It’s so common it’s sad. I’m talking about the person you see day in and day out, hitting the gym, doing 20 minutes on the treadmill, filling up their water bottle, chatting to their fellow gym-mates, lifting weights for the prescribed 3 sets of 15 reps, doing a little stretch and hitting the showers. They are dedicated, they are trying to do what they’ve been told is best, yet there they are week after week, month after month, year after year and their body never changes much, if at all. That’s not to say that people never get results with that type of program, some do, but the vast majority do not. There are a few reasons for that, not the least of which is poor nutrition, but even if your diet is imperfect, doing the right type of movement will still get you much closer to the sort of results you’re looking for.
I’m was a prime example of that. I was trying to get leaner, stronger and faster, all while reaching and maintaining an optimal level of health. I was a holistic nutritionist and a sports nutritionist and my diet was impeccable, but my body was really resistant to change. I read a lot of books. I became a personal trainer. I went to conferences. I tried long, hard cardio workouts, I tried cardio on an empty stomach, I tried it on a full stomach, I tried bodybuilding style weight-lifting, I tried circuit training and prescribed workouts. I tried exercise classes like kickboxing and step aerobics; I spent hours on my stationary bike, then hours on my stepper, then hours on my elliptical. I took up running. I tried Pilates and Yoga and dedicated my life to “The Firm” workout series. In short, I tried every new thing I learned with dismal returns. I figured there had to be something I didn’t know and that’s why I never seemed to get the results I was after. Turns out the most important thing I didn’t know was that my belief systems and thought process were in the gutter and no matter what action I took, I was stuck with a “fat girl” identity. I expected things to be hard for me. There were other things I didn’t know either, important things about fitness that I’m really glad I know now. Changing my thought patterns through EFT and Law of Attraction was instrumental in helping me align with the solution I’d been asking for, but I still had to learn how to move better!
What I’ve learned in the past five years, after almost twenty years of searching, has been instrumental in making me LOVE working out, not to mention it has made me leaner, stronger, faster and better than I’ve ever been. The style of training I do now is conducive to super wellness, unlike many exercise programs where fitness is the goal, even if it calls for absence of health (think marathon runner). At thirty-nine years old, I’m out-performing many twenty something’s in a very challenging, elite fitness environment. I don’t say that to brag, I say it to let you know that I’ve found a system that works.
And I want to share it with you.
Much of my exercise recommendations, like my nutrition recommendations, are based on the model of Paleolithic man. Early versions of humans were lean, strong, healthy and able to survive major hardships. Only the strongest survived to procreate, so we are all decedants of those early cavemen. Our DNA hasn’t even changed much, but our bodies sure have. How do you think we’d fair if we had to survive in the wild today? Modern life has made us soft and weak. It stands to reason that we would be wise to move and eat more like primal man did if we want to be fit and strong too. I have to preface this by advising you to consult with your physician before beginning any exercise program. The program I’m laying out here can be quite intense, so starting with walking is a good plan, but as soon as you’re ready, you need to add intensity into your training. Don’t be afraid of it, but do pay attention to your own limits and capabilities. Work as intensely as you can, but do so safely. If you don’t feel equipped to do any of the movements I’m recommending here, I highly suggest you visit your nearest CrossFit, or at least do a search of the amazing exercise database at www.CrossFit.com
How did Cavemen stay so lean?
They did a lot of walking. Foraging, hunting and gathering required our early brethren to be on their feet most of their waking day. Walking should be such a staple in your fitness routine that you don’t even consider it exercise. It’s common sense advice, but now it’s backed up with some great science as well. A friend of mine that also happens to be an obesity researcher and a PhD candidate tells me that all the latest research says that long-duration (60 minutes) low-intensity (walking) exercise is best for fat loss. If you’re not already walking at least three hours per week, getting up to that level is a great place to start. Don’t try to do it all at once. 10-60 minutes at a time will suffice. Longer hikes once in a while are great too.
