In my quest to increase my physical fitness (i.e. look good without a shirt on), I’ve dabbled with various diets and exercise regiments over the years. Today, I’ll be discussing a new training routine I’m experimenting with and intend to document for effectiveness.
My Fitness Background
I started working out for the first time freshman year of college after noticing my buddy Conor eccentrically doing calisthenics by himself in our dormitory common area from time to time as his daily training session for the crew (rowing) team. I never knew how to work out, and desperately wanted to drop my scrawny physique, so I joined in with him one fateful evening and learned all about the wonderful world of sofa dips, bunny hops, and prison squats.
Using these newfound movements along with other bodyweight movements gathered from online tutorials I pieced together a routine I would perform in retrospect way too frequently in efforts to get a six-pack. I’ve kept up with mostly bodyweight exercises spliced with various forms of cardio (running, biking, jumping rope) throughout the years.
I have used machines when a gym has been readily available to me and more recently free weights to augment the force of gravity.
My goals behind increasing my fitness levels have been threefold; to become better at sports (tennis), to have an able body (for daily life), and to increase my aesthetic appeal (sup, ladies).
At the present moment, I am taking much more precaution to be smart with my workouts and minimize my risk of injury. Thus, I’ve eschewed any heavy lifting (squats, dead lifts, presses) at the recommendation of Michael Allen Smith. I have seen results from those lifts, but I realize at a only quarter-century old that I’m young and without perfect technique (which I do not possess and would not be able to maintain) I put myself in danger of slowly and abruptly hurting myself. Bodyweight exercises have been pretty gentle to my joints for the most part, so I’m going back to them… with a bit of a twist.
A New Theory
I stumbled across MAS’s article on high intensity training (HIT) a couple weeks ago and was very much intrigued by the notion.
Ever since I started doing resistance exercise, my only objectives have either been to hit a certain number of reps, or pump out reps until fatigue sets in and another repetition isn’t possible.
Over time I’ve become more and more convinced that performing (three) sets until fatigue or failure with low repetitions (in the 6-ish range) is key for gaining muscle mass and strength. But I never really considered any different ways in which one could reach exhaustion while keeping repetitions to a minimum. My only thoughts (and conventional wisdom) were to use weights to increase the opposing load. Throw more plates on the barbell your maximum number of repetitions will naturally be decreased.
An alternative to this is increasing tension. For example, wide-grip chin-ups are much more difficult to perform than standard shoulder-width chin-ups. No extra weight has been added (the load is still the same), but the angle between the grip points and your dangling body is greater, thus requiring more work to pull your body upward.
See this PDF for a simple mathematical explanation. Let’s say you weigh 75 kg (about 165 lbs). By placing your chin-up grip at shoulder width, a 0° (or 180°) angle between your hands and shoulders, each arm is bearing a tension of 367.5 N. Slide your grip out 15° and the tension on each arm becomes 380.5 N. At 30°, the force becomes 424.4 N, and at 45° it escalates to 519.7 N. As you can see, the tension quickly increases as you widen your group.
At a 45° angle, this would be the equivalent of doing a standard shoulder-width chin-up with 31 kg or 68.3 lbs of weight strapped to you. And the beautiful thing is as you gain mass, the difficulty will naturally increase as well.
This same theory can be applied for push-ups and dips as well. Push-up tension can be controlled by planting your hands varying distances apart, or with elevated feet. Dip tension can be controlled using two moveable sawhorses as anchors rather than dip bars which are usually unadjustable.
A final way to increase the intensity of a movement is to perform it slowly. It’s much more difficult to perform 1 pull-up for 1 minute than to perform 1 pull-up for 1 second. Try it if you are skeptical, or watch this video. The load is being more evenly applied to all moments of the movement, rather than predominantly at the top and bottom.
With these two realization in hand, that increasing tension and controlling movement are tools that essentially mimic the intensity of heavier loads, yet can be performed with more reckless abandon and less risk of injury, I theorized a new workout plan.
Before I delve into the nitty-gritty, I think it’s important to mention that a commonality you may notice throughout this plan is that I prefer to do the most challenging movements first, then transition into the easier ones. My rationale behind this goes back to the idea that heavy lifts lead to the biggest gains. My goal here is to build strength and put on muscle, hence I want to be able to perform each movement, especially the difficult ones, as intensely as possible.
