Growing up, exercise equaled sports. I played tennis, baseball, basketball, football, ping-pong, roller-hockey, home-run derby, and others. I eventually realized that if I wanted to get good I had to focus on one and I chose basketball. I started playing year-round, participated on elite traveling teams, dragged my ass out of bed at early hours to do agility and plyometric exercises, and worked near-daily on improving all aspects of my game. Playing basketball I learned a tremendous amount about teamwork, giving and receiving feedback, the importance and limits of hard work, channeling competitive instincts toward a firm goal, and mental focus. After my senior year season of high school I felt burnt out and stopped playing for a couple years.
With the built-in structure and commitment of basketball gone, I had to think about physical fitness in a context other than team sports. It’s not uncommon for athletes to stop exercising altogether when the whip of a coach is absent, but I had no problem jumping into a new self-designed program that would keep me in shape. I went to the gym every day and pursued various cardio and weight exercises. Here’s my post on diversity in your workout routine. Here’s my post on pushups and crunches.
For exercise I think about two things: cardio and strength training. For cardio I do 10-15 mins on the bike (I read light fiction or magazines) and then 20-25 mins on the treadmill (I listen to music and try to just chill out). My strength training is more experimental. Since I’m no longer playing basketball there’s no external need to build muscle mass, so my motivation / interest fluctuates. On its own, increased strength just feels good, lifting weights uniquely relieves stress, and there are aesthetic / attractiveness benefits, too. Due to my frame and biology, I can put on significant upper body muscle mass within a few months if I keep a routine. But it can be a hassle screwing around with the machines.
A few months ago I started up a more vigorous strength training effort. However, instead of going into familiar free weights and machines, I focused exclusively on pushups, crunches, and pull-ups: bodyweight exercises. Because of my weight, these types of exercises have always been hard — ie the more you weigh, the more weight you’re pushing up. My question was: Can I actually get bigger this way or will I just maintain current strength?
My goal was to do 100 pushups a day, every day, and as many crunches and pull-ups as I could do. Within a few weeks I was doing three sets of pushups (35, 35, 30) in 10-15 mins and within a couple months I could do 50-60 pushups consecutively no problem. (There’s a whole movement around doing 100 pushups consecutively.) I felt / observed significant gains in upper body muscle mass. Most important I had no problem doing them daily because anytime I had some time to kill and a floor I could drop down and get it done. Much harder to invent excuses not to do it!
For Christmas my brother got me Perfect Pushup — two circular disks with handles that you put on the floor and they twist as you go down and push up. It stresses slightly different muscles and supposedly is better for your elbows. At the least using them keeps the basic pushup interesting. Again — avoid boredom by introducing variety into your workout.
Nutrition-wise, my basic operating principle is as it’s always been: “Eat as much food as I can.” I’m always hungry. I try to pre-eat before restaurant meals, I try to go to restaurants with known small eaters so I can finish whatever they don’t eat, and I snack / eat Clif bars throughout the day. So quantity hasn’t changed but quality has. Specifically, I have tried to eat more cottage cheese and nuts (solid sources of protein) and move my PB&J’s to wheat instead of white bread (if you eat PB&J every day like me this makes a difference).
So, after three months of a pushup-centric workout routine combined with a little more focus on my intake, I feel as fit as ever. The numbers bear it out. When I stopped playing ball my weight crept up to 220, even 225 pounds, which at 6′ 4″ I could manage but it still felt a little heavy. Now I’m down to 215 lbs which feels more comfortable. My physique is more cut. This involved no weight machines! Granted, bodyweight exercises will only take you so far — to re-introduce variety and push above my weight, I’m for the moment moving back to machines and free weights — but for the casual fitness person I strongly recommend keeping it simple and doing push-ups, crunches, and pull-ups.
Bottom Line: I highly recommend bodyweight exercises if you want a simple, easy, anywhere way to increase overall strength.