A Simple Grind-Style Progressive Calisthenics Routine that Employs Micro-Workouts

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!

Book Review: Calisthenics for Beginners by Matt Schifferle

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.

Mechanical Drop Set Pull Micro-Workout

In weightlifting, drop sets have you starting with a certain weight and performing as many reps of the exercise as you can, and then dropping the weight a bit to continue the lift and so on. With body-weight calisthenics, we decrease the resistance by changing something in the mechanics of the movement, such as the foot position or the angle of the body in relation to the ground. Here is an example for a pull micro-workout, starting with pull-ups. Once I get near my limit, I move the feet to the ground and keep going. When that gets almost impossible, I change my angle slowly towards vertical (or standing straight up) and keep going. I like to keep the total reps for these sets in the 20s.

Introducing the X+1: The Micro-Workout Mini Measuring Stick

I’ve been talking a lot lately about volume and intensity within the context of using micro-workouts to build muscle. At the heart of this is a dissatisfaction with muscle building dogma. Conventional wisdom can be wise or merely conventional. But, sometimes things are done certain ways because that’s what works. Boring, but true. It might come down to personality traits. Conventional wisdom dictates heavy volume, long workouts, and lots of rest. That has been done many many times and has worked for lots of people. So someone at the beginning of their journey might say “that is what has worked, that’s what most people do, I’ll do that. Now tell me how many sets and how many reps and how much weight and how many minutes and how many days per week. And I’ll get started.” These are the same people who like to follow recipes when cooking.

Clearly I’m not in this group and that’s why we’re here. So the next thing to do is to figure out just WHAT thing or things need to be accounted for in order to make progress under the new conventional-wisdom bashing order. It can’t be a free-for-all. If I do whatever I feel like for my micro-workout, I’ll surely err on the side of too little or too easy. And too little and too easy mean no progress. But, as I’ve said many times before, I also hate counting and following scripts and writing much down. But in my volume-filled past I can see that many many not-too-difficult sets throughout the day, while useful, are not optimal for building muscle. If so, I’d be a lot more done than I am. And the other side of it, the 5MD for example, requires too much intensity to be done as often as I would like. Could the answer lie within the individual set and just how it feels? Uh…. YEAH!

Did you ever notice that you can always do more than you think you can? In my volume days I know how the sets felt, and I would stop before it got too painful. Gotta get more reps in later, can’t take it too far here. What I’m proposing now is this: don’t stop quite yet. Soon, but not quite yet. Don’t worry about later, worry about now. With the 5MD, you CAN’T worry about later. There is no later. Until the next day. Or two. With the present idea (to be named below), just take it a little farther than you would if you were worried about later volume.

So here’s what I’m saying. The volume is not the most important thing in building muscle. The rep range per se is not the most important thing in building muscle. What’s important is that the individual set is X+1. Now, what does this really mean?

Do sets all day, yes, but make them X+1. Nobody wants to be the guy on the stationary bike scrolling his phone with one hand and doing partial curls with the little pink dumbbell in the other. If we imagine an intensity continuum for a set of push ups, then 1 would be the easiest (if you can do 1) and your absolute max would be the hardest. By absolute max, I mean that last rep is slow and you are barely making it and struggling and shaking and red in the face and your form has broken down. You cannot really do multiple sets throughout the day at this intensity. If that number is 38 for you, then sets of 20 would be tempting. I am saying make it sets of more than 20. X+1 means get to the point in the set where you START to break down, and then do 1 more. The rep slows by necessity, you shake a bit, it burns. But you could still do a few more if you had to. But don’t. This is X+1. Note that “X” is the undefined term here. “X” is where you feel that feeling like I’m about done here. Then do 1 more.

Here’s a pretty good example for Bulgarian Split Squats. Usually when I do these I quit after the 10th or so.

Here’s an example with back yard pull ups. Normally I would take this out to 12 reps or so here but the grip was such that 10 was enough. The point with X+1 is to go just past the point when you are ready to quit.

