May 18, 2014

Why You Should Cancel Your Gym Membership

That's Bo Jackson.

If you were born before 1985, then YOU know that BO KNOWS!

Despite the "Bo Knows Weights" clip in that video, Jackson frequently claimed to have never lifted weights in his private training sessions, relying solely on cardio and bodyweight exercises: squats, situps, pullups, pushups, etc. A lot of people respond to that by saying "Bo Knows Bullshit..."

But maybe not.

It may be true that a rigorous lifting schedule shows "gains" in size/definition of muscles, so you look jacked in a swimsuit... but moves like "Preacher Curls" make it dangerously easy to isolate/engage those "vanity" muscles without having one's core and legs involved - the end result of which is something akin to chrome-plating a two-ton crane and erecting it on Marshmallow Mountain. (It's also not going to do you very much good to be the size of Schwarzenegger if you can't scratch your own ass because your range-of-motion is non-existent.)

You just have to ask yourself one question: What kind of body do you want? Do you want to look like Mr. Universe? Or would you prefer a practically fit body in the tradition of Bo Jackson, who had a career as an All-Star athlete in two professional sports leagues - without pumping iron.

I'll choose functional strength, every time.

[Obligatory Disclaimer: I'm not a doctor, trainer, physician, chiropractor, professional athlete, personal trainer or any of that shit. If you decide to do something with or to your body or anyone else's after reading anything I write, you're choosing to take your fragile life into your own hands and it's definitely not my fault. For real.]

Resistance + Form = Mastery

Resistance is everything, almost. Without resistance, there is no accomplishment, in any aspect of life. When exercising our bodies, we are repeatedly overcoming the resistance presented by the laws of physics, so that, through practice of repetition, we may become more efficient at overcoming those resistances in the future. This is why I am not making a wholesale argument against the use of free weights and/or machines - exclusive use of bodyweight exercises can make you really good at throwing your body around a room... but maybe not so helpful when your friend needs help moving his furniture. For that, you'll want to have practiced moving more weight around than that of your own body. Our buddy Bo Jackson did sprints in a swimming pool for the added resistance. The most important thing to remember, though...

Form is everything. Basically, your "core" is not a cool way to refer to your abs. Anatomically, your core is your entire trunk. Practically, your core strength is everything between the stability of your ankles to the external rotation of your shoulder blades. If you're performing any exercise without taking those into consideration, then you're being an asshole. When you witness a master at work in any physical medium, they make something you couldn't do at all seem as easy as if they could do it while sleepwalking. This is because they've trained their body to meet that resistance with the proper form through innumerable repetitions. This is the grace of the professional dancer, athlete, musician...

[I've written an article on spinal bracing. You'll want to read that, if you haven't. Becoming a Supple Leopard is further essential reading for anyone interested in physical fitness.]

Work Smart... and Hard

How much free time do you have in a week? Look, I know you work hard. I know you need your sleep. You and I both know if there's a tossup between spending an hour exercising or catching the newest episode of Game of Thrones then the only heavy breathing going down is gonna be if Samwell Tarly has to climb a flight of stairs. It's cool - I get it. You ready to hear why that excuse isn't good enough?

I exercise only 23 minutes a week and I'm in the best shape of my life. It's called High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT, for short) and I'll tell you right up front: it's not fun at all. If you think I'm about to give you some sort of "magic pill" shortcut on the road to looking like a god(ess), then L-O-L... No. Not even a little bit. 

Back in the '70s, some guy named Peter Coe made his son, Sebastian, do HIIT sprints. (I have no idea if I'm related to these people.) That kid ended up pulling down four Olympic medals, two of 'em gold. So, you know, people have been pretty interested in HIIT for a long time. Recently, HIIT has received coverage from people like Tim Ferriss and the Freakonomics Radio podcast.

Here's what I know: since first taking an interest in my physical well-being a few years ago, I've used several formulaic systems of exercise, including P90X. Yeah, it was hardcore exercise. I felt the burn, especially on those first leg days; I still have nightmares about Yoga X. But those video routines took so much time, required all this gear, and kinda trained me to work at the speed of the people on the video. I was sure there had to be a less time-consuming way to go about this whole "being in shape" thing. So, I hit the search engines, read up on HIIT and decided to give it a shot. After literally four minutes, I was lying on the ground in my backyard, holding my throat, feeling like I was going to puke and then, hopefully, die.

If that sounds like your kinda thing...

High-Intensity Interval Training

So, what is HIIT? It's exactly what it sounds like: training with intervals of high-intensity vs. low-intensity. All that's required to convert your current cardio or bodyweight resistance exercises into HIIT exercises is a timer. Download an app - the one I use, pictured below, is called IntervalTimer. There are several protocols or regimens one may choose to program into the timer. The one I picked that first time, and which I still use, is called the Tabata cycle. Here's my version:

Tabata HIIT

  • 2 minutes of low-intensity warm up (slow squats or cardio)
  • 20 seconds of maximum-intensity reps or activity
  • 10 seconds of rest or low/mid-intensity
  • repeat 8x

That's it. Looks easy. Isn't. If it is, then you're making "max-intensity" mean max-convenient-at-the-time and, again, you're being an asshole. Remember: if you aren't overcoming resistance, then you aren't doing anything. When you become, shall we say, "accustomed" to the above Tabata cycle, add 1:00 of rest at the end, then do the whole thing all over again. Welcome back to Hell...

There are less extreme methods, as I said. The Gibala protocol is 60 seconds of almost-max followed by 75 seconds of rest. The Timmons is 2 minutes of warm-up and 20 seconds of max-intensity, once and done. Many of the HIIT studies these methods are based on had subjects exercise using stationary bicycles. You can do pretty much whatever you want, however, you should definitely keep it to simple cardio and bodyweight moves (squats, situps, pushups, pull-ups) at the beginning. Trust me, you will not need any extra weight to make this difficult.

The main benefit of the Tabata protocol, for me, was its inescapable presentation of the holes in my concept of what it means to be "in shape." Picking up barbells in my room (or the gym) made me feel like I was taking care of myself. My muscles were always sore and my arms got bigger, so I was getting more fit, right? But my muscles didn't help me very much when I was lying on the ground in my backyard, feeling like my throat was gonna explode. And it isn't that my routine was missing cardio - not at all. My cardio routine (like most) essentially required the same amount of energy from me as HIIT does, except it let me take an hour to expend it.

Why take more time to do less work when you can do more work in less time?

Thank you for your time. Are there any questions?


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