Hello! Welcome to Leg Day Observer, an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day.
With many gyms closed, in this column, I'm focusing on home workouts that emphasize strength training and recovery. Since most apartments don’t come with squat racks anymore, and because kettlebells have transcended into luxury items, strength building can seem like a lost cause or a diminishment.
It really isn’t. With some caveats, there remain decent options for maintaining strength, or building balance or mobility, as we all try to figure out how to manage — that is until we move to apartments whose kitchens can accommodate a reverse hyper machine.
Weight-Free Workouts — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Education of a Bodybuilder is an incredible book that can be found online and also for free if you dig around. Published in 1977, his first book is a slimmer companion to the Predator star’s excellent Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding. Douglas Kent Hall, a fine art photographer known for photo books of the American west — my favorite is Van People — took the pics.
There is a lot of good stuff here. Arnold begins with his life story — ”Munich was different. Life there was fast.” — before getting into his diet and exercise regimen. Relevant to home workouts is a weight-free program that Arnold recommends for beginners. Workouts include push-ups, rows between chairs (broomstick required), bent-leg sit-ups, leg and calf raises, bent-over twists, air squats, and chin-ups. These are to be done with 50 to 100 reps, a few times a week.
Arnold meant the program as a ramp-up to weight training, but it functions as a helpful exercise protocol even if you’re not interested in getting under a bar. There’s a lot in the exercises — doing that many reps for so long can help put on muscle, and focusing on often-ignored muscles can help with balance, and symmetry; kind of like Pilates, but free, and with brooms.
For heavy lifters, these exercises function as not only a deload — a lower-stress workout designed to maximize recovery — but also a hybrid aerobic-weighted workout, somewhere close to the GPP (general physical preparedness) regimens made popular by Soviet strength programs looking to get athletes with lagging form in good enough shape to work out for untold hours on end. At the crux is something Arnold understood: you really need to be in shape to work out.
For non-communists and the lazy, Arnold’s beginner workout is worth it as a stepping-off point that promotes better posture and shores up muscle imbalances.
Ultimately, his exercises are proof that the old strength training ways are less old than they are early: the workouts here hold up better than exercise fads of the era, like jogging. Just as the pornography industry adopted HD cameras early and helped set the baseline for the adoption of the VCR, bodybuilders like Arnold figured out what foods and exercises work best a little earlier than the general public.
At-Home Yoga — Yoga was refined in India some millennia ago as a broad spiritual tradition that defies characterization. Way down the list is an ability among its practitioners to be in well enough shape and circulation to meditate in one set position for hours without seizing up. Its secondary effects — better breathing, an avenged posterior chain, clearer thought — are tangible enough to justify lifetime commitments and identities for many, and rightly so.
For home practices, the Internet is heavy with options. Yoga with Adriene is one of the best, by volume if not execution: Her YouTube channel is free, with over 500 videos, short and long, and includes well-designed month-long progressive programs and videos centered on specific body parts, like if you have sore feet.
All come with Mishler’s reassuring tone and facility; no other free Yoga practitioner is as generous. The only problem is that she sometimes raps Michael Jackson mid-pose — but that is the (only) price you pay. (Adriene is also an actress, with roles in Joe, starring Nicholas Cage, and Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!.)
Beyond Adrien lies Baron Baptiste, a legendary second-generation yoga teacher — think Peter Fonda —whose practice skews to power, which is more vigorous than the smoother, lower-impact vinyasa that makes up much of Adriene’s videos (and which is best for stiffer beginners).
Baptiste, whose system is in a number of affiliate studios, also makes videos with Lululemon but has a comparatively lower profile than Adriene. He’s just as great. With studios closed, his videos, many of which seem at least 20-years-old (it's either the lighting or the bandana), are a nice way to switch it up.
Mobility and Stretching — If you are stiff from working, gaming or lifting, then it's time to stretch.
It’s bad to be too tense or too limber, and best to be in the middle. The best beginner program I’ve found is The Limber 11 by Joe DeFranco. It’s not very new but it’s the best jumping-off point.
DeFranco is from New Jersey and operated his first gym in a storage closet below another gym. His practice mostly focused on football strength at the time — a real driver of scientific progress in weight training (really!) and he produced VHS tapes on how to beat the NFL Combine.
Within a few years the high school athletes he trained, like Brian Cushing (from Park Ridge) and pre-draft college athletes, like Miles Austin (from Summit), made it to the NFL and garnered impressive careers (nine years with the Texans; a decade in the League and an All-Pro, respectively).
The video above, from 2013, is just as ahead of the curve, and is really, really good — excellent even, a Rosetta stone for lower body mobility work. Most of the protocols DeFranco goes through — the piriformis stretch, myofascial release — knead out muscles jacked up either from weight training or sitting around. A lagging posterior chain can make life difficult: It’s no good to have dead hamstrings and try and move weight.
This routine can be a shock, and the pain from some of these exercises is real. Sticking with it can open up a more limber and upright life.
Weight-Training Alternatives — The literature on bodyweight workouts is long and cannot be mastered in even two posts. But two good ideas are getting a weighted vest and a chin-up bar. One friend of mine did 10 chin-ups before and every bathroom trip and saw good results; another did 100 a day and did too. If you can’t yet do a chin-up, work on a chin-down, a slow lowering, the slower the better, and then to halfway up. And then more.
Weighted vests are good for running, jogging, air squats, and fishing. If you don’t feel like all that, squat holding a bag of books or rocks. Jaromir Jagr did 1,000 air squats a day and his legs were strong enough for a 24-year NHL career. Weightless training works!