The Micro-Workout Un-Chronicles, Volume 1: Inching Along the Continuum from Volume to Intensity

I recently did a podcast for Matt Shifferle’s Red Delta Project, where we discussed my experience with Micro-Workouts. This was a very positive experience for me overall but I must admit, I did not really know what to expect going into it. Matt’s a known entity in the calisthenics space, with numerous books and many very excellent Youtube videos on the subject. I have read his latest book “Grind Style Calisthenics” and really liked it and highly recommend it.

Now, imagine how Matt felt. He only knew me from a blog post I wrote a while back on the subject, and I am not a known entity in the field. I could have been some random guy tooting a horn that he doesn’t know how to play, or worse. I may still be that random guy. To some degree I expected this particular challenge or concern, so I made sure before the interview to do some homework and try and figure out just what it is, if anything, that I might have to say on the subject that would be of any value to someone who is far more accomplished than me and spends his professional life working on it. I spent three or four days going back over some of my workout notes throughout the years and tried very hard to capture just what I’ve done and what I am doing now and what this might have to say that is new and/or useful on the subject. Before the interview Matt said these things usually take 20 to 40 minutes and ours took 58, so I am assuming that is a good thing. The responses to the podcast have been very positive. This homework has been a very useful exercise and so I am going to summarize it here.

All About Volume

I’ve said numerous times before that I’m far more process-oriented than goal-oriented if nothing else what I can show for all these years of exercise effort is that I am still doing it and still motivated and am looking forward to getting up tomorrow and doing it again. And I’m strong and my muscles are pretty big. For a 54 year old. Or anyone. That’s a lot, to my mind. But most would say you must have specific goals and you must document your progress towards them. I’m not much of a documenter. I’ve been at this for close to 10 years but fortunately, sometime four or so years into the journey I did start scribbling some things down on a piece of paper, which I recently found in my basement (where I have my gymnastics rings installed).

I do recall in scribbling these notes that most of the time I lost interest and didn’t write down the final few sets. Regardless, what I see here on the whole is one thing mainly: volume. Lots of sets and lots of reps. And although the score-keeping is haphazard, lots of days in a row. Fortunately in July of 2015 I started keeping better notes in the form of a blog. I say “fortunately” because the posts are date stamped so I really do know when I wrote them, and also because it was a blog and thus available on the internet, I wrote them knowing that someone other than me could read them. Likely not, but could. So I included more detail. I have copied some excerpts below.

Pull Up 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 5 8
Ring Dip 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 5 8
Pistol squat 8 7 6 5 5 5 4 4 4 4
Diamond push up 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18

Pull up 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 5 5 5=83
Dip 15 14 13 12 11 10 10 10 10 8 8=121
Pistol Squat 6 5 4 3 3 3 3 3 3 3 3=39
Diamond 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 12 12 12 12=202

Pull up. 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 5 5=78
Dip. 15 14 13 12 11 10 9 8 8 8=108
Squat. 25 24 23 22 21 20 18 15 15 15=198
Diamond. 25 20 19 17 17 16 15 10 10 10=159

Pull up. 12 11 10 9 8 7 6 5 5 5 =80
Dip. 18 17 16 15 14 12 11 10 10 10= 143
Squat. 25 24 23 22 21 20 19 18 15 15=202
Diamond. 25 24 20 19 18 15 15 12 12 10=169

Russian Push-Ups:

1.   1
2.   1 1
3.   1 1 1
4.   1 1 1 1
5.   1 1 1 1 1
6.   1 1 1 1 1 1
7.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1
8.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
9.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
10. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
11. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
12. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
13. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
14. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
15. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
16. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
17. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
18. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
19. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
20. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
21. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
22. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
23. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

That’s 55 more reps than my last effort


1.   1
2.   1 1
3.   1 1 1
4.   1 1 1 1
5.   1 1 1 1 1
6.   1 1 1 1 1 1
7.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1
8.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
9.   1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
10. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
11. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
12. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
13. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
14. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
15. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
16. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
17. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
18. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
19. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
20. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1
21. 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1 1

975 Reps

Today I wanted to see if I could do 500 reps each for pushups, rows and squats.  That’s really a lot when you start to think about it.  I shot for sets of 25 of each with less than strict form.  I ended up with 325 reps for each exercise.  That’s 975 total reps.  Volume.

