I'm a massive fan of bodyweight training, and got into it just as it became the training method du jour. Part of me wants to think I was ahead of the game, but I was probably just caught in the first or second waves of the hype.
Anyway, I'm a big fan of the system presented in the Convict Conditioning (CC) series published by DragonDoor. I don't quite buy into the hyper-masculine tone sometimes and I take it with a pinch of salt when they discuss the history of its author Paul Wade but I love the system. Through my years of training I've picked up Grip training (presented in the second volume of the work) several times; once very seriously. I can't remember why I stopped the last time, I think maybe it coincided with returning from California. I really enjoy Grip work, specifically the Bar Hang which has been the vast bulk of my training.
It's also been a characteristic of my training that I'm not overly concerned with the size of my muscles. I'm mildly concerned about gut-fat, and that's usually monitored through the proxy of others and my current trouser-size in inches. For the last week, though, I've been going over the CC training manuals for Grip training and have taken it up again. And there was a promise there by Coach Wade that forearms tend to bulk up very quickly. I'm quite curious as to if this is true and if so, how fast it can go. I'll be recording the hanging variation with the session number relative to when I restarted the training, the date, the sets/times of the hangs, and then finally the measurements for each of my forearms. The measurement being the circumference of the forearm 2.5cm below the elbow, when extended. I won't be recording my progress of Fingertip Pushups for Grip Extension as these stay at a healthy 5 reps before and after the hangs.
So here we go:
Hang Time(s): 18s Left Forearm: 30cm (exactly!!) Right Forearm: 31cm (exactly!!)
The difference doesn't bother me as I'm right-handed and it makes sense. I'm not sure what a "thick" forearm is tbh, and I don't want to delve into bodybuilding forums to get a distorted view of it. For now, let's see what happens between now and the Equinox.
Exactly one year on from my previous reflection, it's time to do it again. Once again, I'll be going through a reflection on each of the Big Six from Convict Conditioning (CC) owing to my training drawing heavy inspiration from the approach, my view on some of the decisions I've made, and finally a few higher level goals for me to shoot towards in 2017.
Remember when I said 2015 was the year of the Push-Up? 2016 definitely ran with all of the improvements that I made to it and then some. As of writing, I've upped my Close/Diamond Push-Ups to 3x12 reps, which are all relatively smooth and pretty deep with decent form.
Where I feel that I fall down with Push-Ups at the moment, is actually in my warm-up sets of standard form ones. I feel that since I've neglected my torso this year (more on that later) then my hips begin to sag somewhat during these and I actually find them more difficult than my work sets.
All-in-all, although I've not yet begun approaching the 'Progression Standard' of reps for Close Push-Ups in CC which would take me towards the one-armed variants of the movement; I feel that the extra time has made my form and performance of these much better than they would have been otherwise and I'm so, so, pleased with these. Currently my favourite exercise.
If there was one word to describe my squatting in 2016 it would be stagnation. I've really let these go. Whilst my performance of Full Squats and Close Squats during my warm-up rounds have seen progress in form, my work sets of Box Pistols have seen a deterioration in form and no gain in reps. In short, I really need to get back onto the wagon of some heavy leg training in 2017.
I believe that a good approach will be to lock down cadence and form, and build up to a respectable 12 reps with the current height of Box Pistols, and then work from there. Lock that down, and worry about them later. This may sound like neglecting them further; but I'm working in achievable baby-steps so as not to discourage myself.
Pull-Ups have always been a rollercoaster for me, and I think that they always will be. 2016 saw me finish with negatives (and get rid of muh launching chair, RIP) and begin with... assistance bands! After I couldn't go from negatives to half movements, I finally admitted that I needed some help. The admission of requiring assistance didn't particularly hurt me, but the fact that I required equipment did.
