Well, I’m about 10 weeks into my high intensity workout plan and thought now would be a good time to update on its effectiveness along with changes I’ve made to the routines.
What I Like
There are several aspects to this plan that I enjoy more than other fitness programs I’ve followed in the past.
1. No Numbers
I love that fact that most movements I perform don’t require judgemental, condescending equipment like weights or stopwatches to gauge my progress. From experience, I’ve found it unhealthy to become fixated on breaking previous feats of strength and agility.
While using numbers as motivators can be beneficial in furthering one’s fitness, more often than not they would cause me to overexert myself and risk damaging my body.
Last winter for example, one of my goals was to run a 20 minute 5K. I trained using a treadmill, increasing the machine’s speed by a tenth of a mile per hour every time I ran until I was able to survive 3.10685 miles at 9.6 mph for a time of 19 minutes and 26 seconds. Shortly thereafter I suffered from a 2-month bout of shin splints and have never since attempted another timed all-out 5K.
I’ve had similar issues lifting heavy weights. Especially as a dude, it’s easy to fall into that macho mindset where you need to pump more weight than you did the previous session, otherwise you’re getting weaker and inadequate. Basically, you get hurt trying to become stronger. (Oh, the irony.)
At this point, I don’t even count repetitions for most of the exercises I perform; I’m more concerned with doing “good” (i.e. short, controlled, fatiguing) sets.
2. Minimal Time Commitment
None of my routines take more than an hour, including warmup and cooldown. This is great since sometimes I have other stuff going on and can’t commit much more time than that to maintaining my physique.
In the past I would cram in upwards of 2 hours of gym work, which is fine and at times enjoyable when I want an extended escape from reality, but freeing up time is nice. I put less in and get more out these days.
3. Relatively Injury-Proof
I say “relatively” because any type of physical activity is going to put you at some risk of injury. Since I’ve started high intensity training I’ve had knee pain, which I deduced was from a specific movement I was performing (wall sits). That exercise has since been eliminated from my repertoire, and with it the knee discomfort.
I’ve also had minor strains in my hands from not properly easing my grip into towel pull-ups and my chest has felt kind of weird the past few days, though I’m not entirely sure what the cause of that latter ailment is. (I was sick with body aches one day recently, which may be a contributing factor.) I also tweaked my left hip at some point.
That said, I’m pretty frail yet have not been out of commission more than a few days for precautionary measures the past 2 months. I’m very happy about that.
4. Getting Results
Firstly, I feel soreness the day after most workouts, which tells me I’m successfully fatiguing my muscles. If I don’t feel soreness, then I assume the workout wasn’t challenging enough and my muscle fibers weren’t broken down to a point where they will overcompensate during their rebuilding phase.
In the past I noticed if I didn’t feel my workout the next day, I didn’t gain muscle; I merely maintained it.
Secondly, I have definitely put on muscle mass (at least on my upper body). I have gotten comments on my arms looking bigger and I’ve noticed my shirts fitting a bit tighter while still maintaining a visible six-pack, so I know my body fat percentage hasn’t climbed significantly, meaning I’ve put on some amount of muscle.
I don’t weigh myself too often as the scale will fluctuate greatly depending on various factors (fluid retention, what I’ve eaten that day or the day before, is my hair wet, etc.) and I don’t want to force eating habits upon myself just to hit a number (again, I try to go by feel), but I’m probably a shade under 170 lbs at around 5’11” tall. I’ve put on maybe 2 or 3 pounds since the end of June.
Ideally I want to weigh around 180 pounds I think, which’ll take me another year or so to reach, granted I consume adequate calories.
What I Don’t Like
While there is much to be appreciative of, there are some difficulties (or challenges, if you will) with the new training regime.
1. Requires Focus
Much concentration is needed to complete my routines because…
- I place an emphasis on short, controlled, fatiguing sets
- I only perform between three and twelve total sets during each routine, and…
- I consider the first set of each exercise to be most crucial.
Thus, it’s important to do whatever is necessary to psyche myself up to expend max energy with every movement. Pre-workout caffeine (in the form of coffee) has been helpful as of late. A bottle of wildflower honey to glug on between sets has also given me a boost.
In short, the quality of the reps (and sets) trumps the quantity and it takes more mental fortitude than you’d think to make your body do what you want.
2. Takes Practice
It’s quite different performing movements like dips and push-ups slowly rather than quickly. I spent years doing those exercises at a “normal” cadence and so it took me about 4-6 weeks to train my muscles to move with more intent. This is not to say that I’m under full control of my form yet, but I am starting to develop some level of mastery.
The Updated Plan
After putting into practice what were primarily postulates, I’ve made some adjustment to nearly every exercise in my original plan and cut many out for new ones.
Upper Body Workout
All three of my original upper body exercises are still part of this routine which I perform on a weekly basis.
1. Towel Pull-Ups
I do pretty much the same progression described here, positioning the towels out wide and graduating them inward after each set, but I now simply hang during the first two sets to burn out my arms. I would do pull-ups from the get-go, but I felt shoulder pain at times when my grip was too wide.
Another modification I’m toying with is lowering to my tippy-toes when my arms alone can no longer support my body and doing some limited range raising and lowering to get that little extra bit of fatigue out of each set.
My dips now are dialed in whereas previously they were still in the experimentation phase. Here’s the new and improved protocol:
I use parallel bars and perform the first set with a full range of motion until my arms are zapped. I then lower into the negative of the dip and hold until I can take no more. This is a pretty standard technique.