Pushup: 30, 25, 20, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25
Squat: 20, 25, 30, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25
Row: 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25, 25

These are all taken directly from the blog and were recorded in 2015 and 2016. Again, the point being, VOLUME! I was going for lots of reps every day and you can’t do that many reps if you are pushing it to at or near failure in your sets. Those that look like giant triangles of 1’s are days where I followed the technique of starting with one rep of a particular exercise and then adding a rep each set until failure. This is a great workout.

Thousand Rep Days (Are Few and Far Between)

This all about volume. At my peak, and this happened twice, I had thousand rep days. Those are 40 squats, 30 push ups, 20 dips and 10 pull-ups done ten times a day. In 2017 I had this post:

Ten rounds of the following:

40 squats
30 push ups
20 dips
10 pull ups

100 reps


(I didn’t make it.  I will try this again.)

This was an attempt to get back to 1000 reps and I didn’t make it. The very next post was called “ignore the numbers, back to form”. See, these high rep days, for me, unavoidably become about chasing numbers. When this happens, it becomes grueling and unpleasant and form breaks down quickly. This is when I started thinking more about form and mindfulness and the moment. Additionally, I started thinking about intensity. I’d conquered volume; what’s next? Maybe I could get as good, or better results, in MUCH less time if I played it the right way.

Intensity: Enter the 5MD

I began to see a lot videos in my feed of street workout athletes completing large amounts of reps in short amounts of time. One that is very popular is the five minute drill, or the 5MD. That’s 100 push ups and 50 pull ups in 5 minutes. As a rep monster I thought this seemed pretty easy so I gave it a try. NOT EASY. Not even a little. It took me over eight minutes.

I was amazed at how experienced I am at these two exercises and yet how utterly difficult this simple challenge was for me. How quickly my form broke down and how quickly a set of 4 push ups became almost impossible. You see, this kind of effort is about quickly reaching failure and then revisiting that failure many, many times over the course of a few minutes. The very opposite of what I had been doing for the 10 years prior, where I had made a special point many times throughout the day of completing sets WITHOUT reaching failure or really even approaching it.

And I was also pumped. Literally. I had such a pump from this effort that I became very interested in trying it again. Or something like it. You see, the other thing I quickly discovered was that I was so torched from this 5(8)MD that I couldn’t do either of those two exercises again the next day. Or the following.

The Five Minute Workouts

There’s a good reason why Zef Zakaveli calls it the Five Minute Drill. Drills are done daily if you’re in the military. Zef also speaks of “on demand” calisthenics achievements. In this video, he gets out of the car and walks over to the pull up bar and does 40 reps in one set. That idea is what is at the heart of what I think is most important about micro-workouts – the ability to knock off a good set at just about any time. This can’t be done if you exhaust the muscles in one large, long body-part split workout. As I’ve said before, from and evolutionary perspective, this strength readiness idea makes a lot of sense. I can’t avoid scurrying up a tree to avoid a saber-tooth (forgive me if I got my timeline wrong; not sure if humans and saber-tooth coexisted) because I did too many tree-scurries yesterday.

But my eight minute long 5MD exhausted me. I decided therefore to create a smaller version, which is simply to do one of the two exercises in a five minute period and try to reach the rep goal. That would be 100 push ups, 50 pull ups, 50 dips, 100 squats, 100 rows, etc. For starters I’m doing one from push, one from pull and one from squat per day. You can do a lot with this idea. You can also play with the time. For example, if five minutes leaves you too exhausted to repeat it the next day, try 3 minutes. Another thought is to change how you approach the goal. That is, do one large set to almost failure and then chip away at the remaining reps a few at a time, or maybe do multiple highly manageable sets (of, say, 10 for push ups for example) with little rest between?

