I've spent years coaching just about every type of human being out there—from those training for triathlons, fitness competitions, or some other feat of physical performance to busy CEOs, executives, parents and weekend warriors wanting to reclaim their health and youth to ultimately attain a fully optimized mind, body, and spirit.
And while, as I focus upon in my new book Boundless, complete mind, body, spirit optimization should be the goal of any wellness program, today's article will focus on just one component: the body.
When picturing the perfect human body, maybe the word ‘chiseled' and something like Michelangelo's David pops into your head—no visible body fat, clearly defined muscles and a six-pack, and veins the folks at your local blood-draw lab would drool over.
However, there's way more to the ultimate body than it's outward appearance. The ultimate human body should contain adequate amounts of body fat to optimize hormones and fertility, while remaining low enough to appear cut and ripped; high enough muscle mass to be strong and look good, but low enough to where you’re not a short-lived, cancer-prone bodybuilder; and enough cardiovascular fitness to be venous and vibrant, but not too much that you’re left overtrained and under-recovered.
So read on to discover the 6 key components you need to be incorporating into your fitness routine to hit the sweet spot for fat, muscle tissue, and cardiovascular health so you can achieve the ideal combination of fitness, longevity, and simply looking good naked.
For years, I managed an exercise physiology and biomechanics laboratory where runners of all skill levels would come in to get their gait analyzed. The shockingly high number of seasoned runners I came across whose stride resembled that of someone who had just spun around a baseball bat 10 times to take a blindfolded swing at a pinata has stuck with me to this day.
When these same runners stepped off the treadmill and attempted simple balance drills such as standing on one leg with the eyes open or closed, walking from one end of the room to another, or jumping off one leg, I saw the same inability to maintain proper form again and again.
The deficits I saw in these runners weren't due to a lack of hours on the treadmill, strength training, or cardiovascular fitness, but merely the absence of dedicated balance training. Focusing on the following three areas will train your ears, joints, and eyes to work together so you can become a balance ninja.
Vestibular Balance (Ears)
In short, the vestibular system provides your brain with information about motion, head position, and spatial orientation; allowing you to maintain proper balance and stability during movement. Injury or disease affecting the vestibular system is what causes something like vertigo or tinnitus. Incorporating the following tips into your daily routine will help improve your vestibular balance. This sort of training will very quickly become second nature to you:
- Wear barefoot or minimalist shoes or sandals (or go barefoot whenever possible).
- Spend time practicing balancing on one leg.
- Always avoid loud sounds/music whenever possible. (Use earplugs if you can't avoid loud sounds, such as at a concert, or in a noisy work zone.)
Somatosensory Balance (Joints).
The somatosensory cortex is a part of the cerebral cortex (processing and higher-order thinking skills, like reasoning, language, etc.) that processes external stimuli (touch, pain, temperature) from our environment. Here's how to master somatosensory balance:
- Stand on unstable surfaces (wobble board, BOSU ball, balance mat)
- Do leg kicks with a band or cable
- Use a mini trampoline
- Spend time on a vibration platform
Visual System (Eyes).
Our visual system works in conjunction with our vestibular system to maintain awareness of positioning while moving. When these two systems aren't in sync with one another, then something like motion sickness in a car can happen. Use the following techniques to keep your vision sharp:
- Play eye-tracking sports/games (baseball, tennis, etc.)
- Use caution with screens and use blue light blocking glasses (Read this article for more on the dangers of light emitted from cell phone, tv, and computer screens)
- Use Bates Method or Z-Health’s Vision Gym to improve eyesight
Until you begin taking care of the elements of your body responsible for providing you with balance, you won’t be maximizing your results. Using the aforementioned techniques to train your vestibular, somatosensory, and visual systems will enable you to take your overall fitness to the next level.
You can take an even deeper dive into balance in my article “The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 3: Balance“.
2. Metabolic Efficiency
The goal of optimizing metabolic efficiency is essentially to improve your body's ability to use its energy stores more efficiently. This enables your body to use fat as fuel (and become the ultimate fat-burning machine).
Maximizing metabolic efficiency isn't rocket science—fasting, avoidance of snacking and sitting, and figuring out ways to engage in low-level physical activity all day long are a few small steps you can easily incorporate into your daily routine.
My go-to strategy for optimizing metabolic efficiency though is my “strike-stroll-shiver” fat loss technique that I've been doing for nearly two decades now, 365 days a year.
