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The 4-3-2-1 exercise formula for success

Finding time to exercise (see my earlier post) is half the battle. The other half is actually doing it. This is where we get struck by analysis paralysis. What workouts are the best for body goals – burning fat, maintaning muscle mass, and feeling great?

 What workouts are best for fast results 

The core types of workouts fall into three basic buckets:

  • Strength training;
  • Cardio; and 
  • Precision training.

We will look at each individually and discuss how they fit together. 

 Cardio

There are two types of cardio: LISS and HIIT. They have different benefits for the body, and both are worthwhile incorporating into your routine. You have flexibility based on what you enjoy and what you have time for on which type you focus on. Aim for 4 sessions of cardio a week if your goal is to maximize fat loss. This should be a combination of LISS and HIIT. I will explain the difference between the two below. 

 LISS v HIIT

  • Low intensity cardio or “LISS” –Stands for low-intensity steady state cardio. LISS is categorized by heart rates between 100 and 130 bpm (can be monitored using Fitbit, Apple Watch, heart rate monitor, etc). Examples of low-intensity steady state cardio: walking, elliptical, jogging, swimming, stairmaster, or cycling. Walking at a LISS pace means you can easily carry on conversation on a zoom call without huffing and puffing. LISS benefits your heart LISS improves blood flow, reduces stress, burns more fat during your workout.
  • High intensity interval training or “HIIT ” – The only anaerobic form (forms lactic acid= what makes you sore) of cardio is high-intensity interval training (HIIT). HIIT is an umbrella term for workouts that alternate between short bursts of high-intensity exercise (10 to 60 second) and low to moderate intensity recovery periods (10 to 60+ seconds). During these bouts of extreme work, the goal is to reach 80-90% of your max heart rate. That number drops to about 40-50% during the recovery period. benefits to HIIT, including increased metabolic rate, optimal muscle building and retention, fat loss, and increased calorie burn during and after the workout.

Examples of high-intensity intervals include sprinting, stairmaster, Versaclimber, rowing machine, battle ropes, or  bike sprints, etc.  Therefore, HIIT activities do not have to be all about running, especially if your knees are an issue. You can even do HIIT intervals on an elliptical! We will cover HIIT in Chapter 19.

There is some controversy in the fitness world about whether HIIT is superior to LISS, or vice versa. Both sides of the argument have their individual merits. For fat loss, high intensity intervals are important, because they help your body acclimate. For overall cardiovascular health, circulation, and well-being, LISS is also important.¹

In terms of what side you should choose, either extreme is not a sustainable solution for cardio. You do not have the time for hours of cardio a day and additional time for resistance training, unless you are unemployed or in college. And even if you did, constantly doing steady state cardio can cause plateaus, because your body will eventually adapt to the amount of activity and burn less calories, making you have to do even more LISS to have the same effect. This is a phenomenon known as metabolic adaptation.

Yet, constantly doing HIIT will simply be too draining on your body. HIIT in its true form is no more than 10-15 seconds of extreme hard work to the point of exhaustion, followed by a longer period of recovery. HIIT workouts can be really taxing on the body, and therefore you need time to recover before any subsequent resistance training or other HIIT workout. In fact, experts recommend limiting HIIT to no more than 1-2 sessions a week for this reason. Incorporating a “HIIT add-on” to your strength training workout can knock out 2 cardio sessions a week and not require taking any extra time on days in between.

On those days in between, you will want to engage in at least one LISS session as a form of active recovery from your intense workouts. 

If you do HIIT twice a week, that leaves 2 sessions of LISS, which can be as simple as a longer walk with your family or dog in the morning or evening. You can even use your commute to work as a walking activity, or a few breaks during your workday to do 10 minutes walking to spread it throughout the day. There is also Zoomwalking of course! This is an easy type of activity to knock out that you can do while multitasking and not have to compromise more of your time. 

