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.
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.
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.
Jackie was fixing blue-corn pancakes with maple syrup for breakfast, and eating that many carbs first thing in the morning can be a problem for me. However, I have come up with a strategy for dealing with it: Getting in a pre-breakfast fasted workout. My theory is that by doing this I deplete my muscle glycogen, so that my muscles are primed to soak up all the carbs I eat, minimizing the degree to which the glucose spikes my blood sugar.
I have no data to show that this works, but anecdotally I can report that it seems to help.
I’ve been wanting to go for a run. I had planned to go for a run yesterday, but it ended up being rainy enough that I decided to postpone the run for a day. So I might have gone for a run for my pre-breakfast workout, but Jackie was hungry early, and I didn’t want to delay breakfast by an extra hour.
So, I did what’s becoming my standard HIIT workout: I warm up with 3×25 Hindu squats, and then I do 3×25 kettlebell swings with my 53 lb kettlebell. It’s a quick workout—it’s all done in 20 minutes, including some amount of pre-warmup warmup—and it’s of high enough intensity to burn off plenty of glucose.
After breakfast (and a bit of digesting) I went ahead and got out for my planned run. After the persistently sore foot I’ve been dealing with for months now simply refused to get better, I had taken a full month off from running to see if all I needed was plenty of rest to fully recover, and that may have done the trick—I went out for a 3.33-mile run, and I had no foot pain whatsoever.
I don’t wear my Oura ring for the kettlebell workouts (or other workouts where I have to grip something, because handles, bars, and (gymnastic) rings don’t play well with the Oura ring). However, my Polar heart rate monitor will tell Google Fit about my workout, and the phone app for the Oura ring will read that data and give me credit for what I did while the ring was off:
My peak heart rate during the kettlebell swings would have seen me to much higher activity levels than the just-barely “High” levels shown, but that’s because it’s an interval workout. A set of 25 swings takes me just about 50 seconds, and then it takes about 3 minutes for my HR to drop low enough that I can do another set. The software is averaging those periods together. Unless I’m doing sprints (which I didn’t today) a run is just a steady-state effort. I try to keep my HR down in the MAF range, but didn’t manage it today (because of the prior HIIT workout).
Kettlebells have been completely unavailable since March, when all of a sudden nobody could just share the kettlebells at their fitness center, so everybody who used them went out to buy their own. I’d been looking around on-line every few days all through April, May, and June, checking at WalMart, and Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Amazon, and Onnit, all of which were perpetually sold out. But back on July 1st, I found a place via Amazon that had the size of kettlebell I wanted (53 lbs = 24 KG = 1.5 pood). It was expensive, but after waiting for months I was ready to pay up.
And yet, that was not the end of my story of woe. The package went to FedEx which said it would be delivered the next day. It made it as far as Ellenwood, GA, at which point they said it would be delivered in two days. But it never departed Ellenwood. On the day it was supposed to be delivered they claimed it would be delivered by the end of the day until it was the end of the day, at which point its expected delivery date changed to “Pending.” After two more weeks I contacted the vendor who said, “Oops, looks like FedEx lost it. We’ll send another.” And then exactly the same thing happened: It made it as far as Ellenwood, GA changed from “next day” to “two days” to “pending” and then stayed there.
But this time it didn’t vanish forever. FedEx eventually found it, and yesterday the FedEx guy muscled my 53 lb package up to my doorstep!
I’d been working out with kettlebells for maybe 4 years before the pandemic started, using the one kettlebell in the fitness room (the only one I had access to), which was 45 lb (= 20 kg = 1.25 pood). Over the first few weeks I’d worked up to doing 3×25 swings, which is probably enough to be a good workout for the posterior chain. Then I’d experimented with doing it as a HIIT workout and tried various alternative workout plans. For a while I was doing 30 seconds of work followed by 30 seconds of rest for (eventually) 10 rounds. Then I switched back to doing them in sets of 25 and had just worked my way up to 5×25 when we had to go into quarantine, and I lost access to the kettlebell.
After 4 months of not doing them, I was inclined to be quite careful about swinging this one, especially since this kettlebell is 8 lbs heavier. Yesterday by the time it’d arrived, I’d already had a beer, and I decided not to even try to swing my new kettlebell while even slightly under the influence.
Today though I got it out and did 6×10 swings, which was a pretty good workout.
I’m sure I’ll be able to work up to sets of 25 swings pretty quickly once again. Or maybe I’ll stick with 30-second intervals and go back to doing them as HIIT workouts.
Whatever I do, I’m delighted to have my new, heavier kettlebell!
I’m not sure there’s anything to learn from this. Maybe “don’t skip rest days” would be a good start. I’m sure “listen to your body” is always good advice. Whatever lame platitude you want to go with is fine with me. As for me, I’m just glad I got in a good run.
In other news, the replacement kettlebell for the one I ordered on July 1st, but which vanished into some black hole at FedEx’s Ellenwood, GA location, only to vanish itself in exactly the same way, seems to have been discovered, and is now supposed to be delivered next week! We shall see.
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.
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.
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.
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.