The Heroic Training Template

To be useful in life, your training will have to go beyond the standard gym routine.

I’m convinced that the truest expression of our innermost humanity—the realization of all that each of us wishes to be—is the hero.

We read books and flock to movies that depict heroes of all stripes, from Chris Kyle, to Katniss Everdeen, to Harry Potter, to James Bond and Dirty Harry. Something deep inside us is drawn to and inspired by these deeply flawed, yet heroic characters. We see in them the great potential that is within us, and are reminded of that desire to release our greatest capabilities.

I’m convinced that the truest expression of our innermost humanity—the realization of all that each of us wishes to be—is the hero.

We read books and flock to movies that depict heroes of all stripes, from Chris Kyle, to Katniss Everdeen, to Harry Potter, to James Bond and Dirty Harry. Something deep inside us is drawn to and inspired by these deeply flawed, yet heroic characters. We see in them the great potential that is within us, and are reminded of that desire to release our greatest capabilities.

Don’t just wish for it. Train in the manner you were made to live. When we train skills and practice natural movements, rather than just work out, we find experiential results, motivation, and a greater quality of life.

For those unsure of how to get started, I have developed the Heroic Training Template as a foundation to begin your exploration into movement-based training.

We All Start Out as Heroes

“Only the strong will prove useful in the difficult circumstances of life.”

In Natural Born Heroes, Christopher McDougall hypothesizes that we all have heroic potential. The inclinations of childhood, he suggests, are towards constant battle training. Children play tag, they climb, they throw, they roll, they leap from everything, and constantly refine their movement. Then, suddenly, they stop. Society tells them it is time to sit still and listen to the teacher. Their senses dull, while their entertainment becomes increasingly sedentary. The desire to grow up and be heroes like cops and firefighters are replaced by more practical (boring) pursuits.

As we become cogs in the workplace machine, we replace our desire for heroism with one for money. If and when we finally begin exercise again, it is in a mechanical fashion, guided by a desire for some vague image of the model physique. We literally spin our wheels, climb stairs to nowhere, or walk around checking off boxes on our exercise to-do list. Our movements aren’t perfected and made effortless. On the contrary, the idea is to expend as much effort and energy as possible. Motivation dwindles as monotony grows.

If this sounds familiar, the solution is simple: reconnect with the joy of learning skills that contribute to your heroic inclinations. Rediscover natural movements, train skills, and connect with the world around you. What you’ll find is a far more rewarding, exciting, and sustainable method of physical development based in training for improved performance, rather than working out to make yourself tired.

Natural Movement and Natural Eating

This method does not mean abandoning your physique. As strength legend Mark Rippetoe professes, “aesthetics are best obtained from training for performance.” You will look best when your body is trained in preparation for life. And as strength increases relative to bodyweight, speed, jumping ability, and every bodyweight skill will improve exponentially. Compare this with the typical weight loss plan of calorie deprivation and grinding on a treadmill.

At a local gym, I saw a Thermos proclaiming “Goodbye, Calories!” This is a window into the framework of how most of the world perceives nutrition. Calories are personified as a pervasive enemy that has us trapped in a chokehold. Like moths to the flame, we are drawn to them, and constantly fall prey to our cravings. We try to manipulate this tricky adversary with diet sodas and 100-calorie packs of cookies. Still, somehow those pesky calories win, and the unwanted fat remains. It seems the only chance we have is to burn these calories; to rid ourselves of as many as possible in fanatical bursts, or compulsive tracking of steps in a day. We download apps, buy Fitbits, and slog away on sophisticated treadmills to keep track the of all the evil calories we’ve successfully destroyed.

Its shocking to consider that, for most of human history, our biggest problem was the quest to find sufficient calories for survival. Until recently, the calorie was the world’s most precious and valuable commodity. As we reconnect with natural movements, let us also reconnect with a natural view of eating. Pair your training with a lifestyle change of eating real foods and seeing food as fuel for the awesome tasks that make up your life.

Program Origins and Concepts

The Heroic Training Template borrows greatly from two innovators in the industry, Dan John and Max Shank. Shank’s Ultimate Athlete Training Template is a brilliant model of performance-based training that combines typical resistance training methods with challenging bodyweight progressions to create a fun, effective model for increasing athleticism. His model is exceptionally successful, even while being far less rigid than most training programs.

From Dan John, I’ve borrowed his Litvinov protocol, as well as his fundamental movement pattern categories and love for loaded carries. The workouts are designed to be fun, largely due to the skill refinement and challenge-based format. You will find that training for performance is rewarding on many levels. When your performance improves, particularly in natural human movements, you will feel your body become more dynamic. Also, training in this manner offers exciting, tangible progress. You will know you’ve improved, not because you see it in the mirror (though you will), but because you gain abilities that were not previously available.

