I’m the laziest, hyperactive, lethargic, ambitious, idle person you’ll meet. As breathing contradictions go, I get by. I’ve learned how to deal with myself by finally admitting just how much wiggle room I need to allow for the plans I create.
It took me a while to admit. I’d throw that deep self-shame shade on myself because I should have been able to keep to my intentions, schedules, and plans, right? Probably, but I (and you) need to handle ourselves tactfully. If we don’t, the belligerent toddler inside makes things even worse.
I’ve settled on dealing with myself with more open boundaries.
This open boundary concept is how it started—I decided on what I wanted my physical training to look like based on what I genuinely enjoyed.
It meant practicing some:
- Muay Thai
- Training a little Olympic weightlifting
- General basic barbell work
- Strength and conditioning type workouts that heightened the ceiling for how much work I could do
Create a Framework
When I drew up an outline, I thought flexible with a planned focus for each day’s training.
But I miscalculated just how much of a madman I am. If someone else showed me this first draft of a flexible outline, I’d have told them it looked like a training program to prepare someone to join the military special forces.
I was trying to set an outline where my workouts were mapped out with room to change and adjust, but I’d get way too mad at myself if I changed too much during a week. So yeah, that didn’t work.
I came up with another idea eventually, though, to get my inner toddler-tyrant to agree with me.
I’d create a framework. Saying framework instead of outline seems like a pointless change in words until you define the term.
Framework means foundation or core.
Discover Your Core Functions and Foundations
I worked through this:
- What was the core of how I want my body to function, operate, and feel? Ok, I have it.
- Next, I asked myself the foundation for the training and activity I needed each week to get and keep this function.
- I thought long and hard about what I needed and why I needed it.
- I analyzed everything that could be called exercise and thought about what physical activities I enjoyed that I wasn’t doing often or wasn’t doing at all.
- If what I was using as exercise didn’t directly contribute to how I wanted my body to feel and operate, it didn’t fit into my framework.
- This selection process kept me from adding too many things and putting too much restriction on myself again.
- You can imagine this freed up some time for me and made it possible to adjust and modify what I did week-to-week and day-to-day.
On days when that child inside was particularly irritable, I could ask him what he wanted because my framework allowed for change and guided my actions without much thought.
We could agree, and I still did what I found truly important at the end of the week.
If you’ve read this far, I’m assuming that you’re like me, even if you don’t know it yet. You’ve probably been criticized for bouncing around, doing too many types of physical training. But you, like me, are probably just curious about how much your body can do.
So this entire essay, as I’ll call it, because I’m incredibly high brow, will be a discussion of what you need to set your framework and why you need it.
I love my physical hobbies. Some of them keep me active and are incredibly satisfying but wouldn’t keep me functioning and feeling how I want if doing them alone.
Some of them, like jiu-jitsu, could be done as my exercise. But to do more physical hobbies, enjoy them better, and prevent injuries, I also need to put myself through specific forms of strength and conditioning training.
Finding what you need and how to fit all you want together is how we’ll figure out your framework.
Alternate Stimulating and Push Days
It’s not about fitting more into your week.
It’s about finding what you can’t do without, what you need, and then throwing the rest out.
Challenging days are fine, but times, where you do push limits should be few and far between.
Hitting maxes in the weight room and red-lining in conditioning activities isn’t building ability; it’s testing it.
You should do most of your strength and conditioning work pretty decently below your limits, including your limit strength and your total volume.
More difficult days, though, should be offset by easier ones.
I’ve started classifying them as stim and push days. Stim standing for stimulating and push is pretty self-explanatory.
The stim days are to be done a day or two before the push days.
If you did some loaded movement four times in a week, it would usually mean you’d do one at the start of a week and again halfway through. If you only planned for two times, you’d start the week with a stim day and end it with a push day.
The loaded movement here isn’t bound to what’s considered standard weight training with barbells or dumbbells. It can be, but it can also be repetitive rounds of the kettlebell, medicine ball, and sandbag movements.
For Stim Days:
- Choose just 2-4 exercises you can do with ease that are similar patterns as to what you plan to do on your push day.
- The whole point is to prepare your body for the more challenging work you plan to do in a day or two and move through the same range of motion.
