A 30 Day (Swolework) Challenge

This past month I decided to do, and completed, a 30 Day Swolework Challenge.

Why? I like doing research, so in late June I acquired and read AJAC’s Shred30 program. Shred30’s premise is for bodybuilders to train one muscle group every single day for a month (typically in final prep for a bodybuilding competition). While tough for even serious bodybuilders to do, the extra work improves the strength, definition and density of muscles.

Obviously, I’m no bodybuilder, not even close. I’m an endurance athlete, and usually strength train with a 15-20 minute whole body workout maybe twice a week. I sampled some of the Shred30 workouts, and even the couple workouts I did were rather tough for me. At this stage, I couldn’t imagine doing 30 days of these nor did I fit the workout’s target audience, so for now I certainly wasn’t going to do Shred30.

However, I was drawn to the idea of 30 straight days of strength training. I haven’t done more than maintenance-volume strength training in a long while. And the idea of a 30 day trial or challenge is hardly new. You adopt a habit for 30 days and see how you evolve with it. After 30 days you’re free to dump it, and if it works really well for you it’s likely to stick once you’ve built the habit.

As I mentioned last month, I backed out of the Chicago Marathon. I have no intention of running a marathon this fall, so I have no serious need to endurance train until late summer (I have no planned races before October). This means I could back off endurance training and strength train as a 30 day challenge if I wanted. So I decided to do so through July 1-30.

Like Shred30, I created a 7 day split, where most days I focused on an individual muscle group. One day a week, to make sure no muscles got neglected, I would make sure to do my normal Red Swolework Suit. Every other day of the week would focus on one major muscle group.

While the Shred30 workouts themselves were for me a bit much, I did really like this exercise split in one of the workouts:

4-8 sets, 5 reps each, of a primary compound exercise.
2 set, 8-12 reps each, of a secondary exercise.
One set of ab work to finish.

So for the individual muscle days, I adopted that approach. However, instead of one exercise for 8 sets of 5 reps, I picked two different exercises and did 4 sets for each.

Through some Epley formula trial and error, going off experience, and using a bit of trial and error… I picked a weight for all the relevant exercises that would challenge me each set but not totally destroy my muscles to the point where I needed days for soreness to go away.

I didn’t stop aerobic training at all, but dialed it down quite a bit. 90% of the time all I did was treadmill incline walk at 3.0mph. Now and again I rode the spin bike instead. Sometimes at work if I felt alright I went for a mile run during breaks. Presuming I felt alright I would do something an hour or longer on Saturday (my typical long workout day). But most aerobic work was simply for maintenance and passing time after my strength workouts before going to work.

When I started, some muscles were really sore. My biceps in particular were so sore after that first workout that I thought I perhaps had injured them. The feedback certainly motivated me to back down and find a suitable weight. I obviously had no bodybuilding aspirations; I just wanted to complete the challenge.

I also adjusted my exercise selection as I discovered which exercises were accessible in my gym versus too much of a pain to set up to be worth the trouble. As with any guide, I used AJAC’s Shred30 exercises as a starting point, and found which alternatives worked for my situation.

By the 2nd week I had settled into a suitable schedule and exercise selection, and for each found a weight for every exercise where nothing was sore a day later. I increased the weight on exercises each weight by 5-10 pounds, which was manageable. I didn’t change the Red Swolework Suit at all, and part of settling in was reaching a point where doing this workout (where I trained everything for at least 1 set each) wasn’t a problem.

The schedule:

Monday: Chest (I would do both incline and decline bench presses, plus cable flies)
Tuesday: Back (Pulldowns, Rows, Face Pulls)
Wednesday: Biceps (LOTS and LOTS of curls)
Thursday: Shoulders (I usually did a rotation through I/Y/T/W/L Raises, with very light weight. Laterals and Presses tend to strain things.)
Friday: The Red Swolework Suit
Saturday: Triceps (Extensions and Pressdowns… an arm day as I still would do a longer aerobic workout this day)
Sunday: Legs (always a total day off from aerobic anything, so this was a good day to train legs: Deadlifts, Squats, Farmer’s Walks)

From this point completing the challenge was just a matter of showing up every morning and knocking it out. The main challenge at this point was to see what ideas or lessons I came away with.

That said, swolework definitely became a chore by the final 7-10 days, and I was looking forward to the challenge being over. I obviously plan to continue regularly strength training, but I certainly have no interest in doing it every single day. Plus, I began missing my longer, more serious aerobic workouts and was looking forward to having more time for them again.

With minimal fanfare, I quietly finished my last lower body workout on Sunday July 30, completing the challenge. Though I take mirror photos after every workout, as expected I didn’t see much of any difference between July 1 and July 30 (unless you’re doping you’re just not going to see any real dramatic physical changes in a 30 day timespan).

One thing I did notice is that my running felt a lot stronger. I’m sure the quasi-break from endurance training helped recharge my aerobic capacity a bit, but I notice I didn’t have to expend as much energy per step. That can do as much for endurance as improving your cardiovascular capacity (and in these strength workouts I was never really going aerobically or anaerobically hard; I took 1+ minute breaks between every set and most of the breaks felt long). I even started using the Stairmaster, which used to be unduly challenging but is now quite do-able for 20 minutes. So I’m sure all the strength training ultimately benefitted my fitness, even if I’m still nowhere near swole.

And as I mentioned, I got sick of strength training every day, and it gave me an idea of my frequency limit. While I obviously could do it every day, I think 3-4 days a week is the most I could consistently put up with. Realistically for me, two days a week is probably sustainable. I’ll probably stick with the Red Swolework Suit, rather than trying a 2 or 3 day split to do more volume per muscle. The approach I had before was fine.

This is a bit off topic but a suitable epilogue: It probably was good to take a quasi-break from aerobic training, not just to focus on strength training for a change but to avoid plateau or potential burnout. Until this past couple months I was always under pressure to build endurance volume and fitness, which limits your ability to auto-regulate e.g. take a day or two off if you feel like you need it. Again, I calibrated the strength workouts to not be unduly demanding (they were never longer than 25 minutes). So being on the opposite end of perpetual pressure to build gave me my first real break from training in a long while.

Also, this cannot be understressed: Las Vegas last month was very, very hot, more than it usually is during summer. After a mild June, high temps topped 110°F with lows near 90°F. Even sitting at home during mid-day was tough: I actually changed my diet so I didn’t need to cook during the day, because it warmed up the room too much. While heat acclimation is great for endurance fitness, not ever getting a break from the heat takes it toll on your recovery. Good thing I backed out of Chicago: The combination of high volume and high heat would have burned me out far too soon. Without the need to endurance train, I had the space to heat acclimate, and now running in 95-100°F doesn’t feel so bad.

I also had space to take a long look at my general training schedule and make Alan Couzens insipred adjustments to minimize the training monotony while maximizing volume and training response, the latter of which has been a bit modest over the past year. Even though I generally work to manage my training monotony, it still is probably higher than it should be (around the 1.30-1.50 range; most athletes are way too high, well beyond 2.0!). Trial and error, and finding a new better gym situation, allows for not just some solid double days but also some very low key active recovery. I could easily get the monotony to 1.10 and maybe even below the magic number of 1.0, depending on how much I can get out of my long Saturdays.

So the break was a good idea, not just to recover a bit, but it allowed me to make some valuable adjustments.

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