Thinking out loud

Calisthenics is my 2016 Wonderland

The year leaving us, 2016, started with a setback. I got injured at the gym and my dreams of getting ripped before the summer started fading away. What good can you expect when two weeks in the new year something like that happens? Well folk wisdom says there’s no cloud without a silver lining. And folk wisdom is right. My setback led to what is now among my greatest passions: the discovery of Calisthenics.

I didn’t even think I would stick with it. In fact I wasn’t planning it. My plan was to train bodyweight a couple of months until my wrist is strong enough to start lifting again.

My routine in the beginning wasn’t that specific either. I was just doing some bodyweight exercises I knew or had seen. Trying to add some external resistance in some way since I thought it wasn’t enough.

I now realize that my injury was a tumble in the rabbit hole. I was going deeper and deeper until I landed in Wonderland. And that Wonderland is exactly where I needed to be.

So almost a year has gone by and what have I learned? Here is a short list of Calisthenics related lessons:

  • You don’t need external resistance or equipment to train effectively. I’ll say that one more time. You don’t need external resistance or equipment to train effectively. Nothing wrong with having it, but you don’t need it.
  • Calisthenics is not something acrobats or only crazy-strong people do. It’s for everyone. It’s adjustable.
  • There is much more to training than pure muscle strength. In fact, to unlock your full muscle potential you need to train other functions. Balance, coordination, neurological control, mobility to name a few.
  • Although not impossible, it’s harder to injure yourself. Bodyweight is generally kinder on the joints. In some cases it will even heal old injuries.
  • You can literally train anywhere.
  • There are fantastic sources of information on the subject. You can find some on YouTube, read a book or a blog.
  • It will take a long long time until you can say you truly mastered the basics. Pushups ain’t that easy. Easier said than done fits perfectly here.
  • You can build muscle and strength with moves that you never considered as exercises.
  • It’s all about progress(-ion) which…
  • …never ends!

The lessons don’t stop here, but I will. The main lesson I guess is that even if something does not go your way, you can find alternatives. And those alternatives may prove to be the thing you actually wanted.

Happy New Year!

Geo

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Training

Bullet thoughts on Convict Conditioning [part 3]

So here’s the final part on my experience with following Convict Conditioning for a few months now. If you want an introduction to the approach and to my thoughts on it you can read the first part here while the second part can be found here. For this one I chose a QnA format.

  • Q: Is CC a good program to follow if you want to build strength?
    A: Yes. I have seen strength gains in all exercises. I used to break form when doing pushups after a few ones while now I perform 12-13 16-17 strict ones in a set without going to failure and with a 2-1-2 tempo (doesn’t sound impressive but take into account that that’s more than a minute under tension while the progression standard is 2 sets of 20). I can almost descend to the bottom position of a pistol squat which is something I could never do before. I learned to get up on a wall headstand and hold it for 2 minutes or more and can hold a crow pose for about 30″ (currently and on a good day, that hold is tough as nails). I have gotten reasonably stronger in my pullups even though I haven’t reached the full pullup step yet and my grip gives out much later than it used to. There is no magic there, it’s a solid strength training approach.
  • Q: Is CC a good program to get big?
  • A: It depends on two things: what you mean by big and how fast you expect to get there. CC is not a bodybuilding program therefore if you’re after the bodybuilder physique it’s not going to give you that. Moreover, CC involves a lot of skill and acrobatic work. Which immediately raises the level of difficulty making progress slower. Honestly speaking there are faster training approaches to get big, CC is a slow program and it is tough. But you will be seeing results along the way. I am a skinny guy to begin with and I have put on about 3kg on a lean bulk diet in approximately 3 months. Considering the fact that my waist has not gotten noticeably bigger you could say that a good deal of that is muscle. I see a difference on every muscle group and generally feel I’m headed where I want to be in regards to size. Building muscle depends a lot on your genetics as well. If your muscle synthesis capacity is better and you are stronger in the progressions you will get bigger. At the end of the day getting bigger is a product of strength, the discipline you follow makes little difference.
  • Q: Is CC a good program to get ripped?
    A: If there’s any point in time I’ve ever seen ab definition then it’s after I started doing the CC progression on Leg Raises. I have not even started the hanging from the bar work yet, at the time of writing I’m on Step 4: Frog Leg Raises (really tough one for me considering the 4s descend). I am not very low on BF, probably around 14-15% but I can see some upper ab definition when flexing. So far it seems to me that the ab work that CC includes is great for building a six pack. Revealing it is a diet story.
  • Q: Do I have to do CC alone?
    A: I do the CC progressions combined with some of my own. I believe in having fun with your training. My choice is only bodyweight exercises, but would you want to do something beyond CC I don’t see why you shouldn’t. As all experts say, make sure you eat well, rest enough and results will come.

