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Ten Keys to Fast Fitness
By John P. Hussman, Ph.D.
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The first thing I can tell you is that the information on this site will work for you! The exercise information is based on solid research and principles of exercise physiology, and the fat loss information is very different from popular weight-loss fads that can be restrictive, unbalanced, and can even set you up for failure after some initial success.

If the prospect of changing your body seems daunting, I'll tell you a secret that's been the basis of every worthwhile goal I've ever reached. The key to success – in anything – isn't extraordinary, superhuman effort. It's daily action. You find a set of actions that you believe will produce good results if you follow them consistently, and then you follow them consistently. You don't reach a goal by constantly saying “so little done, so much more to do.” Just focus on taking small consistent steps, and suddenly you'll discover that you've arrived. The focus should be squarely on the present - "What are the actions I can take today that will bring success?"

You can do this. As you'll see, a good fitness program isn't accidental. All the pieces are explained in this website, in exact detail. They're specific, and they're crucial. In my view, the following ten elements, with no pieces missing, are essential to fast fitness:

1) Aerobic exercise (3-4 x weekly, 20-40 minutes each depending on intensity)

2) Cross-training

3) Interval training (no gasping allowed!)

4) Resistance training (with proper post-workout nutrition and recovery), 2-3 x weekly, 45-60 minutes each depending on intensity.

5) Water, water water – both within the food you eat and as your primary beverage

6) Four to six limited, balanced “fuelings” a day, containing adequate protein intake and low-glycemic carbohydrates (to stabilize your blood sugar)

7) Proper nutritional support and supplements

8) Intentional caloric deficits

9) Basic records and specific goals

10) Adequate rest

I'll explain these briefly now, and in more detail later. If your current program is not working for you, for any reason, we've got to add the missing pieces to make it work. Period.

Now, before you start feeling overwhelmed, rest assured that there are appropriate ways to include all of these in your program, regardless of your age, gender or level of fitness. The key is starting at the proper level. If you're new to exercise, it really is a good idea to have a conversation with your doctor first, and it's perfectly OK to start slowly.

Let's go through the components individually. On the exercise front, most effective way to get fit is to include a specific variety of exercises in your program. Physiologist Covert Bailey calls these the "four food groups of exercise", and they include aerobic exercise, interval training (no gasping allowed!), cross-training, and resistance training.

1) Aerobic exercise

Breathe. If you want to measure how many calories someone is burning, with great accuracy, you measure their breathing. One of the first things you can do to improve your health, both physically and mentally, is to become aware of your in-breath and your out-breath. When you follow your breath, your mind stops running around. If you combine that with awareness of what you're doing – lifting a barbell, playing with your kids, sitting in traffic – you'll experience life in everyday things.

Aerobic activity is anything that elevates your oxygen intake, preferably in full, regular breaths. This includes walking, jogging, running, cross-country skiing, biking, and other activities. By the way, you'll always get more power if you focus on your breathing and let your speed catch up than if you focus on your speed and let your breathing catch up.

Here's why you need aerobics. Exercise has two functions: one is to trigger metabolic adaptation, and the other is to do mechanical work. Both expend a lot of energy, and if you want to burn a lot of fat, you want to take advantage of both. The short-duration, high intensity stuff triggers adaptation (muscle gain, enzyme changes, cellular reorganization, lactate tolerance, cardiovascular improvement). You burn fat afterward in order to replace muscle glycogen. The longer duration, lower intensity aerobic activity (breathing deeply but still "conversational") allows you to create an energy demand that burns fat then and there. If you include both types, you're going to lose fat fast.

Which exercise is best? Generally those that engage the largest amount of muscle, including the full lower body. The more muscle groups you engage, the more work your body does, but the less exertion you feel because no single muscle group bears the whole burden. Some of the better choices include running (outdoor or treadmill), ski machines, elliptical machines, and stationary bikes that work both arms and legs. Start slow if you're out of shape. Even walking is fine if it elevates your breathing and you focus on using your muscles. Exercises that isolate the arms (like swimming) aren't as effective, but you can also improve those by emphasizing the leg muscles more. Probably the best advice is to pick the exercises you're actually willing to include as part of your lifestyle. Personally, I enjoy running, but that wasn't my first exercise when I started my own program – I had to build up my leg muscles to overcome a knee injury, so I started with stationary bikes and ski machines. In any case, as Covert Bailey says, the best exercise is the one you'll actually do.

2) Interval training or “wind sprints.”

