Only got 20 minutes? try sprinting intervals

Even if you only have 20 minutes to spare, you can still get a kick ass workout in. The trick is to take the time to make it happen. For me, the go-to short workout is intervals of walking and sprinting.

There are many ways to go about doing this, but the basics are always the same. You need a lightweight, portable interval timer like the Gymboss. You need a minute or two to get dressed at the outset, and you need a few minutes to recover afterward. Things like GPS-based distance and speed apps on your smartphone are optional (though I do prefer to do mine with such tech on board, and I use Strava).

The workout I did today can be an example. I had only 20 minutes, so I set my timer to four rounds of a double interval of 3:30 and 1:30. That would total 4 x 5 min rounds, or 20 minutes. I set everything in motion, started walking, and hit the timer. I walked for three and a half minutes, which adequately warmed me up. Then the timer went off. At that point, I ran as hard as I could, utilizing all I know (which is, I admit, very little) about proper running form: staying forward on the balls of my feet, lifting my knees, leaning forward, striding out, and working my arms. When the seemingly endless span of ninety seconds was done, I returned to walking.

After the second round, I turned back towards home, so that I could minimize the final walk back to my door. The third and fourth rounds brought me close to home (I took a slightly different route out and back).

The end result was that I did a total of six minutes of sprinting and fourteen minutes of walking. I got my heart rate up and it stayed there. And my entire workout of the day was over in only about twenty two minutes (I had to walk back about 1/8 a mile to my door). Six total minutes of full intensity work is a great basis for so-called “metabolic conditioning.” Nothing to be sorry about there!

I have to remind myself to invest in my fitness. So I’m sharing this reminder with you too. It’s good to remind yourself that even if you only have twenty minutes, you have enough time to improve your fitness.

The thing you are not doing

Back in October, 2014, I was experiencing a very distressing problem with my health that completely derailed my training and my life for a few months. It turned out later to be something like a bone bruise and separation or dislocation of my right clavicle, along with costochrondritis, but at the time, it felt like a series of pre-heart attack chest pains, aka “exercise induced angina.”

I went to the doctor. My heart is fine, he tells me. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t having problems.

I had been doing my 45 year old’s version of 5/3/1 for nearly two years, and I was bored out of my skull. Every training session—often dark and cold or wet—it was me, alone, by myself at the gym. Every week it was squats, deadlifts, presses, bench-presses, and I would throw in some power snatches and power cleans.

It was the power cleans (doing scores and scores of them week after week) that had messed up my clavicle and chest. But it was all the other mistakes and decisions I’d made that prevented me from recovering from that injury and bouncing back. I had also let diet slide. I had let conditioning slide. I felt like I was in a slide.

In short, I was lonely, I was broken down a bit, and I was a bit of a mess.

Furthermore, I looked at my training, and couldn’t help but notice that on “5/3/1″ I had not made the gains I had fantasized about. The arbitrary numerical goals I had set for myself in the squat and deadlift—in truth they were other people’s goals for me, but I had owned them for several years—didn’t seem much closer. This wasn’t the fault of “5/3/1″ … it was undobutedly my fault. Obviously, I was doing things wrong. Maybe I was doing everything wrong. In any case I was ready for a change.

So, as I started trying to figure out how to evaluate my life and training plan, I remembered that Dan John had a book called Intervention, and I was figuring this: “I love Dan John, and I need an intervention in my training routine, and, maybe, just maybe, this book will offer that.” It seemed reasonable to assume so. After all, there was the subtitle: “Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer.” This seemed like the time for a course correction to me. If you’re lost, if you’re wandering, perhaps hurt, perhaps broken down, perhaps unsure of the future or of your goals, you need an intervention, right? So I figured, what have I got to lose? Dan John can intervene for me, and help me correct my course.

Click on Cover to Purchase on

Short story long: I bought and read the book. It was good. No, this is not the review of the book I have planned for later. I imagine that later I may put up a personal review, a sort of discussion of how the principles in his book have influenced my thinking about my “training.” I’d assess the book as someone like me might, someone not a professional athlete, working in a relatively low-impact “white collar” job, and well past where most optimistic estimates would put the mid-point of a likely life-span, a grown person about as strong as what John would call a “Big Blue Club” teenage athlete. But at any rate that’s another post.

But for now, in this post, I just want to offer one single pearl of wisdom from Intervention, and talk about how it got me thinking about where to go next.

