My workout was a medium-length run of 3.97 miles which I ran in 1:06:45, but that was not my only activity. Besides that, I also hiked a similar-length trail at Homer Lake with Jackie.

The walk was especially nice, and we’re very pleased that (with her new bionic hip) Jackie is once again able to walk reasonable distances. We walked about 2.72 miles in 1:24. There were some very nice views of Homer Lake, as well as some deer, some blue jays, and a handsome snek that I failed to get a decent picture of.

I did get a decent picture of Jackie:

Besides the pictures from Homer Lake, I also got a picture of a handsome Red-tailed Hawk while I was out running, taken quite close to home. (See at the top of this post.) He was still there as I returned home.

I should mention that the run was actually quite a bit longer than my exercise-tracking app gave me credit for. (Google Fit estimates the distance at 4.46 miles.)

You can get an idea of just how much my exercise-tracking app shorted me from this map, if you know that I ran around the lake at the north end of of my run (and not as the map suggests, through it), and that I generally followed roads and paths (without cutting nearly as many corners as the map suggests).

I want to reassure people that I will not be posting all of my workouts going forward. I just wanted to post a representative strength training session and run, so that I’d have then here as examples.

Whether I’m trying to “get enough exercise” (as I tried to do for years), or trying to “fill my days with movement” (which I’ve realized is a much better way to think about my physical activity), training has been a constant. As someone who has only rarely trained as part of a group, or had a teacher or coach, a lot of my training has been solo training.

Often my focus was on endurance training: preparing for very long walks, foot races, or a 100-mile bike ride. I also did strength training. And my training often included skill training—Tai Chi, parkour, tennis (long ago), even fencing (one brief term in college).

Training by yourself is hard. It’s hard to motivate yourself to go out and do it, and it’s hard to push yourself enough to make good progress (and if you’re good at pushing yourself, it’s hard to know when to take time to recover instead). For skills-based training, it’s hard to learn those skills without a teacher or coach. And for activities with any sort of competitive element, such as tennis or fencing, it’s especially hard to train without a partner. This has been particularly acute during the pandemic, but really it’s always true.

And here is where Guy Windor’s new book The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training comes in.

A lot of the specific information in the book is stuff I’ve figured out myself over the years: Some training is just about impossible to do without a teacher (learning your first Tai Chi form) or a partner (practicing return of serve in tennis). But for most activities, that fraction of the training will be much less than half of your training. Much of the rest of your training is either easy to do by yourself (strength and endurance training), or at least possible to do by yourself once you’ve learned the skill well enough to be able to evaluate your own performance (practicing a Tai Chi form, for example).

The key is to spend some time figuring out the entire scope of your training activities, and then think deeply about what category each activity falls into.

To the extent that your access to a teacher, coach, or partner is limited (as during a pandemic), emphasize the things that are easy to train solo (such as strength training and endurance training), then judiciously add those parts of the training that are advantaged by (or require) a teacher or partner as they are available.

What Guy Windsor adds to this sort of intuitive structuring of training is, as the title suggests, a method. He has systematized the structure in a way that makes the decision-making parts of the activity easier to do and easier to get right.

Perhaps even more important than that, he has taken a step back to talk about all the parts of training that aren’t just skills training for your particular activity. That other stuff—sleep, healthy eating, breathing, mobility, flexibility, strength training, endurance training, etc.—are actually more important than this or that skill, while at the same time being the bits that are easiest to train solo. If you’re stuck for a year with no partner, no teacher, and no coach, but you spend that year focusing on health and general physical preparedness, you’ll scarcely fall behind at all, and make yourself ready to jump into your skills training with both feet once that’s possible again.

I should mention that Guy Windsor’s book was written with practitioners of historical European martial arts especially in mind, but that scarcely matters. It is entirely applicable not only to practitioners of any other martial art, it is entirely relevant to literally anyone who trains in anything.

And, since many of my readers are fiction writers, I should also mention another of Guy Windsor’s books Swordfighting for Writers, Game Designers, and Martial Artists. When I signed up for his email list, he offered it as a free download for people who did so.

