get fit in 4 minutes with tabata training

May 12, 2010 1 comment

The title of this blog looks like one of those ridiculous claims that you would see on the front cover of Men’s Health.  But I stand behind it because it’s been proven that four minutes of Tabata training really is more effective than an hour of cardio training.

The Tabata method is becoming an increasingly popular form of high intensity interval training (HIIT).  HIIT consists of short bursts of intense activity at near max heart rate, followed by less intense exercise or rest.  For example, sprint 30 seconds, jog one minute, sprint 30 seconds, jog one minute, and so on until you can’t continue.

The Tabata method takes this type of HIIT as a template and turns it into an exact science to maximise anaerobic capacity and VO2max.  In other words, four minutes of Tabata training produces better fitness results than an hour of endurance training.

All the hype comes from a 1996 study by the training method’s namesake, Izumi Tabata, from the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo.  In his six-week study, participants were divided into two groups.  The first group did one hour of moderate cardio (70% VO2max).  The second group did eight rounds of 20 seconds intense exercise (170% VO2max) followed by 10 seconds rest – equalling a total of only four minutes.  Here are the results:

  Group 1 Group 2
Exercise Moderate cardio Tabata training: 20 seconds of activity followed by 10 seconds rest for eight rounds
Time 60mins 4mins
Frequency Five days per week for six weeks Five days per week for six weeks
Increase in anaerobic capacity Not significant 28%
Increase in VO2max 10% 14%

And the winner is: Tabata training.  In just four intense minutes, Tabata training achieves greater aerobic and anaerobic capacity and more max oxygen consumption than an hour of cardio training.  This not only means higher levels of fitness and exercise tolerance, but even results in more weight loss than moderate cardio.  Time to get off that elliptical machine!

Here’s how you do Tabata training:

Tabata training can be done with any exercise, but I prefer body weight exercises because they allow you to easily stick to the 20sec/10sec work/rest split, they can be done anywhere and they are challenging.  If you’re doing Tabata for the first time, I recommend starting with air squats.  So you would do eight rounds of:

  1. As many air squats as you can in 20 seconds
  2. Rest 10 seconds

Record the lowest number of squats that you did in any given set and use this as your benchmark.  So, if the lowest number of squats you could do in any of the eight rounds was 15, then this is your benchmark to beat next time.  Make sure you have a stopwatch, because the timing is precise.

Want something more challenging?  Try ‘Tabata Something Else’, taken from the CrossFit website.  It’s the same 20sec/10sec x8 routine, but with four different exercises: pull ups, push ups, sit ups and squats.  You do a four-minute Tabata sequence for each exercise, totalling 16 minutes.

  1. Pull ups: max reps in 20secs followed by 10secs rest: x8
  2. Push ups: ditto
  3. Sit ups: ditto
  4. Squats: ditto

If you’re interested in keeping tabs on your progress, record the total number of reps you did for each exercise for the entire 16 minutes then try to beat this next time.

One final note: make sure you go all out in Tabata training.  You should be well outside of your comfort zone and feel exhausted when you finish.  It’s only four minutes, but it should be a very hard four minutes.

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barefoot running – what’s the big deal?

May 6, 2010 1 comment

A growing number of runners have been ditching their shoes and going barefoot.  This eccentric community of athletes may have been a joke in the running world for a long time, but some compelling research is proving that they’re not so crazy after all.  In fact, barefoot running appears to have a lot of benefits over running with shoes.

Evolutionary biologist Daniel Lieberman, from Harvard University, recently published a study in the journal Nature in favour of barefoot running.  He states that if “endurance running was an important behaviour before the invention of modern shoes, then natural selection is expected to have operated to lower the risk of injury and discomfort when barefoot or in minimal footwear.”  In other words, humans have been barefoot running for millions of years, so why do we think modern ‘shod running’ is better for us?

Lieberman says about 75-80% of runners in the West are heel strikers – meaning they land on their heels then roll to the front of their foot.  This is creating significant force and strain on the heel – two to three times the runner’s bodyweight in fact.

