Renaissance Periodization Gym-Free Review

It's time for another workout program review!  I've been sort of jumping around and experimenting a little as I get more experienced, so there's not a lot of consistency in what I'm reviewing here.  But that's OK.  If nothing else, it gives others an idea of what the different options out there look like.

Today, we're going to talk about the Gym-Free training template from Renaissance Periodization.  I first learned about RP from their YouTube channel, where I frequently listen to Dr. Mike Israetel explain fitness and muscle building concepts.  In addition to having lots of interesting information, I enjoy his dry sense of humor.

General Structure

The RP gym-free program is, as the name suggests, intended to be done from home.  It's a six-week program that is designed to be do-able with nothing but a pair of dumbbells.  Obviously it's easier if you have a range of weights available (either a set of dumbbells or an adjustable one), but the program includes guidance on what to do if you have limited weight available. I actually did three rounds of this, which I'll talk more about below. 

When you purchase the plan, you select two option: your sex (there's a men's plan and a women's plan) and how many days per week you want to train, between two and six.  I chose the men's plan at four days per week, so that's what I'll be reviewing.  I assume the other options probably have a similar structure, but I have not seen them.  In the 4-day version, there is no split - every workout is total-body.  

As I mentioned, this is a six-week program, but you only get one week of workouts.  You do a different workout each day of the week, and then progress the next week by doing the same workout, but adding one set of each exercise.  After being used to the Athlean-X programs, this put me off a bit at first.  After a while, though, I actually came to like it.  Doing the same workout each week means that you can more easily see your progress in terms of getting stronger and gives you more practice in refining your technique for each exercise.

The exercises themselves were mostly old classics - pushup variations, rows, deadlifts, squats, lateral raises, etc.  Nothing crazy or exotic here.  Again, this was a change from the almost pathological variety in programs like AX, but I actually found that I enjoyed the consistency and focus on the basics.  

The most interesting thing about the workouts is the structure.  There's a little bit of variation between days, but the basic pattern is three exercises for myoreps and then three sets of supersets.   I was not familiar with the concept of myoreps and the program doesn't really use the text-book version of them, but the idea is that you take almost no rest time.  So you take the first set to failure, rest for only 5 - 10 seconds, and then immediately start the next set, repeating until you finish all the tests.  You follow those up with supersets, which involve doing two exercises back-to-back with no rest.  So you'd do exercise 1 to failure and immediately transition to exercise 2 and that would be one set.  Then you rest for 30 seconds and do the next set.

As I mentioned above, progression is done by adding sets.  So the first week, you do two sets of each exercise.  That's 6 total sets of myoreps plus 6 sets of supersets for a total of 18 sets.  The next week you do three of everything.  Then four, then five, then six.  On the sixth week, you get a deload week, so you only do one set of everything.  After completing the first cycle, the recommended progression is to start again, but add another set every week, so starting at 3 and going up to 7.

Program Presentation

In terms of the actual product you get and use, the RP gym-free plan is pretty basic.  (I haven't used their other templates, but I would assume they're similar.)  Basically, you just get a few PDF files and a spreadsheet.  That's it.  I got a one-page "orientation" PDF, a two-page FAQ PDF, an Excel spreadsheet for progress tracking, and a four-page PDF of the actual workouts (one page per day).  The workout PDF did include links to YouTube videos demonstrating each of the exercises, but the videos were very short (just 10 - 20 seconds or so) and didn't include more than a sentence or two of instructions or commentary.

I found this presentation to be...fine.  I mean, it conveys the required information, which is all you really need.  It would have been nice to have some more detail or discussion in some of the demo videos, as there were a few things I had to figure out for myself.  (The extra discussion and background was actually my favorite part about the Athlean-X programs.)  On the up side, the workout PDF looks nice and is laid out well, so it's good as a reference tool.  The general feeling I got from the materials was that this was written by and for people with some weight lifting experience.  It wasn't unfriendly to less experienced lifters, but it didn't do a whole lot of hand-holding.

