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Beyond Sets and Reps

Whether it is hot and humid or snowing and cold, I enjoy training outside at least once a week. We run, perform calisthenics, lift stones and logs, and climb trees and ropes. I not only enjoy the fresh air and scenery but also the creative process involved in turning the world around us into a functional gym. As a result, it is not uncommon for me to share images of our outdoor sessions. Below are a few examples that I have posted recently to my Facebook and Instagram pages.

Lifting, carrying, and throwing heavy stones is a tremendous way to develop real world strength.

Pull-ups from thick tree branches will strengthen the hands unlike any conventional gym exercise.

Few conditioning routines are as enjoyable as running hills and trails throughout the woods.

Rope climbing is yet another tremendous pulling exercise with obvious lower arm benefits.


Clearly, these are just a few of countless outdoor exercise options. I have discussed several others throughout this blog’s history. For example, I demonstrated an outdoor workout in the snow a few months ago.

As evident throughout the pictures and video above, I make the most of whatever is around me. I truly believe that I could train effectively in any environment. Whether I am in my front yard, lost in the woods, or stranded on an island, I will find a way to exercise. I do not need any particular piece of equipment and that’s a message I have consistently delivered for many years.

Yet whenever I stress the potential of simple and intense routines, I find my inbox filled with questions about sets and reps. If I had a nickel for each time someone asked what routine I follow when I am outdoors, I would be a rich man. Unfortunately, I do not have quality answers to those questions.

One of the reasons that I enjoy outdoor training is that I am free to do whatever I wish. If I want to run, I run. If I want to stop and lift a rock, I will stop and lift a rock. I do not need to perform three sets while someone looks on and waits for a turn on the bench.

I also do not follow any particular rep range when outside. I train based on instinct. For example, no one tells me when I am hungry or thirsty. I just know. My body tells me. I follow a similar approach when I am outside. I do not need a paper routine to tell me that my legs are tired from running hills. My body will tell me and I’ll know it is time to transition to something else. Perhaps I will switch to pull-ups from a tree branch. Once my hands are fatigued from the thick branch, I will also know. I may go back and run a few more hills, or maybe I will lift and throw a heavy stone.

Whatever I am doing, I will push and apply myself with the same intensity I bring to the gym. Once I have worked for an hour or so, I wrap things up and conclude the workout. I won’t know how many sets or reps I performed of any specific exercise, but I will know that I worked hard. I won’t know the weight of the stones that I lifted, but I will know that they were heavy enough to challenge me. I won’t know the length or grade of each hill that I ran, but I will know that they were far and steep enough to fatigue me.

And as crude as such a routine may sound, it provides a much needed break from more traditional and structured work. I say this not to suggest that everyone follows my approach, but instead to highlight some of the reasons that I train outdoors. The freestyle nature of such work has proved quite beneficial for me over the years. Training outside without specific parameters allows me to stay fresh both physically and mentally.

In summary, there is nothing wrong with performing a specific routine, but there is more to training than blindly following what is written on paper. As you gain experience, you begin to know better than anyone what your body can handle. When your body provides real time feedback during a session, you will know what it means and how to proceed accordingly. If you haven’t trained outside before, I encourage to get up, get outside, and use the world around you. You’ll quickly realize that you do not need anything fancy to achieve a quality workout while enjoying the fresh air around you.


Nature is pleased with simplicity. – Isaac Newton



Kushti – The Physical Body Outtakes

When discussing low-tech training strategies, one of the most common examples comes from the ancient wrestlers of India. Kushti, the traditional form of Indian wrestling, has existed for thousands of years. In fact, two of today’s popular bodyweight exercises originate from these wrestlers. Both Hindu pushups and squats (rightly known as dands and baithaks) have essentially become household names amongst exercise enthusiasts.

Even Bruce Lee was known to perform these exercises after studying the training habits of the legendary wrestler Gama. Below is an excerpt from Bruce Lee’s The Art of Expressing The Human Body. Lee was said to perform these exercises every other day.