They also did short, intense work once every few days. The hunt, or the chase, usually would’ve involved fairly short, all-out sprinting that may have ended with powerful throwing, climbing, clubbing and heavy lifting. There are a million ways to simulate that so don’t be afraid to get inventive, but follow the criteria I’ve outlined below when you’re putting your program together.
One of the most important elements in improving fitness and markers of health is intensity. Intensity positively impacts adaptations that are conducive with fitness and health. Intensity is measured relative to your own ability, so what is intense for one person may or may not be intense for someone else. To find your own level of intensity in a work out, you can use a scale of perceived exertion.
0= no intensity, at complete rest
5= moderate intensity, you’re breathing heavy but you can still talk
10= you’re working as hard as humanly possible and if you kept it up you’d likely keel over.
Your walking will be very low intensity; 3-4 on the scale is great. Walk at a pace that allows you to talk easily and if it’s too hard, slow down, or find a less intense activity like light rowing or stationary biking if walking is too difficult at first.
As for the “hunting” part of your workouts, they are going to be MUCH more intense. More like an 8 or 9 and ½. To maximize hormonal responses, increase lean mass and basically do exercise that WORKS, you have to work with intensity, but the good news is that you don’t have to do it for very long. Intense workouts can provide incredible benefits in as little as 4 minutes. Your average high-intensity workout should definitely be no more than 20 minutes including your warm-up and cool down.
Elements of a great workout
If you’ve known me for anytime at all, you’ve probably already heard me go on and on about CrossFit. I LOVE CrossFit, but I don’t think it’s the only game in town, it just happens to be the most popular and accessible form of exercise that incorporates all the components of fitness the way I believe they should be incorporated. CrossFit can be defined as “Constantly Varied, Functional Movement executed at High Intensity”. There are other programs that achieve a similar result and if you’re new to exercise, or have been on the couch for a while, you’ll probably want to start with something like “The Primal Blueprint Fitness Plan” by Mark Sisson which you can get for free when you sign up for his newsletter here. Mark is a fantastic resource, his e-book will walk you through everything you need to know to create a fantastic workout plan.
How to do something today
Although I would encourage you to spend some time learning about this stuff yourself, after all, this is YOUR body and YOUR life, I understand you may not be a health geek like me, so I’m going to give you some workouts to keep things really simple. That said, I definitely want you to shake it up and avoid doing these workouts every day or week. Remember that your workouts should be constantly varied and that means rarely doing the same workout twice.
Functional movement is pretty easy to figure out. If it’s a movement you’d do in the course of life, like squatting to sit on the toilet, reaching to get something off the top shelf, bending over and picking up something off the floor, sitting up in bed, jumping over a rain puddle, pushing open a door, or pulling something towards you, chances are it’s functional. All you really need for these workouts is your body, some shoes (sometimes), and a stop watch. Again, if you want more specific info, Mark’s e-book on primal fitness is fantastic. It even contains links for videos you can watch to learn the proper technique.
A functional warm-up might include walking, squatting ten times, lying down and getting up 10 times, 10 push-ups from the floor or a wall, some leg kicks: forward, sideways and backwards, jumping up and down 10 times or any other movements that you’d do in the course of life (maybe not since you were a kid, but still-think normal human movement). Don’t short yourself on the warm-up, it’s a very important part of your workout. The goal is to feel physically warmer and it should take 10-15 minutes. A little huffing and puffing is good too. Often the warm-up feels like hard work. It takes a while to get the engine up to speed so to speak, and revving a cold engine can be pretty harsh, but don’t let that discourage you.
The Workout (Suggestions)
These are hard as hell, and they never get easier, but they only last for 4 minutes, so I know you can hack it and they are SOOO worth it.
After a sufficient warm-up of 10 minutes or so, choose an exercise such as running, squatting, jumping rope, push-ups, biking, rowing etc.
You are going to repeat 8 sets of a 20 second work interval, with a 10 second rest interval.
If you’re using squats, that would look like this:
Start your stopwatch (if you can set it to beep at 20 seconds that’s perfect).
