A Rare Workout Update: A New World of Hurt (and I’m lovin’ it)

Probably the biggest deficiency on this blog from a Whole Paleo perspective is that I don’t post much about the workouts — which is ironic, given that’s exactly how this whole thing got started in the first place, via this post right here: May 29, 2007. That, amongst my political observations formed the basis of what was to become; I think, now, a reasonably popular paleo health & fitness blog. It was always an evolution, more rapid lately.

I wish to report to you that in terms of the workouts that I believe I’ve stumbled a bit, lost the path and my way. But I could only known that having regained it and being so surprised.

I’m not going to look up the posts but some months ago I was blogging about how I had begun to do more compound lifts, heavy stuff, assisted negatives. I was doing back squats at 200ish, deadlifts at 175ish, and also doing a lot of very heavy negatives, using my trainer (like lat pulldown negatives at 280, requiring both mine and my trainer’s bodyweight combined to get the weight into extended position. Then hold and slowly release. I did heavy negatives on bench, seated chest press, and barbell bent over rows as well.

And I now know that I was slowly losing ground. I think I’ve figured out why. Due to the nature of the lifts, setting up equipment, doing heavy volume that really demanded rest in between sets I was simply not using my 30 minutes twice per week efficiently anymore. Whereas when I began this whole thing there was little rest in-between work, I had extended that. So, while sticking with the 30-minute routine, I was actually doing less and less work in that 30 minutes while fooling myself into believing I was actually doing more, given the far greater weight.

So what have I done lately? I’ve dropped almost all weightlifting except when it’s in conjunction with a circuit of various functional and compound exercises. Basically, my trainer and I have put together a highly varied hodgepodge of Crossfit and P90X stuff utilizing various weights, kettlebells and the fantastic & versatile TRX straps. And lots and lots of bodyweight stuff like pushups, dips, pullups, lunges, squats, jumps and so on. Oh, and we use the medicine balls a lot. My very favorite there is explosive, all-you-got throws. First, unto the ground hard, bounce, then as high as possible onto the wall. You use your entire body explosively and it wears you out quick.

Here’s a question I recently got from reader Benjamin.

In the PB community, we stress that 80% of our results of how we look, feel, and perform is based on nutrition. The other 20% comes from sleep, fitness, genetics, stress, etc. On different websites, I read, "Burn Fat Workouts," that focus on doing as much work in as little time, similar to CrossFit’s metabolic conditioning workouts. Then I read, "Gain Muscle Workouts," which focus on doing big compound movements like squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls in a lower rep scheme with heavier weights. If it’s all about nutrition, what is the idea behind these workout claims? Is there really such a thing as a "fat burning" or "muscle gaining" workout? I thought if we wanted to lose body fat we cut the carbs, insulin will lower, calories will fall, and it’s that simple. If we want to gain muscle and minimize body fat gain, we eat more protein and fat while still limiting carbs to limit body fat storage. So what is this whole "burn fat" vs. "gain muscle" workout idea?

I’m sure there are a bunch of guys who can help sort through that tangle better than I, but isn’t that kinda the point? Many of us have gradually worked hard to simplify the apparent complexity of the diet into: Eat Real Food. And, c’mon, you know what real food is.

So this is partly why I don’t pay as much attention to the conditioning side of things and Benjamin illustrates exactly why. If you though the diet was complex…

So, how about: Just Move Fast & Hard? And, c’mon, you know what that means.

And just like you have virtually unlimited choices in real foods and combinations therefrom, how many ways are there to move fast & hard with various heavy things (including your own body)? And since it stands to some reason that given so many food choices that you’re best off mixing in as much variety as possible, doesn’t it make sense to do the same thing in your workouts?

Frankly, I’m now doing so many dozens of different exercises — most of which I’d have no idea what to call — that I don’t even remember them all. But one thing I do know is that no workout is the same, and I’ll tell you what: I’ve been in a new world of hurt the last couple of weeks, and I really love it. Workouts are exciting, again.

Here’s an example, from Wednesday, and keep in mind that I often don’t know the technical names for some of these exercises so I’ll just describe them, "all thumbs" style:

  • 5 minutes alternating sets between the TRX straps doing pullups from near horizontal off the floor (feet against the wall) and 15lb dumbbell pushups alternating row from the top. The idea is to not really count reps or sets (at least for me). Just go until ready to stop, take a quick breath and go to the next.
  • 20 minutes of grueling basketball court torture, all four corners. I begin at one corner with 65lb barbell and do 10-15 reps from off the floor to shoulders and press (kinda like a snatch, clean & press combo), then sprint to the opposite corner, 30 mountain climbers, then lunge to the close corner with 12lb medicine ball & horizontal twist thrown in. Then it’s 15 reps of 35lb plate swings (like kettlebell, but all the way to vertical, controlled descent), then sprint to the opposite corner where I explosively throw a 12lb medicine ball from a squat as high as possible against the wall as many times as I can without collapsing in fatigue, then lunge with the medicine ball to the original corner and do it all over again.
  • 5 minutes doing a little weight work on triceps, biceps and then some seated flys.

