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Keeping it simple

April 01, 2018

Choosing a workout routine is a daunting process. They all seem complicated or difficult to stick to. Some plans set out in detail dozens of exercises, sets and weekly routines. Other plans make you sweat hard and give it all you have multiple times per week. Neither of these work for me.

Last month I started a new workout plan that included 6 exercises every day, with the goal being that if I could keep it simple, and stick to it, it would be a success. I had a few requirements:

No gym

I don’t want to travel each day to exercise.

Easy to understand

A bare minumum of exercises targeting all the main body parts.

Easy to progress

Doing the same exercises all the time is not only boring, it doesn’t have as good a result as when you make them gradually more difficult.

The right intensity

I burn out quickly with circuit training, and get tired of big 1-hour+ workouts.

Easy to log

Being able to write down what I’ve done quickly will mean I actually write it down.

So, how did it go? After a full month it’s going great. Here’s a log of the month of March:

March 2018 workout stats

It looks like a lot of detail but this is an entire month of exercise. Along the top I’ve set up columns for the 7 things I do. This includes running, pushups, leg raises, squats, pullups, bridges and handstands.

Each day I add in an extra row, and note the numbers as I do them. It’s easy to see how I progressed in each area, for the most part. The numbers don’t show how I improved in form in a couple of things, such as pushups and bridges, but you can see definite progress in pullups, bridges and squats.

Most days I do one set of each. It’s not a very intense workout - I don’t even work up a sweat, and it’s done in about 20 minutes. The trickiest part about it is finding my pullup bar.

I did do multiple sets on a few days, and I may try to do more over time but I don’t want to overdo it. This is also why I didn’t run every day. I enjoy running but there’s more prep and time needed for it than I can set aside each day. Plus I’m finding cardio is a bit overrated when it comes to strength and overall health. Two or three times per week, with moderate length runs (about 5k) works well.

This plan seems to be working for me. I think this is why:

Easy to understand

There’s all sorts of exercises to choose from, as well as a crazy amount of choice of equipment. I find all that a bit distracting and tiriung and find myself paralysed by such choice. End result, I do none of the exercises. So to keep myself motivated I need to make things as simple as I can. In this case I have 6 very basic movements, and I run through them one at a time. In case you missed it, I go into more detail on my exercise plan here.

With these 6 exercises there’s no thinking, I just get onto the floor (or wall, or pullup bar) and do them.

This helps me remain consistent. Consistency is important, as without it I’d be just doing random exercises and making no progress. With a consistent plan, I get two big advantages: I can monitor / adjust depending on how I feel to ensure I avoid injury, and I can progress the exercise to get better.

It’s very difficult to make improvement and see gains in my fitness and strength without progression. Thankfully these 6 movements are very easy to progress.

Easy to progress

Did I mention how these exercises are easy to progress? One of the criticisms of callisthenics and bodyweight exercise is how it’s trickier to make the exercises harder over time. There’s some merit to this - if you’re using weights you can just add on another number or two to the bar and you see the progress. With my own bodyweight, I could in theory put on a backpack with weights in it. But there are better ways.

More reps and sets

This is the simplest way to progress. Just do more! Within a certain range this works well. For example you might go from being able to do 5 pushups to 12 over a few weeks. That’s progress! But the notion of diminishing returns applies. Going from 40 to 50 reps might not be the right approach.

Another area to work on is the number of sets, and the “rest” time between sets. If you’re doing one set of 20 pushups - you could break that out into two sets of 12, with a short rest between. This means you increase your overall volume (24 pushups instead of 20) as well as give yourself another way to progress. You could then aim to progress that to 3 sets of 12 over time, or adjust the rest time between the sets.

Adjusting technique / speed

Sometimes just slowing things down can make a movement so much harder. For example a 3-second pushup is much harder than a 1-second version. Try the same number of reps, but slow them down and you might find them much more effective.

This can go hand-in-hand with technique. Paying attention to which muscles are being worked and making sure your form is good can make the exercises much more effective too. After a year of practicing pushups I’m still learning ways to make them better. Get onto Youtube, do some research on proper form, slow down and try to do every rep properly.

Variations

Once you have the form right and you can do the movements in a slow, controlled way, and you have hit a high number of reps (I hear something like 12 - 15 is a good target), then it’s time to mix things up with variations.

With pushups, you could start by bringing the hands closer to your centre line. This makes them harder and puts more pressure on the triceps. The target movement would be a “diamond” pushup with the two hands together in the centre.

Then if this gets each, keep one hand in the centre and start moving the other hand out to the side (be sure to mirror this so that you stay balanced). This way you can work up toward “archer” pushups and eventually the fabled one-handed pushup.

Similar approaches work for pullups, squats and other movements. Bring things closer to the centre initially then focus on one arm / leg at a time. There’s a load of progression that can happen and the difficulty increases each time.

Speaking of time - if you’re like me you’ll find that this stuff takes longer than you expect. Think months, not days or weeks. It can be hard to stay motivated for months. At least that’s what I’ve found. I tend to burn out and lose interest if routines are too intense. So to make sure this doesn’t happen, it’s all about finding the right intensity.

The right intensity

When I start new routines I tend to start off very enthusiastic and then lose interest and burn out over time. With this in mind my current routine is deliberately less intense than I’d usually go for. It’s enough to get my heart rate up a bit, and activates all muscle groups, but not intense enough to break a sweat.

I want to be able to continue this over the long term. Plus, starting with a low intensity brings some useful benefits. There’s less chance of injury, as I’m giving my body time to adapt to the exercise routine. I’m happy to do it every day as I know it’s quite light and doesn’t take long.

At the same time, it’s not too easy. I push myself a little in each set, either with intensity or volume. I also try to gradually improve my technique each time. One tool I find very valuable in making sure I progress is keeping a log.

Easy to log

This is an essential tool if I aim to keep up this routine long term. Without a log I’d be likely to lose interest, not progress or even regress in my workouts.

It could be a nuisance to create and maintain a log so I try to keep it as simple as it needs to be. In this case I set up a row for each day, and log the number of reps and sets of each movement. If there’s something special to note I might add a little more detail, but generally it’s just the numbers.

This puts the majority of the data onto the page and out of my head. I can then check over time and see what’s improving, or not.

With it being quite easy to log it’s becoming a habit.

Take it slow

This is a plan that’s working for me, and one I intend to tweak and change over time. You might want to do something similar, or maybe it’s really not for you at all. That’s fine. But if you do start regular exercise, listen to your body and take it slow. Progress in exercise is something you measure in months and years, not weeks.

My goal is to be kind to myself, start slow, and gradually increase the intensity over time.

How about you?

What are you doing to stay in shape? You can message me on twitter, I’d love to hear from you.