1) Expand your horizons and seek out those better than you.
It’s so easy to enjoy being a big fish in a small pond. The only reason we hate jumping into a larger pond and being smaller is our old foe, the ego. I never see competition as a bad thing, if anything it’s a catalyst for growth and progress. One of the best things I did for my calisthenics progress this year was go to Lee Wade Turner’s small group workshops throughout the year.
Doing so exposed so many weaknesses; many I knew but it was nice having it confirmed by someone who is an inspiration to me. It feels like a call to action.
Of course this can be done in any way. You can further your education with seminars or just train with people stronger or more experienced than you. Keep an open mind and remember: There’s something to be learned from everyone if you look hard enough.
2) Consistency trumps intensity………ALWAYS.
One psychotic workout that makes you puke and keeps you bedridden for 3 days isn’t worth half a workout where you add a rep or 2 and leave yourself reasonably fresh for the next session, which should be 24-48 hours away.
Getting results at anything in life requiresrepetition.
One monster session to impress ‘friends’ on social media isn’t what gets you better. It’s consistent and progressive effort that gets you to paradise. This year, for the first time, I stopped going all out and instead, started paying attention to total reps across my sessions. Keeping that number increasing while maintaining technique is what creates magic.
3) Respect all exercise modalities.
I hate running and cardio. I also am no dancer and don’t move all that well. However, it doesn’t stop me admiring those who complete marathons, people who dance and have incredible mobility as a result. I get this a lot with calisthenics, which has changed my physique far more than weightlifting/bodybuilding ever did. So many guys ask how I got my arms bigger and why I’m carrying 5+ kg more weight this year and when I tell them I don’t use weights, they look perplexed. They seem to think only skinny teenagers do ‘bodyweight workouts’; push ups and pull ups is all there is, surely?!
I was guilty as charged of this too. I didn’t respect the value of a good handstand. Because I wasn’t naturally good at it, I told myself it wasn’t all that important. Foolish. Think of other areas of fitness that are simply jigsaw puzzle pieces which when collected, make you a better athlete.
Trying something new keeps you out of the comfort zone. Comfort never bred notable change. Remember that.
4) Prehabilitation work is essential.
Pre-hab work is the boring shit you wouldn’t even tell anyone you’re doing, let alone put it on Instagram. It might not be sexy but neither is being injured or in pain. I’ve written about this many times (How I Put My Shoulder Impingement To Bed In 2017 & Muscle Mass Vs Movement) and I’ll probably always preach this as long as I’m a coach, but once you have an injury and are stopped from doing what you love, you’ll never have the same ignorant approach.
Everyone will have different needs in this regard. A good personal trainer or coach can always steer you in the right direction. But as a generalisation, most people’s upper backs (horizontal pulling and external rotation) are weak compared to the lats and pecs. Another area of weakness is the glutes and hips; most people’s lower backs are in agony as a result of dysfunction here (More on that here: Fixing Lower Back Pain – Is My Lower Back Weak?!).
Eventually the time spent working on weaknesses will result in much more strength overall.
5) For leg growth, weight isn’t all that important.
We’ve all seen the skinny kids deadlifting twice their bodyweight but sporting twigs for legs. They blow everyone’s mind; how can seemingly zero muscle move such high weights?
We see the same with squats. Guys weighing nothing and having 19 inch quads squatting 1.5 -2 X bodyweight for sets of 3. So what gives? More often than not these guys have good leverages for squatting and only use low rep, low volume training approaches. Legs are mostly comprised of endurance muscle fibers – think of the muscular development of cyclists, tennis players and skaters……..their sports are about repetition. These guys rarely ever do anything for legs under 12 reps and usually perform WAAAAYYYYYYY more reps than that.
I remember doing a 5×5 program and squatting way above my bodyweight for reps and having pretty small and undeveloped legs. Nowadays I use much less weight and more volume and have much more leg development. Go figure.
Another bonus of not going so heavy on lower body moves is you avoid the central nervous system stress they tend to come with. If you’re capable of a decent load on the deadlift, go and max out then see how you feel for the next few days. Guaranteed you’ll be battered. And I like to use my CNS output for difficult calisthenics upper body moves; by doing lighter weight leg exercises I ensure I don’t look like a pelican and I get to still make progress with my goals.
6) Full body workouts have expiry dates.
Some people believe full body workouts can last forever and others will tell you splitting things up are the way to go. Up until this year I always stuck to full body training but decided to try splitting things up. The theory is: once you get reasonably strong full body workouts just take too much out of you, and it’s only the first or second exercises in your routine that get decent amounts of energy dedicated to them.
I split my workouts up into heavy and light push/pull days. I included one exercise for legs in either (Front Squat for push & Single Leg Romanian Deadlift for pull) and this allowed me to train 3/4 days per week and feel fresh in every workout. Accordingly, no areas have lagged in terms of progress. This approach has also allowed me to work on weaknesses much more; will you want to do 8 sets of upper back prehab work after doing a 20 set full body workout?
Not if you’re sane.
7) There’s a reason the strongest people around use high rep burnout sets.
I absolutely hate high rep sets by nature. Anything over 8 reps feels like a cardio session to me. Give me a set of 3-5 and tell me to give it every ounce of power I have and I’ll sing into the sunset. Ask me to do a set of 20+ and I’ll weep at your knees.
While low rep sets certainly build strength and muscle, they don’t tend to induce much fatigue. The fatigue effect is also important for muscle development and more importantly, conditioning of the connective tissue and tendons. Not to mention it’s a good way to ‘finish off’ a muscle.
I believe your training should make you a better athlete, meaning you should be able to handle challenges and different physical tasks. Having all power and no endurance doesn’t accomplish this. Getting winded after powering up a flight of stairs but ‘working out all the time’ is embarrassing, frankly.
Some examples of how to put this into practice are: High rep push ups at the end of a pushing workout (dips could also be used), high rep body rows (or pull ups), high rep bicep curls or tricep pressdowns (for the bodybuilders reading this). For legs and lower body, an all out set of lunge jumps to finish a leg workout or even leg presses; there’s loads of ways you can do this.
8) Warming up is important. Period.
This is a very individual topic and one that splits opinion beautifully. I’ve tried multiple approaches: not warming up at all, very short warm ups, average warm ups, excessive warm ups, specific warm ups, voodoo warm ups and super-galactic warm ups……..
On days where it’s the height of summer and I’ve been on my feet all day, I’ve got away with little to no warming up. On days where I’ve been awake one hour and it’s the dead of winter, I’ve spent 20 minutes warming up – sometimes more.
Another thing I’ve noticed is the stronger and more advanced I get, the more time it takes to ease my body into the heavier weights/advanced moves. A practical example for you: take a deadlift, one guy can deadlift 200 lbs and the other can deadlift 450 lbs. You don’t need to be a physicist to know there’s so much more force going through the spine and joints in the 450 lbs example compared to the 200 lbs one.
More weight or more leverage equals more sets needed to adjust to the greater load. Sounds simple, often ignored.
The best formula for warming up in my opinion is some light cardio (3-5 mins if you’re feeling cold), followed by joint rotations of all joints involved in that workout, then some lighter sets of the move you intend to work on that day. With these warm up sets it’s important to keep the reps fairly low, as you don’t want to induce any fatigue. Another good tip is to explode forcefully on the positive phase on each rep during these warm up sets. Doing so activates your fast twitch muscle fibers which will help make the working sets feel easier.