Stoic week 2014 and the necessity of philosophy

Philosophy has been a source of strength and wisdom throughout the ages — two things sadly missing from our modern world.

Next week is Stoic Week 2014 — an event organised by researchers and Stoicism enthusiasts from the University of Exeter in the UK. In its third year, Stoic Week is both an experiment and a chance for people to “try on” a different philosophy of life.

If you don’t do anything for Stoic week but get the Stoic Week Handbook, you will still receive tremendous value from the event.

Ancient philosophy is important today because our modern cultural ideas have a lot to answer for. For one, we’re taught to worship our emotions. We’re told we should have that new pair of shoes, eat that cake and basically reward ourselves for getting up in the morning.

We are also taught that everything should basically go our way and if it doesn’t this is cause for disappointment. Having ones plans disintegrate right in front of their eyes will unhinge many people, leading to frustration, anger and despair.

Philosophy, particularly the Stoic School informs us that we’re misguided in valuing pleasure too highly and for shielding ourselves from discomfort. The remedy? Start by assessing your expectations.

Expectations — the tranquility destroyers

Recently, I heard an interview with Tony Robbins where he said “If you want a better life trade expectations for appreciations”. Expectations are simply delusions we have about how things ought to go. Expectations set us up for frustration and disappointment.

For one, having expectations relies heavily on our ability to (a) sum up the reality of a situation in order to (b) make realistic predictions about how things will turn out. Human minds are unreliable in both these instances. Sure we can use experience to come up with reasonable estimates about how reality will work out but the universe is far more complex and chaotic than we could ever account for.

The point that Stoic philosophers repeatedly asserted the importance of knowing what is within our power to control and what isn’t.

“Don’t demand that things happen as you wish, but wish that they happen as they do happen, and you will go on well.” – Epictetus

A key Stoic maxim is that to have a good life, one must “live according to nature”. In other words, things that happen and the things we have in our life come from providence and can just as easily be taken away. Fretting over things that happen is contrary to nature. Trying to control what is outside ourselves is the source of human suffering.

Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius asserts often in his Meditations that our concern and despair for things that happen as a matter of natural course of the universe is misguided and pointless. He often mentions that we’ll soon be dead so what’s the point of suffering for no reason.

“… But if there is no harm to the elements themselves in each continually changing into another, why should a man have any apprehension about the change and dissolution of all the elements? For it is according to nature, and nothing is evil which is according to nature.” – Aurelius, Meditations.

Freedom comes from within

If we allow ourselves to be swept away by the impressions (thoughts/appearances) then we have given away our freedom.

Epictetus was the most forceful in this respect. He repeatedly reminds us in his Discourses of the need to be on guard from ‘impressions’ or appearances. In fact the opening lines of Epictetus’ Enchiridion (The Handbook) proceed as follows:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This is where ancient philosophy meets modern therapeutic practices such as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). Freedom, Epictetus says, flows from the ability to step in between impressions and not be bold over by passions that flow from those impressions. Epictetus wants us to realise that we have control to step in and judge impressions, delay judgement, exert self-control and gain freedom from being swept away by external things and events.

“Work, therefore to be able to say to every harsh appearance, “You are but an appearance, and not absolutely the thing you appear to be.” And then examine it by those rules which you have, and first, and chiefly, by this: whether it concerns the things which are in our own control, or those which are not; and, if it concerns anything not in our control, be prepared to say that it is nothing to you.” – Epictetus

A prescription for a better life

How then do we put expectations aside and not be swept away by external events and circumstances? The Stoics devised a number of practices to fully integrate philosophy into the fibre of your being.

Realign your perceptions with reality

Firstly, do a thorough analysis of what is in your power to control and what isn’t. Then discard all concern for those things you can’t control. This practice is connected with the Stoic conception of values. Truly good things are not conditional — they are intrinsically good. These are the virtues: wisdom, courage, justice, temperance (self control).

Realign your expectations

In Western society we are sheltered from the world in many ways. We find innovative ways to avoid thinking about death, we expect things to go well and we constantly seek comfort. It seems somewhat strange then to question these societal norms.

But keeping ourselves in a suspended state of comfort and ignorance just means when things go wrong in life, and they will, we are more likely to not have the courage, strength and wherewithal to navigate through the difficulty and emerge victorious on the other side.

