“When I left ranger battalion command in 1996 and I went off to spend a year at Harvard, I remember one of my nine commissioner officers said, ‘So what are you gonna do at Harvard?’ I said, ‘I’m gonna study.’ He says, ‘You gonna work out?’ And I said, ‘Yeah! Presumably, I will.’ And he goes, ‘You know, if you come back here with a PhD, but you’re out of shape, we’re gonna have a word for you and it ain’t gonna be doctor.”
-General Stan McChrystal
I looked down below to see what would absorb the impact of my fall from two stories above. Hard, solid wood painted the color of steel. Talk about adding psychological insult to injury. “If I fall off the rope,” I thought, “I’d probably get slightly injured or break something.” My grip loosened as I struggled to climb down the rope. I can’t hold on any longer. While my grip gets closer and closer to failing, I squeeze the rope between my legs, hold my breath, and hope that I survive the fall as I quickly slide down the rope. Miraculously, I’m alive and unbroken. Woohoo!
Not so fast. I look down to see massive rope burns on my inner thighs and calves. Blood trickles down my legs. However, I had finished the last set, and was off the hook. For now.
Following a disappointing finish at the Junior Asian Games, the Thai National Freestyle Wrestling coach had started off the practice by saying that we as an entire country need to be physically stronger in order to keep up with our opponents, so it was time to face punishment and climb some rope. He prescribed ten sets of rope climbs. The problem was, these ropes are about two stories high. The scars from the rope burn that day left a dark burn mark on my body for about an entire year.
In other cases, I trained with a sprained ankle with the national team for the remainder of the camp (three weeks. Psychological mistake- I was counting the days instead of making the days count). You could also ask me about the time we were dropped off 10 kilometers (6.25 miles) from camp at six in the morning and then were told to make sure we made it back in time for breakfast. Some of us didn’t.
So, why am I telling you this? Well, you should know that if you want to get results in strength training, suffering is optional most of the time. Unlike this article (sorry, dude- just trying to help), I generally like to keep my training short and sweet.
I spent several years thinking that in order to make progress in the gym, you would have to suffer (and occasionally go through near death experiences). While that certainly worked for me and my own goals, I’ll be the first to admit that I wasn’t working smarter than everyone else. I’ve since seen many people at gyms everywhere that look great and feel great. It seems pretty clear that they haven’t had to suffer nearly as much as I did, if at all. The point is that suffering isn’t necessary to look fantastic. Sure, there will be times when pushing yourself does help, but you also need to dial down the intensity at times (and believe me, your body will definitely let you know). Consistency and effective programming will get the job done. Show up, do what you need to do, and get on with your day.
In light of this idea, I personally experimented with different programs and will show you three simple programs. If you’re new to the gym, here’s what you can expect.
- Regardless of the program you choose, each training session takes less than 30 minutes per session.
- You’ll only need to learn (and do) one to five exercises depending on which program you choose. I’ll provide links to credible instructional videos for each of these exercises.
- Aim for somewhere between two to five sessions per week.
- The main goal is to keep the amount of repetitions low while getting as much tension or muscle contraction as possible. This leads to increased resting metabolism, which is why compared to running long distances, strength training will deliver better results in the same amount of time.
- Avoid muscle failure or “the burn.” There’s a time and place for muscle failure, but going to failure every single time will slow down your recovery. In other words, feeling the burn will actually slow down your progress. Plus, what good is training if you push yourself to the point where you feel like crap all the time? You’re not training for the Olympics.
We’ll explore your three options and weigh the pros and cons. There are certainly more options, but for the sake of keeping this simple and preventing you from drowning in decision making, these three seem to be widely available options. Plus, I’ve personally tried each of these options and have gotten results from them. If you’re not into simplicity and effective results, I’m sure you can find other exciting options. For the most part though, the main principles behind the training don’t change, so you can build off of these principles while doing your own training.
Bodyweight (also known as calisthenics)
This was my first ever type of training I started and I built a very strong base with it, mostly because people were convinced that lifting weights would stunt my growth. It doesn’t stunt your growth. Seriously. Ironically, I was the most consistent weight-lifter in the family and I grew to be the tallest person in my immediate family. Regardless, I made use with bodyweight training (and my limited knowledge of strength training at the time). Since you carry your bodyweight with you everywhere and all the time, this method of training is the best in terms of availability. With some instruction on how to perform the main exercises, bodyweight training is awesome. You won’t need a gym membership (clothing also optional) since you can just work out at home. However, as you progress, you’ll need to learn new exercises and sometimes get creative to ramp up the difficulty of the exercises. This is the challenging and time consuming part of bodyweight exercises. However, with good programming, bodyweight training will take you very far. They also tend to be low impact compared to barbells and kettlebells, which is another reason as to why it’s a good starting point.
