The trouble with books written by fitness trainers to the stars isn't that people read them. It's that they read them for the wrong reasons.
No book by an A-list Hollywood trainer can make you look like Halle Berry in a cat suit (or, for that matter, Christian Slater in boxers). And whatever they can deliver will take a lot longer than the improbably few weeks hyped on the cover.
But -- who'd have thought? -- the programs subject to these pumped-up claims offer some value for those of us who aren't celebrities at all, people I proudly think of as members of the "E-list," as in Everybody Else.
I know this only because, to spare you the embarrassment, cost and pain, I have spent the last couple of months reading these books and performing some of the workouts that appear in them.
First, let me say the books (see "Four Name-Droppers to Swat By," Page F5) can be wildly uneven and impractical. "The New York Body Plan" presents a nuttily difficult program that, if followed as written, would become a part-time job. Most other workouts don't realistically fit into their alleged time limits. Some of the photos show stuff being done in scary-bad form. (Don't yank your head up on those crunches!) Most include some sort of eating plan that dances around the sad, simple truth that you have to eat less garbage, replace it with healthier food and burn off more calories than you take in.
All that said, the A-listers' workout routines for the most part fit E-listers well, largely because we have at least some things in common with celebrities: We're really busy and don't want to spend much time working out but would like to see some results, oh, this calendar quarter. We want to have enough energy to enjoy our nightlife, even if it's nothing more tabloid-worthy than spraying the houseplants. We'd like to be trim and limber enough to do some of our own stunts, but we know we don't want to look like one of those body builders or weight lifters -- who, to tell you the truth, sort of gross us out.
Most A-list trainer books I've checked out embrace, to various degrees, the following concepts that serve civilians well. They also happen to represent some of the key trends that are currently blowing around the fitnosphere.
Circuit Training In circuit workouts, you perform a sequence of three to 10 different exercises with little or no rest in between, then repeat the circuit two or three times. (Curves, that ubiquitous chain of E-list fitness centers, employs a form of circuit training.) In standard strength training, by contrast, you do one set of an exercise, recover by flipping through an old copy of People, do a second set, recover while pacing around surreptitiously evaluating other patrons' gymwear, do a third set, and finally move on to the next exercise.
Circuit training is very time-efficient, delivering simultaneously the benefits of a cardio session with those of strength training. And by keeping you working without rest, it torches more calories than conventional weight work. In other words, circuit training is a good approach for people who do a lot of meetings, whether with agents or day care teachers.
Multi-Joint, Multi-Muscle Exercises Do a half-squat against a wall while curling a pair of dumbbells. Then press them overhead (see Exercise 3, below). That's a multi-joint exercise, and it'll work your thighs, shoulders, arms and gut. It will vaporize calories and make your heart do the rumba.
Sit on a bench and perform dumbbell curls with one arm. That's a single-joint exercise. It'll puff up your biceps. It accomplishes only this one thing (though, to be fair, it does that one thing -- encouraging growth of a targeted muscle -- very well).
Multi-joint, multi-muscle work boosts your heart rate, multiplying the cardio benefits of circuit training. It spreads the benefits around your body, so you don't look distended in some spots and puny in others. And, since life, being three-dimensional and all, is pretty much a multi-joint affair, these workouts can actually prepare your body to do stuff, not just look like it can do stuff. This is called functional exercise. Whether you need to haul bags of topsoil from your hatchback or do six takes of a scene where you drag a corpse from a burning shed, having strong legs, shoulders and belly muscles will do you more good than biceps that look like trussed capons.
Lower Weight -- and Its Happy Sidekick, Less Pain To do multi-joint exercises without tapping your health insurance, you can't use a weight that's heavier than the weakest muscle involved in the move can handle. (In the above example, you might be able to curl only 10 pounds per arm, so you use the 10-pound weight for the whole exercise, not the 15 you could use if doing simple standing presses.)
As a result, you do more repetitions with lower weights. This tends to make you more lean, strong and flexible. It also flambes more calories and can keep your heart harrumphing. We hope you're beginning to see a pattern here.
Interval Workouts These are exercises that mix brief bursts of higher-intensity work with longer periods of lower-intensity recovery. The opposite type is called steady-state training, where you sustain the same pace for an extended period, usually wondering whether you can ask the gal behind the desk if she could switch the TV from The Game Show Network to CNN.