Dan John’s wisdom is usually expressed directly, with Yogi Berra-esque economy and simplicity. On almost every page he’s dropping a gem or a shiny pebble of knowledge. But on my reading of the book one bauble in particular stuck out. It comes right at the end of the 13th chapter, about the seventh question (out of ten) in the trainer’s intervention inquiry: “What are your gaps?” The trainer asks the trainee about gaps, and obviously, gaps (or weaknesses, asymmetries, or, gasp, imbalances) exist in every trainee. Just as obviously, John expects that you should work on your weaknesses in a targeted way. If the trainee is willing to honestly assess this, then John is going to point the way forward by working on the weaknesses. But for the impatient, the person who can’t wait for a detailed assessment of what to do next and why John offers a simple, short statement:

What you are not doing is what you need to do.

The movements you are ignoring
are the things you need to do!

—Dan John, Intervention (Kindle location 1094).

For me, this quote spurred immediate insight.

I didn’t have to think about what I was not doing. I knew exactly what I wasn’t doing. Out of fear, embarrassment, avoidance of discomfort and pain, etc. I was ignoring: road work (running, sprinting), loaded carries, jumping, and also pulls, specifically, pull-ups. In fact, when I thought about it, there was one thing above all that I was most not doing: pull-ups (or really any pulls at all). [No, deadlifts do not count as pulls; they are hinges.]

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my training now, and I still don’t. But one thing was sure. I was going to build my strength up, and train the motion, and fix the pain and sorrow of my pull-ups. And that’s part of what I’ve been doing since then (though I have also been taking my time getting my whole act together; but that’s another ‘nother post).

More than that… upon further reflection I could eventually see that the things I wasn’t doing included psychological and personal things, like planning and executing shopping and meal preparation, like prioritizing sleep and health. There was also this matter of “exercise,” like getting my heart rate up, my breath working, and a sweat going for longer than a minute at a time. I’d been experiencing fear and anxiety because of my chest pains; but it was the psychological toll of ignoring things I know and believe are good for me that led to the anxiety. And furthermore, if I thought about it, it didn’t take a genius to realize that some of my pain, discomfort, and chronic issues were being exacerbated by not only the cardiovascular weakness but by the strength gaps I’d allowed to open up and grow. In any case, all this made me realize, another thing I hadn’t been doing was keeping my priorities straight.

Intervention: achieved. Priority realignment: in progress.

Month Without Alcohol / Food Journal

A few weeks ago, I decided to go alcohol free in the whole month of March. The reasons are not important to detail here, but it seemed like a good exercise. Today is day 13 without a drink. I like drinking. But I would also like a more optimal state of health and I had reason to believe that drinking wasn’t helping my health. A month off was a gift to my body. It’s harder going without my frequent fine companion ethanol on Fridays (maybe especially so on this unlucky one). But what makes it easier to bear is how amazing I actually feel today. I really feel good. I’m serious. Today was awesome. Alcohol is an insidious friend.

So I feel good about that. But also, I feel good about my food journal. Yes, I am back to keeping a food journal. Six years ago, a different me wrote about his love of food journals on this blog. I had forgotten how much I believe in them, to be honest. I was woken from my slumber by Josh Hillis’ words in Fat Loss Happens on Monday, which I recently started reading. I really do believe in food journals. Therefore, six days ago, I started keeping a hand written food and health journal. The details of my diet, metrics of weight and body size, statements of gratitude about my body, my workouts, doctor’s appointments, and other stuff are going in there.

The journalling is going well. It’s a change for me to use a paper journal. But I am loving it. It never crashes, or does wonky things. It is handsome and feels nice to hold. I’ve kept good track of everything this week, and it’s marvelously focusing.

My Gymboss

This is going to sound like an ad, and, I guess it is. My post is not an authorized ad, and the company isn’t paying me. That being said, the image to the left is a real clickable ad. In fact, if you click and then purchase, I get some ridiculously small cut from Amazon for showing you the picture and giving you the link.

Which sounds good to me.

So that’s my full ethical disclosure, made necessary because I really want you to believe me when I tell you that I love my Gymboss.

Why a Gymboss? Does this need to be said? It does for me. Interval timing is very useful in training. I need to remind myself. When I forget my Gymboss at home, my time in the gym is usually less productive.

In the weight room an interval timer allows you more safely to combine substantial weight, higher volume, and shorter time. An interval timer allows you to predetermine rounds, rest between rounds, and fit your workout into the amount of time you have available. For this reason, it is useful for doing all kinds of work. It can do conditioning work from EMOMs to Tabata. On the road it allows you to perform fartleks or walk/sprint intervals with ease. It can even be used for timing rounds between low volume heavy lifting with long rest periods. If you have a good interval timer, it’s like having a coach, no, a boss, a Gym Boss with you.

So, the bottom line is, I try to make this small, lightweight, reliable, cute and functional box, the Gymboss, my constant companion whether I’m out on the road or in the weightroom. It’s not much to look at. It doesn’t have a whole lot of different fancy capabilities. It’s just an interval timer. It’s humble. It’s good at what it does.