Being forced into purely solo training for 18 months has made me keenly aware of the many opportunities for non-solo training available here locally. There’s a local fencing club that I’ve had my eye on for some time, and our financial situation is such that now we could afford for me to join and buy fencing gear. Just today I searched for and found a local historical European martial arts club on campus—I’ve asked to be added to their Facebook group and joined their Discord. One of my Tai Chi students teaches an Aikido class with the Urbana Park District—I had started studying with him right as the pandemic began and got in two classes before everything was canceled. And, not sword-related, but cool and great training, is indoor rock climbing at Urbana Boulders.

Just as soon as the pandemic lets up for real, I’ll be doing some of those things.

In the meantime, I’m going over my solo training regimen, taking advantage of the insights that Guy Windsor provides in The Windsor Method: The Principles of Solo Training to figure out what adjustments I should make.

For some time now I’ve been groping toward more “functional” workouts, focused on developing actual useful capabilities—walking & running, crawling, lifting & carrying, balancing, climbing, jumping, throwing, catching, etc. (This in contrast to workouts that focus on capabilities that enable those things, such as pull-ups and dips which help enable climbing.)

This introduces certain complexities into my workouts. Skills-based activities need to be practiced at the start of a workout, when I’m fresh enough to do them with the sort of attention that lets me improve my skills. Likewise, any exercise that involves heavy weights, and any exercise that involves complex multi-joint motions, also needs to be done at the start, to minimize the risk of injury. That’s all well and good, but you can only put so much of a workout at the start before you inevitably find yourself in the middle. And then, what do you put at the end?

Well, one thing you can fairly safely put at the end is MetCon (metabolic conditioning) activity. Today I tried out such a MetCon circuit, with an eye toward doing something similar after my more skills-based workouts.

Kettlebell, jump rope, slamball

The workout was circuits of:

  • Kettlebell swings (53 lb) x 25 swings
  • Weighted jump rope (½ lb) x 60 jumps
  • Slamball slams (15 lb) x 15 slams

I’ve done something similar in the past with 45″ work followed by 15″ rest (and then 2–3 minutes rest between rounds). Today I didn’t feel like fiddling with the timer; I picked those rep counts to hit about the same 45″ duration for each set.

I repeated that circuit for 4 rounds, which took just over 22 minutes. I followed it up with a short suitcase carry of the kettlebell—just one circuit of my patio slab with the kettlebell on one side, and then again with the kettlebell on the other side.

It was a good workout.

Now the question is, can I first do a more skills-based workout and then follow it up with a MetCon circuit, without exhausting myself? If I can make that work, I’ll be a little closer to designing the functional training program that I’m working on.

I just wrote a post about “superhero” workouts, mentioning Anthony Arvanitakis’s Superhero Bodyweight Workout which I did last year. I plan to do it again this year, and this post is about a handful of specific issues I had with the plan last year, and how I’m planning to rejigger things to deal with them this year.

There were a few exercises that I couldn’t quite do—not because I lacked strength or endurance, but just because there was a skill component that I couldn’t master quickly enough to go full-power through the 8-week training program. Here are the specific exercises I identified as ones I had trouble with:

  • Prone angels with weights: I’d never done this exercise, and found it quite challenging. Now though, I’ve spent the winter doing it without weights as part of my morning exercises, and I’ve just in the past couple of weeks started adding in weights. I think I’ve got this one sorted.
  • Superhero (i.e. one-armed) planks: Similarly, I’d just never done one-armed planks, so I needed to develop a bit more core strength for anti-rotation to be able to 30-second holds on each side. (This one I haven’t been practicing all winter, but I’ve just now checked and managed 20-second holds on each side. I’m sure I can get to 30 seconds in short order.)
  • Pike push-ups: Another novel exercise for me, where most of the issue was just not knowing how to do it. I started doing it about once a week along about mid-winter, and I think I can do it okay now (although I should probably get Jackie to do a video of me doing it so I can look and make sure I’m doing it right). 
  • Jumping lunges: This one I can’t do at all. For some reason, lunges were just not one of the moves I learned as a child. (Maybe my Phys Ed teacher thought they were bad for your knees or something.) Anyway, I’ve been trying to learn how to do lunges literally for years now, and have just barely gotten to where I can sort of do a wobbly lunge. I tried last week to do a jumping lunge (where you drop into a lunge and then jump into the air and switch your legs around so that you land in a lunge position with the opposite feet forward and back). It wasn’t as bad as a near-death experience, but it was not a success either. Fortunately, this exercise is always offered as an alternative to uphill sprints (preferred), box jumps, or burpees, so I can just pick one of those.

