May 15, 2011
Featured on Women’s Health
Slash pounds and the time you spend in the gym with this new-attitude, high-intensity workout
By Jen Ator
Want to lose pounds fast and spend less time working out? It’s possible—but only if you push your body to its absolute sweat-dripping, out-of-breath max. In other words, up the intensity.
Researchers at McMaster University in Ontario had a group of cyclists do four to six 30-second sprints (with four minutes at a slower pace in between), while another group biked at a continuous pace for 90 to 120 minutes. After six sessions, everyone saw the same benefits, even though the second group was still slogging long after the first group had showered off.
The problem is, without someone egging you on, you may hit the brakes as soon as your workout gets the slightest bit uncomfortable. Luckily, you can learn strategies to help you power through when the going gets tough.
Think You Can
The urge to scream uncle during a butt-kicking workout may have more to do with your overprotective brain than your cramping muscles. The traditional school of thought is that fatigue strikes when you’re low on fuel, dehydrated, or overheated. But Timothy Noakes, M.D., a professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, says that’s not necessarily the case. “Before you even start working out, your brain is figuring out how to pace your body so that you stop exercising long before you have an issue,” he says. Translation: You always have more in the tank than your brain leads you to believe.
While the world’s most hard-driving athletes (think Serena Williams and Dara Torres) know how to ignore that fake-out and get more from their bodies, most of us can’t help but fixate on our achy legs and burning lungs. But if that’s all you think about, your brain can produce a stress response that increases the ache.
“Our experience of pain is connected to our perception of it,” says Carrie Cheadle, a sport psychology consultant in Petaluma, California.
“If you decide the pain is unbearable, your tolerance for it will be lower than if you think you can handle it.” So give yourself a mental pep talk before you hop on the treadmill. Remind yourself of how strong and capable you are. After all, if women can endure bikini waxes, tattoos, and childbirth, you can survive a full-throttle workout.
But what if that bring-it-on attitude turns meek when the hurt sets in? Cheadle reveals ways to cope: Mentally repeat the word smooth with each pedal stroke on a bike or continuously count up to eight during a run (known as rhythmic cognitive behavior), sing a favorite song or go over your grocery list (distraction or dissociation), or remind yourself that this sprint will be over in just 30 more seconds (establishing an end).
Up the Intensity
Once your head is in the game, it’s time to get moving—and easy elliptical rides won’t cut it. “When it comes to high-intensity effort, you need to be at or above your aerobic threshold,” says certified trainer Stacie Clark, co-owner of Tiger Athletics in Minneapolis. Here’s how to know you’re there: You can say only two words at a time, it takes great mental focus to maintain this effort, and the pace is uncomfortable and not sustainable for more than five minutes at a time. “The goal is to reach that point, hold it, back off and recover, then repeat,” says Clark. Boost the intensity of any cardio routine with these drills from Clark.
Tempos: Warm up for about 10 minutes, then increase your speed until you’re at your threshold. Stay there for three to five minutes, then slow down to recover completely. Repeat five to seven times, then finish with a five-minute cooldown.
Builds: Warm up for about 10 minutes, then speed up for 30 seconds. Walk or jog for 30 seconds. Repeat six to 10 times, then jog at an easy pace for six minutes. Repeat the sequence four to six times, then do a five-minute cooldown.
Go Beyond Cardio
Picking up the pace during spin class isn’t the only way to pump up your routine. Programs such as CrossFit and P90X are intense workouts that have women busting out pushups, lifting barbells, and swinging weights. (And no, these chicks don’t look like bodybuilders.)
There’s a lot to learn from this approach. At CrossFit gyms nationwide, the “workouts of the day” are done in groups and as a competition—either banging out reps as fast as possible or completing as many reps as you can in a given time. Instructors don’t lower the bar for anyone—they make you work your ass off to meet it.
“Some women are intimidated when they see a workout like 50 pullups, pushups, and squats because they assume they can’t do it,” says Alison Jones, a coach at CrossFit Chicago. “But the challenge empowers them. They get a chance to do things they thought were impossible.”
Try this (equipment-free!) 20-minute CrossFit workout. Do as many rounds as you can, taking only five to 10 seconds to rest while moving between exercises: five pushups, 10 body-weight squats, five burpees (squat down, place your hands on the ground, jump back into a pushup position, then reverse the motion to stand), and 10 situps.
Sound intense? Well, that’s the point. “There’s just no way around it: If you’re not uncomfortable, you’re not working hard enough,” says coach and trainer Chris Clark, the other half of the duo that owns Tiger Athletics. “But once you get through that temporary pain, you really get to feel—and see—the rewards of training.”
Thankfully, you don’t need to go all out during every session. In fact, Clark says only 20 percent of your workouts should be high intensity. That means if you exercise five times a week, just one day should be killer. And remember: In less than half an hour, you’ll be done and hitting the shower.