Physical activity basics - May 2008

My current workout is based around a one-week cycle with lots of variety. [2]

This outline has been written in a way that enables comparison with where I was at six years ago.

A reflection on body-mind-planet - Since 2002 I have come to understand better how the body (including the brain) and mind are an integrated system with many processes that extend into the processes of the world around them and the world around extends into them. Having written that, it sounds vague and new-agey, but it's not. Western science is generally practised in a way that is reductionistic and simplistic. And journalists lead us to believe that everything can be crunched down into easily-digested soundbites - which leads to linear, rather than systems thinking. But the world is not like that. There is no reason why the world should be easily understood by one of its species, Homo sapiens.

A reflection on activity and diet - Just as the body is a part of the environment, it follows that food intake and activity are also inter-related. A Palaeo activity regime will have the greatest benefits in terms of health and well-being if it is complemented with a Palaeo diet. That's about all the science I need, but Art deVany and Rob Faigin each explain the workings in sufficient detail for those who are too cautious to base their decisions on the principle. I explain my present diet here.

Principles - The underlying principle for me is - where feasible - to live in a way that reproduces how an adult male would have worked, rested and played in Palaeolithic times, and to minimize the ways that are not Palaeo. That's far more difficult - writes he, sitting at a computer under an electric light, five full hours after sundown. Stephen Boyden first enunciated this principle in his landmark 1973 paper.

Activity in the Palaeolithic would have been intense, interspersed with relaxation, chores and walking: sprinting over short distances, fighting with and eluding other men and prey; carrying a heavy load unaided (such as a carcass); relocating a rock or large bough to where it was wanted. Skinning and butchering meat, locating the materials for tools and fashioning the tools and using them. Walking barefoot over rough or hilly terrain. Bounding.

Resting would have included stretching (look at a pride of lions), grooming (watch a troop of chimps!) and enjoying good weather. There would have been one- or two-day periods after a successful hunt with no work at all, just eating, talking, fashioning stone tools and resting.

Playing would have been important in three ways: (a) playing with children (both gently and rough-and-tumble), (b) more physically demanding activity involved in training teenagers for adulthood, ceremonial dancing and (c) showing off, exercises of skill, strength and dexterity to convince men that one's position in the community was deserved and also to impress the women.

What would NOT have featured in everyday Homo sapiens life?

Where does this lead us?

The rationale and foundation laid out in 2002 still applies. Variety. Never repeat a set - that's drudgery. If you feel you must repeat in some way, try the routine I use on Friday when I do about eight different abs activities rather than eight sets of crunches. Here is an outline of where I'm at in May 2008.

Monday morning: Body core day (cycle to gym on the way to work)

(1) Pavel Tsatsoulines Russian Full Contact Twists - a warm-up of 5 x 20kg on an Olympic bar, followed by 1 set of 5 x 40kg and round off with a blast of 3 x 55kg. (Pictures from 2003 and 2009 here.)

(2)  Dumbbell presses. (No barbell bench presses)  As many as I can at 35kg in each hand; this is usually 6 or 7. Coming down the last time I make it slow, almost isometric, with the weights well out from my body until I just have to drop the weights (I place mats under my exercise station to cushion the dumbbells's fall).

(3)  24kg kettlebell. 10 snatches with each hand. This is followed by 10 swings each way across my body with a two-handed grip and arms almost straight - I swing the 'bell up higher than shoulder height, then swoop it down past my knees and arc it up higher than my left shoulder.

(4)  Burpees. I am now doing four sets of ten followed by one set of 20. These are full burpees with a full pushup and a jump off the floor. I began with a single set of 10 and added on a burpee every exercise day till I reached my present level. Isn't this routine breaking my 'never repeat a set' rule? Perhaps, but because the sets are separated by only 10 breaths, each set is performed in a much more exhausted condition than the previous one - each set feels very different from the others.

(5) Windscreen wipers - a set of 15 back and forth.

Anything else that looks like fun.  One or two exercises that I haven't tried for a while, preferably involving whole of body co-ordination.

Tuesday morning: I walk vigorously 4km to and from work with a light pack in light shoes (presently Nike Free 3.0) always on grass, dirt or uneven surface. Always in shorts, deliberately allowing myself to get cold in winter and walking through the sun in summer.