This being said, my experience with the bands has been nothing except positive. I'm performing the full Pull-Up motion for a decent number of reps with the bands, and progressing nicely. I'm currently on my third band and on 3x9 reps out of a desired 3x12 (Pulls are heavy and hard and any more would really take effort I think). The brand of band I'm working with have a series of 6 bands total, so that fact I'm on band number 3 means I'm progressing nicely. The first band was way too much assistance and I blasted through it, and took that attitude to the second band. This was tougher but manageable, but I took just a little bit longer. The third band I've been deliberately taking my time with and I hovered at 3x8 reps for a while; getting the cadence right so I wasn't using momentum. They feel magical and much better.
A successful year on the Pulling front.
Again, stagnation is how I would describe my progression in Leg Raises this year. I've been hovering at Hanging Straight Leg Raises for a while now, but my form and cadence has been shocking for the most part. There are snatches of glory, where I performed a set or two of really good, strong, movements in a few sessions across the year -- but for the most part I've fallen prey to the traps that Coach Wade warned about in CC1.
Still working at 3x10 reps, and there's an excuse for the poor cadence (will become clear in the Good Decisions section) -- but this is the main thing I hope to improve in 2017.
Similar to Push-Ups, my Bridges in 2016 have benefited from a concentration on form. I think the arch of my Bridge could be improved somewhat, but in terms of the actual performance of the movement -- it's been great. My fear of them has declined loads, I've begun performing them outside instead of in the comfort of the main room, and the sessions where they're smoother have begun to become to norm rather than the 'good days'.
Upped from 3x10 to 3x12. CC's Progression Standard for the movement is 2x15 which means I'm very close. I think I'll halt them there, though, instead of moving onto the next movement -- in order to lock down form and concentrate my recovery efforts on Pulls.
Once more, I did not train HSPUs this year. Considering the progress my training has made in general, I'm perfectly ok with this. I'll reiterate what I said last year; that I remember reading/hearing that HSPUs and Pulls have a positive knock-on effect on each other, so I might begin training a few basic holds in the series to begin this but I'm not setting any hard goals in order not to discourage myself.
There are two stand-out good decisions that I made this year -- condense ALL of my strength training into a single routine, performed in a circuit. It's a pretty intense hour, but it's allowed me to get some really good cardiovascular benefits. I began about February moving Leg Raises into Day 1's routine and began performing them in a circuit. Then I moved over Bridges in March. I remember this being particularly painful, and speaking with my then-colleague A about how drained I was afterwards and how out of breath. After two weeks and I adjusted and resumed my training as normal.
When I went to California I performed a lighter routine with Pulls as part of the circuit. When I came back, I kept it and integrated my Pulling work into the main circuit. This has been phenomenal. Again, it was a bit draining and I felt a bit "Wow" after the session, but over the summer this effect lessened somewhat and now I'm very much ok afterwards. To highlight how effective this approach has been I'll give you an anecdote:
My friend, D, began CC around the same time that I did in 2013. Whereas I dicked about with Powerlifting for a while - he committed himself straightaway to Calisthenics. D has what I would cheekily call an 'Elfin' body type. He has very low body fat, and a smaller frame. This meant that he did really well and powered through the movements -- surpassing me quickly on all but Squats. Mostly he rubbed it in with Pulls as I've always struggled with them (Orcs eh?). I didn't see him much at all this year and an opportunity came about in late December to spend the day together and we decided to do a spot of training. I said he could do what he wanted but that I was going to be circuit training. I pre-warned him not to be too harsh on me as I was deconditioned from a week in Madrid. He opted to join me in my circuit, but only managed my two warm-up rounds. It turns out that he's still training with the large 5 minute rests whereas I've cut rest times down to 2 minutes, as well as opting for the circuit approach.
It's often hard to step outside your own box. And, with apologies to D; it felt really good seeing evidence that my year's training had given me abilities and endurance beyond what I had expected or felt that I deserved. The circuit also has the additional benefit of condensing my weekly training into two sessions which are intense but have a lot of recovery time.
My other good decision was to opt for the assistance bands in Pull-Ups. I've seen a positive change in performance of the movement, self-esteem, and musculature. Not to mention knock-on improvements to other movements which I feel is in part due to my progress here.