Strength training

The term ‘strength and conditioning training’ refers to the format of exercise which highlights building the strength, size as well as endurance of skeletal muscle. Dumbbells, barbells, and cable machines are often associated with strength training, but the universe is much wider and more accessible, especially if this is new to you. Working on agility, balance, and functional movements are all a part of this. Therefore this category also includes “animal flow” type of movements like bear crawls, tiger crawls, donkey kicks, and frog walks.

Generally the format of strength training consists of pyramids,  AMRAP, circuit training, and accessory training. 

  •  Pyramid is successively doing the same movement and taking a rest period in between, about 30-60 seconds
  •  “AMRAP” is an acronym for “as many reps as possible,” meaning doing reps of a certain exercise until muscle failure (i.e., bicep curls until your arms are on fire.). This is a good way to train if you are one of those people who hates repeating exercises, or if you are REALLY short on time. 
  • Circuit training consists of multiple exercises performed in succession with little to no rest in between, either as supersets (alternating between two exercises back and forth), or circuits containing at least 3-4 exercises. 
  • Accessory training Accessory exercises complement primary exercises. They strengthen the supporting, smaller muscles, and those that are imbalanced or weaker than others (including biceps, triceps, and abs – all the small muscles you want to “pop.” . Training these muscles is often at a lower intensity so this can be combined within circuits or done as a standalone workout on a day when you also do some cardio (like for example, doing cardio and abs). 

Strength training can also be “doubled” as cardio, especially with the use of metabolic resistance training (MRT). MRT is  a form of circuit strength training performed with heavy resistance and  little to zero rest between sets,  targeting the entire body. MRT can also incorporate HIIT plyometrics movements like jump squats, mountain climbers, burpees, and jump lunges, in between circuits to keep the heart rate high and combine HIIT and strength training as previously discussed. It is more intense, but it takes way less time and requires you to be in the gym for far fewer sessions a week, so that is why I follow this format, which we will discuss more under strength training. 

For less intense strength training days you can also work on accessory training. You can do this AMRAP or pyramid style, and combine it with a LISS or HIIT cardio workout. 

I cover strength training in the following post and give sample routines for both circuit and accessory training:

Precision training 

Precision training refers to any focus on smaller muscles and movements. TPrecision training workouts usually include repetitive movements (like leg lifts or arm movements with light weights), focus on core movements, and mainly rely on bodyweight as the primary form of resistance. Precision training workouts also focus on balance, posture, and functional training, which essentially means engaging multiple muscles at one time. 

Precision training not only sculpts more defined muscles, but it also helps you do everyday activities better. Think of when you drop a pen on the floor. Consistent precision training can enable you to quickly squat and retrieve it. You will have more agility and a better sense of mind-body connection and coordination when you incorporate more precision training into your workouts. 

Precision training can include:

  • Yoga (flow or flexibility-focused)
  • Pilates 
  • Barre 
  • Bodyweight sculpt 
  • Ballet or other types of dance movements 

 The 4-3-2-1 formula 

The formula I follow is  a combination of the types of training above – cardio, precision and strength. I follow a 4-3-2-1 formula, which I utilize whether I want to lose or maintain. It is broken down as follows:

  • 4 cardio sessions per week, including 2 LISS sessions and 2 HIIT sessions 
    • LISS:  Walking, Jogging, Cycling, Swimming, or dancing, which is traditional “cardio” that we review in the next chapter; and/or
    • HIIT:  high-intensity cycling, rowing, running speed intervals, or HIIT workouts that I outline in my post on the DAO of HIIT training.We go over HIIT training in Chapter
  • 3 strength training sessions per week: You can use free weights, cable machines, barbells, using equipment like bands or sliders, or your own bodyweight to do a variety of styles of strength training. Strength training can be  combined with 1-2 HIIT training sessions as Metabolic Resistance training, or done with LISS as a warm-up or cool down. I usually do 2 MRT workouts a week that are more full body and intense, and then save 1 of the resistance training days for accessory training.
  • 2 precision training sessions a week: This can include yoga, pilates, barre, or any type of class focused on sculpting, balance, and mobility
  • 1 rest day. This can be an “active rest day,” with walking and light stretching (totally optional, the point here is to not plan a workout but only do something if you feel it). 

