When I started exercising regularly again at 43, I quickly learned whatever I thought I knew about fitness in my teens and twenties–and I thought I knew a great deal–was either hilariously limited or just plain wrong.
That is, I had some hardened ideas that were actually working against me. One was the idea that it wasn’t a workout unless you were busting ass for at least 30 minutes. No wonder I’d think about getting back in shape in my late twenties and throughout my thirties, consider how much work I might have to do, and usually decide I had other stuff that might need my attention.
Once exercise did become a habit again, I had to learn that just for purely practical reasons sometimes a workout needed to be short, but hopefully intense. Especially if I wanted to work out frequently. Otherwise, at some point my body would just stall and say NOPE, WE’RE DONE. (It’s done that to me, so I speak from experience.)
Once I learned to love the fast-paced, brief workout, I discovered there are a ton of good resources for them online. Many are CrossFit-related, but there’s also the excellent 12-Minute Athlete, a frequently updated blog that plainly lays out well-balanced 12-minute HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workouts with simple, pleasing graphics and videos.
All of this is preamble to note the 12-minute workout I did tonight. Even though I’m making it a point to give a shout-out to 12-Minute Athlete, I actually found this on a CrossFit site. Here it is as posted there:
Complete as many rounds as possible in 12 mins of:
10 Kettlebell Swings, 24/16 kg
12 Air Squats
I used a 70-lb kettlebell but otherwise did the workout as directed and completed 5 rounds, adding up to 40 burpees, 50 swings and 60 squats. And when I was done, I did all the sweating, for a while. It felt like an excellent workout both for the range of muscles hit and for the level of tiredness I felt when done.
I think my point is to recommend to anyone who might read this that if you’re stuck in the old “I MUST DO THIS FOR AN ETERNITY OF SUFFERING” mindset as I once was, well, there are definitely excellent alternatives.
After you turn 40, you’re supposed to graciously give in to gravity. Let the pounds accrue and let your ass gently carve curves in that one special corner of the sofa. After you turn 40, you’re supposed to let the young folks take over and forge ahead and sit back and reflect and plan the rest of the slide. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to care anymore. After you turn 40, you’re not supposed to give a damn.
Not everyone receives these messages. I won’t claim they are universal, not these days. I can only claim I received them, and by the time I was 42 I’d taken them on as an unconscious philosophy of living. I was doing some things I liked with my life–writing for a living–and my depression could wait. My high blood pressure would succumb to medication, as soon as I found time to get to the doctor.
Then we took our summer vacation trip to Salem, Massachusetts (from Georgia, where we lived at the time) and my wife and I took a lot of photos and videos. We got home and I looked at those videos and I saw the shambling, red-faced, nearly 300-lb fat man in them and thought about how I woke some nights sick from reflux and how a mile walk in 80-degree heat almost made me pass out and I thought, maybe I’ll completely give in. I’ll make it look like I’m trying to fix things and hope the effort kills me.
So the first time I took a walk in the summer heat aimed at ‘starting a program’ I actually hoped I might die. I’ve written this before elsewhere and told people, but I’m convinced their reaction is to think I’m being dramatic. I’m not. I shuffled along those pretty wooded trails in that hilly park by our home in Georgia and by the time I reached a ridge where there was a slight breeze and the peaceful rush of the Big Creek below, I thought, very clearly, hopefully I’ll die here. A man the size I was at the time, with my uncontrolled hypertension, well, I was supposed to die in that situation.
I didn’t, so I tried again. And again. I skipped days and then tried again.
I never even vomited from exertion. I kept dropping weight, and I started feeling, well, better. The exertion, by degrees, began to feel good. I slept better. I made conscious efforts at watching what I ate, then found myself occasionally just naturally gravitating toward the better choices. Somewhere along the way, I stopped hoping I’d die on that ridge with the wind and the creek on either side of me and began enjoying them for what they were.
I encountered condescending, much fitter young people on the trails who gave me smarmy “encouragement” as they dashed past, but sometimes I saw other guys, my age, grinding along like I was. We’d nod grimly and keep moving.
Somehow, I just never stopped. Running and careful eating carved a good deal of the weight away, but at some point after I’d lost maybe 90 lbs. I realized I wasn’t just a runner. My curiosity took hold and I began to study exercise, in a way I’d never really even tried before. I grew fascinated with whatever steps one could take to never have to join a gym. I’m not anti-gym (there’s an old-style gym in the city where I live now I’d still like to check out–“old-style” meaning it caters more to large, solemn men bent solely on lifting very big weights than suburban moms looking to knock off the holiday pounds) but embracing exercise again taught me that I am at heart, like my dad, a born do-it-yourselfer.