My bad decisions can be summed up by allowing Squats and Leg Raises to stagnate. I'm really disappointed in myself for these specific things -- but overall my experience of training in 2016 has been overwhelmingly positive (making this one of the few good things to have happened this year right?)
I want to begin this section by saying this -- battle plans change. I've tried to work on making my training as flexibile as possible (I only need 2 days a week, I only need equipment for 1 exercise etc.) but when I'm disrupted I often can't progress the way I want and I often fall to a 'baseline' routine without the bells and whistled. My goals here are going to be a mix of specifics, and high-level aims, with the knowledge that they're going to change and evolve. Here we go:
Bring it on. It's gonna be a good year.
Another year of strength training is under my belt, and since it's in every strength enthusiast's best interests to look back and reflect on their training every so often I thought I'd take this opportunity to do so. I'll be reflecting on my progress on each of the Big Six from Convict Conditioning, as well as reviewing a few of the decisions I made this year.
2015 was definitely the year of the push-up for me. I've always struggled with upper-body pushing, and although this year was no different – I feel my approach has come along leaps and bounds.
When starting calisthenics, I was desperate to master the push-up and raced my way through the first four stages towards Full Push-Ups, and this showed in my form. During the summer of 2014 I made a start on Close (Diamond) Push-Ups, and was shocked at how difficult they were. Yes, I fell straight into the trap Coach Wade has spent the better part of his career warning me against. For the latter half of 2014, I performed sloppy Close Push-Ups for sets up to 15 reps, and wondering why I couldn't get past that point.
I resolved to change this in 2015, and since then I've been working on form. I would start at 3x5 reps, then move slowly up one rep per set per session until I hit 3x10. I would then realise that there was something else wrong with my form, and I would resolve to fix that and begin again. This recently culminated around August/September for me, when I admitted to myself something I'd been avoiding saying out loud – “I'm not going deep enough”. One of the benefits of Close Push-Ups is that you can tell if the depth of your movement is appropriate because your chest should touch your hands. Mine wasn't. I spent the last quarter of 2015 concentrating on depth, and squeezing my glutes, and it paid off immensely in terms of both strength and musculature by the time I reached the 3x10 again.
My old friends. In short, I feel I neglected Squats as a whole this year. Late 2014 and early 2015 saw me performing Balance Assisted Pistols outside using a lamp-post and a towel. After hitting 3x15 per leg (and staying there a while) I felt that I was pulling down with the towel too much, and swapped them out for Box Pistols. I made it up to a good 3x10, but moved down to 3x5 to work on form, and never really bothered to move it back up. I think my form's deteriorated a bit too – I bounce a lot I think, and my negative is a bit fast and uncontrolled.
Overall, I think Squats have went backwards; they've certainly not progressed particularly.
My eternal foe. I still haven't progressed to the point of Full Pull-Ups, but I've accepted that as 100kg+ (Orc body-type) I'm going to find most pulling motions difficult. That said, I again think that my approach to Pulls has been a lot better, and that I'm a lot stronger for it.
I've been focusing on negatives a lot this year, since my set-up doesn't allow for very smooth jacknife pulls. I reduced the work sets to 3 to match my other movements, and began performing negative Chin-ups up until 3x15 reps. This took a while (and I destroyed a few launching platforms), but It was definitely worth it. After this I swapped grips and started performing Negative Pull-Ups in full, which is where I am now. I think I'm afraid of success here, since I don't quite know what I'll do after Negatives – every time I approach 3x10 and there's a blip (e.g. I miss a session due to a conference etc) I don't jump back in at the 3x10 but reduce back to 3x5. This obviously has benefits for form, but I think my justification is wrong.
Overall, I'm deeming my Pull-Up progression in 2015 to be moderately successful.
I've been consistently strong in Leg Raises, and I've progressed at approximately a linear rate since beginning them. Early 2015 saw me progress to the final stages of the Leg Raise – the Hanging Leg Raise.