Enter the most prized (in my opinion) Stoic exercise: Praemeditatio futurorum malorum — Anticipation of future difficulties (literally: future evils).

Spend time occasionally contemplating misfortune, including losing the people and things we love. Imagine losing these things in a sort of detached way, not in a way that causes anxiety. The goal is to make sure you are fully aware that these things can and do happen in life and to be prepared should they happen.

This one exercise will recalibrate your expectations and help you develop a deeper sense of gratitude for everyone and everything in your life. By contemplating what life is like having lost the things and people in your life, you are more fully able to feel joy and gratitude in the present. Positivity through negative thinking… I like it!

Both Lucius Annaeus Seneca and Marcus Aurelius devised negative thinking practices to handle the rudeness, annoyances and challenges that arise in everyday life.

Aurelius, who was embroiled in the turbulent political life of Roman Court, used exercise below to keep an even keel.

Aurelius morning exercise

“Begin the morning by saying to thyself, I shall meet with the busy-body, the ungrateful, arrogant, deceitful, envious, unsocial. All these things happen to them by reason of their ignorance of what is good and evil. But I who have seen the nature of the good that it is beautiful, and of the bad that it is ugly, and the nature of him who does wrong, that it is akin to me, not only of the same blood or seed, but that it participates in the same intelligence and the same portion of the divinity, I can neither be injured by any of them, for no one can fix on me what is ugly, nor can I be angry with my kinsman, nor hate him, For we are made for co-operation, like feet, like hands, like eyelids, like the rows of the upper and lower teeth. To act against one another then is contrary to nature; and it is acting against one another to be vexed and to turn away.”

Seneca On Anger

Seneca speaks quite timelessly in his essay On Anger about the need to accept the fact that things don’t always go our way in order that we be at peace with them. Seneca’s rather insightful observation is that anger not only had dire consequences if not controlled, it also resulted when we were shocked by events that happen.

Here is a good exercise to demonstrate the power of Seneca’s insight. For most of us living in cities, this will be of particular benefit.

Spend a few minutes every morning thinking about and even expecting people to cut you off in traffic, being stuck in traffic, being late for a meeting… Expecting people to be in a rush and inconsiderate on the road.

Expecting people to let you down, be rude, greedy, impatient and obnoxious inoculates you against these things. They are after all, to be expected as the natural course of things.

Practical philosophy to overcome modern ills

“Men are disturbed, not by things, but by the principles and notions which they form concerning things.” – Epictetus

My wife is often the source of both inspiration and incisive comments. While this can be tough to handle sometimes (no one likes hearing the truth all the time!) my life is immeasurably better because of her honest appraisals of my conduct (a euphemism if ever there was one).

Anyhow, she made a comment a while ago that really rocked me. After reading a couple of articles on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Blog, I expressed an interest Stoic philosophy as guidance for how to live a better life. She laughed and said that I already had a philosophy of life — hedonism! In that moment I had keen insight into why I needed to pursue a philosophy of life. Hedonism, while not inherently a bad philosophy of life, is the default approach to life most of us in industrialised nations take.

Hedonism: The satisfaction of desires is the highest good and proper aim of human life.

Hedonism is, at least for many, leads to an unrewarding way of life. The ancients in many schools of thought observed that the pursuit of pleasures for their own sake was not only easy to do (no special character development needed) it also had a cost associated with it.

This explains the popularity today of Buddhist retreats, Zen Buddhism and mindfulness in the modern world. The way many of us live today — in large industrial cities — is a relatively new state of affairs for the human animal to be dealing with. Couple this with the need to fulfill the numerous roles in the many relationships we have and it really is a perfect storm for burn out.

What people need are practical approaches to decompress and deal with the world, other than mindless shopping/consuming in the vain hope at the end of it we feel fulfilled and content.

Ancient philosophy as an operating system for your life

“To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity and trust.”
– Henry David Thoreau

The phrase “what’s your philosophy of life” might not be the most common dinner party question. In fact it probably isn’t something many people consciously think about. We tend to take on the attitudes, beliefs and approaches of those around us without much questioning.

Philosophy is also a word with baggage. To most people, philosophy is a purely academic exercise, and the joy of learning the wisdom of the philosophers is lost sometime between assignment one and the end of term exam.

