LURKING BENEATH James Newbury’s blond dreadlocks is a mighty athlete. A national CrossFit champion who’s been named “Australia’s fittest man” four times, Newbury finished fifth in last year’s world CrossFit Games. Years of testing himself against psychotically tough competitors mean that he’s not easily wowed by mortal feats of physical prowess. But the 29-year-old still remembers one man whose pound-for-pound strength left a gobsmacking impression.
Ten years ago, Newbury was pushing to become a semi-pro rugby league player in Brisbane. One of his teammates in the South Brisbane Magpies Under-20s was Toby Hook, a guy Newbury had known from back home in Adelaide. But something had happened – Hook had undergone a dynamic transformation. “When I met him again, Toby looked a lot bigger and a lot more shredded – his shoulders were huge,” Newbury recalls. “I was amazed at how strong his upper body was in comparison to mine. I used to crush myself in the gym – a lot more than he did – but he was always so much stronger.”
Hook weighed around 84kg but could comfortably bench-press 160kg. He could also bang-out 30 strict handstand push-ups with ease. “He’d just got much stronger than everyone else in the team.”
The secret of the man’s power wasn’t down to steroids, plyometrics or drop-sets. His mythical strength, in fact, stemmed from a more prosaic source: Hook had started working as a bricklayer. “He put it down to constantly lifting and moving stuff around throughout his day,” Newbury says. “Lifting the bricks gave him really good grip strength while picking up wheelbarrows gave him a good deadlift, too.”
Newbury mentions his old teammate not to extol the honest virtues of manual labour, but because Hook is a real-life demonstration of a training methodology that’s gaining momentum. It can make you stronger, healthier and more mobile. It doesn’t require lengthy gym sessions and is almost purpose-built for the time-poor man. The best part in these unsettling times of COVID-19 – you can do it in self-isolation with minimal equipment, too.
Commonly known as “exercise snacking”, the idea behind it is simple. Instead of condensing your training into a single, sweat-drenched session, you chunk it up into “micro workouts” that are drip-fed throughout the course of your day.
At regular intervals – perhaps every 30 or 60 minutes – you might drop down and punch out a quick superset of, say, push-ups and mountain-climbers. Taken as a one-off, this workload is fairly painless and can be completed in under two minutes. Yet by the end of the working day, if you’ve repeated the micro workout a bunch of times, you can accumulate some serious volume. Trialling the idea to write this story, for example, I did that aforementioned superset one day and completed 600 push-ups and five-minutes worth of mountain climbers. And, one benefit of working from home in these strange times is you don’t get weird glances from colleagues when you’re grinding out push-ups by the side of your desk.
BANG FOR YOUR BITES
Exercise scientists are now unlocking the benefits of micro workouts. Last year, Canadian researchers at McMaster University completed a study where they recruited 24 healthy but inactive college students. Turning up at the physiology building’s stairwell, the students were told to hurry up three flights of stairs – 60 steps – as quickly as they could, one step at a time, in ascents that lasted about 20 seconds. That was the sum total of the workout. The students performed this exercise snack three times a day for six weeks. By the end, they’d increased their aerobic fitness by about 5 per cent and also boosted their leg power.
These positive findings were consistent with another study from Bath University in the UK that focused on older adults aged between 65 and 80. Tasked with doing simple exercise snacks every day over the course of a month, the volunteers’ muscle strength improved by 5 per cent and thigh-muscle size increased by 2 per cent.
That’s all positive news. But while the results of these studies were heartening, they still focused on idle students and doddering pensioners. What about the benefits of micro workouts for more active men? Can exercise snacking really get you jacked?
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