Another thing to note is that I only target one section of my body each time I exercise. I have tried doing all-around body workouts but have found it more effective to focus on one muscle group at a time, and I will only do each workout about once a week with rare days of successive resistance training.
(Cardio on the other hand I’ll throw in whenever I feel like it. Fatigued muscles need time to recover though.)
In the name of HIT, all movements are performed slowly unless otherwise noted.
Upper Body Workout
I perform these three exercises in succession about once a week (whenever I feel I have sufficiently absorbed the previous session).
1. Towel Pull-Ups
I begin with towel pull-ups which I picked up from this guy. It’s taken a couple months of practice to get my grip strength where it needs to be, but I’m glad I’ve stuck with it. Towel pull-ups work your grip, wrists, and forearms much more than normal pull-ups or chin-ups, which improves the efficiency of the movement (in my opinion). More muscles are worked and all are worked more intensely (the instability of the towel adds a degree of difficulty).
I use a set of monkey bars and first position two towels as far apart to the point where I can at least hang for a few seconds (but I am incapable of doing a pull-up). I’m mainly trying to start engaging and burning out my arms. I then drop once I can hang no longer, catch my breath, maybe take a sip of water or slurp of honey, move one of the towels inward one rung, then start again, this time going for as many controlled pull-ups as possible (which might only be like two or three). Once again, I hang as long as possible (after I become too fatigued to perform another repetition), then drop.
I repeat this, moving the towels closer and closer together until I am left gripping 1 towel with both hands. When on 1 towel, I alternate sticking my head to the left and right of the bar on ascension.
That whole progression is done once, then I am on to the next movement: dips.
Note: If you are a newbie, I’d practice doing regular chin-ups or pull-ups first, then work your way to the towel. When beginning with the towel, it’s probably smart to just grab and hold on as long as possible. Don’t even worry about doing the pull-up motion; you need to improve your grip strength first.
I’m still experimenting with dips to find the right chain of difficulty (the towel pull-up sequence has felt quite effective thus far), but here is what I will likely try the next time I work my upper body.
Similarly to the towel pull-ups, I’ll position two sawhorses as far apart but to the point where I can safely do controlled dips, hold as long as possible once I hit the bottom of the movement and am too fatigued to force myself back up, then drop. Catch my breath, move the sawhorses slightly closer together, and repeat.
On the last go, when the sawhorses can no longer be moved closer together, I will let my feet touch the ground to bear some of my weight, allowing myself to do a few bonus reps.
Previously I had tried a series of ring dips to bar dips to bar dips with my feet touching the ground, and also a weird progression of sawhorse dips where I had them spread apart and worked each arm separately, but I wasn’t all that happy with either of those experiments.
The only issue is that the sawhorses I have aren’t that tall, so I have to be careful to keep my feet from touching the ground, which takes away my concentration from the important parts of the movement. I have parallel bars at my disposal which are higher off the ground and remove the problem of height, but they can’t be adjusted further apart (which I am doing to increase tension).
Weighted dips would be another option (and might be safer than the widened dips).
I conclude my upper body workout with the old standby, push-ups. I actually refrained from performing push-ups for a number of years due to an elbow injury. I can do them safely for the most part now, but do need to be careful with my positioning.
Anyway, I start by elevating my feet on a bench and performing as many slow, controlled push-ups as I can (which is only a few after doing the pull-ups and dips). I hold at the bottom of the push-up once I cannot go up again, then collapse.
I catch my breath, position my feet ground-level this time, and repeat. Finally, I then do a set with my knees on the ground (i.e. non-male push-ups), duplicating the same aforementioned technique.
This has been a challenging movement to perform at the end of the workout and has always given me a good burn. Still, I may experiment with hand positioning in the future (as I have been keeping my hands in a fixed position).
Lower Body Workout
To be honest, I’m still tinkering with the following movements to see what works best for me. I haven’t yet found a combination of exercises and techniques that I feel are all safe and sufficiently challenge my leg muscles.
I target my legs on average every 7 days.
1. Hill Sprints
I find a steep hill (preferably grass and about a tenth of a mile long), sprint up, and walk down. I repeat the up and down part until I’m too exhausted.
This is one of my favorite exercises because it’s safe and challenging. There really isn’t much more to say about hill sprints; just be sure to walk down!