With dad, this manifested in various construction projects around the home, some so successful and novel they bordered on genius, others perhaps less successful but still interesting. With me, it began to manifest in figuring out just how much I could do alone.
With kettlebells, body weight exercises and (a bit less) running, I dug in, hard. I’m digging still. Here is where I am today. I have never used a trainer, and haven’t joined a gym. I don’t have workout partners. I did this by myself, using excellent online resources like FitnessBlender, articles by kettlebell gurus like Mike Mahler and Pat Flynn and a motley crew of Youtube fitness lunkheads and weirdos, and I’m doing it still.
I haven’t fully conquered everything. Not sure I will. I still fight my weight. It turned out that accumulating 100 extra pounds of fat between the ages of 28 and 43 or so resulted in some pretty damned tenacious fat. There are legitimate (as in I know it’s not just my perception) things about my body I’d still like to change, in general. I still get depressed because depression is an integral part of my makeup and slack–though I’ve found that exercise has become such a hardwired habit for me now that even when depressed, I usually end up doing something.
But whatever I do, I’m going to do it without killing myself. I went from hoping a 2 mile walk on a hot day might put me out of my misery to feeling most alive when I’m buried in a long run or slinging a pretty huge volume of sweat with a 70-lb kettlebell in hand.
I might look angry in the “Today” photo, but I’m not. I’ve learned a different way of looking at things, and mostly taught it to myself. I’m determined. That’s why I wrote this, even though I’ve blogged many of these things either on my Tumblr or in this blog before.
I don’t know what this time of life is really like for other men and women. For some, I suspect the gradual beginning of a certain slowing down is exactly what they need. My own father had worked damned hard, mostly with his hands, by the time he turned 46. It was perfectly okay for a man who’d worked like that to want to walk in and sit the hell down and not move at the end of the day. But my time is different, the world has made a different set of demands on men in my generation. I don’t want to rest yet. I haven’t earned it. I’m pushing ahead. I think that’s how this is supposed to be.
Note, 6/16/2014: I’m grateful WordPress featured this post on Freshly Pressed. I’m also grateful for the comments I’ve received. I don’t often write this kind of thing–my professional writing has mostly been about current events, particularly dark subjects like crime and cyber crime, with some satire on the side–so the idea that this post would be of positive benefit to others is pretty gratifying. Thanks for reading.
On April 17, in one of the several little notebooks I scribble in daily so I don’t actually pester the internet with all my bullshit, I unofficially began a 100-day fitness challenge. It’s unofficial because I’m figuring it out as I go, I guess. I have two goals so far: variety and no rest. That is, I’m not going to skip a day, for 100 days. I typically take 2-3 days a week off. That’s out the door, for a few.
Now, if I was going for 10 mile runs or doing heavy duty kettlebell/strength stuff for 2 hours each day, that’d be an utterly insane goal for a man my age, with some of the medical challenges I’ve had in the past. I’m not that crazy.
I’ll work out at least once a day, and no routine will be shorter than 12 minutes. That may mean 5 straight days of 12-15 minutes of something, each day, but that’s better than nothing. To keep myself honest, I’m noting what I do on paper. That’s also a way to organize the effort and keep it honest on the variety end of things. I’ve found that since I went from just running or walking to body weight, dumbbells and kettlebells, I have favorite exercises and will stick to those if I don’t think too hard about it–when my body might be better served by a wider variety of lifts and moves.
I suppose I just want to see what, if anything will happen. I don’t necessarily feel I’m at a plateau right now or anything, but I do feel a bit slowed, somehow. And there’s something charming in the 100 Days concept, even if I get tired of seeing “inspiring” 100 Days videos posted on Facebook (hell no, I’m not going to make any videos, ew). That’s not the fault of the people using the challenge to achieve something, it’s the fault of our forced inspiration/whimsy internet culture. Which is another subject, entirely.
I decided to take today off, exercise-wise, but yesterday (Friday, Jan. 17) I did a simple but brutally effective workout promoted by RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certified) instructor, blogger and author Pat Flynn. Flynn is, among online fitness folks, an interesting dude, in that he has a funny and rather strange writing voice in his blog that makes me think he’d be interesting to hang out and eat a steak with, if nothing else.
Flynn has developed something he calls the “Prometheus Protocol.” Let’s be real, he’s just marketing the plan with a name–and hey, more power to him. What matters to me is the brutal yet simple workout he describes here is remarkable in that it hits a huge number of major muscle groups, hits them hard, and if you do it right, you will feel the damned thing the next day (believe me, I do). I’m skeptical of a lot of what I read about fitness online–in part because the folks who set themselves up as gurus/teachers are always selling something–but I am not skeptical of the Prometheus Protocol’s effectiveness. As a workout to build real strength and some mass to boot, I’m certain it works.
