Archive for the 'Fitness & Health' Category

My Home-Office Circuit Workout

Wednesday, December 3rd, 2014

Do you spend a lot of time stuck at your desk? Do you work from home? I do, and I like to kill two birds with one stone by doing dumbbell circuit workouts right in my home office.

  • Bird 1 is my need for frequent breaks to refresh my mind for more writing.
  • Bird 2 is my quest to constantly improve my fitness.

Actually, they’re friendly birds and should not be killed, but rather fed and petted. Allow them to sit on your wrist and eat from your hand — they love that.


Anyway, a friend from Twitter asked me to share my workout, so I thought I would write it up here for anyone who’s interested.

Of course of course of course I’m NOT a certified trainer, I don’t know your medical condition or history, and I can’t be relied upon — or held liable — as a source of expert advice. I’m just telling you what I do, and encouraging you to explore what you can do. By all means, consult your doctor and maybe a certified trainer before you begin any course of exercise. And do take it easy as you progress. Slow and steady wins.

My routine is a variation on the Cosgrove Complex developed by trainer Alwyn Cosgrove. Basically, the Cosgrove Complex — also known as the “Evil 8” because it includes eight exercises — takes a trainee through several different movements in succession. The point is to hit most or all of the body’s main muscle groups in a single round of exercise that takes only a minute or two, and then to stack up those rounds into a short workout that helps you build or maintain strength while also giving you substantial benefits in terms of cardiovascular conditioning and fat burning.

My variation, which I devised after a bit of tinkering with the original, includes these seven exercises:

  1. Deadlift
  2. Romanian deadlift
  3. Bent-over row
  4. Overhead press
  5. Overhead squat
  6. Lunge
  7. Bicep curl

You can see a sample of Cosgrove’s original routine in this video.

If you’re quite fit, you can go heavier, complete more rounds, move directly from one round to the next without rest, or any combination of these. If you’re just getting started, you want to go VERY light — lighter than you even think is reasonable — and not do so many rounds.

For the first round, you might start with 5 repetitions of each exercise. Then you’d reduce it to 4 reps for the next round, 3 reps for the next, and so on. For maximum “evil,” you can do one or both of two things:

  • Once you get down to one rep, do more rounds to take you back up the ladder from 1 to 5 reps
  • Start at a higher number of reps, e.g. 6 or 8, and thus do that many rounds as you eliminate one rep per round

I found the Cosgrove routine at this page on T Nation:

Screw Cardio! Four Complexes for a Shredded Physique

Ignore the beefcake photos: doing this routine won’t make you a bodybuilder, nor do you need to be a bodybuilder to start. As you read toward the bottom of the page, you’ll see the Cosgrove Complex already referenced, along with a few other variations developed by other trainers.

Keep in mind that you can easily adapt this routine to suit yourself and the equipment you have. For example, I often do my version of it with 5# or 10# dumbbells rather than a barbell. For that matter, you could do all of the exercises using nothing other than your bodyweight — as in this 6-minute circuit workout from personal trainer Jessica Smith.

Great things about workout routines like these:

  • They don’t take long to complete.
  • They don’t take much (or any) equipment.
  • You can do them just about anywhere.
  • They’re totally modular. You can do a quick circuit of 5 rounds with 5# dumbbells to get your blood pumping, or you could do the full-monty 8-down-to-1, 1-up-to-8 circuit with a 45# barbell and work up a serious sweat.
  • They work great as part of a bigger circuit with anything else you may already be doing for a quick exercise break: pushups, planks, crunches, selected yoga moves, etc.

Will this work for you? How will you put it to use?

Bird photo from Flickr user lovekatz, used under a Creative Commons license.

In work as in weightlifting: compound movements first.

Wednesday, January 8th, 2014


Serious weightlifters follow a fundamental principle: compound movements first.

A compound movement is one that exercises multiple muscle groups rather than just one. In the picture, for example, the woman is about to perform a deadlift, which works all of the muscles in the legs and hips, as well as many muscles in the trunk, back, shoulders, and arms. One easy way to tell whether a movement is compound is that there will be a range of motion for multiple joints — in this case, the knees and the hips.

The distinction is with a simple movement, which calls primarily on one muscle and requires a range of motion through just one joint. A dumbbell curl would be an example of this. Ignoring the slight effort of the muscles in the hand and the shoulder to grip and stabilize the weight, the lion’s share of the work is done by the bicep, and the only range of motion is in the elbow.

