On my year of (mostly) bodyweight training

Twenty sixteen has been a big year in my house. We bought a business, my wife is finishing her admin certification, and my youngest turned 1. It was also a year that, with the short period of concentrated ARX work, I trained mostly at home doing HIT principles applied to bodyweight training.

Motivation

The reason for this was largely out of necessity. After the ARX work, my youngest reached that period where he wasn’t sleeping as much (the “post-sleeping constantly but poorly” phase of year 1). That meant that I was often EXHAUSTED during my work days and any “planned” workout at my facility was going to be hit or miss. I often just wanted to go home and sleep before resuming daddy duty. It also meant that I wasn’t going to be able to summon the mental energy to push myself on the ARX, never mind there was no one to train me once I bought the business.

The solution became bodyweight HIT at home, using a modified Project: Kratos template once a week. I typically trained on Mondays and my early workouts were as follows:

  1. Chinup
  2. Pushup
  3. Single Leg Split Squat
  4. Row
  5. Dip
  6. Hip work (single leg hip thrust, static abduction, 45* hyper, etc.)
  7. Ab work

I used a ~3/3 cadence for my reps and tried to reach failure in 6 to 10 reps for upper body and 8 to 12 reps for lower body. This totally kicked my teeth in: early workouts left me feeling like a novice metabolically and the pump was (and continues to be) out of this world. Where the ARX workouts had a sort of “punch the clock” efficiency to them insofar as mindset due to the crystal-clear quantitative goal (and not being able to “reach failure”, more on that later), the home HIT workouts had the unsure excitement of “can I summon the focus to go all the way to failure and make progress?”, which reminded me of my early workouts 18+ years ago.

Modification

As the year went on, I progressed originally by adding weight via a vest. This became arduous and took away from the metabolic demands of moving from exercise to exercise quickly. I eventually used increasing holds in the mechanically disadvantaged position to keep the reps in a reasonable range. For example, I found that while I could d0 9 reps of 4/4 pushups to failure with a 30 pound vest, I could also reach failure in the same rep count by adding a 4 second hold at the lower turnaround. I could have just kept going with normal reps but the suffer factor increased aggressively. The holds then, like adding weight to the bar, are really about trying to keep the set within a window that you can tolerate the discomfort of…basically which shit-sandwich are you willing to eat on a regular basis?

Further, workouts moved to an “A” and “B” template, with the explicit goal of not having the early push/pull catabolize the later exercises. I filled out the workout with more isolation and quasi-isolation work. I could continue to progress the exercises over time as a result.

Reevaluation

But what if exercise performance doesn’t really matter? Not that it’s irrelevant, but that getting X pounds stronger or adding Y more reps doesn’t mean you’ll get swole, brah, not necessarily. The assumption that adding size also comes with adding strength, but the relationship is becoming less and less intertwined. For example, there are studies (here’s a second) that show strength maintained in spite losing previously gained size. There are also studies that show that muscle damage doesn’t predict hypertrophy, that volume doesn’t alter response to any meaningful degree consistently, and that hormonal changes aren’t a predictor of anything pertaining to “positive” outcomes, so what the hell is?

It appears to be recruitment, which stimulates hypertrophy through mechanotransduction  (giant review here). Going to failure gets you all of the recruitment you’re going to get, regardless of if you performed better, or if you used a heavy weight to get there (within certain parameters). This also explains why clients on the ARX have wildly different performance outcomes with the same subjective effort after the learning phase: performance has a error, even if you’re trying as hard as you can. Did losing 10% of your output compared to last week mean you lost 10% of the muscle or strength? Of course not…performance is complicated! As far as the ARX, you’re getting maximum recruitment from rep 1, so the requirement is still satisfied.

With that, I stopped counting. That is, I just did the exercise slowly to failure. If it was getting long in the tooth, I used holds at the lowest position to expedite failure or some sort of superset (A 2 minute+ wall sit preceding bodyweight squats for example) to really hurry them up. Two other colleagues that I know of, Al Colman and James Steele II, follow the “don’t count, just hurry up to failure” mindset. I thought it crazy but have come along.

Does this mean strength doesn’t matter? Absolutely not. However, there is a point where you’re “strong enough” to move from a quantitative to a qualitative mindset *if* your goal is health and looking good naked. If you’re in a strength sport, you need to get stronger because that’s the goal of your sport. If you’re osteoporotic, you need to get stronger because you’re weak and that’s why your bones were able to degrade.  

Result

Did I become He-Man? Nope. Did a become Zena? Nope. Did I maintain my muscle mass? Yes. As I’ve been since 2009, my weight has fluctuated within a 3 pound window around 175lbs, save for a period of time this summer where my boys gifted me with 2 stomach viruses in a period of 3 months and I dropped below 170lbs because insane vomiting y’all. 

