Q: Is it possible to get uber fit exercising only 20 minutes a day?
However, 20 minutes a day is certainly better than nothing, and it might be just enough activity to maintain your health and improve longevity. As a society we seem busier than ever, but we’re also getting way smarter about how to train, and weve finally realized just how darn important consistent exercise is. In fact exercise is critical to our health, on par with nutrition and 2nd only to sleeping well. People who exercise consistently, live longer than those who don’t, given all else being equal. Only your genetics play a greater role in life span. We now know that some of that time spent exercising ideally needs to push into (relatively) higher intensity levels. But just how intense do we need to go? Is there an intensity or volume threshold to where there is no more benefit? The key for all of us busy folks, is to find the sweet spot where training time intersects with intensity level, which triggers the most benefit. I call this maximizing your exercise value.
There’s a certain niche of neo-athletes that have embraced training so much that they've declared “fitness to be its own sport”, never mind a lifestyle. A sub-culture of every day citizens who walk among us that have discovered their inner athlete and have taken training to a whole other level. I’m not talking about bodybuilders or triathletes here – that’s old school. I’m talking about well-rounded fitness aficionados that desire to be total athletes by combining full-body-functional, cardio and strength exercises. I’m talking about the present day Boot-camper, SEAL-Fitter, CrossFitter, Tough-Mudder, Spartan genre who whole-heartedly decided that just because they have families and careers, doesn't mean they can’t be uber athletes too. They've revealed their inner-warrior and when you see them training together, feeding off each other, you get a sense there’s something special going on there, almost like a religion, or a tribe of warriors. - Some kind of competitive, comradery dynamic, testing themselves with exciting, yet effective exercises, that arouses your curiosity. There’s a synergistic magic happening there in part from the group dynamic. Maybe I’m describing one of your close friends or even you. There’s a reason why these folks are experiencing these powerful physical and mental transformations no matter what their age is, in a relatively short amount of time. They've found out how to maximize their exercise value in a competition based, group dynamic that comes with its own band of brothers for support. They become training addicts…and it’s not the mirror they’re addicted to. You watch these guys and it almost feels as if they've never had so much fun being tortured. They have even created niche competitions to help motivate them to take their training goals to the next level and they have indeed declared that fitness in and of itself, can stand alone as its own sport.
Even if this genre of group training is not for you – perhaps you’re more of the solo type - we can all benefit from many effective training principles they have sifted out for all of us. They might not have invented high-intensity training in the traditional sense, but these neo uber-athletes have embraced it and put it to the test like no other generation before us. Their results have spoken loudly. I invite you to stay with me a bit longer to learn about some of these high intensity training principles, how they came about, how to employ them, and why they are key to maximizing your exercise value. But first we need to travel back in time a bit, to the days of zone training…
Remember a little over a decade ago, when fat-burning-zone training was the latest and greatest trend, as the best method to get lean? It was basically endurance-type training, where you purposely stayed in an aerobic-cardio zone in attempt to access stored fat as the primary fuel, and the longer and slower the better. I remember, everybody was training with a heart rate monitor to ensure they were training in the correct ‘zone’, in this case the aerobic/fat-burning zone, so no matter what folks didn’t want to exceed 80% of their maximum heart rate – because that is where, in theory at least, you might cross over into the anaerobic zone - oh my! It was like everybody was training to become a triathlete or marathoner, one-size-fits-all approach, with all these long zone workouts they were slogging through. Looking back now, we’ve pretty much all switched our training (heart rate) ‘zones’ 180 degrees. And for good reason: We placed the emphasis on exercise value – none of us had that many hours in the week available to train! These days we demand the most bang for our buck because we are busy…uber busy! And we want to be strong. We want to be able to hoist barbells above our heads, and swing kettlebells and do muscle-ups or at least real SEAL style pull-ups. And we no longer want to look like skinny, frail marathoners. Skinny implies weak. We want our physiques to look like men of lore – like Spartans, and Navy SEALS. We want our bodies to perform like MMA warriors who can defend ourselves and protect our families – high functioning, quick and powerful.