A few times in each aerobic workout, you'll raise your activity enough to get winded and recover, get winded and recover. If you're starting from a very low level of fitness, ease into this! The goal is progress, not injury. If you're extremely out of shape, a "wind sprint" for you may initially be simply walking up a hill. That will improve. Of course, if just thinking about getting up off the couch is your wind sprint ("Whew! Hand me a towel!"), well, we've got some work to do. In any case, remember - no gasping allowed.

Scientists measure fitness by something called VO2Max. This is the maximum speed at which oxygen can be absorbed by the body. Typically, the faster you recover normal breathing after getting "winded", the more fit you are. So how do you train VO2Max? You do aerobic exercise that incorporates periods of activity high enough to get you winded (never gasping), followed by a return to moderate (not low or zero) levels of activity until you recover your regular breathing. These “wind sprints” can be 5 minutes, 1 minute, or even 20 seconds in length.

3) Cross training

Include two to three types of aerobic activity into your program. It's important to remember that your body is very efficient at adapting to its environment. If you always use the stationary bike, you'll become very good at the stationary bike, but you'll probably still get winded running through an airport. Also, your body perceives variety as more intense than if you consistently do the identical workout, which will create more pressure to adapt. There's not much additional benefit in doing more than three aerobic activities. A little bit of variety is the main thing.

4) Resistance training.

Want to raise your metabolism? Start by understanding that aside from a moderate amount of calories burned in digestion and the like, the main tissue that burns energy in the body is muscle, even at rest. The quickest way to lower your metabolism is to lose muscle. The best way to raise your metabolism is to build and preserve muscle. Again, done at the proper level, virtually anybody can benefit from including this as part of their fitness program.

Muscle growth is essentially a repair process. The goal in resistance training isn't just to push a lot of poundage - it's to stress the muscle with very focused contraction (in the concentric or “lifting” phase) and tension (in the eccentric or “lowering” phase) in order to cause little micro-tears that result in new growth. In order for muscle growth to occur, you have to follow up your training with proper nutrition, supplementation, and rest. There's specific advice on all of that in the workout and nutrition sections.

It's important to target a new “personal best” each time you go to the gym – even one or two extra reps, or a few more pounds in your last set – that's the difference between a “workout” and a “training session.” You won't make it every time, but do your best to break a new record, even slightly.

So resistance training is not just “weight lifting.” Weight lifting means lifting weights – moving poundage for the sake of moving poundage. Resistance training means more than that. It means being aware of the specific muscle being trained by every exercise, using proper form (especially during the final repetitions when good form is easily lost), focusing on contracting the muscle during the concentric (lifting) movement and creating tension by going slow - at least 2 seconds - during the eccentric (lowering) movement. I don't care how many pounds you can lift if you're swinging the weight without causing contraction and tension in the right muscles.

Here's why you need resistance training. Much less than half of your "fat-free mass" (scale weight minus fat) is active, skeletal muscle. But that muscle accounts for the majority of the energy you use daily. A pound of pure muscle burns up to about 50 calories a day (though less at sedentary activity levels). To put that in perspective, a pound of fat is 3500 calories. The more lean muscle you have, the easier it is to burn fat. Suppose somebody goes on a restrictive or unbalanced fad diet such as Atkins, does nothing to preserve muscle tissue, and loses 10 pounds of muscle (which is not unusual), some fat, and a lot of water. They may look at the scale and think that's progress. But as soon as they go off the diet, the water will rapidly return and the scale will shoot higher. Worse, they'll find that a caloric intake that used to keep their weight constant may now cause them to gain as much as a pound of fat a week. The less muscle mass you have, the harder it is to lose weight and keep it off. So even if your goal is purely fat loss, you've got to keep up the strength training so that your lean mass at least stays constant.

If you're trying to gain muscle, intensity of muscle contraction is much more important than duration, and anything more than an hour of intensity will exhaust your glycogen and creatine phosphate stores, which you'll experience as muscle fatigue. If you're spending more than an hour training with weights, it's called aerobics. You should take only about a minute of rest between sets of the same exercise, and only 2-3 minutes of rest between exercises.

As for safety, exhaling and being careful about your knees, shoulders and back are the main considerations. Don't relax the kneecaps at the bottom of a squat or during leg extensions – keep them tight. Push from the heel during squats, and don't let the knees travel over the toes. Don't let your elbows go much lower than the bench on chest presses. The best way to protect your back is to generally to keep your abs tight and the spine relatively straight (natural curvatures intact). Never lift and twist at the same time. Don't hold your breath while lifting. Exhale on the concentric movement – or your head will pop off (it ain't pretty).

Resistance also means working against the weight of your own body. Part of being strong is the ability to push and pull your own weight. So do include exercises like push-ups, pull-ups (even if you can only hang from the bar initially), and dips in your routine.

