Of calisthenics and kettlebells
The Zenlike bliss of a workout that starts from zero
Like many men in trades that involve more sitting than spearfishing, I’ve overcompensated for my clean-hands job with a lot of physical stuff. I’ve snowboarded and sparred, climbed tall walls and swum cold rivers, fallen through clouds and wondered under the waves. But there’s a problem.
I play action hero wannabe for the same reason as other men in that affluent gap between youth and old age: to feel alive. To get that zing that stems from being active, of hearing your breath in fast gasps with your heart hammering a hole. Enriched and overjoyed with the blood-rush thrill of the NOW.
And you know what? (Deep breath): none of it matters.
It’s true that on every jump or dive, there’s one moment of perfect freedom. An utter happiness where the world shrinks to a bubble around you and everything you ever wanted is right here, right now. And for a few rare souls, those moments are enough. (I can list thirty jumpers and surfers who live under canvas on minimum wage, just to keep dropzone or beach up close and personal.)
But for most, these adrenaline-hyped extremes are drug, not food. Just a release valve for the bottled-up frustrations of the everyday. And as with any Class-A fool’s gold, living solely for the next hit shovels a high opportunity cost onto the rest of your life.
That was the problem: covering up life’s negatives takes a lot of time, needs a lot of effort, and uses a lot of equipment. It hides everyday frustrations; it doesn’t solve them.
So here’s a thought: instead of living for the release valve, why not focus specifically on what’s pent-up, and try to use that instead? Not work to push it aside, but to turn your pent-up negatives into positives?
Let us re-pent.
As anyone who’s ever clenched a fist or grit their teeth knows, pent-up is a physical sensation. A negative one. It’s frustration with the everyday that puts the ache in your head and the battery acid in your gut.
But it’s still energy. And energy can be redirected.
That’s why my change strategy didn’t lead me towards another degree or tackling a Great Books list: mind and body are one. And with a sit-down job that involves thinking, fattening up my brainpan wasn’t the problem.
Or rather — bear with me here — it was the whole problem, but working on it would’ve been the wrong solution. Because a great many mental problems stem from incorrect maintenance of the physical self. And given that many trappings of modern life — sitting in chairs, sleeping on mattresses, taking hot showers — are habits the human animal never evolved for, it’s fair to conclude that for most of us, our bodies are in greater deficit than our minds. (Affluent living gives us comfort; it doesn’t give us health.)
So about a year back, I went all Walden on extracurricular activities. Strip it back, start from nothing, find an “extreme sport” so sturdy and spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life. Starting with the question: what can you do starting with nothing?
Three principles guided me.
First: build-up not wear-out.
A lot of extreme activities carry a health warning. You need to be fit to do them; they don’t make you fit. In fact, they wear you down. A professional boxer trains a thousand minutes outside the ring for every minute within it and takes a month to recover from twelve rounds. The actual fisticuffs are the why of her training, not the what.
So whatever I chose, it had to be something whose practice led to healthy, physical improvement: a means as well as an end. Not an activity that simply enabled another activity — building up in order to wear it down again — but a what, in and of itself. Not a why.
Second: no equipment.
I haven’t done any studies, but I’d bet money there’s an inverse relationship between what people spend on physical activity and what they actually get out of it. (Beyond that brief hedonic buzz of the buying decision.)
My purchase history is littered with gear and gadgets bought in the heat of fads: I’ve forgotten what some of them even do. Animated discussions about the merits of Widget A versus Add-on B may be fun, but they mistake the activity itself for an obsession with the stuff around it. And don’t get me started on big-box machines at the gym. (tl;dr: they don’t work.)
So it all got dumped. The ideal home gym doesn’t deck the walls with a dozen Yorks; that’s the ideal hotel gym. (The one nobody uses.) The ideal gym is in your head. All you need to go there is two square metres of floorspace.
So the second question I asked: what life-enhancing activity can you do without gear? (As you’ll see later: I cheated. But not by much.)
Third: no preparation needed.
Self-help gurus are big on motivation. But motivation has high barriers to entry. You swear you’ll get out for a run, but it’s raining outside. You make an exercise plan, then get disheartened because it was too much, too soon. You bought the gym membership — more fool you — but it’s a half hour drive…
…and then you subscribe to someone else’s bullshit. CrossFit? Dance party. P90X? Wasteful overkill. Insanity? Self-flagellation. The only exercise that works is the one you actually do. (CrossFit, in particular, follows the Reverse Fight Club Rule: you must never stop talking about fucking CrossFit. And when you’re talking about it, you ain’t doing it.)
In fact, the only thing worse than fluoro-clad infomercials on the late night channels is the way even professionals measure the purported goals of fitness. BMI (Body Mass Index) is bunkum; it doesn’t measure muscle, aka “the bit that matters.” (Yes, a measure so broadly accepted it’s on the website of Britain’s monolithic NHS treats muscle and fat as the same thing.) So is five-a-day; that was an ad campaign, not a health study. And so is most of “nutrition science”. (It focusses on what’s in food, not the far bigger question of how your body takes it up.)
I had a gym membership for years; the kindest thing I can say is that the juice bar served good coffee. So I went the other way on that whole motivation thing: I wanted an activity that needed no motivation whatsoever. No times and dates, no dress code, and nowhere to go. Just get up and get in the zone straightaway, stay there or leave as you please.
In the living room, naked
What this meant was an activity that a) delivered the endorphin whoosh, b) led to greater health, and c) could be done in the living room. Naked.
I found one. In fact, I found two. And it started with…
… a fucking push-up.
Yes. A pushup. The opening salvo of progressive calisthenics.
