Monday, April 3, 2023

Physicality, Creativity, and Consciousness


            What follows is an explanation of why I lift. That question inspired this post and is the context for which my answer was written. However, the concepts laid out can be more broadly applied beyond lifting weights and physical fitness generally. Although this was written after four years of training without a rest day, it is my hope that you the reader find this perspective helpful to your fitness endeavors and everything else that is part of your life, as it has been in my own. 

The Road to Nowhere

Why Do you lift?

Is it cathartic?


An outlet for something?

Or is it a journey?

A road

to a place

with a number that’s pleasing?


If your rage never fades

is your therapy working?

When your road is blocked

will you stop walking?

No you will not.


Why do you lift?

Is it the sound of the plates

and the smell of chalk in the air?

Or the commitment,

and effort,

and drive,

to realize yourself

on this road to nowhere?


Your hate cannot fuel this drive.

And the passion will turn to fog.

This road is long.

Its slope is steep.

What inside drives you on this Sisyphean feat?


If not anger, passion, or a number,

Why do you lift?

On this road to nowhere?

I wrote that poem six years ago. Then I didn’t really have an answer to my question why do you lift? After working out every day for four years, I found one.

Spirals, December 1953.
Wood engraving printed from two blocks by M.C. Escher.
The outside becomes the inside.

A Strange Loop

Philosopher and mathematician Douglas Hofstadter developed the concept of "strange loops" to explain how self-referential systems can create complex patterns and structures. His book "Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid" describes the paradoxical, self-referential nature of certain systems. According to Hofstadter, a strange loop is a system that contains a self-referential structure which, when observed at a higher level of abstraction, creates a paradoxical situation. Hofstadter suggests that our lives are analogous to such paradoxical strange loops.

In the case of physicality, creativity, and consciousness, the strange loop occurs when each of these elements refers to the other two, thereby forming a feedback loop of increasing complexity. For example, physicality refers to the way that the body and the world around us impact our consciousness and creative output. But our consciousness also influences the way we experience physicality, and our creative impulses can shape both our physical actions and our mental states. Similarly, creativity refers to our ability to generate new ideas and expressions, but it is also influenced by our physicality and consciousness. Our physical abilities and limitations can impact the ways we express ourselves creatively, and our conscious experiences can inform the content and style of our creative output. And finally, consciousness refers to our subjective experience of the world, but it is also shaped by our physical experiences and creative expressions.

Our physical senses and actions influence the way we perceive the world, and our creative endeavors can deepen our understanding of our own consciousness and the world around us. Together, these three elements create a feedback loop of increasing complexity, with each one influencing and being influenced by the other two. This creates a strange loop that has the potential to generate endless patterns and structures, as well as new insights into the nature of our physicality, creativity, and consciousness.

Creativity is inherently physical. Some paint. Others dance. Life is in each. Action is observed in the brush strokes of the painter. Emotion is observed in the steps of the dancer. Action recorded in paint brings a lifeless canvas alive. A dancer’s flowing limbs make the theater another world. Both artists create and inspire, breathing life into space, their audiences, and themselves. Our physicality propels us through the strange loop that is us; our consciousness improves through creativity which necessitates physicality.

Like traditional means of artistic expression, a person lifting weights is creating. Individual compositions are merely slivers of the grand creation: the artist themselves; a single workout and the lifter, a product of many workouts. Regarding the lifter, they are simultaneously developing a sculpture of flesh while carefully practicing a choreography of exercises. For creations (actions) reflect the actor (creator). What is created is a mirror through which feedback is experienced and processed. Feedback provides direction, and without direction, progression is impossible. Without progression, by means of some creative act, we become mired and lost. Then our mind, spirit, and body become increasingly disconnected, until such detachment brings death to each part of us. The last of which, the body, when developed through creativity, retains and improves the former two. In this way the triumvirate of self is governed. Our physicality receives feedback, in turn prompting more creativity from which our sense of self is developed.

The process of self-development is a loop that requires action to progress through. Creativity, being an act of physicality, whether singing, painting, lifting, etc., develops two mediums – the most important one being the artist themselves. The inanimate comes alive by the actions of the creator. The canvas, the theatre, the piano, the barbell; each are dead before being acted upon. Through the creative process the individual experiences feedback from which self-awareness is gained. The creator lives in their creations and the creations in their creator.