I gotta tell you that I’ve probably given up most of the machines and most of the weights for good. One thing that motivated this change was just intended to be a bit of a break because I strained my lower back a few weeks ago from doing too many back squats and too many deadlifts on the same day. On my last few deadlift reps I wasn’t paying good attention to form, going too fast (I always release the bar, stand, and reposition for the next set) and I believe that’s what got my back. So I had to push my next workout a day or two beyond the regular schedule and then I said to Michael, "hey, let’s do one of those crossfit styled deals this time," which I had gotten started on some time ago but them moved onto doing the high volume stuff.

Well was I in for a big surprise because my body hadn’t ached properly — from head to toe — in quite a long while and it really felt good.

It’s great to be back on track.

25 Comments

  1. chriso on March 12, 2010 at 12:56

    Richard, don’t give up on being strong.. .It just sounds like you were trying for too much volume.
    I’ve been guilty of the same mistake, in the past.

    you might want to check out Coach Rut’s blogspot (michael Rutheford at

    He is the originator of the Max Effort Black Box (MEBB) concept/program, which is basically a hybrid strength and conditioning program (like Xfit plus dedicated strength work) without the burnout & overtraining risks (it’s a three day a week program).

    He breaks it down into one strength workout plus one metcon , M/W/F
    Monday is total body strength, Wednesday Lower body, and Friday upper body.

    At 41 years of age, i’m accomplishing some big S & C achievements (as is my wife), working out three days a week, one hour each time (including warm up – but you have to create your own warm up).

    I’ve got double body weight squat & deadlift, BW press, 1.6BW Benchpress, BW snatch, 1.4 BW clean & jerk, and a sub 6 minute mile (22min 5K), etc, and my numbers go up on a regular basis.

    • Richard Nikoley on March 12, 2010 at 13:49

      Thanks chriso.

      We’ll see. Right now I’m getting a high from my workouts that I haven’t had in months. I want to play that out a while and reserve the right to change things up even again.

  2. Organic Gabe on March 12, 2010 at 15:10

    I basically go for hikes where I insert a short sprint or two.
    Hiking uphill is a fantastic workout. You do not need anything else for legs.
    Sometimes I fill a backpack with some heavy pliable things.

    The rest is just doing 14 -15 minutes of strengthening with weights, no breaks, doing antagonistic muscles (ie. biceps and triceps).
    This way you do not need to rest at all in between reps and so you have more time doing other things…

  3. Tim Starr on March 12, 2010 at 10:49

    Sounds great. I’ve scaled way back on the attempt to maximize total weight moved, too. (Partly because I didn’t have anywhere to go after maxing out the chest press in my condo’s gym at 200 lbs). Have switched pretty much entirely to tabata sets of bodyweight exercises & trying to put a plyometric twist on my martial arts workouts (i.e., jumping instead of stepping). That, plus my homemade clubbells, which I like better than kettlebells (partly because they’re more similar to my martial art).

    • Adam | SEE on March 12, 2010 at 14:38

      Hey – Can you post a link or describe how you made the club-bells. Thanks!

      • Tim Starr on March 12, 2010 at 15:15

        I did it pretty much the way this guy did, except that I used tennis racket grip-tape for the handle instead of rubber hose:

        http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nux8nu2Jaks

        Filled ’em w/ a smaller-diameter piece of plumbing pipe, stuffed in an old sweat sock to keep it from clanking when I swing ’em around. Comes out to about 10 pounds, but feels more like 40 pounds when swinging ’em w/ your grip way down at the end of the handle.



      • Adam | SEE on March 12, 2010 at 19:26

        Very Nice – Thanks!



  4. Rick on March 12, 2010 at 10:51

    It’s amazing how many times I will start thinking a certain way or doing something a little differently, and I quickly find out that many others in the paleo/primal community are moving that way as well!

    I had gotten burned out on some of the classic heavy workouts (bench, deadlifts, back squats, rows, etc.) and started moving towards some olympic-style workouts with much less weight. Those clean and jerks will wear you out! Great whole body workout that feels much more natural. Places that have never really been that sore before are plenty sore, which has to be good.

  5. Skyler Tanner on March 12, 2010 at 11:06

    Stochastic variation is a beautiful thing. Who knows, you might find yourself going back to a machine just for the sheer pump it can deliver. Nothing else pumps my biceps (on the rare occasion I train them directly) like a machine because nothing else can fail except your biceps.

    I was just discussing this with a new client: I’m a deep fitness equipment agnostic. It all works, depends on the context.

    • Richard Nikoley on March 12, 2010 at 13:41

      I’m sure, Skyler. I’m probably always going to want to throw in some of that, and if for nothing else to see if I’ve improved in some aspect. Now that I have a pretty damn good form on some of the lifts (it’s not a proper squat unless you get your thighs horizontal…) I think I’ll be able to jump right in from time to time. Curiously, I hate doing squats with shoes on, even Vibrams. I like doing them in socks, deadlifts too.

      As for machines, that too. Mostly it’s a change in focus where this more intervally stuff is primary and I’ll throw in the other stuff now and then.