Besides those specific exercises, there are two other issues I had trouble with last time:

  1. Supersets of pull ups and inverted rows. There’s a logistical complexity here because (if you’re doing them with rings) you have to adjust the ring height very quickly. (Otherwise it won’t be a superset, but just two regular sets.) I’m trying to come up with a plan to address that either by getting more practiced at quickly adjusting the ring height, or else by finding a workout location with a bar at either pull-up or inverted-row height (so I can just set up my rings at the right height for the other exercise and switch between stations).
  2. Pyramids (both dip/push up and pull up/row). The first few times I do a pyramid (or ladder) workout, I find it pretty easy to misjudge where I’m going to reach failure, and the exercise is more effective if you don’t unexpectedly hit failure halfway through an early set—something that happened to me several times. This year before I start I want to do enough sets of these to get a good sense of what the right rep count is going to be, so that I know what I need to do to hit failure only during the last set.

Last year I started in late May (when Anthony released his latest version for the program and led the program). That was fine, but this year I think I’d like to start earlier in the spring—just as soon as we get reliably nice-enough weather for me to have some confidence I can put my rings up nearly every day.

It’s an eight-week program, so it would be nice to start around the first or second week of April. Then I’ll have my superhero body by the beginning of June.

Where I’m starting from

There are two, or maybe three, genres of “superhero” workout. There’s the aesthetic workout plan, which aims to make you look like a superhero, and then there’s the practical workout plan, which aims to enable you to function like a superhero.

Photo by Jackie Brewer

The latter category is not at all common, because everybody knows it’s impossible—superheros are fictional characters—but The Bioneer still comes up with these sorts of plans because he’s all about producing a highly functional mind and body, and even if actual superhero-level performance is impossible, it’s still something he wants to strive toward. I respect that.

The former category can be divided into two parts, which is why I say “maybe three” genres. Most of the category is filled with workout plans supposedly followed by this or that actor getting into shape to look like a superhero for a role in a movie—except most of those are not actually a plan at all, just a single workout that some celebrity trainer came up with that includes some elements of what the actor did to produce the aesthetics that were wanted for the film. (Some years ago, Nerd Fitness wrote a great takedown of these sorts of “plans,” pointing out that what you really needed to do was choose your parents well to get the genes that would enable the physique you want, and then have a job that provided both lots of free time (for exercising) and lots of money (for hiring trainers, chefs, etc.).)

What I prefer, and what I found a specific useful instance of, is an actual workout plan (not just an individual workout) for producing the physique of a superhero, while allowing for your body type, and starting with your current physique: Anthony Arvanitakis’s Superhero Bodyweight Workout.

I followed that workout plan last year, and am planning to do it again this year (although then I’ll proceed directly to a Bioneer-style superfunctional workout plan). My success last year was limited by a few specific issues, and my next post is about my plan for addressing them this year.

With typical wry humor, the Bioneer responds to a common criticism of his training style:

“… that it’s impossible to train such a variety of different traits and skills if you have a busy schedule. People accuse me of having no life! Me! The guy talking about Batman on YouTube!”

He then goes on to effectively answer the criticism with a fully worked-out program.

Source: How Would Batman Really Train?

This year was obviously strange in all sorts of ways, so I figure it’s not so strange that my movement practice got strange.

One thing that seems very strange to me is that I reverted to doing a lot of exercise, after having made a big deal the past few years of scorning exercise in favor of movement. I wrote a whole post on this recently (Exercise, movement, training), so I won’t repeat all that stuff here, except to say that the pandemic response provided me with a lot of opportunities to exercise, while restricting my opportunities to move and to train.