But many of the runners I’ve spoken to have said heel-to-toe running is how they’ve been taught.  Are personal trainers and running coaches teaching people form that will end up hurting them?  Perhaps.  Heel-to-toe running causes “sudden forces with high rates and magnitudes of loading that travel rapidly up the body and thus may contribute to the high incidence of running-related injuries, especially tibial stress fractures and plantar fasciitis”. These repetitive stress injuries affect about 1/3rd of all runners according to Lieberman.

You might think that advances in running shoe design have helped people to reduce injuries, but surprisingly the “incidence of such injuries has remained considerable for 30 years despite technological advancements that provide more cushioning and motion control in shoes designed for heel–toe running27, 28, 29

Barefoot runners, on the other hand, tend to land slightly on the balls of their feet, creating much less force than shod runners.  Barefoot running helps to reduce heel striking and improves posture.  Lieberman says that “previous studies have found that habitually shod runners tend to adopt a flatter foot placement when barefoot than when shod, thus reducing stresses on the foot.12, 13, 14, 15

Take a look at this video.  It’s a good explanation of Lieberman’s case for barefoot running:

Aside from running on grass or the beach, you’re probably thinking that barefoot running will be pretty painful.  You’re right – I tried it the other day and it was unpleasant for my tender feet! For people like me who don’t have tough, leathery soles, there are shoes that are designed to simulate barefoot running without shredding you feet.   Barefoot running is a fun and interesting experience if nothings else. So give it a try and you may find yourself part of the growing barefoot community.

what are we eating?

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

I had a rummage through the UK’s National Diet and Nutrition Survey the other day.  It records the eating habits of over 1,000 people in the UK, so it paints a good picture of most people’s nutritional composition.

I thought it would be interesting to compare what the ‘average’ person eats to government guidelines for nutrition.  The chart below is that comparison.  I’ve highlighted the areas were people are not meeting guidelines in red, the areas where they are meeting guidelines in green and left the areas with no min/max guidelines white.  How do you match up?


A lot more red than green in there.  Conclusions about what the average person is eating:
•    Too much saturated fat – mostly from meat and dairy (cheese)
•    Not enough good fats – poly and monounsaturates (e.g. from oily fish and nuts)
•    Too much sugar – especially from processed carbs
•    Not enough fibre – e.g. from wholegrain carbs, beans, etc.

The average person’s current carbohydrates/fat/protein ratio is 47:35:18.  It should be more like 40:30:30.  People are getting too much of their energy from fat and carbohydrates.  Not only that, but they’re getting the wrong type of fat (saturated rather than poly- and monounsaturates) and wrong type of carbs (processed rather than wholegrain).

Interestingly, people are very close to meeting their 5 a day fruit and vegetables.  The average is 4.4.  Still not ideal, but I would have guessed it to be a lot lower.

If you’re curious, there’s lot more interesting information here, including specific foods consumed, smoking habits, alcohol consumption, break-down by age, rates of obesity, number of vegetarians, etc.

the dirty dozen and clean fifteen

April 18, 2010 Leave a comment

Ever wonder whether to buy organic or not?  Is it worth the extra money?  I like using this popular ‘dirty dozen’ list as a guide to what’s worth buying organic and what’s not.  This list ranks fruits and vegetables by pesticide contaminates (from most to least).

So, the dirty dozen have the most pesticide and would be best to buy organic because it means you’ll be eating less chemicals.  The clean fifteen have the least pesticide and are fine to buy non-organic.

The full list comes from US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration and is based on 87,000 pesticide tests between 2000 and 2007.

The Dirty Dozen (from most pesticide contaminates):
1.    Peach
2.    Apple
3.    Sweet Bell Pepper
4.    Celery
5.    Nectarine
6.    Strawberries
7.    Cherries
8.    Kale
9.    Lettuce
10.    Grapes – Imported
11.    Carrot
12.    Pear


The Clean Fifteen (from least pesticide contaminates):
1.    Onion
2.    Avocado
3.    Sweet Corn – Frozen
4.    Pineapple
5.    Mango
6.    Asparagus
7.    Sweet Peas – Frozen
8.    Kiwi
9.    Cabbage
10.    Eggplant
11.    Papaya
12.    Watermelon
13.    Broccoli
14.    Tomato
15.    Sweet Potato

monkey bar gym

April 15, 2010 Leave a comment

I came across this bodyweight training program a couple weeks ago and thought it was worth a nod.  The name is a bit misleading and doesn’t actually consist of doing all your training on monkey bars (although that would be interesting!).  Like many other bodyweight programs, it’s mostly circuit training and based on a generalist approach to fitness, rather than focusing on a specific area such as cardio, bodybuilding or strength training. 