In terms of tracking the workouts, I tried using the Excel sheet for a few weeks, but ended up just writing them down in a notebook.  I found that using the sheet was a little awkward on my tablet.  I mean, you can do it, but trying to type into Excel sheet cells on a touch screen while you're sweaty and breathing hard isn't great.  I guess I could have printed out the spreadsheets, but that seemed like too much trouble.  I had a spare spiral notebook laying around, so I just hand-wrote my own table with the same information.  I found that easier to do in the moment and easier to look back at, because you can just turn the page rather than having to scroll up and down.

My Experience

I found this to be a very challenging program.  As I mentioned, I did three rounds of this.  The second round, I increased the weight I was using and continued doing the same number of sets.  The third time, I increased the number of tests.

As you might have noticed, but the time you get to week 5 of this program, you're getting a lot of volume.  That's six sets of everything, which comes to 54 sets in all.  When I did the set-bump for my third round, week five was 7 sets of everything for a total of 63 sets.  That's one workout.  Granted, the myorep sets tend to be short (because you're going to failure on the first one and not resting), but that's still a lot of sets.

The good part of this is that it really works - I'm no expert, but from my understanding, volume is one of the big drivers of hypertrophy.  So if you can maintain the level of intensity, adding more sets is likely to lead to more muscle development.  And I feel like I did see some noticeable growth from doing three rounds of this program.  I certainly noticed some increases in strength.

Sadly, there are also some down sides to this approach.  The first is that all this volume can really drag out the workouts.  By week five of my third round, I was closing in on 90 minutes per workout.  And even on the first round, it was around an hour by week 5.  So if you're habitually pressed for time, this might not be a great program for you.

My more serious problem, though, was fatigue.  This program has you doing a lot of sets, and they're all to failure.  I frequently found myself exhausted and sore after workouts and managed to mildly injure myself a couple of times.  It was just a couple of minor pulls or tweaks - not enough to stop me from working out, but enough to make me adapt my form for a couple of exercises.  But still, it underscores that it's important to be mindful of your form, especially as you get more tired.

But it wasn't just getting tired during the workouts.  Although there was a lot of that.  By the end of the program (especially round three), I was getting more out of breath from lifting weights than get from running.  But there was also a lot of carry over of that fatigue from one workout to the next.  This meant that I wasn't able to keep up the same level of intensity though the entire program.  I fact, I noticed that even with the same weight, the number of reps I could do on the first set of an exercise started to fall over the weeks.

Never having done a deload week before, I was a little skeptical when I saw that on the program, but by week five it was pretty clear to me that this was absolutely necessary.  And as a matter of fact, I found that one week was barely sufficient at best.  After the third round, I didn't feel like I'd fully recovered until the second or third week of the next program!

To sum up

Overall, I liked this program.  It was pretty no-frills, but I feel like I learned a lot and made good strength progress.  However, it's very challenging and I had some trouble recovering from the workouts.  Your mileage may vary.  Definitely worth the money, though.

Getting back to games

It's been a while since I played many video games.  Not counting "casual games" on my phone, of course.  I'm talking about games that take more than ten minutes and that you can't necessarily put down at the drop of a hat.  But I've been getting back into PC games a bit in the last few months.

As I mentioned back in July, I've been playing some Halo.  Specifically, I played my way through the Master Chief Collection (MCC) on Steam.  For many people, playing the MCC is an exercise in nostalgia.  But I had never actually played any of the Halo games before (despite the first one coming out like 20 years ago), so this was all completely new to me.  And for the most part, I found them quite enjoyable.  (Now if only they'd port Halo 5 to PC, I'd be all set - I'll be damned if I'm going to buy an Xbox for one game.)

I actually picked that up from taking my son to the Strong Museum of Play.  You see, a while back they brought in a Halo: Fireteam Raven machine.  We tried it out and my son was immediately hooked.  He started wanting to play that every time we visited (which was pretty frequently, since we have a membership) and started to pretend to be using the weapons and fighting the aliens when he was playing around the house.  


