Sunday, December 5, 2010

Week 47: Throwing the Weights Aside

How many times have you gone to a gym and seen guys furiously "pumping" a weight, throwing form, timing, and in many cases dignity to the wind? These are the guys who on the surface appear to be pretty strong, but if you look a bit harder it's obvious they have no idea what they are doing... If you're not a big gym person, I'm talking about the the guy at the beach with enormous bicep and chest muscles, but scrawny chicken legs to match. Is it any surprise that in our instant gratification, ego-driven society, the most popular question seems to be how big can I get - and not how strong can I get, or how fit can I get? For the record, I've got nothing against body builders or people with enormous muscles - these people for the most part exhibit an admirable level of dedication to their intense fitness and nutritional regimens. What is comical is those who have neither the time nor dedication to "get huge" who nevertheless strive for it - fellas, 18 inch biceps and no core strength is not impressive. I make fun of them in part because I empathize with them: there is no shortcut to an exellent level of total body fitness, and like them I simply do not have adequate gym time. So they focus on the areas that are most noticed by the ladies, and pray that is enough for a second date.

Mini diatribe aside, this week's post stems from a dilemma I have; I suspect it is one that many of us have... What is the best way to achieve and maintain a level of very good physical condition while also "living"? Personally, I have a job that takes up a significant portion of my waking hours, plenty of client dinners, friends who usually want to go have a couple of beers, and this fun blog to write. These pressures can wear on you mentally if not physically, and at least on the margin reduce your ability and willingness to make it to the gym. But that seems like a stupid excuse - anyone who has been in really good shape at some point in his or her life can attest to the fact that it feels awesome. You have more energy, you are mentally more sharp, and life is all around much better. Conversely, anyone who has fallen out of shape knows the negative spiral, the lethargy, and ultimately the apathy it can create. It occurred to me that the reason I may not have stayed in top shape was that getting to the gym seemed daunting enough that it became easy to rationalize not going. After a grinding work day, I had no interest in walking over to the gym, changing, working out, showering and getting dressed again... So, I wondered, was there a workout routine that would involve a consistent commitment to 2-3 brief trips to the gym per week, and a few other complementary exercises outside of the formal gym workouts? Could I get myself in great shape in spite of all of the excuses?

After a few months, I'm sure the answer is yes. While I'm not yet in "great" shape, I am in significantly better shape than earlier this year, and am spending fewer hours in the gym than before. Frankly, I found myself falling into the traps of some of those who I made fun of in the first paragraph. The perfectionist in me would want to make sure to do some type of weight lifting for each body part. This of course took longer than the time I had available, and I ended up with sub-optimal workouts on a less than consistent workout schedule. In short, I was not making much progress and was probably risking injury. So what has changed?

After some research it became clear to me that I could build strength and fitness by a) using only a limited amount of weight training and b) focusing on exercises that worked more than just one isolated muscle or muscle groups. Practically, this meant sticking to the basics: cardio, push-ups, pull-ups, chin-ups, sit-ups, dips, and most recently air squats and lunges. In other words, exercises that use my body weight - and not a dumbell - as resistance. The current routine involves 30 minutes of cardio and 30 minutes of the other exercises for a total time of just one hour in the gym. If I have more time, there are certain weight-based exercises I will add, but only after finishing my core (pun intended) workout. The best part about the routine, from my perspective, is that it is mobile. Every morning it is very easy to do a set of 50 pushups, and every evening it is very easy during a commercial break to do a set of sit-ups or air squats. You can stay on track even in the midst of an otherwise crazy schedule and, importantly, even if you miss the gym once or twice. This is critical, because a major problem previously was the negative feedback loop of not making it to the gym for one week, feeling hopelessly behind, and having that stretch to two and three weeks.

The key question is: does this kind of body resistance training(as opposed to weight resistance) actually work? Anecdotally, I think the answer is yes. But more credible is Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker's story. He was raised very poor and in high school did not have access to a proper weight room. So his workouts consisted exclusively of sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, dips and running. Legend has it that as a college freshman football player at the University of Georgia, after being called out by upperclassmen for refusing to train with weights, Walker promptly got on the bench press and beat the team record. It wasn't until his pro football days that Walker finally incorporated weights into his regimen. So it's clear that with the right attitude and dedication, serious strength can be developed without weights. Similarly, the Navy SEALs workouts are very focused on body resistance and core exercises. As I hope I proved in Week 33's post, it is certainly working for those guys.

The good news is that my new workout regiment is working for me. The better news is there are many ways to continue to improve it. I've done some research on yoga and pilates, and for the first time incorporated some of each into my workout this morning. It felt great and I'm sure I will continue yoga/pilates once every couple of weeks to keep myself from getting too bored with push-ups! One theme that I heard from many different sources is that your workout has to be yours - it has to fit your goals and your life. After a few years in the working world, I'm getting much closer to finding that balance. Now go find what works for you.


  1. While I do use weights in the gym, and find certain advantages there, I do mix in bodyweight exercises on a regular basis. I tried the 6 tiered pyramid today with the following exercises
    Pullups x 1
    Pushups x 3
    150 lb row x 2 (couldn't find a free bar to do bodyweight rows)
    Dips x 1
    Hanging knee raises x 2
    Headstand Pushups x 1

    It was a good overall workout - I stopped doing headstand pushups on the way down - they are quite difficult. I'm not sure I prefer this workout vs. the same set of exercises done in 3 circuits pushing each set to within 1 rep of your maximum for that set, mostly because I find that feeling for a max effort rather than using a predetermined number of reps is a good way to push yourself and make improvement. Perhaps the element of improvement in the pyramid is timing your whole workout and trying to beat your time each week.

  2. The Charles Atlas Legacy lives!


  3. TJK, I'm not remotely surprised that you were able to pull this one out of nowhere! Thanks!

    David G., stop being such a showoff with your handstand pushups...

  4. @Steve said:
    TJK, I'm not remotely surprised that you were able to pull this one out of nowhere! Thanks!

    Glad you got a kick out of the website!

    What I cannot remember is the economics of Charles Atlas.

    Way back when there was some kind of battle between the Charles Atlas system and exercise equipment developers.

    Seems they thought development of an alternative to expensive gym machines was a mortal threat and they launched some kind advertising or maybe even court challenge to the Charles Atlas system.

    Details escape me.


  5. I was following the various routines/schedules on over this summer...definitely saw some improvement, although I never got up to the 100-pushup mark (in a single set). I just came across this article yesterday...I'm going to start doing this workout this week:

    I've actually had artofmanliness on my RSS feed for some time now...they've got some great article.