So there it is. After almost 8 months I’ve summed all I can say (up to this point) about Convict Conditioning in something more than 2000 words. Looking forward to the conclusions and results of the next 8 months.

Training

Bullet thoughts on Convict Conditioning [part 2]

This is the second part where I present what I’ve read, heard, learned and concluded about Convict Conditioning after 7,5 months of following its approach. Click here to read the first part.

  • While the book is very well structured and offers a good system for advancing, it has its weaknesses. Sometimes the leap of difficulty is so big that the step feels harder than the next. A classic example is step 2 in the pullup series which is horizontal rows a.k.a. Australian pullups. If you try to this by the book I cannot see how you will ever advance unless you already are elite-level. Simply put it’s too hard. There is plenty of people facing problems with the step the way it’s presented in the book, with the given bar height and form. Step 7 Uneven Squats in the squat series is another major sticking point.
  • For those types of steps where it is generally agreed that they are much harder than the previous ones, there are the so called hidden steps. A hidden step is nothing more than an easier version of that step, often changing a variable like the range of motion or the tempo until you get strong enough to do the proper movement. Coach Wade has actually written a guide named The Super F.A.Q. where he gives his view on many of these issues people face when moving along the progression steps. To give you the gist, he advises the usage of hidden steps plus applying common sense – if it is way too hard to be that early in the series than adjust it so that it’s easier.
  • “If a step is too hard then you are not strong enough”, one may reasonably assume. While this may hold true, there is an important motivational element in your training. If you don’t feel like you’re making any progress then it’s easy to fall victim to disappointment and abandon an otherwise solid system. I have on occasion made a step easier when I deemed that I had spent as much time as I possibly could to perform it by the book. And by as much time I mean months, not a few sessions.
  • The book is a training manual on progressive calisthenics. At the end of the book there is a section on programming i.e. 5 different schedules to choose from depending on your level and what you want to achieve. I am following what I think most people who have a total training experience of more or less 2 years would, the one called Good Behavior. The coach however stresses that the approach is more important than the program. You can, if you want, create your own training schedule. To help you with this, the book contains a section on self-coaching which explains the principles behind being your own trainer and encourages you to listen to your body.
  • By reading the book you will get a strong feeling that you don’t need to do anything more but the exercises in the book to get stronger. I did this in the beginning. Then I started adding some more exercises to each session, a number of secondary exercises if you will. For instance, I do a dip progression on the same day I have my pushups. I apply the CC approach on those other exercises. The result is that I have seen major difference in how well I perform and how strong I get. Sometimes a little bit more volume might be what you need. Experiment and see what works best for you.
  • The book does not talk about diet. There are no dietary instructions, no meal plans and no macro combinations or nutritional analysis of food. Diet is touched upon only by mention, however it is stated that your body fat is going to affect the capacity to which you can perform.

In the 3rd and final part of this series of posts I am going to talk about what results I have seen by following the program these 7,5 months both in terms of physique and strength. Is it a good program to follow for strength? Can you build muscle? Will you get ripped?

 

Training

Bullet thoughts on Convict Conditioning [part 1]

I’ve been been doing Convict Conditioning for about 7,5 months now, and I thought this would be a good time to make a list of my first findings regarding the program approach. I will also give my answers to questions practitioners or potential practitioners often have.