Leaving aside what Flynn recommends about eating habits that should accompany use of the Prometheus Protocol (follow the link at the end of this post to read about it), here’s his workout, which I did between 3 and 4 p.m. yesterday afternoon, with a pair of 53 lb. (24 kg) kettlebells:
Double [Kettlebell] Clean and Press – 10 sets x 5 reps @ 60-80% of your 1 rep max
Double Kettlebell Front Squat – 10 sets of 5 reps @ 60-80% of your 1 rep max
That’s it. I warmed up various easy bodyweight exercises (again, I’m sold on the value of warming up before workouts, but don’t worry so much about cool-downs) before finishing with 20 burpees, done descending ladder-style. After I finished the core workout I did 12 pull-ups, also in a descending ladder (4, 3, 2, 2, 1). I’m not in any pain today, but I do have that distinctive muscle soreness that says, “dude, you did some shit yesterday.”
It’s worth noting that the volume of work takes enough of a toll on your muscles that it’d just be wise to eat a lot the day you do a workout like this, so again, if you read Flynn’s post, consider that he has a point about loading up on good carbs when you’re treading these waters.
I’ve posted this workout on my Tumblr and given FitnessBlender.com–run by husband and wife Daniel and Kelli Segars–shout-outs there, too. There’s a reason: discovering the Segars’ thoughtfully made, carefully constructed workouts was crucial to getting me over a fitness hump.
I’d already lost a great deal of weight through running, diet, and some basic bodyweight workouts, but I think I was getting bored and needed to add variety. I also wanted to feel more fully fit, stronger in general. Somehow I became interested in kettlebells (wish I could remember what got me into them, but I can’t), and in researching the best workouts using those, I discovered this beginner kettlebell workout.
The straightforward and well-organized presentation had me hooked, and Fitness Blender videos became weekly components of my workouts, and remain so today. I’ve learned a ton from them, including proper form for stuff I already knew and a number of exercises I’d never even tried before. I also learned logical workout structure, which is pretty damned important if you want to make sure you’re doing a balanced routine.
I think one reason the Segars’ videos have become so popular (many of their workout videos have six-digit view numbers on Youtube) is because a huge number of people who run fitness websites and make such videos are coming from such an intensely aggressive, challenging, off-putting place, and Daniel and Kelli come across like trustworthy next door neighbors, people you’d invite over for a barbecue.
See, so many workout videos made by others are the same: heavy metal soundtracks blare while some bulked-out wannabe drill sergeant type whips out kettlebell snatches and then stares unblinking in the camera and bellowing about “PROTEIN” and “MASS” before flexing all the way down to their eyelids. Everything is BEAST MODE, all the time, and some of these Terminators even make it a point to note they’re doing this stuff drug (read: steroids)-free, when, funny enough, no one asked.
It’d be one thing if I was making fun of one such ‘guru,’ but the hilarious thing is I’m not. The majority of what you’ll encounter doing online research into fitness will resemble what I described. It could put someone who can’t afford (or like me, doesn’t really want) to join a gym off the whole thing. Fitness Blender works because the Segars(es?) know what they’re doing and seem adult enough and smart enough to lead you into new stuff without breaking your back or your spirit in the process.
I’m convinced that the last thing needed by many people who want to lose weight and get in shape is an approach that attempts to shame them. A terrible catch-22 of our society is just that–if you are very heavy, the moment you begin trying to make a change, you may become the butt of jokes and ridicule–even as you try. Even for trying. I don’t know why anyone in that position would want someone in their face aggressively challenging them for 30 minutes to an hour every other day. It ends up being motivation through resentment and anger–at the trainer and yourself–and I’m convinced that sort of motivation has a limited half-life.
(Steps carefully off soapbox, minding my form.)
Anyway–I did the workout in the video above today, but I had to make modifications, because I’m old (is my excuse). My changes are in parentheses. I used a single 45 lb. kettlebell for everything:
Squat Jacks (I hate these, but they’re great for your quads.)
KB Snatch Left Arm
Burpee (I admit it, I threw in a 1-minute break between this and the next set.)
Push Up (I did plenty of push-ups yesterday, so I took it easy with these and did two rounds of these with the easier style of push-up, done on knees instead of full-on plank.)
KB Goblet Squat
KB Crush Curl (I just went ahead and did hammer curls with a pair of dumbbells, 25 lbs each.)
