I last babbled about my fitness regiment in September 2013 and since then (over two years!) I’ve done quite a bit of experimentation with movements and techniques, and I am still continually tweaking my routines. Every workout I try to make a small adjustment and learn something new. And it’s that perpetual state of flux that’s caused me to not want to report any of my findings — because I feel like I know nothing! (“That’s deep, man. Far out, man.”)
But let’s be real: does anyone really know anything? (“No.”) So in the interest of potentially contributing even a sliver of understanding to our entropic cosmos, I’ll share my current viewpoints on recreational physical fitness.
No. 1 Idea: Don’t Get Injured
I am a steadfast believer that if you want have any interest in maintaining physical fitness, absolutely do not engage in any activity that causes discomfort. If you sense your body breaking down — most commonly in the form of joint pain — then stop. It’s the opposite of your objective, which should be to empower your tangible self. Getting injured sucks. It’s the worst. And injuries only exacerbate as you get older.
I’ve come to better terms with this notion, and have dropped a bunch of exercises I previously considered to be safe and effective. Dips, for example, were nagging my wrist and elbow. I liked doing dips, and so did my physique, but eventually I was honest with myself and accepted that long term they’re not for me. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do dips though! I have a trick elbow and glass wrist. You might be fine.
Please note: not all pain is bad. Learn to recognize the difference between eustress and malfunction.
No. 2 Idea: Move in Bilateral Symmetry
By this I mean avoiding exercises that isolate one side of your body (e.g. lunges, 1-armed push-ups, etc.). Your stability is way better during exercises displaying bilateral symmetry in movement and — surprise! — you are less likely to injure yourself.
Machines and barbells can often fit this notion; dumbbells, while appearing to coincide, are too precarious. I want both hands involved with the same weight.
No. 3 Idea: Weights are Necessary
In continuation with the last idea, to make an exercise challenging enough to gain significant muscle, an auxiliary form of resistance must be added. Don’t isolate one arm or leg to increase the intensity.
This is not to say you can’t get in decent shape doing bodyweight exercises like push- or pull-ups. With immaculate form and technique, you can! But your progress will be slow and eventually stall and unless you’ve got access to a gravity chamber like Goku in Dragon Ball Z.
No. 4 Idea: Be Able to Bail
I believe in pushing your muscles to failure — i.e., maximal energy expenditure — and consequently that means you’ve got to be able to easily bail out of the exercise so you aren’t crushed by a weight or whatever.
(Hint: It’s pretty hard to bail out at the bottom of a squat.)
No. 5 Idea: Reps are Dumb; Go till Failure
I hate numbers. They’re pointless. You should be aiming for a high intensity level with your movements. Who cares if you can crank out a ton of reps with shitty form?
The burn. Feel it. That’s the barometer to go by. I know it’s an abstraction and unquantifiable, but if you feel lactic acid building up then it means your muscles are doing meaningful work.
No. 6 Idea: Limit Range of Motion
I’ve slowly picked up on the idea of limiting my ranges of motion after some instruction and some failed experimentation. The seeds for this concept were planted when I realized I was messing up my rotator cuff trying to do pull-ups at too broad a grip. I could suspend myself — and quickly fatigue — but any attempt to get my chin over the bar resulted in obvious mechanical discord. So from this I learned that holding form could be better than completing a full range of motion.
Likewise, certain HIT exercises I’ve played around with (wall sits in particular) advocate maintaining a 90º angle, which is said to be the point of “highest resistive force” (or something … I’m not an expert on levers and fulcrums). The big-picture idea is that the moment at which a right angle is formed is most challenging.
Now, these HIT movements I’d read about instructed to hold the right angle until failure. My current notion is that holding is bad. I think locking into any position under force will cause undue stress on your joints.
BUT — I think moving back and forth around 90º is cool. That’s the sweet spot. Don’t hold at 90, but rock as best you can between say 85º–95º so you are in a controlled motion and repeatedly approaching that most challenging 90º angle from both sides of the plane. Doing this also expedites the onset of fatigue. Less time under stress is good!
This brings me to the main epiphany behind today’s article and
Rock the 90™*
To engage in a controlled, limited motion of exertion about a 90º angle.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s discuss: what exercises are part of my routine at this point?
Exercise 1: Pull-ups
I’ve been humbled by the pull-up. I’ve grappled them with the utmost regularity for over five years, experimenting with dozens of variations in that time, and yet … I still don’t know how to do one. But that’s ok! This process has taught me a lot about the uncertainty knowledge.
The 90 thing is sort of new. Last I wrote I’d been keen on the towel pull-up, and I had kept up with them until only a few months ago. Yes, towel pull-ups are challenging and they will improve your grip strength. But I will argue against them because of the stress they impose on your fingers. To do a towel pull-up, your grip becomes oriented like a handshake, unevenly dispersing the 100+ pounds of tension between fingers, and this consequently contorts the hand. It’s bad news bears. When gripping a standard bar, each of your fingers contributes more equally to the pull. Stability is markedly better.