As for additional Kushti training strategies, Vincent Giordano has created two DVDs that feature modern Indian wrestlers preparing for their sport. And while his DVDs have been discussed on my forum in previous years, Giordano has recently released several outtakes from the original footage.

Below you can see part 1.

Five additional clips can also be seen at the following links.

Part 2Part 3Part 4Part 5Part 6

As you will see throughout the footage, these wrestlers continue to thrive on an intense, yet basic form of training. They exercise with stones, clubs, calisthenics, and ropes. They also practice their sport regularly. Wrestling itself is a physically exhausting exercise.

Therefore, it is no surprise that the wrestlers seen throughout the clips are well trained, despite exercising in what many would consider a rudimentary environment. High-end equipment is nowhere to be found. If there was ever a case to be made for training with the basics, these wrestlers offer as good an example as any. The complexities that are so commonly argued by today’s trainers are nowhere to be found.

And while I am certainly not suggesting that we all train like Indian wrestlers, I believe it is useful to study athletes from different generations. Research involves much more than reading modern journals. It is difficult to improve on the past if you have not studied it. Plenty of coaches from today’s era would benefit by studying the habits of those from previous generations.

As for the average Joe’s who are looking to get in shape for every day life, these wrestlers offer yet another example of low-tech high-effect training that can be performed almost anywhere with almost anything (including nothing). Your ability to get in shape is not based on the equipment you use. It is based on your willingness to continually and diligently work with whatever is available.


Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it. – Bruce Lee


Passionate About Passion

I can’t believe it was over 25 years ago when I first saw the Ultimate Warrior perform as a wrestler in the World Wrestling Federation. As a youngster, I enjoyed watching him lift other wrestlers over his head. He was a physical beast. When I’d see him wrestle in the 1980s, I would drop to perform pushups in hopes of someday developing his strength.

Unfortunately, I learned of the Warrior’s sudden passing earlier this week. Born as James Brian Hellwig, he died at age 54 on Tuesday. And while I have not seen the Warrior in many years, I recently came across his video below. I certainly enjoyed it.

Within the video, he discusses the difference between being alive and truly living. He states that living means engaging your life with intensity and passion. I could not agree more. Too many people plod through life without realizing the gift that it is. Tomorrow is never guaranteed. If there is something you want to accomplish, you need to stop waiting for the perfect moment. You don’t need to have everything figured out to move forward. Someday is not a day on the calendar.

The video does contain vulgar language, but if you can get past that, the message itself is quite powerful.

RIP Warrior


I’m passionate about f–king passion! – The Ultimate Warrior


Maintenance vs. Progress

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As a coach, my job is to develop my athletes. If I am training a young boxer, I want him to improve from fight to fight. Each time that he enters the ring is an opportunity to advance. Yet despite our goals to learn and improve, I am cognizant of the fact that we cannot improve everything at once. While certain attributes are targeted, others will naturally receive less attention. Maintenance is not necessarily a bad thing however. In many ways, maintenance can be viewed as progress. For instance, if I can improve a fighter’s strength while maintaining his current level of conditioning, I view that as progress. Our ability to keep what he had while enhancing another area is a clear sign of improvement.

Unfortunately, maintenance is not always viewed as positively in the fitness industry. Many mistakenly relate maintenance to plateaus or the inability to improve. In their eyes, if you cannot progress beyond what you are doing, something must be wrong. For example, I recently had a trainer write to me questioning the potential of hill sprints and jump rope training. His comments were in response to my video below.

A summarized version of his critique was that hill sprints and rope training are limited in terms of progressions. He mentioned that he only had access to one hill in his area so there was no way to progress beyond it. He had similar thoughts about rope training. He basically said that there are only so many ways to skip the rope. What should an athlete do once he is proficient? He jokingly questioned whether athletes should progress to skipping two ropes at a time.

My response to the man was quite simple. While there are many ways to enhance hill and rope workouts, complex progressions are rarely necessary. I have jumped rope and run hills for most of my life and both activities remain challenging and beneficial. I will never outgrow either. Simply performing these activities with true effort and intensity is all that is necessary.

