Saturday, June 13, 2020


Working Out at Home

I've been super lucky during this pandemic-related stay-at-home time, because I had just finished setting up my home gym in Dec 2019, mere months before this lock down was imposed. So I got all my home-gym equipment at regular or even discount prices, as opposed to the premium that many other people had to pay just a few months later, assuming you even succeeded in finding stuff that wasn't sold out.

It took me quite awhile to work out how to DO a home gym in a practical way that didn't require something huge/expensive, like a squat rack. I've also slowly evolved the workout itself over time, in response to things I've learned. All of which is to say, it took me a long time to get to where I'm actually happy with my overall fitness routine, and I'm actually seeing significant gains now, which tells me that I'm on the right track. I also feel safe now with all of the exercises, which is important.

This is a long post, so here's a bit of an overview. There are three sections: equipment, routine, and recovery.  Equipment is about the weights, the resistance bands, and the other "things". Routine is about what I actually DO, including yoga, pilates and two different weight training days. And recovery is about how to make sure my body can properly grow in response to all of this work. We'll start with recovery FIRST, because it's the most important, it's basically the why.  Whereas routine is what, and equipment is how.

WHY = RECOVERY: Why do any of this? Well, I want to be healthy, flexible, strong, and live a long time. Centenarian Olympics: "In your 90s-100s, you should be able to:
If you're going to do all that at 90, then it immediately follows that you need to be stronger than that at 80, stronger again at 70, etc. Obviously it's never too late too get fit, but given the other obvious benefits, I think it makes sense to pursue fitness your whole life.

This section is actually called recovery, and that's about all the time you spend NOT working out, living your life, and it's when your body is rebuilding from the workouts and actually getting stronger. The most important part of that is diet: you need to be eating enough of the right kind of stuff that your body can actually recover/rebuild. And that basically means protein, you need ideally several hundred grams per day, plus other calories too. So, in a fore-shadowing of what's to come, you should basically be sacrificing real chickens to your metabolism, or the equivalent. I've found the only way for me to consume enough is via liquids - trying to get more and larger burritos was just impossible. But drinking a litre of milk a day? LoMaD. EASY! Protein powder can help the balance (more protein, so less fat/sugar for the same target), but isn't essential.

And the other thing is just to make sure that you're not going too hard. Your body needs many days of rest after a hard workout. And during a workout, you need time between each set to let your body recover to aerobic exercise (rather than anaerobic).

Another thing that has to be said here in recovery is: always listen to your body. If something is painful, stop. Period. I know it's hard. Just stop, immediately, and end the entire workout. You can always come back tomorrow, and your "pride" or "motivation" or whatever ISN'T WORTH GETTING HURT. Also, if it's not feeling good, figure out why, adjust, etc, until it's feeling good. There is quite a large zone between an exercise which your body doesn't find challenging, to one which is, and then beyond that to one which will injure you. You need to be paying close attention during a workout, so that you can hear those signals, and judge correctly: you want to it to be challenging, even hard, but you don't want it to be painful, or to injure yourself. It takes time and experience to become a good judge of this balance. But given that you shouldn't be in any rush, I'd say that a good strategy in general is to immediately stop doing anything that seems risky to you, and figure out a new way to do it, or use less weight, or whatever, until it no longer seems risky.

On a super practical front, here's some numbers around this for me: I generally need between 90 and 150 seconds of recovery between sets, depending mostly on what it is (squats needs more, shoulder press less). And I need at least 3 complete days between workouts - used to be 2, but as I get stronger, I need more. I generally try to drink 3-4 glasses of milk on workout days, and the day after too, but I don't try so hard on the other 2 days.

HOW = EQUIPMENT. I'm putting this in the middle, since it's hard to understand "what" without the details from how. Also, how is still slightly philosophical, so I'm going to start this section with a sci-fi short story: 0wnz0red by Cory Doctorrow, which contains this very transhumanist rant:
"But your meat, it's not under your control. You know you have to exercise for 20 minutes before you start burning any fat at all? In other words, the first twenty minutes are just a goddamned waste of time. It's sacrificing a chicken to your metabolism. Eat less, exercise more is a giant chicken-sacrifice, so I say screw it. I say, you should be super-user in your own body. You should be leet as you want to be. Every cell in your body should be end-user modifiable." 
Working out is what humans currently have to do in order to get our bodies to DO and BE the things that we call "fitness", and fitness is the foundation not just of your body, but also of your mind. As long as we lack real ownership, we're going to have to keep sacrificing chickens in this messed up dance. That said, we don't have spend HOURS doing this stuff, like almost everything in life, there is an 80/20 Pareto Distribution, meaning: you can get 80% of the benefit by doing the right 20% of the work. This also combos well with the "High Intensity Interval Training" HIIT attitude and research - same sort of idea, just a different frame. Nearly everything in the real world is distributed by a Power Law, so once you sort of catch the wave on this, you start to min/max all parts of your life...

