No Magic Pill

Knowledge + effort + time = success

Never gymless (part 9)

Posted by Ben on Sunday, March 29, 2009

Part one: quitting the gym.
Part two: sympathy and confusion.
Part three: why I left.
Part four: newbies.
Part five: searchers.
Part six: pre-made programs.
Part seven: mental foundations.
Part eight: non-workout suggestions.

* * * * *

Finally, the workout-type stuff. Talk about going around your elbow to get to your thumb, but here we are. Now, there are a LOT of things I could get into here, but in sticking with the original intent of this series, I will focus on things you can easily do away from the gym, to the point where a gym may seem like a waste of time and money. I’m not going to lay out an exercise or p/rehab program or anything like that; instead, I’m just going to suggest ways to go about figuring out what works best for you. I’ll be happy to provide more specific, individual suggestions if asked (*hint* comments *hint*), so without further ado…


Not just in the context of the bro-curl:

This is by far the main, overarching point for me when it comes to physical fitness, yet I didn’t realize it until literally a couple weeks ago. It encompasses a lot of stuff, but the basic idea is to uncurl your body, which will spark and parallel an uncurling of your mind as well. I figured this out for myself awhile back when I graduated from the bro-gym to generally more athletics- and strength-based training, and while I didn’t really understand the transformation(s) that took place at the time, I attributed them mainly to more balanced training, which was/is partly true. However, after reading a recent post from Andrew Heffernan highlighting a system called Z-Health (which I need to read more on to have a better informed opinion; it may be complete tripe, for all I know about it), some of the things he points out became apparent as consequences of several different elements I’d pieced together over the years. In a nutshell, the idea is to “uncurl” or open up our bodies and thus our minds. To illustrate actuality, you’ve probably seen this image:

It’s funny because it’s true. In our modern life, look at how close we are to the fetal position with the amount of time we spend sitting down on the couch, at the desk, or in the car. Add to that our perception of stress (very little of it comes from actual threats, but that doesn’t matter) cues our bodies to also assume this position, and voila, our lifestyles reinforce this duck-and-cover position as well as the mindset of constant fear in a vicious cycle, causing or contributing to countless physical, biomechanical issues, and mental issues. Is it any small wonder that we’re the most heavily-medicated society in history?

This is both a physical and mental concept and so envelopes everything that follows, but dealing with the physical elements will make the mental ones much easier to address.

DIY PT (part 2)

Last time, I mentioned five parts to this—self-myofascial release, trigger point therapy, mobility, stability, and flexibility—and with the first two already addressed, it’s time for the other three. Many people mistake flexibility for mobility; they aren’t the same thing. This Tony Gentilcore post explains the difference in great simplicity: flexibility is the length of the muscle; mobility is how a joint moves (that article also makes a good case for how interconnected the whole body is).

So, how do we approach these elements? You probably already know the flexibility part—that’s the static stretching you’ve been doing since grade school, though probably incorrectly and/or ineffectually, most notably by doing it as a warm-up. That’s a no-no for many reasons, but let me just say this: why would you want to lengthen and hold a cold muscle that, in a few minutes, will be called upon to contract forcefully and/or repeatedly over the course of an hour or so? Toward the end of my distance running life, I warmed up with mobility and dynamic movement, and I was the only one; everyone else I saw who wasn’t just standing around was either seated or leaning against something and stretching, and it was these same people who complained that it took a mile or two to warm up. Well, duh, that’s because they weren’t warming up by stretching. Keep that for the end of your workouts, do it intelligently, and don’t force it.

Mobility is achieved through dynamic stretching, dynamic movement, stretch-shortening, and other terms that all simply mean warming up with movement rather than holds, increasing temperature in and blood flow to muscles and preparing them for more rigorous work. This is how you should be warming up (self-myofascial release is also a part of developing mobility). A quick Google or YouTube search for any of the above terms will get you what you need for the basics—it’s really hard to screw up this kind of thing, so most Internet sources will be okay as opposed to lifting demos and “feats of strength,” many of which are hilariously painful to watch. There are also some hidden gems out there for more specific work.

Stability is exactly what it sounds like: control amid chaos. Strength-endurance is the basis behind this, meaning something has to be strong enough to remain taut, but not rigid, in times of tension. A perfect example of this concept is the rectus abdominus, your abs or six-pack muscles. If you remember any of your anatomy/physiology, the way the muscles connect to the bones in that part of your body suggests that these muscles are designed to powerfully and dynamically contract, explaining why crunches and sit-ups are so prevalent. That’s only half-correct. In fact, the abs are designed (based on their striations) to powerfully contract ISOMETRICALLY (without movement) in order to stabilize the upper body when the spine is loaded, keeping it properly aligned and stable. Out with crunches and in with planks, jackknifes, V-ups, and the like. Want to feel the true purpose of your abdominals? Get (and actually use) an ab wheel. A strong, stable core is essential to practically all other bodily movements, and all three of these traits combine with strength, power, and endurance to form a well-rounded athletic individual. Get your core—this is more than just your abs—in order, and the rest will fall into place.

What, think your bodyweight is too challenging?

Been there, still doing that in a lot of ways, but there are ways to make it work for you through progression of movement. As of this writing, I’ve adapted this push-up program to also include pull-ups, bodyweight rows, squats, and planks (with all the supplemental corrective and p/rehab movements brought in from another program). I don’t follow it to the letter because I’m not able to progress as quickly as the program suggests, but I maintain the setup and repeat parts as needed until my results suggest that it’s time to move up to the next stage. There are numerous good sources for finding information on bodyweight movement, so I’ll leave it to you to find those (I’ll list a few in a minute), but the challenge for someone just starting out—in general or in defiance of the gym—is figuring out how to make progress without all the shiny toys and gadgets.