The strange loop arises when we consider that our physical bodies are not just passive tools of consciousness and creativity but are themselves products of conscious and creative processes. Our bodies are the result of conscious and creative processes that involve self-reflection, self-awareness, and self-modification. So, in this strange loop, physicality, creativity, and consciousness are intertwined in a self-referential structure that creates a paradoxical situation. Our physical bodies are both the foundation and the product of our conscious and creative processes, which in turn shape and transform who we are. The interdependence of these three concepts creates a strange loop that is both hierarchical and heterarchical, sensible yet paradoxical, while highlighting the intricate and mysterious nature of the human experience.

Thus, our physicality creates our consciousness, and our consciousness creates our physicality – we are what we do, and what we do, we become. When we stop doing, we stop being.

Cycle, May 1938. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.

The man becomes the structure. The structure produces the man.

I lift, therefore I am.

As silly as it sounds, and as convoluted as that last section seems, the reality is that without consistent measures we are incapable of observing the strange loop that is our lives. What we do is the process from which who we are arises. Apart from this process, our reality, our very being, comes into question.

Cogito ergo sum. I think, therefore I am is the foundation upon which Rene Descartes’ philosophy of systematic doubt rests. In the 17th century, Descartes, questioning his own existence and finding the question itself as the answer is another example of Hofstadter’s paradoxical strange loops that give rise to consciousness out of a complex self-referential system. However, it was Kurt Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, published nearly 300 years later, that would prove self-reference was inherent in all complex logical systems (upon which Hofstadter theorizes strange loops). But it was Descartes who realized through rigorous skepticism that there is truth in self-reference. His philosophy is considered the origin of the modern scientific method, for the process of questioning methodologically is how genuine reality is observed.

Can we honestly observe ourselves without generating feedback through the creative process? No. Therefore, one must find means to create feedback consistently. To do so requires physicality. For me, that means is lifting weights. And though it is a far simpler act than say, playing an instrument, it is nevertheless a creative means that I have braided into my consciousness through consistent physicality. Lifting is quantifiable and qualitative while also being developmental and sustainable. Therefore, it is and builds the structure through which my life flows.

Do not interpret this as an argument for being one dimensional. I know who I am because of what I do, and I do what I know because that is who I am. And because I know who I am and what I can do, I am even more capable of doing things I do not know. We grow in capacity as we grow physically, and as we grow physically, we grow cognitively; these two ultimately giving rise to more creativity – and our first creation, incomplete until extinguished, is who we are.

Drawing Hands. January 1948. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.

What is created, creates.  


Physicality, and more specifically the focus on improving my size, strength, and stamina, has allowed me to do more things than just lift weights. Physical training is merely the process from which opportunity arises before me. Because I am fit, I am more capable. And because I am more capable, I can participate more in this strange thing we call life. The same can be true for you. Though it may seem daunting at first, understand that the relationship between physicality, creativity, and consciousness is both the structure and the means of developing structure: You.

On a whim I can climb a mountain or learn a new activity. When a blizzard hits, I can chop wood for hours and shovel snow that much longer. I can help myself, my family, and my neighbors because of the capacity I have developed through the process of physical training. I am not special. This is the nature of our environment and who we are within it. Those interactions, with new places, environments, objects, and people contribute to the feedback loop that informs our consciousness and develops our being.

Therefore, when I am separated from the process that is braided into my being, that process being physical training, the awareness of what I can do diminishes, and with it so too fades who I am. Such is true for any of you and any activity. A writer with prolonged writer’s block ceases to become a writer. Likewise a musician who stops playing, a painter that stops painting, and for Descartes, a thinker that stops thinking, stops being. Absence from feedback is death. To receive feedback, we must be consistent, put forth effort, and remain patient; three traits that bolster the physicality, creativity, consciousness relationship.  

Waterfall. October 1961. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.

Water flows endlessly through a paradoxical structure.

Both the form and flow symbolize the nature of our lives.

Effort, Consistency, Patience

Anything worthwhile requires three things: Effort, Consistency, and Patience. Without each of those, the process is cut short. As one fades, so does the other two, making the day-to-day increasingly unfulfilling. Dissatisfaction comes as our patience wanes, effort dwindles, and consistency vanishes. Without one of the three the other two produce insufficient fruit. It is the sum of those three things that are foundational to any endeavor. Self-development being the most important endeavor of all.

Because who we are is born out of what we do, if we hope to live fulfilled, then we must put forth the effort by which the feedback we desire is generated. That effort must be consistent, day in, day out, otherwise the feedback decreases in both quantity and quality, and with it also our growth. Patience then yields time, from which nourishing feedback is harvested. We grow when fed. Both the growing of food and the consumption of it take time, the former far longer than the latter. This is why creative acts must be consistent, for the feedback they produce is short lived. Let this analogy be an encouragement. For effort can be exhausting, consistency monotonous, and patience thin, yet when grafted together, those branches produce fruits from a tree that is your life.