Jumping Lunges (These are really brutal, coming at this point in the workout. My thighs were burning.)
Fitness Blender estimates this workout may burn as many as 432 calories, and I believe it. In High Intensity Interval Training, intensity is the key word. Some people recommend you don’t do more than 3-4 HIIT workouts in a week, and I can say from experience that even 4 will mess with you, so tread lightly.
Yeah, I have to accept I can’t commit to writing about working out all the time. Two main reasons: my workouts are often variations on a theme, therefore kinda-sorta same/same; I find other things more interesting. I definitely find a wide variety of fitness-related subjects fascinating, so I think the tack I’ll take when blogging about fitness will be more along the lines of covering whatever’s interesting to me at the time (strongman stuff, kettlebell lore, whatever).
That said, here’s what I did recently:
50 burpees, ladder style (10 reps, 9, 8, etc…)
5 sets of 5 reps of kettlebell cleans & jerks with two 53 lb bells (5 x 5)
5 x 5 kettlebell squats, same weights
4 x 8 reps of plain old curls with two 25 lb dumbbells, then 1 set of six reps.
I threw in three 1-minute planks. It felt like a pretty good workout.
January 9 (today)
Wearing a 25 lb weighted vest, I followed the following pattern:
4 x 5 burpees–burpees in a weighted vest are something else, hence the low number of reps. I recommend them, but you need a good, close-fitting vest. Mine’s not great.
5 x 10 kettlebell swings, with a 70 lb bell.
Burpees. Again. Same as above.
4 x 5 reps of torso dips. Add a weighted vest and these are bastards.
5 x 10 reps of “Arnolds” dumbbell presses with two 25 lb dumbbells.
I took off the vest and did two sets of 10 burpees, two sets of 10 dips, the rest of the workout the same as above. What’s funny is looking at it now, it’s a good, tiring workout, but at the time I felt like I could do more.
The couple behind my favorite online fitness resource often mentions feedback from people who like their videos about hating burpees. Anyone who’s ever done a few understands that, but at the same time, I can’t help but feel they’re a genius move in the world of bodyweight exercises. A burpee hits almost everything. And damned if you don’t feel like you have seriously done something when you’ve finished a set.
Then there’s the fact that they’re easily one of the most portable exercises imaginable, which is why if you read up on prison fitness (a weirdly fascinating subject I may cover in a future fitness post) you always read about burpees. I love running for my cardio, but since I’ve been living in a wintry climate and discovered that it’s just kind of a dumb idea to run in the ice and snow sometimes (though I still occasionally do it), burpees have been a lifesaver. Once I began incorporating the damned things into workouts, I found I could go 10 days between runs and then out of the blue do 4 miles at a fairly reasonable pace. Granted, my fairly reasonable pace as a runner is other runners’ fast walk, but still–I’m talking about endurance, here.
As miserable as they make me, I’m a fan of the burpee, and will include them in workouts as long as I’m able to do one.
While the usual disclaimers about my workouts merely being a record of what I’ve done apply, I will say, in closing, that you should learn to do a goddamned burpee. For your health.
Since the first one went on a bit, let’s make today’s dumb workout post brief. I don’t pretend there’s any coherence to this one other than I’ve been in a day on/day off pattern and even though that’s 4 days a week, it feels like slacking, so I needed a whole body workout.
Part the First, in which our hero* addresses cardio, chest and arms:
“Arnolds” with 2 25-lb dumbbells, x 10. (Link goes to a video demonstration of “Arnolds,” which are, believe it or not, not named after that football-headed cartoon character, but the former governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger.)
I did four of each set in a circuit, for a total 40 burpees, 60 push-ups and 40 Arnolds. Or Ah-nulds, if you prefer the old hacky nod to the gov’s Austrian brogue.
Part the Second, in which our hero** addresses the need for an all-over body burn:
I did the workout above, as demonstrated by one of my favorite online fitness folks, Daniel, who runs the awesome FitnessBlender.com with his lovely wife, Kelli. In the interest of full disclosure, I used a single 53-lb kettlebell (I’ve switched between the 53 and a 70 before) and added a minute’s pause at the middle of the tape, figuring I began the thing already pretty sweaty and tired. I love this FitnessBlender workout in particular because it’s a time-saver and it hits all the good stuff.
Parts 1 and 2 together timed out to 30 minutes.
Plug I give every time I mention them–I can’t recommend Fitness Blender strongly enough if you, like me, have personal and budgetary constraints that make you wary of the gym. I prefer to run 2-5 times a week if I can but winter in New England can make that a tough sell–a resource like the one provided by these guys is invaluable in that situation, as well.
