Building Strength and Mobility with 1 Workout per Week7 minute read

In exercise by Steven Kornweiss, MDLeave a Comment

History

My predominant form of exercise in 2018 was road cycling. I rode a modest 3000 miles and improved every metric of my fitness on the bike. I was still an average cyclist compared to others, but I hit many personal bests. On average, I spent 4-6 hours per week on the bike, and another hour or two maintaining my gear. My total approximate time spent for the year was thus 6.5 hrs/wk * 52 wks = 338 hours (14 days!). Towards the end of the year, I decided to stop riding to focus on other fitness modalities, and to reduce my exposure to car-vs-cyclist accidents, which I’ve luckily escaped for over 10 years of road cycling.

In 2019, I returned to Crossfit, which I used in medical school as a highly efficient means of developing and maintaining my fitness. On average, I performed 2-3 Crossfit sessions per week, some of which were programmed by coaches, and others which I designed on my own. I made significant progress for the first half of the year, but became over-trained by July, so the second half of the year was marked by fatigue and lack of progress. I also spent some time running, doing yoga, and other workouts here and there. Most of these workouts were within 5 minutes of my apartment, and I really didn’t have any gear to maintain. I estimate that I spent 3-4 hours on exercise weekly, for an annual total of 3.5 hrs/wk * 52 wks = 182 hours. This still amounts to 7.5 full 24 hour days worth of exercise.

Present

For 2020, I am focusing my time and energy on work. However, I still want to maximize my fitness gains. This led me to search for an even more efficient exercise regimen that would help me maintain and/or build “metabolic flexibility,” power, mobility, and most importantly, will hopefully maximize my healthy lifespan. The two books that I read that have been most influential on this front are “The 4-Hour Body” by Tim Ferris and “Body by Science” by John Little and Doug McGuff. Based on my personal knowledge, some ideas from these books, and my review of exercise physiology research, I’ve been doing the following:

The Workout

  • 10-20 minutes of warming up
    • Rowing, Kettle-bell work, Rogue Echo Bike
    • Mobility work based on my favorite yoga poses
    • Gentle foam rolling
    • Focused mobility on any stiff joints or tight muscle groups
  • I set up while I warm up
    • Olympic bar for dead-lift
    • Bench and bar for bench press
    • Rings for ring row
    • GHD (glute-ham developer) for sit-ups
    • Kettle-bell for Goblet Squat
  • Keeping Time
    • I set my iPhone clock app to stopwatch mode, and I stick it to the metal lifting rig using one of these cases.
  • Keeping Track:
    • I make a table in my notebook
    • Movement Weight Reps Time-under-tension
    • Dead-lift 165 pounds 19 1 m 34 sec
  • Doing the Workout
    • Start the clock.
    • Move the weight – slow, steady, smooth
    • Count reps – if possible
    • Fail
    • Press “lap” button on timer
    • Rest for 3 minutes – drink water, walk around
    • Perform next movement until the workout is complete
  • Recovering
    • I currently need to recover for at least 6 days or until the 2nd consecutive day with my resting heart rate at or below baseline and/or heart-rate variability at or above baseline.
    • Nutrition is key. This is a separate topic.

Results

WorkoutDateMovementWeight (lbs)Time Under Tension (sec)
112/11/19Bench105120
212/20/19Bench115135
312/25/19Push-up157 (body)150
412/31/19Bench (Dumbbell)50 x2105

On week 5, not shown above, I tested my 1 rep max bench press. The result was a bench press of 185 lbs, 20 lbs higher than I had ever done before. My body weight was 153 lbs, 3-5 pounds heavier than my cycling weight, but 15 pounds lighter than my post-residency weight. My previous 1 rep max was 165 lbs at a body weight of 155 lbs around June of 2019. My 1 rep max dead-lift also increased by 20 lbs from 295 to 315 lbs.

You can see that I had some variations to my workout here. On my third workout, I was at home for Christmas and I didn’t have any weights so I substituted push-ups. On the fourth workout, I ended up in an apartment gym and didn’t have access to an Olympic bar, so I used dumbbells, intentionally decreasing their weight. It’s hard to see the progress here, but I increased both the weight and time under tension between workouts 1 and 2, a clear improvement.

