In today’s Financial Times there’s an article about high intensity strength training that I feel is worth shouting about. More people should know, especially seniors, how beneficial and time saving this type of exercise is.
Once a week, Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, the former chief executive of insurer AIG, leaves his Park Avenue office and travels across New York’s Central Park to a nondescript basement crowded with Rube Goldberg-esque machines in a brownstone building on the trendy Upper West Side. While Mr Greenberg is renowned for his strong views on business, this claustrophobic room is where the 87-year-old builds his remarkable physical strength.
Mr Greenberg is among a small group of busy New York executives who make a pilgrimage to a place called Serious Strength, a gym that specialises in a technique called high-intensity resistance training, to get a complete body workout in just 30 minutes a week. Unlike spending hours jogging on treadmills or pedalling exercise bikes, high-intensity weight training promises all the benefits of aerobics plus more strength in just a fraction of the time of conventional workouts.
“The amount of weight I can push or pull is multiples of my own strength,” boasts Mr Greenberg, who is now chairman and CEO of CV Star & Co, a financial services firm. “I’m exercising more strenuously than I ever have in my life. In just 30 minutes a week you can see progress in what you’re doing and how good you feel.”
While high-intensity weight training has been practised since the 1980s, when an entrepreneur named Arthur Jones began making gym equipment under the Nautilus brand, the technique has only recently garnered sufficient scientific support to back up its many claims of superiority as a workout regimen.
Books such as Body By Science, by a South Carolina-based emergency room physician named Doug McGuff, and The Slow Burn Fitness Revolution, by Fred Hahn, who owns Mr Greenberg’s gym in New York, describe the scientific basis for exercising compound groups of muscles to total exhaustion using very slow movements. In practice, that means five or six exercises done for just five to six super slow repetitions, or just 15 minutes of actual lifting. Some adherents, such as Dr McGuff, believe that just one workout a week is sufficient, while Mr Hahn and others prefer two workouts.
“High-intensity resistance improves blood pressure, increases the level of good cholesterol in your blood, lowers triglicyeride levels, maintains blood sugar, helps with insulin sensitivity and builds not only muscular strength but muscular endurance,” says Mr Hahn.
Dr McGuff, meanwhile, flags up the medical benefits of the high-intensity workout, which he says can help eliminate “diabetes, hypertension, gout, hypercholesterolaemia, and all the consequences of being sedentary and eating a diet of modern food”.
Although exercise fads come and go, high-intensity is in the unusual position of advocating that people actually practise it less. Hardcore bodybuilders have raised doubts about whether the system is really superior to their many hours spent in the gym, but proponents such as Mr Hahn say that while you can build muscle in long workouts, why bother when less time spent in the gym can produce such good results. Proponents also point out that everyone has a genetic limit to how strong they can get or how big their muscles will grow, no matter how much exercise they do.
Perhaps counter-intuitively, the high-intensity method seems to have gained more popularity in Europe than in the fitness-crazed US, where it faded from the cover of magazines after a brief surge in popularity about 10 years ago. Dr McGuff thinks this is partly explained by the fact that recent scientific support for the method comes largely from European and Canadian universities.
“I also think Europe lacks that ‘more is better’ culture that North America has,” he adds. “We have this work ethic where the answer is always do more and do it harder. I think that makes people a lot more sceptical about an exercise system that restricts volume and frequency as a way to get results.”
While it is possible to do a high-intensity workout with barbells or even body weight, most gyms that specialise in high-intensity use machines originally designed by Mr Jones such as Nautilus and Med-X. This is because it can be dangerous to lift a heavy free weight to exhaustion. These machines involve rotation around several joints, working a large group of muscles at one time, reducing the overall time in the gym.
At least initially, the workout consists of what is termed “the big five” – a seated row, chest press, pulldown, overhead press and leg press, each done for about 90 seconds. Dr McGuff says he even gets good results doing just three exercises, provided they are done extremely slowly and to complete exhaustion, followed by several days of recuperative rest.
While 15 minutes may seem like too short a time for a complete workout, this reporter noticed a distinct impact – along with considerable soreness the next day.
One company that has capitalised on the workout’s appeal to businesspeople is Kieser Training, a Zurich-based group that has set up high-intensity gyms in Europe and Asia.
“We target the professional, middle-aged executive who wants to exercise in a serious manner,” says Marcel Haasters, a German who runs the Kieser Training gym in London’s Camden Town. “There is no music, no mirrors on the wall and no juice bar. It’s not for typical gym users but people who don’t like gyms.”
Kieser appeals especially to mobile executives because for a £580 annual fee, travelling businessmen can use any gym in the Kieser Training system from Zurich to Australia. The gym uses special machines licensed from the late Arthur Jones’s estate and features rehabilitative training as well as pure exercise.
Steven Bailey, a video games analyst for Screen Digest who lives near the City of London, says he has been doing the Kieser Training for three years and that it has changed his life. “It’s great for people like me who have a sedentary lifestyle and sit at a desk all day,” Mr Bailey says. “Before Kieser I used to collapse around 3pm but now I have a lot more energy.”
A particularly impressive piece of equipment offered by Kieser Training looks like something out of the Spanish Inquisition. Once you are strapped down and screwed into the machine, your lower body and hips are immobilised, which allows it to measure accurately the strength of your lower back muscles – which are often the bane of desk-bound executives. The Kieser machine has a computer database that compares your back strength to other individuals of your age group, and is then capable of training your back to make the muscles stronger.
Alastair McLellan, who uses the gym in Camden Town, started the workout about six years ago to help with his bad back. “The fact that I can build this strength in just one short session a week and solve my back problem makes it very good use of my time,” says the 48-year-old editor of the Health Service Journal. “It’s also allowed me to do a lot more exercise – I now cycle to work most days.”
However, the workout’s proponents admit that while the method has many benefits, a high-intensity workout or any gym programme is unlikely to help executives completely lose those unsightly guts gained from years of eating expense-account lunches. For that, dietary changes are the most important ingredient.