Women who do resistance training don't "bulk up." Muscle is far more compact than fat. In females, resistance training makes the muscles toned, longer, and shapely - not bulky - and significantly reduces the risk of osteoporosis. When conducted at a proper level, this type of training can also cause major increases in the strength of older individuals.

5) Water, water, water

This aspect of physique transformation is truly overlooked, in my opinion. Look at a whole cantaloupe and two plums. Now look at four little sugar-free cookies. Both choices have the same number of calories.

Look at a huge bowl of salad including lettuce, tomatoes, green peppers, cucumbers carrots, celery, and fat-free dressing (for Pete's sake, not Caesar!!). Now look at a small buttered dinner roll. Both have the same number of calories.

Look at two hearty bowls of Cambell's Chunky soup (say, cheese tortellini with chicken and vegetables) or Campbell 's Select soup (say, roasted chicken with long grain & wild rice), each made with about a half can of water to add volume. Now look at a small snack-size bag of potato chips. Again, both have the same number of calories.

The fact is that you can have a great, filling, healthful nutrition plan with a very limited calorie budget, so long as you choose to include a lot of foods that naturally have water and fiber content. Don't underestimate the power of whole fruits, salads, meal replacement shakes, and water-based (not oily or cream-based) soups as components of a successful weight loss plan! Making a pot of decaf green tea in the evening is also a good idea, and will help to avoid the impulse to snack.

Whatever else you drink, adequate water intake is also important to support your metabolism. There is no exact figure, but 8-12 glasses a day of clear, plain water is widely agreed upon (more if you tend to lose a lot of water due to perspiration or hot weather).

6) Four to six limited, balanced “fuelings” a day

With regard to what you eat, the key to fitness is balanced nutrition and stable blood sugar. Balanced nutrition means eating protein (preferably between 0.5 and 1 gram per pound of target body weight daily), "clean" carbohydrates, and yes, even some fat.

A good rule of thumb for fat loss is to multiply your target weight by 9-11 calories per pound daily. Few people will get good fat loss results on less than 8 or more than 12 daily calories per pound of target weight. If you're regularly training with weights and want muscle gain without any fat loss at all, a target of 15-17 calories a day is about right. And yes, it is possible to gain muscle and lose fat at the same time (nothing prevents anabolic and catabolic processes to take place in different cells of the same body).

Be careful about which foods you eat, and how much, in order to fuel your metabolism, promote muscle strength, and maximize fat burning. Ideally, you should eat 5-6 relatively small meals a day. A meal means a limited portion of lean protein (not always meat - egg protein, whey, soy protein and cottage cheese are all great lower-fat alternatives) and a portion of “low-glycemic” carbohydrates (these are generally attached to fiber, so they don't spike your blood sugar, and include oatmeal, whole grains, and whole fruit, as opposed to highly processed carbs like white flour, white rice, and juice). Including fibrous vegetables will also help your digestion, particularly if you're using meal-replacement shakes frequently.

As a side note, the kernel of truth in the Atkins diet is that it's very hard to lose fat if you regularly spike your blood sugar. The danger in the Atkins diet (aside from the dietary fat) is that carbohydrate restriction causes muscle loss and dehydration (which people are very glad to see if they only focus on the scale instead of the source of the weight loss). Choose low glycemic carbs, and you get the best of both worlds – stable blood sugar without compromising muscle tissue.

I'm not talking about multi-course meals, and you really shouldn't be eating more than a little bit of "maintenance food" within about 3-4 hours before bedtime, so this isn't a license to snack either. The goal is to keep a constant nutrient stream and stable blood sugar throughout the day. This kind of nutrition plan maximizes both muscle recovery and fat loss. Again, if your main goal is fat loss, you have to frequently remind yourself that balanced, frequent meals will not help you unless they're also carefully limited in size.  

Since the word "meal" frequently makes people think of a large plate of food, or several courses, I'm going to call these things fuelings rather than meals. It helps to have at least a couple of these as "structured" nutrition like protein shakes or bars. For the rest, shoot for a limited portion of protein, a limited portion of carbohydrate (either grain-based, fruit, or starchy vegetables like potato), and in at least some of your fuelings, some simply prepared, non-starchy vegetables.

How much is a “limited portion?” If you cup one hand completely over the other, the correct amount of protein or carbohydrate (e.g. chicken, tuna, dry brown rice before steaming, dry oatmeal before boiling) will fit completely inside. A flat portion of lean meat might be about the size and thickness of a deck of cards. That amount of protein, a similar amount of carbohydrate, and a serving of fresh or steamed “water vegetables” (broccoli, spinach, carrots, zucchini, cucumber, lettuce – no oils, fatty dressings or sauces) will make a great fueling.