Wednesday morning: Presently this is legs day. Dead lifts! Pavel advocates deads. Art de Vany says any man should be able to lift twice his body weight, just like the Iriquois did in the 17th century. I'm presently at 81 kg and am lifting 185 kg. My sequence this week was 3 at 65 kg, 3 at 105 kg, 2 at 145 kg and 3 at 185 kg. For the 185 I take off my shoes and socks and keep them off for the final set which is 10 at 160 kg. The last two sets are a struggle but they haven't beaten me for over a year. I must admit, however, that I am at my limit in those last two sets. After the set of ten I have to sit down, otherwise I could faint (I did once). I lower the weights slowly from all lifts (I used to drop them when I was working up to my present level), just touching the floor between lifts, moving all the time.

I follow these with kettlebell snatches, burpees and windscreen wipers as for Monday. I also cycle in on Wednesday.

Thursday morning: As for Tuesday.

Friday morning: I cycle in for abs day, but the way I do it, it's probably better described as body core day.

(1) Crunches - lie on my back with my legs at right angles and feet level with my knees and against the wall. Keep one foot agaist the wal and extend the other leg up so it's loosely resting on the wall. then do 30 crunches, hands behind my head, twisting my body away from the extended leg. Swap legs and repeat on the other side.

(2) Saxon side bends with a 20 kg plate. 10 each way.

(3) Swinging chin-ups. Stand under a gymnastic bar that's about 2 metres off the ground, facing along the bar (not across it as for a normal chin-up). Holding my body straight, I chin-up, bringing my feet up so they are level with my eyes and either side of the bar. 10 of these.

(4) Dumbbell backwards raises. Stand beside a bench, rest one knee on it and lift up the dumbbell with the opposite hand. keeping the arm pretty straight, swing it back and up as far as it will go. Then down, pausing at the bottom to lose all swing momentum. One set of eight for each side.

(5) Medicine ball between knees. Sitting at the head end of a benchpress bench, I grip a 12.5 kg medicine ball between my knees and lift it with my knees up towards my chest, gripping the bench with my hands. To keep the effect of the ball's weight to the max, I have the barbell on the rack and rest my back against it. 40 of these.

(6) Plate pullover. Put the barbell on the floor and place two 20 kg plates on the other end of the bench. Sit on the bench with knees either side of the plates, grip the plates at the 'quarter to three' position and lift them to my thighs then lie back with my head just at the head end of the bench. Raise the pair of plates over my head then lower them down behind my head with straight (but not locked) arms. Eight of these.

(7) Dragon flags. Follow the link for pictures of these. One set of 10.

(8) Four activities using gravity boots:

(8a) Toe touching. Follow the link for an illustration. One set of 10.

(8b) Pikes. I bring my torso up so it's beyond horizontal and hold it for 5 seconds. Three of these.

(8c) Lift-ups. Starting in the same position as for toe touching, I bend my legs as far as possible. It's the opposite of a deadlift.

(8d) Crunches. Holding a 15 kg plate, I push it up to my toes as far as I can 10 times.

(9) Kettlebell snatches - as for Monday

(10) Burpees as for Monday, possibly windscreen wipers - or not as the case may be. I don't mind if I do the burpees only twice a week.

I don't drink at the gym and I wait for at least half an hour before drinking water then at least 15 minutes before eating after a gym session. My "meal" will be either nothing or yesterday's cold meat (100-150g cooked weight) [1]. Nothing else. Art DeVany says that keeping food and drink out of your stomach after vigorous activity stimulates production of HGH. I don't know about that, but it feels fine. After that I eat nothing till I have a few pieces of fruit or a mug of water when I get home at about 4:30 pm. Not only am I not hungry throughout the day, but eating does not enter my mind.

Saturday and Sunday. I go in to the gym and catch up if I have missed a day during the week or do my burpees on the grass. But otherwise, I split firewood almost every evening over winter and do other work in the garden (carrying railway sleepers is the heaviest chore I have done at home).

Other bits and pieces - I cycle to and from the gym and also for shopping where practicable. To put my socks and shoes on and to take them off, I stand balanced on one foot while I deal with the other.


1. This is what John Lewis-Stempel wrote about his breakfasts in his year of living off his 40 acre property in England "Cold meat is now my staple, which, of course, is what the English always used to break their fast with, before the coming of Rice Krispies or the so-called 'full English', which is an invention of the 1920s." He also writes "Later in the month, on a trip to the seaside for my mother's 80th birthday, I'm so hungry I can't relax, because I am so conditioned to fox-like opportunistic scavenging that I cannot stop assessing the environment for food sources." (These are extracts published in The Daily Mail from his forthcoming book.) See notes on my own diet here.     Back to text

2. In May 2009 I began experimenting with the Body by Science workout and I am documenting my progress here.     Back to text

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Page updated 6 July 2008   Latest edit 17 May 2009