Ask Al: How Do YOU Train?

Other than how to do a muscle-up and what the “trick” is to doing the human flag, the most common question I get asked is what I do in my own workouts.

I first addressed the question last year, but things have changed since then. A lot of my training had been dedicated to preparing for the NYC Triathlon, but since finishing the race, I’ve shifted my primary focus back to strength-based calisthenics. I still do some yoga moves to warm-up, but I am no longer using any weights in my workouts (though I do barbell, dumbbell and kettlebell work with some of my clients). Weight training is a great way to build strength, but for now my interest lies solely in bodyweight training.

I’m Working Out!
For the last few weeks, I’ve been enjoying longer workouts with more rest between sets and less structure than ever. I can easily spend two hours on a summer day at Tompkins Square Park just practicing various moves with little concern for the specifics of sets, reps, rest times, etc. And wouldn’t you know it – my skills have been improving!

The main things I’m currently focused on are hand-balancing (including elbow levers), finger strength, and lever holds on the bar. As I discussed in my recent post on why I don’t do cardio, these days I’m all about treating my workouts more as skill practice than anything else. I’m avoiding structured “sets and reps” workouts and staying away from training to failure (not that there is anything wrong with structured workouts and training to failure – in fact, I’d recommend both of those things for beginners). At this point in my training, however, my focus is on refining my skills and improving my body awareness during my movements, so I’m taking my time with things. I’m not so much concerned with getting stronger, but rather learning to utilize my strength more effectively. I’m still exercising pretty much every day (I take a rest day only on days when I am particularly sore or particularly busy) but I vary the intensity and duration of my training from day to day. Some days I’ll train for a couple of hours, other days I’m in and out in thirty minutes. Listening to my body is still a cornerstone of my philosophy, so when I feel like I’ve had enough, I call it a day. I’m also still doing some running and swimming for active recovery.

Goal Digger
Those of you who know my fitness philosophy are aware that I am not a fan of the goal-centric mentality that dominates the fitness world. Focusing on goals is often a distraction from the process itself. There are skills I’m looking to improve, but the best way to go about it is to take things one day at a time. With that in mind, my training on any given week might look something like this:

Monday: Muscle-ups, pull-ups, back levers, various fingertip holds
Tuesday: Handstands, handstand push-ups, elbow levers, hanging leg raises
Wednesday: Jump rope, pistol squats, back bridges, fingertip holds
Thursday: Low intensity swim
Friday: One arm pull-ups, one arm hangs, front levers
Saturday: Handstands, push-ups, dips, fingertip holds
Sunday: Pistol squats, shrimp squats, back bridges

What I am doing is basically a modified version of the classic bodybuilding style three-day split: mostly pulling exercises on one day, mostly pushing on another, with legs and low back on the third day. Then an active recovery day, then it repeats. This allows me to train daily while still allowing my muscles adequate rest. Isometrics like elbow levers, handstands and fingertip holds can be practiced more frequently, as the hands are very resilient and all of those skills involve balance and coordination as much as strength.

I’ve done a lot of different types of workout regimens over the years and this is by no means a strict protocol. I’m prone to improvise and go with what I feel on any given day. And of course, I still do the human flag on a regular basis, simply because people are always asking to see it, and I like to give the people what they want.

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  • Matt Swider

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on visualized resistance training.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    I don’t know enough about it to really have any opinion.

  • Marcelo

     As always, you are very consistent! But what do you suggest as a good workout for a beginner?!

  • ChrisUK

    Al, I’d absolutely LOVE to see you on fitocracy, reckon you’d enjoy it as well! ;-) It’s a huge community (more than 250k users and growing) and it has an online digital coaching sub-forum where you could pick up virtual clients, may be worth looking in to. Also, that One-arm elbow lever is just absolutely crazy, pc background at the moment!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Marcelo!  I have lots of suggestions for beginners in my books! http://www.alkavadlo.com/my-book/ 

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you like the photo, Chris!