Don't get crazy with all this. The main idea is to stick with low glycemic carbs, limit fat, carefully monitor portion size and include a lot of water, both as a beverage and within the food itself. You can lose fat without being hungry if you do that. It works!

7) Proper nutritional support and supplements

If you're doing resistance training, you should be taking 1000-2000 mg of vitamin C daily, and preferably following your workouts with about a gram of the amino acid leucine. Whey protein is about 10-20% leucine, so even a few grams of whey will do the trick. You can improve muscle growth and retention by taking even a small amount of whey protein or leucine immediately after workouts. It is also available in free-form (I use the Source Naturals brand from http://www.iherb.com/store - it doesn't mix well in water, but you can blend it into shakes). Leucine is important in muscle synthesis. Also, heavy aerobic activity can also cause the body to metabolize leucine. The supplement HMB is also a leucine metabolite, and helps muscle retention. But you don't have to get fancy. Just try to follow your workouts with at least something containing "branched chain amino acids." Whey protein is a great choice.

A number of studies have emphasized the role of calcium, particularly dairy calcium, in promoting fat loss and muscle retention. So if possible, include a couple of servings of skim milk or Light & Fit (low fat, no added sugar) yogurt in your plan. The sugar that you see listed in dairy products is lactose, which is fine in moderation. If you're lactose intolerant, take a calcium supplement like Citracal. 

If you're looking for specific supplements for resistance training and muscle gain, creatine and glutamine are useful as well. More on these in the nutrition section.

8) Intentional caloric deficits

If you're after fat loss, your success is not determined by how many calories you burn, nor how few calories you take in. Your fat loss is determined by the difference between these two. This difference is called the caloric deficit (or caloric surplus if you're taking in more than you burn). Hands down, the main reason people fail to lose fat on a workout program is that they lose sight of the deficit. They focus, for instance, on increasing their workouts. But then they let their meals creep up in size. They think that because they're eating "good" food, they don't need to monitor how much. And in a single binge day, they often blow a good 2 or 3 days of accumulated deficits. Focus on the deficit, not intake or output.

Again, this is crucial. If you want to lose fat, you have to burn more calories than you take in, day after day after day. Aerobic activity, interval training, building muscle, and other exercise will help you to burn calories. Focusing on limited portions and water-based, low-glycemic foods will help you to limit your intake while keeping your blood sugar stable. If you let either of these slip, you'll waste your time. If you keep your activity up and your intake down, you'll get fast results.

Think you're good at counting calories? Scientific fact: most people aren't, so you'd better read labels, use measuring cups at least in the beginning, avoid snacking, and the whole nine yards. Measure your portions in some way, or they'll creep up over time.

Again, a good rule of thumb for fat loss is to multiply your target weight by 9-11 calories per pound daily. Few people will get good fat loss results on less than 8 or more than 12 daily calories per pound of target weight. If you're eating far too few calories, you will lose weight. It's just that part of that will be muscle mass and water, and you'll slow your thyroid. If you're not losing weight on the scale, you're either eating enough (and building muscle) or too much (and not losing fat).

Small errors matter, especially if you repeat them day after day. To lose fat, you absolutely must say “no!” to small snacks, instead of “aw, what the heck.” Get tough about portion size. Realize that an extra 20 minutes of aerobics is completely wiped out by a couple hundred calories of unplanned or excessive eating. When you're tempted to eat that extra snack at night, realize that you may be wiping out the entire days' deficit. If you must, grab an apple – not “dry” carbs (pretzels, crackers, chips) or fats. When you're tempted to binge on an off-day well after you're full, you may be wiping out days of progress. Be careful, and grab a pear.

9) Basic records and specific goals

In order to stay on track, you're going to do just a little bit of record-keeping, to make sure that you're constantly moving toward a higher "personal best", and to keep track of exactly what you're eating.

Important: to lose fat, you absolutely must follow a written daily nutrition plan that takes in fewer calories per day than you burn, and that keeps your blood sugar stable throughout the day. You can get great results without being hungry or endangering muscle - even on fairly few calories - if you take those calories in through small, regular, high quality portions that don't spike or exhaust your blood sugar. If you don't do the nutrition right, it will not matter how much or how effectively you exercise. Please, please take this point seriously. The key to fat loss is burning more calories than you take in, day after day after day, and keeping your blood sugar stable. If you lose sight of these basic truths, you'll waste a lot of time.

