Monday, April 5, 2010

Progress, Plateau, and Progress Again

[Continued from Part One and Part Two in response to this Reader Question about primal workouts.]

I finally got an update photo taken to go with the continuation of my reply to reader Rebekah, who asked for specifics regarding my primal workout plan. This shot is from April 4, 2010 -- it's not great, but you get the idea:

If you've been reading for a while and have a very good memory, you might recall that I started doing primal workouts about 13 months ago, well before I'd even heard of the primal blueprint. I didn't have much equipment, but I had plenty of determination and enough creativity to turn bodyweight and interval work into a very effective training program.

But you know us overachievers. Never satisfied, are we? I wanted heavier things to lift! I also wanted more energy with which to lift them...and my long-enjoyed flegan diet wasn't cutting it anymore. I began looking for solutions to my slow recoveries and frequent stomach bloating. You can read about my transition to primal here.

Going primal -- I was nearly 100% compliant by late August, 2009 -- gave my training program a major shot in the arm. After enduring an extended low-carb flu (6 weeks, presumably due to my formerly heavy reliance on carb-laden grains and legumes for the bulk of my caloric intake), I emerged stronger, faster, and more energetic than ever.

But I still needed heavy things. Stacking hay is great, but you can't do it every day. The beasties just don't eat that much! I needed iron. Finally, in late December, I bought it. My Christmas present to myself was an Olympic barbell set, squat rack, plate rack, curl bar, and the necessary accessories.

My workouts, which had moved indoors for the winter, underwent a significant shift. My late 2009 workouts were built around metabolic conditioning (Tabata and other types of intervals, usually "prison style" due to limited space and freezing weather) plus bodyweight/gymnastics work such as decline pushups, pullups, and HLRs. Once my barbell set came home, however, my schedule transitioned to something like this:

Day 1: Heavy
6x rotation of back squats pull-ups, bench presses, weighted HLRs, weighted dips, and military presses

Day 2: Gymnastics
6x rotation of pistols(aka one-legged squats), decline push-ups, pull-ups, L-sits, weighted step-ups, close-grip push-ups, planks and side planks.

Day 3: Sprints or Metcon

Day 4: Rest

Day 5: Heavy
6x rotation of barbell lunges, chin-ups, deadlifts, bent-over barbell rows, weighted calf raises, and renegade rows.

Day 6: Gymnastics

Day 7: Sprints or Metcon

Day 8: Rest

Pop Quiz: What is wrong with this picture?

Gradually, I did less metcon and more heavy lifting and gymnastics. Gradually, my performance peaked...and plateaued...and dropped. Gradually, mild fatigue set in and I lost enthusiasm for training. Gradually, my sleep patterns became disturbed.

Yeah. I was flirting with overtraining.

Okay, okay. It spent the night.

In early March, faced with minor but unresolved pain in my left knee and resolutely mediocre performance, I took a week off. A whole week! (Oh, the mental anguish!) It was my first rest of more than two, consecutive days since September, when Ironman and I took an active vacation to compete in a multi-day equine endurance race.

After my week off, I spent another two weeks working my way back into a regular, amended schedule involving more rest -- and also a few more primal carbs, which now come in around 85 instead of 65 grams on the average day.

I'm still in flux, accommodating increased farm work now that we have more daylight hours, but my enthusiasm has returned. My strength is burgeoning, too. I set a couple PRs last week. I'm leaner than ever. Climbing again.


I think there's a bit more going on here than overtraining. Just over a year into general physical preparedness training, and roughly 4 months in to my heavy lifting program, I believe I am teetering on the brink between "novice" and "intermediate." (Check out this fantastic reference.) My gains are starting to slow. I'm forced to work smarter, not just harder. As the weight goes up, so must my time spent in recovery.

About the abs: I like 'em. Some people seem to find them unfeminine, which is okay with me. They're entitled to their own, lousy opinion. ;) I've always said that I'd rather be athletic than classically beautiful.

Anyway, it has been my experience that weighted core work is responsible for the "6-pack" definition. I do renegade rows with 15 lb dumbbells, HLRs with 15 lbs between my ankles, situps with a 35 lb plate held overhead, and Turkish get-ups with a 12 lb dumbbell.

On post-workout nutrition: While leaning out, I found that skipping PWO food intake was an easy way to take advantage of the release of human growth hormone and maximize fat burning. However, a person can get too lean for optimum performance. I've found that, when increasing strength is my primary goal, I need to eat within about half an hour PWO. A little full-fat cottage cheese and fruit, or sweet potato roasted in coconut oil, goes a long way toward enhancing recovery.

