This is not the year in review I expected to be writing at this time last year. Last year I had just finished a year of powerbuilding and was dissatisfied with the results. I ended promising to try to push myself to my limits with some extreme programming. Then the same thing that happened to everything in 2020, happened to my weight lifting routine: COVID showed up. Nothing about this year was conducive to well laid plans, and my attempts at fitness were no different.
I thought about not even writing this. For the past two years, I’ve themed whole years of programming around a core concept, first 5/3/1 Forever and then powerbuilding. But this messy year had no theme except the chaos. Instead of pushing against that, I’m embracing it. Here’s a look back at a year of trying something, anything, to achieve something in an unnormal time.
Let’s start with unnormal metrics for progress. With no gym access, I couldn’t test my 1 rep maxes nor my body fat. So, we’re going off the only things I can check at home:
- Bodyweight: 199 lbs → 187 lbs
- Arms: ~15.5 inches → ~ 15 inches
- Thighs: ~26.5 inches → ~ 25 inches
And we’ll add one more measurement that I may keep using:
- Rite of Passage Test: 142 snatches in 10 minutes w/53 lbs kettlebell
Lost mass overall, which is not surprising when you consider that I was out of the gym. Can’t grow those big, resistance trained, muscles when you have limited resistance equipment. But, the good news is that I didn’t gain weight over quarantine, which sadly struck a lot of us. The big reason for that was my big change in diet this year, and still finding a way to get work in, even if it wasn’t barbell work.
This year was about change and resilience. About thinking outside my comfort zone in order to still get some results. About finding new loves in the realm of fitness. It was terrible, wonderful and fulfilling.
So What, Specifically, Did I Do?
In chronological order, with links to my in depth reviews:
- Deep Water Method, Beginner: John Anderson’s killer program that promises to push you to your limits 100% delivered. Limits pushed, results achieved. For those that want programming that dares them to quit, this is the real deal.
- TRX Suspension Training: With nothing put a pair of straps hanging from the ceiling, this is a pretty cool portable gym that takes up almost no space when stored and can provide a whole body workout. Price is a little steep, but for calisthenics, it delivers. The included programs however, are hit and miss.
- The 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout: Dan John’s rediscovered challenge has had a bit of a renaissance during our home workout year. It is definitely a good way to hit your mental approach to lifting. The link also includes my mini-review of the Bowflex SelectTech 840 kettlebell (TL;DR: do not recommend).
- The Russian Kettlebell Challenge Rite of Passage: A mouthful, but Pavel Tsatsouline’s ladder based progression is a great way to get used to kettlebell training. Centered around the clean and press, Pavel’s simple program really only requires learning four movements. But man does it progress nicely and, well, it’s fun even if it’s less than ideal for aesthetics.
The extreme programming start went really well, but those asterisks about finishing Deep Water when I get back in the gym in that review seem laughable now. Almost a year later, and I’m still not back barbell lifting. After spending almost six years program lifting entirely around the barbell, I had to do… something else. The gym was, and continues to be, out. My home is small and I share that limited space with my family. No yard. No garage. Not even a bench could fit in here, let alone a whole rack. The barbell was decidedly out.
My decision to go with suspension training as my home workout solution was honestly a bit of a panic move. Adjustable dumbbells were already sold out everywhere except price gougers on the secondary market. It was also influenced by a crazy idea that we would all locked down for a few months and this thing would pass, so no need to invest too much money.
Boy was that wrong.
But it bought me enough time for kettlebells to get back in stock most places. And the kettlebell has been a revelation in my life. As I did suspension training, something felt missing more and more each day. And that something was pushing against iron. Literally Enter the Kettlebell.
Who the Hell am I?
I am a late-30s cis male in OK shape. The only chronic health condition I have is asthma, which is brought on both by exercise and by allergies. For the past five and a half years I have done program lifting starting with six months of Stronglifts 5x5, then a year of Greyskull LP (during which I strained my back and spent months in recovery, losing a lot of deadlift and squat progress). Then I switched to vanilla 5/3/1 for a year, then to Forever style 5/3/1 for another year before giving a year of powerbuilding a shot.
Before all that, I had been on fuckarounditis for two years of varying intensity and absolutely no progression plan in an apartment building gym similar to a hotel level gym. I spent my 20s largely an out of shape obese guy after being an athletic teenager.