Step 1: Strike
Basically all that's involved in this step is waking up and not eating anything. You can have a cup or two of coffee or green tea, they're actually encouraged because both can help to mobilize fatty acids and spark your metabolic rate. But it has to be plain-jane coffee or tea; no sugar, no cream, no MCT oil, no funky butters, you get the idea.
In addition, a couple of capsules of a blood sugar stabilizer such as berberine or bitter melon extract, a shot of apple cider vinegar or a teaspoon or two of Ceylon cinnamon or cayenne extract in your morning beverage can enhance the fat-burning effects of this strategy even more.
Just remember: no calories. If you’re concerned about losing muscle, or you’re attempting to gain significant lean muscle mass, 10-20 grams of essential amino acids can also be consumed in this window, which will provide a bit of an anabolic effect without significantly spiking blood glucose or insulin.
Step 2: Stroll
Now, while still having nothing in your system other than coffee or tea, do a 10-40 minute fasted aerobic session. Doing this in a fasted state is going to allow your body to tap into its own fat as fuel. This means that you will preferably not have eaten anything for at least 12 hours, and ideally up to 16 hours.
Choose a simple form of movement you can perform 365 days a year, 24/7 – a walk in the sunshine (bonus: morning Vitamin D and circadian rhythm alignment!), an easy yoga session, taking the dog for a stroll, riding your bike, an easy swim or even a sweat in a dry or infrared sauna (I use the full-body type of sauna that you can actually exercise in). Choose anything that’s light, easy, aerobic, conversational and low-stress.
Don't worry, this won’t cause a big release of cortisol, and it’s not going to completely exhaust you for the day. You'll still be able to perform a harder fitness-building workout later in the day, and it’s not going to make you feel famished and want to devour every breakfast item in sight afterward.
Step 3: Shiver
Complete the session and dive straight into 2-5 minutes of anything cold. I’ve talked about cold thermogenesis on my podcast and this website plenty before, and any of those tactics count, including a hot-cold contrast shower, a cold jump in a river or lake, a cold bath, or even donning cold thermogenesis gear such a CoolFatBurner and/or CoolGutBuster vest (the latter can be worn for 40-60 minutes as you move on to work, commuting, eating breakfast, etc.).
This step will not only help to burn white adipose tissue off your belly, but also convert it into metabolically active brown adipose tissue, which will increase your fat-burning capacity.
Learn more about burning fat in “Rewriting The Fat Burning Textbook – Part 1, and Part 2.” Aside from some potent fat-burning strategies, you'll also learn how eating a high-fat diet doesn’t make you fat. A high-fat diet may actually increase the amount of fat you burn as fuel at both rest and during exercise, allowing you to exercise or function for longer periods of time while eating relatively few calories.
Mobility refers to your ability to move your body and limbs freely and painlessly through your desired movement. Next to balance, mobility is the most neglected basic ability I see in most athletes and people I coach. As a result, despite decent fitness, these folks—and most of us endurance athletes—are predisposed to all of the disadvantages that accompany this lack of basic mobility, including:
- Muscle tightness that creates ugly postural imbalances…
- Soft tissue, muscle, fascia and tendon restrictions such as extremely tight IT bands…
- Joint capsule restriction in the knees, hips, and shoulders…
- Muscular restrictions and faulty movement patterns…
- Overworking of muscles, and…
- Loss of movement economy and efficiency.
With the following two mobility drills worked into your weekly routine, all of the above could easily be avoided.
Also known as ballistic stretching, dynamic stretching is a stark contrast to static stretching in terms of its ability to adequately prepare you for a workout session or improve mobility, and it can even improve power, strength, and performance during a subsequent exercise session.
A typical dynamic stretch session is comprised of basic movement preparation patterns such as lunges, squats, swings, and joint and muscle movements through a variety of patterns.
Here are five good dynamic stretch moves I recommend trying after your warm-up:
- Leg Swings: Hold on to a wall, bar or anything else that adds support, then swing one leg out to the side, then swing it back across your body in front of your other leg. Repeat 10 times on each side.
- Frankenstein Walk: Keeping your back and knees straight, walk forward and lift your legs straight out in front while flexing your toes. For a more advanced version, you can do this with a skipping motion. Walk for 10-20 yards.
- Walking Lunges: Step forward using a long stride, keeping the front knee over or just behind your toes. Lower your body into a lunging position by dropping your back knee toward the ground. Then push forward, take a giant step, and repeat for the opposite leg. To make this motion even more effective, twist and look back towards the leg that is behind you once you’re in the lunging position.
