The Times tries James' New Book: Perfect Fit - The Winning Formula
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Could James help The Times' Phil Robinson, get fit in five weeks with this new fitness plan? Read on to find out.
Written by Phil Robinson
It is late November and I am in a bare-bones gym on an industrial estate in Northamptonshire. The England international rugby player James Haskell towers over me as I attempt my first deep squat since a punishment detention in senior school. It is an alien environment to me, a cross-training space filled with fake hay bales and old tractor tyres. Next door men in sleeveless Iron Maiden T-shirts couple with towering machines, jerking and clanging and grunting, before sidling up to the next. There’s only one toilet and, inconceivably, no showers let alone a relaxation area to pad about in a dressing gown and read the papers. People come here to do one thing: work out. Adding to the fitness-abattoir ambience, Haskell is sporting a freshly earned black eye from his latest Wasps training session and tracksuit bottoms spattered with mud.
Even though I’m 6ft tall, I feel like a child in his presence — Haskell’s Marvel comic-book physique could have been drawn by Stan Lee. “Straighten your back, get arse to grass, explode upwards.” The exertion involved is a shock to my system, and I suddenly realise that the effort I’ve been putting into my tennis game is about the same as David Niven’s after a couple of scotches.
The aim of this session is for Haskell to hammer into my flabby civilian brain enough of the basics of his forthcoming book, Perfect Fit, for me to embark on its eight-week programme before reporting back to this newspaper on my progress at the start of January. My key worry is the time of year. What kind of idiot begins a diet at the end of November when everyone is about to barrel into the party season?
I look down at my gut rather self-consciously. It is clear that I can barely endure another Christmas sucking up vol-au-vents like a blue whale in krill season. To be honest, I need the help. Two years ago I lost 2st through Slimming World and then began to exercise more. Unfortunately, I seem to be eating far too much to compensate. I’ve plateaued at fitter-but-fattish.
Haskell’s plan seems designed to solve exactly this problem, combining resistance and high-intensity exercises (five times a week in your sitting room) with a personalised calorie-controlled diet that aims to help you to lose weight if you need to, but, more importantly, to get fit and build muscle. Flicking through the book I see that he has no time for the usual fitness bullshit. “You will never get the results you really want by going running. Let’s be honest, it’s boring.” And: “I have never been overly fat. I don’t know that struggle.” This is not a book for those seeking empathy or half measures. If you do the programme, you win. If you don’t, you will for ever remain a rather disappointing version of you.
Haskell explains that since I am still a bit fat and need to lose weight I should focus on HIIT sessions (high-intensity interval training). “Everyone says, ‘I want a six-pack’,” he tells me. “Well, we all have abs — you’ve just got to lose the body fat and then you will reveal them. Once you’ve done that you can work on those muscles and then develop them.”
Haskell: “Use the time to exercise that you spend looking at your phone”
TIMES PHOTOGRAPHER MARC ASPLAND
The diet element is eminently sensible, with recipes by Omar Meziane, who cooks for the British Olympic teams — think spinach pesto with grilled mackerel, and turkey and beetroot meatballs with pasta salad. On starting, you complete some basic sums to calculate the number of calories you will need to sustain yourself during the exercise programme. All food must be weighed and calories counted into a phone app such as My Fitness Pal.
I tell Haskell that I don’t want to use My Fitness Pal. I have a friend who uses it and he logs the oxygen he uses during conversations. I don’t want to be that person. I want to live a free and expressive life. “Yes, you are using it.” OK, I say meekly.
Haskell whips out his phone to show me some pictures. “This is me before pre-season and this is me tracking my food every day in My Fitness Pal, doing similar stuff I am asking you to do.” Start to finish, he looks superb in all the pictures. It’s a maxim of the modern world that you are not truly in great shape unless you can show strangers photographs of yourself wearing very tiny pants and not feel in the slightest bit self-conscious.
It is a fact of Haskell’s career that had he not adopted a professional mindset and learnt how to train his body, he wouldn’t be where he is today. As a boy he was a talented county rugby player, but his conditioning and strength meant he fell short of selection for the England under-16s. Once he started training and eating properly he was selected for Wasps’ Colts. There he continued to develop and was part of the vanguard of players who utilised training, nutrition and supplements to change rugby into the muscular, athletic game it is today.
