Ask Al: How Do YOU Train?
I first addressed the question last year, but things have changed since then. A lot of my training had been dedicated to preparing for the NYC Triathlon, but since finishing the race, I’ve shifted my primary focus back to strength-based calisthenics. I still do some yoga moves to warm-up, but I am no longer using any weights in my workouts (though I do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work with some of my clients). Weight training is a great way to build strength, but for now my interest lies solely in bodyweight training.
I’m Working Out!
Lately I’ve been enjoying longer workouts with more rest between sets and less structure than ever. I can easily spend two hours on a summer day at Tompkins Square Park just practicing various moves with little concern for the specifics of sets, reps, rest times, etc. And wouldn’t you know it – my skills have been improving!
The main things I’m currently focused on are hand-balancing (including elbow levers), finger strength, and lever holds on the bar. As I discussed in my recent post on why I don’t do cardio, these days I’m all about treating my workouts more as skill practice than anything else. I’m avoiding structured “sets and reps” workouts and staying away from training to failure (not that there is anything wrong with structured workouts and training to failure – in fact, I’d recommend both of those things for beginners). At this point in my training, however, my focus is on refining my skills and improving my body awareness during my movements, so I’m taking my time with things. I’m not so much concerned with getting stronger, but rather learning to utilize my strength more effectively. I’m still exercising pretty much every day (I take a rest day only on days when I am particularly sore or particularly busy) but I vary the intensity and duration of my training from day to day. Some days I’ll train for a couple of hours, other days I’m in and out in thirty minutes. Listening to my body is still a cornerstone of my philosophy, so when I feel like I’ve had enough, I call it a day. I’m also still doing some running and swimming for active recovery.
Those of you who know my fitness philosophy are aware that I am not a fan of the goal-centric mentality that dominates the fitness world. Focusing on goals is often a distraction from the process itself. There are skills I’m looking to improve, but the best way to go about it is to take things one day at a time. With that in mind, my training on any given week might look something like this:
Monday: Muscle-ups, pull-ups, back levers, various fingertip holds
Tuesday: Handstands, handstand push-ups, elbow levers, hanging leg raises
Wednesday: Jump rope, pistol squats, back bridges, fingertip holds
Thursday: Low intensity swim
Friday: One arm pull-ups, one arm hangs, front levers
Saturday: Handstands, push-ups, dips, fingertip holds
Sunday: Pistol squats, shrimp squats, back bridges
What I am doing is basically a modified version of the classic bodybuilding style three-day split: mostly pulling exercises on one day, mostly pushing on another, with legs and low back on the third day. Then an active recovery day, then it repeats. This allows me to train daily while still allowing my muscles adequate rest. Isometrics like elbow levers, handstands and fingertip holds can be practiced more frequently, as the hands are very resilient and all of those skills involve balance and coordination as much as strength.
I’ve done a lot of different types of workout regimens over the years and this is by no means a strict protocol. I’m prone to improvise and go with what I feel on any given day. And of course, I still do the human flag on a regular basis, simply because people are always asking to see it, and I like to give the people what they want.
Since the release of Convict Conditioning 2 last fall, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about the exercise demonstrations I provided for the book. Most of the questions are about the clutch flag and human flag holds, but I’ve also gotten quite a few about author Paul Wade’s “trifecta” progression, particularly the twist holds.
There are several variations leading up to the full twist hold and I recommend beginners practice the basic versions for at least a few weeks (probably longer) before moving ahead. It’s important to take your time with each step to avoid setbacks and injuries.
Do The Twist
Twist holds give you a lot of bang for your buck, providing a fantastic stretch for your spine, hips and shoulders, as well as giving you a little extra core work. Along with the bridge hold and L-hold, twist holds are one of just three stretches that Coach Wade finds necessary for peak performance. I know it doesn’t sound like much, but he provides an entertaining (and pretty convincing) argument for this approach in the book.
To perform a basic twist hold, sit on the ground with your left leg straight in front of you, then bend your right leg and cross it in front of the other. Reach your left arm across your right knee while squeezing your obliques to rotate your trunk as far as you can. You can also play around with leveraging your elbow against your leg to get deeper into the stretch. Try to keep your chest tall and avoid shrugging your shoulders. I find it helpful to breathe slowly, gradually lengthening my spine with each inhale, and trying to squeeze a little farther into the twist each time I breathe out.
The last step in the twist hold progression is to reach your arm beneath your top leg, while simultaneously reaching the opposite arm around behind your back, eventually clasping your hands. (It’s fine to use your other arm to help get the first one under your leg.)
There are a few other stretches that can help you out along the way, including the yoga “noose pose” (seen in the photo on the right), which helps you practice the shoulder mobility without having to twist as far as you need to in the full twist hold, and the more commonly known “triangle pose,” which provides the opposite benefit.
Even once you achieve the full twist, you can still work on increasing the stretch by trying to get your hands farther behind you and higher up on your back (two things I’m still refining myself). My twist hold still leaves plenty of room for improvement, but I intend to keep practicing.
Check out the video below (and get a copy of Convict Conditioning 2) for more info:
Death To Cardio
In fact, I actually stopped doing cardio workouts a long time ago.
In the context of my overall training schedule, I don’t even see the race itself as cardio. It was a one-off endurance challenge, and really more mental than physical.
The difference between seeing your workout as “cardio” vs. seeing it as “practice” may be a subtle distinction, but I believe it is an extremely important one. People who “do cardio” tend to have one objective in mind: weight loss. As I’ve discussed before, exercise alone is not a very effective way to lose weight (you have to eat less crap in order to do that!), but the mindset you bring to any activity can greatly impact your experience.