This is unfortunate — philosophy  in the ancient Greek and Roman sense was practical philosophy. A student of one of the many schools in Athens and Rome would have as there goal the attainment of certain virtues in life through philosophical contemplation and the practice of key tenets.

I like Tim Ferriss’ take on philosophy — that it should be an operating system for making better decisions.

Any philosophy of life must address a few key questions:

  • What is our true nature as humans?
  • What should we value?
  • How should we act given our values/nature?
  • How does one go about dealing with problems, obstacles and misfortune?
  • What is our role in society?

Stoicism, self-control and virtue

“Freedom is secured not by the fulfilling of men’s desires, but by the removal of desire.” – Epictetus

Any philosophy of life, other than hedonism, will require self-control. While maximising our opportunities for pleasure seems logical, pleasure for pleasure’s sake ultimately isn’t a rewarding way to live for many people, and requires little or no self-control at all.

Hollywood offers the best examples of this — people who seemingly have it all are constantly destroying themselves and the lives of others through sexual excess, drugs, alcohol, aggression and a host of other destructive practices. According to hedonism, these people should be maximally happy, but we know for a fact that many of them aren’t. Fame and riches own them, and sadly it costs lives.

Failing to put our circumstances into proper perspective is part of the problem. The Stoics, for example, advocated forgoing pleasure and in some cases advise us to actively seek out discomfort so that we may have the proper appreciation of our circumstances.

With appreciation for what we have now we can abandon the suffering that stem from our desires, making it possible to live a life of durable happiness — a life that remains on a positive path despite what is going on externally.

The happiness conundrum

The Stoics were principally concerned with Eudaimonia — the Greek word that roughly translates as ‘human flourishing’. Roman Stoic Lucius Annaeus Seneca stated that such a condition can only be achieved by one who has a tranquil mind. This, to me, seems a much more worthy goal in life than the vague and undefined ‘happiness’ which can mean different things to different people. Tranquility, on the other hand, is a state of mind and we can then reason backwards and find ways of achieving this state.

The Stoics devised many practical ways to achieve a tranquil mind and the attainment of virtue (in the classical sense). This is good news for the modern man or woman trying to deal with life’s stresses, temptations, problems and challenges.

Because of this, stoicism is undergoing a renaissance of sorts. After Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Stoicism withered on the vine for centuries, only to emerge at several times throughout the past 1000 years.

Zen Buddhism has many cross overs with Stoicism but have different approaches to the same end. Stoic practices tend to be more about reflection and analysis of our lives whereas Zen focuses on meditation and mindfulness. As mentioned earlier, these are increasingly popular as people find them useful for achieving some inner peace in a mad world.

Simple stoic exercises can help you:

  • Develop an operating system for better decision making
  • Deal with stress and eliminate needless suffering
  • Tame pleasures rather than be owned by pleasures
  • Put the value of the people and things in your life in proper perspective
  • Increase your joy in the life you have right now (without trying to fill the void by consuming or chasing ‘external things’).

**Check out the online resources below for specifics on Stoic exercises and practice.

Concluding thoughts

I have lived my entire life to this point taking the easy road. After all, if I didn’t have to exert myself, why should I? Why would I wake up earlier? Why shouldn’t I eat that chocolate bar? The only problem with this style of living is that I ended up coasting through life never really achieving much of anything and infuriating people when I didn’t follow through in my role, whatever that was (husband, co-worker, friend…)

The Stoics were very astute in their observation that relying on external events of objects to create within us the positive emotions is a losing battle.

One of the more profoundly life-changing aspects of stoic principles is in extinguishing stress and eliminating anger. Epictetus probably said it better than anyone:

“Some things are in our control and others not. Things in our control are opinion, pursuit, desire, aversion, and, in a word, whatever are our own actions. Things not in our control are body, property, reputation, command, and, in one word, whatever are not our own actions.”

This quote is a central tenet in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The notion that between an event and our response is a judgment we make. Change the judgment, change the response.

At the end of the day, the philosophers of Ancient Greece and Rome had tremendous insights into human nature and how we can flourish, despite the travails of life. Can we gain from their works? Absolutely. Given that these philosophers lived in sophisticated societies at times of war, political turmoil and upheaval, their insights about how to live a good life are as relevant today as they ever were.

Philosophy of life and Stoicism online resources:

The real cost of the distraction epidemic

Every day we waste two of our most precious resources but most people won’t realise what it costs them until it’s too late.

