Let’s delve into exactly what a structured exercise program would look like if your goal is to check all of those boxes to achieve the ideal combination of fitness, longevity, and a nice body.
I first began to think about how such a program would look when I read an article on my friend Mark Sisson’s website about “5 Ways To Get The Most Bang For Your Workout Buck“. In the article, Mark describes the minimum effective dose of exercise necessary for maintaining cardiovascular fitness, improving muscular endurance and aerobic capacity, improving overall physical fitness, increasing metabolic health, and controlling blood sugar.
My only beef with the article is that not much attention is given to strength and maintenance of muscle mass, two critical components of longevity. But nonetheless, the research cited in the article is quite solid, and definitely influences the recommendations I’m about to give you.
Ultimately, to be fit, live a long time, and look good naked, you need:
1: Maintenance of cardiovascular fitness.
Definition: Cardiovascular fitness is simply defined as the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilize, also known as your VO2 max.
How to do it: based on the results of the research study “High-intensity interval training every second week maintains VO2max in soccer players during off-season.“, the minimum effective dose for cardiovascular fitness maintenance is five 4-minute high intensity rounds at 87-97% of your maximum heart rate, with approximately 4 minutes (full recovery) after each round to allow you to recover sufficiently.
Summary: For the minimum effective dose of cardiovascular fitness perform five 4 minute hard efforts with full recoveries once every two weeks. Got it? OK, let’s move on.
2: Maximum muscle endurance and aerobic capacity.
Definition: The amount of work your muscles can endure and the amount of time you can “go to battle” keeping your force output high.
How to do it: For improving muscle endurance while simultaneously increased aerobic capacity, nothing beats Tabata sets. In a study, four times a week for four weeks, participants performed one single four-minute Tabata protocol (that’s 20 seconds all-out exercise, followed by 10 seconds full rest) with a single exercise. In this case, exercise choices included burpees, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, or squat thrusts, but for Tabatas, you could also use things such as running, treadmill, indoor or outdoor cycling, rowing, kettlebell swings, etc. Compared to four steady-state 30 minute treadmill exercise protocols per week in the control group, the Tabata group (which, if you do the math, was performing just 16 total minutes of exercise per week) saw massive gains in both aerobic capacity and muscle endurance, and there’s plenty more Tabata research to go around.
Summary: In most studies, 2-4 Tabata sessions per week are used. My recommendation is to target two Tabata sessions per week, especially if you’re doing everything else included in this article.
3: Maintenance of ideal ratios of strength and muscle mass.
Definition: The maximum amount of strength you can muster in one tightly-packed group of muscle fibers – in other words: hard, wiry strength. Paul Jaminet at the Perfect Health Diet recently wrote an excellent article outlining why this is a better approach compared to purely trying to pack on as much muscle fiber as possible.
How to do it: Sure, you can get strong and muscular doing Crossfit-esque workouts that require maximum deadlifts in two minutes or ungodly amounts of snatch reps or bodybuilding workouts that have you doing bicep curls until you’re bleeding out the eyeballs, but none of that is sustainable when it comes to maximizing longevity. Remember, you want to be able to do maintain strength and muscle when you’re 20, 40, 60 and 80 years old.
For this, I recommend simply two workouts per week: 1) a super-slow lifting protocol exactly as described by Doug McGuff in his book “Body By Science” – specifically 12-20 minutes of just a few choice multi-joint exercises with extremely slow, controlled lifting (30-60 seconds per rep) and relatively high weights; Super slow upper body push (e.g. overhead press) Super slow upper body pull (e.g. pull-up) Super slow lower body push (e.g. squat) Super slow lower body pull (e.g. deadlift) 2) a high intensity body weight circuit program exactly as described in this study, in which a pair of researchers designed a 7 minute workout to maintain strength and muscle in as little time as possible.
Each exercise below is simply to be performed for 30 seconds with 10 seconds of rest in between exercises. Jumping jack, Wall sits, Pushups, Crunches, Step-ups, Squats, Dips, Planks, Running in place with high knees, Lunges, Pushups with rotation, Side planks.
Summary: do two strength workouts per week – one with slow controlled heavy lifting and one with high intensity, light, body weight-esque movements.
- Maximum mitochondrial density.
Definition: Mitochondria are the power plants of your cells, mitochondrial biogenesis is the creation of new mitochondria, and mitochondrial density is simply having as many mitochondria packed into your muscles as possible so that you can utilize more fat and more glucose.
How to do it: In a study, a workout consisting of four 30-second all-out cycling sprints significantly activated mitochondrial biogenesis in the skeletal muscle of human subjects. In another study, three sets of five 4-second treadmill sprints with 20 seconds of rest in between each sprint, performed three times per week did the same thing. One other study showed four to six 30 second bouts of all-out sprint cycling with four minutes of rest done three times a week also improved important components of mitochondrial health. As you can see, when it comes to maximizing mitochondrial density, it all comes down to short, intense sprints.