This is what I’m working on now. Progress has been good so far. Here’s a little snapshot:

I want to see if I can do it every day and make progress and then add exercises. For example, after five minutes of push ups, do a dips workout. Again, the goal is to find a muscle and strength building formula that can be done in micro-workout fashion. I’ll get back to you.

Discussing Micro-Workouts on the Red Delta Project Podcast

I was a guest recently on Matt Shifferle’s Red Delta Project Podcast, to discuss micro-workouts, calisthenics progress, and strength training every day. I’ve been familiar with Matt’s work for some time and if you aren’t, check out his videos on Youtube. They are concise, well delivered, and full of excellent information. Matt found me through my blog post on micro-workouts, which is worth a read if you need any background information.

My goal with this exploration is to determine whether or not I can build muscle and strength and improve health through small workouts spread throughout the day rather than one big gym-based exhausting workout. This is in part to make working out more attractive and less daunting to the working professional who’s pressed for time.

The podcast is here:

The Definitive Guide to Micro-Workouts

Not long after I started doing calisthenics regularly (some time in 2011 or so), or perhaps just before, I pulled my head out of the hole in the ground that it was buried in and learned to stop assuming everything I read about exercise and strength-building is correct and applicable to me. That would be a distinct change from when I started lifting weights back in the early 80s by idolizing those in “Muscle and Fitness” and then trying to do the workouts as described in the magazines. I believe this is not an uncommon narrative, there are many recovering “golden era” bodybuilder aspirants. It fits with my personality that I would finally find a home in rogue exercise practices, being the never-read-instructions punk curmudgeon that I am. At the age of 54 I am full of piss and vinegar and the one thing you will likely find me NOT doing is whatever someone tells me to do. Unless I don’t have a choice. But I won’t like it.

So naturally I’ve been interested for a few years now in exploring, or rather DEVELOPING, strength building exercise techniques that really go against the grain. Or rather that screw the grain entirely. Being told (by someone I’ve never met) that I have to do it this way is a bit of a prison. If it’s dogma, I want to challenge it. Why? I’m not exactly sure, but I have a strong affection and appreciation for those who figure out that it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way or that way. I am also a process man as opposed to a goals man and it’s the process that keeps me in the game. And the process of taking as doctrine something that someone I don’t know and will never meet has said about something is not a good process at all.

Three areas of dogma in strength/muscle-building involve volume, rest and rep ranges. Volume is roughly the total amount of work done in a given period of time. Rep range refers to the number of reps in the set right before you can’t do any more without help. And rest is the amount of time between training sessions. All three of these assume that there is one distinct “workout” session and when it’s done, that’s it for the day. There are a few exceptions but for the most part this is the assumption. Today I go to the gym for this amount of time and do this workout and that’s the end of the working out for the day. Volume would be the total number of exercises and sets per session. This gets us to things like frequency and splits. In the old days it was a full body workout every other day and three sets of 10 reps per exercise. Then splits came in and generally more volume was done less frequently with more days between doing the same workout. As far as rep ranges it is widely held that low rep ranges like 3-6 are for strength building, 6-12 for muscle building (hypertrophy) and over 12 for muscle “endurance” (whatever THAT is). What if I did 6.5 reps for everything? Hm… And for rest, it is widely believed that the same muscle cannot be strength-trained on consecutive days and the more rest between sessions the better (up to a point).

Taking all of this into account, a fairly typical structure for an intermediate strength/muscle-builder would be a push/pull/legs split where pushing exercises are done one day, pulling the next, and legs the third. Then the cycle repeats itself and a day of rest ends the week. A day’s workout would likely involve 4-10 different exercises with somewhere around 3-8 sets per exercise, giving a total volume of the day to 12-80 sets of work. Muscle exhaustion and pump are the goals and often sets are taken to failure such that another rep could not be completed in that set without help. The work load is high enough that the muscle groups must be rested before the workout is repeated. This takes a lot of time (probably an hour or more) and effort and is exhausting. Aside from other responsibilities, the rest of the day is spent resting and eating. In fact, there is such a strong belief in the direct relationship between eating and exercising and muscle building that many worry excessively about meal timing and composition (i.e., how much protein, how many carbs). So in this very typical scenario, you have one big blast of a workout per day and several frequent small meals to feed the muscles and (supposedly) keep the metabolism revved (whatever that means), where timing and macro-nutrient content are of utmost importance.