Diet and Other Factors
Feel a little weird burying this so deep into any talk about fitness, since I do think diet is the most important thing for most people looking to attain any sort of fitness goal. Most people honestly have diet goals, not workout goals, when they talk about fitness and health. They want to lose weight, have abs, look toned or shredded… these are all kitchen goals, more than gym goals.
That said, this year marks probably the biggest change in my diet since a few years back when I did a period of counting calories. I’d recommend counting calories to anyone. While some people don’t like the calories in/calories out simplification of body weight, it’s honestly correct for 90% of where it matters and is a great starting point for anyone just to learn exactly what they’re putting in their body, and also how little exercise can do to minimize the effects of a bad diet. A half an hour of lifting weights burns about 300 calories, less than a single slice of pizza from 7–11. So, not having the pizza is much easier than carving out heaps of gym time to counter act it.
Anyway, my big change this year was to drastically reduce carbs. At first this was just to follow John Anderson’s diet advice in Deep Water. Very few of the programs I’ve run have specific diet advice, so it was a new thing for me. I ended up liking it quite a bit. Carbs aren’t necessarily bad, but they are so calorically dense; dropping them from meals (taco salad instead of tacos, lettuce wrap instead of bun) often cuts calories in half for meals. This helped me get back on track for being at a good weight for how strong I am. I’m not winning any body building competitions, but I am closer to visible abs than love handles these days.
And I still have a cheat meal once or a twice a week.
My other physical activity, outside of exercises, was way down. Instead of walking 3–5 miles a day, I was more 1–3. My biking pretty much disappeared. I didn’t get in this type of work when there wasn’t anywhere to go. This is another reason why kettlebell training treated me so well: it’s very calorically demanding compared to a lot of traditional lifting.
Supplements all year were 5 grams of creatine a day, vitamin D and fish oil. I supplement my protein intake with a shake daily, usually about 1/3 of my total protein for the day.
Top 5 Big Takeaways
1. Doing Something New is Good
When you hang out in a lot of fitness communities, you’ll noticed that they fall into ruts where only a certain type of lifting is “proper.” This can run the gamut from large discussions of machines versus free weights all the way to hair splitting stuff like sumo versus conventional deadlift. There’s always someone that’s telling you the right way to get strong. I’ve always been of the mind that is technically true, there is a right way to get strong: the way you’ll do the work. If I tell you to do 5/3/1, but you hate doing it, guess what, you’re not getting strong. Because eventually you’ll just stop doing any work at all.
Doing work, any work, is important and I kept doing work.
And now I have a lot more tools in my toolkit when someone asks me about getting in shape. I get asked this so regularly that I have a set of paragraphs in the notes app on my phone ready to copy paste. They always included doing some sort of barbell work. Because, well, barbell work was all I did and when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Now, I know a lot more about calisthenics (specifically suspension training) and kettlebells in addition to more traditional weight training. It’ll help me help other people, and I love helping other people.
2. The Kettlebell Rocks
I fell in love with the kettlebell over my course of using it. The 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout was a great mental switch up to go from HIIT calisthenics to grinding out 100s of swings a day, but everything switched when I did Enter The Kettlebell and starting doing movements like the snatch and the high pull.
The explosive nature of kettlebell lifts is intoxicating. It reminds me of a lot of the Olympic lifting we’d do in high school to get us ready for football season. Football is a game of explosiveness. Once the ball is snapped, you really only have a handful of seconds to beat the guy in front of you. You must explode into whatever it is you are doing no matter the position. Kettlebells ask you to explode with each rep, and I love it.
There’s a finesse to them as well that felt a little like martial arts. Moving your arm around the kettlebell, rather than move the kettlebell around your arm is both good advice and sounds like something from a poorly dubbed martial arts film. The combination of explosive finesse hooked me in, I’m a kettlebell guy now. It’s the one piece of home equipment I’d recommend to just about anyone.
On top of all of this, kettlebell work outs are calorie killers. My heart rate soared during my workouts and burned a bunch of energy off of me. This is very good when you are crammed up for quarantine and feel like tearing down the walls after a while.