2. Wall Sits
This movement was recently added to my repertoire after reading MAS’s low risk alternatives to the squat. I’ve only done it a few times now, and though it has yielded a strong burn mid-exercise, I haven’t felt much soreness post-exercise (which I associate with muscle growth) and coincidentally have experienced some knee pain in the days afterwards. I am not sure if the discomfort can be attributed to this or another movement performed during those same workout routines.
Anyway, what I have been doing is sitting with my back flat against a wall and my knees at a 90° angle while holding a pair of dumbbells by my side. I try to keep the weight toward my heels and hold the position as long as I can.
Once I burn out, I catch my breath, then switch to a pair of dumbbells that are about half the weight of the previous ones. Again, I hold until failure. Finally, I repeat with no dumbbells.
The first time I attempted wall sits I used no added weight and it took forever to feel anything in my legs. It got to the point where it become tortuous to wait so long to feel anything, so that’s why I added weights. I want all my sets to be fairly quick.
What I will likely try next time is sitting at different angles and sticking with the heavier dumbbells the entire time. Instead of sitting at 90° the whole time, I’ll start off at 60°, then initialize at 75°, then 90°, 105°, and finally 120°.
(Can someone send me a protractor?)
3. Goblet Squats
I’ve experimented with these in similar manner to the wall sits (by starting off holding a dumbbell and transitioning to no dumbbell by the third set), but results have been iffy. I have been performing them under a very controlled and deliberate manner, as described here.
I will say there have been times when I have felt some real tension in my legs, but it is hard to pinpoint the moments when I feel the burn. Much of the movement feels wasted to me. What I may do is try limiting the range of motion. A wider stance and heavier dumbbells (throughout) might help as well.
I specifically target my abs in efforts of maintaining a six-pack. Many sources will tell you that getting visible abs is all about maintaining a low body fat percentage, but I feel it’s also important to pump up your abdominal muscles as well if you want them to show with any gusto.
Like the other two workouts, I target my abs about once per week.
1. Hanging Leg Raises
I’ve been doing a variation of these for several months now that has been pretty good to me. I hang from a bar, grab a dumbbell with my feet, then raise my knees up towards my chest, touch my left knee to my right elbow, lower my legs, then raise them again and touch my right knee to my left elbow. Repeat ad nauseam, dropping the weight as needed mid-set, for three sets.
This worked pretty well doing herky-jerky movements, but I’ve noticed an issue trying to slow down the movement: my arms tire out before my abs.
I’m not sure if there is a fix to this other than keeping at it and seeing if my arms get used to hanging that long. Also, I can try to schedule my ab workouts midway between my upper body workouts so my arms are fresher and don’t fatigue so quickly.
Otherwise I may skip the HIT protocol for these. I think hanging leg raises are great and I want to keep doing them.
Typically I hold myself up with either rings or parallel bars and again secure a dumbbell with my feet to provide extra resistance. I try to maintain an L (or some semblance of one) for as long as possible, three times (with breaks in-between).
This has worked to some success, though I need to experiment with pulling my knees to my chest and freezing them there. Essentially I am looking for static abdominal holds.
Other than those two exercises, that’s all I do ab-wise. I used to do rollouts with an EZ curl bar (and then an ab wheel once I bought one), but I feel rollout devices are kind of dangerous as the movement can put a lot of strain on your body. Variations of hanging leg raises are where it’s at in my opinion. I don’t like crunches because they are too easy (it’s like comparing light jogging to sprinting).
My primary goal right now is to put on muscle, which requires special attention as an ectomorph. However, I do other activities such as jumping rope, biking, running, playing tennis, and trampolining when I feel like it.
Stretching is also important to me; after a strenuous workout (especially one that involves cardio) I make sure to do a full body stretch, which takes about 20 minutes. Pre-workout I only do warmup movements (no static stretches), but afterwards I feel stretching is great to increase flexibility and prevent future injuries.
I have no idea how long I will continue with this regiment or whether it will even be effective, but the logic behind it all excites me and I will definitely give it a fair shake. As long as I listen to my body and make tweaks to the blueprint along the way, the experiment should be successful.
If this article inspired you to try any of the exercises I listed, please be careful and alert for signs of pain. If you’re hurting, aside from muscle soreness, you’re doing something wrong.
And finally, remember: what works for me might not work for you.