You will train four days a week, all total body, because no heroic quest requires only your arms one day then legs the next. There will be two true total body days, one day of upper push with lower hip hinge (hip dominant) movements, and one day of upper pull with lower squat (knee dominant) movements. You can structure these days in a variety of ways, depending on your schedule:

  • Monday (push/hinge); Tuesday (pull/squat); Thursday (total 1); Saturday (total 2)
  • Monday (total 1); Wednesday (total 2); Friday (push/hinge); Saturday (pull/squat)
  • Sunday (total 1); Tuesday (total 2); Thursday (push/hinge); Friday (pull/squat)
  • Sunday (total 1); Tuesday (push/hinge); Wednesday (pull/squat); Friday (total 2)

What’s important is to keep the push/hinge day and pull/squat day consecutive, while keeping the true total body days nonconsecutive. If you find four days a week too aggressive, there is no shame in that, whatsoever. Many of the best strength athletes in the world use a three-day model, and it’s my preferred split for athletes. Just eliminate the push/hinge day and add one hinge and one push pattern to your pull/squat day. If it doesn’t yet, this will make sense very soon.

The Heroic Exercise Menu

The exercise menu is sorted by movement category. Credit for these categories goes to Dan John, Max Shank, and Joe Kenn. I’ve mixed up all of their ideas so many times I can’t tell where one stops and the other begins.

Squat Menu

  • Barbell front squats
  • Overhead squats
  • Goblet squats
  • Air squats
  • Bulgarian split squats
  • Airborne lunge
  • The lunge family
  • Reverse sled drags
  • Heavy sled pushes

Dynamic Options: 

  • Kettlebell dead-stop jump squats
  • Chained or banded squats

Hip Hinge Menu

  • Deadlift
  • RDL
  • Sumo deadlift
  • 1 leg deadlift or RDL
  • Hip thrust
  • Band pull through
  • GHD and Nordic hamstring curls
  • Towel hamstring slides
  • Glute bridges

Dynamic Options:

  • Heavy medicine ball toss-unders and -overs
  • Russian kettlebell swings

Note: if you haven’t been taught to deadlift, take the time to slowly teach yourself. Study up on it, as doing it wrong can really hurt you, while doing it right offers more upside than any other lift. As life requires picking things up, it is also one of the most useful movements.

Push Menu

Vertical Pushes:

  • Handstand push-up and hold progressions
  • Strict military press

Horizontal Pushes:

  • Push up progressions
  • Judo push ups
  • 1- arm push ups
  • Planche progressions

(Note the lack of bench press. You can lay down after the workout, not during.)

Dynamic Options:

  • Medicine ball chest pass
  • Clapper push ups

Pull Menu

Vertical Pulls:

Rope Climbs

  • Pull-up Variations (no kipping)
  • Front Lever Progressions
  • Plank Pulls
  • Climbing wall or monkey bars if available

Horizontal Pulls: 

  • Sled rope pull
  • Dumbbell row
  • Inverted Row Isometric Squeeze Countdown (ISC)- This is typically done in 4-1 or 5-1 fashion. For example, a 4-1 is a 4 second hold followed by 4 reps, then a 3 second hold followed by 3 reps, all the way down to 1. The isometric squeeze translates well to all gymnastics holds, and has been shown to bet the most effective method of growing the biceps. No harm in a little aesthetic benefit! Credit for the ISC goes to Chad Waterbury.

Pillar Menu

Loaded Carries:

  • Farmer’s walks
  • Suitcase carries
  • Cross walks
  • Waiter walks
  • Rack hold walks
  • Slosh pipe walks

Non-Carry Anti-Rotation:

  • Bird dogs
  • Crawl variations
  • Rack holds
  • Hollow body holds
  • Push up position planks
  • Side planks
  • 1-legged side planks
  • Stir-the-pot
  • Pallof press
  • Plank pulls

Dynamic Options:

  • Hanging knee raise
  • Hanging leg raise
  • Lying leg raise
  • Medicine ball side toss

Power Menu

  • Light sled pushes (stay under 20 yards)
  • Hill sprints
  • Sprints
  • Medicine ball toss variations
  • Broad jumps
  • Jump lunges
  • Vertical jumps
  • Bounds

If you’re seeing a lot of grey areas and overlap, that is good! This is the nature of natural movements. You’ll notice that the consecutive days, push/hinge and pull/squat, center more on the weight room. This is because the total body nature of more “natural” activities leads to far more global muscle use. Total body days also will require a lot more moving things from point to point, rather than picking things up and putting them down in place.

The Heroic Training Template

And finally, here is the training template!

The warm up before each workout will be the same. It begins with a protocol from Chris Holder, the head strength and conditioning coach at Cal Poly.

Follow this with Spiderman crawls (2×10 steps), super-set with 2×20 light kettlebell swings; then 20 light goblet squats.

Day 1: Push-Hinge-Pillar

Warm Up 

Power Block: 

  • Medicine ball overhead toss 3×4
  • Scapular push-ups and Blackburns or band pull-aparts as active rest

Strength Block 1: 

  • 1-leg deadlifts 4×4 (each side)
  • Super-set with handstand push up progressions, 4 times to fatigue

If the single leg deadlift is too challenging, sub an RDL or GHD. The GHD is preferable because the heavy load needed for bilateral RDL will fatigue the back considerably.