Exercise

Around the beginning of the year I had a realization that what had held me back from achieving my fitness goals was not (as I had been supposing) a lack of intensity, but rather a lack of consistency. I responded by getting very serious of getting my workouts in, and was pretty pleased about having established a proper workout habit when just a few weeks later the pandemic led to our local fitness room being closed. I found this momentarily daunting.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, it was around this time I saw this hilarious tweet:

To which my response was “Challenge accepted!”

Resistance exercise

The biggest problem with losing access to the fitness room was losing access to the pull-up bar. I looked around for alternatives, found that gymnastic rings were available and affordable, and I ordered a pair.

Easily the best purchase I made last year.

The addition of gymnastic rings made for a big change in my exercise regimen. I use them for three exercises: pull ups, inverted rows, and dips. I had worked pretty hard on pull ups before, but upon getting the rings I redoubled my efforts. As far as inverted rows and dips, I had played around with both, but now I got serious.

I round out my upper-body exercises with push ups.

For lower-body exercises I experimented with a variety of possibilities: squats of various types, kettlebell swings, burpees, lunges, etc.

One milestone was achieving my first pull-up. Another was the first time I did two pull-ups. Later I manged (a couple of times) to do three pull-ups!

I just wrote about how kettlebell swings taught me something about the value of doing lots of reps. Based on that, for my indoor workouts (where it’s not handy to set up my rings), I’ve started doing more exercises for high reps. Not enough data yet to know how that’s going to work, but it seems like a valuable experiment.

Running

For a long time—at least many months, maybe more than a year—I’d had a sore foot that got worse when I ran. I repeatedly cut back or eliminated runs, had my foot get better, and then had it start hurting again as soon as I started running again. This past summer I finally took a full month off from running, which seems to have been what my foot needed.

I’ve very gradually resumed running. For some weeks I kept my runs down around just one a week and just 2–2.5 miles. Then up to a 3–3.5 miles. I did one 4 mile run, which didn’t seem to cause any problems, but then I did a run of nearly 5 miles, which did make my foot sore the next day. I took a break until the pain was completely gone and eased back to 3–3.5 miles, and all seems well.

I’ve just started doing two runs per week, a “long” run (slightly over 3 miles) and a “fast” run (where I hold the distance down under 3 miles, but include a few 10-second sprints around the mid-point of the run). That felt really good the last time I did it. (My running gait seems to improve when I run fast.)

Kettlebell swings

I’ve talked at some length about my adventures in getting a kettlebell during a pandemic, and about my experience with kettlebell swings producing unexpected hypertrophy, so I won’t repeat that here. I’ll just say that cold weather—and especially ice on the patio—have kept me from doing much kettlebell swinging in the second half of December. But literally every day I look out on the patio to see if it is clear of ice, and get out and do some swinging when it seems safe.

Jump rope

I added a jump rope to my exercise equipment a while ago, and back in March and April did enough rope skipping to recover the ability to do it. (That is, I could jump rope for 30 or 40 seconds with zero or one misses.) The problem was that jumping rope hurt my sore foot just like running did. I prefer running, so when I had to set limits on those exercises to protect my feet, I ended up mostly running, as long as the weather was nice.

As the weather turned chilly in the fall, and especially when we started having days when there was an occasional short period adequate weather, but not the sort of reliable block of nice weather that makes me think I can fit in a good long run, I started thinking that an occasional bout of jumping rope might be a great way to squeeze in a quick, intense workout during even quite a brief period of nice weather on an otherwise nasty day.

To make full use of such periods, I paid up for a weighted jump rope. I have to say I’m pretty happy with it. It’s very much the opposite of my old jump rope, which was just a plastic-coated wire—very light and very fast—marketed to martial artists and cross-fit types. Pretty good for getting lighter on your feet, and adequate for a lower-body workout, but not much for the upper body. The weighted jump rope (even the lightest one, at just ¼ lb) definitely turns the jump rope exercise into an upper-body exercise as well.

