Thursday, October 20, 2022

1,300 Days: The Process is the Goal

            My 1,300th workout without a rest day came and went. The workout was straightforward and demanding. It was:

Hit a 1RM bench. I had been training for 300 pounds. I got it. Though this is 80 pounds less than my all-time best, it is more than I have benched in several years; for two reasons: injury and liking the press more. However, my bench is again heading in the right direction.

After that, I deadlifted 300 pounds for five reps for sixty sets. That totals 300 reps. On the 60th set, just in case I forgot to count somewhere along the way, I repped out the weight and got 12 reps. Totaling 92,100 pounds of deadlift volume.

Then I hopped on the rower for 1,000 meters, finishing in 4 minutes and 27 seconds.

It was a tough workout. But I recovered well and trained the next day, and the next, and every day thereafter. I’ll train today, tomorrow, the next day and every day thereafter. God willing.

In these three and a half years I’ve begun to see training in a new light. When I was new to lifting and fitness in general, the goals were specific weights and reps, often attached to a specific date.

“I’m going to bench two plates.”

“I’m going to deadlift four plates in six months.”

“I’m going to squat 500 pounds November 11th.”

There’s nothing wrong with this. I just don’t see my training the same way anymore. No longer do I see these individual goals as the reason to train. Instead, training is the goal. New bests are sure to come in due time, so long as I keep the goal the goal.

The goal now, is to remain in the process as frequently as I can, for as long as I can because I have learned that although hitting a new personal record is exciting and temporarily fulfilling, no individual set is more enjoyable than training daily. No powerlifting meet, no specific weight, nor date, is tied to the process. Those things are but events serving as highlights. They are datapoints in a system. Without the latter the former ceases to exist. Therefore, it is the process that matters most – not the workouts where new weights and reps were achieved – for those would not occur without the cumulative effects of many, perhaps hundreds of seemingly inconsequential workouts.

Though they may seem inconsequential by their data, for a workout without a PR fades into the shadows of our training history; such workouts are the unsung heroes of progress. They amount to something. That something is the process from which progress is derived. While progress is measured by data, the process is understood in simpler terms: consistency.

What are you training today?

That’s the question I ask myself. I suggest you do it too. Not whether you should workout, or rest… you already know the answer. Train today. Do something. You recognize that you can, and that you should. Perhaps you were waiting for permission to exercise daily.

This is it.

But that’s not doing the program! Exclaims the weaker us.

Guess what. That program, it isn’t perfect. And it is probably keeping you from doing as much as you would benefit from. So, do more. Go beyond the program.

The Process REQUIRES Conditioning

Reflecting on my training history, I see that my strength was only as good as my conditioning was. Before I started lifting, my physical training was the traditional Marine Corps method: calisthenics, running, and swimming. I was pretty good at each. Though I never got a 300 physical fitness or combat fitness test score, I was always above 270, often in the 280’s, and a few times in the 290’s (the CFT, being easier for me, was frequently in the 290’s). So, it was not like I started hitting the gym totally untrained. I had a great foundation of physicality. This, I believe, is why I was able to deadlift 405 pounds within the first nine months of training and bench 225. I weighed about 142 pounds at the time.

Swim qual. Fun.

Where then should you begin? Assuming you are already going to the gym regularly, focusing mostly on big compounds lifts like squats, bench, deadlift, and press, the last thing you want me to tell you to do is this: do cardio. Go out and run, swim, bike, and hike. Get your heart rate up and keep it there. This doesn’t mean you have to like it. I don’t. I don’t like 20-rep squats, but I do them. So should you.

In addition to basic cardio (start with 30 minutes per week, gradually ramping up the distance and speed) you should also be doing more reps, with a variety of exercises, against the clock.

But that sounds like CrossFit.

Only because we live in the age of CrossFit. The concept existed before it was ever branded. It was only branded because similar concepts worked for athletes. CrossFit came into existence because hard training was neatly packaged for the masses. Now we have computer geeks and soccer moms lifting barbells. Good.

So you're going to try CrossFit but call it conditioning?

Having my physical training background consist of the usual Marine fare, and a fair bit of CrossFit coaching, it may seem odd that I would forget the importance of conditioning. But, despite having learned and experienced it firsthand, I did. For years I would only do conditioning work when I felt like it, or when the Corps made me. I also bought into the lie that it would detract from my maximal strength.

The lie that doing more was in fact giving me less.

