Ever since about 1999 when I first started doing something like the Body4Life program, I’ve wanted to be fit. I just never really found a program that I’d systematically stick with. I finally hit on a set of solutions that has been maintained for nearly the entire year (a few breaks here and there), but I’ve found very sustainable and enjoyable. I’ve lost 20lbs+ of fat, and increased my muscle mass ever so slightly. But the big thing is I’m just much stronger, and feel so much better.
The key to this started with reading the 4-hour body by Tim Ferris. It opened my eyes to body experimentations that were useful, and set me on the path to my current success. I’d tried cutting carbs and grains out of my diet the previous year while “following” the Primal Blueprint, but going full-on with that program hadn’t worked out well for me. I dropped a few pounds from ~198lbs to fluctuate between 194-189lbs, but this wasn’t the flat-ab solution I was looking for.
The diet suggested by Tim Ferris had two key elements for my success: 1) a weekly reward a.k.a. the binge day, and 2) a path to carb reduction by legumes which for me was primarily black beans. After a few weeks of eating great primal meals + the beans, I found I was needing to add beans less frequently in order to keep my energy levels up. The binge days also allowed me to mentally reward myself for good behavior on a regular schedule. It just wasn’t that hard to stay on the diet with the known reward just a few days away. These rewards were typically lattes and bread treats at coffee shops, burgers and fries, etc.
The workout plan that is suggested with the 4-hour body is a just a few exercises, but the key one that attracts people is the kettlebell swings. This quickly got me turned on to kettlebells more broadly, which have been fantastic for my strength, and general joy of moving. I followed Tracy Reifkind’s “The Swing” program, and worked up to 28 minutes of swing as I hit 185lbs. I was feeling great. Then work disrupted my life, as I was pulling 20hour days at a new job to get a research study ready to go. After doing that for a month, I just didn’t get back to things. Swinging a heavy weight seemed dangerous when I was that tired. And at that time I discovered body-weight (calisthenics) conditioning, starting with the Convict Conditioning program. I also grabbed of copies of “Enter the Kettlebell” and “The Naked Warrior” by Pavel Tsatsouline. These two books conspired to give me a plan for rapid strength development, in a safe and sustainable way.
The key for me was the “ladder”, a way of safely building volume (total work or reps) over time. For me this was focused in the pure strength range of 1-5 reps max per set. Lifting in this rep range helps trigger myofibral hypertrophy, you grow more dense muscle fiber that can contract harder, resulting in greater strength. This also avoids or minimizes the development of puffy muscles, which was a key desire for me.
A ladder is just a way of structuring the reps in a sequence of increasing difficulty that allows you to progress without failing. For example a 3-ladder has a max of 3 rungs, and is executed as: 1 rep, rest, 2 reps, rest, 3 reps, rest. A 5-ladder is the same except you continue with 4 reps, rest, 5 reps, rest. I.e., the rung count is the number of reps you work up towards.
To use ladders, I followed this plan:
Start by testing yourself with 3×3-ladders (18 total reps). When you can do this successfully, increase to 4×3-ladders (24 reps), and then to 5×3-ladders (30 reps). Then begin adding rungs, while staying with 5 sets of ladders, so that your next workout you shoot for 5×4-ladders (50 reps), and ultimately work up to 5×5-ladders (75 total reps). Throughout this process if you struggle with the current rung, stop to rest, and move on to the next set. For me this would typically mean I would do something like 3×5-ladders, 1×4-ladder, and 1×3-ladder as I started to add the rungs.
This is all made more achievable by “waving” the intensity across the week as follows.
Monday, go easy-effort with ladders 2-rungs lower than your heavy day.
Wednesday, go mid-effort with ladders 1-rung lower than your heavy day.
Friday, go heavy-effort with your max ladders.
Never train to failure, because you are in effect training your nervous system to fail at a certain point. This is why you should pay attention to the current ladder progression, and stop even if your plan was to go for more reps the next set.
By sticking with this restriction, and the waving plan I never was too exhausted to make it to a workout due to lifting, and progressed week after week. Over the course of 7 weeks I went from struggling with 5×3-ladders doing clean&press with a 16kg to blowing through 5×5-ladders with a 24kg, without injury, which for me was very impressive. To put that in perspective that was a starting point of pressing ~1058lbs to ~3968 per workout in just a few weeks, which is ~4x increase in the volume of work. It is much better to “bank a rep” for the next workout, than to over do it now, and get injured or be too tired to do the next workout. Optimize across months, not just today. The body transformation game is a long one, no need to rush.
One other modification was that rather than actually resting, I just did supersets with pull-ups, and I progressed from regular grip to close grip, and started working on 1-arm pull-ups during the same period. That maybe is the more impressive thing: going from 30 pull-ups in 3-ladders, up to 75 pull-ups per workout! These workouts took me from 35minutes on easy day to about 47 minutes on hard day.
The point of this plan for me was that I finally had a sustainable program that gave me day over day improvement that was easily tracked, and to date hasn’t failed me. I’m not hedging to the low side of 170lbs (~168lb @ 13%bf), from starting training seriously in February at 185lbs @ 17%bf. I’ve had spots of slow progress from under-eating, or high-stress (dissertation defense, running a summer camp, regular long work hours), but overall I’m continuing to redefine my body.
This journey started last summer with the diet, and kettlebell swings, and after 1 month, I had dropped from ~192-194 to ~185lbs. So it hasn’t been instant, but it has been thoroughly satisfying, and I’m nearing in on my vanity goal of visible, bullet-proof abs.
A few tools I’ve picked up along the way that have helped:
- Fitocracy.com a gamified workout social network. Great people, and a fun design. This gives access good tracking, and metrics if you pay for hero status, and helps motivate me to progress when I need that external push for a goal. A sample workout of mine is here: https://www.fitocracy.com/entry/18203194/
- I track my meals using myfitnesspal.com
- I started using a Body Media Link armband to track my daily activity. I’ve been happy with it thus far, and wear it all the time. I’ve found the calorie tracking to be fairly accurate, and the results seem consistent with my dieting.
- Runkeeper.com is what I’ve stuck with for gps tracked workouts.
- A Withings Smart Body Analyzer scale to keep track of my heart rate and body composition stats. This data can be shared with your doctor if you like, which is a super smart feature I think. For me I’ve loved seeing how my resting heart rate has dropped as I’ve become more fit.
For the most part all of these tools integrate with each other, so you get to paint a pretty complete picture of your life, if you desire to.
Lastly, because you always have your body with you, If you want to do body-weight work, check out this body-weight progression chart: http://exceedandlead.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/01/zw13Y.jpg . Just stick with the ladder progressions above to build strength so that you can do anything safely. It is amazing how quickly your body can adapt when you take it slow, but deliberate.