Getting Back on the Exercise Horse

When I resolved to start training again, I had a problem: what sort of program should I follow? After a good eight or nine months of not going to the gym I was pretty damn out of shape. When I wrote my previous posts on workout programs I was following the Greyskull Linear Progression program. Linear progression programs are great for beginners because you can safely and quickly increase the amount you lift. As the naming suggests, you can increase it more or less linearly over time.

After a while these gains begin to tail off, and at the time I fell off the horse I'd moved on to a program called 5/3/1 which is designed to facilitate more gradual increases in strength. It works in four week cycles, always with three sets but varying (and very specific) numbers of reps and amounts of weight. Follow the link above and you'll see why a lot of the program's users deploy a spreadsheet or app to help them figure out what they should be lifting.

It's complicated, but it works. That said: I wasn't sure this was exactly the horse I wanted to get back on. In the long run motivation is not what counts when it comes to fitness; discipline is. In the short term, though, motivation can help you get started. I did not feel motivated to start 5/3/1 again, but with much less weight on the bar.

Right about this time a good friend told me he'd just finished a program he'd enjoyed much more than any other he'd tried, and managed to get in the best shape of his life. Now that he was moving on to something else by the same trainer, he offered to send me his copy. Sounded good to me.

The program in question is Roman Fitness Systems' Super Hero Workout. Reading though the program as written, one thing jumped out at me in particular: it was mostly fluff and bullshit. Or more plainly: it was mostly filler. The parts which weren't looked pretty good, though. If nothing else, it's extremely comprehensive. There are specific workouts for sessions three or four times a week (depending on the phase of the program), and a website which gives you customised macronutrient (protein, carbs and fat) goals to hit each day. It'll even break those down to suggested intakes per meal if that's what you prefer.

Exercise wise, it's again very specific. Exact sets and reps are specified (although weights are not), along with the length of the breaks which should be taken between each movement. There's also a lot of variation across the different phases of the program:

  • The initial Thor phase is quite balanced, focusing on power;
  • The Batman phase features short but very intense circuits and restricted food intake;
  • The Hulk phase focuses on bulking and hypertrophy;
  • The final Fantastic Four phase attempts to pull it all together.

(See what he did there?)

In places it really does feel like a program designed by a personal trainer: sometimes you need what feels like half the equipment in the gym. This will probably be a familiar concept to anyone who works out in a commercial gym. I'm pretty lucky that I work out in the office gym, and one of the later workouts happened on Saturdays. That meant it wasn't a problem that I was using all three of the gym's barbells at once. Here's the setup[1] I needed to use to be able to get between the exercises quickly enough:

On the whole it's a pretty good program. It really makes you work. I could barely walk down the stairs after leg day. I definitely benefitted from it, too. While I didn't come out of the other side looking like Ryan Reynolds in Blade Trinity there was definitely some visible improvement. It didn't really feel sustainable in the long term, though. After running through it once I started again, but my heart wasn't really in it. So I decided to stop.

That left me at a bit of a loose end, training wise. Happily, two of the podcasts I listen to served up possibilities of what I could do next.

The first was Atomic Athlete owners Jake Saenz and Tod Moore's appearance on The Art of Manliness[2] Podcast episode 159. Atomic Athlete is a private gym in Austin Texas which, very roughly speaking, does crossfit style workout programs… but with actual structure and programming. Its motto is "Stronger, Faster, Harder to Kill", which I like. I can get behind all of those goals[3]. A bunch of the programs they run through their online portal looked like they would work for me. Plus they sell this awesome t-shirt:

The second was former US mens' gymnastic coach and Gymnastic Bodies founder Christopher Summer's appearance on the Tim Ferriss Show episode 158 (and then again on episode 180). Gymnastic Bodies is a mostly body weight workout program with several gyms acting as affiliates (there are a bunch in the US, one in West England, one in Singapore and so on). The program focuses on safely building strength in both your muscles and your connective tissues (which heal much more slowly).

There are two things in particular these programs have in common (for me). The first is a heavy focus (stressed in both podcasts) on "training" over "working out". The differentiation being that when you walk into the gym to train, you know exactly what you're going to do in there, and when you're done you know how you're going to modify it next time to improve your performance. The second is that neither of them is exactly cheap, but that's not always a bad thing. Actually having to get your wallet out can be an excellent motivator, and sometimes you get what you pay for.

The timing of the decision coincided with a trip up to the Edinburgh Fringe. As luck would have it, one of the first shows we watched was A Simple Space by Gravity and Other Myths. Long story short: If these guys are performing anywhere near you: go see them. It's circus acrobatics, stripped down, raw, intimate, incredibly fun, and utterly mind blowing. Rather than further trying to explain what the show is, here's the trailer:

That should give you an idea of what's going on, but it's 100 times more impressive when it's happening just in front of you. I came out of the theatre inspired; my mind spinning. I knew I'd never be able to do 99% of it. But still, I wanted to try. So: Gymnastic Bodies it was.

Next time: my general impressions of Gymnastic Bodies, both the exercise program and the platform which supports it. Plus: my highly nerdy method of tracking my progress in my bullet journal.


  1. Yes, I know there's not a lot of weight on any of those bars. It was a high rep workout, okay? ↩︎

  2. Yes, I listen to a podcast called "The Art of Manliness". If the name turns you off: it's almost certainly not what you expect it to be. ↩︎

  3. We're talking "harder to kill" in a very broad and literal sense. Not just in a bad Steven Seagal movie kind of way. ↩︎