Working out my Theology

Lately I have been working out, and getting some really good results (if only I could combine it with greater weight loss!). My wife, and some of my friends, have asked me to help them with designing a workout. Rather than explain the same routine over and over, I thought I would put all my thoughts in one place so anyone can benefit.

I have designed a very flexible strength and conditioning program which is adaptable to a variety of ability levels, and is made for minimal equipment. In fact, you could probably do everything with only a dumbbell set, a chin up bar, a bench and some rope.

I will hyperlink as much as I can to other sites that give good advice on how to do these exercises, and the ideas that are behind them. Some of the dynamic-tension bodyweight exercises with rope have been developed by me, so I cannot find a "how to" anywhere on the internet (at some point, I will upload some "how to" videos when I am in better shape). Most of the links here come from exrx.net, which has an incredible exercise directory.

The contents of this post are as follows:

I. The ten principles of my "Incarnational Fitness" Philosophy, which is kind of a pastoral theology of physical fitness.

II. My Base10 Bodyweight Program which I incorporate into of my weight training workouts.

III. A Basic Two-Day Split Workout Routine for use with free weights.

So, without further ado, here we go:


[1] Train for a strong spirit, energizing a strong soul, animating a strong body (1Co 9.24-27; 1Th 5.23; 1Ti 4.8)

The basis of my workout is the idea that the Triune God has made us in God's image, to reflect God's Glory (cf. Gen 1-2; Psa 8, 139; John 1). This triune image includes a number of ways of understanding human nature that can be seen as "three dimensional". For instance, the Bible speaks of human consciousness in a three-fold way as mind (cognition), heart (affection), and will (action). It also speaks of humans as beings that are physically aware and active (in "body"), spiritually aware and active (in "spirit"), and self-aware (in "soul" or "mind" or "heart").

God made each dimension of us to be "fully alive", ever growing into our Divine Potential. To have fully healthy, fully alive children is our Father's greatest joy. As St. Irenaeus said: "The glory of God is humanity fully alive". To truly glorify God, it is necessary for all facets of human nature-- material AND immaterial-- to be functioning as well as our potential allows. And this is where a good exercise regimen is nearly as essential to spiritual fitness as prayer, meditation, and Scripture reading.

[2] Train to enhance life (body mastery, vocation, recreation): Don't live to train. 

Remember that, for most adults except professional athletes, training is a means to the end of a healthy, joyful life. It is not an end in itself. Remember to train to enjoy life. If it is taking up so much time, or stressing you out, or making you so sore you cannot enjoy life, then cut back.

[3] Base all workouts on a sustainable program of bodyweight exercises for all muscle groups that can be done anywhere (See "Base10" below)

One of the reasons this is my third principle is because during parts of the year I travel, and one of the biggest hinderances to working out is finding a nearby gym with basic equipment and dumbbells that are heavy enough. This can kill workout momentum, unless you have a program you can implement anywhere with only your body weight! And if you practice this program on a regular basis-- as the warmup for your weight workouts-- then you are ready to implement it any time, and experience minimal under training and atrophy no matter where you go.

My Base10 is not the only good bodyweight program out there. Other possible bodyweight programs include this, this or this.

[4] Work from largest muscle groups to smallest 

This is a simple concept if you stop to think about it. But many do not stop to think about it. In fact, many people (mainly men) go into the gym to work biceps for an hour, and then maybe add some bench or rows in at the end, after their arms are exhausted and over-trained. But the fact is: If you train your big muscles first (chest, back, thighs), you wind up training the smaller muscles too (biceps, triceps, calves, shoulders). But if you train the small muscles first, you will exhaust them in such a way that you cannot train the large muscles very well at all. The large muscles move and hold up the body, and burn lots of calories when they work. The smaller muscles don't. So it only makes sense to plan your workouts around your biggest muscle groups, then work smaller muscles afterward.

[5] Train compound exercises with free weights for synergistic nerve and muscle response 

This is really a corollary to #4. Compound exercises recruit several muscle groups into one large movement. This is in contrast to Isolation exercises which focus on one muscle group (think: bicep curls, tricep presses, calf raises, etc.). Relatively safe compound exercises include Squats, Dead Lifts, Rows, and Bench presses. More complex compound exercises include Power Cleans, Clean and Press, Snatches, and other Olympic Lifts (these should be done only after training with a good strength coach!). If you do compound exercises, you will hit a number of muscles, large and small, at the same time. For instance, my favorite is the Dead Lift, and just by doing this one exercise you hit (from head to toe): Traps, Deltoids, Lats, Rhomboids, Biceps, Spinal Erectors, Abdominals, Forearms, Quads, Hamstrings, and Inner thighs. It is a one-exercise workout!

I'm also a big believer in free weights. The sheer act of balancing free weights means that you are triggering all kinds of stabilizer muscles that will never be triggered on a machine. Also, machines lock you into one pattern of movement. Free weights allow more freedom of natural movement that is based on your actual physiology (no one fits the one-size-fits-all of a machine!). Some studies have shown that people who use free weights suffer less injuries because of the natural flow of the movement, and the fact that your brain learns to trigger your muscles in a more "natural" way, similar to how you use muscles in real life. Also: Most gyms have free weights, but most gyms probably do not have your "favorite" machine.