- Bent Torso Twists: Stand with your feet wide apart, then extend your arms out to the sides and bend over, touching your right foot with your left hand. When you’re bent, keep your back straight and your shoulder blades pulled back. Then rotate your torso so your right hand touches your left foot. Keep both arms fully extended so that when one hand touches your foot, the other hand is pointing to the sky. Keep rotating like this for 20-30 repetitions.
About three times per week, you'll want to incorporate a few of the following exercises into your repertoire to get rid of soreness, eliminate trigger spots, enhance recovery, and of course, increase mobility—all while getting a great cardiovascular workout.
- Torso Twists
- Yoga Sun Salutation Series
- Banded Side to Side Walks
- Mountain Climbers
- Banded Side Walks
- Lunging Mobility Exercises
- More ideas here.
Or, you can simply copy my exact mobility routine seen in the video below. It also incorporates foam rolling if you're looking for that one-two punch.
Optional: Deep Tissue Work
When your body has chronic tightness and tension or an area with a history of injury or overuse, there are usually adhesions (bands of painful, rigid tissue) that form in the muscles, tendons, and ligaments in that area. These adhesions can block circulation and cause pain, inflammation and limited mobility.
This is where deep tissue work comes in. It is simply the act of physically breaking down these adhesions, usually with direct deep pressure or friction applied across the grain of the muscles. At the same time that adhesions are broken down by deep tissue work, blood and lymph flow to the affected area is enhanced.
About once per month (or more if you're able) work deep into your muscles and connective tissue with any of the following techniques: Rolfing, Muscle Activation Technique, Advanced Muscle Integrative Therapy, Graston, Trigger Point Therapy, deep tissue sports massage, foam rolling and even simply using a tennis ball, lacrosse ball or golf ball to dig into tight or sore spots.
For more mobility training options, including foods you can eat for increased mobility, read my article, “The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 3: Mobility.“
Endurance is the ability of the heart, lungs, and vascular system to deliver oxygen/nutrient-rich blood to working muscles during sustained physical activity, and the ability of those muscles to repeat a movement or hold a position for an extended period of time.
For improving muscle endurance, while simultaneously increasing aerobic capacity, nothing beats Tabata sets.
In one 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. (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.
Here's a good challenging Tabata workout you can do just about anywhere:
- Warm-up: 10-15 minutes
- Complete: 20 seconds of a single exercise (burpees, jumping jacks, mountain climbers, kettlebell swings, squats, treadmill, bike, rowing machine—you choose) Go at your all-out, maximum intensity pace for this 20-second effort.
- Rest: 10 seconds after each 20-second effort.
- Repeat: 8 times
- Cool-down: 5-10 minutes.
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.
5. Speed & Power
Speed is the ability to travel a set distance over as short a time as possible. Power is the ability to generate a large amount of force in a short period of time.
Let's start with Power. There are three primary strategies for increasing power as fast as possible: plyometrics, speed-strength sets, and complex sets.
Each of these strategies—along with tips for developing potent power no matter whether you’re in the gym, backyard, basement, park or hotel room—can be pursued using training tools for increasing power, including power racks, agility ladders, medicine balls, kettlebells, sandbags, adjustable plyometric boxes, weighted vests, training sleds and power cables.
Here’s how a sample plyometric routine looks, you only need to do a program like this once per week to get results:
- Depth jumps – 10 jumps from 3- to 5-foot box
- Clap push-ups – 10
- Single leg hops – 10
- Med ball throws – 8
- Power skips – 20 yards
- Bounds – 40 yards
- Medicine ball slams – 8
- Hurdle hops – 10 per side
- Jump rope – 20 seconds
- Power snatch
- Clean and jerk
- Lunge jumps
- Medicine ball throws/slams
- 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps, 40-60% max, full recovery
- Squats + squat jumps
- Bench press + med ball chest throws
- Pull-ups + med ball slams
- 85% max, low reps, full recovery
Speed training is very similar to training to increase power, except that you need less weight.
During a speed workout, you can actually restrict loads to no more than 10 percent of body weight. You simply get less benefit from adding external loads like heavy vests and heavy weights, as they diminish your ability to maintain a high turnover and to maximize neuromuscular recruitment.
