I’ve long struggled to program my training, a task that is difficult because I want to get better at everything. I want to be stronger and faster. I want to have more endurance for running and more endurance for walking (which turn out not to carry over perfectly from one to the other). I want to maintain and deepen my taiji practice and my parkour practice. I want to learn rock climbing and fencing.

This isn’t a new problem for me. As just one example, back in 2013 I was considering programming training not organized by the week but perhaps in 9-day training cycles.

There are at least two problems that I’m trying to address. One is just fitting in training for each capability I want to get better at. The other is how to not break down under that training load (which involves at least fitting in enough recovery time, but other stuff as well).

During the pandemic I’ve done okay, by focusing on exercise. Although I tweak things pretty often, very roughly I’ve organized each week to include:

  • 3 strength training workouts
  • 2 runs (a “long” run and a “fast” run)
  • 1 HIIT workout
  • 2 rest days

That looks pretty good until you do the math and see that it only works for 8-day weeks.

Besides that, note that this excludes my taiji practice (which amounted to more than 5 hours a week back in pre-pandemic days, because besides teaching I was engaging in my own practice). It also excludes my long, slow warmups (which I’ve started calling my “morning exercises,” since I do them pretty much every morning before proceeding with my “workout” for the day).

The way I’ve been making it sort-of work is by doubling up how I think about some of the workouts. A “fast” run with sprint intervals is a HIIT workout, and a HIIT workout with kettlebell swings is a strength-training session.

Still, there’s no hope to make something like this work if I want to add in parkour, rock climbing, and fencing. Likewise, I know from experience that I need a full day to recover from a very long (14-mile or longer) walk, so doing one of those requires devoting two days out of the week to just one training session.

So, I’m left in a quandary. How can I get better at all the things I already do and add in some additional activities as well? (Just before the pandemic I’d started taking an aikido class; I’m sure I’d enjoy finding a local group that plays Ultimate Frisbee….)

Happily for me, Adam Sinicki (aka The Bioneer) has written a book that addresses exactly this issue. The book is Functional Training and Beyond: Building the Ultimate Superfunctional Body and Mind. It starts out talking about “functional training,” and about the history of “getting in shape” i.e. “physical culture.” Then it runs though all the most common training modalities (bodybuilding, powerlifting, kettlebells, crossfit, etc.), before proceeding to talk specifically about how to take the best from each one, and then how to program it all into a workout plan.

His thinking on programming is pretty straightforward: You don’t just add everything together. Rather, you look through all the exercises you might do and pick the ones with the most cross-over benefit relevant to your goals, and then build an exercise program out of those (and you sequence them correctly to maximize your gains in terms of strength, mobility, flexibility, skills acquisition, speed, power, hypertrophy, etc.).

I’m going to spend some time (and some blog posts here) thinking over just how I want to do that.

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.

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

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:

Toe Stretches

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.

Hanging

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.

It is too windy today to get out for a photo shoot demonstrating my pull-ups, so I’m not able to get an “after” photo, but here’s a “before” shot from back in April.

Wall Dip

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 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’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.)

I went to a parkour workshop yesterday held at 25 O’Clock Brewing in Urbana—one small bit of the UnConference (a very Urbana thing).

I’ve been interested in parkour for years now. I have included various bits in my own training, and also gone to train with the campus parkour group (the same people who led this workshop) a few times. For various reasons (social timidity, physical timidity, lack of fitness) I haven’t managed to establish a regular practice of training with the campus group. But it doesn’t mean that I’m not interested, so I was glad to learn about this workshop, which seemed like a safe, easy way to get back into it—and was.

We were led in a warmup, followed by some quadrupedal movement: Bear crawls, aka foot-hand crawls, both frontwards and backwards, followed by a move I know by the name “traveling ape,” although there are probably other names for it.

After the QM we went for a very short run to a wonderful object that could perhaps be described as a free-standing wall of old railroad ties locked in a wire cage. It had a flat metal top which together with the cage made it great for practicing cat hangs: The cage provides enough of a toe hold that even people with limited grip strength can hold on long enough to get a good workout.

The next thing we worked on was shoulder rolls. I was particularly glad for this part because I used to be able to do shoulder rolls, but at some point in the last 35 years lost the mix. Starting from a kneeling position, though, I was able to recover my roll. In just 15 minutes of practice I was back up to doing rolls from a squat. From there I’m sure I can work up to rolls from a standing position pretty quickly.

(Actually, the main delay is that for some reason the rolls made me queasy. I don’t remember that from 35 years ago, but yesterday I got queasy after a few minutes rolling, and my stomach didn’t completely settle down for several hours.)

After rolls we did some vaults. We started with the safety vault, which I’d already learned (and have continued to practice, because it’s really handy for things like getting across downed trees while out hiking). Then we proceeded to some initial progressions for the kong vault. I’d always thought of the kong as the most advanced vault, but that’s when it’s used to traverse a gap beyond the thing you’re vaulting. It can also be used like the safety vault as a way to get on top of some object, and that’s what we learned yesterday. With a low-enough wall (waist-high, rather than chest-high), I can already get on top with a kong vault.

Shout-out to restorative exercise specialist Ashley Price who spotted that the parkour workshop was going on and suggested that I attend.

Today I’ve already included a bit of parkour in the day’s activities, adding a bit of QM to my afternoon walk, both foot-hand crawling and a bit of ground kong. (The latter is excellent practice for reminding myself that I need to keep my knees together, something that does not come naturally.)