Yes, those were some ridiculous times, a 15 years or so ago – suffering through all that long, slow, boring aerobic-cardio training to try and single out fat for fuel – which is nearly impossible to do, unless in ketosis. The irony being, we may have been getting leaner but we were also simultaneously catabolizing a heck of a lot of precious muscle! Zone-training just to get lean, is almost as silly as back in the 80s when we thought we could eat all of the carbohydrates we wanted as long as we avoided fat. We just didn’t have a grasp on the powerful role of the insulin shuttle-hormone back in the 80s, until Dr. Atkins came along and shifted the carbohydrate/insulin paradigm and shed a new light on carbs’ role in gaining fat. Of course he unnecessarily villainized them. Now we’re much smarter. We’ve realized we need to do just the opposite and train at very high intensity levels – uber high intensity levels – if we want to get uber fit and lean, while protecting and even building additional muscle mass. And what’s more, at such extreme intensity levels, we don’t need to train for nearly as long, thus maximizing our exercise value. For sure slow, endurance training has its place if you’re an endurance athlete, obviously. But if you’re a working man, husband and father, who barely has time to eat breakfast, then you are truly able to benefit from today’s shorter, higher intensity workouts. Classic, vetted examples of these type of workouts are, High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), Boot-Camp, Navy SEAL-inspired training, CrossFit, and P90X.
It was around the year 2000 or so that we started seeing boot camp and SEAL inspired workouts becoming more popular, as well as studio spin classes. This was the beginning of the high-intensity training revolution. Shortly after came CrossFit, then Beachbody’s P90X by Tony Horton. Also during this time, generic High-Intensity Interval Training was being employed by many Personal Trainers as well as phsyique athletes and fitness models desiring to get ultra-lean while avoiding the risk of muscle catabolization associated with longer cardio workouts. Workouts such as hill running intervals, sprint intervals, plyometrics, stair-running, etc., that had a working interval followed by a resting interval, usually in a 1:3 ratio of working to resting time respectively. The ideology being that you were working up to maximum effort and even failure during the working interval, and thus had to have a recovery interval immediately following. In fact that is the key common principle in all high-intensity workouts: They require that you push to maximum effort and hit failure, (either aerobic or anaerobic, or both) – that is where their physiological, physique transforming magic happens, and that is where they earn their effectiveness that allows them to be so much shorter in duration. Because when you hit physical failure, (typically associated with heavy breathing, lactic acid-accumulation-burning and/or ATP depletion), repeatedly in a short time period – a lot of neat stuff starts to happen within your muscles and entire body – results start to happen! Growth Hormone secretes, testosterone levels rise, insulin sensitivity improves, glucose-tolerance improves, your liver dumps glycogen and fatty acid stores, micro-trauma occurs in the muscle fibers triggering anabolic repair and growth, and you get completely depleted – an amazing feeling. So much so, that your resting-metabolism becomes elevated for several hours after the workout is over and any food you eat post-workout gets sucked up for recovery, repair and stored as intra-muscle glycogen and not as fat. This extended recovery period is known as EPOC or, Excess Post-exercise Oxygen Consumption.
But here’s the final, gleaming nugget of truth I’m trying to leave you with regarding exercise value, and just how precisely short of duration can be effective, regardless of how intense you think you can push yourself. There’s this notion that if you go intense enough you can see results in just 20 minutes. But there are some caveats that go along with that ideology. First off, you have to already be in a reasonable state of health and fairly fit to begin with to train at very high intensity levels, and you should begin in the presence of a Trainer and wear a heart rate monitor. Secondly, the 20 minutes often claimed by some of the WODs (workout-of-the-day), typically does not include the mandatory time spent warming up, nor any time spent learning technique for the more difficult exercise movements. Many of the these high intensity programs such as CrossFit, have a steep learning curve associated with them, as they include some very advanced and technical exercises, some involving Olympic-style barbell overhead lifts. Some of these advanced exercises take months to perfect. If you ever been into a CrossFit gym, or a ‘Box’, you would know that they also incorporate a coaching element after the warm-up and prior to the workout, thus your time in the gym has now reached a full hour. Warming up and loosening up is very critical for high intensity training across the board because you tend to be performing very quick, bursts of powerful movements which inherently increase risk of injury if not done properly or not warmed up.
So yes, there are a lot of caveats and things to consider before you just go balls-to-the-wall for your 20 minutes of high-intensity magic. You have to know what you’re doing, maintain perfect form, and by all means loosen up and warm-up. And if you truly are planning on pushing to failure, either aerobic or anaerobic, you should definitely begin by getting a physical assessment from your trusted health professional, and, train while wearing a heart rate monitor. Hear rate monitors give you the bottom line on intensity level and will validate your perception. You can get fit and improve longevity in just 20 minutes a day, but if you want to get uber fit – you need to put in at least an hour a day! Cheers to my fellow fitness aficionados, uber athletes, and working warriors out there – I’m right there with all of you!