The lie is that I would only get weaker if my general fitness was stronger. While true if poorly implemented, for most the implementation is the easiest part. Poor implementation, in the case of conditioning, means poor periodization. For most people reading this, you’re not competing at such a high level in strength sports (meaning weightlifting or powerlifting) that serious conditioning year-round will be deleterious.

I can almost guarantee that you are not as conditioned as you could be and that is what is holding back your maximal strength – not the lack of specificity, or some perfect selection of accessory exercises. Dear reader, I am not asking you to become CrossFit Games ready. Or expecting Marine Raider levels of fitness. I am asking you to just do a little more on those days where you are currently doing nothing.

Stop taking “rest days.”

880 pounds.

But How?

The first step is accepting that you have been lied to about needing to avoid physical activity to recover from weight training. When it comes to recovery, there is nothing magical about staying out of the gym, sitting on the couch, and cosplaying as a sloth. That is not recovery. That is you treating lifting weights as a get-out-of-jail-free pass for being weak and lazy 164 of the 168 hours each week.

Once you realize that a few more workouts each week will benefit you, start small and work your way towards the frequent baptism of sweat that awaits. Begin easy, with time ramp up the difficulty. Soft now. Hard later. As you are yet will be.  

I have a hard time believing that a person, whether someone new to training or an experienced lifter, would suffer overtraining from the gradual process of adding reps to bodyweight exercises performed on those days where their program demands nothing of them.

Demand something of yourself instead.

Short conditioning workouts will develop your work capacity, thereby improving your recovery ability. As counterintuitive as it seems to the uninitiated, lounging around and playing video games for 8 hours a day is not a good method of recovery. Work capacity is severely lacking in most lifters, despite it being the foundation of recovery.

The kind of workouts described below are avoided because they are hard. They are hard because they produce results. For some, those results are not as gratifying as grinding out that five-pound deadlift personal record. However, once the benefits are realized (after about three weeks) the proof is in the puddle of sweat on your gym floor.

So, do more. Because you can and should.  

What one man can do another can do.
Say it!

Not sure where to start?

Some ideas:

1.     Very unfit? Start with one set of a bodyweight or isolation exercise on your rest days. Complete the work as quickly as possible. Squats, push-ups, sit-ups, curls, etcetera. Do ten reps. If you cannot do ten reps, then do as many as you are able. If that’s five reps, no problem. You must start somewhere. Add a set each week for four weeks, trying to make each ten reps or so. Rest as little as able. Congratulations. You are now doing four sets of ten reps on your former rest days.

On the fifth week, do two exercises, each for one set. Again adding a set to both for four weeks. That would be two months of “no rest days.” Granted, not a whole lot of work on these training days, but at least you are doing something and working towards doing more. The second month ends with two exercises each performed for 4x10. Completed with as little rest between sets as possible.

On the ninth week, the start of the third month, add a third exercise and again repeat the process of adding a set for four weeks. Week twelve ends with three exercises completed for 4x10 for a total of 120 reps (completed as quickly as you can). In these three months you will go from one set on one exercise to four sets on three exercises in a single workout that would otherwise be a day spent lounging around (which is misunderstood as recovery). For each former rest day, do different movements. Develop variety.

For those who are just starting out, this process of gradual development is sustainable and easy to recover from. In fact, doing more will improve your work capacity faster, which means that your recovery ability in general will improve. A small workout when feeling sore is better medicine than a pity party.

This guy skipped rest days and all his muscles literally disappeared.

2.     Trained but have a small engine? Try the above development process, and/or try working against the clock on those days where you’re not weight training. Start with a five-minute workout for as many rounds as possible with two exercises doing ten reps each. Then, on a separate rest day, turn it into a training day by doing five rounds as fast as possible with two different exercises, each for ten reps.

In these two workouts, you have one where you are working with fixed time (the 5-minute AMRAP) and fixed work (five rounds as fast as possible). The variables are volume in the former and time in the latter. This matters because for some one or the other will be more motivating. Additionally, to each you will add more work in a different way every week.

For the fixed time workout, add one minute each week. That turns into eight minutes at the end of the first month. Eight minutes, as fast as possible, of two exercises for ten reps each is tough. Maybe it is just squats and push-ups. Sounds easy? Wrong. Have fun doing it. For the fixed work session, keep those same five rounds but add two reps per exercise. The fourth week is then five rounds of two exercises performed for 16 reps each (Wk1: 10 reps, Wk2: 12 reps, Wk3: 14 reps, Wk4: 16 reps).

For both workouts you will likely find yourself getting more reps done per minute. That is an increase in training density, a function of developing your work capacity. Once you grow bored with this progression, or these exercises, change the movements being performed or change the progression by starting with more time, rounds, or reps per set.