Haskell will humbly tell you that he isn’t the most talented rugby player or the fastest or the best in his position, but he has still notched up an astonishing 75 appearances for England and played for some of the best clubs in the world — from Wasps in the UK to the Highlanders in New Zealand. At the age of 32, his body bears the scars: his hands are crone-like (they remind me of Skeletor’s) and repeated surgery on his reconstructed big toe means that it no longer straightens properly. The book condenses the learning and wisdom that Haskell has employed to survive 16 years as an elite athlete in one of the most brutal sports on the planet. Its basic tenet is that to succeed you need to put yourself and your needs first.
“Be selfish. Be ruthless,” says Haskell. “Don’t tell me you are too busy. Use the time to exercise that you spend looking at your phone. Don’t make excuses. If you didn’t train today, if you didn’t eat well today, it’s your fault. Not your boss’s, your wife’s or your kids’. You have to tailor your diet to what you are doing, follow the figures. Don’t be scared of My Fitness Pal — put in the amount of food you eat, scan the bar codes, and weigh shit.”
I must look dubious because he adds, “It’s hard work but what’s the alternative? Some fad diet? Drinking cayenne pepper with hot water and lemon juice, crying, shitting your arse out and saying, ‘What’s happened to me?’ If you do that eight-week plan and eat properly you will drop the weight off like you wouldn’t believe and, I promise you, within eight weeks you will be in great mental shape and wanting to do more not less.”
At the end of the session Haskell’s girlfriend, Chloe Madeley, arrives. The 30-year-old daughter of Richard Madeley and Judy Finnigan, she is superathletic with a fitness book to her name (The 4-Week Body Blitz), and they both ping-pong around the place. He picks her up and throws her effortlessly into the air. They look like two of the passengers on the Moonraker rocket. I feel like Hugo Drax.
Before starting the programme I undergo a Bupa Health Clinics medical comprising a fitness and mobility test, blood tests and scans. The results are a bucket of cold water tipped over my ego. I’ve been telling everyone that I am 14½ stone; I am actually 15½. My BMI is 29.6, making me borderline obese. I can’t even claim the weight is muscle because a body fat scan reveals that I am 25 per cent fat. Also my blood pressure is elevated.
On the upside, my HDL cholesterol is good, as is my upper-body strength and general fitness. The problem is that my body fat puts me into a high-risk group. I talk through the results with Dr Luke James, Bupa’s medical director. “Right now the risk of diabetes is low, but in ten years’ time if you are still carrying the same weight you are at risk of slipping into type 2 diabetes,” he informs me.
This is mostly because one’s metabolism slows with age: “If you do what you did in your twenties, eating and drinking and exercise-wise, you’ll gain a stone in your thirties, and if you do the same in your forties as you did in your thirties, you’ll gain another stone by the time you’re 50. As you get into your forties, intake in calories is probably far more important than the exercise.” A second physical is scheduled for January 2. That should help to focus my mind while others are chain-scoffing mince pies.
Robinson with Haskell: “It’s like asking a wolf to empathise with a gerbil”CHRIS WINTER
At home I calculate how many daily calories I need to keep my weight at neutral, then cut this number by 200. If I don’t get a weight-loss result at the end of the week I will cut by another 100, and then the same again the following week until I get a result. On only the second night of the diet I am at a friend’s birthday banquet and knock back four sticks of chicken satay, two orders of soft-shell crab tempura, four slices of vegetable tempura, a couple of beef short rib, six California rolls, a confit duck leg, six fish dumplings and a small piece of cheesecake. Also, a whole seabass and four glasses of red. Two days after that I end up in a sushi restaurant with my aunt and we manage to bosh about four flasks of saké between us. In a panic I try to compensate by cutting my calories down to 1,300 on quiet weekdays. I cook the turkey kofta recipe from Haskell’s book and after a couple of days in monk mode feel like I’m back on track.
The workouts are a struggle. While some sessions are exhausting, others feel too easy. I either put in too much effort or not enough and I make the excuse that I can compensate with tennis or climbing, which are very much in my comfort zone. I drop Haskell a breezy email telling him that I’ve missed a few workouts, but everything is fine because I have managed to lose 4lb. Part of my brain must be missing.