First off, a few lines of introduction. CC is a book written in 2012 by Paul Wade and published by Dragon Door. The book is a training manual on Progressive Calisthenics. It contains progressions for “The Big Six”, the six groups of exercises that, according to the author, you need to perform in order to train every muscle in your body. The exercise groups a.k.a. progressions, are the Pushup, the Leg Raise, the Pullup, the Handstand Pushup, the Squat and the Bridge targeting chest and biceps, abdomen, back and arms, shoulders, legs and spine respectively. Every exercise group consists of 10 steps, Step 1 being the easiest in the series and Step 10 being the ultimate, the Master Step. The trainee must first complete a certain number of sets and reps with the prescribed form for a step before he or she can move on to the next one.

The book is supposedly written by a man, Paul Wade, who spent 20 years in several penitentiaries where he learned the secrets of bodyweight training by his former Navy Seal cellmate. He mastered that type of training to such a degree that it earned him the nickname “Entrenador” or “Coach”. As if that is not intriguing enough, Paul Wade has chosen to remain unidentified since there are no images or footage of him.

Without further ado I will present my opinion on the book: I believe it is a fantastic manual on bodyweight training. Below I will summarize what I think and what I’ve come to realize in the time I’ve been training “like a convict”.

  • To get things straight right off the bat, the book has a training manual part with a myth part built right into it. In other words, the prison story may or may not be real. Paul Wade, if that’s his real name, may be a real figure, an exaggerated figure, a character made up from real or fictional ones, or even completely made up. Having said that, I personally don’t care whether or not the story is real. It is a good story which makes the book more interesting and the reading easier. It sucks you in. Whoever wrote the book has a good way of writing. The main criticism the book gets is based on that aspect of it, therefore I wanted to address this right away.
  • The above brings me to the main point: the book offers in my opinion an overall very good set of progressions. Simply put, it’s showing you how to train in order to be able to perform some of the most difficult moves the human body can do from a strength perspective. For the most part, the steps make sense the way they are laid out, each step adding a degree of difficulty to the previous one.
  • I really like the fact that each step has a target number of sets and reps that you need to reach before you can advance to the next. That way you don’t have to wonder whether you’re ready or not. If you can perform the prescribed number, then you should give the next step a shot.
  • However, the progressions are not binary. What I mean is, I’ve found out that you shouldn’t have a “I can do/I can’t do” approach. There is virtually always room for improvement in any step. Even the earlier steps in the progression, the “easy” ones, can give you a run for your money if you perform them the right way.
  • Talking about the right way, it is generally advised to maintain a slow 2-1-2 tempo with strict form as shown in the book. That is 2 seconds on the negative part, 1 second pause, 2 seconds on the positive for the majority of the movements. Strict form means different things for different exercises but in general keep your body braced, form straight lines, no shagging, maintain a breathing pattern etc.
  • What all that means in the end is that rushing to get to the next step does not mean anything because the stuff you leave behind and don’t fix you will run into later down the road. An example is grip strength for pullups, another is ankle mobility for squats and the list goes on and on. Basically how strong your muscles are is only one variable in the equation. There are others just as important when we are talking about advancing a step. Such as flexibility and balance. This is why you should, according to the coach and to my personal experience so far, try to milk every step – take as much out of it as possible before moving on. He also calls it putting strength in the bank. Another way to see it is don’t advance when you do it right, rather when you can’t do it wrong.
  • A good way to milk a step is to turn on the mind-to-muscle connection. I have done that a few times and I can say I see a rise in difficulty. The way I interpret mind-to-muscle is really concentrating on the target muscle and adding tension to it on purpose. Flexing it while performing the move. I can guarantee that this will make the exercise harder which means potential strength gains.
  • Coach Wade emphasizes that you should start from step 1 of each progression no matter how strong you already are. Even if you can bench press 100kg, he states that you should do your time by doing wall pushups. He argues that this is for developing a good moving pattern as well as allowing the tendons and ligaments the time to adjust. Personally, I spent one or two weeks on the first step of some of the progressions with the exception of some hard ones, like the Wall Headstand which took me a couple of months to achieve.
  • If you’re like me, get ready to become friends with inversions.

Part 2 coming soon.

