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.

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 still think movement trumps exercise. But during a pandemic the advantages of exercise have aligned better with my needs and my circumstances. (I’ve written previously about how our fitness room was closed and how I switched to working out with gymnastics rings instead.)

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.

I did an experiment a couple of days ago: I tested a combined workout that doubled up two pairs of exercises that I’d been doing separately. Up to now I’ve been doing four sessions each week: two where I do pull ups & pushups, and then two where I do dips & inverted rows. (Together with a leg exercise and a core exercise each workout.)

That was working very well, but it meant 4 upper-body strength sessions each week, which is a lot. Throw in a couple of lower-body strength sessions as well (such as hill sprints or kettlebell swings), plus a rest day, and I didn’t have a day to do anything else. This sort of volume has been well for me so far, but I think I may have reached a limit, and would benefit from a cycle of deeper recovery than just a week of lighter workouts: Except for “de-load” weeks in mid-March and mid-June, I’ve been averaging close to 5 workouts a week since the end of January. I’m thinking I want to take it down a notch.

With that in mind, I’ve been thinking about how I want to structure my training through the fall and winter. One obvious change was to go from four days of upper-body strength training per week to just three. The problem was that I didn’t see an easy way to evenly cover the range of pushing and pulling exercises at a reasonable volume with just three workouts a week, except by doing both pairs in each workout.

Hence my experiment, in which I did just that.

It was not a complete success. I managed to crank my way through the workout, but it was very long and tough. I don’t think I could keep it up three times a week for months.

Happily, while describing my difficulties to my friend Chuck, I had a brainstorm: I could do threes workouts per week—two of them just like what I’ve been doing (one with pull-ups & push-ups, and then another with inverted rows & dips), and then do just one combined workout. That keeps my workouts even, as far as covering all four exercises twice each week, without being quite so overwhelming as trying to do the combined workout three times a week.

With just three upper-body strength workouts per week, I have four days for other stuff, and I can mix and match as I choose. I can do the hill sprints that Anthony Arvanitakis recommends, or I can do kettlebell swings. (Either of those makes a good HIIT workout.) I can go for a run. I can go for a hike. I can do my animal moves. In particular, I can do two rest days, if that seems like a good idea. (Which I think it probably does. At least my Oura ring thinks so.)

This all got started back in February, when I figured out that I was lacking in consistency. (Previously I’d imagined that the problem was a lack of intensity.) Targeting 5 workouts a week has meant that, even when I miss one, I get in more than when I was targeting 3 workouts a week—even if I didn‘t miss one.

I don’t want to give up the consistency, I just want to take the volume down a notch. Hence the struggle. But I think now I’ve got a plan.

Gymnastic rings hanging from branch of sycamore tree, with a yoga mat in the foreground.

One side benefit to all the ring training I’ve been doing has been increased grip strength.

It hadn’t occurred to me in advance that this would happen, but it shouldn’t have been a surprise. Most people have poor grip strength (unless they either do manual labor, or else hang by their hands for some reason). Because most people start from a very low base, increased grip strength is easy to achieve.

Hanging exercises are a great idea for everyone. I encourage my taiji students to consider doing some sort of hanging exercise. They’re mostly seniors, so I admonish them not to actually hang by their hands without carefully working up to it, but just grasping something over your head, and then bending your knees to put a little weight on your hands will do a world of good for your shoulders. It will also start building grip strength. (In class I always joke that developing the ability to hang by your hands can save your life, if you unexpectedly find yourself in an action movie.)

I recently discovered that my grip strength had gone up in a way that was a little problematic: I was giving a dish rag a good squeeze, and found that it made my hand a little creaky: My grip strength was higher than it had been—enough higher to be out of balance with the strength of the joints and tendons in my hands.

There are two issues there. One is that grip strength for hanging from (or supporting yourself on) gymnastic rings covers a very narrow range of motion for the hands—the rings are just one diameter all the way around, and they don’t get smaller if you squeeze them, so you’re training your hands to be very strong in that one single position. The other is that muscles get stronger much faster than tendons do, so in a few weeks you can make your muscles strong enough that they can strain your tendons, while it takes months to make your tendons strong enough to stand up to the maximum force those muscles can exert.