You can become a perfectly good runner without ever worrying about how many calories you burned, what your target heart rate is or even knowing exactly how much distance you’ve covered. And you’ll probably enjoy the process a whole lot more without wasting mental space on trivialities. Treat your workout as skill practice and the shift in perspective turns any health benefits into an added bonus. You might even forget you’re working out and start having some old-fashioned fun!
Don’t get me wrong – exercise isn’t always gummy bears and double rainbows, but it shouldn’t be torturous either. There are plenty of times when I feel challenged during a workout, but pushing through those uncomfortable moments leads to a better understanding of my body – as well as personal growth.
I firmly believe that any “fit” person ought to be able to run a few miles or swim to shore should they find themselves in such a predicament (in addition to being able to do some pull-ups, of course!). Besides, if you focus on improving at physical skills, you’re inevitably going to get in better shape along the way. Having a good body is nice, but being physically capable is empowering.
The kip-up is a bodyweight skill that comes up in many disciplines including calisthenics, martial arts and parkour. It’s a great way to work on explosive power, hip drive and total body coordination. Plus if you ever fall on your butt during your training, returning to your feet via kip-up is the best way to redeem yourself.
On the other hand, you’ll probably look pretty dumb while trying to learn to kip-up, so if you’re shy about flailing around in public, better to practice this one at home. I also recommend using a soft surface for training this technique.
Kipping It Real
As the kip-up is a fairly advanced technique, I don’t recommend working on it unless you are already fairly lean and strong (and have healthy joints). I also suggest getting comfortable with back bridges first to make sure your spine is ready.
To perform a kip-up, begin by lying on your back with your palms flat on the ground on either side of your head. From there, roll your thighs up toward your shoulders and get ready to explode from your hips. To land a successful kip-up, you’ll have to kick your legs up and out as hard as you can and push off with your hands a split second later.
Think about whipping your legs around in a circle so you land toward your toes. You want to try to get your feet under your center of gravity so you don’t fall backwards. Timing is crucial to landing this move and it takes a lot of trial and error. As always, be patient and keep at it. I’m still practicing toward putting more pop in my kip-up; fitness training is always a work in progress.
2012 NYC Triathlon Race Report
Ever since running the NYC Marathon back in 2009, racing the NYC Triathlon has been next on my fitness bucket-list. Well after last Sunday, I can now scratch that one off too!
The tri was a great experience, and finishing is an accomplishment that I will be proud of for the rest of my life. However, I went through many different feelings and emotions throughout the race. As the famous Dickens quote goes, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”
The hardest part of the whole race was dealing with the anxiety in the morning. From the moment I woke up I had butterflies in my stomach; I didn’t really settle into my groove until a few minutes after I got in the water. As someone who never really swam as a kid, jumping feet first into the Hudson was the part that I was most anxious about. (Only the pros dive in head first, thankfully!) Once I settled in, however, the swim went very well.
Though it has a bad reputation, the water in the Hudson was no more disgusting than the water at Coney Island where I did most of my open-water triathlon training. There was some seaweed to contend with and I bumped into a log once, but it was pretty minor compared to some of the horror stories I’ve heard from other triathletes (though I did catch an elbow in the face near the start of the swim).
The downstream current in the Hudson definitely helped with my time, though I found myself getting pulled to the left as well. I spent a good deal of the swim trying to steer myself back to the middle. Though I couldn’t see or hear much in the water, I was reminded very loudly by some of the crew who were following along in canoes to “STAY TO THE RIGHT!”
As the visibility in the water was virtually nonexistent, I didn’t realize I was close to the end until I was within about 100 meters. Needless to say, I was quite pleased to see it when I did!
After the swim there’s a barefoot run (on pavement!) into the transition area, which is just a field with a bunch of bike racks on it. I took my time in the first transition since I wanted to carefully remove my wetsuit, clean my feet, have a snack, drink some water, pee, etc. I also wanted to check that all my things were okay (they were). Since getting a good night’s sleep was a priority for me, I had left all my stuff there the night before. (Many participants forgo some sleep to bring their gear to the transition the morning of the race).
The bike ride was longer and more challenging than I had anticipated. Between the July heat and the steep hills, the ride dragged on for what seemed like an eternity. Since I was in one of the later start waves, the pack had thinned out quite a bit and there weren’t many other cyclists around. There were times when I didn’t see anyone else on the road at all. As I was alone for much of the ride, it didn’t feel like much of a “race” at all – I took it slow on most of the hills and eventually I made it to the end.
Once the bike ride was over, there was a huge sense of relief. So many things are out of your control during the swim and the bike (someone crashing into you, a flat tire, etc), but once I was onto the run, I knew it was all up to me. Nothing could take it away at that point.
I took the first couple of miles slow and easy and eventually started to find my legs in mile three. I kept it at a steady pace, splashing cups of water on my face every time I passed the aid tables (I managed to get some water down my throat as well.) The last mile of the run I kicked it up a notch, triumphantly crossing the finish line with a net time of 3:36:13.
After the race, I picked up my bike from the transition area and rode five more miles back to my apartment, rewarding myself with one of my favorite indulgences: pizza!
I didn’t look at a clock once during the race, which I think helped me pace myself and enjoy the journey without getting caught up in any of the ego stuff. I just listened to my body and tried to stay at a moderate level of exertion for most of the race. The only time I turned up the juice was near the end of the run.
In retrospect, I know I could have done the whole thing faster if I pushed a bit harder, but I have no regrets about my performance. With all the things that could potentially go wrong during a triathlon, I am just glad I made it across the finish line in one piece.
Watch the video below to see a photo montage of pictures from the event.
(Photos by Colleen Leung.)