This has been a mixed bag for me, as noted I powered through the initial stages generally and managed to hit the final stage. I have noticed, however, that my form is not strictly perfect. I've had a few problems here and there with cadence, and with a slight bend in my legs – likely due to tight hamstring muscles. My thick abdomen is testament to my overall progress though, very pleased.
Again, deeming 2015's Leg Raises to be a moderate success.
I've always enjoyed Bridges. My rate of progression with these has always been moderate, and relatively steady. In 2015 I tackled the Head Bridge and the Half Bridge, progressing finally to the full Bridge sometime in June or July.
I feel that my progress with the Bridge has been very good overall, I feel quite strong in the movement, although I do think there's a little room for improvement in terms of depth and cadence (especially on the negative). Very pleased.
I did not train any vertical pressing movements such as the HSPU this year. I felt my efforts were better concentrated on the Close Push-Up and the Bridge. This is something I regret only slightly, as I wonder what my strength would have been if I had trained them.
I remember reading that Pull-Ups and HSPUs each have a positive knock-on effect with regards to the other. This makes sense as a lot of the upper shoulder muscles are involved. Once my initial plan of attack is complete during 2016, I resolve to begin training the HSPU series.
I believe I made three very good decisions this year regarding strength: first, I gradually lowered rest between sets to 2 minutes, and changed my workout structure to a circuit or superset structure; I also began resting more often, training only 4 days a week with weekends and Wednesdays off; I began eating a lot more, including switching from vegetable oil to olive oil.
The combined effect of more intense, shorter workouts and more recovery days have had a very profound effect on my training. I'm no longer shattered when I drop into the first set of Push-Ups, I sleep better overall, and I've been able to push past a few plateaus. The eating has been a mixed bag: more calories and in particular more meats, veg and potatoes have allowed me to recover well and gain a lot of strength (and size); but with my increased appetite I've also fell prey to eating a shittonne more chocolate than I used to. It's not all bad, but something I've noticed that I could have avoided.
In terms of training, I think the worst decision I made this year was letting myself become afraid of performing certain exercises. I noticed it particularly with Bridges (since they're difficult), but it's been creeping in with Pulls too. I'll get ready to perform a set, and then hesitate and put it off for about 20 seconds. I know people sometime psych themselves up, but the fear of failure really got to me sometimes. I used to get the same when I performed Barbell Squats back in my Dark Ages of fitness.
I also let what training means to me become a bit perverted. This might warrant its own post, but it revolves around personal flexibility and resilience. I became so focused on my training routine and hitting strength goals, I forgot part of why I train in the first place – and that is for personal, rather than purely muscular, strength. If I got sent to a conference, or attended an event, I would get very anxious about missing training. I would also become downright pissy. That's not what training should be doing to me. It's not strong, and it's certainly not healthy.
I think I've managed to brush past these mostly in the last few days. I just took a 2.5 week break over the Winter's start and New Year, and as of writing just completed my first split routine back. I didn't particularly hesitate due to fear of failure (slightly present, but not a lot) and I didn't lose much in performance. I was conservative with my output (6-8 reps instead of 10) but overall I was as strong as I was before my break. I think that unless I'm in the middle of a big push for a benchmark I can relax a little bit and start to enjoy training, and the strength it gives me, even more in 2016.
This week I've modified my training routine from circuit repeated on Tuesdays and Fridays to a Mon-Wed-Fri routine outlined in 'Good Behaviour' in Convict Conditioning. The reasoning behind this is to give each exercise some specific attention and my gains a shot in the arm.
The first day, Monday, went amazingly. However this morning was pretty dire and I felt extremely tired during the whole thing. This is largely due to the fact my sleep was more terrible than on Sunday night. My nutrition was pretty good, but my discipline for Tuesday evening was pretty non-existent. I'm going to redouble my efforts to ensure that I get an amazing night's sleep each night, media fast and all that.