After my experience with the dish rag, I got out my Power Putty. (It’s a brand of stuff like Silly Putty, but sold in a range of different stiffnesses. It’s marketed in the less-stiff versions to people who need physical therapy for some grip issue, and then in the more-stiff versions for people who want to build strongman-like grip strength.) I was a little surprised to find that the stuff I have—medium-firm—feels scarcely firm at all any more.

That’s okay. I’ve learned enough in the 20 years since I bought that stuff that I certainly don’t feel the need to get Power Putty in different stiffnesses.

The way to build further grip strength is to grip real-world things of a variety of sizes and textures. Squeezing dish rags is a great way to start. Hanging from tree branches (instead of just gymnastic rings) would be good too. Brachiating across monkey bars of various sizes will also be good. I’ve seen tricks for working on grip, such as putting a towel over a pull-up bar (or through a gymnastic ring) so that one hand is gripping the towel instead of the bar or ring.

Grip strength is strongly correlated with greater life expectancy (and superior health status in numerous other ways). This has to be one of the clearest cases ever where “training to the test” is useless—increasing your grip strength will not make you live longer—but living your life in a way that builds your grip strength is probably a great way to be stronger, healthier, more capable, and more comfortable as you age.

I think I’ll actually be using my Power Putty. It’s not really stiff enough to build my grip strength, but it’ll probably be just right to work on the tendons and joints in my hands. They mostly need time to get stronger to match the strength of my gripping muscles, but working them through a full range of motion will also help, and medium-stiff Power Putty will be great for that.

I’ve been working on dips for a while, but not with great consistency until just the past three or four months.

For a long time I was doing bench dips (where you put your hands behind you on a bench, stretch your legs out in front of you with your heels on the floor, and then push with your hands to raise your hips up to the level of the bench), to try to get my triceps strong enough to do real dips. In the fitness room there are some bars that can be put on the squat rack so you can do bar dips. I wasn’t really strong enough to do a good bar dip, but I’d sometimes do partials or negatives.

For parkour, you want to do wall dips, but I don’t know of any good chest-high walls in Savoy, so I haven’t practiced those in a long time.

Since I got my gymnastic rings around the end of March, I’ve been working pretty steadily on ring dips. (Which are much harder, because while pushing yourself up you also have to be able to stabilize your body.)

I’ve been following pretty much the usual progression—working on just a ring support (where you hold yourself in the top position for a dip), on negative dips (where you just lower yourself), and on partial dips (where you lower yourself only part of the way down, and then back up).

I’ve been gradually increasing the range of my partials, and a few days ago I thought I was doing a full, proper dip. I wasn’t really sure though—there aren’t any mirrors out under the sycamore tree where I hang my rings. So today I got Jackie to come and video me, so I could watch what I was doing:

I think those first two—especially the second—are legit dips. (The third, of course, is just a negative.)

A year ago I could do 3 pushups. (Except that when I tried there was a pretty good chance I’d hurt my shoulders or my wrists.)

Last summer, focusing mostly on running rather than lifting, I made no progress on strength gains at all. (Admittedly, my data isn’t directly comparable: To reduce injuries, I switched to bench pushups.)

I did various amounts of bench pushups all summer and fall. When I manged to put together a week or two of consistent lifting I could briefly work up to 3×8 bench pushups. (That is, 3 sets of 8 bench pushups.) I did that a couple of times.

By the time the stay-at-home order went into effect, and I lost access to our little fitness room, I’d finally gotten pretty consistent with my workouts, and had just recently graduated to real pushups, doing as many as 4×5.

Yesterday, probably for the first time in my life, I did 4×10 pushups. (And they were good pushups too: no sagging hips, no thrusting my hips up, no chicken-winging my arms out.)

I don’t think I’ve ever done that many before, not when I was taking a self-defense class in college and we worked up to 10 pushups, nor when I was in elementary school and we pretty often did 1×10 pushups in PhysEd class, and I may well have done as many as 1×20 as part of the Presidential Physical Fitness Test.

I’ve made some progress with my squats and my rows as well, but not to the same extent.

The squats are hard because I don’t have an appropriately heavy weight. I’m doing goblet squats with my 15 lb kettlebell, because it’s the only kettlebell I’ve got, but even 4×15 isn’t really enough to see much gains. Maybe 4×20? Hopefully I’ll be able to get a heavier kettlebell one of these days.