Squat as many times as you can in 20 seconds, be sure and count your reps. Move fast, but really focus on using good form as well, remember, this is supposed to be hard and fast, but you do your best to keep solid form the whole time. Mark’s video on squatting is good if you’re not sure what you’re doing. If you’re not getting at least 10 squats in in 20 seconds you’re not moving fast enough.
Rest for 10 seconds and ten seconds ONLY (unless you are VERY unhealthy, in which case you may extend your rest periods)
Repeat the squats for 20 seconds and rest for 10 again.
Do that sequence a total of 8 times, trying to keep the number of squats you do in each round as high as your first round was (good luck).
That will take you four minutes, suck it up, it will take fat off better than a one hour run, I’m not even kidding. See for yourself..
Do some sort of Tabata Interval, using a different exercise each time, 1-2 times per week. It’s great to have a friend to do these with because they can be just as tough mentally as they are physically. Little hint: number 6 is the worst, get through number 6, then 7 and 8 are downhill…
Now, if you’re really out of shape, a smoker or have a heart condition you need to start slowly with Tabata intervals. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do them, because they are a great way to get into excellent condition but check with your doctor and when you get the green light, take it a little slower. You can extend your rest periods to a minute if you need to, or reduce the number of times you do the intervals. Just work as hard as YOU can. You should definitely be huffing and puffing. Here is a great example of what Tabata intervals look like when they are done correctly…
This is another CrossFit favourite. It stands for As Many Rounds (or Reps) As Possible, and it generally has a time line of 10-20 minutes. Just like it sounds, you’re working HARD, doing as many rounds as you possibly can of the prescribed exercises in the time allotted.
It will often contain two or three different exercises.
For example, try this:
AMRAP in 20 minutes of:
10 Air squats
400 meter run, row or bike ( your choice)
10 Dumbbell shoulder presses
Just keep repeating the three exercises, as quickly as you can with good form until your 20 minutes is up. Again, the idea is to move fast and try not to rest too long. When you’re absolutely gassed and can’t go on, take a breather for 10-30 seconds, but as soon as you can, start moving again. Don’t be a baby, you can drink water when you’re finished.
Alternatively you could pick a certain amount of work and then see how long it takes you. For example:
Do 5 Rounds of the following for time:
45 Jump touches (Jump and touch a spot on the wall ½-1 foot higher than your normal reach)
Here you’d cycle through the three exercises as quickly as you can until you’ve done 5 rounds. You’ll have to stop and rest, that’s to be expected, but try to minimize that and push yourself as soon as you’re able to. You can put a 20 minute cap on it, so if you can’t complete all 5 rounds within 2o minutes, just stop there.
Working intensely the way I’ve described can lead to over-exertion, so it’s important to know your limits and not push beyond them. Obviously, you need to be aware that if you’re feeling dizzy, lightheaded, nauseated, chest pain or extreme difficulty catching your breath you’re going too far. The idea is to push to your limit to activate training adaptations but do so safely. If you’re not sure how far you can push, hire a personal trainer that has some crossfit experience. In my opinion, most people don’t push themselves hard enough to get the results they want, and even most personal trainers stay a little too far on the side of caution because they don’t want to get sued. So, let me state for the record, YOU are responsible for your safety in trying what I’m recommending. It’s intense, it’s hard and yes, you could have a heart attack if you push it too far, so listen to your body.
After you’ve finished your workout and caught your breath, it’s very smart to run through some basic stretches. Back of the legs, front of the legs, neck, back and chest are the major muscle groups to stretch. Hold each stretch for at least 30 seconds to 1 minute. This blog is an amazing place to learn about mobility.
You can likely find a CrossFit gym in your city. There are over 2000 CrossFit Affiliates, meaning you go to the gym and do these workouts with a group of like-minded individuals. For now, CrossFit gyms tend to draw young, athletic types but they are very open to scaling workouts to any fitness level and a good coach is invaluable in that regard. They will put you at ease and make sure you aren’t working outside your capabilities. You can find your local affiliate by doing a search at CrossFit.com. Warning: All CrossFit’s are not created equal. Just like all doctor’s graduate from med school, some of them are at the top of their class, and some are at the bottom. Use your best judgement.