The “Beg For Mercy” Extreme Fitness Workout, and why I dare you NOT to do it

Extreme Fitness Workout
Truly extreme fitness workouts are few and far between. Most workout programs don’t even entertain the notion of extreme fitness and are often designed to convince wimps that they’re working harder than they really are. These wannabe workouts are common among personal trainers who are worried that their clients may injure themselves while under the tutelage of a so-called professional. There’s a safety valve right in the programming for liability purposes. The rationale behind it is, “don’t give them an extreme workout, or they might hurt themselves.” Pansies.

Then again, there are some workouts that cannot be skimped on – some where you can’t put in a half-effort. There is no wiggle-room in the program design. If you’re going to complete this type of workout, you’re going to work your tail off – and it’s not going to be pleasant.

The “Beg For Mercy” Extreme Fitness Workout – Bodyweight Version

Here is a hardcore workout that will have you mentally begging for mercy. The workout is simple in its design, so that you may remain focused on the task at hand. You’ll need every ounce of concentration you can muster to get you through this. Fancy training protocol is unnecessary to elicit an adaptation. Simple and hard works. Anybody can do this anywhere. No equipment required, and no excuses for not being able to at least attempt this (for those with medical approval). It should go without saying that nobody should be attempting an extreme workout such as this unless advised by their doctor. Please see the medical disclaimer here. Also, this one is for the home gym trainee’s – not recommended for the gym, or other densely-populated areas where extreme fitness is frowned upon.

Note: I highly recommend you surround this workout with a THOROUGH joint mobility warmup and a cooldown with lots of vibration drills along with an appropriate compensatory exercise sequence using Prasara Yoga. Take your prehabilitation and recovery training seriously, or you will likely end up injured or worse. You may also want to schedule in 3-5 days of complete rest following this session. Do yourself a favor and front-load optimal nutrition, and have your post workout meals already planned ahead of time (if not already prepared).

After your joint mobility and exercise-specific warmup (1-2 low rep “practice” sets of each exercise), complete the following circuit:

-Max set of bodyweight squats. To clarify, a maximum set of squats is one in which you literally fall on your butt because you can’t do another repetition. Your legs may be quaking like crazy for the last 10-20 reps. Hold your form.
-Rest 1 minute
-Max set of pushups, immediately followed by a max set of knee pushups. When your arms collapse, start doing knee pushups until you collapse again. At this point, you’ll be wondering if tears are intermingling with all the sweat you’re dripping.
-Rest 1 minute
-Max set of walking lunges (or alternating forward lunges). Set a mental goal to do twice as many reps as you normally would. If you would normally give up at 50 because you’re “tired,” try for 100.
-Rest 1 minute
-Max set of pullups, immediately followed by jumping pullups, immediately followed by negative repetitions. This will be the easiest set, and most people will score the least repetitions in comparison with the other exercises. That’s not an excuse to skimp on effort. Don’t be surprised if your arms feel like jelly and your elbows are bent at a 90 degree angle in vice-like pain after this set. If you can’t find a place to do pullups, substitute burpees – which will be quite the incentive to search even harder for a place to do pullups after those squats and pushups!
-Rest 1 minute
-Max set of spinal rocks – any variation (substitute V-ups with a strong exhale on flexion if you don’t know spinal rocks). This set should last a long time – maybe several minutes. With a little training under your belt, you could potentially do hundreds of reps. This should feel like rest compared to the other exercises.
-Rest 2 minutes

That’s one circuit. The workout is comprised of that circuit completed 3-5 times. 3 times through gets you the right to say you did it. 5 times through awards you with a gold star and a little respect. Bragging rights come with high numbers on your 5th set.

Here’s an example of a max set of bodyweight squats (no you don’t have to watch the whole thing to get the idea, but there are a few funny and interesting moments if you do decide to sit through it)

*Side Notes: What I find the most interesting from that video is the regression of my breathing technique. I started the set using flow level breathing (exhale on compression of the lungs while squatting down, and inhale on expansion while standing up). After awhile, I moved down to discipline level breathing (exhaling on effort). Further along, my breathing deteriorated to a power-breathing style (gradual exhale on effort with intra-abdominal pressure throughout each repetition). There were several permutations of the above, and some attempts to recover discipline level and flow level breathing, but it goes to show that breathing is a skill that is directly linked to your overall performance potential. I also wanted to mention that with a coach, I would have been more aware of my faltering technique (did you notice the unnecessary extension of the neck upon standing), and I just might have been able to complete that last 2% of performance – or maybe it really was more like 10%. The world will never know.