Does this mean I’m bodyweight 4 lyfe? Not necessarily. Resistance training is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth. The tool matters less than the principles by which you use the tool, which I summarize as follows:

  1. Use movements that track muscle/joint function through a safe range of motion (“loading patterns“). Think push/pull/squat/hinge.
  2. Use a weight that lets you get to muscle failure in good form without suffering too much (it’s going to challenge you, but you shouldn’t chase suffering!).
  3. Initiate the movement smoothly, as well as the turnarounds.
  4. Train 1 to 3 times per week, depending on your goals and motivation
  5. Spend the rest of your time moving and enjoying your life!
  6. (Bonus) If you have a sport you’d like to excel in, keep but do less strength training. Include some more targeted exercises that might stave off overuse injuries (think rotator cuff work for pitching, or shin raises and hip abduction work for running).
  7. (Bonus 2) If you’re osteoporotic, you’ll need sufficient loading to stimulate the bone turnover you’re after. Heavy static holds are the safe way to accomplish this in the face of your significant strength deficit (because your muscles got weak long before your bones did).

How you accomplish the above depends on your life circumstances or preferences. I’m not really going to get drastically stronger unless I concentrate on it, nor will I get drastically more muscular because I don’t have a lifestyle that would support that. I do what I feel like: right now it’s mostly bodyweight, though more recently I’ve been interested in doing a bit more machine-based super slow-type work because 25 minute workouts once per week are just too damn long ( 😉) and 12 minutes are about all I have time for running a business and chasing after my boys!

Remember: this is all about quality of life. Don’t hurt yourself, choose the modality that best fits your circumstances, and use that strength to live your best life possible!

21 thoughts on “On my year of (mostly) bodyweight training

  1. Very nice summary. My goal, as I turn 60 in 3 weeks, is to continue doing what I love as long as possible. Playing tennis.

    Wearing myself out , and creating or exacerbating injuries does not factor into the plan.

    Here’s to more posts like this. They remind me of my goal.

    1. Al,

      It’s so true, isn’t it? Use the training to facilitate the most value from your life. For some, training *is* the value. That’s fine, but it’s certainly not for most!

  2. Sky, I have ventured away from SS over the years, but have always come back to it. Its what works best for me and I am passionate about teaching it to others. This year I have spent alot of time with Ryan Hall working out. JUST wish he was closer, its a 100 mile drive each way. No one in my town of Baton Rouge instructs SS, been thinking of how to get going and instruct it somewhere, the passion for it is still great for me..Happy New Year and REALLY emjoy your posts, just jotted down some great notes from it, Celeste

    1. Celeste,

      I’d actually suggest that I’ve never really gone away from the spirit of the law. Training in my garage meant compromise due to the environment, but the goal was the same: get to fatigue, move slow enough, recover well.

  3. big fan of your stuff, Skyler. was wondering if you had some previous posts or presentations, or if you could just expand a bit, on “Resistance training is the closest thing we have to a fountain of youth”. I’m only asking because I have read a decent amount about low level cardio being that same fountain, and just wondering if you could clarify a bit.

      1. Just wanted to say thank you. Not many people offer such helpful info without a bounty. Have an awesome 2017!!

  4. I switched to not counting bodyweight no equipment HIT a year ago inspired by James Steele, starting with Big Six of Wall Sit, Squat, Push Up, Straight Bridge, Pike Push Up, Row, ,now only Big Three of Squat, Push Up, Straight Bridge (hold to failure) once a week. I just didn’t have motivation after 3rd exercise and held back on first exercises so I decided to give my all that first set of given bodypart. Also really hated the wall sits. Pike and row were a bit weird in terms of performance so I chose those 3 exercises. Works pretty well given I don’t follow any diet and sleep is rather bad. Sometimes I wonder if I should increase frequency, but when I do, I come back to once a week. I think my body composition got better than when I did dumbbell workouts of about 8 exercises, for years. Wider back, better quads.

    1. Ondřej, I hear you! While I like the “got it all done” of the “Big 5 + 1”, I am aware of my decrease in performance on the second compound movement, even if it doesn’t really matter. Psychological satisfaction still matters!

    2. Though to be fair, my wife just put me through a workout yesterday that included Med-X, ARX, and bodyweight. Big 5 + 1. 14 minutes.

  5. I hope studies also confirm “the chain hypothesis” in the future. For example that if you do push ups, eventually the biceps will be the lagging link and therefore will develop, even though it’s triceps and chest usually listed as targeted muscles. Same for calves for squats, upper back with straight bridges(?). So a small amount of exercises could actually train the whole body.

    1. I don’t know if that expands past the novice stage. There are certainly guys with very strong squats and deads (for example) who have paltry calves.

      Similarly, the largest calves I’ve ever seen in real life belonged to an otherwise frumpy lawyer. YMMV.

  6. Happy New Year Skyler – great pieces to start 2017!

    My own interests have veered mainly to bodyweight over the years. I like the challenge of moving my body through space more than just moving more external load.

    I would be interested in how you might change your approach if you decided to hit rep PRs in a few key moves (i.e. dips and chins). Would you squeeze in some sub-failure training in between main sessions (grease the groove style)?

    High volume is not for me (the boredom gets me before the injuries) but I do like to pepper in easy sets through the week between actual workouts as ‘practice’ for some pet moves (a la Pavel Tsatsouline).

    All the best for 2017 – keep up the great writing in between the other hats. Always look forward to reading you.

  7. Hi there Skyler,
    forgive me for asking, but if mechanotransduction is the main stimulus for hypertrophy and not how well you perform an exercise, what is all the fuss about hi-tech machines, such s ARX, renex etc, that are worth crazy money? do the machines benefits extend beyond hypertrophy?
    thanks and happy New year
    Bradley

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