When ripe our labors are enjoyed. Not merely by us alone, but by all those who may find shelter and nourishment beside us; those who return feedback: encouragement and criticism, kindness and cruelty, love and hate. Expect negativity and know that with patience it is possible to process everything beneficially, then turning all feedback into fuel for consistent effort. The choice is ours – be not discouraged – for it is not the input that determines the outcome, because we are not simply machines. Sure, it takes more effort and determination to creatively repurpose negative feedback into positive results, but those solutions make hardier systems; the strange loops from which our consciousness grows: physicality with effort, consistency, and patience.

Relativity. July 1953. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.

Simultaneously hierarchical and heterarchical.

No side is up or down, yet all are connected

and movement flows throughout.

Building a Complete System

            A complete system is a set of interacting and interdependent components or parts that work together to achieve a specific goal or purpose. It involves all the necessary elements and resources needed to operate and function effectively. A complete system may include hardware, software, data, procedures, people, and other operational or organizational components that are necessary for the system to fulfill its intended purpose. It is a cohesive and integrated whole made up of various parts that work together to achieve a specific outcome. What is your desired outcome and how are you developing and sustaining the complete system necessary to realize that goal?

By now it should be clear that you must do before you receive and what you receive reflects the quality and consistency of your efforts. Your system may not be complete, but that should not be the barrier that stops you from acting. Such incompleteness requires physicality because it takes work – effort, consistency, and patience – to develop what areas are lacking. Should those areas be unknown, become an explorer and locate what is needed. Become the builder and piece together something new from what is available. From those efforts creativity is developed, new solutions are discovered, and capacity increases.

All too often we let a missing piece stop us from acting. We will let a seemingly massive obstacle impede our progress. And because of these missing pieces and barriers we allow ourselves to operate in a limited and fragile system. This is unfortunate because what has really occurred is that we have confined ourselves to a narrow set of solutions. It is possible that what we think is missing is an assumption, or that the perceived obstacle is an illusion. Operating on false premises guarantees inaccurate feedback. Even if you had everything you thought you needed, would you be consistent? Would you put forth the effort? Would you remain patient?

To prevent developing a system lacking integrity we must first act – that is, put forth the physical effort to discover the true nature of the system we are continuously developing. Whether or not we act does not separate us from the system that is part of us. It does not pause. Life goes on. The choice to not act is passivity, ultimately weakening the system that is inherently us. Therefore, it is consistent physicality that both produces the complete system and does the work of holding it together. Anything found lacking is discovered through physicality, which is creativity, the means of developing solutions that complete the system; the strange loop that is our conscious selves.

One of M.C. Escher’s many tessellations created

from several systems based on Euclidian and hyperbolic geometry.

A pattern without gaps or overlaps, complete.


               The monotony of an endless loop is inescapable. It is who we are, and though the experiences and fruits (physicality and creativity) may change, the system itself does not. Therefore, as we apply effort with consistency and patience, it is better to see monotony as a positive force of our own creation. Like the erosion that shaped the Grand Canyon, so too does the monotony we endure shape us, revealing our greatness a little more each day. This process births self-awareness through patient endurance, in time building the strength of character only achievable by remaining active and conscious in our development.

            So, how does one remain and not wither in the environment and be ground into dust? Assess what you do every day and determine if the loop you are in is developing your physicality, and therefore your creativity and consciousness. If one is lacking so are the other two. To live, create something, and in that process someone: yourself. Not sure what to do or how to do it? Act first. Do not wait for the perfect time, or the feeling of having all information, skills, or tools needed to produce the optimal results in the shortest amount of time. The process is the goal. Separating ourselves from doing, for any reason, is the means by which we passively accept eventually not being. Physicality is creativity is consciousness.

            Do not seek perfection. Desire the process itself, for that is the strange loop that is life. Braid into it ever more complex capabilities and creations, using those to receive all feedback with gratitude – even the negative! For it is our effort and creativity that can turn such feedback into positive results. Should anything be found lacking, remain consistent and patient, working through potential solutions. In time what is needed to complete the system will be received. If not, then effort, consistency, and patience allowed for the unnecessary to be eroded away, revealing the grander self within.

