Gone are the days of steady-state cardio, stuck on a treadmill for 45 minutes, three days a week, watching “SportsCenter.” We’re upping the ante. Excess post-exercise oxygen consumption— that’s the technical term used to describe the effect we’re looking for. In layman’s terms, it’s working your body so strenuously during exercise that you continue to burn big calories long after you’ve left the gym, as your body attempts to recover to the state it was before exertion. The harder you train, the longer this effect lasts, burning more calories while you rest, making you leaner than ever before.
Sounds great, doesn’t it? There is a catch.
This training will frighten the squeamish. You are about to challenge yourself to achieve your goals by taking on exercises few are willing to try. Make sure you are fully warmed up and medically cleared for strenuous activity, then prepare yourself for strange looks at your gym and the uncontrollable desire to walk around baring your toned midriff, stopping frequently in front of mirrors. Should you make this commitment, I can guarantee results you’ve never experienced before.
“Extreme Makeover:” Sprinting
Distance running is a highly specialized area of athletic performance that somehow was adopted by the general public as a great way to get in shape. It’s not. Physiologically, most of us were not built to run distances, especially those of us with toned and defined muscles.
Contemporary research also shows that the energy systems your body calls upon to sustain the long-duration, low-intensity effort required of distance running actually robs your body of the energy necessary to perform shorter duration, high-intensity, anaerobic exercise— like weight training. This means jogging and distance running actually makes us weaker in the gym— the last thing we want.
Instead of undertaking the terrible pounding to your joints and bones and the negative strength benefit you receive from jogging, switch to sprinting. As opposed to the emaciated look of distance runners, competitive sprinters possess a physique any strength athlete can admire, with well-shaped thighs, slim waists and round, toned shoulders. The shorter distance places greater emphasis on speed, power and maximum intensity, all of which applies directly to successful weight-training.
Find any park, parking lot or open area and try this series I’ve had great success working my college athletes through: 2 sprints x 50 yards, 2 x 40 yards, 2 x 30 yards, 2 x 20 yards, 4 x 10 yards. Sprint as fast as you can for the prescribed length, then walk or jog back to the starting line, sprinting again as soon as you return to where you started from. I don’t want you to merely run or use 80 percent or even 90 percent effort; for this to be effective you must run flat-out as fast as you can.
How can you tell when you’re sprinting and not simply running? When you sprint, it should take you approximately 10 yards to decelerate. Two trips through this sprint series will build lower body power and lung capacity, while tightening your midsection and strengthening the joints and ligaments in your legs.
Taking on this makeover will not be easy, but if your goals were easily achieved, you would have already reached them. What’s needed now is your commitment to see it through— through the cramping, the exhaustion, the doubt. You will distinguish yourself from those who merely talk about their goals, by overcoming what most others refuse to even attempt.
“Extreme Makeover:” Hills
The elderly, the obese and those rehabbing injuries— if you don’t fall into one of those categories, ditch the pool as an exercise option.
“Minimal essential strain” is the medical terminology used to describe the stimulus level required for the body to initiate new bone formation. Similar to your muscles, when you stress your bones through exercise, your body responds by building them to make them stronger. MES cannot be attained in a pool because swimming offers no weight-bearing resistance for the body. Aside from doing nothing for your bones, swimming does nothing for your core muscles.
In exercise science, core muscles are referred to as anti-gravity muscles, because their sole purpose is to fight the forces of gravity to keep your body upright. Water takes away gravity, resulting in swimming doing nothing to activate these critical muscles.
Replace swimming with my personal favorite cardio-conditioning exercise: hill sprints. Somewhere in your neighborhood or town, there must be a hill. Become friends with that hill— because it represents the best conditioning machine ever invented. The length and steepness of the hill doesn’t matter, because you are primarily interested in time under tension (how long your muscles are working) with this exercise. Find a hill long and steep enough where you can run at an incline for 20-30 seconds.