In your typical day, how many distractions do you encounter? Chances are you probably don’t know the answer and you also probably don’t know how much it’s costing you. We tend not to notice how much time we waste in a typical day delighting our minds with minutiae and other trivialities but the cost of such distractions is more than just a unit of time. It’s also costing us quality of life.

On another level, a war is being raged to capture your attention and hold it. Modern culture is geared around consumption, to the point where governments regard us as consumers first and citizens second.

Western societies particularly have never been as unbalanced as they are now. Because consumption is king, everywhere around us are things screaming to grab our attention. Billboards, TV, mobile apps, news, the internet in general, everyone wants a piece of your two most precious resources: time and attention.

Time and attention

Distraction is just a way of life for most of us. We wake up and check our emails, Facebook, Twitter, maybe a cute YouTube vid of some cat somewhere doing something somewhat cute. We get to work and probably read something in transit that piqued our curiosity.

Throughout the day we’ll check sports results, news and other things that amount to attention leakage.

Why is attention important? We can never get time back, that we all know. What is sometimes forgotten is that what you do with your time is crucial to living a good life.

JOMO

The movement affectionately known as JOMO — the Joy of Missing Out — is the antisthesis of something that has become known as FOMO — the Fear of Missing Out. Think about that for a minute. Fear of missing out on what? Kim Kardashian’s latest belfie? (Yes, a picture of her ass). The latest fashion, what Rhianna is wearing, is she back with Chris Brown again? Why the fascination? Are famous people really worth looking up to when you look at many of the lives they lead and the fact they cannot get a moments peace from the paparazzi?

JOMO is the exact opposite of what marketers and the big businesses they represent want. They need you glued to social media, TV, the internet and following famous people on Twitter (as an example — I’m not picking on Twitter here!) In order to reclaim your life back from the obsession of checking our phones every 10 minutes we need to realise how a constant bombardment information is affecting us.

Stoic philosopher Lucius Seneca warns against such obsessions in his must-read letter, On the Shortness of Life:

“Vices beset us and surround us on every side, and they do not permit us to rise anew and lift up our eyes for the discernment of truth, but they keep us down when once they have overwhelmed us and we are chained to lust.

“Their victims are never allowed to return to their true selves; if ever they chance to find some release, like the waters of the deep sea which continue to heave even after the storm is past, they are tossed about, and no rest from their lusts abides.” – Lucius Seneca

*The full text of Seneca’s On the Shortness of Life can be found on Tim Ferriss’ Four Hour Work Week Blog.

Distracted from what?

In order to be distracted you have be distracted from something. Now, if the purpose of your life as defined by you consciously or unconsciously is to indulge your attention in everything that comes your way then distraction isn’t really distraction for you. For those who want more from life, better quality relationships, a healthy state of mind and body, a degree of security and options… Distraction is our enemy.

How you use your time determines the quality of your life. It also contributes to a regret-free way of living. No one wants to wake up 20 years in the future only to realise that they’ve wasted their lives going from link to link on trashy news websites the internet, reading gossip magazines, playing video games constantly or watching endless reruns on TV.

Now, if you like these doing these things it isn’t a judgement on my part to tell you what you can and can’t read, do or watch. My main point is a Socratic one: that the unexamined life is an impoverished one.

If you key in on what you really value in life and operate everyday in accordance with those values, distractions are the enemy. All becomes clear when you realise what is truly worth valuing in life.

As Seneca warns, vice is the enemy of the good life. Anything external that captures your attention regularly and distracts you from truly important things in life is vice. Modern society seems fixated on the next novel piece of news, but honestly, how is that working out for you?

Chances are it’s not working out for you because multitude of messages dangled in front of you everyday aren’t designed to benefit you — they are designed to make it easier for you to hand over your attention and therefore your behaviour to suit others’ needs and desires.

Feather in the wind or iron fortress?

The bottom line is thus: you can either go through your day blown around in different directions by the external stimuli bombarding your senses or you can take reasonable steps to wall yourself off from the mortar fire ‘out there’ designed to capture your attention.

With a solid understanding of your values, and a goal-oriented approach to life, you can take control back of your attention and intentionally direct it to that which creates real meaning for you.

With that criteria in place, you can then ask yourself throughout the day: “Is this for who I am and what I want from life or isn’t it?”