Why do you do these exercises — deadlifts, squats, dips, chinups, bench presses, etc. — first? Because they work the most muscles, they work them the heaviest, and they work them all at once. If you really want to be strong, you do the lifts that allow you to move the most weight while requiring you to use more of your muscles at the same time. Only after you’ve done those big lifts do you move on to the lighter simple movements that allow you to focus on particular muscles. That’s how you get the strongest.

What’s the analogy to work?

It’s very easy to focus on the “simple movements” of the working day: cleaning up your inbox, reading headlines, making to-do lists, knocking off the little items on your list. I fall into that pattern myself, and in fact it can be a good way to warm up for the day. But it doesn’t get the Big Work done.

Think about your working life and your career for a minute. What are your equivalents of the squat, deadlift, and bench press? Maybe it’s the work that helps you close a significant deal, or develop a new product. Probably it will relate to some complex project — your research, your health, the book you’re writing. Ponder this for a minute, and maybe jot down a few things that occur to you.

If my analogy holds, these compound movements of your working life will call on you to:

  • Use multiple big skills at once. Thus my blazing-fast use of keystrokes to file Gmail into the correct folders doesn’t count. These need to be things like “product design,” “client communication,” “prospecting,” “storytelling,” or “project management.”
  • Deliver bigger chunks of value. Filing my email promptly creates value for me, because it helps keep my life less cluttered. But it generates bigger value by . . . no, actually, it doesn’t. It’s a beneficial thing to do — like a bicep curl — but it’s not worth nearly as much as finishing a writing project, pitching an article idea to an editor, or doing the research needed to write a book.
  • Perform joined-up thinking. Think about the examples in the previous two bullet points. Each of them requires bridging various ideas. In the software world, product design involves many things — researching user needs, designing interfaces, clarifying engineering requirements, and so on. Similarly, pitching an editor on an idea requires the writer to research the publication, come up with a well-formed and relevant idea, and then adhere to written and unwritten professional protocols for how to broach the subject and follow up. You get the idea: you don’t get to coast on one set of skills, or focus only on the fun parts. You have to follow through on the totality of the project.

Does this analogy work for you? What are the best examples of compound movements in your working world? And what can you do differently to make sure you focus on them first?

Image by Amber Karnes, used under a Creative Commons license.

Fitness goals – end of 2013

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

Over the past several months I’ve become a Fitocracy devotee. I find that the combination of workout tracking and social reinforcement there is good for my motivation as I pursue my fitness.

As I’ve been getting back to hardcore workouts, I’ve started to set out some explicit goals for myself. Here are the monthly goals that I framed at the beginning of December, along with my current progress:

  • At least 100 push-ups every day: so far, so good.
  • At least 70 push-ups in one set: not yet, though I got 59 this morning.
  • Level 30 on Fitocracy: this should happen tomorrow. (One of the clever things that the Fito folks have done is to establish levels, based on the accumulation of points, that get progressively harder as you go. Lower levels require just a few hundred points, which you might earn in a moderate weights workout. Higher levels require thousands of points. Level 30 kicks in at nearly 130,000 points.)
  • 4,000 Fitocracy points in one workout: achieved yesterday. (That’s a big workout.)
  • Stretch goal — 150,000 Fitocracy points total: still a big stretch, since I started the month just shy of 100,000 points. (I was sick over the past week, which slowed me down, but I also just wasn’t consistent enough with big workouts. It could still happen, though . . . )

What I didn’t do, you’ll notice, is set any goals that dealt with specific weights to lift, distances to run, or what have you. I’m hesitant to do that now, too, because in the past I’ve injured myself by going too heavy too soon with lifting.

Really, I always have the next goal in mind when I lift, because I always want to add a little more weight week by week. I’m not naturally very strong, but — for as much as I’ve lifted weights a lot in the past — I’ve never trained hard enough for long enough to maximize whatever potential for strength I do have.

For reference, here are my current best efforts in some major lifts:

  • Squat: 3 sets x 5 reps x 205# on December 14th
  • Deadlift: 3 sets x 3 reps x 225# on December 18th
  • Bench press: 3 sets x 6 reps x 175# on December 15th
  • Overhead press: 5 sets x 6 reps x 85# on December 15th

If you have any background in weightlifting, you’ll see immediately that these aren’t anything close to 1RM (one rep max) attempts, or even 3RM attempts. While I have no desire to go for 1RM numbers like powerlifters do, I do want to push my 3RM and 5RM numbers for all of these lifts in January — aiming to add 20 pounds apiece. So, let’s list those out, nice and formal-like . . .