- You only need a couple of sets of basic movements with moderate reps for each. If it takes you longer than twenty minutes, you’re doing too much.
For me, it’s often as basic and brief as this:
4 Sets:1 Arm Suitcase RDL x 5-8 reps ea side
3-4 Sets: Side-lying Plank Press x 5 reps ea side
I do this a day before a push day, where I plan some heavier squatting, Olympic weightlifting movements, and more strenuous training for Jiu-Jitsu.
Why? Because making hinge patterns like RDLs, which get my posterior chain active, always gets me moving and feeling better after the rest days that I usually take on the weekend. It doesn’t take much, but the difference in the quality of my squatting patterns and more demanding training the next day is pretty drastic.
Picking unilateral and trunk and shoulder stability exercises like these help me stave off old nagging injuries and prep me for heavier lifting. In the positions I’ll find myself doing in jiu-jitsu.
Why Alternate Days?
It’s easy to fire hard out of the gate when we start a new physical habit at the beginning of the week.
Week one is easy. But again, this enthusiasm doesn’t last unless we’re one of those genuinely exceptional, disciplined few.
I stopped lying about how much self-control I had, and you should stop lying to yourself, too.
Using this alternating model, we can strike a bargain with our less agreeable sides to get moving at the beginning and the middle of the week, both points when we’re the laziest.
It’s not such an overwhelming burden to do a workout like I just described. It’s short, easy to do, and makes you feel good. The thing is, it gets the ball rolling at the start of your week and keeps it rolling so that you’re more willing and ready to keep pushing on the other days.
Doing such little work seems like a waste of time at the moment.
It isn’t about that moment, though. That little work keeps you going, and you find yourself consistently moving forward.
Some Density Training Is Important
No need to go into exercise triviality, but I’m being liberal in calling this density training. What I am saying you do is focus on how much work you can do within a specific time and change the details now and then.
There are two ways I suggest doing this:
- The first is to keep the same rep count for the movement each week (or however often you do this) but increase the total time you repeatedly do the same movement(s) using the same weight.
- The second way is to keep the same time limit each time you do this, but try to do more reps or more weight with those reps in the given time.
You can do this with just one movement or a group of movements for either option.
In both cases, you’re increasing the endurance of the muscles you’re using, improving your ability to do more work over some time, and building on your limit on how much weight you can move and keep moving.
The best and most enjoyable way I’ve found is by using challenging weight, keeping reps low, and setting a time limit that can be steadily increased.
This increase keeps loaded movement training what it should be. It trains my ability to repeatedly create strong physical output and resist fatigue in the working muscles and my body’s complete systemic ability.
I pick at least two complementary but different movements, and I alternate back and forth, resting as needed for whatever total time.
Here’s an example: 8 Minutes:
- I’ll rest for however long I need between the movements to make sure I move well with a challenging weight for the entire period.
- I’ll write down how many times I cycle through these movements after I’m done.
- Then, I’ll try the same two movements with the same weight, rep count, and time limit again after a week.
- I may even do it every week without changing anything for a few weeks.
- Each time I’ll see if I can do more rounds of this without straining myself too hard or sacrificing the quality of my movements.
- If I can get through more rounds keeping these rules for myself, I know that I truly improved my physical capacity in more than just one way.
- I’ve increased how much work I can do in a set amount of time.
- I’ve gotten stronger, not just in how much force I can produce in one effort but also in how I can keep repeating that same effort to make the same amount of force.
- This consistency in itself is a measure of conditioning—my ability to endure stress and recover from it to repeat the same high-force effort over and over.
- If weeks later I do more work with the same weight simultaneously, I’ve increased endurance in all systems of my body.
Eventually, I’ll make it harder. First, I’ll use heavier weights, keep the rep count and time limit, and then increase the total time.
Using complementary movements is essential for this type of training.
Both the movements in my example are hip-hinge dominant patterns. The deadlift is the more general strength movement that can be loaded heavier, while the snatch takes more coordination and learning efficiency. So it complements the heavier deadlift because the total load you can use for the snatch will be much less.
The snatch gives your trunk and hips a mini active rest while still training quick, forceful total body movements and building upper body and shoulder stability.