I’m turning this on its ear and I couldn’t be more excited about it. For me, micro-workouts are short (10 minutes or less) calisthenics sessions done multiple times throughout the day. In a session I like to do three exercises: 1 push, 1 pull and 1 squat. I do one set of each and don’t worry about the amount of rest between sets. I take the set to about 60%-70% of failure (if I went to failure I wouldn’t be able to do it again the same day). For example, with a gun to my head I could probably do a set of 18-20 pull ups with decent form before failing, so for the micro-workouts I do 12 per set, at least now. Decent form but not great and quick reps (note: improving form and range of motion and slowing the reps are great ways to progress an exercise, to be visited under this paradigm at a later time). Usually I do push ups (right now around 30-40 per set), pull ups (12-15) and one-legged squats (10 per leg) with assistance. I don’t want balance to be the limiting factor and pistol squats hurt my knees even when assisted, so I do a kind of hover lunge on an elevated surface. And if even this makes my 54 year old joints creaky, which it usually does, I will switch to air squats with a pre-exhaust. Air squats alone get easy quickly, even with great form and birdie legs like mine. Once you get to sets of 40 it’s really more like jogging, so I do a single static hold (squat down to where thighs are parallel to ground and hold it) for 30 seconds and then a set of full range squats. Oh, the burn!

I’ve seen more and more discussion these days about micro-workouts and “greasing the groove”, which is widely believed to be a good method for skill acquisition and strength development (nowadays often talked about as if they were the same thing). So if you want to get good at handstand push-ups and can do 2, then do sets of 1 multiple times a day. Another common way that micro-workouts are talked about is to “stay fresh”. So, here are at least two agreed-upon reasons for doing micro-workouts that I know of: (strength as a) skill acquisition and “staying fresh”. I am interested in a third: muscle-building…. or…. whatever it is that got me to lift weights in the first place those many years ago. (Please note that I’m not entirely sure what the difference is between strength-building, hypertrophy and muscle endurance, so I suspect that one goal of this experiment would be to show that they are essentially the same thing, or maybe neighborly points on a continuum. That is, maybe I get bigger (hypertrophy) and stronger with sets of 40 push-ups which sounds like muscle endurance to me.) To be clear, in everything I’ve seen thus far about micro-workouts or “greasing the groove” the goal is skill/strength acquisition and staying fresh. Always a conventional workout is done or advocated for in addition to the micro work in what I have read. I am suggesting that the micro work BE the work and the conventional workout goes away.

I’m not big on rules but there needs to be some here so I’m actually figuring something out rather than spinning wheels. So I’m declaring here that I need to do at least 3 mico-workouts per day and for each exercise, I need to have a rep goal to build towards, after which I move on to a more difficult exercise. I could move on to more reps but that would eventually wear itself out. So, for starters I am doing regular push ups, pull (or chin) ups, and one-legged squats (with assistance) or with too much pain the pre-exhaust air squats. I’d like to set fairly lofty “move on” goals, so I’m saying 50 for push ups, 20 for pull ups and 20 for one legged squats (or 30 seconds followed by 20 for air squats). Once I get the 50 push ups I move to diamonds, for example. Then work my way back up the rep ladder.

Here’s a quick FAQ: can I do other work throughout the day? Yes, but if it makes you start to miss your target reps and/or causes pain, back off. Can I do additional sets? Yes, same as the last one. How will I know I’m making progress? Not sure. But if the reps go up and an honest self-assessment of form is acceptable, that’s gotta be progress. Do I hope a whole new paradigm for strength-building comes of this? Uh… yeah! Why? Because it means we can drop the BS and over-think and just go for it any time of the day all day. The more the better, without pain, without measuring protein grams or clock-watching meal planning.

