Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Body By Science - Can you work out just 12 mins a week?

In 2015 I read an interesting book on a particular strength building protocol that only required one 12 minute workout once a week.  Sounds too good to be true right?  It's called "Body By Science" by Doug McGuff.  I was intrigued as I'm always interested in maximizing my workout time and frankly always looking for ways to do less work in the gym but get the same results.

So I decided I would do a little experiment to see if this protocol worked at all.  I started this experiment on 12/14/2015 and the plan was to follow only this protocol for a whole year.  Going into the experiment I was probably in average shape strength wise for me, there was certainly plenty of room for me to get better.  But trust me my strength is not very impressive at all.  However for the sake of this experiment I did a few basic lifts to failure as a baseline strength test.

9 over hand pull ups
Bench Press - 8 reps of 135 lbs
Back Squat - 6 reps of 155 lbs

I think a small child could do better but for the benefit of my readers I've now published those numbers.  Luckily for me the number of people who will actually read this is minuscule.

So what is the magic formula to this protocol?  Well I recommend you buy the book if its something that interests you but basically it is a super slow set performed to complete and utter failure.  To get an idea of how slow you move the weight you basically move the weight as slow as possible without jerking the weight.  You then time your "Time Under Load" (TUL) and once you reach a certain time threshold you increase the weight.  You only do 1 set per exercise and to start you do the Big 5 workout: Chest Press, Shoulder Press, Leg Press, Pull Down and Seated Row.  You do all the exercises on the machines (you can use free weights if necessary it covers this in the book).  In particular Nautilus machines which I'll explain why in a bit.  You don't rest in between each set so you really do get done in about 12 mins.  And you only do this workout once a week.  To give you a better idea of what this looks like he is a video of a someone performing a typical workout.

Ok so I'm sure you're wondering does it work?  Can I really work out 12 mins a week?  Well to be honest I'm not entirely sure.  There were a couple of problems with my experiment.  First off I didn't use the correct machines, I just used the ones available to me at my gym which are the typical Cyrex machines.  The reason that Nautilus machines are preferred is that they feature correct cam profiles that vary the resistance in accord with the strength curves of the muscles being trained.  In other words the resistance is varied by the point in the movement.  For example when doing chest press your weakest point is typically when the bar is right to your chest and then the lift gets easier as you push away.  What the cam does is vary the weight so that the resistance is even across the whole motion.  Its the reason you might see some people benching with chains on the end of the bar as it will increase the weight as the chain comes off the ground.  Same principle, here is the cam profile for the Nautilus Bicep Curl Machine.

However here is the same cam on the biceps curl machine at my gym, a perfect circle so it doesn't vary the resistance at all.  And all the cams on all the machines at my gym looked like this.  

This meant my point of failure was nearly always the same points on my lifts the most difficult spots which I'm guessing is definitely not ideal for this type of training.

Also I had trouble making this my only strength based workout for the week.  I almost felt guilty working out for 12 mins and then hitting the sauna.  I did stay away from the squat rack and bench press but I had one day dedicated to muscle ups for my 2016 fitness goal so that involved quite a bit of pull ups and other mostly body weight strength stuff.  I was also throwing in some kettle bell work on those days towards the end of 2016.  So I completely failed at making this protocol my only strength workout.  I did however keep track of all my lifts and my TUL (Time Under Load) for each one.  I used 90 seconds of TUL as my point in which I would go up in weight.  So once I reached 90 seconds TUL I would move up.  Below are my progress charts for each lift.  I've thrown out the first 4 weeks of data.  I did this because I figured there would be some immediate gains from doing an exercise I wasn't used to and it took me a while to get the intensity to a point I thought was absolute maximum effort.  To further muddy the waters when my progress plateaued I took the books recommendations and split the big 5 workout into 2 separate workouts of 3 and 2 exercises.  So I was doing even less work and getting done in about 7 minutes and I was doing each machine once every 14 days.  I started this split on 4/19/2016.

For the graphs I converted each TUL result to a respective point in between each weight break.

Overall I got the most consistent gains out of leg press.  Shoulder press was the worst.  I plateaued on that from essentially Feb to Dec.  I dreaded shoulder press, it seemed as if I had to go deep into the pain cave just to maintain my current level.  If you would like to see the raw data for these graphs you can check out that here.

I then repeated my strength test at the end of the year.  Unfortunately back squat has been removed as I have what appears to be a mild double hernia so I don't do heavy squats any more (if you call 155 lbs heavy).  Pull ups is largely meaningless as I've been doing so much additional pull up training for the muscle up (plus grip strength).  That just leaves the bench press which is probably the best indicator anyway because the once every 2 week 1 set of slow chest press is the only focused chest work I've done all year.  If my data on the graph is any indicator I should see about a 25% improvement on my bench press reps, so 10 reps (I got 11 see below).

11 pull ups (+2 or 22.2%)
Bench Press - 11 reps of 135 lbs (+3 or 37.5%)
Back Squat - Didn't attempt

For the record the pull ups were not strict. I wish I had done strict pull ups for consistency sake but I just tried to repeat what I did before which was get over the bar at all costs legs flailing and all.  Of course there are tons of variables in this so even the bench press doesn't really mean that much but anecdotally the weight felt lighter and I knew right away I was going to do more than 8 after the first rep.  Honestly I was just happy I got stronger as I was taking a bit of a leap of faith on this and it would have sucked to train for a year only to get weaker.

So overall what do I think about this as a strength building protocol in a minimal amount of time? Well first off I think it works and will build strength and size, it is certainly not complete bs pseudo science from what I experienced.  There is actually a gym local to me in Indianapolis dedicated to this kind of training.  Is it the most effective workout on the planet?  I have no idea but if you're doing nothing and want a way to dip your foot in the pool without investing a lot of time then I think this is a great way to get started.  If you can't go to the gym once a week and do 12 mins I'm not sure what to tell you.  I think it could be especially effective for the elderly as it is a very low impact exercise because of the slow movement and maintaining strength is probably the number one strategy to fend off old age.  What have you got to lose when its only 12 minutes a week?

So am I personally going to keep doing the protocol?  I'm not sure I will continue with it in whole every week but I do plan to keep doing some super slow training somewhere in my workouts and keep track of course.  I think I'm going to take an 8 week break do some more traditional free weight work and then re introduce period blocks just to get a different muscle stimulus. The body is amazing at adjusting to stimulus inputs and I generally like to try to keep the body as confused as possible and not get stuck in a specific routine or set of lifts.  If I'm low on time I know I can always pull out the 12 min workout, its just another tool in the tool belt.