Summary: The Tabata sets I already mentioned will likely cover most of your mitochondrial bases, but if you have just a bit more time to spare, then either after your strength workouts or your stamina workouts, perform a few brief sets of very intense sprints (e.g. five 4-30 second sprints).
Yes, you read that right: these sprints can be as short as 4 seconds. Consider this to be the icing on the cake, and squeeze it in where it’s convenient. Alternatively, you could just mark one spot on your calendar once every week or two to perform four to six 30 second bouts of all-out sprint cycling with four minutes of rest between each bout.
- Optimized fat burning, metabolic efficiency and blood sugar control.
Definition: maximizing the body’s ability to generate ketones and burn fatty acids as a primary source of fuel, while avoiding frequent fluctuations in blood sugar.
How to do it: I have a very comprehensive podcast on simple steps to turning yourself into a fat burning machine, and it basically comes down to this: 1) do one short, aerobic workout as many mornings as possible a week, preferably in an overnight fasted state; 2) avoid frequent snacking; 3) save all your carb intake for the end of the day and up until that point eat high amounts of healthy fats with moderate amounts of proteins; 4) stay mildly physically active all day long (e.g. standing workstation, jumping jack breaks, etc.). and 5) stay anti-fragile by exposing your body to frequent fluctuations in cold and hot temperatures.
Summary: As you can see, this step is more lifestyle based. Start off each day, before eating, with 10-30 minutes of very light activity (yoga, walking the dog, doing yard chores, etc.), take at least one cold shower each day, visit the sauna at least once per week, avoid non-nutrient dense carbohydrates, and be as active as possible all day long. One research study shows that you can even get excellent blood glucose controlling results with something as simple as a 15 minute walk after your main meal of the day.
- Stamina (optional, but highly recommended).
Definition: the ability to move at low-to-moderate intensities for 90+ minutes (it’s at about the 90 minute mark when your glycogen levels become depleted and you must significantly begin to rely upon fat as a fuel).
How to do it: Stamina isn’t really entirely necessary for looking good naked or living a long a time, but I personally like to know that if necessary I could hunt down an animal, ride my bicycle nearby city, hike over a mountain range, or survive for a significant amount of time in a zombie apocalypse. Contrary to popular belief held among marathoners and triathletes, this does not require a 2-3 hour death march every weekend. The human body, as I talk about in by book “Beyond Training“, is actually quite good at going for long periods of time, and only requires brief dips and forays into stamina. So I recommend that one to two times per month, you go do something long, like a backpack hike, a big bike ride, a Bikram yoga session, or anything else that combines low-to-moderate physical activity intensities, endurance, and mental focus.
Summary: Again, unless you’re signed up for something like an obstacle race, a bicycling century, a triathlon or a marathon, this last step isn’t really necessary, but should you want to add the stamina feather to your cap, just get out and do something that takes 90+ minutes at least once per month. If you really want to challenge yourself, you could even make that session something like “The Hardest Workout In The World“, a Spartan race, or any other crazy fitness adventure from rafting to rock climbing. The rest of your innate physical endurance will easily be built by simply ensuring you keep your butt out a chair all day long.
Once you put it all together, it’s actually not too daunting:
- To maintain your cardiovascular fitness and VO2 max, do five 4-minute intense intervals once every two weeks.
- To improve your aerobic capacity and muscle endurance, do 2-3 Tabat sets a week.
- To maintain the ultimate combination of strength and muscle mass, do one 12-20 minute super-slow strength session per week and one 7-14 minute high intensity bodyweight workout per week.
- To maximize mitochondrial density, do a short series of sprint bursts one to three times per week (e.g. five 4-second all-out sprints with 20 seconds of rest).
- To increase fat burning and metabolic efficiency, include fasting, avoid snacking, avoid sitting, and figure out ways to engage in low-level physical activity all day long.
- To increase stamina, do something 90+ minutes at low-to-moderate intensity one to two times per month.
That’s it. When you do the math, you’re really not spending any more than 30-60 minutes per day on getting fit, looking good naked and living a long time. And in my opinion, that’s definitely do-able.
Ben personally designed a “Look-Good-Naked Longevity Plan” where he laid out for you on a weekly calendar that you can print and that syncs to your computer, your phone, etc.
In this 8 week program, Ben gives you daily, step-by-step instructions for the exact muscle training, fat burning, cardiovascular and mobility protocols that have been proven by research to maximize every second you spend exercising. Pretty much everything you’ve just read, all conveniently spelled out for each week. Whether you want to look good naked, get massive gains in fitness (or of course, both!) you can rinse, wash, and repeat this 8 week cycle throughout the entire year.