Again, what’s the overall life goal? Sorry for the subjectivity, but it’s something like to get the same results (or better) as compared to a standard weightlifting volume/split scenario described above and without the gyms, increasing joint pain, exercise overthink, budget busting athleisurewear expenditure, food scales and macronutrient calculators, and obsessive social media tethering. Right now I’m around 30-35 (just got 40 this morning) for push ups, 12 for pull ups and 10 for squats (just got 15 chin ups this morning) and 30 second hold followed by 12 air squats. I’ll get back to you…

How to Think Clearly About Health and Fitness I: Blue Zone Habits

Blue zones are very interesting. These are regions in the world where, apparently, people live a lot longer than expected. There are blue zones in parts of Greece, Italy, Japan, South America, and even in California. Many researchers and writers study the habits of people who live in blue zones in order to understand why they live so long and even to try and replicate their behavior patterns in order to live longer. This may be fruitless but it is nevertheless interesting to take a look at some of the habits and to try and understand how they may contribute to health and long life. This post is not about blue zones and their inhabitants’ habits, but rather about health claims and how not to lose your mind when reading articles about health, nutrition and exercise.

This article describes three major “habits” of people who live in blue zones. I generally like the content on MindBodyGreen but this one really bothered me. However, we can use it as a good lesson in how to think clearly and not get confused and frustrated by “health news” and the myriad conflicting and contradictory claims that are everywhere. Rather than get confused and frustrated, we can translate the claims to useful and understandable data points. This article claims that the three major habits of blue zone inhabitants as far as health are concerned are : 1) they don’t exercise, 2) they eat a lot of carbs, and 3) they go to happy hour. According to the article, these habits are unexpected. Is this surprising, confusing and frustrating? After all, we all know that there is very little to contradict the notion that exercise is important for long life, that too many carbs are unhealthy, and you shouldn’t go to happy hour (i.e., drink alcohol) every day. Yet the people in the blue zones don’t exercise, eat a lot of carbs, and go to happy hour every day. Hm, maybe coffee is bad after all and cholesterol doesn’t give you heart disease. Or rather, cholesterol does give you heart disease. Ok, I forget where we are on that one. So, according to the MindBodyGreen article, even our most tried and true established ideas about health and longevity — that exercise is important, carbs are bad, and happy hour doesn’t make you healthy — are wrong? Whatever we’re doing now for our health (because some article told us to) will be wrong in a few weeks/days/hours/seconds?

The article was written deliberately so that it would seem that the information is surprising and confusing and goes against common health knowledge. And in fact, if you only read the list items and not the words between them, you have direct contradictions to known health facts. That makes it get noticed and remembered and discussed in casual settings. “Now they’re saying that [insert whatever common behavior] ISN’T good for you after all! I’ve been wasting my time with all this [commonly understood to be beneficial health behavior]!” It creates tension and makes you click and look for other things and get more confused and read more articles and then, maybe, eventually pay someone to help you figure it all out or tell you what to do.

But if you read the article even a little bit closely, you can see what’s really going on. For example, on the no exercise claim the article states “Contrary to what you might think, in the Blue Zones, people don’t work out. Now, that’s not to say they aren’t active … people in Blue Zones are actually so active that they don’t even need to take time out of their day for a HIIT or yoga session.” So really, what the blue zone inhabitants are doing is exercising all day long, which is the exact opposite of the claim. They just don’t call it exercise or go to a gym or put on special clothing or pay someone or use strange equipment that’s for exercise. (And by the way, these are all things that I think are key to sustainable and enjoyable exercise.) So, claim #1 is that they don’t exercise and the obvious truth is the opposite, and they do it all day long. What can we take from this? Maybe functional exercise is better than gyms and classes and sessions and equipment. And maybe if we do this exercise frequently, outside, throughout the day as often as we can then we might improve our health. So, a better claim may be that they don’t exercise in the way we think of it, and they CERTAINLY don’t get dressed up and pay money to exercise, but they DO move frequently and deliberately and strenuously and as a fundamental aspect of their lives.

