A Lifetime of Calisthenics: Tips & Wisdom from 71-Year old Mike

Takeaways from Calisthenics veteran Mike Joplin

  1. Age is just a number: Mike’s most impressive transformation was achieved at age 40 even though he trained on and off During his early 20’s and 30’s. Your physiology does allow you to build muscle a lot more efficiently when you’re 20, but  focus and experience can give you an even bigger edge .
  2. Passion and simplicity trump information overload. Mike didn’t have internet, and any proper exercise books during a big part of his strength journey. But through trial and error and by learning to feel his body, he figured most stuff on his own. Every time he over-analyzed things and bought fancy equipment, his progress stalled. Focus, passion and sticking to calisthenics always paid off. 
  3. Focus on small daily goals and habits instead of making “big plans”. Focus on everyday habits and small goals instead of getting too attached to long-term future goals and results. In the end, your body will grant you your inner wishes (and more!).
  4. Pull ups: The king of Bodyweight Exercises. Mike’s favorite exercise was the shoulder width overhand pull-up. As he quotes “it’s responsible for (probably) 90% of my physique in my twenties, late thirties and early forties, and even now in my seventies.”
  5. Bodyweight Leg training tips: The most important leg exercise Mike did were up-hill sprints. Also, Mike considers the Bulgarian Split Squat as the best bodyweight leg- exercise.
  6. You can build muscle without going to failure… According to Mike, “feeling” is more important than counting. Mike rarely counted reps and sets. He focused on how his muscles felt and finished his sets feeling fresh. He also did lot of sets spread over the day.
  7. Calisthenics are a better and safer way to build muscle long-term. Bodyweight exercise provides you enough of resistance to attain a great physique but also gives you a safer and more natural barrier to avoid injury in comparison with weight lifting.

Part 1: Lessons from bodyweight transformations

When I released my ebook a few months ago, Mike send me an email about the things he really liked in it. As we kept talking, I realised that this man had an amazing story to share with the world. There more we talked the more I got fascinated with his experiences and love for calisthenics. Before we dive in this mans awesome life, I want to thank you Mike for being so patient these last couple of weeks as I kept bombarding you with questions and took my time to make sure this article would give your story the light it deserves…

From tall and skinny as a broomstick to a 1960’s Superhero Physique

Mike Joplin young VS 1960's PhysiqueCheck out Mike on the left photo above in his early 20’s after his first transformation. He has that v-shape, 1960’s superhero physique which was the ideal physique at that time (as you can see from the magazine cover on the right). Just like me, due to lack of equipment, Mike did his pull-ups on a door frame (open cubicle door frame) in his navy barracks (which makes the exercise a lot more difficult due to uncomfortable grip).

ANTHONY: Being 71 years old and still doing calisthenics is remarkable! Most people quit exercise around the age of 25-30. Typical excuses include family, work, and age. What are your thoughts on this topic?

MIKE: I was born on the 26th of December, 1944. I was skinny from birth. (I barely weighed 5lbs/2 kg). And I was skinny all the way through high school. During my high school years, I had the desire and intent to change my physique, but not the passion or know-how. And I didn’t know where to find the knowledge at that time. Even my high school physical education teachers had no clue. I remember asking my mom to go to our hometown pharmacy and ask the pharmacist if he had anything that would help me gain weight. He talked her into buying a very expensive bottle of vitamins (that we really couldn’t afford). They did nothing to help me gain weight.

I joined the US Navy in June of 1963. After years of being called skinny from people in my hometown, I discovered that people are pretty much the same everywhere. Being called skinny by beautiful women in Puerto Rico (my 1st duty station) was the ‘trigger’ that turned my desire and intent into passion. After twenty years of being called that way, I had enough and finally pushed myself into taking action. In about 12 months of doing bodyweight training only, I went from 155lbs/70kg to 200lbs/90kg! My success really came through trial and error.

I didn't know that doing a full pull-up (or any other exercise) was called a “rep.” I had never heard of the term.

And I didn’t know that doing multiple reps was a “set.” I had never heard that term, either. I didn’t know what static holds or partial reps were. But I was doing them. Also, I had never heard the terms positive reps and negative reps. So my success came simply from doing basic exercises and from being “consistent” with my training. Before I realized it, I had built a strong and well-developed physique. People started commenting on my “developing” physique even before I had started to notice any changes myself.

