Resistance Training in Maintenance Mode

In the last part of The Time Machine Diet I described, among other things, my exercise routine that included HIIT cardio workout and resistance training regimen. Over the last couple months, I changed my resistance training routine, and this post is an update to that part of the Maintenance Mode.

Photo by Victor Freitas on Unsplash

Instead of upper and lower body exercise broken evenly by six sessions a week,  I experimented with a single training session per week. It’s difficult to believe but it lasts 15-20 minutes. Even more difficult to believe that it’s more effective than my previous approach. Yet both the theory (based on solid research and practical results, to be sure) and my experience confirm it. Is there a catch? Sure, life is fair this way. Can’t get something for nothing. I know, it’s disappointing. But we will get to the catch later; for now, let me say I find it to be a fair trade-off.

First of all, credits for this approach go to Dr. Doug McGuff, author of Body by Science: A Research Based Program to Get the Results You Want in 12 Minutes a Week.

The whole concept is based on a short but extremely intense training session. This intensity is achieved, unexpectedly, by a super-slow motion. Unexpectedly, because we normally associate intensity with speed. In this case, it’s the opposite. Super-slow motion with weight means increased time under load. It goes like this: you select an exercise (examples follow), be it a machine, free weights, or body weight, and execute it as slowly as possible while still moving smoothly, without turning the motion into the start-stop jerky affair. If you picked the weight right, one direction movement should take anywhere from 5 to 15 seconds, 7-10 being about a sweet spot. You repeat it till failure – total inability to move. Then you switch to the next exercise.

A few observations:

  1. Unlike exercising with usual speed, the number of repetitions is going to be much lower. If you can do, say, 50 push-ups in a conventional manner, in a super-slow fashion you’ll be lucky to do 4. If you can do too many, it simply means you are doing them too fast. Slow down.
  2. Do NOT lock your joint at the farthest point in the movement; stop just short of it and reverse the direction.
  3. At some point in the exercise, you will feel a burn in the muscles. This is not a failure yet, push through it and continue.
  4. Your next point to notice will be strong, almost bordering with panic, desire to stop the exercise. This is your body, trying to cope with the load, perceives that the assault is too strong and tells you “We are about to lose this fight, it’s time for a flight option while we still can move.” This is not a failure yet, push through it, overcome muscle shaking and continue. Resist the temptation to hold your breath; rather start breathing quicker through your mouth.
  5. Next comes the actual failure. This is the moment when you simply can’t move any further. If you picked right weight and speed, you should reach this point somewhere between a minute and three minutes, sweet spot being 90-120 seconds. At this point just hold the position for a few more seconds (continue breathing!) ultimately fatiguing your muscles, down to fastest-twitching fibers. This is the moment you aim for; this informs your body that it faced a challenge that rendered it unable to move. Inability to move means that either your prey got away or that you failed to defeat a predator (or escape from it). Former means a threat of starvation; latter means becoming someone’s prey. Both present ultimate survival danger and instruct your body to increase its strength for the next encounter (should you live to face it – death by hunger or by being eaten is not an actual option in a gym but your body doesn’t know it). Thus, after repairing damaged muscle, your body will build up some more.
  6. After reaching this extreme fatigue point, move to the next exercise. Don’t pause any longer than you need to change your position or grab weights. Your heart will be beating with increasing rate after each next exercise. Let it, this is a great cardio element to this method.
  7. The whole session consisting of 5-6 exercises will take anywhere from 12 to 20 minutes, most likely around 15. That’s all. Seriously – once a week. You won’t even break a sweat, not in a literal sense.

Some examples of the exercise set. First is in a gym with machines, by Dr. McGuff himself:

This is a set with using your body weight only:

One more with added weights:

From these examples you’ll have no troubles putting together your own workout targeting all major muscles in a single session.

Why just once a week? Let me use the analogy from Body by Science. When you fatigue your muscles fully taking them to a failure point, you essentially dig a catabolic hole by tearing the fibers in your muscle tissue. Then your body fills the hole by repairing the tissue, and then it piles up a little mound above the surface. This mound is the muscle growth – that same reaction to inability to move that we spoke about earlier. If you start digging another hole before the previous one is filled and mound is piled upon it, you just make a deeper hole instead of a higher mound. If you do everything right, you damage all types of fibers in your muscle, from slow-twitching (that recover in a matter of minutes) to the fastest-twitching (that require up to 7 and sometimes even more days to fully recover).

Your resistance training session should be done in second half of the day, closer to 5 pm and not earlier than 1 pm – that’s to match the cortisol intraday cycle and avoid adding serious stress in the morning when this hormone runs high naturally. Have a protein-heavy meal after the training session. If you do everything right, for the next few hours you are going to have this (not entirely unpleasant) feeling of being covered with cast iron shell, your muscle making slight complaining noise. In fact, within 15-30 minutes after the session you might find it comically difficult to walk, sit down, stand up from sitting position, and hold a cup or a fork without your arm shaking. Just laugh and enjoy feeling like a caveman fresh out of a victorious fight with a saber-tooth tiger. You are also going to feel muscles being overworked the next day. On days two and three this feeling will gradually subside, dissipating fully by day four-five. Do avoid a temptation to return to exercise at that point – repairing process and building new muscle is not over yet. Let the recovery work its magic. Overtraining is a real thing. “Necessary and sufficient” is the name of this game.

If you want deeper details and science under all this, I encourage you to read the book I mentioned above.

OK, what about the catch we spoke of earlier? Actually, there are even two of them.

  • First: it’s brutal. Brutal. Yes, those measly 15 minutes are not as easy to sustain as you may think. Unlike hours in a gym when you socialize, take long pauses between sets and generally laze around, this workout quickly makes you feel like you’ve been hit by a truck. Your heart wants to break out of your ribcage, and does its best to break through the bars (this doubles your weightlifting as a cardio exercise session).
  • Second: it gets more difficult each time. It’s very counter-intuitive. We expect whatever we train for to become easier with practice. But the very nature of this workout is different. The stronger you become, the more time under load (or heavier load) you can handle – and the deeper is the damage you inflict on your muscle.

As I mentioned earlier, I find these trade-offs fair. Merely 15-20 minutes a week, with comparable or even better benefits in exchange for grueling nature of these minutes? I’ll take it. Also, it’s balanced out by strangely satisfying feeling after each training session.

One interesting variation you may want to introduce in a few weeks/months is splitting your routine into two – separate sessions for upper and lower body, on different days. This way you may add a few exercises to each routine, fatiguing your muscles even deeper, while reaping the benefit of two heavy cardio sessions instead of one. I also do couple HIIT stationary bike sessions per week in addition to resistance training, but I take it down to one when split the weightlifting routine in two. I also think it’s good practice to do a more traditional kind of exercise once in a while – our body likes variety in challenges and necessity to adapt.

So there you go, new exercise regimen. High-intensity low volume resistance training once a week; high-intensity interval training on a stationary bike twice a week; a lot of low-intensity pleasant exercise in a form of walking outside. This is how my approach looks at the moment. I will post an update if and when I introduce some alterations to it.

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