The second “surprising” habit of blue zone dwellers is that they eat carbs – a LOT of carbs. WOW! Shocking! Now, if you are keto, and who isn’t (do you even know what “keto” means?) then this is exasperating. Now carbs are ok?! But what about all the progress I have made on the keto diet? I won’t live to be 100 eating keto? Ok, there are a few reasons why this claim, that they eat a lot of carbs in the blue zone and still live to a ripe old age, is misleading. The first is that, because of recent trends in diet pop culture, which are just re-configuring of old trends (Atkins is keto), the word “carbs” is loaded. Carbs are bad. All carbs. But here’s the thing. No they aren’t. That’s the thing. The calories in a Twinkie are mainly composed of carbohydrate and Twinkies are bad. But the same is true of a yam or just about any other vegetable. Now, all this is not to say that you cannot lose weight and maybe get healthier on a keto diet, depending on what your needs are. It DOES mean that you need to get out of the tunnel and think about what you are really doing and thinking. Is it just the carb-free change that is bringing all the value for you? Or maybe that you changed your diet from junk to real food while you were cutting carbs?

Second, vegans rejoice that people eat a plant based diet in the blue zone! Does this mean that meat really is the source of all heart disease and cancer? Do they choose to eat grains and legumes in the blue zone because they’re the healthiest choices? Or is it because this is what is available and can be grown locally and is inexpensive and when combined with a lot of daily movement can be perfectly fine and healthy? Would they not eat more animal products if they could? I know for a fact that they would. My Greek father-in-law has told me many times that they ate meat twice a year on the island – Easter and Christmas. That was a time for celebration and that is all they could afford. The point here is that they are largely plant based in the blue zones because they have little choice. And are you paleo? Does the fact that blue zoners eat a lot of grains and legumes ruin your day? These two food groups are vilified according to the paleo diet because they were (supposedly) unavailable in the paleolithic era and therefore off limits in terms of our genetic blueprints. We haven’t had enough time, evolutionarily, to adapt to eating them. As such they cause a lot of problems. I’m not really sure what these problems are , but grains and legumes are bad. Yet the blue zoners are making it work. Do they have a choice? Do they have different evolutionary histories? No. They move, they eat not too much, and they eat real food that’s available. They neither worry about carbs nor know what they are. Over here in the red zones (I made that up) we have plenty of time to sit around and worry about this stuff.

The least misleading but still poorly worded habit of blue zoners that is implied to be behind their great health and longevity is that they “go to happy hour”. That is meant to remind us of going out to bars with our friends at 5:00 on a work night where alcohol and appetizers are half price. Nothing else, such as, say, kale, quinoa, and green juice is half prices mind you, just mixed drinks, stuffed potato skins, and deep fried breaded mushrooms. So partaking of this as often as possible will make me live to 100, right? And this is what the Greeks do after a long day of work, right? Of course not. The point here is not the cheap alcohol and junk food. The point here is fellowship and socializing, and the incredibly healthful aspects of spending time with friends and talking and laughing and being together on this planet. So if you want to debate whether or not alcohol, per se, is healthy or not, you have to consider whether or not it’s served with a mixer of three good friends and a lively conversation. Then you can have the alcohol or forget about it. If you’ve got the friends, you’ve likely got the health.

I’d rephrase the three surprising most important habits of blue zone dwellers as: they move frequently and deliberately and strenuously throughout the day but are not worried about how much “exercise” they get, they eat real food that is readily available, locally grown, fresh and inexpensive, and they spend a lot of time socializing with friends and family — three undeniable keys to health and long life.

How Did a Book About Getting Abs Become My Favorite Overall Fitness and Nutrition Book of All?

