Why ten minutes twice a week is all the exercise you need

Photo from Buyandsellfitness.com

Exercise does not make you strong

               Most people firmly believe that exercise makes you strong. They believe that the more you exercise, the stronger you get. You have to exercise to get in shape. New Year’s fitness resolutions are followed by gym memberships every January.

                But exercise doesn’t make you strong. Exercise makes you weak. It uses up your energy and stresses your body. If you don’t feel spent after a workout and sore the next couple of days, you’re doing it wrong.

It isn’t the exercise that makes you strong, it’s the rest and rebuilding afterward. The purpose of exercise is to send a signal to the cells that they’re not good enough and need to rebuild themselves stronger. It doesn’t take a PhD in physiology to understand this; the principle is self-evident. The reason we exercise is to generate a signal to rebuild.

                What is that signal? Is there a tiny gauge inside the muscle cell that registers how heavy that barbell is? Is there a rep counter? Of course not. But personal trainers universally prescribe workouts in terms of weight and repetitions. “Do three sets of twelve repetitions on the bench press with a 90-lb barbell.”

                The gym is full of sincere devotees to exercise following such routines. Fitness magazines are full of routines for anyone who wants them. Yet, exercising in this way is a huge waste of time, not to mention money. Every time I go to the gym, I look for someone – anyone – who understands how the body gets stronger and all I see are scores of people wasting their time with the weights, the machines, and the treadmills.

                I spend ten minutes at the gym, twice a week. That’s my exercise routine. That’s all I need to maintain my muscle mass and bone density, to keep body fat to a slim 10% and to provide me with all the energy, strength and endurance to swim every day, ski on weekends, and practice Taekwondo several times a week.

Sending the rebuild signal

                Here is why what I do is right and everybody else is wrong. It only takes 80 seconds to generate the physiological signal to build muscle. (I owe this discovery to a chapter in Tim Ferriss’s book “The 4-hour Body.”) Less than a minute and a half of time under tension is all it takes to trigger the rebuild signal. Any more time than that generates no more signal and is therefore wasted time and effort.

The only caveat is that the exercise must be performed to muscle failure. You have to push that barbell until you can’t move it anymore and then still keep trying. For 80 seconds. That will change the internal cellular milieu such that a signal is sent to build more muscle over the next 72 hours. All those people doing a prescribed routine of weights and repetitions are wasting their time if their routine does not take them to muscle failure and keep them there for the critical 80 seconds.

                I use the same principle for aerobic fitness, though the physiology is a little different. (You are building buffering capacity, more hemoglobin, more red blood cells, and more capillaries rather than bigger muscle fibers.) Just four wind sprints of twenty seconds each will do it.

Photo from Physicalfitnessyoroiba.blogspot.com

Proving it works

                I first began to apply the “10 minutes twice a week” principle when I was the sergeant major of a US Army Reserve battalion in Arizona. Fitness is always a big problem in the reserves and I needed a program that would get the marginal soldiers fit enough to pass the Army fitness test twice a year. It had to be so easy and practical there would be no excuse for not implementing it.

I called the program EasyFit. (In truth, the program is not “easy.” It’s just hard for a very short period of time twice a week.)

               To prove its effectiveness, I limited myself to that program in preparation for the test as well. Twice a week I would go to the playground and, with my eye on the clock, do as many pullups as I could, followed by as many dips as possible, and hold a handstand until I couldn’t any longer. That’s about three minutes. Then I’d sprint the straightaway on a quarter mile track and walk the curve four times. That’s less than five minutes, less than ten in all and I’m done.

I don’t even break a sweat or need to dress down into gym clothes. It requires no expensive equipment and can be done on a coffee break.

Photo from www.military.com

               The Army Physical Fitness Test has three events: pushups, sit ups and a 2-mile run. Though my exercise routine included no pushups, no sit ups and less than half a mile of running, I always maxed the test and was usually the top scorer in the entire battalion, even at age 60. (Okay, these were military intelligence soldiers, not Green Berets. But they’re not all fat and lazy.) When I shared my method with the marginal soldiers, they all improved enough to pass the APFT every time as well.

In fact, my battalion went from dead last out of 25 training battalions in the division to first place the year I was in charge. Then I repeated the feat at another battalion the following year.

My method works. It’s effective for building muscle, burning fat, and improving cardiovascular health. It equips me with all the fitness that my hobbies – swimming, skiing and Taekwondo – demand.

 And it only takes ten minutes twice a week.