In the Beginning: Primal Fitness, Year One, Part One
A friend got me started on bodybuilding. A friend in another state, another generation, another class of athlete considerably more experienced than my own.
He was returning to serious training after about a year’s hiatus. I needed to get moving, too, after a winter hunkered over my keyboard with whiskey in my blood and a novel on my mind. We began together.
At first, I imitated him without really understanding why. Hill sprints and push-ups, jump rope and air squats, stair repeats and lunges. He introduced me to the concept of general physical preparedness; that is, an approach to athleticism that balances strength, speed, endurance, and flexiblity to form a base for specific sport training and/or simply the ability to live fully and save one’s own life should such an unfortunate occasion arise.
A bit of backstory
I come from a family that runs fairly lean on both sides. We’re more or less mesoporphic in body type and tend to be on the active side. I grew up playing outdoors, entirely unconcerned about body composition, and never formally exercised until I took up running in college after a boyfriend informed me that I was fat. (His loss.)
The ensuing ten years saw me finish a relay marathon and a half-marathon, log thousands of daily runs with my beloved Dalmatian, attend an assortment of aerobics classes, bicycle my commute until I got hit by a car, and even join the treadmill troops at a local Gold’s Gym.
Though I eventually bought In the Night Farm and laid on some decent muscle as the natural result of hours spent on farm chores, horse training, and riding, I can’t recall ever curling a dumbbell heavier than 10 pounds in all those years. I may have been considerably fitter than your average 30-year-old, American female, but I was neither strikingly lean nor particularly strong.
Here’s a picture of me taken in Summer 2007. See what I mean?
In March 2009, I could string together a whopping 6 push-ups…on a good day. Pull-ups were a pipe dream. I believed air squats should be performed only to a 90-degree angle to protect the knees, and couldn’t have told you exactly what a deadlift was.
I owned almost no fitness equipment. Fortunately, although my workout partner did have a good home gym, he also had a strong interest in bodyweight work and high intensity interval training (HIIT). In the early days, I fashioned an effective “gym” from a hilly road, a flight of outdoor stairs, an iron stair rail high enough to dangle from, two pairs of dumbbells (5 lb and 12 lb), and a jumprope braided of used baling twine (not recommended).
Here’s what those early workouts looked like:
8x hill sprints (100 yards, sprinting up and walking down. Your sprint may not be super speedy, but it counts as long as you’re running as hard and fast as you can at your current level of fitness)
4x rotation of:
Air squats (To failure. See “range of motion” below.)
Hanging leg raises (aka HLRs. To failure. I think I started with 7, after a month or so of more familiar ab exercises like sit-ups and planks.)
Pull-downs (Climb a ladder to “up” position and lower slowly)
Tabata sprints (Three sets. See “Tabata sprints” below.)
4x rotation of:
Lunges or walking lunges (To failure.)
Planks (Front and side. Work up to 2 min front and 1 min each side.)
Overhead presses (With dumbbells, to failure.)
Distance run (4-6 miles)
Escalating quarters (3-6x rotation of walk 1/4 mile, jog 1/4 mile, run 1/4 mile, sprint 1/4 mile on flat ground)
4x rotation of:
Looking back, I am interested by the amount of work I chose to do each day. Though I largely avoided overtraining by following a 3-days-on, 1-off, 4-on, 2-off schedule and keeping each workout to an hour, I could still have achieved significant results with daily workouts featuring just the sprints or just the distance run or just the bodyweight rotation. Chalk me up in the obsessive category.
Also, it’s worth pointing out that I didn’t set out to bodybuild. (My friend actually had to tell me that that’s what I was doing!) I simply aimed to achieve overall fitness — and I did. Nevertheless, I’ve since refined my training program rather significantly upon discovery of the primal blueprint way of working out and eating. I’ll get to that later in this series. For now, here are a few additional thoughts regarding the workouts above:
On sprinting — At first, I used a quarter mile section of paved road for my hill “sprints.” I later learned that 100 yards is a more appropriate sprinting distance and switched to a shorter, steep section of the same hill. Eight hill repeats (sprint up, walk down) takes about 18 minutes and is a fantastic interval workout that stimulates the release of human growth hormone and results in lactic acid accumulation and oxygen debt, both of which yeild powerful, positive metabolic benefits. Though I used to combine my sprint workouts with rotations of several bodyweight exercises, I now let my sprint workouts (which are faster, but not longer, than before) stand alone.
On range of motion — A few weeks ago, I was doing barbell squats at an out-of-town gym. A guy came up to me and asked who taught me to squat like that. Assuming he believed (as so many people do) that I should be lowering only until my hips were level with my knees, rather than into a full squatting position (aka ass-to-grass), I asked if he was going to tell me that I was going to blow out my knees. He said no, but it was so rare to see a person do squats correctly that he assumed I must have worked with someone on my technique. I gave the credit to the Crossfit website and other online resources. “Well,” he said, “that’s a damn nice squat.” You can do them too. See the “air squat demo” on this Crossfit link.
On increasing reps — As stated above, I started out at 6 or fewer pushups in a set. I chose 10 reps as my first, significant goal. During each set, I pumped out as many standard pushups as I could, then dropped to “girlie-style” to get up to 10. If I had to rest mid-set, so be it — but I was getting that 10! Within about six weeks, I could whip out four sets of 10 standard pushups and had graduated to decline pushups. Today, I can do multiple sets of up to 36 pushups with my feet on a 24-inch platform.
On Tabata sprints — Tabata sprints are brief, all-out sets of intense exercises repeated 8 times, 20 seconds of work alternating with 10 seconds rest, for a total of 4, brutal minutes. They have a similar metabolic impact as other types of interval work. Tabata sprints can be performed on a stationary bicycle, or you can use thrusters (try it faster, with lighter weights and no ball), hop-ups (2-footed jumps up and down a step; start with 4-6 inches and increase as your fitness improves), stair repeats (run up and down a flight of stairs), jump rope, etc. The key is utter intensity. You must pour full effort into Tabata to reap its benefits. If you don’t feel like you’re about to pass out or puke afterwards, you probably didn’t work hard enough.
On other things — At this point, I was still eating flegan. It was a clean diet that served me will for several years, but frequent stomach bloating (which I now realize was due to gut inflammation resulting from copious whole grain and legume consumption) was an increasing irritant. On the bright side, I made the decision to give up alcohol so as to benefit as much as possible from my training. (I now have an herbal tea habit instead.)
While the workouts above proved highly effective, further reading and a major life change led me through a series of modifications for the better. I’ll cover several such changes in my next post.