Here are some examples. They are just a couple of ideas that I use.

Walk/Sprint Conditioning: I set the Gymboss to double intervals, 4:30 long and 0:30 short, set it to count down six rounds. Then I go walking for four and a half minutes, and sprinting for thirty seconds, six rounds, and it takes exactly 30 minutes to complete the workout.

Hinge and Squat Conditioning: do conditioning with a single kettlebell. Set the rounds to whatever, 12 or 6, the interval to 1:00, and alternate 25 swings and 15 goblet squats; finish your set in under a minute, and rest some before the next set.

Pull and Push: as an example use of the Gymboss for strength you can set the timer for 6 rounds of 4 min, and then alternate bench presses and pull-ups.

And if you can’t figure out how to do get-ups or loaded carries with the timer, I probably can’t help you.

Have fun with it.

Currently Reading: “Fat Loss Happens on Monday”

It was Saturday morning (this past Saturday), and I was feeling… tired, out of shape, unmotivated, sad, sore, and pissed off.

I was standing around in my underwear, looking very unsvelte, or even swelled, and drinking my coffee, while talking about my issues with my ever loving and supportive spouse. My habits were out of whack. I’d let the training slide. My conditioning was shot. I’d let the diet slide too, and was getting soft. I’d been prioritizing work work work above everything. Losing sleep to prep classes and grade papers. Working seven days a week. Heck, why am I writing this in the past tense? This was only two days ago.

I know that habit is key. I know this. I know it in part because I see the way I have over the course of my life constantly bounced back and forth between mutually exclusive habitudes, or patterned habitual ways of living. I’ll establish a good habit for a while… months, years even, and then let something shift and boom, habits replace habits. And I was thinking a lot about habit here, early, on Saturday morning. The question I was asking myself was, how can I shift my habits back into a better pattern, making room for diet and exercise. My wife was asking me the same question. And then I logged into facebook. Because, you know, habit.

What met me there was a classic example of “synchronicity,” that became a moment of serendipity for me. I saw a post from my “friend,” coach Dan John. Dan John is one of America’s premier coaches of throwing sports, and a leading authority on strength and conditioning. He’s also an entertaining writer (besides following him on blogs and social media, I’ve read two of his books, Never Let Go and Intervention), and in every way a humane, gentle, completely down to earth person. I also identify with him because he teaches “religious studies” (or religious education)—though he does so in a Catholic context and I’m sure we would probably not see eye to eye theologically. But I could be wrong; he’s that kind of “real” Christian who just lets his manner of life do the talking. He never proselytizes or uses his coaching work to preach; on the other hand he might occasionally quote Gilgamesh which is all right by me.

Anyway, what was the first thing I saw on Facebook when I logged in? This:

Obviously I was “meant” (by whom, I will not say… but let’s say I have more akin with the paranoid type that could conceive of Facebook snooping on us than I have with the person who belives in divine providence) to see this book at this moment. I bought a copy. And I’m currently reading it.

I started reading it that very day, after my Saturday workout. (The first such Saturday workout in months.) The book almost instantly provided a framework that answered my current needs. A lot of what Dan John does in this book is already done in his other work, especially his recent book Intervention. I didn’t expect a revolution there. But the framework developed by Josh Hillis, for a habit-centered approach to changing one’s relationship to food and exercise, that is something I can live with.

This isn’t meant as a detailed review. I’ll mention that I’ve started to implement the “mindfulness” strategy for bringing Hillis’ eleven habits into play. This involves keeping a hand-written food journal (habit #4), eating to only 80% fullness (habit #8), eating slowly—at least 15 minutes per meal— (habit #7), and practicing gratitude for what works in one’s body (habit #11). After that you add in the other habits. Anyway, it seems like a cool book. I’m about 30% of the way through it.

I’ll be happy to share more about this below, in the comments, if you’re interested, and I’ll undoubtedly post more about this stuff in the near future. And I’ll dedicate a post soon to Dan John’s Intervention, writing a personal review of it, and explaining how it has begun to influence my thinking about how I want to train.

The Return of Training Board

Not very long ago my dad told me I was starting to look like James Gandolfini, because of the beard. But I knew it was because of my waistline. Now Gandolfini is dead. I don’t want to end up like him.

I stopped blogging here about two years ago. Things went fine for me without the blog in 2013. And in part of 2014.

But the last seven months or so have been kind of bad for my fitness and training, with regress in strength and conditioning capacity, and some physical pain and disability, and loss of mobility.

Does this have anything to do with not continuing this blog? I think it might.

I have come to the conclusion, for my own sake, and for the sake of my family, that it is time to return to keeping this blog.