I haven’t had the weighted jump rope long enough to form a definite opinion about it, but after just a couple of sessions, I’m pretty pleased, and if the weather cooperates, I’m hoping to get multiple HIIT jump rope workouts in over the course of the winter.

Non-exercise movement

My main non-exercise movement is and always has been walking, but I’ve done very little this past year. This was half due to the pandemic, and half due to Jackie having a sore hip that makes it hard for her to walk fast or for long distances. (I’ve been taking Jackie to physical therapy, and she’s getting better. We’ve been doing walks in the woods south of the Arboretum, and that’s going very well.)

With fewer and shorter walks with Jackie, and with walking for transportation almost eliminated by the pandemic, my non-exercise walking has dwindled pretty severely.

Ditto for my non-exercise running.

Parkour

I have very much had my eye on parkour as the thing I want to get back to this summer. Since I have made great progress on strength training specifically with an eye toward parkour, I’m very hopeful.

I’ve been doing just a bit of training, even without being able to get together with other traceurs.

The most active member of the campus parkour group turns out to have moved to Colorado. I’ve been in touch with him, and he seems to mean to spend at least some time here this summer, so hopefully I can put together some sort of training with him. In the meantime, I ordered one of his t-shirts, so I’ll have something to wear.

Taiji

Like everything else, the taiji classes I used to teach at the Savoy Rec Center had to be abruptly canceled back in March.

During the spring I led a few group practice sessions via Zoom. They’re better than nothing, and at least keep the group connected.

Once the lock-down restrictions in Illinois eased up a bit in April, my group started meeting in the park, and we continued to meet through the summer. Once the weather turned, I resumed the on-line practice sessions.

Unlike a lot of my students, who don’t feel like they can do the taiji practice without someone to lead them, I can actually do a full practice session entirely on my own. And I occasionally do. But without the group being there, it’s hard to get motivated.

Still, I almost always include some qigong as part of my morning exercises, do the once-a-week group practice session, and occasionally do the full 48-movement form (if only to make sure I don’t forget how to do it).

Looking ahead

Looking ahead, of course, is all about the end to the pandemic, something that I have high hopes for. If I can get vaccinated by June, let’s say, then by July maybe I can resume normal activity (while wearing a mask and maintaining social distance, of course, but actually interacting with people other than just Jackie).

Normal would include hiking in the woods, and maybe visiting some natural areas within a few hours drive. (We’ve pretty much completely avoided going anywhere so far that we couldn’t go, hike, and return without having to use a restroom.)

Normal would include practicing parkour with the campus group.

Normal would include resuming teaching taiji in the fall.

I had scheduled a visit to Urbana Boulders to do some wall climbing right when the lockdown started, so that fell by the wayside. I had actually started taking an aikido class when we had to stop because of the pandemic. Either one of those things might happen, once the pandemic ends.

Basically, I have high hopes for 2021.

I’m going to come at this in a kind of roundabout fashion. Bear with me. (Or don’t. I won’t mind.)

It starts like this: A week or so ago I put my hands on my hips and noticed a large muscle I’d never noticed before. I got out my copy of Strength Training Anatomy, and identified the muscle in question as my gluteus medius.

The glute med stabilizes the hip during gait (important for walking and running). It abducts the leg (important for dancers, I suppose, and anyone stepping sideways). It also inwardly rotates the leg (important for martial artists for kicking, and no doubt other things). That all makes sense. It’s an awfully big muscle to not be important for many things.

Still, I’d never given it much thought. I certainly hadn’t been designing my workout routines to build a bigger gluteus medius.

For a few minutes I was thinking, “Really? My glute med is where I’m seeing hypertrophy? Not my pecs. Not my biceps. Not my traps. Not my quads. Not my lats. Not my rectus abdominis. Not even my gluteus maximus. Nope. The gluteus medius.”

Once I got past that, I started to wonder what I had done that had caused my glute med to blow up in size, and the only thing that came to mind was kettlebell swings.

Swinging a kettlebell in the fitness room, back in pre-pandemic 2019. Nowadays I have a bigger kettlebell and bigger gluteus medius.