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The “Beg For Mercy” Extreme Fitness Workout – Bodyweight Version (Shorthand)

Joint Mobility Warmup

Repeat 3-5X, 1 minute rest between exercises, 2 minutes rest between circuits:
Bodyweight squats – max reps
Pushups –> knee pushups – max reps
Walking lunges or alternating front lunges – max reps
Pullups –> jumping pullups –> negative pullups – max reps
Spinal rocks or V-ups – max reps

Prasara Yoga Cooldown

Doesn’t look like much when condensed on paper, does it?

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The Twist

Every good story needs a twist!

Let me ask you something. Did the above workout seem strange, bizarre, or over-the-top? Did the video strike you as excessive? Or were you mesmerized by the groans, sweat, and the endless possibilities for enduring pain?

Ask yourself, “what was my reaction?” Be honest. There’s no right or wrong answer.

I’m willing to bet that most people would view the above workout as atypical, slightly excessive, but also very intriguing. Most people would probably take one look at the above “shorthand version” and think, “I wonder how well I could do. How hard could it be?”

Now, let me ask you something else. Did you pick up on the warnings, too? You know, all of the “DON’T REALLY DO THIS INSANE WORKOUT WARNINGS.” More specifically…

the title: beg for mercy, extreme fitness workout
wimps, pansies
it’s not going to be pleasant
don’t do this unless advised by your doctor
see the medical disclaimer
not to be done in public
you’ll need 3-5 days of complete rest
you may start crying during the workout
arms in vice-like pain
etc.

Maybe you read all of those warnings, but they didn’t truly caution you. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that these statements even spurred you on. And therein lies a problem in our culture.

We’ve become so obsessed over the pursuit of extreme fitness and over-specialized results that it’s literally ruining us. While we are off doing more sets, more reps, more frequent workouts, lifting heavier weights, lifting weights faster, and building our training volume and intensity, we’ve lost touch with the inner man that is desperate for exuberant physical expression. We’ve turned the preservation and development of our inherent physicality into work. We’ve lost sight of any semblance of enjoyment from physicality. That’s why we WORK-out.

The above training session could be labeled as an act of lunacy – disguised as exercise in a blatant attempt at self-inflicted torture. It represents the extreme approach to “fitness” we’ve nurtured in our culture. It’s not meant to be fun or even remotely enjoyed. If you do derive any pleasure from it, it won’t be until AFTER you’ve completed it (if you can), and the only happiness experienced will be on the premise that you survived – not because you actually enjoyed yourself. Either that, or you’re a fitness masochist, which is not as uncommon as one might think in health communities!

The Moral of the Story

Now, I’m going to let you in on a little secret. While I have completed the above workout several times years ago (one caveat: I actually used sit-ups instead of spinal rocks), I have absolutely no intention of subjecting myself to something so physically extreme ever again – at least in my physical training. In fact, I don’t recommend that anyone even attempt the Beg For Mercy workout, and I propose that you put it out of your mind this instant. It’s simply a terrible trial to endure, with little purpose behind it. Let me show you what I mean.

You see, I used to exercise to the level of extreme. I used to do what nobody else would. I used to push harder than I ever thought I could – again and again. And for what? More reps? More satisfaction? More results? Pathetic.

The only things I gained were impressive workout numbers, a lean body, and a little respect (read “fear”) for being crazy. In the mean time, I lost health, mobility, functionality, and a healthy perspective on exercise (arguably the most costly loss). A paltry reward for so much work, and a major price to pay for so little benefit. And boy was I deluded to think that these things could only be bought at such a steep price. Oh no no no no no! You can have impressive talent, a lean, muscular body, and respect from your peers – not merely because of what you can accomplish, but because you achieve so much with very little apparent effort.

This is only the beginning. Exercise should develop the entire human, not just a few isolated attributes. Don’t settle for the scraps, when you can have “prime rib fitness” for the rest of your life.

Take-Home Points

I wrote this post with the desire to address these points:

  • Our culture is immersed in this hardcore, authoritarian fitness mentality that is not only terrible for us on multiple levels, it’s also short-changing our true potential. There is so much more to be had from fitness than a lean, muscular physique and impressive physical talent. A physical practice is literally the gateway to one of life’s most valuable assets, which is empowerment through the experience of realizing ones potential.
  • While there are long-term results to be had from maximal training that leaves you utterly drained and figuratively incapacitated, for most of us, this is a bad idea. It leaves you vulnerable for hours, if not days afterward. If you’re truly training to be of some use in this world, then leaving yourself vulnerable isn’t an option. Maybe you have a concierge that handles all of your private affairs and a security service to keep you and your family safe while you’re recovering or otherwise enjoying your “off” day, but for the rest of us, we need to be fit to be useful around the clock. The lesson in this is that training should not only help you reach your goals, it should also leave you feeling better than when you started. That’s what we should be expecting from our training, but it goes against the grain of conventional thought.
  • In the same breath, most people don’t even come close to maximal intensity training in their workout programs. I would have been quite deluded to think that I was approaching my max around rep 40 or 50 in the above bodyweight squats video – even though I was feeling fatigue setting in. The point being that most people can work a lot harder without even coming close to their true maximum potential. And in most cases, working a lot harder is exactly what people need to achieve their goals.
  • Why not expect so much more of ourselves? The body is capable of so much more than we give it credit for. I’m not saying to model your training after the intensity demonstrated in the above video or to implement the Beg For Mercy extreme fitness workout into your program. But I am saying that maybe you could put in quite a bit more effort than you have been, and it’s a good idea to check in with yourself from time-to-time about how hard you’re really working.
  • On the flip side, you may be thinking, “sure that workout looks hard, but I could do it.” Maybe you’re tempted to try it out because you’re used to training hard on a regular basis. For you, I suggest you reevaluate how hard you have been working, and ask yourself if it’s really helping you reach your goals. Are you 100% injury-free? Do you feel healthy? Can you perform various movements without pain? Do you pick up new movement skills quickly? And last, but not least, do you enjoy the training in the present (not just the rewards or satisfaction you get AFTER the training)? If you can answer “yes” to all of those, then keep up the good work.

Wrap-up

We know for a fact that vigorous (not maximal) physical movement and exercise is extremely good for the body. There are so many benefits, it would take an entire volume of encyclopedias to cover them all. We also know that in order to reap the most benefit, you’ve got to work hard. You’ve got to break a sweat, and get dirty. That doesn’t mean pushing past reasonable boundaries with maximal-effort training again and again. It means training as hard as you can safely recover from.

If you’re looking for a health-first workout program along the lines of the Beg For Mercy workout, but one that also conforms to the above “take-home points,” then check out my review of the TACFIT Commando bodyweight training program. This system has been formulated by experienced coaches to take you just to the edge of safe exertion, and no further, using the “Burst Recover Burst” strategy.

Even though there’s a lot of “hardcore-style, tough guy” marketing for this product (that I’m not a big fan of), the program is not extreme by any stretch, and it does what it promises in a safe, sustainable manner. As part of an overall physical practice, this could be a great addition to the strength training component. To learn more about why I recommend TACFIT Commando, check out my review here:

TACFIT Commando Bodyweight Training Program Review

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CST, CST-KS, NSCA-CPT
Fitness Professional

P.S. If you do want to play around with the above workout, I suggest limiting your exertion to 60% of your max the first time through. After a few times through at a moderate intensity, gradually ramp up your effort, but don’t push further than 80% of your perceived maximal exertion.

P.P.S. Maximal intensity training has its merits, of course, and there are legitimate reasons to perform it under certain circumstances. But for most of us, high-frequency MIT isn’t necessary – not by a long shot. So, if you are an athlete with specific physical needs that can be met by performing the above workout, then by all means do so. If you’re preparing for a military PT exam, and want to improve your numbers, then get counting. If you’re a CrossFit junkie, and love not being able to recall “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” after your workout – you know what to do! But if you’re not in one of those situations, then it may be time to reevaluate your perspective on extreme fitness.

20 Responses

  1. Very well put, John. I loved the bait-and-switch in how you wrote this article too–the first half was kind of nauseating, but also triggers that hyper competitiveness in me that I’m trying to train myself out of!

    I share this exercise philosophy and it has been serving me well this past year, having recovered (basically fully) from some pretty serious fatigue and burnout I was experiencing—in part from this “beg for mercy” attitude not just in physical training but in all of life. No thanks! From now on it’s finding that middle path, adapting to increased demands but allowing time to actually adapt (especially with compensatory exercises like yoga/prasara, joint mobility, etc.).

    • Exactly, the middle road. Thanks Duff.

      And speaking of compensatory exercises, they allow you to push even harder in your formal training program because they promote accelerated recovery. So, for those people who DO want to work as hard as they can safely recover from, a physical practice that includes joint mobility training and Prasara yoga is especially valuable. Think of them as a safety valve preventing you from doing too much. Or another way to put it, they increase your recovery capacity, therefore increasing your work capacity.

  2. I took one look at that workout and said “no thanks”.

    Read the rest of the article and laughed….

    Exactly, pushing to maximum for what? To what purpose?

    You are right, training should be fun along with hard. It should be enjoyable along with effort. It should inspire and bring out inner creativity and playfulness along with mental and physical toughness.