The game itself is nothing super special.  It's an on-rails shooter with cooperative multiplayer.  You get different weapons at pre-determined points in the gameplay and fight different enemies in different stages, but that's really the only variation there is.  However, unlike many arcade games, it does have an actual plot, with cut-scenes at the beginning and end of each level.  It's not a super-deep plot, but it's something, and it does tie into the larger Halo universe.  (Synopsis: It's set at the same time as the events of Halo: Combat Evolved.  You're a member of an ODST fireteam on the Pillar of Autumn and you have to fight off the Covenant and the Flood until the Master Chief can destroy the ring.)  So I ended up getting interested and playing the PC games.

As I said, I decided to install The Master Chief Collection via Steam.  I'd had a Steam account for many years, but never really used it much.  At one point I downloaded Railroad Tycoon from Steam (because I'd enjoyed playing Loki's Linux port of it years ago) and it didn't really work properly, so I wrote it off.  But it's very popular these days, and I already had a lot of unused Steam codes from Humble Bundle games, so I figured I'd give it a shot.  And you know what?  The Steam client is still buggy.  But it's usable and it's pretty good when it works correctly.  So I've been redeeming some of my codes and playing a few of those games via Steam.

My latest favorite is Stardew Valley.  I got a copy of it as part of a Humble Bundle at some point - I honestly don't even remember when.  I've seen plenty of ads for it, especially the mobile version, but never really gave it much attention.  I don't know what made me decide to try it, but since I already had a copy, I figured I'd give it a look.  Turns out it's actually surprisingly enjoyable.  It's a retro-style life simulation, where you play a farmer who moves to a valley with a small village and become part of the community.  There's no real plot that I can discern yet, or any real win or loss conditions.  You just build your farm and form relationships with the townspeople.  Yet it's oddly relaxing and just feels good to play.  It's also on lots of different platforms and it's pretty cheap, so if you're looking to unwind, it might be worth checking out.

Holiday mission

Last year, I gave my son an assignment for Christmas: help me assemble the RetroPie we got him.  He enjoyed that process and subsequently became a fan of Contra.  This year, we were a little at a loss as to what to get, and eventually decided on making the big family gift a Nintendo Switch.  Still video game themed, but not really amenable to being a DIY project.

But then, a few days before Christmas, we were talking about the vacation we took in Florida at the beginning of 2020, right before everything got locked down.  My son mentioned how much he enjoyed our trip to the science museum, which had a special exhibit on spies.  So I decided to make this year's "Christmas mission" a spy-themed scavenger hunt.  

I figured it would be nice to make it semi-educational, so I wrote a simple "encryption" program (just ROT13 in Python), commented it heavily, and e-mailed it to him.  Then I came up with four clues to lead him to, first, his stocking, and second, the Switch.  I wrote a short letter describing his mission and including the encrypted text for the first clue.  Then I encrypted the other three clues, printed them out, and hid them in the appropriate places.  I put the letter in an envelope and hid it semi-conspicuously in the Christmas tree.

Here's the program I sent him, in case anyone is interested:

# This program does a ROT13 encoding on a message to encrypt or decrypt it.
# ROT13 is a simple "substitution cipher", also called a "Caesar cipher" after
# Julius Caesar, who was one of the first people to use it.

# A substitution cipher means that you replace one character in the message with
# a different character according to certain rules.  ROT13 stands for "rotate by 13",
# because the rule is that you replace with the character that's 13 places farther in 
# the alphabet (when you get to "Z", you loop back around to "A" and keep going).

# One of the cool things about this is that, because there are 26 letters in the 
# alphabet, ROT13 can both encrypt and decrypt a message using the same method.
# You don't need to do anything different!