The great thing about intervals compared with steady-state workouts is that intervals -- say it along with us now -- save time, build your cardiovascular capacity more efficiently and microwave more calories, both while you're working out and long afterward.
A well-constructed strength circuit will essentially provide an interval workout, by alternating higher-intensity strength exercises that make your heart ka-pow with those that permit it to gather itself.
Intervals work no matter what shape you're in: If your "intense" intervals are walking at 4 mph for a minute and recovering for five minutes at 3 mph, that's fine. Whatever gets your heart moving faster will help you. As you improve, you can gin up the intensity of your bursts or reduce the length of your recovery, or both.
Alrighty then, time to change into your baggy shorts and the XL T-shirt (we E-listers are modest, frequently with good reason) and begin the workout. I've cobbled together a circuit of six exercises, sampling the celebrity-trainer books listed below. The best news is, you're not going to have to read through all the name-dropping and high-concept twiddling of the books' intro chapters.
I've arranged the sample exercises in a manner often used in circuit workouts, where different body parts are worked in sequence to prevent excessive fatigue in any one. Do single sets of each exercise in the order shown, without resting in between. Catch your breath at the end of the circuit, then do the whole thing again.
If each exercise plus the transition to the next takes three minutes, a circuit will take 18 minutes. After a few workouts you'll have it down to 12 minutes; two orbits will mean your workout is done in 24 minutes. Add six minutes of various inefficiencies and distractions, call it an even 30 minutes and you'll still have plenty of time to watch "The World Series of Poker" on TV!
But First, the Caveats
This workout isn't for beginners. It's suited to someone who is already exercising at least modestly -- someone capable of brisk walking for 30 minutes and performing some basic strength exercises with free weights or machines.
The first time you perform these exercises, do just a few repetitions, either without weights or with very light weights -- 1- or 2-pound dumbbells. Trust us on this one. These exercises place demands on ligaments, tendons, joints and other connective innards. A weight you feel you can handle for 10 reps with a typical exercise can easily overburden something in there whose name you'd rather not learn. After you get the form down, you can add weight. Slowly. Please listen to us: We are trying to save you pain.
Before beginning this circuit, make sure your muscles and joints are lubed and loose by walking briskly, jogging, using any cardio machine on an easy setting, doing calisthenics like jumping jacks, dancing the hora, etc. for 10 minutes. Skimping on warm-up invites injury.
And of course: If you haven't exercised recently and/or have any kind of medical condition, don't even think of starting an exercise program without your doctor's permission.
The E-List Workout
1. Shadowbox With Dumbbells (adapted from "The Ultimate New York Body Plan," by David Kirsch).
This one builds arm strength, core flexibility and cardio fitness. It also develops balance and coordination. It looks a little goofy.
Do the following moves slowly, without extending your elbow fully or snapping your wrist. Even at a slow pace, it'll kick your heart into higher gear.
Grab a very light dumbbell with each hand, your fists near your armpits, your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Keep your gut tight and your stance upright. Use your left arm to (gently!) "punch" across your body (i.e., from left to right, not straight out). Return to starting position, as if dodging a similar punch by an opponent. Now do the same punch with your right arm, again crossing over your body. Do 20 repetitions, alternating arms.
Next, with your left elbow against your ribs and your knuckles turned up, punch upward, as if popping someone -- anyone you wish -- under the chin with an uppercut. Repeat with the other arm and alternate through 20 reps. Once you get good at this, you can rise up on your legs with each punch and down on the pull-back, adding some lower-body work.
That thing to the left of your sternum, making so much noise? Say hello to Senor Corazon.
2. Static Bridge With Leg Raise (adapted from "20-Minute Burn," by Matt Roberts).
Let's slow that heart down a bit, as they say in group exercise class. This move will challenge your core -- the sheath of muscles wrapping your belly and back. It's hard at first, but you should be able to improve rapidly.
Assume a push-up position, but instead of balancing on your hands and toes, balance on you forearms and toes as shown as shown below. Tighten your abs and keep your back straight; don't let your butt point upward or your back sag. Keep your head in line with your backbone, not cranked back.
When you first do this exercise, simply hold this position for as long as you can -- 15 seconds, 30 seconds, whatever. Your deep belly muscles will tremble like a ramekin of fine creme brulee. Don't hold your breath, though you'll be tempted to.
Once you can do a full minute, add to the challenge by lifting one leg six inches off the ground as shown, keeping your knee straight (but not locked). Hold briefly, return to starting position and repeat with other leg. Alternate to 10 reps of each leg. Add more reps to 20 each leg, and when you have that mastered, lift your leg 12 inches. When you've got that down, you have our permission to brag.
