Ornamental Exercises

“The height of cultivation always runs to simplicity. Before I studied the art, a punch to me was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I learned the art, a punch was no longer a punch, a kick no longer a kick. Now that I’ve understood the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick just like a kick.

“The height of cultivation is really nothing special. It is merely simplicity; the ability to express the utmost with the minimum. It is the halfway cultivation that leads to ornamentation.”

-Bruce Lee

When I first started working out as a teenager, I was doing push-ups.  I didn’t have any money to buy weights or a gym membership, so I figured push-ups would be a nice simple way to build muscle and strength. I would do a set every night before bed and try to beat my previous number of reps.

It was probably not the best time to do push-ups, since doing the exercise got my nervous system riled up, and I wouldn’t be able to go to sleep for a couple hours. But I was young and didn’t know any better.

I stopped the push-ups when I went away to college and didn’t workout at all until after college, when I had no career going and a lot of time on my hands. My friend introduced me to weight training and convinced me to get a gym membership. In fact this guy unknowingly introduced me to Vince Gironda’s 10-8-6-15 method, and I gained a lot of mass using this set and rep template.

Needless to say I was hooked on weight training from that point on. Because I now had a gym membership and had access to various free weights and machines, I began trying out all sorts of different exercises. The gym owner had Bill Pearl’s classic book Keys to the Inner Universe, and I would ask to read the book prior to my workouts so that I could try out a new exercise.

Twenty years later and guess what have I come back to? Push-ups! One arm push-ups now. The past few years I’ve grown fond of doing old school calisthenics. If you play the Iron Game long enough, then you will come back full circle. Simplicity marks the beginning and the end.

When people take up new training methodologies and new training philosophies, they tend to overcomplicate things. They do these ornamental exercises that look fancy and complicated. Ornamental exercises work muscle, but they don’t necessarily build muscle.

Let’s take kettlebells for example. A lot of people do these fancy kettlebell exercises which look impressive. Are kettlebell figure 8’s impressive? To someone who’s never done them, they may look impressive. But you can do them for quite awhile (several minutes until you’re bored) and not get anything out of them other than greater coordination in the Figure 8 exercise itself:

Some kettlebellers like to do a lot of ornamental exercises such as the Renegade Row, the Bottoms Up Press, Turkish Get-ups, etc. But the best kettlebell exercises are the simple ones: the double kettlebell clean and press and the one arm swing.

If I had to choose just one exercise to do for the rest of my life, then it would be the double kettlebell clean and press. The DBL KB C&P builds upper body muscle like no other exercise, provided that you are using heavy enough weight. You’ll build a thick back and shoulders. Cleaning the kettlebells to your shoulders will build big biceps. Pressing the kettlebells overhead will thicken your triceps. The DBL KB C&P is what I call an “anabolic blowtorch.”

I like to use heavy weight for the DBL KB C&P, so that my reps fall around 5. In fact I follow the 5×5 method for DBL KB C&P.

Simplicity that does not compromise on effectiveness is what builds muscle.

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