Create an inner fortress — know who you are and what is really important to you in life. Living purposefully like this guards against the hounds gnashing their teeth at your attention and provides the motivation to seek out more good stuff and less mind-deadening crap so common in our modern world.

Next post: A philosophical approach that cures many of the ills of modern life.

Bodyweight training book review — Convict Conditioning

Convict conditioning.

Anyone interested in bodyweight training would have no doubt come across Convict Conditioning somewhere on the Internet. In this review, I’ll outline why I think the book is the best all round, tried and tested hardassed bodyweight training manifesto out there.

If there was one book that defined the bodyweight training ethos better than all the rest it would be Convict Conditioning by Paul Wade. Those who don’t know the back story, Paul Wade was an inmate for more than 20 years in notorious prisons like San Quentin, Angola Penitentiary. For obvious reasons, Wade keeps out of the limelight but has done interviews before and has corresponded with calisthenic legend Al Kavadlo. I say this because the veracity of the stories Wade tells in the book, indeed even his existence have been questioned by some.

Despite that side issue, the content of the book is exceptionally good. Enough to say his workout plan and progression is the best there is out there. If you buy one book on bodyweight training this is it. **The book used to be relatively expensive on the Kindle but has been recently reduced to a more reasonable Amazon price level. See for yourself.**

My favourite part of the book is the story Wade tells of old school calisthenics. The first chapters are devoted to hammering home an important fact: weights and machines are unnecessary to build mass and strength. This part of the book has received criticism for being too overly evangelical about calisthenics and that it isn’t a true reflection of prison training. However, I think he is really trying to counter the pervasive idea that athletic training and conditioning requires manual resistance like weights.

The Big six

Getting down to the business of eliminating weakness from our lives, Wade turns his attention to training like a convict. His focus is on 6 core movements he terms “the big six”. These are: Push ups, Squats, Pull ups, Leg raises, Bridges, Handstand push ups.

The focus here is not on pumping through a few half-hearted push ups and a few air squats like you’ll see a low rent aerobics studio. Instead, Wade lays out 10 steps, which takes a trainer from where they are to the step 10 — the “master step”.

Step 10 in each progression is an exercise very few people have the strength to perform. Be that 50 single leg squats or 20 one arm push ups — trainers who have the patience and passion to progress through the 10 steps will be richly rewarded with strength that will probably qualify them for a place in a circus act. That kind of strength will set you up for a much more able-bodied life, lowering the risk of insidious ailments like crook backs, pot bellies, hunch backs and many other maladies you see inflicting men and women post-40.

Even if you have no desire to pull up your own weight using one arm for multiple reps, the regular exercising of your body’s functional movement patterns will ensure your muscles, joints and soft tissue are well-oiled and ready for what life throws at you.

Bodyweight versus external resistance

Wade points out rather forcefully that there is a fundamental difference between moving your body through space rather than hoisting an external weight to create muscle tension, strength and growth.

The first and most important distinction is natural movement. A push up allows your body to move through a more natural, safer arc than does a bench press. With weights, you’re always constrained by the fact that the weight is pushing directly downwards while forcing your limbs into less optimal positions. Flaring out the elbows on a military press is a good example of an external resistance forcing you to adopt an injurious position.

With bodyweight only movements, you’re pushing or pulling your body through space which allows for an optimal, more comfortable movement pattern. In popular parlance we call this “functional” but really it is simply the ability to move yourself more efficiently.

Another important difference between weight training and bodyweight only movement can be seen in the fact that weight training can produce muscular imbalances and movement inhibition. This is a side effect of the “muscle group” training approach and the idea of muscle isolation. By isolating muscle groups the bodybuilder is taking the synergistic muscles out of the equation to produce a greater “burn” in the target muscle. This isn’t good or bad it just isn’t the way to train if strength and movement efficiency are your goals.

With calisthenic training your muscles will develop in size and strength in a natural way to produce better movement. Wade recalls images of bodybuilders unable to brush their teeth properly because their arms are so big that normal movement becomes impossible.

Here’s the important point here: Because calisthenics develops muscles by putting them through the very movements they will be used for in everyday life, muscles develop with respect to movement rather than overdeveloping to the point where movement is inhibited. Also, with only your bodyweight as resistance you’re getting a workout that is tailored to your current size. The increase of weights in muscle group focused training is a good way to overdevelop muscles relative to their function.