“Right, what’s your number — I am calling you now.” Haskell is not in a good mood. I grimace as I put the phone next to my ear. “Just stop now,” he barks. “There is no point doing it. I am going to ask you to stop the programme.”
I’m used to dealing with gym instructors who understand the idle-punter mindset. Haskell is a different animal. It’s like asking a wolf to empathise with a gerbil. I am informed that I am clueless (true) and had no right to change the diet and exercise plan (I had also started eating low-carb, which is not allowed).
“Dropping down a load of calories is going to get you instant results because you are starving yourself,” he says. “If for the next five days you drank lemon juice, cayenne pepper and hot water, by the end of the week you would look shredded, but you would be horrifically ill and your body would be shit. Then after you stop you’ll pile weight back on. We aren’t doing that. We want to leave you room to manoeuvre.”
He continues, “If you are doing my sessions properly you should be f***ed and not have energy left for bloody tennis. You aren’t doing them properly. I understand what you are doing. It is a human reaction when something is hell to take the easy option, but you will not get in mental shape like that. Listen to me. If you were burning that many calories doing tennis and climbing you would already be in the sickest shape known to man, but you aren’t. Are you?”
Phil Robinson: “At the five-week mark, I have shaved 6cm off my waistline”CHRIS WINTER
No I am not, I say in a small voice.
“These sessions get more intense. Do them properly and they are rank. That’s the point. It’s hell, but that’s the difference. That’s when you’ll be walking around in f***ing budgie-smugglers with your unbelievable rig and dominating the tennis. Or you can do it your way and be a starving scarecrow who won’t be able to do anything but a bit of tennis with his mates. Right? Work it out and let me know in three days how you get on. Now smash it out, OK?”
Operating on guilt and cold fear, I scurry to the back bedroom, red-faced and subdued, to do a HIIT session. Before my ear-lashing I was speeding through the session in ten minutes and wondering what all the fuss was about. Now, because I am applying myself, I need to use all the breaks to get my breath back. The session lasts nearly 25 minutes and I feel like I’ve been hit by a car. I shower and collapse on the sofa with pasta in tomato sauce with chicken and olives. I summon my last dregs of energy to log it all into My Fitness Pal and fall asleep. This is what “smashing it” feels like.
The next day I start feeding myself more and start to enjoy these half-hour HIIT beastings. My favourite session involves jogging on the spot while attempting to kick your own bum, side-to-side “skater” hops, then sets of “mountain climbers” , which, for the uninitiated, involve pumping your knees up to your chest by running in a press-up position. My Fitbit tells me that I have burnt 362 calories in 35 minutes and I have no surplus energy for tennis. Dinner consists of a large bowl of curried salmon and pilaf. The serenity I feel is habit-forming.
At the end of week three I text Haskell, worried that I haven’t lost much weight. He says: “Don’t worry about weight loss because you’re putting muscle on as well.” He’s right. I can feel it. I play indoor cricket at Lords and my bowling feels faster. Thanks to endless squats I also take a low catch that I never would have made before. I also feel that I want to train more, not less.
My biggest obstacle is the Christmas parties. I am rigorous about the training, but the extra booze calories slow me down. No week in December passes without a substantial session. I hit a college reunion and a cricket club party. I attempt to limit the damage by sticking to gin and red wine (no beer) and counting it all into an app. The problem is that I am using calories on alcohol that I should be using on food — protein and good carbs — that build and protect muscle. I might lose weight, but the trade-off is that my fitness will suffer.
On Christmas morning I realise that my mentality has changed when I sneak in an HIIT workout before driving to my mother’s house for a bacon sandwich and a glass of buck’s fizz. Even so, there isn’t much I can do to mitigate the caloric onslaught. I keep to a single ration of dinner, two mince pies and Christmas pudding with cream. And I only half hammer the cheese board. At some point I stop counting the champagne and red wine.
The next morning I realise that I hit 4,000 calories — God knows what I used to put away in the past (trifle, pudding, double cheese board, liqueurs and extra roast potatoes). The rest of the week is a battle. According to my fitness-tracker statistics I am burning on average 3,200 calories a day, but even so I still manage to gain a pound. The problem is the booze.