You’re still adding more training to the muscles of the trunk and hips but allowing for momentary recovery from the heavy work of the deadlift.
Keep Mentally Engaged
Our physical activity needs to be creative; I’ve already made this point.
That means whatever we use as a routine has to keep us mentally engaged.
If we use movements, we have a knack for, but we still find fun in doing, we can challenge ourselves to do more than last time and create a game for ourselves each time we repeat the pattern.
Games keep us interested. Sober commitment to some fitness goal gets stale.
Once we’ve reached a point where increasing the time we do this makes no sense, or we’re just tired of what we’re doing, we can switch up:
- The movements
- The implements we use as weights
- Or increase the load we use for the movements
This game of besting yourself gives you a greater sense of effort and fulfillment.
You get to show yourself how much you’ve improved over the total collective physical traits you can train.
You’re not just getting stronger; you’re able to create strength over and over.
You’re not just more cardiovascularly fit; you’re muscles are learning to endure and recover from more work.
Create a Go-To List of Movements
For this framework to work, you have to keep using exercises that you can rotate through quickly, efficiently, and for long periods without losing the movement’s quality.
- If you can cycle through the movements quickly, your workouts can be however brief you want them, but still effective.
- This isn’t the time to try new exercises where you have to move cautiously and consciously. You can set aside time for skill practice, but they can’t be in your core group of exercises for this density-type training.
- Getting in and out, as it were, demands you be very skillful with the movements you choose and not need an extensive and drawn-out warm-up and prep to get into the high-paced training.
- This training brand gives you the freedom and flexibility to choose and do two shorter sessions throughout the day. But if you can’t keep the sessions short, you’re not saving time or effort.
So, I keep a shortlist of lower-body focused hinging, squatting, and swinging patterns and upper-body pressing and rowing patterns. This is the list I pick from, and you can use it or go by it to form a list that you animate all your own.
- Barbell RDL: Fundamental and easy for me to do, given my background in barbell sports; Some prefer using dumbbells or kettlebells, and that’s a great option, especially if you’re training at home and don’t have room for a barbell. For me, it’s easier to load a bar with a weight I know will push me but that I can maintain for however long I set my clock.
- Suitcase Deadlift: (Video above). This movement is excellent for both push and stim days. It can be very challenging with a heavy kettlebell or dumbbell, but you can also rotate quickly through this and whatever other exercises you choose. I think of these for this density-based training on push days because the one-sided loading makes it very difficult but limits the weight you can use. It’s tough for you to stabilize your trunk and keep it from bending to one side. So you work harder without loading yourself with potentially too much weight for the time period you set, as you could do with a conventional deadlift.
- KB Swing: You really can’t go wrong with this whether you’re using them on push or stim day. Adjust the weight, volume, and intensity easily for each day. You can very easily transition to other exercises from here and move through at a steady pace. Lateral or rotational swings are also a great alternative to use to focus on different patterns and muscles.
- Goblet Squats: For this, you can use kettlebells, dumbbells, heavy med balls, or sandbags. I prefer goblet squats over barbell squats when rotating through exercises in a time limit because it’s easier to pick a bell or ball up quickly and start moving. Unracking a back squat can be quite a process. Clutching a weight in front of the body close to the chest also challenges trunk strength and keeps the quality of the squat movement more evenly as you tire.
- KB Squat Swings: You can think of this as a hybrid hinge and squat pattern, but I put this in my shortlist for squatting movements. Again this is very easy to adjust depending on your focus for the day.
- Med Ball Cleans: For push days, you may have to invest in a heavier med ball, but it’s well worth it. This clean can be a quick, explosive movement you can repeatedly perform that builds coordination, grip, and back strength.
- Barbell Floor Press: Using a barbell for this is great if you’re pairing this with a lower-body movement where you use kettlebells, dumbbells, or med balls. You can set up the bar with your set weight and keep rotating back and forth between the movements reasonably easily.
- Dumbbell or Kettlebell Push Press: I prefer the push press over strict (if you have the mobility and stability) because you can challenge heavier weights but keep the pace.
- Landmine Push Press: An excellent alternative to keep the athletic full-body motion of a push press for those who aren’t ready to push directly overhead.