That was my new extreme sport. And if “calisthenics” just conjured up images of fluorescent legwarmers and star jumps — as it will for anyone who remembers the 80s — reread progressive. The methods aren’t 30 but 3,000 years old, and if they worked for the Spartans they’ll probably work for you.
That’s why less than a year ago my latest “extreme activity” found me leaning palms-out against a wall, exerting an absurdly easy pressure to push myself standing.
A lifetime of levelling up…
Yes. It starts like that. Against-the-wall pushups.
10 reps with perfect form? Easy. 2 sets of 10? Still easy. But try 3 x 50, with the same textbook precision. It gets strangely hard. You will sweat. You will tire. You will lose form. So you need focus, and fitness, and fortitude. All of which prog cali builds over time.
Programmes vary between four and eight basic moves per workout, each move concentrating on one area but engaging the whole meat puppet. If you get bored, each move has isometric and plyometric variants (aka “planking” and “jumping”) and add-ons for small muscle development and fine motor control. Each variant enables the next; each set builds a base for those beyond.
That’s the progressive bit: you start easy and build on each move, in a upwards sequence of steadily-harder variants and reps that will take anywhere from three months to a lifetime to complete. (If you thought gathering XP, unlocking perks, and levelling up came in with games consoles, think again.)
That’s the beauty of starting from zero: the only enabling equipment is your body, and the only goal is moving it better. It’s less about exercise than about training a skill. Doing it right demands no less mental dexterity than formation skydiving, but without the need to stuff two hundred square feet of cloth into a rucksack first. (Actually — goes a skydiving joke — you don’t need to do that to skydive…just to skydive twice. But I digress.)
At the peak are superhuman moves like the back bridge and the headstand pushup, of which fewer than one in 10,000 people could complete a single rep. And somewhere, in every workout done correctly — even a tra-la-la toe-balance in the supermarket queue — is that zero-point of Zen peace, a thrilling calm in a vortex of exhilaration. Waiting to be found.
And isn’t that what extreme activities mean to us deskbound action heroes? Doing stuff anyone could do…but few actually do?
…with the level cap modded out
I‘m not doing human flags or pistol squats yet. But the benefits along the way are no less extreme. I like being able to do one-handed pushups. I like having a grip strength not far off my bodyweight. The achievements and goals at each level and progression standard, the perks you feel unlocking as lazy flesh firms up and underused muscle sings, make the connection between mind and body overt.
Hey, it might take me three years to reach Level 10. But three years of ever-increasing health? I’m up for that.
That’s what sets up the Zen moment in prog cali. The sense you’re climbing a hill whose gradient always matches your skills and where the summit’s always in sight. The knowledge there’s no “you” beyond the patterns of your nerves—that we have no existence outside our flesh-cradled bones — isn’t some abstract philosophism; you feel it, the way a child at play feels it. It’s obvious. We’re all just sacks of chemicals, and how they slosh around covers the sum totality of human experience.
Being self-actualised — the prime takeaway of any extreme sport — is nothing more than knowing what those chemicals can do…and how to give them a nudge.
And when you do, the torments and setbacks of everyday life simply get turned to a lower volume. Every moment of every day carries the opportunity for moments of supreme peace. In the chaos of a commuting crowd, you find yourself grinning. You’re among them, but somehow above them.
(Even physically. Like Yoga, only more so, the stretches and holds of prog cali pack dense muscle around your spine in addition to prompting you to stand up straighter. The average human can expect anything up to five centimetres in height gain within a year or so.)
Look for the nothing
Hey, I’m not saying prog cali will ring your bell. It just works for me. All I’m saying is, if you’re addicted to the rush-and-a-push of weekend adventure to dissolve the strains and pains of 21st-century life, try starting again from zero.
You can even cheat on the no-equipment thing. My daily moments of inner peace aren’t quite naked any more; I’ve got into these things:
The inevitable kettlebell bit
I added these cannonballs-with-handles mostly because I boulder (it’s like rock climbing, but without the altitude) and wanted to boost my grip. But in my mind, it’s on song with the Zen of Cali. You still need focus, you still need form, and everything builds from a small number of moves. For me, just two do the trick. (If it matters, they’re called the Swing and the Get-Up.)
One ‘bell sized to you replaces more than an entire weights bench; it replaces most of the big-box machines, too, with something that actually works. If you’re doing cali daily, a ‘bell adds a bit of spice.
I love my kettlebells as if they were my own children. Small, rough-hewn, cast-iron children. But never forget: if putting the zing in everyday life is your goal, you really don’t need anything at all.
So the kettlebell pic’s here for honesty. To show that once you’ve found your zero, you don’t need stay there. Few of us really want to spend our lives loincloth-clad on a mountaintop, and few of us need to. Life’s full of great pleasures beyond those moments inside your head; if you live in your head all the time, you lose the context that gives those experiences meaning. And that leads me to the best part…
Still extreme, still Zen
…changing your outlook on life like this doesn’t stop you doing the other stuff. It just changes its purpose, positively. And, of course, it makes you better at them.
I still love the taste of a cloud. I still thrill at the sightseeing sixty feet underwater. And wherever there’s a rough wall, I look for the holds. But I don’t do them for the Zen moment anymore, because now I can get that anytime.
I’m going race car driving next weekend. But don’t worry — it’s just for fun.
Chris Worth is a freelance writer/marketer based in London. He’s completing the last 20% of freelancing guidebook 100 Days, 100 Grand in between creating campaigns and content for a grab-bag of clients mostly in tech and finance. He recently married Lynne’s Month of Meals author Lynne Chang, who’s more into Yoga.
Four guys he’s never met kicked off his journey to the zero, one of whom may not even be a guy: Paul Wade, Pavel Tsatsouline, and Al and Danny Kavadlo. Buy their books! (Worth isn’t affiliated to them in any way.)