As a busy father in my late thirties, I view my ability to run hills and skip rope like I did ten years ago as progress. I do not need numeric data to conclude that I am benefiting from these activities. My ability to still go out and perform at the same level is all the proof that I need.

One of my favorite examples of the maintenance = progress concept was described in Bill Pearl’s classic Getting Stronger text. Within the book, Bill Pearl shared a story of a man who had been lifting in his gym for ten years. At age 50, the man was discouraged that he was not progressing. He wanted to be lifting more weight.

Bill’s response to the man was as follows,

You started when you were 40 and now you’re 50 and you’re in the same shape. That’s wonderful. In ten years you haven’t lost any of your physique or any conditioning. You’ve turned back the clock ten years. That isn’t progress?

Ten or fifteen years ago, I may not have understood Bill’s comments. The competitor in me always wants to do bigger and better things. As I have grown older and wiser, I now realize that drastic improvements are not always possible or necessary. If I never run faster than I can today, I am okay with that. There are still plenty of new challenges that I will attempt in my life. Yet if I continue trying to improve everything I already have, I will never progress with any new or different goals. Trying to improve everything at once often leads to no progress at all. Therefore, it is important that we have primary as well as secondary goals. Maintaining a previous attribute while improving another is a clear sign of progress.

In summary, I am certainly not here to suggest that you shouldn’t strive to improve. Just be aware that it isn’t always possible to make leaps and bounds in multiple directions. Beginners may make rapid gains, but as you reach higher levels, it becomes much more difficult to continually advance. Do not confuse maintenance with the inability to improve however. Intentional maintenance can be as beneficial as any of your gains.


The art of life is a constant readjustment to our surroundings. – Kakuzo Okakaura


Russian Wrestling Training

Based on the popularity of the Russian boxing entry, I believe many viewers will enjoy the following video as well. As with the previous example, the video was filmed during the 1980s. It includes over 15 minutes of training footage from several former Soviet wrestlers.

To no surprise, the athletes can be seen working through a variety of exercises and drills that have once again become popular in today’s era. A few examples include rope climbing, kettlebell training, Olympic lifts, hill running, partner drills, and several bodyweight movements such as muscle-ups, pushups, and pull-ups. The wrestlers also rely heavily on their actual sport. Wrestling itself is a physically demanding activity. Often times, the best way to get in shape for a combat sport is by performing the sport. A wrestler must wrestle. A boxer must box.

Supplemental strength and conditioning exercise must not interfere with the more critical sport training. The physical demands of wrestling and sparring must be appreciated and considered when prescribing supplemental work to athletes. Strength and conditioning does not need to be complex or elaborate to be effective. Simple additions often prove to be the most effective.

As for Soviet examples, Alexander Karelin is the greatest of all. He was a 9 time world champion and 3 time Olympic gold medalist. His first Olympic championship was in the 1988 games in Seoul, Korea. The video above was filmed in 1987. The timing is impeccable, yet certainly not surprising.

Karelin was a beast long before beast mode became a popular phrase. Many years ago I recall seeing footage of him running in waist high snow. He was my original motivation to go out and run in the snow. As for the rest of his training, Karelin worked as hard as any athlete alive. He pushed himself to the extreme. The methods that he used were relatively straightforward however. He too relied heavily on the sport, lifted free weights, and worked with calisthenics. The methods were simple but the training was not.

Some brief highlights can be seen below.

In summary, today’s gurus need to stop acting like they have invented effective exercise techniques. The bulk of what is popular today has been around longer than we have all been alive. Athletes improve by practicing their sport regularly, and then supplementing the sport training with simple, yet intense exercise. There are no secret exercises or programs. Those who suggest otherwise are almost always those who do not actually train anyone.

Keep it simple, keep it intense, and don’t be fooled by the hype.


Life is like riding a bicycle. To keep your balance you must keep moving. – Albert Einstein


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