 How easy it is to structure 4-3-2-1 into your week

On its face, the 4-3-2-1 formula may seem suspect because this adds up to more than 7 times a week, but look again. The great thing about the 4-3-2-1 formula is that you can spread it out according to a schedule that works for you. For example, you can combine some of the activities on the same day, like resistance training and cardio, or precision training and cardio. Your low-intensity cardio can be as simple as walking or cycling  to work, or walking your dog in the morning, or going on an evening walk after dinner. 

  • Day 1: Resistance training and HIIT 
  • Day 2: LISS 
  • Day 3: Resistance training and HIIT 
  • Day 4: LISS and yoga 
  • Day 5: Resistance training and HIIT 
  • Day 6: Yoga or pilates 
  • Day 7: Off 

 You can split activity between morning and the evening or do mid-day workouts. It’s about what you can fit into your life, not the other way around.

You can also do workouts that combine several of these workouts – for example, Barry’s Bootcamp, Metcon, Yoga Sculpt, Cardio Barre can all check off one of cardio, strength, and precision in one workout. In the same way, you can warm up for a strength training workout with 20 minutes of cardio, or do cardio right before a yoga class. And you can incorporate HIIT intervals into your strength training workout, as well.

You can also incorporate LISS on work calls or walking to work, which leaves plenty of time for other types of training. If you keep your NEAT quotient high, you can even trim back on some of the cardio and do 1-2 HIIT interval sessions instead to complete your cardio for the week. . 

 HIIT can be a separate workout, or a finisher at the end of a resistance training workout.² A finisher is an exercise with quick, intense bursts of cardio and/or strength exercise, and can be as little as 1 minute in length (and up to 10).³ This allows you to get that last push out of a workout and essentially “finish” you, hence the name.

Yoga is also a great way to end a strength training workout, because it helps stretch and relax the muscles.⁴ It can be both a precision training session and a cooldown.

How long should workouts last?

Repeat after me: more does not equal better. Do you ever notice that when you have a longer term project, you tend to procrastinate and take longer to get it done? Whereas, if you have a “fire drill” request from your supervisor or a client, i.e., “I need X done in 20 minutes!” you are amazed by how quickly you are able to pull together everything in time with incredible efficiency and focus. 

If you can transfer that concentration to your workouts, you can accomplish a great deal in just 20 minutes. If you only have 20 minutes for cardio, for example, you can do a HIIT workout or walk at a brisker pace than you would if you had 40 minutes. 

If 10-15 minutes is all that you have, you can do a 10-minute strength workout (I have a library of playlists from my YouTube Channel), 2 5-minute HIIT sessions a week, and one 10-minute yoga a week. Workouts that are up to 15 minutes can still be really effective.⁵ 

THAT’S ONLY 90 MINUTES A WEEK. As long as you follow the formula and put everything you have into what you do, then it is quality, not quality that matters.You can scale the workouts to the amount of time you have and can get a lot from “micro workouts” – you can read my blog post on 5-minute workouts for more about that.⁶

 You can split activity between morning and the evening or do mid-day workouts. It’s about what you can fit into your life, not the other way around.

You can also do workouts that combine several of these workouts – for example, Barry’s Bootcamp, Metcon, Yoga Sculpt, Cardio Barre can all check off one of cardio, strength, and precision in one workout. In the same way, you can warm up for a strength training workout with 20 minutes of cardio, or do cardio right before a yoga class. And you can incorporate HIIT intervals into your strength training workout, as well..

You can also incorporate LISS on work calls or walking to work, which leaves plenty of time for other types of training. If you keep your NEAT quotient high, you can even trim back on some of the cardio and do 1-2 HIIT interval sessions instead. 