A third option is to have a fixed amount of work, perhaps five sets of ten reps on two exercises (so 100 reps total). Perform them as fast as possible the first week. Then, for the next three weeks, try shaving off time from that same amount of work. This keeps the movement, load, and volume the same but by doing it in less time you are again improving training density. Shaving off one second from the week prior is progress.

These three options are great for those who are already training and for those new lifters who feel up to the challenge. I don’t want it to seem too difficult. These are demanding workout progressions but are easily individualized by working at your own pace and choosing exercises you are already confident with. It doesn’t have to be squats and deadlifts. It could be as simple as push-ups (elevating your hands if needed) and leg lifts, or triceps extensions and biceps curls, or dips and pull-ups. Most people already lifting weights are on a three- or four-day training program, thus, these three options can replace “rest days” and make them productive training sessions.

If Starting Strength was a car.
Big wheels, a tiny body, and dinky engine.

3.     Experienced but want to do more and not sure how? Take any of the options above, scale it up by adding a bit more time, another exercise, or a few more sets, more weight – you get the idea. Just be sensible. Start small and scale your way up the same way a novice would. You would just start with a greater initial demand.

Another option for lifters of this caliber is to do an every minute on the minute (EMOM) workout with a compound lift of your choosing and one or two other accessory exercises. For example: Deadlifts and push-ups. Starting with just ten minutes, add a minute or two each week. Over the course of four weeks this can grow to 16 minutes or more, depending on the development of the lifter.

For EMOM workouts, to make them easier, do fewer reps per set, thereby allowing for more rest before that next minute. To make them harder, do more reps per set, which will have the opposite effect because it will take longer, meaning less rest each minute. Likewise for doing more exercises each round. The more you do every minute, the less rest you get before the next minute starts, and you again must begin repping out the weight.

What I like about EMOM’s for more experienced lifters (meaning those who are confident with their technique; not necessarily having achieved an earthshattering deadlift, for example) is that it allows for more reps to get done with a foundational movement, such as squat, bench, deadlift, etc., while also serving as conditioning. Now, this could be done with the above options, but with EMOM workouts you are afforded a rest period. Something that benefits those major barbell lifts because they can take 10 to 30 seconds to set up for.

An EMOM I recently completed was the trap bar deadlift paired with push-ups. Each performed for five reps, for 60-minutes. That totaled 300 reps, setting me up for success come the 1,300th workout described at the opening of this post. I didn’t start with 60-minute EMOM workouts, but I gradually got myself there. Doing so meant that I stopped being sore after that much work, and, in fact, I could do even more work without demanding too much of my recovery – all because my work capacity has improved so significantly.

Lastly, you can try some of the ideas found here.

I thought no rest days was supposed to make you small and weak.
Credit: Ben Kuehne

4.     Other Options. Try adding a session that trains muscles and/or movements that you know are underdeveloped. This would more closely resemble how the T3 accessory exercises are performed in my programs such as Jacked & Tan 2.0, UHF, and General Gainz formatted workouts (or however you currently treat those exercises). Perhaps you are on a body part or an upper lower split. This would allow you to do something like more direct arm work in a new session on that former rest day that comes before your “leg day.” You will then have 24-hours (or more) before your next upper body session, perhaps “chest day.”

Likewise, maybe your current training model has a movement split (rather than body parts; a “bench” day, “squat” day, etc.) or is a full-body session. In such cases you could do all those ab and back exercises you’ve been skipping. More of those is likely what you need to get that next deadlift PR anyways. Just start with a few sets and scale up, much like described above.

Maybe you’re already doing abs, arms, and shoulders as part of your exercise selection and feel it is well rounded. No problem. Do something like farmer’s walks, or other carries, sled drags, or step-ups instead. This is the classic “general physical preparedness” training that was once advocated by guys like Louie Simmons, and many others, but has since been eschewed by the new age hyper-specific optimalists that pollute the information sphere with the tired lies that minimizing your training will maximize your results.

Generally prepared: 8.5 miles. 2,283.5 ft. elevation gain.
13,920 feet above elevation.

Conditioning is Optimal.

Min-maxing your physicality doesn’t work by avoiding weaknesses and maximizing your rest or doing as little as arbitrarily deemed necessary to garner a minimal response while convincing yourself that you’re maxing your genetic potential (which you truly do not know).

Chances are, you don’t know what hard is. Yet.

