Interview: Krista Stryker on bodyweight training, vegetarianism, flexibility, and setting fun goals

Over the past year, many of my readers have said that they’d like to hear more about bodyweight training.  It’s easy to see why- bodyweight training is convenient, cheap, and every program benefits from including a little bit of it.  But many people also have a hard time believing you can get strong without lifting heavy weights, or that you can get a good workout without going to the gym.  Plus, bodyweight training doesn’t usually look as cool as benching three hundred pounds.  And so it tends to get overlooked by trainers and fitness writers.
Krista Stryker has built her career on filling that void.  Arguably the blogosphere’s top proponent of bodyweight training, her style of training combines short, intense bodyweight circuit workouts with sports and skill training that makes fitness genuinely fun- especially if you prefer the sun in your face to the clang of heavy-ass weights being racked.  She makes her online home at 12 Minute Athlete, where she publishes bodyweight workouts and vegan recipes several times a week, along with the 12 Minute Athlete mobile app.
The tagline of her site is Unlock Your Potential, and Krista herself lives by that motto- she’s constantly challenging herself to master something new.  Right now it’s backflips.  Last week, she took some time to share some advice for people who are interested in using bodyweight training to get into amazing shape, following a vegetarian diet, or just having way more fun with their workouts.
Why do you prefer bodyweight training?  What advantages and disadvantages does that have compared to traditional weight training?  
 
Since I started getting into fitness in my early 20’s, I’ve been fascinated by how our bodies move and how exercises using just our own bodyweight could be scaled to be made really, really hard. When I first started, I actually could barely do a single push up, and that’s still an exercise I see so many people do incorrectly (even guys!) because they lack strength in certain areas of their body, usually their core. Bodyweight exercises force you to use your body as a whole, rather than working muscles isometrically like traditional bodybuilding exercises do. This helps address weaknesses in the body and ends up translating more to real life movements than many weight lifting exercises do.
Another obvious reason bodyweight training is great for a lot of people is that it’s totally portable, so even if you don’t have a gym and a ton of equipment you can still get a good workout in. This is one of my favorite aspects about bodyweight training – I love just being able to go to a park and work out, getting creative with what I can turn into possible equipment (bike racks = dip bars, picnic tables = plyo boxes, etc.). It’s fun, challenging, and always keeps me mixing my workouts up so I never get bored.
 
How much time do you actually spend working out every week?  Is it really just 12 minutes a day?  
 
My base workouts are 12 minutes of HIIT training, and I do these 4-6 times a week. These workouts are a mix of plyometrics, strength, and cardio exercises, and keep my conditioning and strength levels up. In addition, I love challenging myself, and the past few years I’ve really fallen in love with gymnastics, handstands, and other cool bodyweight skills. I’ll spend more time on those, but really just because I find them so much fun.
 
What kind of stretching regimen do you recommend for a beginner who wants to have a baseline level of flexibility?  
 
Stretching is important and something a lot of people ignore. We actually did a 6-week stretching challenge on 12minuteathlete.com about six months ago, which helped give people a basis of full body stretches to focus on. Basically, I recommend people try and stretch for about 10-15 minutes, four or five times a week. Make sure to do your stretches after your workout or at night (I tend to stretch when watching a show in the evening since I figure it’s a good use of my time), since static stretching before a workout can actually hinder performance.
How long have you been vegetarian?  What changes did you notice when you went vegetarian?
 
I’ve actually been a vegetarian since I was six years old – I was a big animal lover. It’s definitely not as convenient, especially being in fitness. I make it work though, it just requires a little extra planning to make sure I’m getting in enough protein and nutrients on a daily basis. I do eat eggs and dairy though, which helps. I don’t advocate vegetarianism for everyone—I think it works for some people, but not others. Ultimately you have to experiment and figure out what nutrition approach works for your body.
Many vegetarians give up meat only to end up eating way too much bread and sugar.  Can you go into a little more detail about how to eat healthy as a vegetarian athlete?  
 
Yeah, there are definitely a lot of pizza vegetarians out there! Really though, it’s just like any other diet—make sure to get in a variety of foods, eat a good amount of vegetables, eat appropriate levels of carbohydrates for your activity level, stuff like that. Protein is the thing that some vegetarians struggle with getting enough of, but really if you’re not vegan and do eat eggs and dairy, it’s easy to get enough in between foods like eggs, Greek yogurt, tofu, cheese, etc.
How often do you prepare food in bulk vs cooking just one meal vs eating out?
 
I do some food prep a couple of times a week, usually foods like rice or quinoa, a batch of tofu or tempeh, roasted vegetables for a couple of days, and a few days worth of steel cut oatmeal for breakfast. It helps to save time and every time I go to eat a meal and there are leftovers I get super happy. I do like eating out just to mix things up, but luckily I live in an area where there are tons of healthy options so it’s fairly easy to make good choices even when I’m not cooking for myself.
 