[6] Do slow reps to recruit maximum tissue and avoid injury 

Many people go into the gym and bang out reps with horrible form so they can brag about how much weight they lift. And relatively quickly, these people are using weight that their body cannot sustain, repping with too much velocity, using poor control and bad form. And almost as quickly, they injure themselves by pulling or tearing or ripping something that takes weeks or months to heal. I've seen it dozens of times.

So slow down. Use less weight. Pause when you fully contract the muscle. Let the weight down slowly. Feel the burn. Not only will you keep yourself from injury, but you will also recruit more muscle fibers in the process, leading to better defined, stronger muscles.

[7] Train fewer sets with higher intensity: Go to true failure at 8-12 reps, do drop sets, or do super sets 

This is the basic insight of what is called "High Intensity Training" (HIT). If you are doing set after set after set, never going to the point of failure (muscular exhaustion), then you are not triggering growth response in the muscle. You are just "toning" (which is fine if all you want to do is tone). But if you want to grow your muscles and/or become stronger, you must go to failure. It is better to do 2-3 sets that go to true failure than to do 10 sets that leave you feeling fine. There is more research and techniques that go into an HIT program than I can do justice to, so if you are interested, click the links above.

[8] Alternate activity days to avoid overtraining

If you train the same muscle day after day after day, you may gain endurance (think about a marathon runner), but you will not gain strength and muscle. In fact, if you use weights every day on the same muscle groups, you will probably over-train badly, leading to loss of muscle mass, loss of strength, and easy injury.

For teenagers in the midst of their growth, a person can probably handle working the same muscle group with weights every 3 days or so. For adults-- who have less testosterone and other growth hormones flooding the body, not to mention families and work schedules-- it seems best to not work the same muscle group with weights more than every 5-7 days (especially if you are doing HIT, see #7 above).

I find it works well to intersperse weight training days with days that I systematically stretch all muscle groups, use the foam roller to roll out knots, and/or do some type of cardio activity for 30 minutes (even if it is just walking in the park with my family). Alternating activities also provides a schedule I can handle as a busy husband, father, and priest. For more info and links, see the schedule below:

A Sample Workout Schedule:
Day 1 - Pulling Workout (see below)
Day 2 - Stretch (see this or this) / Roller / Cardio
Day 3 - Pushing Workout (see below)
Day 4 - Stretch (see this or this) / Roller / Cardio
Day 5 - Rest

[9] Feed muscle health with daily vitamins,  fiberprobiotics, water to hydrate and flush, and 1-1.5g protein per 1kg of body weight 

You are what you eat: From the spiritual practice of Eucharist, to the physical practice of a healthy diet! I will not even think of trying to tell you how to eat to loose weight. I have not been very successful in that area (although I have lost 20 pounds last year, and have not gained weight in over 5 years).

But what I am relatively successful at is eating in such a way as to maintain strength and overall health. And if I had to narrow that down to three emphases for me, it would be the following: Let's pretend your body is an automobile. How do you keep it running? Well, you make sure it has gas for the engine to run, it has the other fluids that keep its insides running smoothly (oil, transmission fluid, etc.), and that it has clean intakes (air filter, gas filter, etc.).

In the same way, to me the body simplifies into three major food components to keep it running:

  • Macronutrients: These are the "gas" of the body. They include clean water, lean protein, good fats, and long-chain carbohydrates. I try to intake around 1/2 to 1 gallon of water per day and 1.5g of protein per kg of bodyweight. I try to stay away from overly fatty foods. And I try to stay away from sugars, and consume long-chain carbs that are slow burning (found in whole grain breads and pastas). If you ware trying to figure out how many calories you need per day, see this guide, and then calculate your calorie needs here. Other great resources include the Resting Metabolic Rate calculator and Activity Guide at caloriesperhour.com. Also Loseit.com has a great app for keeping up with your diet and exercise. 
  • Micronutrients: These are the "oils" of the body. They include daily multivitamins and probiotics, and specialized supplements such as fish oil, B-vitaminsmagnesium, or calcium. Vitamins, if you don't know, are often very divisive in the fitness community. Every year or so, a study will come out saying vitamins don't help at all, followed by a study the next year saying they do. Pragmatically, I know I do not have access to food which gives me all the nutrients I need. So I supplement, and I swear by it. As for probiotics, there are lots of studies that show that your absorption of food is greatly helped or hindered by whether you have good bacteria (probiotic) or bad bacteria living in your colon. It is in your best interest to keep your digestive tract as healthy as you want the rest of your body to be. Thus, I take a multivitamin, a probiotic, and a fish oil every day, and I use other supplements as needed.
  • Fiber: This is the "filter" of the body. Studies have shown that-- like water-- fiber helps with just about everything, and-- like water-- Americans do not get enough of it. To be honest, if you you can't poop regularly or easily, you are probably not eating enough fiber. You can eat it in leaf or veggie form, eat high-fiber cereals or grains, or add it as powder to drinks and protein shakes. I use Konasyl powder with my protein shakes, and I aim to intake between 30-40 grams of dietary fiber per day.