I'll give it a month of 'Good behaviour' and try to gain some reps on each exercise, and get a jump on Handstands. Then I'll re-evaluate.
I've been strength training since October 2012 with Starting Strength and the Power Lifts. I started training bodyweight / calisthenics early 2013 as a supplementary system, and ditched the Powerlifting for Calisthenics full-time in October 2013. That leaves me with two solid years of bodyweight strength under my belt, plus about a half year. It might be a surprise for some, then, to learn that I still suck at Pull-ups.
I'm a heavy guy atm, weighing in at approx 106Kg. I've definitely been lighter; when I first started training the gym scales clocked me in at 79kg. Whilst I doubt the accuracy of those scales, I think the mass gain is approximately right if you count the fact I've probably added a percent or two of body fat alongside any muscle mass. This isn't exactly optimal for bodyweight pulling work such as Pull-ups, but I'm feeling stronger and in better shape than I did when I was powerlifting at all.
Coach Wade of Convict Conditioning said that Pull-Ups are the great equaliser; it's pure relative strength. I think that's definitely true. I've struggled with them for years. I spent an entire year on his gorram Horizontal Pulls, and remember the joy that I felt graduating to Jacknifes. I struggled to perform them at the gym, and my pull bar here at home isn't quite set up right for them (too close to the wall) so when I quit the gym to focus on training here at home, I needed to find a way to train Pulls. It was about this time I started swapping exercises out for Start Bodyweight and reading up on Al Kavadlo's approaches.
During 2014 I tried my best to train Pulls. "This year" I told myself. I started doing Negatives, then Half Pulls. I remember trying to Grease the Groove, I remember trying the Armstrong program over the Easter break. I remember having a session where I felt I could finally do Pull-Ups, then the next session feeling that they'd escaped me once again. I realised that I wasn't getting the full range of motion, and became disheartened again.
Late 2014, when I started my MRes, and into 2015 I admitted to myself that I wasn't performing full Pull-Ups, but needed to train them somehow. I moved to Negative Chins, and when I managed to get good at those, Negative Pulls proper. I think I graduated to Negative Pulls sometime in March 2015. Since then, I've consistently worked my way up to 3x10 reps, then missed a session and instead of picking back up where I left off -- moving to 3x5 again. I know why; fear of failure. I fear that I've been performing my Negatives wrong this whole time, and graduating will only make it true. This, of course, should all be part and parcel of one's journey of self-construction through training.
Now, in April of 2016 I see the end of the tunnel for the first time.
My approach to exercise has always been one of a brutish minimalism; coming from a background of Convict Conditioning, Naked Warrior, and the Kavadlo Bros how could it not be? I want the most effective exercises to train my entire body. These also happen to be exercises that I love, but that's a bonus really. Coach Wade promised this with the Big Six and the Convict Conditioning System. No equipment other than a bar, and optionally a towel. I throw in an old chair to perform negatives off of as well (such a hedonist). That mentality shows whenever I dismiss the need for fancy toys and tools for training -- even my training gear consists of a cotton tee, hoodie, and sweat pants in alternating shades of white, black and grey. Oh and some cheapass sandshoes that I get for £7 and replace once a year in September.
Recently growing tired with my lack of overall progress on the Pulling front, I was prompted by a fellow practitioner to invest in one of those elastic assistance bands. That way I could focus on form under a full ROM and gradually move through different band sizes until I was pulling myself up like normal people. I ordered the biggest one that evening, and I've had my first session with it this morning.
Fuck me. It's definitely given me a confidence boost. I actually think that it's giving me a bit much assistance, since it's the top-tier band and I cranked out 3x5 without much bother. There are parts of me that are sorer than they're used to though, so that's a good thing; and I'm definitely going to need to double-check my form at some point. What's important for me currently though, is that it's given me hope that I've started on a relatively clear path on the road to mastering the Pull-Up. I can see the path is a bit rocky, but there's light at the end of the tunnel and I can see where I might slip up instead of just running in place.
This is going to be a good year.