Amazing Shape!

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A dramatic new plan to get you in the best condition of your life � at any age

It's game point, and the hot-tempered lawyer is yelling for me to trap on a half-court press. Believe me, I'd like nothing better than to oblige him. But this pickup basketball game is into its second hour, and my feet refuse to budge. Hothead harasses the ball handler and manages to poke the ball away � a steal, our big chance � but when I reach out for the orange blur, the damn thing bounces off my knee and out of bounds. Inspired, the same opponent takes the inbounds pass and drives past me for the winning bucket. High-fives and trash talk all around. The lawyer is livid. "I'm busting my hump out here!" he screams. "What the hell's the matter with you?" What, indeed? This sort of thing has been happening a lot lately. I've always thought I was in pretty good shape. I make it to the gym several times a week and faithfully perform the usual cardio and weight routines. So why am I melting down at crunch time? Okay, I'm not as young as I used to be, but does that mean I'm doomed to spend the rest of my days getting beat on defense until I get fed up and quit altogether? Or is there something different I could be doing at the gym to keep me in the game? Several weeks later, I'm standing alone in an aerobics studio in New York, midway through the workout that just may be that something. Bathed in sweat after an intense 30-minute cardio session, I place my right foot on a weight-lifting bench, push myself awkwardly into the air, switch legs in midflight, and land with my left foot on the bench. Then I launch myself skyward again, flapping my arms like a bird. A short distance away, a woman on the StairMaster looks on, puzzled. A guy resting between bench presses tries not to laugh. We're all wondering the same thing: Have I lost my mind? BIRTH OF A MOVEMENT What happened between dying on the hoops court and my rebirth as a workout oddity was a visit to the High Intensity Training Center, in Huntington, West Virginia. The HIT Center is the brainchild of Terry Shepherd, a soft-spoken professor of exercise physiology at nearby Marshall University who hopes to revolutionize the way Americans work out. Drawing on his experience preparing college athletes for the pro drafts, Shepherd created a program that promises to take almost any 40-year-old weekend warrior and give him back the quickness, agility, and power he thought he had lost forever. It also promises to make a 22-year-old play so well he may start thinking about the CBA, and to help heavy people of all ages lose a ton of weight. But first things first. Within minutes of arriving at the HIT Center, I am reminded I'm not at a New York City health club anymore. A 70-year-old man is slowly running backward on a treadmill, while just a few feet away, a wide receiver for the Marshall football team is sprinting at the ungodly speed of 20 miles per hour on an oversize machine, with a leather harness and two spotters keeping him from being flung across the room. "The muscle fibers of all these people basically react to stimuli in the same way," says Shepherd. "The difference is the intensity of the workouts we give them, but most of the exercises are the same." Someday, Shepherd hopes, clients will be able to do his modified pro-draft workouts at any one of hundreds of HIT Centers across the country. (His first licensee will open in Jacksonville, Florida, in January; to arrange a visit to either location, call 304-529-4482.) In the meantime, he has developed portable low-tech versions of his drills that can be done at any health club, utilizing such props as an armload of yoga bricks and some hash marks fashioned from athletic tape. Before showing me these drills, Shepherd puts me through an exhaustive battery of tests to establish my baseline. It isn't pretty. Although my aerobic fitness is excellent, my core muscles are weak, my feet and hands are slow, my muscles are not explosive enough, and my body fat, 25 percent, is 5 percent (or nine pounds of blubber) higher than it should be. For the next two days, Shepherd has me perform the workouts I'll be doing back in New York and briefs me on my new eating plan. If I follow this program for five weeks, he promises, I'll be in the best shape of my life � not to mention a much more popular basketball teammate. "You've been working out too Amazing Shape! A dramatic new plan to get you in the best condition of your life � at any age � Opening September 2006 690 Lakeview Plaza Blvd. Worthington, OH 43085 614-825-4484 www.hitcenters.com long and too easy, so your body is quickly making the adjustment and not getting better," he explains. "Now you'll work more intensely, and you'll be amazed to see a much greater benefit in a shorter period of time." JUMPING IN I've never worked out this way before. For one thing, I can forget about resting between sets and chatting with friends; I'm going nonstop for 90 minutes. Forget, too, Nautilus and Cybex; every single exercise has me moving in free space, just as I do on the court. The stares begin the moment I start warming up, by running backward and sideways on the treadmill and by swinging my legs like a ballet dancer to heat up the muscles. Even trainers stop me in the locker room to ask, What the hell were you doing out there? Fortunately, Shepherd has laid it out for me so I know exactly what to do at every moment I'm on the gym floor. Every workout includes four elements: cardio, agility/power, core muscles, and strength training. By spending just ten to 30 minutes on each area three times a week, I'm assured of hitting all the crucial bases. After warming up, I go right into the first cardio session. Gone are those hourlong marathons spent zoning out to CNN, which often forced me to put off weight training for another day. They may have burned more calories, but they were doing little to give my cardiopulmonary system the overload it needs to improve the efficiency with which my heart pumps blood and my blood transports oxygen to the muscles. So on Monday, the first day of my new program, I focus on repeatedly bringing my heart rate up to my lactate threshold � the point at which my muscles start secreting the lactic acid that causes them to burn � then getting it to quickly slow down for one minute, a process that will help me regain my wind faster after a sprint down the hoops court. It's an intense half hour, with lots of drama, as I gallop on the treadmill, begging the timer to hit the two-minute mark on my last interval before I collapse. Wednesday's