Barbells are great in that they’re easily adjustable in difficulty. If you want to go easier, just take weight off the bar. If you want to make it more difficult, add more weight on the bar. Simple enough. However, as you can imagine, barbells are not as easily available, especially if you’re looking to do the specific exercises that we’re most interested in. By doing three specific barbell exercises, you can train your entire body. When I live in my own house, it better have some weights (and a library. Damn, I love books).
Kettlebells are somewhere in between the first two options in terms of availability and adjustibility. While some gyms do have kettlebells, it’s cheaper over the long run and much more convenient to just purchase a kettlebell. You can adjust by increasing or decreasing the weights, but best practices for kettlebells include larger jumps in difficulty than the small jumps in weight you’ll see with barbells. For that reason, you’ll need to make sure your technique is right before moving onto a higher weight. In short, kettlebells are more convenient than barbells and more adjustable than bodyweight but less adjustable than barbells and less convenient than bodyweight.
Now, onto the actual programs. I’ll keep this short by showing you the program. We’ll go more in more depth with each of these in separate posts.
Bodyweight Training Program
The sets and reps vary here. For a solid workout, five sets of five to ten reps are all you need. For exercises like planks, aim for 60 seconds in one set.
Push ups: Work your way through the progressions. There are ten steps here, starting from wall push ups and going all the way to one-armed push ups like in those Rocky training montages.
Pull ups: Work your way through the progressions. This one ends with the one-armed pull up. Rocky only got to step 7.
Squats: Work your way through the progressions. Once you feel comfortable with one exercise (anywhere from five to fifteen perfect repetitions), feel free to try the next progression. Also, notice how happy Al Kavadlo looks in those videos.
Core: Play around with these. Some of these exercises are no joke.
You can do one or two of these per session for a total of two to four sessions per week. If you want to double up on sessions because you want faster progress, it may look something like this:
Day 1: Push ups and pull ups
Day 2: Squats and core
Day 3: Push ups and pull ups
Day 4: Squats and core
It’s pretty hard to injure yourself with standard bodyweight exercises, so you can play around with the programming a bit more.
Barbell Training Program
The 5×5 program (five sets of five reps) is research-backed and has historically delivered good results to people of all levels looking for a combination of strength and size.
Squat (Watch to the 5:45 point to get the main idea.)
Bench Press (Watch at least up to the 7 minute point. Who knew the bench press was super technical?)
A sample program may look something like this:
Day 1: Deadlift
Day 2: Squat
Day 3: Bench press
One exercise per session is enough. That’ll leave you at three sessions per week. You can add light days for squat and bench press, too. You don’t need a light day for deadlifts, but if you want to put that in, then by all means go for it.
Kettlebell Training Program
Kettlebell swings all day. Do 10X10 anywhere from three days a week to five days a week. You can potentially do kettlebell swings seven days a week, but you’d have to be smart about alternating between high and low weights. Aim for three to five sessions per week. To be clear, each session consists of 10X10 kettlebell swings.
Start with two handed swings, but eventually learn how to do one-handed swings. When you can do the kettlebell swing explosively and with great technique, that’s when you can move up in weight.
For men, people generally recommend 16kg (around 35 pounds) and 24kg (around 50 pounds). That’ll keep you occupied for several months or years. Once you can do a 24kg one-handed kettlebell swing, 32kg (around 70 lbs) is your next step.
For women, the general recommendation is 12kg (around 25 pounds) and 16kg (around 32 pounds). If 12kg is too challenging, 8kg (a little less than 20 pounds) should be fine.
If you get want another kettlebell exercise, learn how to do the turkish get-up. Learning the technique for this one takes a while, but is a great full-body exercise.
Closing Thoughts and Principles
We’ve covered a lot of ground here, but we’ll dig into finer details in another post. No matter which method you choose, it’s important to remember the key principles.
- Consistency beats intensity. People thrive in strength training when they play the long game.
- Variation in intensity leads to better results. In plain English, have some heavy days and have some light days.
- The main goal is to keep the amount of repetitions relatively low while keeping as much tension or muscle contraction as possible.
- Avoid muscle failure or “the burn” if you’re trying to get stronger, since this will slow down your ability to recover. It has its use, but for what we’re looking to do, it’s not optimal.
Most importantly, focus on technique above all else. Technique is the force multiplier for good results. Leave your ego at the door or you’ll injure yourself trying to bite off more than you can chew. There are two places where you should never judge someone- the gym, and their place of worship (church, mosque, synagogue, temple, wherever that may be). In both places, people are looking to better themselves. Keep in mind that the observing eye and perceiving eye are two different things. Observing is okay. Perceiving will cloud your ability to make rational decisions.
Finally, it’s worth noting again that consistency will take you where you want to go. A good program that you follow consistently will bring you better results than the perfect program that you quit. Life is a marathon, not a sprint. You’ll find that you’ll start to overtake people simply by staying the course. So, stay the course.
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