Birchbox Man Q&A: David Epstein, author of “The Sports Gene”

A senior writer for Sports Illustrated, David Epstein tackles the question of what makes an athlete great in his new book The Sports Gene. We asked the sports expert to break down the facts: Just how long should you be working out? How do you know which sport is right for you? And what’s the one exercise that’s good for everyone? Here’s what we found out:

BB Man: How long should you workout?

The vast majority of exercisers are too fixated on duration of exercise, and not fixated enough on intensity. Consider this: a study at McMaster University in Ontario found that the gains in muscle metabolism and cardiovascular fitness that come from cycling at a continuous pace for an hour a day, five days a week, could be recreated by cycling all out for 30 seconds, resting for four minutes, and repeating four to six times. And only three times a week! The takeaway is that intensity, in some way, shape, or form, should be mixed in to your exercise regimen.

BB Man: How can you incorporate intensity into your workout?

It takes some practice to learn how to push, and to have a calm mind even while your body might be screaming at you. Start with once a week. Ramp the treadmill up to double the speed you normally jog at, but just for 30 seconds, or incorporate a circuit of jumping jacks, burpees, situps, pushups, and climbers. It doesn’t have to be complicated, and intensity can actually save you time—although it’s gonna hurt too!

BB Man: What’s the ideal breakdown between cardio and weights, long runs, and sprints?

You can’t train perfectly for maximal muscle strength and maximal endurance at the same time. There has to be a tradeoff. If your goal is to be as fast as possible, you don’t want to do any cardio at all, really, or you’ll dull the explosiveness of those fast twitch fibers. And even your lifting should be cut off several months before you want maximum muscle explosiveness. If you’re trying to strictly build muscle mass, cardio should also be minimized.

BB Man: Are there indicators that help you choose the 'right' sport for your body?

There are myriad indicators, from your “brachial index,” the proportion of your forearm to your total arm length (a low one is good for rowing), to your muscle fiber type proportions. You can guess at your own physiology. If you’ve always been a better than average jumper and sprinter, you probably have significant potential for rapid muscle gain. Then there’s what I call the “belly button rule of thumb”: If you have a high belly button relative to your height—i.e. proportionally long legs—you have an advantage for running and jumping. If you have a relatively low belly button—a long torso—you have an advantage for swimming.

BB Man: What’s one easy exercise everyone can benefit from?

I can’t think of any reason why everyone shouldn’t squat once in a while. From Jamaican sprinters to Olympic 10K champ Mo Farah, I saw squatting in every gym in the world I entered. Squatting involves so many important muscles, it’s unlikely anyone is a “non-responder” to this exercise. That said, I did notice a few differences between pro athlete squatting and typical gym squatting. First of all, the pros often squatted lighter weight than I would’ve guessed—even pro sprinters—but I noticed that they often did full squats. That is, butt down absolutely as far as it can go, so they have to rise out of the full crouch position.

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