HIIT can be a separate workout, or a finisher at the end of a resistance training workout. A finisher involves quick, intense bursts of cardio and/or strength exercises and is performed at the end of your regular workout. It is usually between 1 – 10 minutes and allows you to get that last ‘push’ out of a workout.Yoga is also a great way to end a strength training workout, because it helps stretch and relax the muscles. You can learn more about HIIT in this post:

You can also do workouts that comnine several of these workouts – for example, Barry’s Bootcamp, Metcon, Yoga Sculpt, Cardio Barre can all check off one of cardio, strength, and precision in one workout. In the same way, you can warm up for a strength training workout with 20 minutes of carido, or do cardio right before a yoga class. And you can incorporate HIIT intervals into your strength training workout, as well. I have examples of how you can do so in my post on strength training:.

You can also incorporate LISS on work calls or walking to work, which leaves plenty of time for other types of training. You can scale the workouts to the amount of time you have and can get a lot from “microworkouts” – read my post on 5-minute workouts for more about that.

Yoga is also a great way to end a strength training workout, because it helps stretch and relax the muscles.

How did I come up with this? Fitness, like business, is about holistic solutions

My approach is based on years of experimenting, working with trainers, and following specific apps and programs. What I learned you can’t do too much of one thing or your body won’t change. You need to mix it up.  If you strength train all the time, or only do cardio or yoga all the time, your body will adjust and you will stop making improvements. And that’s the thing – we always can improve our bodies and our minds. Just like it’s important to learn new skills at work, it’s important to learn new skills when working out.

If you think back to when we were working out interactively, you will notice what I always noticed. 

  • People in the who walked or ran on the treadmill every day
  • People who are always only lifting weights
  • People who are permanent fixtures in yoga class, spin class, barre class, etc.

And the more I observed, the more I noticed that for the most part, these people’s bodies were not changing. Maybe that’s not why they were doing what they were doing. But if you do want change, and want noticeable results, I think that doing the same thing over and over is a form of insanity – you can’t possibly expect to get results. This approach to diversity when it comes to exercise is backed by science.

I have also experienced the effects of not having a well-rounded workout regime. When I only focused on cardio, I lost muscle and gained fat. When I cut out cardio, I gained muscle and gained fat. When I only did yoga and barre, my body stopped responding after a while and I got winded climbing just one flight of stairs.

How you tweak this program to make it work for you will depend on your starting point, your body type and your diet. If you eat more, you need to burn more calories. If you have a different body type, you may not need to do as much cardio. Keep in mind that this is only a baseline guide and not prescriptive. If you are just getting back to working out, or recovering from an injury, I would start by focusing on cardio as a foundation and then build in the other elements after a month or so.

HIIT training options (PLUS APPS)

For HIIT training, you can do intervals with a treadmill, bike, or elliptical. If you like Peloton, you can take one of their HIIT spin classes. You can also do a bodyweight HIIT workout, or a boxing workout. Read my separate post on HIIT here to get more detailed guidance to the when, where, and how:

For my HIIT workouts, I usually concentrate on one bodyweight-based HIIT workout, and one HIIT running workout per weee. If I am cutting or trying to lose weight, I will do HIIT up to 3 times a week. Other forms of HIIT I do include: HIIT yoga (yes that’s a thing), elliptical intervals, and traditional bodyweight HIIT.

Here is an example of what a traditional bodyweight HIIT would look like:

Repeat 3 times.

You can also incorporate HIIT into strength training workouts, so you basically are knocking out two workouts in one. For example, you could do a strength based movement, a HIIT circuit, and then an ab move while your heart rate is coming down.

For my running workouts, , I will go for 30 seconds on, and then rest for 30. You can use the Interval Timer app to keep track of your time for this type of HIIT workout.  Both the Peloton and Equinox app also have running treadmill HIIT workouts, and Peloton has HIIT-specific spin workouts. I have reviewed both apps here.

For a review of HIIT training apps that also include bodyweight training., click here

LISS cardio options (and how you can whittle while you work)

I do cardio everyday, for at least 45 minutes, per the Rachael Attard program, usually while I am on conference calls. See my post on the best fitness apps for weight loss. for more about this program.

