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.
Earlier this week I outlined my need to fast on two fronts. In summary, I feel that my evenings are the weak link in the chain of my life that bad habits tend to creep in on; it's when whatever plans I had in the morning become derailed in lieu of consuming poor nutrition and over-stimulating media, resulting in poor sleep. All of this has a knock-on effect all about my life, but it's mainly felt when I train. This post is about the first front of these fasts; the dietary one, in order to get a good handle on my nutrition.
I'm actually pretty accustomed to fasting these days. I started in 2014/15 during my MRes year engaging in two 24-h fasts on Wednesdays and Sundays to deal with the poor eating habits I'd developed during the Autumn and Winter months. This worked nicely, but the habit was fairly fragile and I couldn't maintain it after some disruption occurred. When I later adapted my training routine into a circuit, I was left with some free mornings and basically started using them to skip breakfast and enter an intermittent fasting routine on those days. Even now when I need to occasionally skip a meal unexpectedly, I can actually do so in relative comfort.
So my dietary fasting will be an intermittent one; since that's what I'm most accustomed to. However, there need to be a few changes to ensure that I adapt and eliminate the risky evenings.
Intermittent Fasting (IF) is generally achieved by deliberately skipping a meal, or consuming your day's calories only within a given window of time. Where I've read about it (mostly Nerd Fitness), people seem to generally skip breakfast, magically have a daily routine which includes the ability to train around late morning, and then break their fast. They'll then eat their last meal of the day around 1900ish.
The general wisdom seems to be that you train in a fasted state, and then your calorie window begins. People are usually fasted for around 18 hours, including the 8 hours sleep they get and the time in the morning. Since I train in the morning, this will need to change. I'm unable to schedule training for mid-to-late morning, and unwilling to move it into the risky zone of my evening -- that's the point! So I'm adjusting the fasting practice to suit me.
If I train from 0500 -- 0600(ish) and begin to consume my daily calories immediately after that, I will need to skip my evening meal in order to achieve the 'window' effect of eating and achieve a fasted state. Now, since I train before breakfast anyway I'm always mildly fasted but this will be a step up from that. I'm a little bit anxious, but I think since I've spent several years training before consuming any nutrition then this will just be the next level, and I'll adapt. If we put 8 hours on the clock from 0600 then my window ends at around 1400, and I need to space my meals around that. It's going to be a tad socially awkward, as I generally like to socialise with others over the midday meal. I'll also fill up very quickly and possibly struggle to eat my 'dinner' ahead of the window. But I'll experiment to see what works.
On the night before training, I'll therefore be fasting from 1400 to 0600, which is a fast of… 16 hours! Mission achieved, theoretically. From the nutritional angle, I'll be using this opportunity to jumpstart a practice I've wanted to start for a while: meal prepping, and eating more simple foods. I've always got a tonne of mixed views around Paleo and Keto (although of the two Paleo always appeals more than Keto) but I'd like to at least reduce my reliance on grains for my main meals.
Currently my two consistent meals are breakfast and lunch. Post training breakfast (which is the only time I HAVE breakfast) generally consists of between three and four fried eggs. Lunch, on the other hand, consists largely of a four-bean chilli that I've batch cooked in a slow cooker. Of these two, my lunch isn't generally that 'Paleo Friendly' but it's important to note that I've experimented with different forms of carbohydrates, and my body really only reacts negatively when there's large quantities of grains such as bread and pasta. I react slightly better to rice, but I get very bloated around my gut and start storing surplus body fat a bit more. This generally doesn't happen with beans for some reason, and I'm thankful for that.
The 'extra' meals I'll be prepping will largely consist of things I've wanted to add back into my diet for a long time: organ meat and veggies. I'll be producing some really simple dishes of fried vegetables and organ meats with a variety of spices in order to achieve this, and I'm really looking forward to it. I'm sure that, if nothing else, my body will really appreciate the extra green matter. I'll be throwing in some sweet potatoes here and there but largely, it's going to consist of veggies and some liver.
I'll be taking a few exceptions to the days, generally where I intersect with rituals and companionship. Health isn't just nutritional and training. Friday nights are 'Curry Night' with my partner, which contain rice and some sugars in the sauces, as well as naan breads. And Saturdays I tend to make sushi or an East Asian-inspired dish; again including plenty sugars and grains. I'm not going to force myself to deal with these until they actually present a problem, if they ever do. The point of this exercise is to eliminate unhealthy practices that I'm not happy with.
Anyway, I'll write about how it goes later. I might actually take some quantified measurements!
It's always a bittersweet time of year for me. I adore the autumn, and the crisp cool air that's supposed to come with it. The change in seasons is especially obvious to me when I do my morning's training routine. I watch the light fade away little-by-little each morning until I'm training in complete darkness, and this generally only changes in the Spring when the light returns and the world is reborn.
The upside to this is that I get to train underneath, and subsequently watch, the stars. Those tiny pinpricks of light flaring billions of kilometres away, that have fascinated humanity for countless aeons. I fall into the same trap. There's often times where I pause what I'm doing mid-rep in order to stare at them for a bit. There's something about having my muscles and sinews aflame, staving off the cold, that makes me want to stare quite literally into space.
