"Drive! Drive! Drive!" All of a sudden I'm back in grade school in Queens, sweating through my shoulder pads, straining with every muscle, desperate to push this weighted sled just one more foot. "Brace with your arms, hold with your core, and drive with your legs." But it's not Coach Moran barking instructions; it's trainer Joe Dowdell, C.S.C.S. And it's not football practice but a fat-loss workout at a high-end gym in Manhattan. My muscles are twitching now, just as they did then, all in the name of peak performance. In fact, Peak Performance is the name of Dowdell's gym, where he combines the latest research-based techniques with modified strongman movements to sculpt and shred some of the most valuable human real estate around. Entertainers like 50 Cent rub sweaty shoulders with athletes like NBA star Roy Hibbert and MMA bruiser Vitor Ribeiro, and screen stars like Gerard Butler, Anne Hathaway, and Claire Danes.
Dowdell throws around big phrases like "sarcoplasmic reticulum" (which, despite the provocative name, has something to do with calcium ions), but what he actually does with his clients is easy enough to explain: full-body exercises, movements in different directions and planes, and challenging loads borne in multiple-exercise circuits. After the sled pushes, for instance, he has me do rope pulls, sandbag carries, slosh-pipe front squats, medicine ball throws, and battling-rope waves. It's all stuff you and I have been reading about in Men's Health for the past few years. But it wasn't until I tried moves in sequence that I found what could be the perfect marriage of macho and metabolic training. (Have the best new exercises from top trainers delivered to you weekly. Sign up for the Men’s Health Exercise of the Week newsletter.)
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Take the Prowler: It's a nasty upgrade on your standard football sled, with grips at a range of heights to let you push from different angles, emphasizing different muscles. Dowdell first used one 15 years ago when he trained at Westside Barbell, home to legendary powerlifter Louie Simmons. "At first I just found it to be an interesting way to change up my routine and my clients' routines," says Dowdell. "I began to notice how effective it was for developing various strength qualities as well as for improving body composition and athletic performance." The "strength qualities" he's talking about are in my arms, shoulders, back, abs, glutes, and thighs—the parts of my body that are on fire after pushing 250 pounds in the low position for 30 seconds.
We move to the next station, where I assume an athletic stance, hold a thick rope that could double as a mooring line for a cruise ship, and start pulling as fast as I can, reeling in a 100-pound weighted sled. Gripping the rope activates my forearms, and pulling challenges my biceps and shoulders—and I'm bracing my core and flexing my thighs the whole time. Everything's getting fuzzy and I have four stations to go. Here's what else I remember. (Struggling to beef up your slender frame? Go from scrawny to brawny with the Skinny Man’s Muscle Plan.)
DISTURB THE PEACE
The circuit is six exercises performed for 30 seconds each, back-to-back, followed by a rest. It creates what Dowdell calls "metabolic disturbance." You take your body out of its comfort zone, forcing your muscles—and the cardiorespiratory system that supplies them with fuel and oxygen—to adjust. That adjustment continues for hours after you leave the gym, which can boost your workout's caloric burn by more than a third. (Incinerate fat and double your muscle with Speed Shred, the follow-along DVD fitness program from Men’s Health.)
TRAIN TOTAL BODY, BUT EMPHASIZE LEGS
Dowdell often drops the "e-word"—efficiency. His workouts are about reaping the results quickly. That's why I'm doing almost every exercise on my feet. Your body's biggest muscles are below the waist, and by focusing on them, Dowdell guarantees that you do the most work possible every session. Again and again I'm surprised when I see how many ways he's found to make simple exercises more challenging. The best example is the squat with a 40-pound slosh pipe. The water in the 10-foot pipe flows from side to side, forcing me to use my core, shoulders, and arms to stay stabilized while my legs pump out the reps. (Get ready for this killer move by trying the Ultimate Lower-Body Workout.)
EXTEND YOUR LIMITS
People perceive exertion differently, although a little throw-up in your mouth says intensity in any language. Dowdell takes the guesswork (and vomit risk) out of it by having his clients strap on heart-rate monitors to gauge how hard they're working. "Accurate biofeedback is critical," he tells me. "You need to push yourself to gain the metabolic benefit." But you also need adequate recovery between sets, he adds, or the quality of your work will suffer. He likes to see his clients push their heart rate above 75 percent of their max during each circuit. At that pace, catching your breath is increasingly difficult; you can't hold a conversation that requires multisyllabic responses. He likes to see your rate drop below 100 beats a minute between sets. A trained athlete can recover in 30 seconds, while an unfit guy will need several minutes.
CUSTOMIZE YOUR CIRCUIT
The knock on metabolic circuits is that you won't see huge increases in muscle size the way you would with workouts that focus on isolating individual muscle groups. Dowdell admits that, but notes that because you shed fat, the muscle you have looks better, if not necessarily bigger. That's why Fiddy and Gerard sweat with him. But he also customizes circuits to suit a client's goals. Someone who wants jacked arms or a wider back will do shorter sets with heavier weights. I wanted a stronger core, so Dowdell put me on my knees to work the battling ropes. Without my legs to help generate the wave, my core had to work even harder, and I was gassed after 20 seconds. By the end of our session, I'd done more work in less time than ever before in the gym, leaving with pumped-up muscles, a pounding pulse, and a whole new appreciation for what my body can do in 45 minutes or less.
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