What is the question that I get asked most often? Teenage boys aside, whose obsession with big pecs and biceps are unparalleled, fat loss and lean stomach questions win hands down. If I am perfectly truthful it amazes me that so many people are so confused by a subject upon which countless millions, make that billions probably, of words have been written in the last 20 years. It sometimes seems to be that every other person I meet wants to pick my brains about the so called secrets and tricks to acquiring that six pack and single figure body fat percentage. Always I hear “Nick, what’s that one special thing that’ll make the difference? Come on, there MUST be some special things you can tell me!” Often I smile enigmatically, or perhaps it’s more annoying than enigmatic, and tell them to come and see me at my gym for a proper consultation. I can’t always work for free (my ex wife won’t let me), and anyway one person’s highly effective “secret strategy” won’t necessarily work for their neighbour. If there is one thing I have learned it is that each individual’s unique genetics and biochemistry make a “one size fits all approach” very flawed indeed.
Yes, there are secrets, there are small things that you can do which when added together make a large difference to your body fat levels and overall conditioning. However, it is both beyond the scope of this article and my own time to detail every last permutation of the fat loss equation. So instead, let’s focus on the one thing that everybody should do, but most get drastically wrong. That’s right, I am especially talking to you – the girl who spends 45 minutes 3 times a week literally spinning her wheels on the treadmill!
First off I’ll fill you in on a little personal detail. I have been involved in competitive sports all my life, and I have consumed every type of diet imaginable and exercised in every manner conceivable. I am now 35 years of age, and have never been so consistently lean – my body fat never gets over 8%, my waist always measure 34 inches and below, and at a bodyweight of 235-250lbs and height of 6ft 3” that means I carry a fair amount of lean tissue. And guess how much traditional cardio I do? Or perhaps I can better phrase the question; guess how much regular cardio I do these days? The answer is a little bit of walking here and there, and maybe a monthly jog or swim undertaken purely for pleasure and not at all for health or body composition purposes. So in effect I hold a level of condition that (short of the ups and downs that were inevitable when training for specific events or photo shoots) has improved as I have grown older and yet I do no cardio. Again, I shall correct myself – I do no traditional cardio anymore.
Sure my diet is better, my nutritional supplementation is smarter too, but surely that’s not enough of a difference to outweigh all the hours of stairmaster or bike riding I used to. Crikey, it was only 3 or 4 years ago that I used to ride my bicycle on a 15 mile round trip into the City of London every day. Forget the rather obvious dangers inherent in that (2 trips to the hospital in 4 years cured me of that particular exercise addiction), over time and with the glorious benefit of hindsight I realise that I was running myself into the ground with that type of constant, steady state cardio. So despite undertaking literally hours of daily exercise the stress of the exercise itself, as well as avoiding the terrible drivers of the Isle of Dogs and Whitechapel, was making me permanently tired and preventing me from getting super lean as cortisol (the stress hormone) causes us all to retain body fat, especially around our midsections, and suppresses the natural production of all the feel good, energising hormones such as testosterone, thyroid and growth hormone. I will detail the evils of regular cardio in a later article, and I write this only by way of example of how it is possible to move from doing literally hours of daily aerobic work into literally minutes of weekly anaerobic work (via interval training) and enjoy infinitely better results. (Editor’s Note: we do aim to constantly update our views on all matter relating to fitness and fat loss, and to read Nick’s views on the positives and negatives of cardio you can visit his June 2011 blog on “cardio training“)
Over the years I have long observed the differences in the physiques of endurance athletes such as marathon runners, and their more power oriented counterparts, the sprinters. If traditional cardio, jogging along at a steady state for instance, was so effective at fat burning then the most defined bodies would surely be on those who do the most work? One look at the Tour de France cyclists tells us that this is a myth.
The reason for this is firmly rooted in the anaerobic nature of sprint training and has been proven by countless research studies. The higher the anaerobic intensity, for simplicity’s sake lets define this as the closer you are to your maximum heart rate, the more calories are burned during the workout. However, the most significant factor here is that this type of exercise, in direct contrast to the endlessly repetitive treadmill jogging we see in so many gyms, increases the body’s overall metabolic rate for up to 48 hours following the workout.
That is correct – the bottom line here is that if you exercise correctly, it is possible to feel the metabolic benefit of the workout for literally days afterwards. This phenomenon is known as EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption) and is defined scientifically as the “recovery of metabolic rate back to pre-exercise levels and can require just a few minutes for light exercise and many hours for hard intervals.
My favourite piece of research on this comes from a Japanese study where Tabata et al compared a 70% of VO2 max moderate intensity group (MIG) against a high intensity interval group (HIIT). The MIG group did increase their VO2 max by about 10% without a concurrent improvement in anaerobic capacity. The HIIT group improved their VO2 max by 14% and their anaerobic capacity by 28%. The HIIT group actually improved both anaerobic and aerobic capacity at the same time! And the real clincher – the MIG group exercised for 5 hours a week for 6 weeks, yet the HIIT group experienced massively better results over the same 6 week period by working for only 20 minutes a week! Five sessions a week for just 4 minutes at a time makes you think hard doesn’t it.
If I have now convinced you of the principles behind interval training, let us look at how we would put that into practice. Like all good systems, the Tabata method is a fairly simple one. In fact all Tabata did was have his subjects sit on an exercise bike and go hell for leather for 20 seconds, with a 10 second rest, and repeat 8 times. You can try that. Trust me, it’s a heck of a lot tougher than it sounds if done correctly.
We can make this a bit more user friendly and less restrictive to one exercise simply by taking any one movement and perform it in the following manner:
- For twenty seconds, do as many repetitions as possible in an explosive manner.
- Rest for ten seconds
- Repeat seven more times!
Eight intervals / sets done in this fashion with exercises that stimulate the entire body can quite literally be very brutal. The exercise that my own clients have seen the best results with when training with the Tabata method are a hybrid front squat push/press movement sometimes known as “thrusters”.
It is imperative that you choose a compound exercise that works a large number of muscles, otherwise you will not trigger the massive metabolic response that will strip off body fat, build muscle, and get you fitter all at the same (very short) time.
The best way to perform this hybrid movement is with the bar held in front of the body, slightly resting on the clavicles. After that it’s pretty simple – squat smoothly down keeping your body upright, and then as you rise and when your legs are almost locked straight you push / press the bar overhead. This is a versatile movement and can be performed with dumbbells (held at shoulder height), and we have even used broomsticks for those less muscular individuals. There is no shame in that as with this exercise protocol I have seen 240lb athletes reduced to jelly using weights that normally they could lift with one arm in their sleep.
A good tip when exercising in this fashion is to ensure that you can keep a wall clock (with a seconds hand) in view, so that you can time your four minutes of fun and not get away with an extra few seconds of rest. It is vital that you go all out for the 20 seconds and be self disciplined and focused enough to rest for only 10 seconds.
Make no bones about it, this may sound like a short cut on the internet screen, but in real life this is a very demanding way to exercise. It is also the most effective and time efficient way that I know of to get fit and burn off body fat, and incorporating this into your regular workouts 2-3 times a week should see you reap spectacular dividends. Just one word of warning, always perform a Tabata style interval programme at the end of your workout and several hours before you go on that all important date, as it can tend to leave you in a sweaty puddle for a few hours immediately after doing it and no one likes a drip! (Bad, bad pun I know)