Thinking out loud, Training

Why I love working out outdoors

Bodyweight training is all about mastering your own body. Learning to have control over each part, each muscle and joint. I am realizing as time passes that this is a lifelong journey and as with all journeys it’s the trip that matters, not the destination.

Another thing I have started realizing is that bodyweight training involves a spiritual and inner aspect. You do not only attempt to get in sync with yourself physically, but also mentally. It is no secret that disciplines like yoga are grounded to a big degree on just that. And since the mind controls the body, then learning to control your mind is what will ultimately allow you to master your own body. That is a big issue and deserves each own post.

Since I mentioned yoga, let’s take a look at what location yoga is performed in. Now, I am not a practitioner although many of the stretches I do come from yoga, but everyone in fitness has a basic understanding of what it requires: peace and tranquility. Yoga and meditation go hand-to-hand so it comes as no surprise that places which offer quiet and stability are often preferred. Places like the top of a hill, the side of a lake, a quiet spot in a big park.

I was training at the workout station on the hill near my place yesterday. Whenever the weather allows for it I like to go up there and let off some steam. This is what it looks like.

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Pullup bars, dip bars, poles, steps. Benches of course are made for sitting but a Calisthenics enthusiast has plenty more use for them. Rocks and grass. Trees. The real earth.

I fully understand why yoga practitioners like to exercise in such surroundings. How can training in such an environment not trigger the spiritual aspect of training?

Everytime I train outdoors I feel like my training is more “real”. More connected to the original reason it was made for, to make you strong in order to deal with the environment you live in. Isn’t this why our ancestors needed to be strong? It wasn’t to look good, put on a performance or because it was fun. It was because man needed to be able to cope with anything nature would throw at him. It was because man wanted to survive.

Apart from the “profound” aspect of training outdoors, it makes for a more pleasant experience as well. Breathing in fresh air while listening to the sound of the leaves, birds or the steps of the passerby is invigorating. Having the breeze swipe off the sweat of your forehead. Landing on soft grass. Even though I like going to the gym I have to admit that it cannot offer this experience.

Then there’s the minimalism. No clutter, no stuff lying around. This is the only stuff I pretty much carry with me:

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Gloves are optional.

And then there’s play. You’re at the park, probably a place similar to the one in your child neighborhood – if not the same for those living where they grew up. And you are doing what? Running, climbing onto things, pushing stuff around. Throwing things maybe. Falling down and jumping back up again. That’s bodyweight training. But, that’s also playing. How close does it resemble your childhood afternoons at the park? I didn’t think of it until yesterday, but it does bring back memories. Yes, you become a kid again. Suddenly you’re not exercising to hit a PR, grow a muscle or get stronger. No, you’re only playing. Having fun, being carefree. Enjoying life.

I ended up staying up there for nearly 3 hours. No, I was not intensely training for 3 hours. But the inspiration I got from the place just wasn’t letting me go. I wanted to try this and then that and why not another thing. I was deep into exploring mode, experimenting and testing where I stand right now. How much can I really do?

But training is training and as such it should be effective. When it’s all said and done, I went up on that hill for a reason – everything else that comes along is a pleasant bonus. So how does training outdoors rate against training at the gym when it comes to progressing?

The answer is it depends. When you do bodyweight, you don’t really need much so equipment does not play a big role. It does play some though. Exercises are probably harder done outdoors compared to the gym. Yes, the surfaces are rougher to hold on to. Or their state might not be ideal. I was doing bridges yesterday and my hands were slipping slightly on the wet grass. I tried the road and the dirt, it wasn’t the most convenient. But it doesn’t have to be, in fact it probably shouldn’t be. Training to get stronger means adapting to any given situation. We are adaptive creatures, we adjust to the conditions around as and grow along with them. Same goes for temperature and weather. It might be cold outside. Or very hot. It may be raining.

Of course I am not suggesting to abandon all logic and train outdoors no matter what. I live in a place that gets very cold in the winter and I usually train right after I wake up. I would be setting myself up for injury if I decided to go hardcore.

But whenever the conditions are favorable, I want to be out there doing my pushups and hanging from that pullup bar. Trying to see if I can perform a “Closed umbrella” on the bench or jumping on top of that big rock. And then topping all that with a beautiful stroll on the way back home.