Conclusion — Hands Down the best book on the Calisthenics

As I alluded to in the introduction — Convict Conditioning is, in my opinion, the best book you’ll find on bodyweight resistance training. I’ve read all the reputedly best books in the field and no other tops this one for both training philosophy and programming. It has all the exercise progressions and training tips you’ll need to bust through weakness and it has a bunch of supplementary exercises to keep things fresh.

The Convict Conditioning program is how I structure my workout progressions, and while I take ideas from other books, this is the one I keep returning to in order to stay on track.

If you like the book, take a look at Convict Conditioning 2, where Wade goes in depth on the smaller muscles, including the neck and grip muscles, as well as extensive instruction on mastering variations of the Human Flag. Great stuff also!

 

Bodyweight training book review — Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy

In review #2 I follow up on my earlier pre-release story of Bret Contreras’ Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy.

Bodyweight Strength Training.

Bret Contreras has forged a reputation for being a knowledgeable and trustworthy source of information in the strength and conditioning industry. While he’s largely made his name as “the Glute Guy“, his contributions to communicating evidence-based exercise information has made Contreras a go-to source for reliable strength and conditioning science.

That gravitas and Contreras’ scientific approach to exercise makes Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy an insightful read for both beginner and experienced trainers.

In the book Contreras goes well beyond what you’ll find in most bodyweight training books. This fact makes it one of the most valuable physical training books on my shelf.

The 150+ exercises he outlines and the associated movement descriptions and anatomical information empowers the reader to take control of their own programming. Knowing how muscles work to produce athletic movement is tremendously useful — informing your exercise selection and other aspects of programming such as the training of synergistic and antagonist muscles groups.

Variations, intensity and progression

To my mind, any reliable program must address how to progress basic movements in order to produce greater levels of strength and hypertrophy. Contreras delves in to his wealth of experience and knowledge of the research to pull together some innovative ways of performing standard exercises.

How does one progress from push up to One Arm Push Up? Squat to Pistol Squat? What happens when Pull Ups get to easy? Contreras outlines a number of variations and approaches to progressing these basic exercises by increasing the leverage required to complete movement.

Biomechanical explanations for each exercise and muscle group will enhance your understanding of how to train your body to move through all the main movement patterns. You could develop a traditional bodybuilding program centred on body parts, however, as Contreras points out, a more modern and complete approach to training can be achieved through emphasizing different movement patterns.

The book outlines exercises that strengthen the following movements: Hip Dominant, Knee Dominant, Linear Core, Rotary Core, Horizontal Pressing, Vertical Pressing, Horizontal Pulling and Vertical Pulling.

There is tremendous value to the novice in knowing which exercises train the aforementioned 8 movement patterns. As an intermediate level exerciser, I was astonished by how much I learned about the human body and how to create total body strength and muscle.

Favourite exercises in the book?

From the 150+ exercises some definitely stood out to me. For instance, the Push Back is a variation of the Push Up that addresses the deltoids, upper pectorals and trapezius. Think of it as a horizontal handstand push up whereby you hoist your hips in the air and push backwards rather than upwards. It’s an exhausting and therefore great intermediary exercise for the shoulders.

For the glutes, the Side Lying Hip Raise really stood out for me for a couple of reasons. It’s tough, it burns my upper glutes fairly well and it works hip abduction, which makes this exercise enormously beneficial to me as an ice hockey player (athletic movements — sprinting, skating, jumping all require powerful glute abduction). The Hip Raise movement is a more advanced take on the popular “Clam” exercise.

Exercises are great but what about programming?

Contreras covers programming in some depth. Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy is one of the best books you’ll find on program design because it doesn’t force one particular training ethos on you.

Instead, you’ll find commonsense program design ideas with numerous ways to tweak the way you perform exercises to keep progressing in your workouts.

You’ll find ways to combine exercises from various movement patterns in order to create an effective workout as well as how various repetition strategies are vital to extracting every bit of juice out of exercises that don’t use any external resistance.

Contreras provides some sample routines to use as blueprints for your own workouts and he emphasizes the fact that your individual needs and current conditioning level dictate how your routine should be devised.

