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:
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Five years ago made a plan to spend the winter trying to build the strength I thought I’d need in order to be successful at (and enjoy) training for parkour. To keep the whole thing manageable, I chose just four specific exercises to work on. And to keep myself accountable, I described a “success” condition to let me know if I had accomplished each one. (I documented my plan here: strength training specifically for parkour.)
I wasn’t successful at meeting most of those goals after that first winter, which was discouraging, and I kind of quit tracking my progress on those metrics after that. But in my preparations for writing my “Movement in 2020” post, I happened upon that post—and was surprised to see that I had pretty much accomplished it!
Squatting is an important transitional posture, into and out of ground movement, and into and out of jumps. (It’s also a basic human capability, but one that requires a degree of strength and flexibility that most westerners no longer have.)
Five years ago I could only just barely squat, and then only when nicely warmed up. Since then I have worked on my squat in a dozen different ways—working on ankle mobility, hip mobility, and strength up and down the posterior chain.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can get all the way down with a straight back, and then use my hands to manipulate things that are nearby.
I can report a considerable degree of success! I can get down into a deep squat, and I can linger there for tens of seconds at a time. I’m now working on improving my mobility while in a squat (looking to each side, up and down, reaching up and down, etc.).
Here’s where I was back then, and where I am now:
Early on my efforts to get better at various natural movements were significantly hindered by a lack of toe flexibility. My toes literally did not bend back at all.
This was actually a long-standing problem. At least as far back as college my martial arts instructors warned that I needed to pull my toes back or I’d hurt myself if I executed the kicks I was learning. But none of my martial arts instructors had even the tiniest bit of advice on how I might acquire the capability to pull my toes back.
Five years ago I came up with my own idea. I’d get into quadruped position while keeping my weight back on the balls of my feet (meaning that my knees had to be rather higher than ideal), then I gently worked to lower my knees toward the floor. That helped me make some progress.
A couple of years later, Ashley Price suggested an excellent exercise involving using a half-dome to let me gently flex my toes back. I’ve been doing that exercise almost daily since then.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can keep my weight back on the balls of my feet and still get into position for things like planks, push-ups, and lunges.
On that I can report complete success. The only thing that still eludes me is the quasi-martial arts move where you sit seiza (kneeling with the tops of your feet on the floor) then pull your toes back and tuck them under, shift your weight to the balls of your feet, rock back into a squat from which you can stand up. This is useful if you want to move from kneeling to standing while simultaneously drawing a sword, but is perhaps not particularly important beyond that.
The ability to hang by your hands is crucial for many parkour moves.
Hanging was one of the things I worked on early, and made quite a bit of progress at, working up to being able to hang for a minute no problem. At about the same time I briefly managed to do a chin-up. But until this year I hadn’t done a pull-up since I was in elementary school.
Since I redoubled my efforts on pull-ups back in April or so, I’d largely quit working on hanging endurance, and it has somewhat slipped away—I can do 30 seconds, but a recent attempt at a full minute fell short. Similarly, although I can hang briefly from one hand, I can’t do what I could do a few years ago.
My original benchmark was:
Success will be a single pull-up in good form from a dead hang.
And at that I have succeeded! I can do a pull-up! In fact, on a good day I can do pull-ups in sets of three. Even on a less-good day, I can manage three sets of one pull-up.
The wall dip is another foundational move for parkour. You use it to get on top of a wall or other structure.
The village where I live seems to have a terrible dearth of chest-high walls (unlike campus, which has lots), so it has been persistently difficult to get in the practice I need, and doubly so during the pandemic.
What I’ve been doing instead this year are ring dips.
Ring dips are actually much harder than wall dips, because the rings are unstable, so you have to stabilize them yourself. As I sat down to write this, I was worried that the limitations of those stabilizing muscles might have kept me from fully training the pushing muscles for the dip itself.
So over the last few days I’ve checked for that, using the edge of my window seat as a wall for practice. (It’s not perfect, because it’s too low, so I have to tuck my legs back to keep my feet off the floor. That configuration doesn’t precisely match the way you’d do a wall dip in parkour, but it does let me fully test the basic pushing motion.)
My original benchmark was:
Success will be when I can do a dozen or so wall dips with good form.
On three different occasions this week I’ve done at least a dozen wall dips, so I can call that one accomplished as well.
Assuming I can keep it together to do at least some maintenance training during the winter, I can enter the spring with a solid base on which to pick up my parkour training!
A few years ago I made a shift in my thinking about fitness—a shift from trying to get enough exercise to trying to fill my days with movement. I haven’t changed my mind about that being the right way to go, but this year, especially since the pandemic started, has seen me step back into exercise mode.
I have to say that it has turned out pretty well for me this year.
One thing about exercise is that it gives you a bunch of metrics you can track, and on the metrics I’ve done pretty well. At the beginning of the year I could do 3 pushups and now I can do 4 sets of 12. At the beginning of the year I could do zero pull ups, and now I can do a set of 3 followed by 2 sets of 2.
Having the metrics is great for someone like me who’s a big ol’ nerd about tracking that sort of data, but it’s not just a matter of numbers. Those bigger numbers correspond to real-world capabilities. I’m definitely stronger than I was at the beginning of the year, in all kinds of ways. I’m also leaner. (I have more muscle, plus I let myself lose about 5 pounds in a so-far vain effort to be able to see the abs I’ve built.)
A lot of my fitness goals are related to attaining and maintaining specific capabilities. I want to be able to:
Pick something heavy up off the ground
Take something heavy off a high shelf and lower it safely
Clamber on top of a wall
Jump down from a wall
Jump over a ditch
Run away from danger (or toward someone in need of help)
That’s not a comprehensive list; merely a brief sketch of the sort of things I want to be able to do.
Even a quick glance makes it clear that many of them are skill-based activities. I’ve worked on some of them before (click through the parkour tag to see six or seven years worth of reports about my efforts in those directions), but I felt that my efforts were limited by a lack of strength. That probably wasn’t even really true—parkour is scalable—but to the extent that it was true, it’s much less true now.
The way to get better at a skill-based activity is to practice it. And most of that practice should not be practicing whole activities, but rather individual pieces of them.
There’s a word that means practicing all the individual bits that go together to make a larger move: training—something that’s been really hard to do during the pandemic.
The real reason I’ve switched to exercise is that during the pandemic, although I’ve been able to move, my opportunities to train have been limited.
I’m hoping to spend the summer training. I’m thinking parkour, but if I can’t get it together to do that, maybe I’ll go with rock climbing. (Indoor climbing would be a great winter activity, if the vaccines roll out fast enough that I feel like it’s already safe to engage in indoor activity before summer weather. But there’s no rule against indoor climbing during the summer either.)
It’s possible to do parkour training during the winter, as long as it isn’t too icy. I tend not to get out in the cold or wet to do so, but I’m working on overcoming that—with some success: I’ve been doing pretty well at getting out for runs, even during chilly/damp fall weather. But I’m at the point where I could really use some instruction in parkour, and that’s out-of-bounds during the pandemic.
In the meantime, I’ll go on doing my exercise, figuring it’s the best way to get myself ready for training, once circumstances align.