The trick to min/maxing weight lifting is: what's essential and what's not? Sadly, what's utterly essential is to strongly activate the biggest muscles in your body, in order to release all the good signals (HGH, etc) that will make your body do what you want it to do, which is: build muscle. So that means leg exercises, with a LOT of weight, there is no way around that logic. And that means, you need equipment which can actually let you achieve that.

After thinking about the problem for quite awhile, and doing some little experiments at home, I eventually settled on a 3-part solution:
  1. BowFlex SelectTech 552 Adjustable Dumbbells. Each dumbbell can be adjusted to vary from 5 lbs to 52.5 lbs ("552"). So total possible here is 105 lbs, and it's super versatile. I liked the design & look & ease of use of these better than their main competitor, the Power Block adjustable dumbbells. And of course, either one is way superior to sets of real dumbbells, which would be a lot more expensive and take up a lot more room, and probably have less options for weight in the end too. I got the BowFlex 552 for $300 CAD, I see they are more than double that now...
  2. For additional weight: 20lb weight vest plus 10lb wrist weights. AND, two sets of resistance bands - 10 inch. I measured the actual resistance those bands very carefully, and though the varies (more resistance the longer they get), you can think of it quickly like this: 2x yellow = 15lbs. 2x red = 20lbs. 2x blue=25lbs. 2x green=40lbs. 2x black=50lbs. They combo up too, of course.
  3. Ancillary equipment: 6mm yoga mat (I like this thickness, it's enough to cushion my bony knees, but not too much to make it spongy). Adjustable weight bench, for bench and push press. And I have a yoga block, 2x 4lb dumbbell for pilates, workout clothing, a small table to hold everything, and a notebook.
For squats and deadlifts, I have to combine the weights and some of the resistance resistance. Other exercises vary. I decided on this after seeing the absolutely outrageous prices and sizes of thing like squat racks and olympic bars & plates, which is the kind of stuff I used to use in the gym. I DID look at the SelectTech 1090 (10lbs - 90 lbs for each dumbbell, i.e. not quite twice as heavy) for quite awhile, but they are unreasonably expensive - it wasn't double the cost, it was quadruple. I may eventually end up there anyway, but maybe I can figure out a cheaper way somehow...

Another important thing in the how though, is to worry about balance. You don't want become one of those muscle-bound people who can hardly move, and their arms don't straighten out, and they teeter cause their legs are undeveloped... I discovered the hard way (INJURY!) that it's super important to keep up your core strength, and also, your flexibility. So in addition to the 80/20 HIIT stuff, I do pilates and yoga. These help keep my core strong and my flexibility maximized, and this actually takes longer, much longer, than the workouts. But I think it's really important, especially as I get older, in order to avoid injury, but also to keep being able to exercise properly. So much of doing a concentrated, optimized workout is being able to do it correctly, with proper form, and sadly the optimized workout just isn't balanced enough to properly train all the small muscles of your body (e.g. the ones that literally maintain your balance), so you need to do something else, and of course, stay active. Anyway, all of that finally bring us to:

WHAT: ROUTINE. Now we're into the real nitty gritty :-).  I don't have a strict schedule, but there are basically three things which alternate around:
  1. Yoga classes. During the pandemic, I've been using YouTube: Alo Yoga is a great channel for some pretty advanced yoga. Obviously you should find some at whatever level you're at. I can't actually DO some of the more advanced stuff, but I love being given a motivating example, so I can strive to one day be there. I've found 30 minutes is enough at that level; I feel like this is more than sufficient for flexibility, but longer can also be good for your mental health and getting in better touch with your body. Once the lockdown is over, I'll go back to my local studio.
  2. Pilates classes. I hate them, actually. Due to a very old injury (congenital, actually, but it's still mine), my core has some permanent scarring and bruising, and so a lot of core work is somewhat painful for me. For years I just skipped it, but that's NOT a good idea, as I learned from a very painful back injury period about 9 months ago. So, I keep my core strong by doing pilates, my local studio has actually been offering virtual live streaming, and I need that over trying to watch it on youtube, since, as I said, I hate it. Gotta have someone I know keeping a eye on me, or I don't do it.
  3. Workouts. As above, HIIT, 80/20 rule, let's just do what will make my body actually grow muscle. Like most people I find lifting weights somewhat boring, so I try to keep up the entertainment by ramping up the intensity, and making it about really challenging myself. I've done a lot of different weight programs, had several different personal trainers, read quite a number of books, and honestly, just spent way too much time trying to iron this routine down to it's absolute minimum, shaving mere seconds somehow appeals to me, even if it takes me hours of thinking to manage... that's obviously somewhat insane. Anyway, here's where I am now:
DAY Awarmupssets (always r3x5)note
Squat2x25 r10 and 2x45+vest r62x52.5+wrist+vest+red+blackequiv. 205 lbs
Deadlift2x25 r102x52.5+wrist+black equiv. 165 lbs
Pelvic floor
intermixed with Bench - set of holds, set of fast, set of holds
Bench Press2x20 r102x45