The usual disclaimer: I’m essentially using blog posts like this as notes for an ongoing project. This isn’t meant to be instructional and before you try any of it, you should eat a candy bar and think about your life and know that I’m just some Internet idiot, and I like to eat donut holes and drink scotch in addition to working out. I won’t claim to tell you what to do fitness-wise but I can totally instruct you on those things. (Hey, this whole blog warns you about the “unreliable narrator” part of this deal, sparky.)
For real education on these kinds of things, you should park yourself at FitnessBlender.com for a day and absorb their videos and plans like they’re your Jedis of gym stuff.
I’ve already botched one project I planned for 2014–some kind of workout, no matter how brief, every day–barring injury or illness. I skipped yesterday because, well, New Year’s. I mean, come on.
That said, if applying myself like crazy to fitness has taught me one thing in the last 3 years it’s that I am fully capable of not giving up when I want, and starting all over again the next day. So today I started the project as if today was the first day of the year, or something. Here’s the damned workout. Skip this post all together if this is not the kind of thing you like. That seems like it should be a given, but people are weird and the Internet is awful.
(Disclaimer: I’m not any kind of fitness expert and you should never try my workouts. This is for, uh, “entertainment purposes” only and in no way intended to be authoritative or instructional. Also, most workouts I post here will be some variation on something I’ve learned elsewhere. If I think a workout is constructed in an original way, I’ll say so. Otherwise, assume it’s a variation, a cover version. The following is similar to a workout described here.)
(I believe in warming up before a workout but am a little lazy about cooling down. Also don’t stretch before runs, if running is all I’m doing. I also eat donut holes at every opportunity. I’m a rebel, Dottie.) Two minutes of mountain climbers and burpees, 20 seconds on, 10 seconds rest. Living in a cold region with nasty winter weather, I’ve developed a masochist’s love for burpees for cardio when a run is just a dumb idea due to ice, cold and snow. I will work them into a workout whenever I can. I was a fit teen, had a strong upper body and did a lot of running, but I’m pretty convinced my legs have never been as strong as they are now and burpees have at least a little to do with that.
Workout (each exercise done with two 53-lb kettlebells)
8 double kettlebell swings. Embedded above is a video of one of the trustworthy masters of kettlebell use and form, Mike Mahler. I can’t find an online fitness type who doesn’t occasionally say something that strikes me as a bit over the top or strange or extreme, but Mahler seems sane and his workouts well-considered. He’s clearly strong as a damned ox, which seems to prove he knows his shit when it comes to strength training. (Every online fitness instructor/guru says nutty stuff related to nutrition sometimes, but that’s for another blog post.)
4 double KB cleans and jerks. Or clean and jerks? I don’t know. Whatever, above is a shaky video of a woman who nails the form for these, based on what I’ve learned. These are my favorite kettlebell exercise, as they hit so many points and if you construct your workouts right, they can put on some muscle mass. You’d get a reasonable workout just doing several sets of cleans and presses. Or jerks. Agh.
4 double KB squats. I hate squats, but that’s because I never knew how to do them right. Since I finally made them a regular part of my workouts, I’ve learned they’re one of the best strength-building exercises you can do for any reason. Learn squat form. Do them. Do a bunch without weight if you have to. But do them. They are, as long as you have no mitigating issues like hip socket problems or bad knees (my right hip is sometimes dicey, so I am very careful with squats), insanely good for you. This video is of Pat Flynn, another guy who’s staked out an online presence as a kettlebell-focused fitness authority.
I did the above five times through, for a total 40 swings and 20 of the other two exercises. It took 27 minutes. I rested for up to 2 minutes between sets.
If my kettlebell weights sound large, that’s only because the way kettlebells have been promoted to a general American audience is as a cardio aid, not so much a strength-building thing. The moment you start investigating online resources for kettlebell workout knowledge, you learn a five pound kettlebell is not a kettlebell, it’s a paperweight. Guys like Mike Mahler recommend women work with up to 35 lbs and 53 lbs is a good starting weight for a reasonably healthy man. Real humans, however, should consider starting with 20-25 for a woman and 25-35 for a guy, and maybe lay off some of the more complex, aerobicise-style shenanigans with the weight and aim for basic stuff like this.
Like I said, though, I’m no expert. It may be I’m just a lucky idiot that I haven’t had more than mild muscle strain since I started using them, and I’ve begun doing test workouts with a pair of 70-lb kettlebells, which I affectionately think of at the moment as my eventual death-in-waiting.
The next post like this is going to be a lot shorter, because, I mean, damn.