[10] Simplicity: The best solution uses least equipment. 

There are a million fitness websites out there that are selling the latest greatest thing to take your money. From pricey supplements to expensive machines to trademarked workout programs, there is always someone willing to take your money and lock you into a system that is not sustainable without living in a large city, near a large gym, with a large paycheck. You don't need that. You only need a good dumbbell set and a garage to workout in. If you want to hear from someone who lives this "low equipment philosophy", just ask Scooby.

And that leads me to:


Here are ten exercises which use bodyweight, and which require nothing more than a towel, a doorpost, a chair, a good rope (preferably with knots tied into it to help you grip). If you have a pull-up bar handy, it makes this even better. If you want to substitute light to medium weight dumbbells for the rope exercises, that will work as well.

The Base10 is divided into two parts (Part A and Part B) so that you can either do them all at once, or do them over a two day split. Each exercise should be done to failure, or to 3 minutes, whichever comes first. These bodyweight exercises form a great warmup / pre-exhaustion before you do the free weight exercise plan (see below).

[Base10A] Pulling/Core Exercises
*Start by warmup and stretching. I usually do jumping jacks, bows, bends, and squats to loosen up.

[01] Sit-up to Hamstring Bridge
Similar to this, this or this.

[02] Pull-up (with self assist), Hang Row or Rope Row

[03] Rope Bicep Curls
Similar to this, or use this, or this.

[04] Superman Extension

[05] Plank w/ Alternating Leg Raise
Or this easier option.

[Base10B] Pushing Exercises
*Start by warmup and stretching. I usually do jumping jacks, bows, bends, and squats to loosen up.

[06] Body Squat (one or two leg)
In order from easiest to hardest variations: Two leg, Lunge, Split-Squat, Single Leg, Pistol Squat.

[07] Calf Raise (one or two leg)

[08] Push-up (easy, medium, or wide)

[09] Rope Uprow or Delt Raise (side or front)
Similar to this or use this instead.

[10] Tricep Dips (Rear or Front)

And all of that leads us to the free-weight split routine:

Like the Base10, this program is based on the idea that Pulling and Pushing exercises tend to split up well into two complete workouts, which minimally interfere with each other. The notation for each exercise should be read as the following: [Sets x Reps]

*If interested, start with Base10A. If not, at least do warmup and stretching. I usually do jumping jacks, bows, bends, and squats to loosen up.

1. Deadlifts with Barbell [3x10-12]
Wide Stance
Narrow Stance

2. Superset: Select one from (a) and (b)

(a) Back:
Pull-ups [3xFailure] or Pull-downs [3x10-12]
Dumbbell Rows [3x10-12]

(b) Hamstrings:
Sleadlifts (Stiff Leg Deadlifts) [3x10-12]
Leg Curls on Machine [3x12-15]

3. Superset: Select one from (c) and (d)

(c) Biceps:
Alternating Dumbbell Curls [3x10-12]
Concentration Curls [3x10-12]

(d) Neck / Shoulders:
Dumbbell Shrugs [3x10-12]
Neck Press: Front, Back, Left, Right [3x10-12]

4. Superman -or- Back Hyperextension [2xFailure]

*If interested, start with Base10B. If not, at least do warmup and stretching. I usually do jumping jacks, bows, bends, and squats to loosen up.

1. Squats [3x10-12]
Wide Stance
Narrow Stance

2. Superset: Select one from (a) and (b)

(a) Chest:
Dumbbell Bench Press [3x10-12]
Dumbbell Incline Press [3x10-12]

(b) Calves:
Single Leg Calf Raise [3xFailure]
Calf Machine [3x12-15]

3. Superset: Select one from (c) and (d)

(c) Shoulders:
Upright Dumbbell Rows (Alternating) [3x10-12]
Dumbbell Deltoid Raises (side then front) [3x10-12]

(d) Triceps:
Forward Dips [3xFailure]
Reverse Dips [3xFailure]

4. Planks (or Plank Variations) [2xFailure]

If, after all this working out, you want to calculate your strength, you can go here. Then you can compare yourself to other strength standards.

Well, that's about it. I hope this helps you on your journey to become "the strongest version of yourself". Or, as I put it in my first principle: Train for a strong spirit, energizing a strong soul, animating a strong body. Or, as St. Irenaeus puts it: I hope you find a discipline that helps you become "fully alive" and live into your Divine potential, so you may fully glorify the God who made you.

Toward that end, here is my prayer for you, and for myself, on this Journey to become the strongest version of ourselves: May the Father strengthen us in Spirit, body and soul, with our mind, heart and will in Christ's Loving control. Amen.

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This is a bunch of stuff to make us think hard about our incredible love affair with the God of the universe, our astounding infidelities against him, and his incredible grace to heal and restore us through Christ. Everything on this site is copyright © 1996-2015 by Nathan L. Bostian so if you use it, cite me... otherwise you break the 8th commandment, and make God unhappy. You can contact the author by posting a comment.