It looks like it’s good weather again today. I think it’s time for some mobility work up on that hill.

Misc, Thinking out loud, Training

4 Youtube fitness channels that are worth checking out

We all check Youtube. A lot. Perhaps more than we should. I know for myself that I spend 1-2 hours a day watching videos which mostly have to do with fitness or cooking. I like to think that I am educating myself, which I am to a certain degree (when not re-watching clips from Game of Thrones, Glengarry Glen Ross, Swingers or cartoons I like). The point is that Youtube has become a big part of our lives when it comes to searching for information or entertainment.

Naturally I have browsed through a number of channels looking for tips on how to perform an exercise or what makes for a good diet. Over time I stuck with some and left others. The ones I am following are those who I think make sense.

I like people who present simple ideas in a down-to-earth way. People who value putting time and effort into something and being patient. I have started a journey in strength, health and building an enjoyable lifestyle so I gravitate towards those people who preach the same. Though I think there is nothing wrong with choosing other ways to achieve your goals, I personally can’t relate to, for instance, the bodybuilding way of thinking. In the end we all choose to listen to those around us that we believe give solid sensible advice.

So with no further ado, here’s my list of channels that I frequently watch.

Kinobody

This is the only channel in my list that is not focused on bodyweight training. I first discovered it about 10 months ago and what caught my attention was the emphasis on getting lean without giving up life.

The creator, Greg O’ Gallagher, is prompting people to focus on getting stronger on basic moves, the “key lifts” as he calls them, while implementing Intermittent Fasting as their diet protocol.

What I like about this channel is the simplicity of the approach on building a physique: Get stronger and eat at a slight deficit/surplus, depending on what your goals are. It doesn’t overcomplicate things with strange meal plans or workouts. It also has some high production value videos which get the message across and are entertaining or even inspiring to watch at the same time. Worth a look.

GMB Fitness

I recently started spending more time on listening to this channel’s podcasts, interviews and watching their tutorials. The focus is on functional strength and health. They have a lot of content on mobility and flexibility. And they use bodyweight training.

Apart from a number of useful tips on how to achieve certain moves and become more flexible, an aspect of fitness often neglected, a big bonus is the GMB Show. It hosts interviews with people from the Calisthenics community and generally the fitness world. Strong people talking about how they got there? Inspiring.

Fitness on the side, I like that this channel takes a philosophical approach on things. Mindset and mentality is often covered in interviews, a part of their content that I very much appreciate.

Al Kavadlo

Arguably the most recognizable figure in the Calisthenics community, trainer, author and PCC instructor Al Kavadlo has his own channel with video tutorials on progressive Calisthenics as well as on giving answers to questions that trainees have.

Al Kavadlo is the author of a number of books on bodyweight training, two of which I have in my possession. He also appears in part of the Convict Conditioning series of books. His earliest videos date back 6 years and that’s important because it shows commitment. It also shows how one of the leading experts in Calisthenics progressed those past years.

His simple approach on things, his persistence on taking your time and not rushing through as well as his knowledge sharing make this channel definitely worth to check out. On the bonus side, he often posts videos with his brother Danny who is also a Calisthenics master and another interesting person to listen to.

Red Delta Project

I saved my favorite for last. The Red Delta Project is a channel created by bodyweight training expert and trainer Matt Schifferle. He is also a member of the Progressive Calisthenics Certification team and he has recently published his first book, Fitness Independence which is on my “to read” list.

The title of the book speaks volumes about what the channel is all about. It’s about quitting all the unnecessary and focusing on the few things that matter. That includes both training and diet. Matt has been posting frequently for the past 5 years with content varying from mindset building to exercise performing.

One thing that I find particularly interesting and useful are the many subtle tips that Matt gives regarding exercises. Tips on improving your mind-to-muscle connection and taking the most out of each movement. And what I greatly enjoy is that his videos are short, concise and to the point.

I would like to make some honorable mentions at this point, channels that I sometimes watch or have followed in the past but not follow that closely now. Those would be Radu Antoniu, Homemade Muscles, Brandon Carter and Buff Dudes.