  • Squat: 3RM of 225#
  • Deadlift: 3RM of 245#
  • Bench press: 3RM of 205# (Why not go for it?)
  • Overhead press: 3RM of 105#

Once I hit the 3RM goals, I’ll try for the same weights at 5RM. After that, more weight.

Speaking of weight, one of my biggest goals is to add some weight to my body (currently 165#) while keeping my same waistband size (31″ or 32″). Currently I have a plate of Christmas egg casserole to help me with that . . .

What are your fitness goals right now?

The return of #beastmode.

Sunday, May 6th, 2012

I love lifting weights, but I’ve let it slip from my schedule. Not anymore, though.

For the past few weeks, I’ve been reincorporating deadlifts and bench presses into my schedule, bit by bit, using the weights in my garage. But today I returned to the scene of my greatest lifting exploits (he said, tongue firmly in cheek) . . . Hyde Park Gym:

My home away from home.

My immediate inspiration for the expedition — and this post — came from my friend Corey, after we discussed his . . . frankly insane workout from the other night. (Corey’s a former competitive bodybuilder who runs his own personal training business in Barbados. Don’t just launch into his workouts if you value your sanity.)

Planning the Assault

Step 1: Sleep for nine hours. Wake up feeling awesome.

Step 2: Follow good nutrition when you wake up. In my case, this meant a protein shake, Ezekiel cereal, and plenty of coffee. I skipped the pastries when I took the kids to the coffee shop.

None for me, thanks.

After giving myself time to digest that and warm up a bit for the day, I loaded up with yet more coffee, plus water, and laced up my favorite Sambas. (In my world, Sambas = deadlifts.) Then I drove to HPG with the windows down, letting the sun soak into me.

At the Gym

Ten minutes with the foam roller to loosen my muscles, especially in my legs. (Soundtrack: “La Grange” by ZZ Top.) Then I reacquainted myself with one of the power racks shown in the first picture above.

Barbell deadlifts: 10 x 95# warmup, 10 x 135#, 10 x 165# — by which point my body began to understand that I was there to do some real work.

Barbell squats: 10 x 135#, 10 x 145#, 10 x 155# — at which point my body was reminding me in no uncertain terms that it’s been too long since I’ve done squats.

T-bar row: 3 sets x 10 x 45# — slow and controlled. Alternated these with . . .
Plate-loading leg press: 12 x 180#, 10 x 270#, 15 x 270# — Hyde Park has my favorite leg press machine ever. Something about the angle and construction of it is perfect for my frame . . . meaning that I felt increasingly sick as I made my way through these sets.

If I hadn’t talked about this workout with Corey and our Twitter friends Deb and Kristin, I might have stopped at 10 reps on the last set. Instead, I decided to channel a little bit of their intensity and blow it on out to 15.

Glad I did.

My first half-marathon experience.

Sunday, April 1st, 2012

Let me start with a confession: this whole premise is a lie.

I did not, in fact, participate in the Zooma half-marathon, held yesterday in the hinterlands of Austin. I registered for it, got my race packet, the whole thing. And I did assault a half-marathon distance on the appointed day. But I didn’t go to the Zooma race as planned.

There are two key reasons for this — which dawned on me only when I received my race packet in the mail:

  1. Because of parking limitations at the resort where the race is held, there was no way to park at the event, or for my family to park at the event. Practically speaking, this meant that no one I knew would be waiting for me when I was done. That was a big deal to my wife last year when she finished her first half-marathon — having me and the kids at the finish line. It was a key part of the race-day experience that I was looking for.
  2. Again because of the parking thing, I would need to be up somewhat before 5 a.m. on Saturday to drive to an airport parking lot, so that I could then take a 40-minute shuttle-bus ride to the race site, so that I could wait an hour for the race to start. And then I would repeat the shuttle process when the race was over. This may sound like the griping of a lazy person. If it is, that’s fine by me. Either way, it would have been a schlep, and no mistake.

What I wanted was to run the distance and have a fun experience. The logistics of this particular race, since it didn’t occur to me at the right time to book a room at the resort for my family, carved away too much of the fun and made it seem too much like work — and not the hard work of running that was the point of the whole thing.

When I shared these reasons with a colleague of mine on Friday, he tried to ride me about them. He’s a veteran of many triathlons, including more than one Ironman, and he cannot imagine being dissuaded from race day by such trivial factors as these. Which is fine . . . for him. I imagine my main running instigator — herself the veteran of several half-marathons, and in training for her first marathon — might want to ride me the same way. But I simply don’t care that much about the race-day experience. I thought I did — but it turns out I don’t. So that’s Lesson #1. YMMV.