Do you think people should track macros all the time?  How much do you focus on what you eat versus how much you eat?
It really depends on your personality and your goals. I think it’s almost always a good idea to track what you eat for a week or a few days at a minimum. This allows you to see your total calorie consumption and your macro (protein, carbohydrate, and fat) levels, which may or may not need to be adjusted based on your goals. It also helps you be more aware of what you’re eating, get a better understanding of portion sizes, and determine if you’re over or under-eating based on your goals.
However, counting calories can cause some people to be overly obsessive about what they eat, so for anyone with a history of eating disorders or food issues, I definitely don’t recommend it long term. Also, it can just be annoying, and not everyone likes to write down or log in an app everything they’re eating. For these types of people, counting for a few days is fine but not a good idea long-term.
If somebody doesn’t enjoy working out or eating healthy, what should they do to motivate themselves?
Keep experimenting and find something they like—or at least don’t hate. In terms of food, there are always ways to make things healthier yet still taste good. Just keep trying different recipes and restaurants and you’ll realize that just because something is good for you doesn’t mean it has to taste awful (it shouldn’t!).
As for working out, again, I really believe people just need to keep trying new things and find something that doesn’t feel like absolute torture. Personally, I absolutely hate to run, but it’s all I used to do and I would dread every workout. Once I realized I didn’t have to run to get a good workout, I started experimenting with other styles of workouts and finally really fell in love with HIIT and bodyweight training. Similarly, you may hate all forms of gym-style cardio, but might find it really fun to join an indoor soccer team or play beach volleyball on the weekend. Experiment and have fun with it!
It looks like people who follow your material would end up doing a different workout every day.  How should someone track their progress when they’re not repeating the same workout regularly?   
Even though we mix up our workouts a lot, we still incorporate many of the same exercises on a regular basis. For example, burpees, pull ups, and pistol squats are some of the exercises we include regularly. There are different ways to track your progress, but two of the easiest ways is to track what progression you’re currently at with the exercise (for example, half pistol squats, bench pistol squats, full pistol squats, etc.), then to track how many of those you can do with good form in the allotted amount of time.
One of the big gaps in bodyweight training programs tends to be “pulling” motions.  Other than chin-up and pull-up variants, what pulling-type movements can people use to work their back, biceps and forearms without needing to use a gym or heavy equipment?  
 
Agreed, pulling movements can be the toughest to substitute without an actual pull up bar. I encourage people to get creative – sometimes it’s possible to find alternative places to do pull ups like on certain door frames, the underside of a stairway, etc.
If that’s not possible, reverse push ups (also known as bodyweight rows or Australian pull ups) are a great pulling exercise option, and these can be done using a suspension trainer like a TRX or even the underside of a table or two chairs put side by side (both will need to be high enough that you’ll have enough room to pull yourself up off of the floor).
Lastly, standing rows using some dumbbells or a sandbag (make your own by filling a duffel bag with heavy stuff) will still work these muscle areas if you don’t have any other options.
Get creative and have fun with it!
You’ve shown that equipment-minimal workouts are a lot more versatile than most people think, but can they be used to build large amounts of strength or mass?  At what point do people have to start re-incorporating traditional weight training?
 
You can definitely get super strong with minimal equipment workouts—just look at gymnasts or calisthenics athletes like Barstarzz! Exercises like muscle ups, front levers, planches, and human flags are no joke and require nothing but a pull up bar or your own body. Similarly, you can build a certain amount of mass using minimal equipment or bodyweight exercises, although most people will end up with a fairly lean, cut, athletic build rather than a more bodybuilder-style look. If you want to go the bodybuilder route, you’ll need to do some of the more isometric exercises in addition to bodyweight training – and of course eat enough to support the muscle growth you’re looking for.
 
Who are your readers, and how do most of them find you?
 
Our readers tend to be ex-athletes (people who played sports in high school, etc.), people who travel a lot, people wanting to learn cool skills, busy parents, college students, etc. Most people find us through the iPhone or Android app or word of mouth.
What are your fitness goals right now?  How have your goals and motivations changed over the years?
 
I have so many! I’m working on finally being able to do a muscle up, as well as a press handstand, human flag, back handspring, aerial cartwheel, among other skills. The biggest problem I have is limiting the skills I’m working on in order to stay focused – but I just find it all so fun.
My goals and motivations have really changed a lot over the past few years. When I first got into fitness, like many people, my main goal was to feel good about my appearance. As I got more into HIIT and bodyweight training though, that focus mostly went away as I got excited about building strength and going after goals I never thought I’d be able to even attempt. I’ve worked really hard and it’s fun to see so much progress over the years.
Krista Stryker is the owner of 12 Minute Athlete, publisher of the 12 Minute Athlete mobile app, and a leading expert on bodyweight workouts.      
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