3. Wall-Sit With Curl and Press (adapted from Michael George's "Body Express Makeover").
What's that you say, you want to work on your quadriceps, those muscles on the front of your thighs, because they are the biggest muscles in the body? Why, good for you!
Grab a pair of dumbbells. Put your back and butt against a wall, and step your feet away so you are doing a partial squat (not so far that your thighs are parallel to the floor). Hold that pose for the whole exercise.
Now curl the dumbbells up to your shoulders, keeping your elbows at your sides. Turn your hands around so your palms are facing forward. Press upward into the "touchdown!" position. Reverse the process, very slowly, maintaining the bend in your knees. Do 15 repetitions, or to delirium.
4. Double Crunch (adapted from "5-Factor Fitness," by Harley Pasternak).
A lot of the exercises in this circuit build your core muscles in addition to others. This one specifically, even cruelly, targets both the upper and lower abdominal muscles. Lie on a mat with your knees bent, your feet hovering a few inches off the floor, your hands lightly holding your head but your fingers not locked. Curl up your shoulders from the mat (not yanking your head up by the neck! bad! bad!) while rolling your butt and thighs up toward your head. Keep your chin away from your chest and your eyes turned up toward the fluorescent lights.
As Pasternak helpfully says: "Fold your body up like a clam by bringing your sternum and belly button toward each other." (If that simile unnerves you, just ignore it.)
Do as many as you can in sets of 10 or 15, keeping good form. If you can do 50 of these, you are ready to stand in your kitchen and tell one of your kids, "Go ahead, punch my belly. It's like titanium." (Don't try this with a teenager.)
5. Side Step Squat With Medicine Ball (adapted from Kirsch).
Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip distance apart. Grab a light medicine ball with both hands, holding it at your sternum. Bend your left knee and lower yourself into a half-squat, keeping your left leg vertical from foot to knee. Your right leg forms the hypotenuse of a right triangle (sorry, but we have so few opportunities to use junior-high math that we couldn't resist). Don't let any part of your body extend beyond the vertical plane formed by your left leg.
As you squat, push the ball away from your chest and extend your arms straight out, without locking your elbows. Return to starting position and do the same thing on your right leg. That's one rep. Do 15, then ask someone to hose you down.
No, wait, there's one more . . .
6. Ball Chest Press With Fly (adapted from George).
The best way to do this one is on a big stability ball; if you don't have one, lie down on a weight bench.
With dumbbells in hand, lie back so the ball is supporting your mid-back. Keep your hips up, so your back is straight and parallel to the floor. (If you don't pay attention to this, your hips will drop down.) Perform a basic bench press with the dumbbells. When your arms are almost straight up, turn your wrists so the dumbbells are parallel to your body. Slowly lower them to your sides until your hands are at shoulder level, opening your chest, as shown. You should feel a good slight tug in your chest.
Now, slowly, reverse the movement, bringing your hands together at the top. Then turn your wrists back into the bench press position and lower your arms. That's one rep. Do 20 reps, or until speaking in tongues.
Well, that's one orbit through the circuit. Catch your breath, and do the whole circuit again. Don't do this on successive days; wait until that (sort of pleasant) muscular soreness fades before doing it again. That may be in two or three days. Do 20-minute interval-based cardio work on the off days, and rest completely at least one or two days a week. Eat healthy, sleep hard.
Keep this up for a few weeks, and then . . . um, excuse me, I'm sorry, but aren't you . . . Halle Berry?
2. Static bridge with leg raise. First master the bridge for at least 30 seconds without raising a leg. Then try adding the alternating leg raise. 5. Stand with feet shoulder width apart. Do a lunge sideways (gently!), no body part extending beyond vertical knee. Simultaneously push medicine ball away. Repeat. Knees hurt? Skip this one. 3. Wall-sit with curl and press. No chair supports you; do a partial squat against a wall. Curl weights; press them; return slowly until arms hang straight. Repeat. Curse as needed. 4. Double crunch. Don't link hands behind head. Unlike this model, keep eyes up. Lift rear and shoulders, slowly, just a few inches. Don't roll. Don't cry. 6. Ball chest press with fly. Ball under mid-back; lift hips. Do a bench press, then slowly lower arms to sides, as shown, returning with chest muscles.