My Own Private Half-Marathon

My wife helped me to hatch an alternative plan. One of the loops of the hike-and-bike trail around Town Lake, from the MoPac bridge to the I-35 bridge, is just under 7 miles. So two loops is about 14 miles — 13.8, to be exact. Run two loops, and you’ve done a half-marathon with 0.7 miles of sugar on top.

I got up at an early but reasonable time, ate a good breakfast (a mix of complex and simple carbs, plenty of fluids), and parked under the MoPac bridge in the middle of a beautiful spring morning.

I decided not to time myself closely. Running the distance in 2:20 versus 2:21 didn’t mean anything to me, and I wanted to enjoy the experience at a steady cruising pace.

The first lap went fine, as did the outbound leg of the second lap. I was taking gulps of water and Gatorade at regular intervals and making good progress. I had gone more than 11 miles by the 2:05 mark (I passed a building with a clock on its face), and I was even thinking of putting a flourish on the day with an extra couple of miles at the end of the second lap. After all, if you’re going to run 13.8 miles, why not make it an even 15?

Then things got much, much harder, very quickly.

I’ve hit the wall before in running. I had run 11 miles just two weeks before, and although this was going to be — and indeed was — my longest run ever, I’m no stranger to running for a couple of hours at a time. I was fueled and ready, the weather wasn’t too hot . . . but my condition declined in a hurry.

Finding My Real-Life Limitations

I made it as far an the Congress Avenue bridge on willpower, and purposed to run on from there at least as far as the First Avenue bridge. But then my body stopped answering the bell. My legs had tightened up to the point that I couldn’t run. It wasn’t about willpower or pain tolerance at that point — they wouldn’t fire properly.

So I shuffled along, trying to maintain a good cadence. I thought I’d walk to the First Avenue bridge, then jog to the next bridge. Maybe that way I’d cover the last couple of miles at some reasonable pace.

Why did it happen? In retrospect — given how much fluid I’ve needed in the past 30 hours to recover from this run — I believe I was dehydrated. For years I’ve had problems with my calves, the worst of which came five summers ago when I tore the medial head of the gastrocnemius muscle in my left leg. My right gastroc gives me fits, too, and I do every long run, including this one, wearing calf sleeves.

But yesterday my right soleus and achilles tendon started cramping, harder than I’ve ever experienced. Then, as I walked gingerly along, all of my calf and hamstring muscles felt like they had turned to fiberglass.

It was physically painful, but more than that it was frustrating. I had rolled my muscles like a good trainee. I had tapered properly with my previous long run. I was well-fueled and well-rested. I thought I had taken in plenty of fluids.

And yet I crashed and burned.

A “Learning Experience”

A CEO I used to work for had an upbeat, albeit smart-assed, way of referring to outright failures as “learning experiences.” That’s what this was. I limped along those last two miles, taking more water at every fountain and stopping several times to rest. Even at my worst, I’ve always been able to keep walking, but not this time. I squatted and stretched to get some of the knots out of my soleus. I took deep breaths and tried to loosen up my shoulders and back and well as my legs. But mostly I just suffered through.

What, specifically, did I learn?

  • I didn’t miss being involved in the race. As already mentioned, I don’t care that much about a racing environment. Until I hit the wall, I was having a great time seeing other runners, parents with babies in strollers, people walking their dogs, and so on. I was enjoying the breeze and the sunshine and the lakeside views of my fair city. I’m sure I will care about the race-day environment when it’s a marathon, or an ultra, or maybe an adventure race. But for a 13.1-mile run, I don’t care enough about the race itself if there’s too much logistical friction. (Would a race environment have helped me yesterday? Who knows?)
  • Better hydration is a must. I think I drank plenty during the run. But I’m pretty sure I didn’t drink enough in the 24 hours before I started the run. Duly noted.
  • More base runs are a must. While I did ratchet up my weekly long runs to put me within striking distance of 13.1, I let my work schedule get the better of me over the past few weeks in terms of my shorter weekday runs. I did some good hill climbs, but not enough of the base mileage runs that I needed to build up my strength for this.
  • I’m just nowhere near as fit as I want to be. I’m not beating myself up, but facts are facts: I thought it would require a solid effort to run 13.8 miles, but I figured I would do it smoothly, without stopping, and without agony. Wrong, wrong, and wrong.
  • More effort — and especially more consistency — is required. It’s not enough to work hard, or to work hard most of the time. You have to train for the purpose at hand. Obviously I didn’t, or the outcome would have been different.