- Bent-over Barbell Rows: Great for either day in your alternating training plan; Again, easy to modify and rotate with a dumbbell movement.
- Alternating Bent-Over KB/DB Rows: You can get a lot of volume in with these and move through them quickly.
- Pull-Ups: If you can do them, there’s not much better density training than hopping up there quickly after completing another exercise and repeating it again and again.
I’ve practiced all these movements more times than I care to count, even before structuring my training like this. So, I know if I pick them, I can move through my workout without much thought.
Design a Loose, Self-Adjusting Structure
Practicing with all this, I’ve inadvertently figured out what tools are best for each day. A barbell is suitable for most of what you could do in a stim day if you have enough skill.
You can warm up and easily load it to what you need to give yourself the type of workout you want. Simple movements using dumbbells are also suitable for this day.
Sandbags, medicine balls, kettlebells, or rubber atlas stones are better for push days. You can put them down quickly and move through a whole sequence of movements with little transition.
You can change what you use and how you use it as often as you want, but you’ll also find that having these easier and more challenging days starts influencing your decisions on what to do and how to do it.
The Benefits of a Flexible Structure
The point of the framework is to fit the necessary work you need to feel and look how you want in your daily life without giving it much thought.
Too much thinking, and you’ll talk yourself out of this. But, if you have markers to reach and the flexibility to adjust with the constant changes of each week, you can reach those marks with more consistency and with less effort.
Check out what I mean with this example of an actual week of training I outlined for myself using this model:
Day One (Stim): Monday or Tuesday
- If done on Tuesday, stretch Monday evening (vice versa)
- Every other Monday, try to train muay Thai/jiu-jitsu
Tempo Run (5-15 mins): Try to improve pace for mile time
Part B: Loaded Movement: 2 exercises (4-6 sets 5-8 reps)
A1) Hinge Exercise (classic or dynamic)
A2) Push/Upper Hold Exercise (building shoulder stability)
Day Two (Push): Wednesday
A) Warm-up with Belt Squat
B) Jumps 4-6 sets
C) Transformer Bar Squats – Wk 1:heavy single pause
Wk: 2: 6-10 sets short rest |wk 3: heavy single no pause
D) Olympic Lift Practice (Snatch or Clean & Jerk)
E) Heavy Olympic Lift (Snatch or Clean & Jerk)
Day Three (Stim): Thursday
Part B: Aerobic: (20-60 mins)
Cardiac Output Circuits (45 sec on 15 off) or drills
Day Four (Push): Friday
Squat or Pull at home
Part B: At JDI
A) Heavy Olympic Lift or Dynamic Pull Movement if feeling tired
B) Sled Work/Carries alactic capacity
Throw Away the Book; Keep the Story
You’ll see that nothing is set in stone. You don’t need to start day one on Monday, or even on the same day each week.
I even write out alternate schedules as to when to do some particular physical activity so that when I’m faced with a giant disruption in my schedule that mentally fries me, I don’t have to figure it out on the fly; I follow my plan B.
My life, probably like yours, changes literally every week.
Some days I need to pick my kids up or drop them off at school or activities at different times or even on different days.
Sometimes I schedule an hour for a meeting, and it lasts two—although I’d rather drop a big rubber atlas stone on my foot than sit in a two-hour session.
If I rigidly wrote a training plan where I was supposed to do a particular exercise with a particular weight for a specific amount of sets and reps, and I missed that day, I’d get discouraged that I didn’t follow through. Then, I’d sabotage the rest of my week because why the hell not?
I already messed up, so I might as well burn it all down.
Setting the mark that I should make a certain pattern of movement, but not choosing a specific exercise or giving myself the rule to change to some other exercise with the same pattern on the day, keeps me from skipping the workout if I don’t want to do what I planned when I wake up that morning.
Routine creates freedom to do what really interests you.
Physical routine is usually the first to go, though on a busy week. So throw away the book and keep the story.
Make it easy to do what you need without tying your hands in too much rigidity.
If you want to learn the best way I’ve ever found to keep yourself free and open, and you live in the NYC/northern New Jersey area, check out this event I’m putting on August 28th, with tickets available here.