            Why do you lift? Asked the poem that began this post. Because it helps me know who I am.

Hand with Reflecting Sphere, a self-portrait.

January 1953. Lithograph by M.C. Escher.

Wednesday, December 28, 2022

Your Baseline

Working out without rest days changed how I view training. At one point, my physical fitness was about being better at my job. At another point, it was simply about being better at lifting. Now, after 14 years of serious training, my training has become a way of life – instead of being a means to an end, it is the end.

Because of this change in perspective I have grown to value my minimums more than my maxes. Before, my one rep maxes were the most valuable things in my training. It is easy to look at training that way. It is the mentality of the mountaineer. Summit the peak, then off to climb the next. Popular weight training culture is the same. Hit a one rep max. Next week, add more weight and hit a new max.

This simplified way of observing progress is helpful and motivating, especially for the novice. I am not diminishing its value. However, as my years of training have increased, so too has my vision – the horizon is not the end. There is something beyond. With the experience of daily training I have learned how to see beyond.

No longer are my peaks the purpose for training.

What can you do today?

This is the purpose of my training: today.

Most days, I’m bushwhacking in the valley. Not summiting a peak.

Me and a Sorinex pack frame with 45 pounds of added weight
at about 12,000 feet enjoying the views of peaks high above in the distance.

Any seasoned lifter knows their maxes. When asked, “what’s your max?” The lifter will respond with do you mean today, or my best ever? This gets to the heart of training for today.

What can you do today? (Not what a calculator estimates – what do you know?)

Today’s ability depends more on our baseline, our valleys, rather than our peaks. My best bench press ever is 380 but I can only lift 315 today. But when I benched 380 could I have also hiked like I can today? Absolutely not. Because of the specialization it took for me to lift that all-time PR of 380 on the bench press I was unable to train for day-long hikes up steep terrain above 13,000 feet. Today however, I can lift about 82.5% of my best bench while also being able to do a whole lot more.

My general physical preparedness (GPP) has improved. My baseline is now at a higher elevation than when I was in peaking in powerlifting. No lifter can be at their peak strength day-in day-out, and expect that height to rise beneath them, so why view your training with that mindset and base your training upon that false notion? To do so is self-limiting and shortsighted.

Today’s baseline is different than my baseline when I was solely focused on powerlifting. Nevertheless, if I can raise my baseline now, I am that much closer to being as strong as I’ve ever been. Or stronger. Despite not training specifically for powerlifting. Increasing the elevation of my valleys results in potentially higher peaks. That’s the essence of improving your baseline.

I am not saying that specialization is bad. Instead, think of it as being the route to summit that next higher peak. Specialization requires technical skills, things focused on when preparing for a powerlifting meet in the near future. In the valleys, where the approach is being made, our baseline is most important; here technical skills are not the focus, work capacity is. The higher elevation of the valley the higher the elevation of the peak towering above. As I’ve said before, if a one rep max is the top of a pyramid, everything below that apex are the variety of movements and all the reps completed; work capacity is the foundation of your pyramid.

That’s the original analogy I used to describe my training method about 12 years ago. It hasn’t changed much. Rather than an object to be built, the analogy has changed to being akin to a lifetime adventure. (Clearly influenced by these last six years of living in the shadows of 14,000-foot peaks.) Failure to reach your peak strength is more often caused by not being able to train enough, rather than some technical fault in your lift.

Most of your training should be in the thicket. Hacking away wildly as you blaze the trail to your next peak. Be content working in its shadow, for a rush to the summit cheats yourself out of the work needed to make the ascent.

In terms of traditional descriptions, the valleys are off-season training, and the peaks are in-season. Or, for the powerlifter, high variety high volume in the offseason versus peaking with high specificity; both in movements and intensity. Moving between these is, in a word, periodization. I find the visualization of hiking through a mountain range more appealing and descriptive of the process. Adventure is inherent to the process. If your training lacks adventure, force yourself off the beaten path, and work hard creating a new one. In doing so you will develop work capacity.  

Adventuring is fun. Training can be to. Adventuring can be challenging. Training should be also. Never let a program bore you death in the process of being ground into dust. Accepting that fate is how the adventure ends. You will never summit another peak when you resign yourself to dying on the slope of the final ascent.

By adding more exercise to your life you will be increasing your work capacity; increasing the elevation of your valleys; thereby increasing the elevation of those peaks towering in the distance. Do more now – today – because you can, so you should.