Now, at one level this makes perfect sense. In fact, the Tim Ferriss post that introduced me to kettlebells and the kettlebell swing made specific reference to exactly this effect:

In four weeks, he took his then-girlfriend, an ethnic Chinese with a surfboardlike profile, to being voted one of the top-10 sexiest girls out of 39,000 students at the University of Auckland. . . . Other female students constantly asked her how she’d lifted her glutes so high up her hamstrings.

https://tim.blog/2011/01/08/kettlebell-swing/

Building this muscle, at the top of the pelvis, just above the gluteus maximus, would produce exactly that effect: making your glutes look higher, as much it made them look bigger.

So the fact that kettlebell swings hit the glute med shouldn’t have been unexpected. But I was nevertheless surprised that I got so much hypertrophy out of the effort I was putting in. I suppose it could be something special about the glute med (or about my glute med—my lifetime movement history somehow priming my muscle to be ready to explode with growth), but I doubt it. I think it was the kettlebell swings, and there was really only one thing different about my kettlebell swing workouts as opposed to my other workouts: reps.

Once I gave it some thought, I realized that I should not have been as surprised as I was. This result of high reps is pretty well known. For example, Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer has an excellent discussion of this in a post on bodyweight training that he wrote for people trying to put together a home exercise program during the pandemic.

My kettlebell swing workouts, drawing from Tim Ferriss’s suggested workout, were originally 3×25 swings, formerly with the 45 lb kettlebell in the fitness room, more recently with the 53 lb kettlebell I bought as soon as they became available again after the pandemic-related disappearance of all sorts of home workout equipment. I’ve started adding a 4th set to that workout, so a total of 100 swings, once or twice a week.

Despite having only a passing interest in making my muscles bigger (as opposed to making them stronger), I am intrigued by this effect. Maybe doing 100 reps is some sort of magic for producing hypertrophy.

I’ve reached the point where I can crank out a respectable number of push ups, but I’m not doing 75–100 reps. And for most of the other exercises I’m doing (in particular, dips and pull-ups), I’m working very close to my one-rep maximum—which is exactly the recommended protocol for building strength. For building size though, there are reasons to think that higher rep counts make good sense.

A lot of different factors go into making muscles bigger. You can make your muscle fibers bigger (myofibrillar hypertrophy). Maybe you can grow new muscles fibers (hyperplasia)—evidence is mixed. You can also add to other stuff in and around your muscle cells—glycogen stores, additional capillaries, supporting tissues, etc. (sarcoplasmic hypertrophy). These things will make your muscles bigger without necessarily making them any stronger (although they should increase your endurance).

My kettlebell swings, I suspect, mostly work through that last mechanism. (Although, to the extent that I do fatigue my glutes, I should get some amount of myofibrillar hypertrophy as well.)

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is the increase of sarcoplasm in the muscle cells. Sarcoplasm is to a muscle cell what cytoplasm is to any other cell but contains glycosomes, myoglobin and oxygen binding protein in high amounts (as well as calcium). . . . Whatever is going on, the fact remains that lifting heavy makes you stronger and lifting a little lighter and for reps makes you bigger.

https://www.thebioneer.com/an-introduction-to-powerbuilding-how-to-train-for-size-and-strength-simultaneously/

I continue to think that strength ought to be my main goal for lifting. Lifting for size seems to be about aesthetics, which is fine, but not important. But these past couple of years I keep coming back to thinking of my father, who is suffering from sarcopenia and becoming increasingly frail. And each time I do, I become all the more determined to add another few pounds of muscle as insurance against sarcopenia when I’m his age.

The success of my kettlebell workout in building the size of my glute med makes me think maybe I should go for 75–100 reps of a few other exercises. I’m within striking distance on push ups—I recently did 4×12 reps, so 3×25 isn’t that far off. I’m rather further away on inverted rows—I think the best I’ve done is 3×8 reps—but inverted rows are quite adjustable in terms of how hard they are. I’m sure there’s a ring height and foot position combination such that I could get close to 3×25 reps.

Maybe the result of those changes would be similar ballooning up of my pecs and lats. It seems, at least, to be worth a try.