3. Working Out Outside Also Rocks
Go outside and tire yourself out. This is what I do with my son all the time: get him out of the house and tired out so he doesn’t drive himself, and me, crazy. Turns out, this works on adults too.
If you grew up in the 80s, you probably saw (and loved, to be honest) Rocky IV. The Rocky movie that had the robot, and more importantly, the iconic training sequence in the snow.
As the temperatures went down outside, I felt that aesthetic quite a bit. Just me and my bell outside. The powder coating scraping the skin off my dry hands. The cold air weaving through my long quarantine hair, giving my scalp goosbumps. My breath visible in front of me on every exhale at the end of the rep.
All while blasting some angry music.
I don’t have a yard, but I do have an ally in back of my home. So, I took to the literal public square and got a reputation as the guy with the kettlebell. Sometimes my child would play with other children on the block while I swung around the bell. I’d pet the neighborhood feral cat. I’d get sniffed by my neighbors dogs while they were out for a walk. I’d wave hello almost every day to a guy that works maintenance at a nearby office building and left at the same time I was working out. I caught a woman looking out her window at me more than once.
It not only ground me up and wore me out to work out in the crisp outdoor air, but it reminded me that was actually part of a community during a time when we were increasingly isolated from it.
4. Calisthenics Is Not The Answer
As much as I made the best of a bad situation by trying out suspension training, it’s just not a match for me. I missed the iron too much.
I think suspension training does have a place as part of a larger whole. It’s extremely portable because the straps roll up small and weigh almost nothing. When traveling, especially by plane, someday my suspension training straps will be the first thing I pack. It doesn’t take up any room at home either. Even in my 800 square foot place, I found a space I could set-up for 40 minutes and do some suspension training. And it worked my core like crazy, which is something I need to do all the time (my back injury a few years ago was likely directly related to my lack of core strength).
But it’s not an every day thing for me and my goals. I want strength. I want muscle size. I want explosiveness. The programs included with TRX were beginner friendly and reminded me of classes at my gym, two things I don’t really need in my life. I don’t want anyone, even a digital coach, talking to me when I’m working out. When I’m working out, that’s me time.
5. Do the Work
In past years, I’ve planned out a whole year of programs in advance around themes. Something I attempted again this year. This year I could have banged my head against the wall trying and trying to get in what I had meticulously planned last January or I could fly by the seat of my pants and just do some work.
I opted to do some work.
There is a meme in a lot of fitness communities that too many people over plan their fitness. They pour over every Strong by Science release and argue on web forums about how optimal anyone’s programs are. They do this so much it’s actually a detriment to them actually picking up some iron. I think this problem is overblown, BUT it didn’t get invented out of whole cloth. There are a lot of folks, especially new folks, that want to start their fitness journey “right” before they even start at all.
We gotta do the work.
My workout regiments this year were chosen by what equipment I could find in stock. From there, a reply on twitter here from a friend or a series of web searches to find literally anything to find something to do with that equipment. It was chaos and it taught me a lot while still making me stronger.
1. I cannot out eat.
2. Make me stronger first and foremost.
Despite losing access to the gym and the toys within and programs that are largely written around having that access, I still found something that fit the bill. Kettlebell workouts are intense and absolutely destroy calories and spike the heart rate. All that without having to go for a jog. Pretty impossible to beat for someone like me. So, it turns out, I did kind of have the year I set out to have this year.
That said it took a global disaster for me to expand my horizons. Probably not worth it! But given that’s not a trade off I had a choice in, I did the best with what came down the pipe. I would say if you have a chance to change everything you know about fitness and working out, you should do it without being forced into it. At least on occasion. I definitely don’t regret even my time with calisthenics, even if I’m not going back there any time soon. Embrace some chaos and let it shake up your assumptions about fitness, where ever they came from.
The next step from here? It’s more kettlebell! While where I live is going to let asthmatics like me get closer to the front of the line on vaccines for COVID, it’s pretty clear there will not be enough to go around for a long time. And then, once I have it, it’s going to be a tough decision! Do I give up my outdoor, no commute lifting sessions? It’s pretty nice to only have to budget about an hour out of my day total to lifting!
The year might be over, but my period of uncertainty is not. I’m going to keep doing the work. My next year I am planning on chaos.