    If it is all pain, all effort, all toughness… then how far removed is it from self-inflicted torture?
    And I am aware that there is probably a large amount of people out there who do use exercise as self-torture or punishment. Who hate aspects of their personality and punish themselves for gluttonous and indulgent behaviour in other aspects of their life.

    More and more am I finding in myself that I exercise out of self-love. I do it because I get to, because I can. Because it is interesting to explore my potential, to see what I am capable of, to increase the quality of my movement and with it my life.

    The sweet balance between strength and surrender.
    The seeming paradox of tough [self] love.

    The acceptance that health work can, in fact, be a form of ‘karma yoga’… working off ones past indulgences, which are always done through some kind of subtle negativity.
    However to ever have any kind of progress with ‘karma yoga’ it must be approached with a sense of joy and love.

    Love the work, love the process.

    As I find with my Nutritional Balancing program, as my body, emotions and mind retrace the traumatic courses of my life it releases and when it releases it is unpleasant. However from my new and more aware perspective I get a chance now to love the aspects of myself that allowed that trauma to nestle within me, and I get to love the process of re-learning new things about myself and reintegrating my personality.

    As I go for my physical therapy it hurts a lot when the therapist deep tissue massages those stored lines of tension in my body… and I get to experience the feeling of relaxing and releasing into his pressure. I get to experience the new flood of awareness into a chronically dulled and numbed part of myself. In wonder and excitement I get to explore my new ranges of mobility and sensation.

    It is truly an amazing and beautiful process.

    To me our lives are an opportunity to discover and learn as much about ourselves as we can. To develop as much self and universal awareness as possible.

    And every action in ones life can be a part of this.

    Exercise included.

  3. What is the time limit for each exercise? If your rpm is slow enough you can technically not to go failure.

    • RPM is not specified. The goal of the workout is failure, which is why I don’t recommend it. Putting a time limit on yourself is one way to increase the intensity, but limit the potential damage you can do.

      • Now i get it. I didn’t read your whole article the last time i read it.

        It’s funny that some people promote a “beg for mercy” kind of workout. Well we know better than to do the same. Physical training is just a tool. You don’t need to go that kind of extreme to achieve your fitness goals.

        Train smart, not hard.

  4. Exercise should develop the entire human, not just a few isolated attributes
    very well said John

  5. I really enjoyed this as it dovetals nicely with what I have been discovering recently: that exercise is meant to be a stimulus to health and fitness not just a beatdown…and that beating yourself up isn’t sustainable in the long term. But, once you get it in your head that all-out-intensity-all-the-time is the key to fitness, it’s hard to get it out.

    You mentioned Tacfit and I agree with what you said about the marketing. I don’t need to snap anyone’s neck (or be able to really) I just want to be fit and not get (more) injured in the process. It sounds like the system may offer that, but I tend to be careful about spending money on something that I may not be able to use.

  6. Hi John,

    Very well put!It’s about time, us competition obsessed humans, rid ourselves from the “more the merrier” disease…You can’t put a number on everything can you?Respect the body…the inner sanctum and it respects you!

    Ok!You’re probably going…Amen!Reverend AD!:)

    • Preach it brother :D

      And let’s not forget the PS at the end of the article. Working hard, HIIT, maximal training, competition, etc. These are all good things, just only when used in moderation. We’re talking about a higher level of physical education.

  7. Hah! Have to admit that I was fooled by the tone of the opening remarks into thinking you’d gotten caught up in the crossfit/tacfit/300 workout craziness, and I was a bit disappointed in you. Then the “real you” appeared after the video and I said, “Oops, nice bait-and-switch tactics, John!” You made your point very well indeed.

  8. Sue Sifferman

    That was hard for me to watch John. I was yelling “STOP already”, when I saw your legs begin to shake.

  9. That was epic! There you are doing the fitness version of Man vs Food, Satan is pounding on his pipe organ behind you, your dog is totally bored with his gonzo master, and then you get BUSTED by your mother! Ha! Great theatre, I must say. While your mom was yelling “STOP already” I was yelling, “Are you insane!” So relieved to see that you are not…but you were skating the hairy edge to illustrate a really good point. I couldn’t agree with you more…honest…HONEST! I’ll be good from here on out. But I think you need to have a talk with the guy who did a thirty-minute plank. ;-)

    • Jan,

      First, you’re hilarious :)

      Second, you’ve got the hard work figured out, and you know how I know? Because you actually DO have a good time training. You enjoy what you do. Plus, I know that you guys work incrementally, and have been training this way successfully for years.

      But if you’re like me, sometimes a little crazy gets into the mix :P

  10. Hey John, looks like you might need to use that walker in the background after your squat set! Hehe, thanks for the awesome article. I’m both intrigued and intimidated!

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