Strength Block 2:

  • Towel hamstring curls or GHD curls 3×10
  • Weighted or band-resisted push ups 3×15

Regressions include regular push ups or hands elevated push ups.

Strength Block 3:

Pallof Press 3×6 (each side) or 1-leg side plank 3x20s (each side)

Overhead loaded carry (slosh pipe walk, waiter walk, bottoms-up KB walk, or cross walk) 3x to technical failure

Day 2: Pull-Squat-Dynamic Abdominal

Warm Up

Power Block: 

  • 15yd hill sprints x8, or 15yd light reverse sled drags x10

Strength Block 1:

  • KB or BB Bulgarian split squats 4×4 (each side) or airborne lunges
  • Front lever progressions or pull ups 4 times to technical failure

Strength Block 2: 

  • Lying leg raise
  • Inverted row ISC 3x(4-1) or inverted row 3×10

Strength Block 3:

  • Plank pulls 3×4 with light plate (each arm)
  • Lateral lunge 3×5 (each side)

Or go play on a climbing wall.

Day 3: Total 1

Warm Up

Power Block: 

  • Medicine ball side toss 3×6 (each side)
  • Super-set with KB Swings 3×12 and plyometric push ups 3×5

Strength Block 1: 

  • Rope Climb x4
  • Super-set with overhead squat 4×5

Strength Block 2: 

Grab two heavy kettlebells or dumbbells and farmer’s walk out to where your sled is. Leave one bell at a starting line, and place the other bell 15 yards away. Set your sled up with a heavy load. You are now ready for Litvinovs:

Perform 6 Rounds:

  • 8 goblet squats immediately followed by a 15yd sled push
  • Rest 1 minute

When this becomes easier, go to 8 rounds.

Strength Block 3: 

  • Farmer’s walk those bells to technical failure 3x
  • Super-set with a Planche progression, 3 times to fatigue

Day 4: Total 2

Warm Up 

Power/Strength Block 1: 

  • Broad jumps 3×5
  • Medicine ball unders-and-overs 3×2 of each (underhand toss, walk to medicine ball, overhead toss, walk and repeat)
  • 1-arm push up progressions 3×5 (each side)

Strength Block 2: 

Set up a sled with a rope tied to the end where push handles are. Place the sled behind a start line. Put yourself at the end of the rope. Pull hand-over-hand with feet fixed until the sled handles are within your grasp. Then immediately grab sled and drive it through the starting line as fast as possible. Perform 6 rounds; rest as much as needed between rounds.

Strength Block 3:

Overhead loaded carry (slosh pipe walk, waiter walk, bottoms-up KB walk, or cross walk) 3x to technical failure

Find a Way, Not an Excuse

Now I know there are a lot of ways this could go wrong, and a lot of excuses not to try. Lack of equipment is an obvious obstacle, however there are a billion substitutes. Look at the exercise categories and find something else that will work. Things like farmer’s walks may be even more effective with awkward household items. Perhaps you’ll start to see that old ruck sack and the loose rocks in the back yard with a new appreciation.

If it’s cold, go out anyway. If it’s raining, go out anyway. If it’s storming, be safe and adapt. My vote is inserting a bodyweight circuit day. Mix and match Supermans, 1 arm push ups, 1-leg glute bridges, airborne squats, and front lever progression.

Perhaps you’d like to strength train only two or three days a week, but still want to move on the other days. For heroic alternatives to the treadmill, I suggest outdoor runs or moderately vigorous games. Picking up a game like racquetball or Spikeball will help you keep reactive agility. Also, consider some light mobility flows with rolling and stretching to help you recover and move better.

This workout contains some advanced movements. If you can’t do them all, or can’t reach the prescribed number of sets or reps, scale back. Do not go to muscle failure, ever. Even if the protocol calls for technical failure, this is more of a judgment call for you to stop right before form slips. Focus on perfecting the skills you are using in each exercise.

Fall in Love With the Process

All training is progression. Enjoy the fun of this hobby, and learn progressions and regressions and suddenly you have a lifestyle of fitness. The goal is not to do every exercise exactly as I’ve planned it. The goal is to gain a new perception of training and the principles of movement.

Most enter fitness only concerned about getting to an outcome as fast as possible. If you can embrace the process of training and commit to a discipline of practicing and improving skills, you’ll experience a joy and appreciation that changes how you see your body and how it should operate.

There is nothing radical about this training template. It takes tried and true principles and inserts fun, interesting exercises that engage our caveman brain. All those years scanning the savannah for predators, chasing and being chased for survival, building grand structures for protection, and exploring the world around us have ingrained a desire to master human movements and overcome challenges. Our biology has inclined us to want to train to be useful; to be able to protect, provide, and move dynamically throughout the world. It’s time for you to answer that need.

The best workout regime is the one you’ll actually stick to:

Programming for Snowflakes

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