In addition to keeping loads light enough that you can move your body or body parts as quickly as possible, other crucial rules for speed training include:
- Make sure you're rested and recovered. Your neuromuscular system is very prone to fatigue, so doing a set of fast overspeed running at the end of a long workout is not a good idea.
- Don’t get tired. Speed is not conditioning. If you want to breathe hard, do metabolic work, or train your cardiovascular system, then swim, bike, run, row, or do another form of interval training. Speed simply requires brief doses of fast low-volume work. This is why, in a high-cadence overspeed cycling workout, you pedal at low, not high, resistance, and usually early in your workout. If you’re exhausting yourself metabolically, it becomes very difficult to train your nervous system. This is also why speed training should include 100 percent recovery between sets, with zero muscle burn and zero hard breathing.
- Challenge your nerves, not just your muscles. If you’re not forced to think hard during a speed workout, it probably isn’t challenging your nervous system. This is why overspeed training on a bike is not done at 80 or 90 rpm. It’s a freakishly high 120 to 130+ rpm that makes your brain tired from trying to get your legs to turn over that fast.
Discover even more ways to increase your power and speed in my article, “The 5 Essential Elements of An Endurance Training Program That Most Athletes Neglect – Part 2: Power & Speed”
To put it simply, strength is the ability of the musculoskeletal system to generate high amounts of force. 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.
Remember, none of that is sustainable when it comes to maximizing longevity. You want to be able to maintain strength and muscle when you’re 20, 40, 60 and 80 years old. For this, I recommend the following workout…
Oh, and before beginning any strength routine, I highly recommend you perform a warm-up for about 5 minutes, preferably with a gymnastics routine, Animal Flow, a Core Foundation routine, or anything else that dynamically prepares the body for movement and elevates the heart rate. I usually finish my warm-up with a quick set of 100 jumping jacks or 30 burpees.
First, choose one exercise from the “Strength” list below:
Upper Body Push (Barbell or Dumbbell Bench Press, Incline Barbell or Dumbbell Bench Press, Standing Overhead Press, Standing Cable Press, Loaded Pushup (with Weighted Vest, or Super Slow with bodyweight)
Gradually adding weight and decreasing repetitions or maintaining repetitions with each strength set (if doable with good form), complete 6-10 repetitions of the first Strength exercise in a slow, controlled fashion. Then, pair each of the exercises above with of the following “Core/Mobility” exercises:
Core/Mobility (Torso Twists, Cat/Cow, Birddogs (opposite arm/leg extension), Yoga Sun Salutation Series, Banded Side to Side Walks, Mountain Climbers, Foam Rolling, Bridging, Banded Side Walks, Lunging Mobility Exercises, More ideas here.).
Complete 10-20 repetitions of a Core/Mobility movement of choice (for active recovery), preferably choosing a Core/Mobility movement that does not exhaust or work the same muscles that you used during your strength set.
Then, go straight back to the Strength set, do another set and follow it up with the same Core/Mobility exercise for active recovery. Continue this scenario until you have completed 3-5 sets for both the Strength move and the Core/Mobility move and then move on to the next movement category (e.g. Upper Body Pull). Continue until you've finished all movement categories (one Upper Body Push, one Lower Body Push, one Upper Body Pull, one Lower Body Pull, and one Full Body Move).
After this workout, I typically jump into my cold pool for about 2 minutes to cool my body without staying in long enough (e.g. closer to the 10-minute range) to shut down any type of anabolic response to the workout.
For a more advanced muscle-building workout using electrostimulation, a home gym or garage muscle-building workout, and a hotel/travel muscle-building workout, read my article, “Ben Greenfield’s Entire Muscle Building Program Unveiled: Top 6 Muscle Building Workouts, Diet For Building Muscle Without Gaining Fat & The Best Supplements For Muscle Mass.“
So that's it. To summarize, for…
- Balance: train your vestibular, somatosensory, and visual systems…
- Metabolic efficiency: strike, stroll, and shiver…
- Mobility: try dynamic stretching, mobility exercises, and massage…
- Endurance: Tabata sets…
- Speed & Power: plyometrics, speed-strength sets, complex training, and speed training…
- Strength: a full-body, core, and mobility workout…
Incorporate these 6 strategies into your fitness routine, and in no time you'll become a lean, mean, muscle-building, fat-burning machine (who also happens to look good naked).
Leave your questions, comments, feedback, and your own workouts below. I can’t wait to see what you’ve got, and be sure to check out my new book Boundless for dozens and dozens more tips on getting the ultimate human body combined with lasting longevity!