But why?

I’ve always been ambivalent about blogging my fitness efforts. What is its purpose? Who is the audience? Why make your training log (“gym notebook”) a public, open page? Who cares about the fitness efforts of a middle-aged religion professor?

The answer that has worked for me, has justified this web-journal, is for me to tell myself: sitting down and making my journey open and public helps keep me accountable. So the audience is, ultimately: me. I am my own first and most sympathetic, and most critical, audience.

If you, dear reader, are not me, and yet you enjoy this blog, then, God bless you. You’re welcome to come along for the ride.

The blog used to be called “Training Board” and is now simply titled “Baldwin’s Gym Notebook.” It is written for the public, but I am not seeking fame, fortune, accolades, or anything other than a small corner of the great public forum of the internet, in which I can be permitted to share my own struggles in an open and honest way.

If what I go through means something to you, let me know. If not, don’t let me know. If what I do here bothers you, but you love me and support me (as a real life friend or family member) then actually, I want to know about that too. In that case, do let me know.

So, what’s going on with my training right now?

After a long interval (late September 2014 to the present in early March 2015) I have allowed my training to slide. It started with weird chest pains related to what I thought at first was cardiac disease! Turned out to be mechanical issues with my sternum and left clavicle. I am still struggling with daily chest pain, but the doctors tell me that it’s not deadly.

Then in November, my right forearm started to scream at me every day with debilitating “tennis elbow” (lateral epicondylitis). This causes pain in picking up even small and lightweight objects with my right hand. This too, is still a problem today.

These injuries were only part of what led me away from my training plan. In Fall of 2014 I was also on Sabbatical, and so I often skipped workouts on the premise that I was permitting myself to “rest” from serious training for a while. But this became a habit rather than a dispensation. So the (bad or unhelpful) habit is still with me today.

Upon going back to work in Jan 2015, I continued to permit my training to sit on the back burner. I told myself I was allowing myself to reacclimate to the pressures of work. But I haven’t reacclimated. If anything, things have deteriorated. Work gets harder and harder and as I let my physical fitness slide, I have less and less energy for completing all the tasks that are a part of my life.

So my training hasn’t recovered in this environment; it’s gotten less and less attention and energy from me. This spring, weeks started going by. My body started hurting me in a thousand little ways. My mobility and confidence decreased. And my weight, my weight and waistline increased.

That brings me to this very day. I have determined that I want to take my health, fitness, and body composition back into hand. It is time. Returning to this old blog, and renewing my use of it, that is a part of the plan.

I have abandoned all old goals. They no longer fit who I have become and who I want to be.

I have new, more personal, and definitely more vague and non-specific goals. Yet they fit me well. I am a forty-six year old male human being. A husband and a father first, a son, a brother, a member of a community. A homeowner. A citizen. A professor and a scholar. A busy busy man.

The new goals are as follows:

(a) maintain health, vigor and strength,

(b) train for movement and work capacity,

(c) maximize my physical and genetic potential for longevity, so that

(d) I can be a more reliable person of greater and greater integrity.

Along the way, my guide, at least initially, is Dan John. And even if even he, the ever humane Dan John, would not endorse my goals as goals, they are my goals. And I am going to keep the goals the goal.

Yo, coaches. I don’t need to be told that these vague goals are not real fitness goals. Buzz off. These are health goals, and they fit with the psychological situation I have found myself in these days.

My goal is not to squat 300 or 500 or anything like that anymore. In fact, I can’t fathom, at the moment, why anyone other than me would ever try to advise me as to what my goals should be. Or should insist upon how I should pursue my goals. I have rejected all dogma and doctrine. I’m done with monster military style training and other elite fitness nonsense. Chill. There are basic things that work.

To be sure, in my fitness journey from 2008 to the present I have learned a great deal from such “elite” and specialized styles, but I am not trying to do any of them at the moment.

Along the way I learned tons from CrossFit (2009-2010). I learned a great deal from USAW and Olympic Weightlifting, even becoming a Level I USAW coach (2011-2012). I learned so much from powerlifting and Jim Wendler, following a modification of his 5/3/1 program for at least two full years (2013-2014).

But now it’s 2015. I’ve been reading John, his books Intervention and Weight Loss Happens Monday. Both of which I will discuss in later posts. The program I will be following in days and weeks to come is inspired by the spirit and heart of Dan John, even if I know, deep down, that I am no Dan John.

As of today, I announce the following intentions.

1) Return to blogging about my health and fitness activities and ideas.

2) Keep a private food journal, workout log, and health record.

3) Plan meals and workouts on a week to week basis, and stick to the plan.

So, those are the goals, and those are my intentions.

Let the continuing evolution unfold. Thanks for staying tuned.