This is basically to compensate for the lack of walking that working from home has caused. I used to walk for at least an hour round trip; now I don’t because I work at home. So I make that time my “power walking” time.  While I don’t wear a step tracker, I know that 4 miles is about that so that is what I do – and on the tread that takes me about 45 minutes. Doing the walk during calls makes sure no time is compromised. You can usually do this for calls where you aren’t hosting or presenting on a screen. If you use Zoom, Teams, or Google meets, you can keep your camera off if you are not talking. If you work in a company like mine, there are at least a few calls a day of 5 people or more, or general company or client webcasts where your camera is not even supposed to be on. This is a perfect time to experiment with the walking. 

If you don’t have a treadmill, you can also walk outside, or not spend a lot of money on a folding treadmill like this one. If you want to get fancy, you can order a Treadly. These are the “quiet” brands that you can use on calls and not have everyone distracted on calls by your treadmill noise.

If you don’t want to pay that much, you can also get a mini stair stepper for under 100 bucks, which can give you just a great  full body and a core workout. I have one of these, and it’s more compatible with working into calls because you can easily hop off and go to your computer if you need to talk (it’s not as onerous to shut off as a treadmill). 

Strength training options

I design my own workouts, and I give that roadmap to you in my guide to strength training.

Jillian Michaels has a strength training program on her app that is good fir beginners, guides you through it, and gives you a set program of weight lifting and HIIT every day.  

Fitplan is another guided strength training program with available at home and gym workouts. You have a choice of different trainers and different programs focused on fat loss are toning. There are definitive categories for both gym and home workouts.

Two other programs that are more “self-customize” are the Fitbod and Strong apps.  You can read my review of these apps in this post. Those two apps are good if you already have a strong foundation in strength training but want to mix up your routine.

As previously reviewed you can also explore the SWEAT or the Toneitup apps.  So your options for strength training are really far and wide.

If you need help deciding which app is right for you then go back to my fitness app decision tree:

Precision training options

Yoga, Pilates and barre are the main types of precision training. Precision training means movements that concentrate on smaller muscle groups and the “mind body”connection. The most common types of precision training are yoga, Pilates and barre.

Once I incorporated precision training 1-2 times a week in my routine, I didn’t start noticing the really subtle changes, like when those little biddy muscles in your abs, hips, shoulders and back start to pop. These also get your core strong, so you can hold.plank.forever. I once won a Big 4 plankholding contest and made a guy from Deloitte cry. But I digress.

Once we emerge further out of COVID, I will do my workout studio review. For now let me refer you to my yoga, barre and Pilates app recommendations:

https://daofitlife.com/tools/best-barre-yoga-and-pilates-apps/

Useful resources

YouTube playlists

DAOFitLife YouTube Channel:

https://dao.tiny.us/YouTube

DAOFitLife Abs: https://dao.tiny.us/abplaylist

DAOFitLife Arms:

https://dao.tiny.us/armsplaylist

DAOFitLife Cardio and HIIT:

https://dao.tiny.us/cardiohiitplaylist

DAOFitLife Back:

https://dao.tiny.us/backplaylist

DAOFitLife 10-minute workouts –

https://dao.tiny.us/10min

DAOFitLife Legs:

https://dao.tiny.us/legs

DAOFitLife Glutes: 

https://dao.tiny.us/glutes

Yoga: 

https://dao.tiny.us/yoga

Here is a sample from the template that you can use to plan your weekly workouts, which you can find here:

  1. Customizable DAOFitLife Exercise Plan Google Sheet Template 
  2. Downloadable DAOFitLife Exercise Plan Excel Document
  3. Printable DAOFitLife Exercise Plan PDF
 
SundayMondayTuesdayWednesdayThursdayFridaySaturday
LISS /MISS(Steady state) Cardio
HIIT
Strength
Precision
Recovery
You can customize this online or printed form from the DAOFitLife Exercise Template.

Key takeaway

Diversity is important in designing a workout plan. You want to make sure that you are maximizing fat burn and preserving lean muscle. I have share the formula that has worked for me over the years. Everyone is different, and of course the best approach may be different for you, but you have to start somewhere. I recommend you follow a basic plan or template and modify it to what you best respond to as you go along.

More: What type of cardio is right for you? (DATEFIT)

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