I like how these same stars have borne witness to the greatest events and saddest catastrophes of my species. I like how they are indifferent, and by their nature shine upon me the same as they did all of history's greatest heroes and villains. I like how they've witnessed the rebirth of humanity over and over again, how new generations enter as the old leave, how political systems change and revitalise or condemn their adherents. I like how there's a moment, at the end of every set, where I push myself forward just a little bit further and I feel something inside of me shift, and grow stronger.
I like how every day, similiar to my species before me and after me, I am reborn underneath those stars. Happy Equinox.
I blather on about Strength Training a lot, because it means a lot to me. In the past, Training has been a way for me to go to ground, so to speak. It serves as a space that is mine, a ritual space that offers emotional decompression from both sides of the 'yin/yang' spectrum: if I've got some pent-up aggression or frustration, the act of moving around and grunting and brutalising myself is very cathartic; whilst simultaneously it's a nurturing act of self-care, and an activity that is fundamentally much more constructive than similar outlets I've had in the past (e.g. clubbing). As well as this, I've went through the majority of my life knowing I'm not particularly attractive, and training helps me feel good about my body by allowing me to glimpse the physical feats that it's capable of (even if I remain convinced I look like shit :-/).
But what happens when the place you go to ground is itself a source of frustration for you? Something I've been avoiding confronting since around May is that, actually, my training is stagnant or perhaps going backwards. I lopped a round or so off of the work sets in my circuit to account for being tired one week, and those haven't reappeared in ages. Similarly, I've seen my form deteriorate on my two favourite exercises; ones where I was incredibly close to finally approaching the progression standard for the movements.
There are many reasons that could be to blame. I could simply be tired, due to poor sleep hygiene and stress in work or what remains of my romantic life. I could be bored with the routine I've created myself; a system that once represented growth and playfulness and freedom now may symbolise the stagnation. It's supposed to be ever growing with me, yet every attempt I've made to stimulate it or shake it up has failed. I don't think I've been pushing myself too hard; my routine was objectively more intensive before and I was performing a lot better than I am now.
I guess my next approach should be to 'go to ground' for my ground. Go back to the source, what pushed me to train the way I do? 'Coach' recommends revisiting the 'good behaviour' routine once in a while; saying that it offers even intermediate and advance trainers some room to grow.
Either that or I go full warrior-monk, suspend my PhD, and don't show my face until I've nailed one-arm pull-ups… :-P
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.
For a while now I've thought about my overall fitness goals, as opposed to just my strength goals. I've been strength training since Oct 2012, which is a little over three years and I've never particularly done cardio. I'd heard cardio interferes with strength gains, and I've been deathly afraid of that. The truth is, however, that my training is beginning to plateau and I still haven't conquered the Pull-up, which requires a good weight-bodyfat ratio. I'm also a bit sensitive about what I perceive as a bit of a gut developing, since my large waist protrudes a tad when I sit. I also get out of breath way easier than I did when I began training, probably due to the extra mass I'm shifting around.
tl;dr I need to up my game on the fitness front.
I've set a goal that by the Equinox this year (March 20) I will have shifted all of my strength-based calisthenics training to a single circuit, instead of a two-day split. If I leave some of the CC2 bolt-ons like my grip training to the second day (giving me more time overall to deal with it), it also frees up the majority of that time for a bit of cardio. I hate running, but it's a handy skill to have down and I've attempted it in the past too. This time I plan to nail it, by having a good goal but taking it relatively easy. I'm going to run to Mordor.
I got the idea from Nerd Fitness, where they calculate the distance from the Shire to Mordor in miles (eurgh) and advise making it a goal for walking. I'll be running it in stints in the morning obviously, but I think it's kinda cute and motivating as hell.
The distance between Hobbiton in the Shire and Mt. Doom in Mordor is 1779 miles according to Nerd Fitness. They're US so they obviously use a filthy imperial measurement, let's update that:
1779 miles is 2863.023 km
Ouch. Sounds like a lot more, but a nice standard metric instead of imperial bollocks :-P (Sorry US-friends!). Problem is, that that .023 km on the end bothers me. For the purposes of goals and nerdy role-playing I'm also saying that once I'm in Mt. Doom I'll need to do my business and get a safe distance away. So I've rounded up to 2865 km. Goal set, awesome.
Now the attack plan. Aside from grip training, I'll have a whole training session of up to 1hr total in order to run a distance. I'm a creature of habit, so having a standard distance to run laps of will help a lot. I've not got access to a track immediately (plus they get muddy), but my street is set up with roads and back alleys that can be used as a loop. Cracking. This also feeds into my role-playing as some sort of urban ranger type, nice. I did some measuring on Google Maps, and one loop of the "track" is measured as 646 m. To be on the safe side, let's round that down to 640 m per lap. Attack plan set, let's calculate.
Ouch. That's gonna take some doing. I've mentioned before that I don't like those decimal points hanging on. Let's round up.
So, by rounding up I'll have run a total of just over my set amount. I doubt there's a way I can ever ensure both figures don't have hanging decimals so I'll leave it there lest I go insane.
So, that's how I'm going to get to Mordor. To keep me motivated on the way I'm going to code a bit onto the site in order to log progress, and keep a few extra milestones along the way -- stuff like distance from Newcastle to various landmarks etc. All I need now is some decent running shoes!
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.