So I reverted back to pull-ups without a towel, and I’d been playing around with this technique where I’d hold at the top of the pull-up — squeezing upward as tightly as possible — and descend slowly as I fatigued. This was a novel concept to me, and the challenge at first exceeded my skill level. (That’s good!) But eventually I caught up to the difficulty and to progress any further I would need to add weight. So after several hours of research and days of contemplation, I purchased an expensive weight vest online. Protip: Weight vests suck for pull-ups. Save your money. I returned mine immediately.
A weight belt is what you want to go with, and I opted for this one:
It’s legit. I like it. It’s unobtrusive and pretty easily adjustable. I haven’t tried any of the less expensive chained dipping belts, so I’d be remiss to say this one is superior, but I’ll certainly be sticking with it.
Anyway, once I started adding weights, it became apparent that holding at the top of the pull-up was stressing my elbow joints more than I’d cared to admit. It’s not a technique I could keep doing long term. This got my brain churning for an alternative, and I remembered back to my inefficacious days of wall sitting. Maybe I could transfer that theory here? After some trial and error I arrived at my current protocol.
- Start with your widest comfortable pull-up grip (which should be not much more than shoulder width).
- Rock the 90 as described above; you’re not going for reps. Drop out at failure.
- Regain composure, then try again at the same width. Repeat until you’re unable to hold form.
- Take an extended breather, then repeat with your grip closer together — but in chin-up orientation (palms facing toward you). Then switch back to palms facing out at that same width.
- Repeat this progression until you’ve exhausted all sensible options.
Narrowing your grip is an elegant way to gradually reduce resistance (which is necessary as you fatigue). The reason for alternating grips is to engage slightly different muscle groups.
This sequencing has felt intuitive and substantial to me.
Exercise 2: Leg Press
I’ve actually only recently added the leg press to my repertoire, so — DISCLAIMER — I have not been doing the following long term. Heed these thoughts in particular with skepticism.
For the longest time I’d been relying on a combination of cycling and sprinting with hills thrown in for good measure to keep up a semblance leg strength. Squats are scary, and wall sits, which you’d think are pretty benign, destroy my knees. So I’m understandably cautious about pushing myself much when it comes to “leg day.”
However, I’m optimistic about this conservative approach to the leg press I’ve been practicing. So far, so good! The same philosophy from pull-ups applies with the technique listed here.
- Begin at a sensibly challenging weight. Rock the 90 until failure.
- Catch your breath.
- Lower the weight and repeat until it feels right to stop.
Pretty simple. Once again, the underlying theory is to gradually reduce resistance until thoroughly fatigued.
Exercise 3: Cycling
There is a certain blissful je ne sais quoi to cutting through a warm breeze on a balmy midsummer evening. Cycling isn’t without flaws, but man, a day on the bike is a good day.
I enjoy cycling. That’s the foremost reason I do it. It’s not an activity that’s going to get you a great body (professional cyclists are a skinny bunch) but there is an overwhelmingly positive sensory aspect to it. It makes you feel like a kid again. When is the last time you went on an adventure?
I also give cycling bonus points for being a low-impact sport and conducive for taking intermittent breaks.
- Hop on your bicycle.
- Explore the open road.
I personally get a kick out of climbing up big hills and flying down them with no hands.
And that’s pretty much it. I sometimes do sprints, or jog, or walk, or play tennis or frisbee or basketball, and I’m dinking around with some bodyweight squat and ab stuff right now, but in terms of regularity, pull-ups and cycling in particular have been my go-to’s.
Why? They don’t take a lot of time. I don’t get injured. I find them sufficiently challenging. And I’m happy with that!
My goal isn’t to become an underwear model or Mr. Universe. I’m putting in a calculated effort to reach a functional physique that makes me feel positive about myself and allows me to be active in other areas. I find the whole process a righteous challenge.
If I cared more about having defined musculature, deadlifts would probably the first heavy movement I’d add into the mix even though they don’t really match the philosophies laid out here. But who knows … maybe at some point I’ll mess around with them.
In regards to frequency, a full workout for me consists of just one of the above exercises. I like to put full focus onto one exercise so I can concentrate on my form and technique. It’s difficult to maintain composure over a long session! I don’t exercise every day, I always warm up, and I take a cautious approach to recovery (i.e., I will wait out soreness).
After all this explanation, let met me reiterate my sentiments from the intro: I don’t know what I’m doing!! You should figure out what works for you. I’m just one dude trying to chart his internal compass. The likelihood is high that I change course.
An Aside: Nose Breathing Follow-up
I previously wrote an article about nose breathing and why it’s likely beneficial to avoid breathing through your mouth during exercise (or at any time for that matter). The dude still abides to this philosophy, but when riding my bike I’ve found it impractical to consciously avoid lapsing. The energetic demands are too persistent. If anything I think this is a subtle knock on the premise of cardio.
Anyway, one new technique I picked up on not long after writing that piece is to drop your jaw while breathing through your nose. Doing this helps expand the airway. It’s like a cheat code for when you’re struggling during periods of high intensity.