  • Pingback: My Primal Workout Regimen | Mark's Daily Apple Health and Fitness Forum page

  • Anonymous

    As I’ve been learning these past few weeks, you deliver great posts with lots of food for thought. I appreciate the fact that you emphasize reps and sets for beginners. I’ve been rehabbing my physicality with both volumes of Convict Conditioning for almost 4 months now, and as someone who never got into any kinds of exercise other than yoga, having the reps/sets as a guiding principle has been incredibly helpful. I also like the progressions through increasing levels of difficulty. That said, I am inspired by your example as an advanced practitioner of the art in terms of being more open ended at this point in your training. Thanks.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Paul.  I’m glad this post was helpful to you, even if you can’t directly apply much of it to your own training yet.

  • http://www.geldo.de/wordpress/?feed=rss bluenote84149

    Nice update, let’s see what’s in next year.

  • Baloo

    I agree with your fitness philosophy Al (about there being no finish line to fitness) but goals still have a great motivating factor.  It’s easier for you not to be goal-centric when you can do muscle ups and pistols e.t.c.  For me I’ve only really started working out regularly since January (taken me long enough to take control of my health) and goals have been great for me to assess my progress and stay motivated.  

    I think the key is to keep going once you hit a goal.  For example, realising I was really unfit I started the couch 2 5k program to improve my fitness.  Completing that was a goal for me and now I’m done I just run a couple of times a week for fun.  Now I’ve done that I’ve set another goal: being able to do a pull up (not that this is all I’m doing).  After that I’ll keep working on pull-ups but might focus on getting to pistols.  Having lots of achievable goals is a good thing in my opinion, it’s certainly helped me stay focused.  My end goals are to be able to do some of the things you can do but if I set my goal as a muscle up it’ll be a long route to get there and I think it’s harder to think I’d be progressing towards one, easier to set littler goals to help me get to the big ones.

    Maybe in a few years when I’ve got to the point I can do some of these impressive calisthenics exercises I’ll be less goal focused.  As always Al, you’ve provided me with a thought provoking blog post.  Really love the blog and you’re a great inspiration so thanks.  Sorry about writing a novel of a comment too.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Baloo!  I don’t entirely disagree with you – as I stated, I have goals I am working towards as well: improved handstands, longer lever holds, etc.  However, as I’ve often said, “goals are most useful once we realize the futility of them.”

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks!  More to come!

  • Baloo

    Heh, I’d agree with that.  Definitely important to be in tune with your body and recognise the other effects working out has beyond getting to a certain weight/number of reps e.t.c.

  • Dale

    Al, thanks for sharing your workout template. What do you think about all the forebodings about bodyweight without some sort of deadlifting being deficient ? As far as I know gymnasts don’t deadlift and yet they’re jacked head-to-toe!

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Glad you like this one, Dale!  As for deadlifting, if I thought it was an absolutely essential exercise, don’t you think I would include it in my workout?

  • Dale

     I take your point, Al. And I know why they call it ‘deadlift.’ Every time I do it it takes a year off my life.

  • Mary Duke Smith

    Love this. Thank you. It’s how I work out too – not quite the caliber or difficulty of what you’re up to, but in general, the same approach. Thanks for keeping it real! :-)

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, Mary!

  • Jason

    Thanks Al, I plan on doing a similar workout split with easier exercises.  Any recommendations on how to incoporate a 3 day a week runing program? (3 to 4 miles per day) Love all your stuff…keep it coming! 

  • Rob White

    Nice template Al – the classic Push, Pull, Legs template is always a winner!

    I see by the photo you are mastering the fingertip handstand pushup. Cant wait to see the vid on that one :)

    I presume with your training frequency, you daily workout volume (sets / reps) is quite low?

    Do you still do any gymnastics stuff like planche, V-sit, straddle sit, manna, ring work?

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Jason – Glad you liked this post!  I’d simply alternate my running and strength training days if I wanted to run 3x a week.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Hey Rob – My daily volume is relatively low, but it still adds up!  As for the planche, I’ve put that on the back burner for now, but it’s definitely on my fitness bucket-list.

  • Anilkorol

    Hey Al, I usually workout without anyplan. I plan my workout at the park and try to do it as good as I can. So each workout season is different for me. But I include my favorite exercise the muscle up the most frequent. I also do inverted hangs on the bar, tucked front levers, L sit on the dip station and lots of hanging leg raises for achieving the full front lever. I do not know if I do something right by no following a strict plan but I think it works for me since I keep progressing.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Well if you keep progressing, then you know it’s working!  Keep it up, Anil!