Recovery

Recovery period varies from person to person and changes over time. Recovery is hard to gauge, so it might take experimentation. At this point, my method involves a combination of self-observation and measurements. I track my resting heart rate and heart rate variability using my Whoop ™. My personal experience with this device is that my heart rate variability tracks more closely with sleep duration, sleep quality, nutrition, and stress level than it does with my “athletic readiness” or degree of recovery – at least when it comes to high-intensity training or resistance training. Granted, the factors listed above are huge determinants of recovery, but I just haven’t been able to rely on a high HRV as a good indicator that I will perform well. My overall energy level and ease of warming up, as well as my introspection into my exercise motivation seem to be far better indicators of recovery and readiness. Resting heart rate appears in my case to track well with this. I attempted once to conduct my workout on the first day that my RHR and HRV returned to baseline and I failed earlier at the same weights on every movement. Even though my numbers were saying I was recovered, I knew the second I walked into the gym that I was not. Setting up the barbell felt like a chore. My warm-up on the Echo bike showed that I was having trouble hitting 200 watts, when during my previous warm-up, 300 watts felt like a breeze. So, the numbers are helpful, but they need to be combined with a careful observation of how you feel. Exercising at a high-intensity level when under-recovered is counter-productive – I have learned this the hard way in every sport and exercise I’ve ever done.

Failure

Performing movements to failure is hard. True failure is when you literally cannot move the weight in a positive direction no matter how hard you try. In a bench press, for instance, this means that your last rep will consist of the bar slowly lowering to your chest, and you being unable to move it upwards…at all. Obviously you need to have a spotter, preferably a professional, and even then, you should have some safety hardware set up. Better yet, if you’re inexperienced or don’t have a spotter, then use machines or do body weight versions of the exercise.

Scaling

Every movement is scale-able. Crossfit does a great job of teaching new athletes how to scale movements to their ability level. A bench press can be scaled down to a lighter weight, a push-up, or an assisted push-up. Almost any movement can be done at lighter weights, with body movement only, or with some kind of an assist – machine, band, or otherwise. This takes experience, experimentation, and/or professional help to do properly.

Form

It’s worth studying proper form both for safety, but also for maximal strength and mobility gains. My personal preference is to use free-weights, but for many, machines may be better from a simplicity, safety, and efficacy standpoint.

Discussion

I do not think this is the only way to workout or the “best” way to workout. “Best” implies a purpose, and your purpose may be different from mine. This is one extremely efficient and effective method of training that I am currently using to improve my strength and to ensure that I am adequately recovering while I do so. I think I will keep this style of training as a backbone regardless of whatever else I do in the future. One of the best features is how easy it is to measure performance. I could conceivably switch back to Crossfit for several months and then return to one of these workouts and measure against my past self quite easily.

I do plan to return to Crossfit workouts in the next month or two, primarily to test my abilities there after this program. But, personally, I find it very difficult to perform traditional Crossfit gym programming multiple times per week without becoming over-trained. This is partly due to the programming, but likely has much more to do with the fact that I have a lot of trouble slowing myself down when I’m doing a timed/prescribed group workout. I tend to go too hard, too fast, too heavy, too frequently. I tend to under-eat, perform inadequate mobility work, and overestimate my abilities. This is just my personal experience, but from observing others, I don’t think I’m alone.

I have many friends, acquaintances, and clients in many different sports who I’ve observed for years. It seems to me like the vast majority have suffered from over-training or injuries at some time or another. They’re driven people, hard workers, and they enjoy pushing themselves. What I and others have had to learn is that “pushing yourself,” doesn’t have to mean putting in a max effort on every lift or workout. In the context of a person at risk for over-training, “pushing yourself,” actually means the opposite. It means not going all-out at the wrong times. It means exercising restraint, viewing your training as a long term investment in your health, vigor, and aesthetics, rather than as an isolated performance. I’ll never remember in 30 years if I beat my previous Fran time by 10 seconds, but I will remember if I suffer an injury or over-train myself. I’ll also know in 30 years if I can still bench press 185 lbs or not. I would like to be able to.

One last word on over-training. It seems like this has become a bigger problem because of the access we have to professional athletes now. We can see what they’re doing on Instagram, and we want to do it too. Maybe you can do it, but maybe you’re like me, and your best times and heaviest lifts are tiny fractions of those of elite athletes. Top athletes are physiologic wonders. Most people just simply don’t have the capacity to do the volume and intensity of work that they do. If I see them do a workout with a bunch of dead-lifts at 165 lbs, I might want to try that workout too. For a top Crossfit athlete, a 165 lb dead-lift is probably equivalent to a 95 lb dead-lift for me. Do I scale it? I should.

Disclaimer: This is a brief explanation of what I am currently doing. It is not a workout prescription and does not contain all of the information necessary to perform a safe and effective workout. Use of information on this page and/or website is at the user’s own risk. See full disclaimer here.

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