I’m always in search for the elusive “perfect workout.” Perfect, however, is in the eye of the beholder. Instead, I’ve decided to settle for “really great,” and explain to you why this is “really great,” and you can decide for yourself whether it fits within your fitness preferences. The entire idea is not mine; I designed my class based on an idea shared by Kim Witherspoon, whose boot-camp sub had used a format of this sort. Many thanks to Kim and to the anonymous trainer; I took the bones, assembled the skeleton, and added my own flesh and skin.
For participants, this blog entry might help you understand what you’re doing and why, so when I’m telling you about strength versus endurance, you have a better understanding of how hard to work and why it’s good for you. For instructors, this gives you a skeleton and a little flesh. But make it your own.
The format, “3-2-1” describes 6.5 minute cycles consisting of 3 minutes of strength at low cardio, 15 seconds transition/active rest, 2 minutes of muscular endurance at medium cardio, 15 seconds transition/active rest, 1 minute of HIIT at high cardio. Each cycle contains 6 separate activities. Three one-minute strength exercises, two one-minute cardio-vascular challenges with a muscular endurance component, and one high-intensity cardiovascular challenge (goal = anaerobic).
Strength section – 3 minutes. Using body-weight and the resistance tools I have available, I select three strength exercises that challenge different teams of muscle groups. Most of the exercises are done in a stationary position, rather than moving around the room, so the participant can focus on working on strength as opposed to balance and timing. An example of 3 exercises would be: a primarily upper body anterior chain exercise like a push-up, a primarily upper body posterior chain exercise like a row, and then a lower body anterior/posterior chain exercise like a barbell lunge. The key in exercise selection is to select movements that (a) will fatigue the participant in slightly less than one minute and (b) ideally, uses more than one muscle group, so the heart rate is kept in the low end of target heart rate zone. Exercises like push-ups and rows, although primarily for strength, will increase a particpant’s heart rate since the number of muscles working and needing oxygen for the muscle fibers to fire will increase heart rate demand. This makes a strength exercise into a low-end cardio vascular exercise.
Muscular endurance section – 2 minutes. Vigorous cardio-vascular exercise that would be in the participant’s medium range for target heart rate. Here, we move. Something simple, with multiple options for intensity and impact, that people can learn quickly and repeat. Personally, I don’t dance in this class. We do cardio like 4 marches/jogs/runs forward + 2 jacks, 4 marches/jogs/runs back + 2 jacks. I like to use a lot of low-body focus here, for muscular endurance in the legs. Alternating anterior lunges. Traveling squats. Corner lunge + reach to 2:00, 4:00, 8:00 and 10:00. If I’m targeting the upper body for muscular endurance, it would be with a band, and a repetitive action that mimics the earlier strength action, but with less of a load (think “finish work”).
HIIT section. The good news is, it’s only for a minute. The bad news is, I want that minute to feel like you hate me after about 10 seconds, you are kicking, scratching and clawing into 30 seconds, and by one minute your legs are lead, your breath is loud, and you can. not. go. on.
Then we do an active rest like a slow walk to bring the heart-rate out of anaerobic zone and back into a safe zone for strength training….and we do it all over again 5 more times!
Why? Why? WHY??
Each one of these “why” answers could be a long blog post of its own, so please forgive the shortness of the answers.
- Muscular strength is functional for daily living, and spending 24 minutes on strength (not just endurance, tiring strength exercises) is adequate for increased strength when done 2x a week.
- Lean muscle tissue, which increases with strength training, burns more calories than fatty tissue. Although there is controversy regarding how much more, it’s been shown in several carefully controlled studies that muscle burns more calories than fat.
- Intermittent interval format burns more calories after class. According to Dr Len Kravitz (whose lecture I attended August 2012 regarding the research he performed), steady-state cardio exercise and intermittent / interval / HIIT exercise burn about the same amount of calories during class. However, the calories burned after class, as the body replaces its oxygen deficit and recovers from exercise, is greater for intermittent / interval / HIIT than for steady-state exercise.
- Bursts of high intensity activity occur in daily living – sometimes we have to run across airports so we’re not late for the plane, or chase after children getting into danger. In addition to the calories burned with HIIT, having practiced burst training may give you increased confidence in your ability to use it in real life; you’ll know your capabilities, what it feels like to work that hard, and how hard you can push yourself.
- By alternating between strength, endurance, and HIIT, you are working one system hard while allowing other systems to take a back seat (not complete rest because you are always using multiple energy systems). That makes 3-2-1 an efficient workout for strength and calories.
Planning considerations for instructors:
Multi-level exercises. Each exercise should have an option that is accessible safely to everyone. Some participants with wrist issues can’t do push-ups, so a wall-push-up or a chest fly is a better alternative.
Permission to work at one’s own pace and instruction on how to do so. This should be a “challenging” class. That said, everyone in class should be encouraged to work within their own definition of “challenge.” If I’m training a client one on one, I can take them to their personal edge and push them, push them, push them. But in a class setting, it is an instructor’s responsibility to watch a large group of individuals, and to teach those individuals bodily awareness so they can self-pace and self-monitor.
Easy to teach exercises. There is very little time for transition between exercises (15 seconds) and cycles (30-45 seconds as they come down from anaerobic). Pick simple exercises with simple form cues. If it takes too long for you to cue, heart rates drop and effectiveness drops. If participants don’t understand the goal and the form, they can get hurt. Keep it simple to understand (there’s a difference between easy to understand and easy to do…..)
Vary the muscle groups worked. This consideration comes into play both in picking the 3 strength exercises within a cycle, and also in picking all of the exercises that will be done in a class. Personally, I like to repeat a cycle twice, so each exercise gets two “sets.” This is especially helpful when I’m doing a one-sided exercise like a stationary lunge. The first time around, I’ll hit the right leg and the second time around I’ll hit the left leg.