If you can't remember exactly what and how much you ate yesterday, and you don't know exactly what and how much you'll eat tomorrow, your nutrition is not sufficiently planned. Even you're not good at monitoring calories, you should also write down exactly what you eat, as soon as you actually eat it (even those two grapes). That's a great way to prevent random snacking, and you can also analyze how well your progress matches your plans. I like a simple 3 x 5 card.

Proper exercise sessions are not simply "workouts" - they are training sessions. Your goal is to reach for a new personal best. Your willingness to reach for progressive improvement is what drives your body to adapt. Even adding a few extra pounds or a couple of extra reps in your final set are enough. You may or may not hit a new personal best in every workout, but even the attempt will move you forward. For the best results, you really have to maintain a daily workout routine, alternating between weight and aerobic workouts. If you give your body too much time to rest and recover, the pressure to adapt is lost. If you try to do a fitness program half-way, you won't get half the results - and you may get next to nothing.

As Zig Ziglar advises, you have to decide whether you're going to be a “wandering generality” or a “meaningful specific.” In order to reach your goal, you need to have a goal. Write down inspiring and specific details about how you want to look in 12 or 15 weeks. Anticipate difficulties and commit in advance to stick with your plan even if you briefly get off track. You should even set short-term objectives that answer questions like "What is my goal for this workout?" Always have a purpose.

As Body-for-LIFE author Bill Phillips writes, it's crucial to know your reasons for getting in shape. It will be easier to stay on track if you write down very clearly exactly why you want to get fit, and remind yourself of those reasons often.

10) Adequate rest

If you try to transform your physique while depriving yourself of sleep, you're working against yourself. Sleep deprivation causes significant imbalances in several hormones – cortisol, ghrelin, and leptin (see “Your Raging Metabolism”) – and will increase your appetite for junk carbohydrates, reduce your metabolic activity during waking hours, and get in the way of muscle growth. Ideally, find a way to get 8 and preferably 9 hours of sleep a night during the main "transformation" part of your program.

Poor sleep habits will lower the amount of energy you burn each day without you ever being aware of it. Even strolling around or light activity like playing the piano burns 50 or 60 calories more per hour than just sitting. You actually burn more calories sleeping than watching TV. If you're sleep deprived, you'll do a lot of sitting and TV watching. Your brain also burns about 20% of your total calories a day. Miss a lot of sleep, and you'll reduce that activity too because you'll be less alert.

Physically, most of the changes happen while you sleep. If you don't rest, you don't change. Repeated lack of rest will also tempt you to miss workouts, bonk your energy, and interfere with hormones that regulate muscle growth, metabolism and appetite.

If you're too stressed-out to sleep, do this. Close your eyes, and concentrate on your breath. Breathe in, and breathe out. If thoughts come into your mind, don't try to get rid of them. Just observe the thoughts, label them casually as “thinking,” and come back to your breath. Thinking isn't a problem or a failure – just come back to your breath. Be gentle with yourself. Tighten and then relax every muscle in your body, progressing from your feet, to your legs, back, chest, shoulders, arms, neck, and face (particularly the jaw). You'll get sleep-like benefits from that.

If you're still having trouble sleeping, apply “deep pressure” to your leg muscles – knead them slowly, like dough. The pressure receptors in the muscles seem to encourage relaxation. Failing that, melatonin is a natural alternative to sleeping pills.

One more time

Here are the ten keys to emphasize:

1) Aerobic exercise (3-4 x weekly, 20-40 minutes each depending on intensity)

2) Cross-training

3) Interval training (no gasping allowed!)

4) Resistance training (with proper post-workout nutrition and recovery), 2-3 x weekly, 45-60 minutes each depending on intensity.

5) Water, water water – both within the food you eat and as your primary beverage

6) Four to six limited, balanced “fuelings” a day, containing adequate protein intake and low-glycemic carbohydrates (to stabilize your blood sugar)

7) Proper nutritional support and supplements

8) Intentional caloric deficits

9) Basic records and specific goals

10) Adequate rest

I know, I know, all of this advice means that you'll need some discipline. But you've got to understand that your body is the way it is right now because that's how it has adapted to the lifestyle you're living. If you want to change your body, you've also got to change that lifestyle by finding more constructive ways to adapt to your circumstances.

If there's one thing that will create fast fitness and a major physique transformation, it is to follow a complete and integrated program. As Shawn Phillips (author of ABSolution) says, “the one thing is everything.” You won't get fit by exercising more if you're ignoring nutrition. You won't get fit by dieting if you're skipping workouts. Don't look for a single trick or technique to be the magic answer, but taken together, the ten elements above will create the right environment for fast results.


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