13 Weeks: Week 4 -- In Which We Plateau

The 13 week experiment has been to adopt a low-carb eating plan -- I'm banning the word "d*et" from now on -- and to add what my review of the literature suggests are the most efficient exercise approaches for fat loss and improved endurance. Now, as my professors repeated in grad school (and I now repeat all the time myself) if you want to say something is "efficient" you need to say what you're optimizing for. In my case, what I want to optimize for is time: if I enjoyed exercise as exercise and didn't have a day job plus writing, I could run an hour a day or lift weights four hours a week. But our understanding of the physiology of exercise has changed radically in the last few years. Summarized, you could basically say there are two rules:

  • You get the most incremental benefit from the first 15 to 20 minutes of exercise.
  • You get the greatest gains from intense effort.

Put those two rules together and it looks like hours of jogging may not be the best choice for efficiency; instead, go for short times and intense exercises.

In pure endurance exercise, a Japanese researcher named Izumi Tabata invented a training protocol that was very effective: train by doing something (practically anything) really really hard for 20 seconds, with a 10 second rest, repeating that 4 to 8 times. That is, 2 to 4 minutes of exercise. I could go into more details, but an internet friend, Everett Mickey, pointed out these YouTube videos from a company called TabataSongs. Here is an example of Tabata training, set to music.

Simple as that.

There are a number of weight training routines that follow similar short, high-intensity schemes. I've used one from the book Power of 10. The basics are right in the book blurb:

The Power of 10 seems to contradict nearly everything we're accustomed to hearing about exercise. Forget hours on the treadmill, and forget daily visits to the gym. This new program offers 20 minute workout sessions, once or twice per week, with an alluring emphasis on rest and recovery on your days off. The principle behind The Power of 10 is simple: by lifting weights in slow motion, making each rep last 20 seconds (10 seconds lifting and 10 seconds lowering) instead of the typical 7 seconds, you can maximize muscle transformation. The short workouts are so effective that your body will need days to recover and repair properly. Studies have shown that such routines can increase lean body mass, help burn calories more efficiently, and prevent cardio–vascular disease more effectively than aerobic exercise alone.

Now, the studies mentioned have some methodological problems, but the basic approach has been very effective -- and there are lots of different versions, each claiming to be the real thing. As with most of these schemes, the exact details vary, and everyone wants to have the Best Routine so they can Sell More Books. It's still the same basics: a short, extremely intense workout.

  • Seated Row

  • Chest Press

  • Narrow-grip Pulldown

  • Overhead Press

  • Leg Press

  • Curl

  • Triceps Pulldown

So there's my routine: each exercise done with heavy enough weight, taking 20 seconds per repetition, that you can't do more than 6-8 repetitions. The Power of Ten program is the first five exercises -- seated row, chest press, narrow-grip pulldowns, overhead press, and leg press, but I added curls and triceps pulldowns because I like them.

If you aren't familiar with these or need help with form, any trainer can help. (Glenn Reynolds is a fan of Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength; personally, I think you're far better off with the help of an expert.)

So that's this week. So far, in terms of results, my weight is down about 23 pounds from my original start on 19 October, and about 9 pounds since I officially started the experiment, which is 2 pounds a week even with the plateau; my average morning, fasting, blood glucose down from about 150 to about 130.