session is no less challenging, as I aim at a slightly higher target heart rate to train myself to run faster and farther before I start to feel tired. But it has the virtue of being shorter, only 18 to 20 minutes, because once I hit my maximum heart rate, any more time spent would be unproductive. Saturday's workout is a cakewalk compared with the other days', a steady run at a lower speed (though still faster than what I'm used to), to maintain my aerobic base. After jumping off the treadmill, I run to an empty studio and begin setting up the equipment I'll use to work on becoming quicker and more agile. This part's a bit tricky. At the HIT Center, these drills are set up ahead of time, which is why clients there can complete the whole workout in less than an hour. Now I've got to create my own athletic-tape stepping course, pick up cones at the front desk, and interrupt a class in the next studio to borrow some yoga bricks. It's not that big of a deal, but it does add time to the workout. Unless you hire a personal trainer to do your prep work, expect the whole workout to take about 90 minutes, and 80 on the shorter day. Which still isn't bad, considering the quantity and sophistication of the conditioning you're packing in. It's not just the heart and lungs and muscles that receive attention, but also the nerves that fire the muscles. As Shepherd explained, when I crouch down before doing my squat jumps, I'm training my brain to recruit muscle fibers faster for the explosion of the ensuing leap. The cone drills and stepping course increase my foot speed by constantly forcing my body to adapt to changes in its environment as I skip, sprint, and backpedal. The hip-flexor exercise, meanwhile, works the oft-ignored muscles at the tops of the thighs that can help you run faster by letting you draw your knees higher. Now on to the core muscles. I've always hated crunches (hence the state of my abs). But many of my new drills are done while perched on a gym ball, which is inherently more interesting. This also forces me to call on the stabilizing fibers of the stomach, back, torso, and shoulders, which will give me a much firmer base for any athletic movement I perform. "When you're striking any object, like a tennis ball, golf ball, or baseball, these muscles are the prime movers," Shepherd says. Once I finish my core workout, I'm tired and drenched in sweat, having been moving for an hour without a break, and I haven't even begun my strength training. But then I remember that Shepherd has cut me slack on the weights: Just one more set of seven exercises and I'm out of here. Studies have shown that doing just one set provides fully 80 percent of the strength gains of doing two sets. Until now, I've been getting an extra 20 percent, which might have been important if I were a bodybuilder. But that workout took more than an hour, so I was lucky to manage it twice a week. Now, for the first time ever, I'm hitting every major muscle group three times a week, a better approach for developing the lean mass for muscling through crowds on the court � or the streets of New York. AND NOW FOR THE RESULTS I was dubious about Shepherd's claim that I would begin to notice results immediately � but then I start to see and feel them for myself. A week after beginning the program, I'm about to step off a curb when I notice the crosswalk is freshly painted and instinctively leap out of the way like a dancer. After two weeks, I'm on the golf course when I notice greater control over the club head and more power off the tee, and end up shooting my best round ever. People tell me I look better, more energized, happier. In fact, at one point, I get a little carried away. I've been following Shepherd's diet recommendations to reduce my daily calories by 200 to 300, and my weight has been dropping steadily � so I start cutting out 500. Never mind that this is how Karen Carpenter got into trouble. In week four, three pounds fly off in four days, but I completely run out of energy. Shepherd tells me to eat more carbs, so I pig out for a couple of days, skip a workout, and feel fine again. As I near the end of the five weeks, Shepherd tells me that I can continue the program another month or so if I want to (but no more � it's too intense). Or I could start mixing in a different HIT workout each week with my usual weight-and-sports routine, then maybe start the full five-week program again in a month or six months, whenever I feel the need for another jolt. I like the program so much I'm not ready to stop just yet, particularly when I go back to the HIT Center and see my second set of test results. The progress is astounding. My body fat has dropped from 25 percent to 18 percent, which means I've lost 12 pounds of fat. And though I've been doing just one set of weights, I've gained seven pounds of muscle, and my cardio improvement exceeds even Shepherd's optimistic projections. When I first went to see him, I was 18 percent more fit than the average man my age, but now I'm 40 percent more fit. The only thing that hasn't improved greatly is my vertical leap � it increased by only one inch, rather than the three inches Shepherd hoped for, which means I should maybe add more jumping exercises. But the most important test of all comes on the hardwoods. At first, the results aren't terribly dramatic. A work deadline has left me less time for basketball, so for the first few games I can't hit a thing. But then, just as everyone else starts gasping for air, I begin sinking jump shots and driving through the lane for one-handed runners, and I throw in an absurd shot from an impossible angle along the left baseline that banks high off the glass. The real gut check, though, comes on defense. Fighting through a pick, I rush over to cover my man, who slips and falls. Have I finally run out of gas and lost my coordination � did I trip him? "No," he says sheepishly. "Your foot got there before mine. I stepped on you." The game ends, and everybody walks off the court. . . . What? We just got here! They give me strange looks not unlike the kind I got in the gym, looks that say, We've been playing nonstop for more than an hour. Why don't you go home? They start packing up their gym bags and heading out, but I'm still on the court, ready to go, having fun, shooting jumpers. For the workout program and diet, order the OCTOBER 2002 back issue. By: Paul Keegan Photographs by: Marc Joseph Grooming by: Kevin Donlin for Susan Price Inc.; equipment by: Gym Source (October 2002) Copyright �2002 by Men's Journal LLC Reprinted with permission.

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