If you’re into Calisthenics, or generally training for that matter, then you are surely spending time on Youtube. The more serious the source of information the better this time will be spent and the more effective your workouts will be. Except for the practical advice though, getting inspired and not feeling like you are alone in this journey is equally as important.

Now enough with watching others do it. Time to do it myself.

Misc, Thinking out loud, Training

Why I believe walking is the best type of cardio

I am not a fan of cardio. Wait, let me rephrase that. I am not a fan of gym cardio. Running for hours on a treadmill or on a bike while looking at a TV opposite you – I don’t find that the least inspiring. Physique-wise I have not much to gain from that either. Being a lightweight skinny guy who is working on strength and muscle building, that type of work cannot help me much in my goals.

The benefits of cardiovascular exercise are tremendous, no objection there. You do get healthier if you exercise your heart more, better blood flow, better breathing, your lungs open up plus you get a killer leg and core workout. But if I had to choose, I would say there are other more fun ways of achieving the same results.

I would still go for a sprint in the park or the forest occasionally, mainly because I like being out in the nature and work out. But I’d much rather jump rope or do some HIIT sprinting or jumping. Biking is also fun. But recently I have been changing my opinion on one form of exercise that I used to underestimate for a long time: walking.

Walking has been gaining a lot of fans the past few years as you see more and more people putting on their sweatpants and going for a stroll. I used to think that this type of exercise was mostly good for out-of-shape older individuals who would need to take it easy in order not to get injured.

Sure, if you are an advanced athlete walking is not much of a challenge. But does everything have to be a challenge to be of some benefit?

Walking is the type of exercise I have done the most in my life. I am literally a wayfarer. I don’t have a car, I do use public transport everyday but if I’m not in a huge rush and it isn’t pouring from the skies, I choose to go on foot.

I like walking because of a number of reasons. It is the best way to see a place. It is the best way to find cool spots. It is a fantastic way for meeting people, especially if you’re on a trip. It’s easy to have a conversation while doing it. It does not demand great amounts of will power to go through. And above all, it’s so painlessly easy to do. It costs nothing and it requires nothing except for a pair of normal shoes.

Why is it good cardio though? First of all you can adjust it to your level. You can go for a power walk, you can speed up or slow down, you can choose to go uphill or downhill. Walking is really the most fundamental progressive calisthenics exercise there is!

The word fundamental is kind of important, I feel. If you can’t walk right there is no chance you will be able to run or jump. This may sound silly, but there are people who have balance issues or are generally clumsy. Is there a better start to deal with those than working on your walk?

An aspect of walking that I neglected was that it burns calories. Obviously I knew that you burn calories when you move, but I never really counted walking as a fat-burning activity in my calculations. Which is a mistake if you walk a lot.A 75kg person walking on a flat surface covering 1km in 15′ burns 66 calories (calculator). Imagine if you do 3-4km a day. It’s not a lot, say you meet a friend downtown and go on foot, you go for a walk in the stores or decide to visit the park. Or you take a long walk on a Sunday where you go from one side of the city to the other because the weather is nice. You are essentially burning calories without knowing it.

I recently noticed a slight recomp effect on my body and if I had to guess I’d attribute it to walking a lot lately without even realizing it. What happened is that I notice I am leaner than I used to be without necessarily having dropped much weight. Especially since the past month or so I aim at a small caloric surplus since I’m lean bulking – perhaps I was actually in maintenance in the end.

Another great benefit of walking as cardio is that it does not interfere with your strength gains. In order to get burned out by walking you have to be doing it all day long and not really resting that much. Little chance of that happening and even if it does, you are back on track after one or two days off. It won’t injure you or make you sore for days or even weeks like an intense running session could.

According to some, walking is also good for suppressing your appetite. Double benefit if you’re cutting, and a good counterweight if you’re bulking. And hey, if you take a piece of cake with colleagues at your lunch break it’s good to know that you can burn some of it off by walking back home.

Walking is simple painless exercise that everyone can do at any time at any place. You do it without realizing that you’re exercising, and enjoy the scenery in the process. Keep walking as the saying goes, or start if you’re not already doing it.

I’ve talked the talk. Time to walk the walk.