Try 10 sets of hill sprints, running as hard and fast as you can for 20 to 30 seconds, with a total rest time of no more than three minutes between sets. This routine will blast your quads, hamstrings, calves and glutes, and have you sucking more air than a big-block engine. Hill-sprinting will shock your legs into growth, add poundage to your squat, bring out new definition in your abs and waist, and provide you with a deep reservoir of lung capacity— which will assist you in all physical activity.
“Extreme Makeover:” Conan’s Tread-walk
If every treadmill in America mysteriously disappeared overnight, the country would be better off for it— because the treadmill may be the singularly most ineffective piece of exercise equipment ever devised. Unlike actual running, where your hamstrings and gluteals are fully engaged, propelling your body forward, a treadmill does that work for you, allowing the user to simply raise her legs while the belt passes underneath.
A population of eight-hour-a-day chair sitters and treadmill walkers has birthed a term gaining popularity in the strength and conditioning world: “gluteal amnesia.” This condition exists when the largest muscle in the body, the gluteus maximus, goes unused, as it does on a treadmill.
There is one way, however, to turn the treadmill from a $2,500 paperweight into a serious conditioning tool. Recall the beginning of “Conan the Barbarian.” After Conan was kidnapped and enslaved, he was set to work pushing a giant, heavy wheel, day after day, week after week, year after year. Conan did so many turns pushing the wheel his footsteps wore a deep grove into the ground— and he developed otherworldly calves and shoulders.
You can transform any treadmill into your own personal Conan Wheel by simply turning the machine off. Firmly grab the sides or front and use only your strength— not the treadmill’s motor— to move the belt. What was lame has become a grueling calf, shoulder and triceps workout, as the force necessary to move the treadmill’s belt with the machine turned off is sufficient to raise your heart rate and burn some serious fat.
Try 5 sets, taking 100 steps without stopping, and resting 60 seconds in between. Build your speed over time. And if you’ve never seen “Conan,” maybe you’re reading the wrong article.
“Extreme Makeover:” Jumping Rope
Jumping rope is one of the most effective, efficient, calorie-burning exercises available, and can greatly increase cardiovascular conditioning while building shoulder and calf muscles. The elliptical trainer is great for when you want to read a magazine or listen to Lady Gaga while exercising.
Elliptical trainers are popular because they’re easy. A complete novice can hop on one with no training, work up a sweat with minimal effort, and feel like she has accomplished something. An elliptical trainer, however, does nothing when it comes to building strength, and its value toward serious aerobic conditioning is marginal at best, because of the limited resistance it provides.
Think of it like this: how often do you see a bad-ass MMA fighter jumping rope? All the time. How often do you see that same fighter on an elliptical machine? Never.
Substitute 20 minutes on an elliptical machine with 10 minutes of jumping rope. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to jump rope for 10 minutes straight; no problem, build up to it.
“Extreme Makeover:” Rowing Machine
Anyone who’s ever been to a commercial gym has used a stationary bike. Want another reason you shouldn’t be using it for your conditioning? Kyphotic posture. Kyphosis is an abnormal convex (rounded) curvature of the upper spine. When you ride a stationary bike, this is the posture your back is put into. If you want to walk around like Gollum from “Lord of the Rings,” stay on the stationary bike; if you want to achieve enormous lung capacity while building arm, deltoid, lat, low back and hamstring muscle— all with perfect posture when performed correctly— start rowing. Every gym has a rower, and it’s never in use— because rowing is hard.
Replace whatever time you’re spending on a stationary bike with intervals on a rower. Start with 30 seconds of strenuous rowing, followed by 90 seconds of recovery. As you improve, raise your work time, while dropping your rest, until they’re even at 60 seconds. When you can keep that up for 10 minutes, treat yourself by going to 12.
Craig, B.W., J. Lucas, R. Pohlman, and H. Stelling. The effects of running, weightlifting and a combination of both on growth hormone release. Journal of Applied Sport Science Research, 5(4):198-203. 1991.
Hickson, R.C. Interference of strength development by simultaneously training for strength and endurance. European Journal of Applied Physiology, 215:255-263. 1980.