# Here's how the program works:

# We'll put the decryption in a function and pass it the message
def decrypt_message(message):

    # This is where we're going to store the decrypted message
    decrypted_message = ''

    # We decrypt by going through the message one character at a time.
    for character in message:
        # If the character is an upper-case or lower-case letter, let's rotate it.
        if character.islower() or character.isupper():
            # First we figure out the letter's position in the alphabet.  We can do
            # this by using it's ASCII code, which is the way we represent letters and
            # other printable characters in binary, see
            starting_ascii_code = ord('A') if character.isupper() else ord('a')
            # To get the position, we get the ASCII value of the letter and then subtract
            # the ASCII value for "A".  (Lower-case and upper case have different codes.)
            position_in_alphabet = ord(character) - starting_ascii_code
            # Then we add 13 and take the modulus with 26.  The "modulus" is the remainder
            # when you do division, so 30 / 26 is 1 with a remainder of 4, so the 30 % 26 is 4.
            new_position = (position_in_alphabet + 13) % 26
            # Now we add back the value we subtracted to get the position to make it
            # an ASCII code again.
            new_character = chr(new_position + starting_ascii_code)
            # Now we can add the the new letter to the decrypted message.
            decrypted_message += new_character
            # If the character isn't a letter (e.g. a space or punctuation), we'll
            # just leave it alone and add it to the decrypted message.
            decrypted_message += character

    # Now we can print out the result!
    print("The decrypted message is:")

print('Ready to decrypt!  Type "exit" to quit.')
message = ''
while message != 'exit':
    print("Enter the message:")
    message = input()

Zane actually found the letter on his own before I even had a chance to nudge him toward it.  He was really excited and immediately wanted to get started.  So we went and downloaded the ROT13 program and I showed him how to open it in IDLE.  He read some of the comments and then we ran it and he typed in the first message.  That led him to the second one hidden in the advent calendar, which in turn led him to his stocking in the basement.  Since we weren't doing presents until the extended family came over for lunch, the third message in his stocking told him to talk to his aunt, who I enlisted to deliver the last clue, which led to the Switch strategically hidden under the bed.

Apparently it was a good idea, because Zane was really into it and had a great time.  After finding the Switch, he even held a "debriefing" where he explained the entire mission in detail to his grandparents.  I count this as a very successful Christmas.

Back from the holidays

In the spirit of not freaking out and overdoing it for the holidays, for Christmas this year I've scheduled another "from the archives" post.  If you haven't been keeping track, that's my lazy posting series where I slap a preamble on something that's been sitting in my drafts folder forever and call it "new content".

This one is actually seasonal, though, as it's dated December 28, 2007.  It's also completely non-technical and yet was also tagged "Software Engineering" for some reason.  Maybe I intended to add something to it, or maybe I just fat-fingered the tag widget.  But that's neither here nor there.  The point is that my scheduled Saturday post falls on Christmas day, and this is related to Christmas.

Since this one is super-short, I'm going to add some inline commentary to it because, well, otherwise it's just boring.  But this is also purely biographical, which means that nobody else cares anyway.  So this is largely a "me" post.

The post is below the line with current-day comments in italics.  Hopefully it'll be at least modestly entertaining.  Enjoy and happy holidays!

Boy, it's been a long time since I did any blogging. (Now: Exactly a week, to be precise.)  I've been meaning to get back to it, but it seems like I just haven't been able to find the time or energy.  Hopefully that will change now that things are finally settling down.  (Now: This actually still applies, sadly.  Despite being part of the "zoomocracy" and hence managing the pandemic as well as can be expected, I've found the whole thing has been a constant slow sap on my energy.  I've tried to maintain healthy habits and schedules and have managed fairly well, but still....)