For the second set, I raise and lower as normal, but I let my feet touch the ground during the lower half of the dip to bear a portion of my weight. This allows me to fatigue my arms further than I normally would be able to.
And finally, the last set is performed such that my feet are as always touching the ground (thus the range of movement is limited). Again, this lets me push myself more than I could under normal circumstances.
Out of all the exercises I perform, I would say this dip sequence is the most effective. It’s brutally good.
I’ve actually stuck with the exact same form I detailed earlier. It’s been effective (plus I’m always too exhausted after the pull-ups and dips to dabble with any new techniques).
Lower Body Workout
As mentioned, wall sits were not working for me. For whatever reason I suffered from noticeable knee pain in the days following their completion. I also did not enjoy goblet squats; I found them boring and was not convinced of their effectiveness.
I instead now pick one of the following per “lower body” session and typically do two out of the
three four once per week (meaning I work my legs about twice every seven days).
1A. Hill Sprints
This is the hill I sprint up then walk down. (Hat tip to my friend Matt for the link.) It’s a 22.5% grade, tenth of a mile stretch of hell which has caused more predigested OJ and coffee to spackle the asphalt than I’d like to admit.
In all I aim for three consecutive sprints/walks topped off with an intentful walk up and down.
1B. Track Sprints
Shout out to my high school gym teacher Mrs. Trumbo for teaching me these. All that’s involved is sprinting the straights and walking the turns (and cursing out Trumbo) at your local public school track. I’m still experimenting with how far of a distance is optimal, but somewhere between a half and full mile seems adequate.
I’ll forewarn that it’s especially important to be properly warmed up before attempting flat ground sprints. I’ve felt significant soreness the days after attempting these, not just in muscles but tendons as well, like my achilles, and could easily see myself suffering a tweak without precaution.
While it’s warm out (70°+ F), I’ll bike the rolling roads of Willistown behind my parent’s house. If I’m making a concerted effort to hit my legs, I’ll do a difficult route of hills which takes me about half an hour to complete. I don’t really bike to develop my leg muscles though. It’s more of an enjoyment activity and I often just cruise around to enjoy the scenery.
1D. Jump Rope – Added 10/15/2013
With the weather cooling, I recently experimented with adapting my jump rope routine to mimic track sprints, and the results have been encouraging, albeit after only 1 session. My calves and quads got hit pretty hard, which I feel like are the opposite muscles targeted by the track sprints (they seem to work my hamstrings more), so I am tentatively optimistic that this might be a good one-two punch of exercises for my legs.
My technique for jumping rope is to do as many double-unders as possible until I miss a skip, then rest for a few moments until I feel ready to ready to do the doubles again; repeat for 8 total sets.
For reference, I can do double-unders for about 30 seconds to 1 minute before I trip up. If you’re a newbie to jumping rope, try simply skipping faster until you feel comfortable going for the doubles. The key is to increase the intensity enough so that your body makes you stop after about a minute.
Like the upper body workout, this routine is performed about once per week and each of the three movements is rattled off in succession. Adjustments to this sequence have been made since my initial write-up.
1. Hanging Leg Raises
My form has remained true to that which is described here, though my ability to hang has improved and I’m able to do more controlled movements now. Previously my arms would burn out before my abs, but that bottleneck has diminished over time.
2. L-Sits to Knee Tucks
I’ve since ditched the rings and dumbbell (but sometimes use ankle weights) and stick to parallel bars for my L-sits. I also now transition into tucking my knees toward my chest as my L breaks down to extend the burn a little longer. Repeat for a total of three sets.
Rings and a dumbbell currently make it too difficult for me to hold form and target my abs properly. Perhaps I will incorporate them back in at some point.
3. Hanging Chair
For lack of a better term, I’m calling this recent innovation the “hanging chair.” I hang from a bar, as I would for the hanging leg raises, but only raise my knees upward enough that I feel tension in my abs. I then hold that position as long as possible and drop. It almost looks like I’m sitting in an invisible chair as I hang, though my knees settle below the plane of my waist.
I repeat this for three sets, sometimes with ankle weights to make the hold slightly more difficult.
I partake in all the same recreational activities mentioned before, though I’ve been less diligent about stretching, and I started dabbling with Foundation Training as recommended by Michael Allen Smith. I’ve had some annoyances with my lower back and hips from years of scrappy tennis playing, so I thought I’d give the program a shot.
I’ve made it through both the basic and moderate workouts, and thankfully I do think my lower back has gotten stronger. It feels less fragile than when I started the training. I will say though that the routines themselves are not that fun. For the most part you are required to hold different uncomfortable positions during the 20 to 30 minute workouts, which I find to be a chore. I never really want to do them.
What I will most likely end up doing is picking a few of the movements from the training that I find most effective and piecing together my own, shorter routine.
I’ve also given 3 Minutes to a Pain-Free Life a go, but the mere 3 minute time investment hasn’t returned any noticeable dividends. I have not kept up with it on a daily basis, however.
It continually amazes me how often I think I’ve found the perfect workout regimen or diet plan, then only a few months later I’m latched onto some other hot new trend or theory. Time will tell whether or not this fitness protocol sticks, but objectively the results have been promising. I’ve gained muscle and suffered from only minor injuries; there isn’t really much more I could ask for than that.
I’ll continue to document my progress and share another write-up if I make any other significant changes to my routine in the future.