Despite such lapses, the results of my follow-up medical are good. At the five-week mark of the plan, my BMI is down from 29.6 to 28.9 and I have shaved 6cm off my waistline. My body fat has also dropped a percentage point and my blood pressure has dipped — although I need to cut my coffee habit. Overall my cardiovascular risk is down from 2.6 per cent to 2.4 per cent and my diabetes risk from 4.1 per cent to 3.6 per cent. I am also stronger, scoring higher marks in core strength, squats and press-ups.
I tell Bupa’s doctor that I think my booze intake hindered my progress and he concurs. “People who are serious about training will cut out all alcohol because it blocks your ability to train hard, lose fat and get the results you want,” he says. It’s a tough time of year to cut back on alcohol.
Haskell is also pleased with my progress: “Good to see you were fully on board with what you were told instead of going completely off-piste and starving yourself.”
I explain that I lost my way over Christmas, especially with the alcohol, but Haskell is in a forgiving mood. “I am extremely Christmassy,” he says. “I love everything that goes with Christmas — food, alcohol, all that kind of stuff. But what Chloe and I decided to do was stay on the wagon until the evening of the 23rd. Then I smashed the arse out of it on Christmas Eve, smashed the arse out of it on Christmas Day — drank what I want, all the food I could possibly eat until I was in food coma and that was it. Then I went fully back into training and cutting out the alcohol. There is a bit of Christmas cake and a few mince pies still lurking around, but I am trying to work them into my macros. I can’t abide wasting the Christmas cake.”
Haskell says that my wavering was just part of the learning experience. “It’s one thing me telling you in a book, but we often have to find out things the hard way — we have to find out that short cuts don’t work, that you only get the right result if you do the programme properly. How do you feel on it?”
I tell him that I love it and have never felt this fit or strong in my life. My wife says my shape has changed. My back pain has gone because my core is so much stronger.
“That’s great. Finish the eight-week plan, lose some more weight, get fitter and then head on to the 12-week plan and build muscle. This is going to be a different mindset for you because you need to add calories to your diet. And find yourself eating 2,800 a day, building lean muscle!”
I suddenly zone out, thinking about what I could do with 1,000 extra calories a day. I imagine myself in 12 weeks, booze-free, happily smashing a wood-fired pizza. Stan Lee, get your pens ready.
Perfect Fit: The Winning Formula by James Haskell Pre-order here: Amazon-Perfect-Fit
Week one of James Haskell’s eight-week training plan
Session one HIIT, stand-alone exercises
1 Running on the spot — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
2 Star jumps — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
3 Mountain climbers [see description in main story] — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
Session two: Resistance, upper body, stand-alone exercises, tempo 3.1.3*
1 Press-ups (or kneeling press-ups, or wall press-ups) — 10 reps, 60-80 sec rest, 3 sets
2 Squats — 10 reps, 60-80 sec rest, 3 sets
3 Walking lunges (or forward lunges) — 10 reps (5 each side), 60-80 sec rest, 3 sets
Session three: HIIT, stand-alone exercises
1 Boxing while running on the spot — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
2 Side-to-side hops (with both feet together) — 20 sec work, 45-60 se rest, 8 sets
3 Body-weight slams — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
Session four: Resistance, upper body, stand-alone exercises, tempo 3.1.3*
1 Step-ups — 10 reps (5 each side), 60-80 sec rest, 3 sets
2 Wide-hand placement press-ups (or kneeling wide-hand press-ups or wide-hand placement wall press-ups) — 10 reps, 60-80 sec rest, 3 sets
3 Front plank — 20-30 sec hold, 60-80 sec rest, 4 sets
Session five: HIIT, stand-alone exercises
1 Squat jumps — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
2 Burpees (or down-and-ups) — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
3 Side-lying opens — 20 sec work, 45-60 sec rest, 8 sets
Remember to do a warm-up routine before every workout session
* This means 3 seconds to lower, 1 second pause, 3 seconds to raise again
Big Thank You to The Times & Phil Robinson. See Full Article here: The-Times
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