So pursuant to two weeks ago where I discussed my dietary history, I thought I’d take a moment to discuss my history with some of the training programs. Like dieting, exercise is surprisingly easy and yet there’s a whole industry that complicates it. And like dieting, finding a good program is equal parts experimenting and knowing yourself, as well as keeping honest about your goals. You can say you want to be athletic all you want, but if deep down you want big shoulders and a chiseled midsection, you are going to be disappointed to some extent.
I’ve been exercising most of my life. I started doing martial arts when I was 12, which quickly was joined by general fitness and physical activity. I started lifting weights sometime in my early teens: calisthenics at first and then a whole lot of machines. I didn’t really embrace free weights until my twenties, and I didn’t really get into kettlebells until my thirties. So that should give you some idea.
5/3/1 – 3 out of 5
5/3/1 is a very versatile program built around four major lifts (squat, deadlift, bench press, and overhead press). The book offers a variety of ways to customize the plan and it fits a remarkable variety of sports and life styles. It doesn’t automatically require equipment, but changing out one of the four main lifts is to be done at your own peril. If you don’t REALLY know what you’re doing, you could easily screw up the program. Like many of the programs I’ll discuss, don’t mistake a lack of perceived effort (meaning muscle soreness and exhaustion) with lack of efficiency. There might be better or faster programs out there, but this works.
Convict Conditioning – 3 out of 5
To this day, I don’t know how I discovered Convict Conditioning but it was a bit of a watershed moment for me. It introduced me to progressive calisthenics (scaling a movement to be easier or harder). Based around six key exercises (push-up, pull-up, leg lift, squat, bridge, and handstand push-up), Convict Conditioning was the gateway for a lot of people to the world of calisthenics beyond planks and endless push-ups with poor form.
Looking back at the program, Convict Conditioning leaves a lot to be desired. The progressions aren’t the most logical, the programming isn’t the best, and there’s yet to be any documented evidence of anyone doing a one-armed handstand push-up. That said, the minimalist approach is delightful and the Big Six fit really well into a lot of programs as support work. Subsequent entries into the series (Convict Conditioning 2 and Explosive Calisthenics) don’t add nearly as much as one might hope, but they’re worth the read.
Building the Gymnastic Bodies – 2 out of 5
If Convict Conditioning is a high school diploma, BtGB is a bachelor’s degree. Gymnastics produces some of the pound-for-pound strongest and most muscular athletes out there. Sadly, that has less to do with their phenomenal movements and more to do with their phenomenal volume. It’s a bad idea to judge a program strictly by its most elite adherents and yet BtGB does just that. The sheer variety of exercises is inspiring and delightful, as is the emphasis on soft-tissue training. The programming leaves a lot to be desired, however, and the structuring seems almost deliberately confusing. This book is a great reference when it comes to exercises and movements, but for actual implementation, you will likely have to look elsewhere.
Power! To the People – 3 out of 5
When it comes to barbell work, PttP is one of the simplest and easiest programs there is, but also maybe the most effective. A minimalist program built around two lifts (bench press and the deadlift), PttP is designed as a simple, no-frills program. It works and while the book dissuades it, the program is easily customizable. Like 5/3/1, this program works very effectively and with little perceived effort.
The book hasn’t aged very well, however. The author, Pavel Tsatsouline, has spoken about changes he would make if he were writing it today (implementing a 5/3/2 rep scheme, instead of the 2 sets of 5, just as an example). The program is also lacking in muscle-balancing, which isn’t an issue for everybody but will be eventually. The need to pair this program with some pull-ups and other activities keeps it from ranking higher.
Enter The Kettlebell: Program Minimum – 4 out of 5
A wonderful companion to Power! To the People, the Program Minimum is a great and simple workout that marries two exercises – kettlebell swings and get-ups – into a simple and easy program. Again, it’s easy to mistake simplicity for ineffective and to mistake moving for training. The swing is a diabolically complicated exercise because of how complicated the hip hinge actually is. Working with a knowledgable trainer is a must, and if not, Youtube becomes your best friend. Still, for effectiveness and ease, you’ll be hard pressed to find anything better.
Enter The Kettlebell: Rite of Passage – 5 out of 5
Picking up where the Program Minimum left off, Rite of Passage now employs clean & presses (and pull-ups, if you employ the expanded routine) with the swings. It’s absolutely crystal clear as to when and how you should progress, with a fool-proof methodology. There’s no guesswork…except in the exercises. Like the swing, the clean & press is not a joke and just muscling the bell up any old way will result in either an acute injury immediately or a chronic pain down the road. Again, a trainer or a lot of time on Youtube is needed. Still, for the sheer effectiveness and versatility, you cannot do better.
Simple & Sinister – 5 out of 5
An improved version of the Program Minimum, Simple & Sinister improves on what very little one could improve upon. There’s even less guesswork, even clearer progression standards, and it is now coupled with a very concise but effective stretching and warm-up program. For a cheap, effective, time-efficient program, especially in an all-in-one package, you really will do no better.
Gymnastic Bodies – 2 out of 5
Building The Gymnastic Bodies for the new millennium, Gymnastic Bodies takes the guesswork out of the progressions and gives you a web-based interface. Train-along videos and very clear rep and set schemes take out some of the guesswork. Some.
I struggled with this program because of steep difficulty curves. Level 16 would be pretty easy and then Level 17 would be physically impossible. I would absolutely breeze through Levels 10 and 11 on all the other exercises, but be stuck doing Level 1 or 2 with one program. Low-rep work would be a breeze but I’d stall at higher-rep work. It got to be very frustrating. I ventured onto the forums occasionally for help but regretted this decision. I’ve no doubt that others would speak highly of the Gymnastic Bodies forums but my experiences were absolutely horrible. If the program delivered a bit better, I might have stuck with it. But between the abrupt difficulty spikes and the condescending and obnoxious behavior on the forums, I really can’t recommend this.
Athlean Xero – 3 out of 5
I’ve followed Jeff Cavalier online for a bit now, so I wanted to give one of his programs a try. I have a decent chin-up bar and a bunch of kettlebells, but no barbells. Given just coming off Gymnastic Bodies, I thought I’d give Jeff’s approach to calisthenics a shake. It was a mixed bag.
The sheer variety of workouts and exercises is inspiring and there’s some genuinely ingenious stuff in here. There’s also a lot of dubious choices and pairings. With some dodgy joints that I have to be careful with, I had some trouble adjusting some of the exercises. Never one for cardio, I found some of the programs a lot of fun and delightfully challenging. A few of the cardio routines were just flat-out frustrating.
I’m a big fan of ‘what is measured is managed’, so the constant changing exercises and protocols didn’t sit well with me, but given the pursuit of something as vague as athleticism, I can appreciate it’s a nebulous pursuit. Still, having done Convict Conditioning and Gymnastic Bodies, I would have preferred to see some more attention given to consistency.
So yeah. That’s about the last decade of my exercise history. I hope this helped introduce you to some programs you might not have seen before. If you’ve got any questions, feel free to post or email me. Otherwise, happy training!