Am I encouraging you to not have a training plan when I say, “blaze your trail wildly”? No. Am I saying you need to push to failure every day? Absolutely not. What I am encouraging you to do is ask yourself if you could do more. If you can, then do. It is very difficult to make your way without a map and compass, especially in the dense undergrowth of your valleys. It is impossible to make your way if you do not have the fitness to sustain effort. The triumvirate of progress are these: Consistency, Patience, and Effort. Those three govern results.

On the steep craggy ascent up
the north face of Pennsylvania mountain.

Establishing a baseline

To clear things up: baseline training doesn’t have to be in a separate phase of your annual training schedule. If you are peaking for a meet, do a little less. That is all. What baseline training should be, is what you can do often, so that you develop work capacity gradually.

Daily workouts do not have to be grueling and soul crushing. Not every set needs to be performed to failure, or a max effort. Sustained effort is key here. Consistency breeds results through accumulated effort, not a single vein popping set. This is where having a baseline is helpful.

What can you do today? Are you sure? Did you do it, or are you just estimating?

A baseline workout could consist of a variety of exercises in a short workout or a single set with one lift. This is up to you (and there are more options and ideas than I lay out here; so be adventurous). In any form, what a baseline is, is a means to determine actual performance – not merely an estimation. A baseline workout can itself be progressed, either by adding weight, or reps, or decreasing time, or modifying the movements. With any of those progressions your baseline improves.

Here are two example baselines:

1.     Deadlifting up to a certain weight for a single. Keeping the set easy and trying to make it easier each day. This should not be a max. What it should be is a weight that begins to challenge your technique. Doing a single set at this effort, of perhaps just one rep per day, is not going to do anything to your central nervous system (so calm down you geek-necked skeletons). Perhaps after several sessions this goes from a single, to a double, to a triple, and eventually, a set of five reps. In that process, your baseline has improved.

2.     A circuit of several exercises kept light and performed quickly, with the goal of completing the circuit faster. Once a certain time has been reached, then add weight or add reps to the circuit. You could increase those on one, two, or all the exercises in the circuit. That depends on what your goals and abilities are (both performance and recovery ability).

There are other options out there, but I’ll leave those for you to explore and discover. Such is the adventure of training, where fun in the gym is found.

225x51 Squat. Fun.
Fleshing out the examples

Example 1: A daily set

The first, a daily deadlift set, is one that I am borrowing from someone else (Who? I cannot remember). At a gym there was a bar loaded with 500 pounds. The goal was to be able to easily hit that weight without a warmup each day. It didn’t start off with 500 pounds always on the bar, but after many months that became many of the gym goer’s baseline. Simple enough. You could do the same.

“What’s your deadlift?” Well today I hit 500 without a warmup, in street clothes, because I knew I could.

            This kind of baseline training has the benefit of being focused on skill development. Pavel Tsatsouline calls this “greasing the groove” (though he applied it to bodyweight training, all lifts can benefit from this approach). The deadlift can be replaced with press, or squat, or bench, or any other lift you want to see improvement with. Frequency tends to improve performance, so long as recovery is accounted for. A single set performed to the edge of technical failure incurs little recovery debt. A baseline set in this manner may not necessarily be considered a “full workout” but could easily serve as the buy-in or cash-out of a workout as part of a larger program. Perhaps it is just one rep, maybe it is a set of five reps. Where it starts and ends is up to you.

Before I start my workout, I must deadlift my baseline.

If you are not training daily, maybe your current rest days change into lifting days simply by doing one set with one movement. Once you’re comfortable there, try pairing that baseline set with a second movement. Over time this may develop into a workout like the second example (not that it must, but the option is there).

The single deadlift set of one rep, or a multi-rep set, is just an example. If you wanted to get better squatting, then squat. Same for pressing or bench; or any other lift you want to get better at. That is partly why such an approach to baseline training is so fantastic: it gives you an opportunity to practice a lift without forcing a quantitative progression (like adding weight or reps each workout). Instead the focus could be qualitative (improving the look and feel of the lift).

Maybe your deadlift doesn’t need a half-dozen accessory exercises afterwards to improve. Perhaps you just need to deadlift a little more. Doing one set a day at the limit of your technique could bring better results with less fatigue and in less time. Don’t believe me? Try it and see.

“But Cody, I don’t want to go to the gym to just do a single set on my worst lift.”

Try walking on the treadmill after.

You probably need the cardio.

Or try example two.

Or you could try this kind of endurance work.
Not for the weak willed.