In summary, Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy provides well-rounded advice on which exercises to use and how to use them. It is the best book on bodyweight training in terms of giving you the exerciser the knowledge you need to construct your own program and how to manage it going forward.

Bodyweight training program review — Project Kratos

Continuing on with my theme of bodyweight training, I thought a series of reviews of programs and books might be useful. In istallment numero uno I’ll look at a great new program outlined in the book “Project Kratos” by Drew Baye.

Project: Kratos Program Handbook — Bodyweight High Intensity Training by Drew Baye.

The usefulness of any physical training program, in my opinion, is its versatility and flexibility. It should be easily picked up by the beginner and adaptable to the needs of more advanced trainers. With this criteria, Project Kratos is a real winner.

The Name “Kratos” comes from the Greek god of the same name, who was an enforcer of Zeus. Drew Baye contrasts Kratos with Adonis, who is traditionally associated with muscular physiques, but “has more show than go”. Kratos on the other hand was a powerful warrior god who could take care of business when challenged.

The strength of Kratos is that it offers the best methods for progression and increasing the load intensity of any exercise. This feature of the book makes it stand out markedly from other systems.

Rather than simply adding reps, Drew Baye has created a structured 5-level system of progression by altering the way in which you perform reps. At level 5 you’re really demanding that your muscle fibres extract every bit of juice they can muster.

Changes involve cadence, an elegant approach to partial reps and ways to increase the load of a exercise by manipulating leverage and shifting from bilateral to unilateral movement (two legs to one).

All programs mention some of these factors. In bodyweight training there are no plates to add to the bar. Eventually bilateral movements will become too easy to perform and you’ll need to up the ante so to speak. Unilateral movements and increasing the lever of an exercise are methods that advanced trainers learn to master progressively.

Emphasis on intensity

Kratos is a tough program, but it is a brief one. Intensity is at the centre of everything that you’ll do in the routines that Drew prescribes. His High Intensity Training (HIT) approach will be suited to both the strength trainer and to those seeking muscle gain.

Kratos is chiefly centred around Time Under load (TUL) with the notion that only quality, well-controlled reps will do and working out to failure is encouraged. In fact, the book does a pretty good job of debunking the idea that going to momentary muscular failure will destroy you. On the contrary, high intensity means less volume in an HIT routine. As long as your form doesn’t collapse you can safely keep stimulating your muscles with further reps.

Cool techniques

Project Kratos also contains a lot of other cool little techniques that assist the bodyweight training devotee in developing impressive levels of muscular tension. One such technique is the Timed Static Contraction (TSC), which as far as I know is unique to this program. I won’t go into it further because I don’t want to give all of Drew’s best ideas away but essentially it offers another way of replacing a weighted movement with a high tension bodyweight one.

It is little hacks like this that really set Project Kratos apart from many of the other programs out there.

Final comments

The program is primarily about building absolute strength and muscle gain. These are two worthy goals and the fact this program addresses the left end of the strength-speed continuum needs to be accounted for in program design.

Absolute Strength => Strength Speed => Speed Strength => Absolute Speed

If you’re after athletic ability also, strength alone isn’t enough so the Kratos program would be insufficient. It doesn’t claim to make you an outstanding athlete and it sticks to its core purpose quite tightly.

Adding sets of explosive reps and performing plyometric exercises would be one avenue into taking the strength you gain via a program like Project Kratos and increasing your power and speed. This is very doable but you need a base of lean muscle mass and strength first and Kratos handles those goals admirably.

In fact, the book doesn’t touch on the idea of periodization, which I think is necessary to get the most out of every program. Punching in weeks of variations — be they more sets, higher reps, different exercises, plyometrics and not going to failure — will enable you to get the most of any program. As long as you stick to your main plan most of the time, these periods of change will ensure you stay fresh mentally and physically.

Despite that omission, Project Kratos  will definitely be a great addition to your fitness arsenal. It is packed with sensible nutrition advice as well as a host of novel exercises and approaches. There is plenty on offer for the novice and advanced trainer to sink their teeth into.

The bodyweight training prescription — lessons from the trenches

It is coming up to a year since I started training solely with bodyweight movements. Here’s what I’ve learned about strength and hypertrophy training sans-weights through practise and study.

What started as a healthy experiment has become somewhat of an obsession for me. Bodyweight training was an intriguing pursuit to begin with — the notion you can build strength and muscle with virtually zero equipment is quite a tantalising prospect and completely the opposite of what we learn about exercise through popular media and infomercials.