      Just got back from the gym. One of the “awful” exercises my trainer had me do are what he calls “Olympic burpees.” 45lb barbell in this case: pushup, bring the legs in, clean to a full squat, stand & press, repeat. Devastating on reps.

  6. Patrik on March 12, 2010 at 11:19

    @Richard

    Excellent! I knew you would start drifting away from machines, sooner or later. Machines just don’t mesh well with Paleo meta-framework.

    • Thomas on March 13, 2010 at 05:34

      Other things that don’t mesh well with the Paleo meta-framework:

      1. dying of natural causes
      2. driving a car
      3. using a computer
      4. reading paleo info on the internet
      5. taking vitamin D supplements
      6. shopping for anything
      7. low infant mortality
      8. using deodorant
      9. sleeping on a matress
      10, not seeping after sunset (unless you build a fire)

      Ok, just having a little fun. Sorry.

      • Skyler Tanner on March 13, 2010 at 08:05

        You get Skyler’s “GOLD STAR POST OF THE THREAD” Award!



      • Richard Nikoley on March 13, 2010 at 08:18

        Of course, it’s about gene expression, not all-or-nothing.

        The following probably get you most of the way there in emulating a “more-paleo” lifestyle…_emulating, not duplicating.

        1. Food
        2. Exercise
        3. IF
        4. Sunshine
        5. Sleep

        Sure, one could do other things, such as intermittent cold exposure (I do), but the above are probably the big 5 and get you far along.

        Duplicating rather than emulating is for literalists (aka religionists) lacking in imagination and perhaps even cognitive ability.



      • Thomas on March 13, 2010 at 10:28

        Just having a little fun with the paleo-meta framework comment. I personaly like living in this day and age and am especially greatful that I can chose to eat paleo rather than being forced due to no other option. Of course, education is key-and this web site does a very nice job. I like the emulating comment and the 5 points-arguably a voluntary necessity for health in this day and age. Oh yea, another thing that doesn’t fit well within the paleo meta-framework: Voluntary exercise-free weights, machines or body weight.



  7. Any good workout plans out there for a beginner? | CRAIG BALLANTYNE PRODUCTS on March 12, 2010 at 12:35

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  8. john on March 12, 2010 at 14:22

    So…it really just comes down to the ol’ “Eat real food and move more” mantra…why do we have this thing where we want to complicate everything?!?

  9. Adam | SEE on March 12, 2010 at 14:47

    Curious all of the conditioning stuff that’s popping up right now. Like you, I have re-focused on conditioning and have been digging the change (see my workouts page). I call it Spring Conditioning, because I think there is a seasonal element to it. I am seriously champing at the bit to get outside and run some barefoot sprints – stupid ground is still frozen.

    I also remember reading that athletes tend to peak strength-wise at the end of summer / early fall. Would be interesting to see if you find yourself drawn to the weight pile as we roll through the summer.

  10. Robert in Norcal on March 12, 2010 at 17:09

    As I ‘d remarked on one of your earlier workout posts, I’ve found that the same exercise routine, like the same dietary routine, can get one into a rut. I can’t remember the exact proverb but something to the effect that “one who travel the same trail over and over will create a rut so deep that he is hidden from his surroundings, and his surroundings from him.” Probably bad paraphrasing but you get the idea. Mentally, physically and spiritually, our lives can be deadened by mind-numbing routine. In fact it could be argued that it is “creativity,” even serendipitous, which gave certain species the adaptations needed to survive (ie-trying new foods, different hunting methods, etc).

    I have almost no credentials to speak of but here it is anyways: As someone who worked out regularly for decades I found it very useful to change the exercise routine. As you experienced, it can lead to a bastardization of the original routine. Also, boredom can set in and that is no good either. Also, muscular imbalances can become embedded. Finally and most importantly, I believe that the body needs occasionally to be “shocked” or “jarred” or “surprised” from time to time, in order to effect maximum results.

    Glad to hear you’re making progress.

  11. Aaron Curl on March 12, 2010 at 19:55

    I’m all about fun workouts theses days. I used to be a gym rat….moving from machine to machine…then from different free weight movements to the next. Now I do all sorts of crazy stuff when I go out and run or bike. I’ll stop at a park and do exercises that pop in my mind on the parks playground. Sure the kids get mad when I’m doing pullups on the monkey bars…but I’m allowed to play there too.

  12. Steve on March 13, 2010 at 05:21

    Richard if you have not already done so check out rosstraining.com based on your post I don’t believe you will be disappointed.

  13. newbbs on March 15, 2010 at 13:28

    Richard,

    Why not have a look at BBS (Body by Science)? There is a lot in common with paleo and BBS-style workouts. Check out Dr. McGuff’s website : bodybyscience.net

    • Richard Nikoley on March 15, 2010 at 13:48

      Yes, I’ve very aware of Doug and his work, have the book in my stack to read. Doug has commented here a few times as well as being very helpful in a few email exchanges.

  14. Kettlebells and Plyometrics – A Formula For One Serious Workout Routine! | Weight Issues on March 18, 2010 at 06:21

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