While it would have been a lot more fun to finish the 13.8 (or 13.1) without learning these lessons — or feeling as miserable as I have ever felt while running — at least I genuinely learned these lessons at first hand. It’s one thing to understand something in the abstract, but something else again to know it experientially. I’ve been guilty of thinking that my abstract knowledge was an adequate substitute for first-hand experience more than a few . . . thousand . . . times in my life.

But now — at least for this one small subset of lessons — I know.

Image source.

211 Workouts.

Saturday, December 31st, 2011

This morning I set a new personal record in the deadlift. That workout was #211 of the year, meaning that I met the goal I set for myself earlier this year.

Three things I’ve figured out from this:

  1. 211 workouts is not actually a lot for a year. It’s more than most people do, but in fact I let my myself get distracted by various things during the year, especially when I changed jobs in October.
  2. 211 workouts in a year certainly helps you maintain good health, but it’s no guarantee of hitting any certain level of fitness. I’m retooling for next year.
  3. I get by with a little help from my friends. I’ve had great support from my workout buddies — in person and online.

So, 212 for 2012? At least. Given the broader fitness goals I’m cooking up, 312 might be more like it.

Stay tuned.

Image source.

Quick update on workouts.

Sunday, October 23rd, 2011

Earlier this year, I proclaimed my goal to get in 211 workouts during 2011. As of today, I’ve done 156 workouts, leaving me with 55 to do in the remaining 69 days of the year.

(Side note: where the hell did 2011 go? I was sure I had most of it here just a minute ago . . . )

This goal should be easy to hit, but it’s best not to take it for granted: I’ll be bearing down hard over the next month to bring it in range.

At the moment, I’m plotting my workouts for the fall and winter based on Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1 powerlifting program. I’ll let you know how that goes. In the past couple of weeks, I’ve been putting up personal bests in the bench press and deadlift, so I’m on a firm footing for the rest of the year.

What are you doing with your training these days?

Image source.

44 days, 19 workouts.

Sunday, February 13th, 2011

At the beginning of this year, I set the goal of working out 200 times in 2011. For the sake of catchiness, I’m upping that to 211 workouts. (All going according to plan, I can then do 212 workouts in 2012, and so on.)

So far, so . . . mediocre. Rough math suggests that I should be working out 21 times every 36 days, but in fact I finished only my 19th workout of the year within the past hour. That said, the past week was much better than the preceding ones, and if I maintain my new pace, I’ll catch up to where I should be within the next few weeks.

My daily physique pictures are also telling me that I haven’t been working hard enough, in terms of either exercise and nutrition, so I’m taking that feedback to heart as well.

Once upon a time I thought I might record every workout here, but I just don’t want to spare the time for it, and to be honest I’m afraid of boring the audience. If you have questions about what I’m doing for fitness, by all means please ask them. Otherwise, I expect I’ll just lob in periodic updates like this one.

Photo by Jon Tunnell.

Two days, two workouts.

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Last night I skimmed through the 2010 entries my fitness log. The log isn’t perfect, for example because I’m lacking details on sets and reps for a couple of weight workouts, but it’s pretty nearly accurate.

The upshot: it looks like I did 160 separate workouts last year. I say “separate” because, in some cases, I combined a whole workout’s worth of weightlifting plus a workout’s worth of cardio in a single session. I just count that as one workout, even though it’s as much work as two.

My broad-strokes goal for this year: 200 workouts. So far, so good, since I did a weights workout yesterday and another one today. Details follow . . . Read the rest of this entry »

2010 in Retrospect.

Saturday, January 1st, 2011

One of the hardest years of my life, actually, for many reasons that (a) wouldn’t be obvious to outside observers, and (b) I don’t intend to explore publicly. I am grateful — profoundly so — for the good things that came into my life during 2010, for my continued good health, and for the love of my happy, smart, funny children and a wife who, honestly, still blows my mind with how amazing she is. I do not take such blessings lightly.

Some of the biggest things that happened to me in 2010:

  • After ten (!) years at Hoover’s, Inc., in July I moved to BreakingPoint Systems. It’s been a great ride so far at BreakingPoint, and I feel like I’m really starting to hit my stride in important ways. I hope to stay there for a long time.
  • After six years in the Ph.D. program in U.S. history at the University of Texas, in August I published a post explaining why I probably won’t finish that degree.
  • I worked out. A lot.
  • I wrote.

What am I leaving out? It was an action-packed year, but when I look at the list that way, it seems like not so much.

How about you? Ready to put 2010 well behind you?

Photo by fras1977.