  • Brandon Dayton

    Al, Thanks for your comments on goals. I’m an artist who’s always trying to get in shape and I’ve found that over-focusing on goals has led to crappy work in my profession and a list of injuries in my fitness process. Now I’m focusing on taking my time and building the proper foundations. I’d like to do a muscle-up someday, but I don’t want to sacrifice my shoulders to do it.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Right on, Brandon.  It’s good to hear from like-minded fitness enthusiasts.  Train consistently, be patient, and the muscle-up will come when it’s time.

  • k

    Hey Al. This is my current workout program(mix of Raising the bar and CC). What do you think about it?

    Monday:Pullups – 3 setsDips – 3 setsHanging legraises – 3 sets
    Wednesday:Pushups – 3 setsBack bridges – 3 setsSquats – 3 sets
    Friday:Pullups – 3 setsDips – 3 setsHanging legraises – 3 sets

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Looks good! Keep it up!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Robby-Taylor/44409147 Robby Taylor

    the thing about bodyweight exercises is that simply to perform a given exercise correctly requires a certain level of strength, balance, coordination, or whatever makes that exercise difficult. take the pull up, for example. once you can do pull ups, you will want to keep doing inverted rows as a ‘base’ level exercise so that you get sufficient volume in, but keep training pull ups (well, more aptly, chin ups) and get your numbers up. once you can consistently do, say, 6 or so in a set, then you can really start to reap the benefits of the new exercise, as the gains you achieve from it are linear with its increase in difficulty. over time, simply by getting better at pull ups (and, concurrently, dips), using proper form and full ranges of motion, you will necessarily be building a solid foundation for muscle ups. personally, i think it’s easier to start working on back levers than muscle ups, because the muscle up is pretty much an all or nothing exercise; doing this one elbow over the bar business is just a waste of time. but working the basic back lever progressions is much more accessible and will build strength that will carry over into a lot of exercises, including muscle ups. of course, you will still want to do pull ups and dips regularly at that point, for volume.

  • Rob White

    For comparison sake, here is Jim Bathurst’s (Beast Skills) routine
    http://www.beastskills.com/my-current-training-routine/. For those who dont know he was the model for the 1st CC book. Gives a good insight into mixing up freeweight training with bodyweight training.

    Personally, after years of powerlifting and Oly weightlifting im glad to leave the weights alone for the most part and just work on bodyweight skills like Al does.
    Also, Steven Low from EatMoveImprove did an excellent article on a more technical approach to bodyweight training http://www.eatmoveimprove.com/2010/03/the-fundamentals-of-bodyweight-strength-training/. give some good insight on to reps, sets, overall volume, and ordering of exercises.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Good links, Rob. I’ve been following Jim Bathurst’s work for a long time, and Steven Low’s article is very thorough. Both are good resources for bodyweight enthusiasts!

  • Rob White

    Hey Al do you ever throw any neck or calf work into the mix? If so, where would you put it in to your template?
    I think rope jumping and something like sprints would hit the calves alot without the need for any more direct calf work so that’s good enough in my book, but i’d like to add in some direct neck work (neck bridging). Maybe do it with the back bridges?

    BTW i found that it is possible to do a pistol squat then come up into a 1 leg calf raise, or even a jump, which is pretty cool for the gastrocnemius:)
    Next thing is to figure out if its possible to do a calf raise at the BOTTOM of a pistol squat. I think if its possible that would really hammer the soleus nicely.

  • David

    Al,

    Always enjoy your posts! Very insightful and thought provocative, keeps me thinking about methods to improve strength, mobility, and learn a new skill. Going to work on the muscle up and the Pistol. These two exercises will improve areas that are a weakness.Interesting though, is that I have been crossfitting for 4 years, but haven’t improved strength to improve much in these two exercises. SO, I will focus on both to improve.
    I know diet helps with reaching and maybe going beyond your goals (paleo is my diet), but upper body is flabby (you and Mark Sisson got the Mojo!). Maybe body weight exercises will improve muscle definition.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Like you said, I work my calves by running and jumping rope. I haven’t done any calf isolation work in a very long time. And yeah I do throw in some neck bridges sometimes.

  • http://www.AlKavadlo.com/ Al Kavadlo

    Thanks, David! Focus on eating clean and training hard – your body composition should take care of itself if you do that.