DAY Bwarmupssets (always r3x5)
Squat2x25 r10 and 2x45+vest r62x52.5+wrist+vest+red+black
Pelvic floor
intermixed with bodbr - set of holds, set of fast, set of holds
Bent over dumbbell rows2x15 r102x50
Push press2x10 r102x35

r is the number of reps. So e.g. r3x5 means three sets of 5 reps each. The 2xNN is the adjustable dumbbells, i.e. 2x25 means each dumbbell is set to 25 lbs. From there I add the wrist (10 lbs), vest (20 lbs) and various elastics, always in matching pairs. e.g. for deadlift, a black band for each dumbbell, which runs between the dumbbell and the bottom of my foot - I stand on them. You can think of two black bands as adding 50 lbs total (see above), but of course, it's actually quite a different experience, since it's variable and a bit annoying to setup. I strongly prefer to use real weights whenever possible, but you just can't get nearly enough weight on a dumbbell to do squats or deadlift properly.

Pelvic floor is basically me just pulling up my pelvic floor while sitting in a chair, it's a core exercise. I'm hoping to get strong enough core to eventually do a real exercise there, but I'm not there yet.

Also note that traditionally, you'd be doing more weight in deadlift than in squat, but I've just found that because of my weak core, I can't right now. It IS getting better, slowly, but I'm being very cautious as I add weight - e.g. not using the vest now, since I found it really caused discomfort, something about the cantilevering of the weight, since the vest rests pretty high. Maybe I'll try it again in another month or two, or maybe I'll just add more elastic resistance, I have lots of bands...

I have in the past done more days, many more exercises, more frequent workouts, etc.etc. I'm pretty sure the routine is very close to absolutely minimal now.  In fact, as I said, I feel like without the yoga and pilates, this routine is not sufficient. Everything that remains is certainly necessary, there is no more fat to strip.

In terms of how it goes schedule wise, I basically do something like this:
Yoga + DAY A
one or two days off
one or two days off
Yoga + DAY B
one or two days off
one or two days off

But I'm not religious about that, if I need an extra day for recovery, I need an extra day. Generally speaking the workouts end up 4 or 5 days apart, occasionally 6. Pilates classes actually only happen twice a week, so I try to time the things to make it workout, but that isn't always possible, and sometimes I'll end up doing two workouts in a row instead of alternating.

You can read a lot of stuff about warmups and cooldowns, stretching, etc, and the advice is widely variable and conflicting. I've found starting with yoga makes for a great warmup, and puts you in the right frame of mind for paying attention to your body during the workout too. I asked three exercise professionals about which way they would do it: yoga+workout, or workout+yoga, and I got two for this way, and one for the other. Which just goes to show that these things are not written in stone, and I have tried it both ways, just to test. If you do the workout first, you DO come into yoga with a kind of energy and intensity that's awesome, you can really feel your body glow while you are breathing. But overall I think it's safer this way, and another upside is that because you're already warm all over, you don't need to do as many warmup sets in the workout. When I used to do JUST the weight lifting, I had an extra warmup set for every exercise, i.e. there were three warm up sets for squats, and two for all the others - it made the whole routine quite a bit longer. On the other hand, I DO feel like you slightly reduce the maximum possible weight on each set when you do the yoga first, which is a real price, will slow your progression. I don't do anything special for cooldown - I just take a fairly cold shower.  Keep me active for 10 more minutes, and helps to prevent me from later sweating into my clothing too much - though on a warm day, even a cold shower won't prevent me from sweating for 2h after a good workout, I'm just a sweaty guy.

In terms of progression, I increase the weight if the exercise is too easy. Obviously that's super subjective. But generally, if I'm not struggling on the last rep or two of the last set, it's time to go up. I'm a bit more gun-shy about increases for shoulders and deadlift, due to old injuries, but the rest of them, I'm not scared to go up and then actually have sets where I can't quite make 5. 4 is totally fine and that's how you know you're really pushing it too. I've seen my weight increase from about 100 lbs on squat to over 200 in the six months I've been at this, so that's feeling great. Bench has been more moderate, from 70 to 90.

I use the notebook for recording all the details of each workout, i.e. what exercises, weights, reps, etc.  Plus any notes - if it was hard, I put a little h. If it was too easy, I put an up arrow, which tells me to try more weight next time. If I had to stop for any reason, I note that. I record my weight every couple of weeks too. It's quite dense - I get 4 full workouts on a page (5"x8"), plus again on the back, so all my workouts since starting in Dec fit on only 5 pages. That's a lot of sweat for such a small amount of ink :-)

I think that covers it, though of course, I haven't said what any of those exercises actually are, but you can google them, and go deep into the rabbit hole of hundreds of variations of each, lots of other similar exercises, exercises which focus on other muscles (e.g. biceps, always popular, but basically vanity in my opinion). I don't want to hear about your favorite pet exercise, and my routine basically just goes with the basics...

That obviously was super long winded, but it's nice to have it all down in one place for once. I hope other people can find some value in it.

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