Especially if you have been avoiding conditioning work or have never pushed a muscle to absolute failure in both the concentric and eccentric range of motion (something that requires a very demanding and somewhat sadistic training partner).

But Mentzer and Yates did it!

I assure you, whatever it is you think you are doing it is not what they did. For as much obsession about training optimization that I see from the natty-for-life camp, those diet lettuce boys sure do like to point to two steroid using giants to rationalize their misinformed training decisions and utter lack of trying. For such optimalists, what is optimal is defined by what is easiest and quickest. Avoiding the difficult and confusing it with easy is their goal.

And no, the Pareto Principle is not going to apply to your halfhearted four hours of exercise each week. Try as you might, justifying your lack of effort by explaining a cost to benefit analysis will only lead to stagnation and eventual eviction from the process of training altogether.

But my recovery.

My central nervous system.

My fatigue.

Your excuses.

They are keeping you small, weak, and unfit.

So, do more.

            The best way to do more is to focus on training aspects that are directed towards that goal, which for most people is conditioning. That is how you can get more out of your training in less time – by doing more, faster.

            To preemptively obliterate the objections from the “aesthetic” minded 125-pound scrawny self-proclaimed bodybuilders who are always chasing “optimal”: No, conditioning doesn’t prevent hypertrophy. You can do lots of conditioning and become incredibly jacked.

Nearly 18" arms weighing about 190 pounds, without rest days.

            For most, more training is optimal, not less. If you are dissatisfied with your results, chances are you are not training enough, or eating, sleeping, destressing, and other similar means of actual recovery. So, try doing more of those things that require effort and consistency; things which simply not working out is not. Stressing over online gaming matches while surviving on Soylent and Bangs and sleeping five hours a night is not optimal. Try improving those habits before spending the next three weeks crafting a spreadsheet for the optimal training program.

            There is no “hack” to an impressive physique or physical ability. Wasting your time scouring the internet for such a one-weird-tricks is not optimal. Strength and conditioning, done frequently and with quality effort, in the traditional means I describe, is.


            I write this because I have seen this problem and can present a reasonable solution. Dismissing or deprioritizing conditioning was something that I began to do as I got more into powerlifting. That was a mistake. Partly because my sessions began to take very long. Partly because my lack of general fitness for the sake of sport specific adaptation led to recurring injuries; some of which I continue to deal with. Conditioning addresses both of those problems. I do care about your physical development, and I wish for you to not make the same mistake.

             Lastly, because I practice what I preach, below are some recent conditioning workouts of mine (in addition to the two deadlift-based ones I described previously in this post). Take inspiration from these and build for yourself your own conditioning workouts based on the concepts described above. Mind you, I am not the most fit, or the strongest individual. But, as an example, I recently hiked the Decalibron Loop; a hike that summits four 14,000-foot mountains, has over 3,000 feet of elevation, and is about seven miles. Within two hours of finishing I completed a 1,240 pounds powerlifting total with pounds left off the bar. For context: That’s about 287 pounds less than my best powerlifting meet total. All without peaking, or training specifically for the squat, bench, and deadlift.

Atop Mt. Lincoln. 14,291 feet/4356 meters.

Examples of recent conditioning workouts from my log:

1.     Ten Rounds as fast as possible of overhead press x5 reps and Concept2 Row 250m.

My results: Press weight 105 lbs. Time: 18:18. This was at a moderate pace, and my row is not that great anyways. I have also done this for longer and heavier: 60-minute AMRAP, Row 250m + Push Press 113 lbs. x5 reps. 31 rounds total +97m row.

2.     25 Minutes, As Many Rounds As Possible, of Muscle Cleans x5 reps, Pull Ups x5 reps, and Decline Sit-Ups x10 reps.

My Results: Muscle Clean weight 95 lbs. 20 rounds completed.


3.     25 Minutes, As Many Rounds As Possible, of Bench Press and 250m Concept2 Row.


My Results: Bench weight 185 lbs. 12 rounds plus one round of bench and 157m row.


4.     10 Minutes, As Many Reps As Possible, D. Ball over Shoulder.


My Results: Ball weight 45 lbs. Total reps: 147.

      *This was one portion of a workout done the day before the Decalibron hike.


5.     50 Rounds as fast as possible of 30 (15 per leg) 15-inch step-ups and 3 pull-ups. All wearing a 20-pound pack.


My Results: 1:09:58 for a total of 150 pull ups and 1,500 step ups, equaling 1,875ft of elevation gain.

      *This sucked.

Rest days: a conspiracy of the frail.

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