I don’t care about abs. Visible abs are obsessed over and highly overrated. If they indicate one’s fitness and body-fat levels accurately then they are a bi-product of hard work and a good diet and discipline and as such are not necessarily a bad thing But as a specific goal, I don’t see the point. For starters, you have to take off or lift up your shirt for anyone to even see them! At a certain age, this is never an attractive prospect no matter what’s underneath the shirt. But I do understand that authors have to sell books and they must appeal to the interests of the readers to do so. This is why Diamond Cut Abs by Danny Kavadlo, which is my absolute favorite fitness, diet and exercise book, seems to be specifically about abs and how to get them. But it is SO MUCH MORE, and it is the perfect combination of irreverent, pithy and larger-than-life humorous writing, BS busting, honest truth, and plain and simple minimalist punk wisdom. No holds barred and no punches pulled.

I have read this book three times and you know what? When I get to the part that specifically describes how to train abs, I start skimming or stop reading altogether. Like I said, I don’t care about abs, and I don’t think most people should care about abs as much as they do and to the exclusion of other things. Although, if you DO care about abs, this is the right book for you, because it ALSO dispels the myths and busts the BS in the fitness industry about how to train abs. I mean, it includes squats, push ups and pull ups in abs training! That’s beautiful! But this book is SO MUCH MORE than an abs training book. It is my go-to resource for nutritional rules and it is my homing device. I get distracted like everyone else, and I lose sight of the truth. And when I do, I turn back to this book. In fact, it’s a perfect compendium of knowledge and wisdom on how to avoid the rampant BS that the fitness industry is full of, how to think clearly about what to eat and when and how much and why, and how not to get caught up in needless obsessing about components of food and measuring things and weighing things and worrying about nutrients of dubious value that you’ll never see, taste or feel and frankly, don’t know why you should even care about. Ever tasted an anti-oxidant?

Are you worried about whether or not you should be paleo, keto, vegan, OMAD, carnivore or any one of the many other variations on a theme? Forget about it! Throw it out the window! You gotta eat and when you do, you should be hungry, and you should eat real freaking food that grew under the ground or above the ground or flew around or ran around or swam around or popped out of the business end of a chicken. You should eat food as close to its source as possible and you should eat the whole food and lots of different varieties of it. If it comes in a canister, ignore it. If someone extracted it from something else, leave it alone (most of the time). If it’s been pounded, bleached, dyed, pulverized or partially hydrogenated, throw it away. You get the idea.

Through the ages most diets that gain popular appeal follow a simple set of rules that usually involves the vilification of a single macro-nutrient and/or food group, some kind of dubious justification for that vilification (when there actually is a hidden one, such as farm subsidies), and the attempt to apply this rule to everyone across the board. The particular macro-nutrient or food group that is the target du jour tends to vary cyclically. It may be fat, then carbs, then protein or it may be grains or sugar then red meat or animal products or fructose or cholesterol, etc. What’s always less loudly trumpeted is the accompanying advice to avoid junk and processed food and eat real food, which of course is the real reason that any diet actually helps you. But it’s not a gimmick to avoid junk and processed food and eat real food and it doesn’t have any obvious financial rewards for those doing the advising, so it’s not generally the focus of the diet. I recently watched three documentary nutrition films within the span of about two days. This is a valuable exercise that is not for the faint of heart. The documentaries I watched were Forks Over Knives, The Magic Pill, and Cooked. Forks is a vegan film and The Magic Pill is a paleo/keto film that both follow very similar scripts until it comes to the one enemy, whether that be animal products or carbohydrates. Cooked is Michael Pollan’s four-part documentary series that takes a common sense approach to food and celebrates a reverence for its origins, its cultural, social and nutritional power, and its true value outside of gimmicks and dishonest money-making schemes. It’s a true thing of beauty and Danny Kavadlo’s book fits right in here in addition to providing a set of rules to follow in order to get to the “core”, so to speak, of eating sensibly and getting stronger. Get Diamond Cut Abs, read it, re-read it when you start to stray, get on those squats, push ups and pull ups for a strong core!

You know what I think Danny should do? Take the first half of the book (before the abs training) and update it, and expand it, and bring it in line with his current thinking, and make it an entire book itself.