: watermelon

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.

Meal 1: a combination of leftovers that have been in the fridge for too long (egg, sausage, falafel, onion, tomato as well as fresh carrot and celery). Celery overload because I’m the only one in the family who likes it and we got a big bunch of it in the farmer box.

Day 5 – 5/8/2020

Meal 1: Scrambled eggs and taco meat in a shell, honeydew

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.

The glass is cracked. Is that symbolic?
The tape measure does not lie
Greek Mother’s Day breakfast: Eggs in tomato, herbed potatoes, bread, watermelon

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.