I was doing okay with the rows while I could put my rings up at the basketball court (I could do 3×6 or thereabouts), but since the kids were refusing to respect social distancing rules, Winfield Village closed the basketball courts. Without the rings I’m reduced to doing bent rows with that same 15 lb kettlebell, and even 4×20 isn’t really enough to challenge my back muscles. Maybe 4×25?

It sounds like we’re on track to significantly reduce the lockdown restrictions as early as two weeks from now. Maybe I’ll be able to get my rings back up, and maybe it will someday be possible to buy a kettlebell!

In any case, I can’t really complain: I did 40 pushups yesterday!

Like everyplace else, Winfield Village has closed down all the “non-essential” places people might congregate, including our fitness room.

“Notice: Closed until further notice”

Losing access to the fitness room is particularly annoying to me because I’ve just recently—starting about seven weeks ago—gotten my act together about lifting, and been getting to the fitness room at least three times a week.

Determined not to lose this momentum, I’m trying to cobble together an adequate workout routine that I can do with just equipment I own.

Great collection of dumbbells, no longer accessible because they’re in the fitness room

I had already been including quite a bit of bodyweight exercise, but since the dumbbells were right there, I’d often use them (for dumbbell rows and for goblet squats, in particular). I also used the 45 lb kettlebell in the fitness room all the time for my HIIT workouts.

The other thing that I’m really missing is the pull-up bar. To replace that, I’ve ordered a pair of gymnastic rings that should arrive Tuesday.

About all I’ve got that I own to replace the dumbbells and the kettlebell is a 15 lb kettlebell that I purchased so Jackie could join me in my workouts if she wanted.

My 15 lb kettlebell with its big brother

With the kettlebell (even in advance of the arrival of the rings) after about a week of social distancing, I’ve started to put together a routine that feels like I’m getting in a good workout.

For the core of the routine I’m doing hindu squats, hindu pushups, and goblet squats with the kettlebell. I’ve heard claims that just hindu squats and hindup pushups combine to form a pretty good, almost full-body workout. I’m adding in the goblet squats because the hindu squats seemed very focused on the anterior part of the legs, and I don’t want to lose the gains I’ve been making on the posterior parts.

My opportunities for “pulling” exercises are kind of limited until I get my gymnastic rings. I’m making do with the kettlebell to replace the dumbbells for rows. At 15 lbs, the kettlebell is kind of light for that, but on a temporary basis I can just do more of them. (The same logic applies to the hindu squats and the goblet squats: What I’m not getting in intensity I can largely replace with quantity.)

Once the rings get here I should be able to do hangs and inverted rows, and attempt to do pullups. That’ll cover my “pulling” exercises very well. I’ll also be able to attempt to do dips, which is another exercise that I haven’t found a good equipment-free bodyweight solution for.

One other piece of exercise equipment I have is a jump rope. I got it five years ago, after reading about how jumping rope is great training for running because it develops the springiness in your ankles and calves.

I haven’t made much use of my jump rope though. One year back in junior high or high school the phys ed class did one of its very few units that wasn’t focused around some team sport, and jumping rope was one included activity. I very much enjoyed the non-team aspect of it, put in the practice, and got quite good at jumping rope. Sadly, it turns out that you can’t let something like that go for 45 years and expect to just pick it back up again.

However, I figure this is a perfect circumstance for regaining my ability to jump rope. The weather is kinda crappy for running, but not so terrible that I can’t go outside at all. Yesterday I spent six minutes jumping rope, which was about as long as I wanted to spend outdoors in the cold, but also a good amount of practice for recovering the skill. I figure if I do the same every other day, by the time we start getting some nice weather I’ll be as good at jumping rope as I ever was.

I’ll use the jump rope for a HIIT workout. My HIIT workouts with the 45 lb kettlebell are off the table, and with just the 15 lb kettlebell I won’t be able to achieve the level of intensity I’m used to for my two-handed kettlebell swings. Besides the jump rope, I’m thinking I’ll do one-handed kettlebell swings with the 15 lb kettlebell. Less intensity, but the asymmetrical nature of the exercise will add a nice core workout aspect to the whole thing.

It’s come together pretty well, except that I’m not quite there with the hindu pushups yet. I need to develop both my strength and my flexibility, if I’m going to make those a key part of my workout routine. I’m close though. We’ll see.