It is great to have a copy of John Little’s latest book on exercise in hand. Titled The Time-Savers Workout, its publication comes ten years after the release of Body By Science, and nearly two decades after the death of Mike Mentzer. I mention these two touchstones as John Little is co-author of Body By Science along with Dr. Doug McGuff, and he was friends with Mike. Indeed, Little was also involved in the writing of two posthumous Mentzer books, High Intensity Training The Mike Mentzer Way and The Wisdom of Mike Mentzer.
Even in the microcosm of the HIT world, it is noticeable that the more distant the death of Mentzer and the publication of Body By Science become, the more there is trend toward doing more exercise, more often. And of course when it comes to exercise outside of the HIT niche, volume and frequency tend to expand further still. A vacuum must be filled, “if in doubt do more” appears to be the default psychological position.
The Time Saver’s Workout pulls in the other direction and this is timely. Today there is more research that shows that once a week training consisting of a handful of multi-joint exercises taken to muscular failure is all that is required. For an elaboration on this, check out our interviews with James Steele and James Fisher.
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Pointing the finger at the health and fitness industry
In The Time-Saver’s Workout, Little contends that much of the blame for the public’s perception of exercise lies with the hucksterism of the blossoming $60 billion a year health and fitness industry. Everywhere you turn today aspirational fitness is being marketed and sold with a glossy perma-tan sheen. Yet despite this the author points out, “Surprisingly… given such an abundance of services, information, and products that are currently available to make us slimmer, more energetic, and more attractive, one statistic has emerged that is rather puzzling—overall we’re fatter, weaker, and less healthy now than at any other point in our species’ history.”
At the same time, the author elucidates, the physical ideal held up by Hollywood today shows a desire for more muscle and less bodyfat in men, and in women simply far less bodyfat than in generations past. He makes a valid point, compare for instance Marlon Brando’s physique with that of Chris Hemsworth or Marilyn Monroe’s with Keira Knightly.
Little understands that many deciding to get into shape initially look to celebrities, social media influencers or top athletes, the thinking being: if I train like them, I will look like them. He emphatically reminds the reader of the oft unwelcome truth that “The great athletes that populate our sporting world are wonderful examples of the power of random genetic variation self-selecting for those activities in which they happen to excel.”
Indeed, we live in an era where a majority are fatter and less fit than generations past, yet our current crop of stars are thinner and more muscular than those of yesteryear. The mismatch must nag at the psyche of many who are unhappy with their physical appearance. This, as Little suggests, leaves them easy prey to the sophisticated marketing machine of a health and fitness industry that knows our hot buttons and triggers all too well.
When it comes to exercise, the author states that “we’re led to believe that the sky is the limit in terms of what one can accomplish in terms of one’s health, fitness, and appearance if one puts one’s mind to the task and exercises diligently and frequently enough.”
The health and fitness industry also comes under-fire in The Time-Saver’s Workout for its pushing of supplements or “magic beans”, as Little refers to them. The author points out that supplements are attractive to us due to “our species’ deeply ingrained desire to get more of what we want with less effort than would normally be required.”
Who hasn’t fallen for that mental/marketing trap one or more likely many-multiple times? Supplement X, vitamin Y, or powder Z is obviously the missing link to our fitness/health/muscle/leanness success! Little humorously expands on this point with a superbly written allegorical passage on Clydesdales and Quarter horses, a cautionary tale, that had me laughing out loud.
What is Exercise?
The Time-Saver’s Workout presents the case that if we are normally active in our daily lives; walk, take the stairs, shovel snow, carry the shopping bags, and so on, we don’t need to add more general activity in the guise of “exercise”. Fitness classes, yoga, stretching and pursuing a sport for the sole purpose of “getting fit” all come under fire for adding too much wear and tear and/or lacking meaningful stimulus for significant physiologic change.
He elucidates that like a coin, exercise has two sides; the potential to do good and the potential to do harm. Heads, we can become stronger, more functionally able and preserve our muscle fibers and the physiologic machinery, the metabolic pathways, that support them. Tails, there is wear and tear; trauma to our muscles, joints and connective tissue and the potential to shorten the health-span of our physiology. To quote the book, “too much exercise doesn’t make you a stronger athlete, it weakens you—and it doesn’t make you healthier.”
The Conservation of Energy Phenomenon (C.E.P.)
Why are moderate-intensity fitness classes and modalities so popular? Little answers this question by presenting the theory that we are hard wired to prefer low- to moderate-intensity activity over high intensity exercise. He states this relates to our species’ “impulse to conserve energy” for survival purposes, which he labels the Conservation of Energy Phenomenon or C.E.P. HIT resistance training is he states, “high energy output activity” and therefore not something we instinctively seek out or pursue.
Little believes that the C.E.P. also diminishes the physiologic impact even of intense exercise over time. He suggests this occurs because the brain/nervous system will always look to perform a task as economically as possible to conserve energy. This means that repeated bouts of exercise performed in the same manner enable the body to become more economical and more efficient at the task. Little notes that even with HIT the task or activity must be altered from time to time, in some way, to continue to elicit a metabolically dramatic response.
The Time Saver’s Workout
Little’s exercise prescription ultimately calls for only “nine to 12 minutes of high-energy output activity once every seven to 10 days.” The workouts presented in the book largely consist of multi-joint exercises, featuring options for machines, barbells and bodyweight.
Initial workouts are suggested for absolute beginners or those new to HIT, and interestingly the classic Delorme-Watkins method makes an appearance. This isn’t just a book for the uninitiated however, the need for program change as per the C.E.P. requires Little to introduce alternative protocols and workouts as the reader progresses in their training, or for the intermediate and more experienced to hop straight into.
Little’s passion for minimizing exercise wear and tear, whilst keeping the stimulus high-effort and novel, introduces the reader to applications to make a lighter weight much more challenging, such as with the Max Pyramid and One and Done protocols.
Overall the approach presented in The Time-Savers Workout, as the accurate title would suggest, is a minimalist one. Too many people flounder about on unproductive exercise routines, or worse: engage in activities that cause significant wear and tear that will ultimately, if not immediately, catch up with them. This book presents an alternative for those who have no desire to suffer those outcomes and for those who desire to invest time in alternative pursuits, rather than accumulating hours in the gym.
For those interested in, or perhaps borderline obsessed with exercise, it serves as a valuable reminder that dialling it back to the core can be a good thing. It is all too easy to get caught up in thinking we are not doing enough, that the extra workouts, extra exercises, or that obsession with the minutia may take us beyond our genetic limits. Little reminds us to step back and take the macro-view.
I’m sure Mike Mentzer would be smiling.
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