Example 2: A daily workout

This should be kept simple. Choose between two and four exercises that you can easily pair together. I would start with just two exercises and have a total rep goal. Keep the weights light and the pace quick – but not soul crushing. Time your work. Try decreasing that time when you repeat this workout while keeping the same two exercises with the same weight and reps. You could do this on your current rest days to ease into training daily. The goal is to introduce work that is easily recoverable while also serving to improve other aspects of your physicality. Maybe that is simply improving your stamina while also making you better at a lift you want to improve.

Carrying forward the previous example with deadlift, a couplet to improve that lift would be something like deadlifts and pull-ups, or sit-ups (or another upper back or ab exercise). If you are already decently fit and your recovery habits are solid, then start with a triplet (three exercises together). One I like doing is all three: Deadlift, pull-ups, sit-ups. Maybe after several weeks you turn this into four exercises together by adding the press.

You could start with a deadlift single at a weight that challenges your technique, followed by a set of half your max reps of pull ups (perhaps you can do 20 reps; this set should be just 10 reps), followed by a half-set of sit-ups (half of your sit-up max reps; maybe that’s 25 reps.) The half-sets follow General Gainz perimeters and as a result create little fatigue because the number of sets isn’t too high while also being enough to generate training adaptation. Start with just two or three sets and scale up each time the workout is repeated. Remember, this work isn’t to bury yourself in recovery debt. As such, it should be easily recoverable. Baseline training in this manner will make your regular workouts easier and allow you the opportunity to make them harder in a more sustainable way.

Another kind of daily workout is one that I’ve done often. It is a triplet of pull-ups, sit-ups, and kettlebell swings. For this I would set a limit of 10 to 20 minutes (depending on how much time I had) and complete as many rounds as I could doing sets of 5 to 10 reps each; fewer reps per set allows for a faster pace between exercises, therefore quicker split times; a quantitative value worth tracking.

Alternatively, instead of fixed time (10 to 20 minutes) I would do a certain number of sets as fast as I could. For me, a good breakdown that allowed for decent speed between exercises was 3 pull-ups with 10 sit-ups and 10 swings for 10 rounds (fixed work). This allowed for a fast pace and just enough recovery between exercises that I was challenging my stamina (but not getting sloppy with my technique, or nauseas – and create a different kind of slop).

At my gym all my clients do the same warm up for this reason. It develops their baseline. They do three rounds of 20 reps with my banded leg press, then 20 TRX rows, followed by 30 seconds on the ab roller and 30 seconds with the glute ham raise on the roller. As they improve, I add a band to the leg press, increase the angle on the TRX, and make them reach further or go for longer, or start to do reps with the roller.

Over the course of many workouts this basic warm up has developed their legs, back, and trunk to the point that the most common weaknesses quickly become their strength. While adding tension or time to a movement I also challenge them to move faster between exercises and to complete the reps faster. As a result, not only are they getting better with these exercises, but their stamina begins to improve because the density of the warm-up (their baseline) increases. A stronger baseline makes their daily lives that much easier.

Trying guarantees Popeye forearms.

Finding and Improving Your Baseline

            I encourage you to devise a workout that you can commit to doing daily, or at least on your current rest days. This shouldn’t be something that leaves you feeling beat up and broken (I hope I made that clear in the previous examples). If you are averse to this idea, try making your baseline something fun. Maybe pistol squats or bottoms up kettlebell presses because they’re unusual lifts that make you feel like a circus performer. Ultimately, commit to something you can do frequently and recover from easily, while also having a clear-cut progression (adding reps, or weight, or decreasing rest times are the easiest to track; alternatively, aim for a qualitative progression – look and feel). Once you have the exercise(s) and progression figured out, do it.

Record your results. Then do it again, and again, and again…

Do that workout until you stop improving.

By doing so, you will increase your baseline and in the future be capable enough to reach higher peaks (when you’re ready to summit them) because your work capacity (and perhaps also your skill with a particular lift) has improved.

Remember, baseline training is not about going hard as often as possible. It is about enjoying the process – the adventure – that is physical development. Explore your abilities as frequently as you can, and you will surely achieve a general level of strength and stamina that characterizes the very fit (your future self).

What I’ve described in this post is just the tip of the iceberg. It hardly scratches the surface of this concept. Having worked out every day without a rest day for nearly four years I have thought a lot about what baseline training is. I feel that if I were to write out every little detail and idea it would be excruciatingly complicated and far too longwinded of a post (like this one is already). Take these concepts as inspiration and choose your own adventure.

Start training every day, today.

To see if you can.

Because you must.

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.