Here’s what the owner Jon Hinds says about it: “We teach and train the four, basic functional fitness skills: Running, Jumping, Crawling and Climbing.  Mastering these movements will provide you with the stability, strength and power you need for all of your favorite activities.”

Workout videos are posted on the site and include a good mix of kettle bells, medicine balls, jump rope, bodyweight exercises and even some yoga for good measure.

the caveman diet

April 14, 2010 1 comment

It seems appropriate to start this blog by going back to the beginning.  Back over 2 million years in fact.  In those good ol’ days people didn’t worry about saturated fat, antioxidants, five a day, calorie intake, etc.  They just ate what they could find or kill: nuts, meat, fish, vegetables, roots and fruits.  That’s what proponents of the Palaeolithic (aka caveman, stone-age) diet are proposing – not hunting and gathering our own food but going back to our ancestors’ ways of eating.  Sound like another ridiculous fad diet? Maybe, but read on.  

The thinking behind this diet is that human lifestyle and food preparation changes in the last 10,000 years (since the beginning of agriculture) have far outpaced the development of human genes.  This means that our bodies are still designed to function on a Palaeolithic diet, rather than on the processed grains, sugars and dairy found in modern foods.  These processed foods are supposedly bad for us because they are inedible in their raw format. So eating them means we are ingesting toxins, lacking essential vitamins and spiking blood sugar levels.  Basically, the evolution of our food is not on par with the evolution of our bodies.  There’s lots of research to support this.

Advocates of the Palaeolithic diet also claim that people who eat in this way are stronger, faster, slimmer and healthier than us mortals.  They have far fewer ‘diseases of affluence’, like heart diseases, diabetes and obesity.  This is backed-up by a study in on the island of Kitava in Papua New Guinea, whose inhabitants still maintain a Palaeo diet.  Its author, Staffan Lindeberg (the cheerleader of the Palaeo diet), found that strokes and heart disease were virtually absent among the Kitava population. 

‘Fine’, you may say, ‘but what does this diet actually consist of?  What specifically am I supposed to eat?’  Well, it depends on how strict you want to be – almost like vegetarian vs vegan.  Here’s a condensed version of most guides:

Don’t eat:

  • Grains
  • Beans
  • Potatoes
  • Sugar
  • Processed oils
  • Alcohol, fizzy drinks, fruit juice; (depends on your interpretation of the diet)

Eat:

  • Meat (chicken, beef, fish – lean meats)
  • Vegetables
  • Fruit
  • Nuts
  • Eggs

There are plenty of sites with Palaeo diet recipes, but they make for depressing reading.  You’d have to be a pretty creative cook to make exciting caveman food.  Even if you were to ‘go caveman’ (or cavewoman) the food in supermarkets is not an accurate representation of what people ate a couple million years ago. 

Some critics, like the UK’s National Health Service, have officially labelled this a ‘fad diet’.  They claim that studies of this diet have had small numbers of participants, high drop-out rates and no control groups.  Also, participants ate 900 fewer calories everyday, meaning their weight loss is not just from the types of food they ate but also the amount of food they ate. (A noticeable drop in calcium levels was also present in participants).

As you may have noticed by now, the caveman diet is not radically different from most good diets – more fruits, vegetables and lean meats; less sugars, grains and processed food.  This doesn’t mean that you should try to sick to it religiously though.  Actually, the fact that studies have 30% drop-out rates means that trying to be a strict Palaeo dieter is likely to fail. 

Add to that the pressure from friends, colleagues and family to eat ‘modern’ processed foods and you’ll no doubt find your self falling off the wagon in no time.  Could you imagine turning down dinner parties and nights out because the food is not Palaeo?

So, the caveman diet may be a good guide for what to eat more and less of, but trying to stick to it 100% of the time is bound to fail or ruin your social life.