On weight: I weigh myself about once a quarter. It's always fascinating -- but never so much as this last time, when I discovered that I've gained 12 pounds since last April. At 5'3", I'm up from 110 to 122. Wow! That represents a massive shift in body composition, from fat to lean, considering I had to buy a new professional wardrobe in January because all my suits were way too big!

I'd love to know my bodyfat percentage, but alas, I haven't a clue -- nor much faith in any of the usual measurement methods. C'est la vie.


Shana said...

Nice woman!!!

Mike said...


barb said...


sarahz said...

Hi can you tell me please what HLR's are. I have seen a few primal blogs mention this exercise and I am not sure what it is?

Lekki said...

Hey, as a straight woman: you are seriously hot. I would kill to look like you... I am getting there... I hope...

Keep up the great work and the great blog,


Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, Shana and Lekki -- you made me smile. :)

Hi Sarah -- HLRs are hanging leg raises. Dangle by your hands from an bar (like a pull-up bar) and lift your feet, straight legged, until your body is in an "L" position. A variation is to bend your knees and lift them to touch your elbows. One of my favorite exercises!

Mike said...


You made some incredible progress, and the picture speaks 1000 words. What's even more impressive, though, and not many may realize it, but the shift you've made in body composition is unreal---leaner, yet more muscular. Abs not feminine? I'd highly disagree. hence the previous "Wow" comment. ;)
Keep up the good work, and the great blog!

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, Mike -- I liked the previous "wow" comment, BTW. But Blogger seems to have eaten it when I updated the post. :( Glad you came back!

You nailed it about the body comp changes -- amazing, indeed. And you should see how much I eat to feed this lean mass! :D

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Hey, Mike -- just had a thought: Does your Crossfit experience give you an advantage on guessing BF% by eyeballing? I'd be interested in your estimate on what mine might be, if you care to give it a shot. :)

Jonna of Acer Farm said...

Who's the hottie!! Wow, you look great.. which reminds me...about that P90X.. um.... you might be well beyond that sister....

I just entered into Phase 3... and it is definitely a challenge and I am seeing some good positive results.

Mike said...

Might have to see more, Tamara ;) In all seriousness, eyeballing males is a lot easier than females. Just based on that picture alone, I'm going to guess 16-17%. It's pretty tough for females to get abdominal definition, so that alone would put you on the lean-to-very-lean side.

I'd be interested to see what either a 7-site caliper test (+/- 4-to-8%, depending on tester experience) or a air-displacement test (accurate to +/-0.5%) would put you at.

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Good for you, Jonna! I haven't tried P90X, so goodness only knows how I'd do. I hear mostly positive reports about it, though some say that the frequent, intense workouts lead to an overabundance of cortisol, overtraining, and/or adrenal fatigue. Obviously, you could cut back on the frequency if that was a problem.

Thanks, Mike! Your estimate is in line with mine, but I haven't your experience. The nerd in me wants to go looking for somewhere to have that air-displacement test done.

David said...

Tamara! Fantastic results from just a few but important adjustments in your exercising and eating program!

I am going to try your ab workout to increase core strength. Since I am getting a little "younger" each year, I've learned this area really needs attention. Especially since I drive a lot each day and now have some back pain from 2 hours of sitting.
BTW: What are HLRs in your exercise routine?

Tamara of In the Night Farm said...

Thanks, David. I hear you about the long commute -- I have one, too. For core strength to combat back pain (and I've certainly experienced a dramatic cure to my chronic upper and lower back pain since I started strength training!), it's probably best to focus on stabalization work (planks and renegade rows, in addition to the big lifts like squats, bench presses, and deadlifts) as opposed to traditional "ab work."

I do love my HLRs (hanging leg raises), though! In a typical week, I'll do each of the following during at least 1 workout: weighted HLRs (but start w/o weight, if you haven't been doing them), weighted situps (same thing), renegade rows (get the form right!), Turkish get-ups, planks and side planks.

BTW, Rusty at Fitness Black Book posted on back pain management recently. One of his key points was that voluntary rounding of the lower back is best avoided.

David said...

Tamara, thank you for the excellent advice. Looking forward to the suggested core workouts for my back. Really enjoy your posts for thought, food, exercise, and life!
Also I have increased my protein intake as well as fats (well...tried a short Breva latte...noticed not as lean after 3-4 days) and carbs to encourage muscle gain. I'll do this for month and see if I get the same results (more muscle mass and leanness as you and other readers have.