There's been a lot going on here in the last couple of months.  Of course, there was the usual holiday hubbub.  My wife always insists on making a big production for Thanksgiving and Christmas, even when she doesn't have time to.  (Now: One up-ish side of the pandemic is that this hasn't been an issue the last couple of years.  That's not precisely a "good" thing, it does put the stress of big holiday plans in perspective.  Although I do miss some of it.  For instance, I was just thinking the other day about how every year I would make and package a bunch of cookie dough for my grandmother at Christmas.  She passed in early 2020 at the age of 89, in the first wave of the pandemic.  She was never very good at making cookies - when they were kids, apparently when she mentioned to my uncles that she might make some cookies, they would tell here that maybe she should wait for my mom to come home and let her do it.  So every year I would freeze her a bunch of pre-rolled cookies that she could just pop in the oven.  She would take them to events at church and people would tell her what good cookies she made.)  We also found a buyer for our house in Corning and moved the last of stuff out.  I've been trying to unpack and organize things, but it's very slow going.  

In the moving process, we also acquired a piano.  It's actually my mom's piano, which she doesn't play and has been wanting to get out of the house for some time.  I, however, do play and I've been immensely enjoying trying to get back in practice.  (Now: This is also still relevant.  I don't play that much anymore, but I still find it relaxing to do every now and then.  The last few weeks I've broken out the old Christmas carol sheet music in honor of the holidays.  Even though things are better than last Christmas, we're still not really back to normal.  So in these weird times, I find playing the piano a nice way to decompress, put aside the worries, and think about better days.)

Using your tablet as a monitor

The other week I was wondering: can I use my tablet as an external monitor?  I mean, it would be nice to have a portable monitor so I can do dual-display on my laptop wherever I go.  And I usually have my tablet with me.  And it's got a nice 10" display with decent definition.  So why not use it as an extra monitor where I can toss my Slack window or something like that?

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like there's an out-of-the-box way to do this with my Windows laptop and Galaxy S6 Lite tablet.  But the good news is that there's software that will make it work pretty painlessly.

The solution I ended up going with was Duet.  It's a combination of a desktop app and mobile app working in tandem that works for Windows, Mac, Android, and iOS.  There is a service you can create an account for, but it's not necessary - you can use the apps locally without signing up for anything.  (In fact, I haven't even tried creating an account yet.)  By default Duet connects via a USB connection to your device, but you can also enable an option to connect wirelessly over WiFi.  The WiFi connection is fine, but at least on my network there was a lot of mouse lag when trying to use apps on the tablet.  It's not unusable, but it is unpleasant.  The USB connection is super-responsive, though, so I normally just use that.  As a nice extra, Duet even allows you to use the touchscreen of the tablet, so if your laptop has a touchscreen (which mine does), your secondary screen will work just the same.  Very slick!


The only down side of Duet I've seen so far is that it's not free and there doesn't seem to be a demo version.  There's no cost for the desktop component, but the Android app is about $10.  That's not exactly a fortune, but it's enough to be annoying if you try it and it doesn't work.  Thus my first attempt was with Spacedesk, which is completely free.  However, I didn't actually get a chance to try it out, as the desktop driver install experience was...not great.  For some reason, it took an uncomfortably long to for the installer to run.  Like, after half an hour it was still working.  So I clicked "cancel".  And then, after another hour, the rollback finally completed and I closed the installer.  I have no idea what it was doing, but that was enough to make me not trust it.

Duet, on the other hand, installed fast and worked the first time.  The settings are pretty minimal.  For the connection, you can change the framerate, performance setting, and resolution.  System-wide, you can toggle notifications and "Duet Air", which is what they call the WiFi connection.  To connect the tablet, you pretty much just plug it in.  Duet on the tablet will prompt you to connect the screen and Duet on the laptop will also detect the connection and add the display.  (Of course, if you're using a WiFi connection, it's not that simple.  But it's still pretty simple.)  After that, the tablet just behaves like a regular touchscreen display.  Unfortunately, it only supports one device at a time, so you can't plug in two tablets, or your tablet and your phone, but that's not a huge deal.

So far I'm pretty happy with Duet.  It's a nicely done little utility that "just works" and does a useful thing.  Definitely worth checking out if you have a device that would make a good extra monitor.