Since that time, I’ve learned that bodyweight training is not only a desirable add-on to other forms of training, it can be a totally self-sustaining lifestyle option.

In this post I outline why bodyweight training approaches and programs need to be practiced differently than traditional weight training.

Two distinctions that make the difference

In Bret Contreras’ recent book, Bodyweight Strength Training Anatomy, he talks about different approaches to designing a training program based on bodyweight exercises. He recommends the whole body routine that is performed several times per week. This tended to rub some people the wrong way and it is precisely because they’re applying a weight training mentality.

I’ve come to learn that the main difference between weight versus bodyweight training is that, obviously, you can increase weights and maintain the rep range you want. By progressively adding weights you create the continuing stimuli to build muscle and strength.

However, there is another, often overlooked difference between the two training modalities: Weights will tend to fatigue the central nervous system (CNS) faster and more completely than bodyweight exercises.

So these two distinctions need to be accounted for in designing bodyweight programs. This is one of the reasons why Bret Contreras recommends the whole body approach several times a week. Because you can’t increase the weights, and because the overall stress to the CNS is less; bodyweight training is more effective when done more frequently.

The high frequency approach

If you read enough about strength training, you’ll often see the phrase “strength is a skill”. This has two implications for bodyweight exercisers:

  1. A high training frequency will stimulate more neural adaptivity
  2. Performing higher reps than traditional weight training is a valid means of progression in the place of adding additional weights.

Rarely do we see strength training routines advocate high reps. For the most part, you can use higher reps with bodyweight training as a bridge to creating the strength necessary to tackle the next, more difficult exercise. With some exercises it may take a certain number of preparatory reps to create the stress necessary to recruit more muscle fibres (thereby increasing the strength training stimulus).

Don’t get me wrong — you do want to train in lower rep ranges as much as possible but higher rep training with a low intensity exercise is a good way to develop the muscle and joint strength to handle harder exercises.

You are what you do everyday

If you think of strength as a skill, then daily practice becomes a no-brainer. Old school strength athletes learned this and knew that they had to keep the CNS fresh so that they could go again the next day. Repeated daily practice with the right intensity will increase strength, as long as you’re always progressing the exercise.

My current routine:
I am performing this routine up to 5 times per week. I’m using this as a transition from strength and hockey training to a more focused hypertrophy regime (summer is coming here in NZ). If you choose to use a circuit routine like this, take into account recovery ability and if you feel fatigue from yesterday’s workout, take a days rest. Over time your recovery ability will increase and the task of progression keeps your muscles stimulated.

**This circuit style routine is a good for beginners and one you can progress nicely (as I have). Over time you’ll want to perform a more focused routine (which I will provide in another post). The concept of periodisation means you will change your program up as you progress.**

A: Box Jumps / Side-to-Side Push-Up / Skater Squats
B: Inverted Rows / Dead Bug / Glute Bridge March
C: Short-Lever Inverted Curl / Side Lying Hip Lifts / Push Backs
D: Y, T, W, L / RKC Plank / Close Push Ups
E: Wall Sits / Inverted Rows / Single-Leg Glute Bridge

Notes:

  • All exercises clustered in threes. Perform each exercise one after the other without rest. Rest 30s between clusters.
  • The routine is structured so that each each exercise in the cluster rests the muscles exercised previously. Exercise selection in each cluster is designed to manage fatigue and means there is a degree of freshness with which you can apply to each exercise.
  • Notice I’m performing 3 sets of the big movements: Knee dominant (squats, wall sits, box jumps); Hip dominant (glute march, side lying hip lift, hip raises); Upper body pushing (push up exercises, push backs); Upper body pulling (inverted rows, short lever curls). I do 2 core movements and one specific movement for a trouble spot  — Y, T, W, L for posture improvement.
  • Choose exercises appropriate to your level of development.
  • Accept only good quality reps. Once your form starts eroding you’ve gone too far.

You could easily structure a double set routine where you pair exercises that don’t interfere with each other (e.g. Squats paired with Push ups) and do 3 sets that way. This would be a more focused approach than the big circuit style I outline above.

Whatever program you choose, remember frequency is your friend and make sure it is challenging without burning you into the ground. Above all, have fun!