One thing I want to dispel here is the dogma of form. In the gym, if you’re lifting a maximal weight for one rep, you’re probably going to fudge a few things; otherwise, submaximal lifting should be ship-shape. Outside the gym, if you’re unloaded and just using bodyweight, some conventions of *ahem* “wisdom” also don’t apply. For example, if you squat with no load other than your bodyweight, you want to try to maintain a flat or slightly-arched lower back, but it’s not 100% necessary 100% of the time—if it were an unbreakable law of nature, then your lower back would only extend and never flex. Your body can do a lot more things than most trainers (and almost all media) will lead you to believe. Don’t squat lower than having your upper legs parallel to the floor? Then why do we possess that extra range of motion? I guess that means we should never climbing steep stairs, hills, or stepping over a hurdle, right? There’d also be no sitting on low seats or the floor, right? Please.

Now, about the absence of stuff. It’s time to use a little physics and some not-so-common sense. Let’s look at the push-up. Can you do one? If so, how’s your form? (Sorry, had to, though arm angle and elbow placement ARE important here so as to avoid putting the shoulder at risk for injury.) If not, what if your hands are up on a chair? No? How about the back of a chair? The edge of a counter? Maybe you have to stand up straight, arms out in front of you with your palms (I prefer fists) on the wall, and just start to fall forward, then push back. We all have to start somewhere, and if that’s your starting point, so be it. Do those until they don’t seem challenging anymore, at which point you put your hands on something lower (countertop). Rinse. Repeat ad infinitum (once you get to the floor, start elevating your feet). No, don’t do push-ups on your knees. Two reasons: one, it’s too easy to cheat, and two, “girl” variations are self-fulfilling prophecies.

What about squats? Similar concept, though you’ll be more restricting your range of motion, but basically, just sit down. No, seriously. See, you squat all the time, though you may not realize it or do so under control. Think of squatting as sitting down without knowing exactly where the surface of the seat is (ladies, you know about hovering; same thing): start by pushing the hips back, keep your back taut, and feel for the seat with your tuckus. You may start by only breaking at the hips or lowering a couple inches for reps. That’s fine. When a certain distance becomes easy, increase the range of motion until you get to where you can touch the backs of your upper and lower legs without lifting your heels off the ground. When squats get easy, go for maximum reps without stopping or the most reps in a certain amount of time. Getting bored? Try one-legged squats, then one-legged squat jumps. The bottom line is that there’s always a way to make things easier or harder but definitely more interesting.

For cheap/free at-home ideas, these are my offhand suggestions to check out:
Ross Enamait (his books, forums, and blog are gold for bodyweight exercise and DIY equipment)
Adam Steer
Mark Sisson (his whole site is like a Wikipedia of health and fitness stuff, all interesting and readable and easily a time-suck—I mean that in the nicest way possible—if you’re not careful)
The Bodyweight Files
CrossFit (I don’t agree with some of their philosophy, but their bodyweight exercises and demo archive are great food for thought)

Of course, there are many others. If you decide to get into making a few things here and there, you might need to offer supper and/or beer to someone to make some of the implements, but that’s a small price to pay compared to a gym membership (dues, gas to get there, etc).

Get your butt in gear

By the way, if you think your bodyweight is too challenging for the basic movements like those mentioned above, you have no business running. First of all, if you’ve already attempted it, especially if you’re just starting out, chances are that you’re not running. You’re shuffling. Don’t shuffle. You want to get faster at some point, right? Well, you have to train fast to be fast, and shuffling ain’t going to get it. Interval training on flat ground is a start. Throw in some hill and jump training when you get to that point. Progress up to a half-hour workout, and you can destroy a 5K without ever having run more than a half-mile in a single rep.

The reason I bring up running is that before you even try it, you need to get into some serious glute activation going first. I speak from firsthand experience of having weak/inactive glutes (and a weak core) while trying to develop sprint speed. This overloaded my hamstrings and popped one halfway through an interval workout one day. I don’t recommend the experience. Instead, lunge, glute bridge (feet on floor or up on a physioball), properly pick up really heavy stuff off the ground, anything and everything you can do to counter the effects of sitting all the time, which both elongates the muscle and shuts down the nerve pathways. Develop strength in areas that open up your body and get it away from that fetal (fatal?) position. One of my favorite masochistic workouts consists of only one movement, the walking lunge, for one lap around a track. I do recommend this experience, but only after you’ve been training awhile and can afford to be immobile for the next day or two. Take care of the foundation work first so you can enjoy the other stuff later relatively injury-free.

What, think your bodyweight isn’t challenging enough?

Really? Okay, go here. Talk to me when you’ve completed every movement and modification listed.

* * * * *

Is that it? No, I have another dozen posts’ worth of stuff I could say, like how you could easily add some kettlebells or clubbells or stretch bands or Olympic rings or an ergometer to your home repertoire, but I think I’ll take a sabbatical from this series, if not a full leave (admit it: we need it… well, *I* need it). There’s plenty of time for more specific stuff in other posts; after all, this series aimed to help the newbies and the searchers get at the absolute minimum for making physical gains at home with zero equipment (except for maybe a pull-up bar) and to develop an awareness of your body. For all two of you who’re still here (checks are in the mail), I want to leave you with three video clips: one on the difference between winning and success (among hundreds of great videos on that site), one to see just how hard you’re willing to work, and one to help you realize what can be done when you allow the voice of “can” to overpower the voices of “can’t.”


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