After my Navy discharge, I returned home and because of an obsession with alcohol, I lost everything that I had built. I drank before and after work (and every weekend), and hardly ever ate. I eventually got down to 175lbs/79kg, and sometimes even below that. At age 33, I got married and finally settled down. I had the desire and intent to train, but still no passion. However, in my late 30’s and early 40’s, my passion returned. The trigger that re-ignited my passion was that I just wanted to look good and feel good again. Just as I got tired of being skinny, I also got tired of being average.

Puerto Rico Military 185

Mike weighing 185 pounds, during his 1st transformation in the Navy (stationed in Puerto Rico)

Gaining 45 pounds of muscle in a few months at age 40!

Although my life was busier than ever, with a wife and three sons, I decided that I was going to make time to train. In a matter of months, I went from 175lbs/79kg to over 220lbs/99kg. I built a powerful physique for the second time in my life, without ANY supplements at all. I did it by doing body-weight exercises only. I actually gained 20lbs/9kg more as a middle-aged man, than I did during my first transformation (when I was in my early 20’s). And I still had a very trim waist. At 222 lbs/kg, I wore 33” waist pants.

In my late 40’s and all the way into my early sixties, I got in and out of shape like a yo-yo. During those years, I was fit, skinny, skinny-fat, fat, and average. So, from my teens until my early sixties, my desire, intention, and passion was inconsistent. What were my excuses? They were the very things that you listed at the beginning of this interview: family, work, age, too tired (legitimate at times, because I was an underground coal miner).

Calisthenics are like a long-lasting relationship, the passion comes and goes but you have to keep on working on it.

~ HomeMade Muscle (quote from the book)

4 Tips for building a Powerful Physique

ANTHONY: What would you say was the secret of your successful transformations? How did you manage to get out and in shape so many times over the years?

MIKE: Well, since I’ve only been consistent in training during the past few years, I guess my “secret” is really more about something I discovered gradually through time. About ten years ago, I finally realized that there were four commonalities that were present during the two times that I did succeed in building a powerful physique:

  1. Motive: There was “always” a catalyst that turned my desire and intent into passion. In my early years, it was to avoid embarrassment from being constantly called skinny. The second time it was to relive the ‘memories’ of being fit the first time, and to feel good (physically and mentally). I had allowed my health to decline, and I was concerned.
  2. Bodyweight Exercises: Each time that I had succeeded in my body-building quest, I did it by doing ‘body-weight’ exercises only.
  3. Compound Movements & short workouts: My body-weight routines were always centered around basic exercises (vertical pull, vertical push, horizontal pull, horizontal push, legs, and abs). And even though they were intense, they were brief, and I finished my routines rather fresh, not exhausted.
  4. Daily habits Over long-term goals: Although I did set “long-term” goals, they were not my main focus. Instead, I focused on small daily goals which gradually became easily applicable habits. These daily goals were actually “performance” goals (some call these “process” goals).

By being faithful to these small daily habits and by performing, simple and brief body-weight workouts, I knew that the outcome (especially during my second transformation) would take care of itself! And it did. I also realized that by purchasing weights and weight equipment, and by over-analyzing my training and nutrition routines (due to excessive Internet research…which didn’t exist earlier in my life), I was making training and nutrition more complicated than it actually was. Every time I got out of shape, I regretted it. I finally understood that what keeps me training at my advanced age is the fact that I rather suffer the “pain of discipline” rather than the “pain of regret.” After years of experience, I now know that consistency and simplicity (in training and nutrition) always provide the best results.

By setting small disciplined daily goals, you end up exceeding your expectations and limits.

~ Mike Joplin

PART 2: Bodyweight exercise tips from Mike

Click here to read part 2



Anthony Arvanitakis

Anthony is a motivational personal trainer currently living in Amsterdam, NL. He has a B.Sci in Sports Science and Physical education and is a Bodyweight exercise and mindfulness meditation enthusiast. Learn more about Anthony's story in his recent 5-star book on amazon - Here.