Now you’re ready for part 2 of my interview with Tim Ferriss about the Four Hour Body where Tim and I discuss:
- Why You Want the Minimum Effective Dose for Results
- His RKC kettlebell training
- And how he dramatically improved his deadlift
Craig Ballantyne: Now that brings us to the MED definition that you have in the book, which is the minimum effective dose which is kind of one of the motto’s of the book is, like you said, getting the most results from small changes. And so can you explain a bit more about how that not only applies to fat loss, but also maybe use a training example as well.
Tim Ferriss: Sure. So the minimum effective dose really refers to looking at exercise like medicine. And it also applies to supplements and things like that, but let’s just talk about exercise. And this is borrowing very heavily from a doctor Doug McGuff. If you look at exercise like a does it’s not a case of more is better. And if you want to find the precise dose of exercise that gives you the result you’re looking for. And you want the minimal effective dose, because the higher the does the more the side effects. And that would be the main criterion for everything in the book.
The only way I felt I could differentiate this book by using the training that I had and the experience that I have in business and elsewhere – I also ran a sports nutrition company for eight years – was to try to find the smallest things that had the greatest impact. To give you a training example, so let’s just take the running – let me ask you this. Do you think more people listening are interested in endurance training or in let’s just say maximum strength?
Craig Ballantyne: Let’s error on the side of caution and say endurance training. There will probably be a lot of people interested in running a bit more.
Tim Ferriss: Okay. So what I did – in the case of running, I hate running. I really do. And my endurance is terrible because I was born premature and can’t use my left lung effectively. This has always been a problem. And not only do I overheat but my capacity, also my enzyme levels are terrible for endurance. So I wanted to target doing an ultra-marathon. And what I did in seeking out models and trainers was I tried to identify people with body types that didn’t fit ultra-endurance running. So you can certainly go to someone who’s 6’2″ and 120 pounds and ask them how they train and that might work, but they’re designed for running, for ultra-distance running just like Michael Phelps is designed for swimming. I’m 5’8″, 180 pounds, lean, muscular but that’s not an ability associated with long distance running.
So I found a few different people, a number of whom were between 5’8″ and 5’11” let’s say and 190 pounds that could front squat 315 for reps who also ran 100 mile races. And those guys were the people who were interesting. What I found is that for a body type like that certainly you can’t train like many of the 6’2″, 120 pound guys train. Those guys will put in. It’s very routine, 20 to 40 hours a week of endurance training. And if you do that with more of a mesomorph type body type you don’t recover and your entire life suffers as a result of that; you get sick, your relationships are damaged, etc.
So the protocol that we ended up putting in the book which has been very effective, which took, like I mentioned before, The Rookie was his nickname, one of the trainees from, I think it was five miles to 50 miles, mountainous ultra-marathon in about 12 weeks was less than six hours of training per week. And that’s a combination of metabolic conditioning, strength training and not a single run of more than 10K. So to train for a 50 mile race no run longer than 10K, and most of the runs are 100 meter repeats, 400 meter repeats, 800 meter repeats. So it’s really turning everything on its head and allowing to train at a very low volume to accomplish something that’s very, very high volume.
And I’ve seen this in my own experience. I’m kettlebell, Russian kettlebell certified. So RKC1 and also RKC 2. And the RKC2 test, as well as RKC1, they’re quite demanding. The RKC2 certification is, if I remember correctly, I did it not too long ago, between eight and ten hours of training and exercises and practice for three days straight. That’s a lot of training. And to prepare for that I worked out for between I would say 15 and 30 minutes three times a week to prepare for that volume of training. And the rest of it was nutrition based, nutrition and supplementation based. So I think that those are two examples of just how little can go so far and do so much.
Craig Ballantyne: Yes, that’s a very powerful example with the kettlebell one. Now I don’t want to leave the strength training people out, so can you maybe do the strength training example as well that you maybe we’re going to give for the minimum effective dose?
Tim Ferriss: Yes, for sure. So I studied – I went all over the planet to find people I studied with. And I found combine specialists. I studied with power lifters, one of who was Mark Bell from Bigger, Faster, Stronger and trained at Westside. I met a lot of the best power lifters in the world, and also worked with quite a lot of swim coaches. I studied with Charlie Francis, who is famous for training Ben Johnson. Unfortunately, the steroid scandal affected how people viewed his training.
But to give you an example, of how I borrowed from sprinting to develop more maximal strength, I coached on the deadlift and I really feel that bang for the buck deadlift has to be one of, if not the best, barbell exercises you can do. There are a few other options, squat’s great as well, but really the deadlift I just view it as just about the king of the exercises. It works everything except for your pecs basically.
And I actually modeled my approach to the deadlift after that of a sprint coach based in Los Angeles through training – I’m trying to get her name right, I’m not going to remember her name – trained a high school athlete to break just about every world record they didn’t set for her distances. I think it was 100 meters. And then she went directly from high school to professional track and field. And the approach was very, very simple. It was three times a week doing one pressing movement, like the bench press, and then dead lifts.
And there was a very minimal warm up. Then there was the bench press where you’d do three sets of two to three reps. You’re looking at probably 90% to 95% of your one rep maxed for two to three reps, four to five minutes of rest in between, a few very brief, like 20 second – not even – 10 to 20 seconds of plyometrics after each set. So it would be like a set of two or three, 10 second of plyometrics, four minutes of rest, and then you repeat that two more times.
Then you move to the deadlifts, do the exact same thing. You’re doing sets of two to three, usually using a sumo deadlift stance. Your legs are wider so you can keep your back more upright. And then repeating the exact process. And you’re doing this either two or three times a week for most people. And this is how I went. I have very small hands, I have weak hands. So my weak link so to speak has always been my hands for the deadlift. I just couldn’t hold on to the bar. I felt like my back was stronger, my body was stronger, but my hands couldn’t hold onto the bar with more than about 300 pounds. I could pull 300 maybe once or twice and then I’d have to put it down because I felt like I was going to drop the bar.
About a month ago I did, and this was over the span of like six months, I did rack poles from my knees with about 630 pounds with double overhand grip with chalk, no wraps. So this is not an alternate grip, which is what you use to pull that kind of weight usually. This is a double overhand grip, not a hook grip. So it’s like the weakest grip I could use with chalk pulling 630 from the knees for three, I think it was. And it’s from the exact program I just described, and it’s amazing. It’s incredible. That volume, it’s something like less than two minutes of total time under tension per workout.
It’s just phenomenal how little it takes of the proper exercise, how small the dose can be to trigger in the type of response that you want. It’s really amazing. Now that’s not to say there isn’t a place for higher volume training. I do think that there can be, but in the book I wanted to just highlight, I wanted to highlight one or two methods for each that I was able to use for myself very effectively checkpoint number one, and then replicate it with other people checkpoint number two.
But I do think there can be a place for higher volume training. And to give you an example of that, what I would also do to supplement that list about 48 hours later usually, or by 48-72 hours before one of those max effort days. I tweaked the protocol slightly, and I would do high repetition kettlebell swings. So I would do literally one set of kettlebell swings with the heaviest weight that I could use for between 30 and 50 reps. And was able to progress from the 53 pounder, which I’ve done a fair amount of kettlebell stuff, so I can do an unbroken set for like 150-200 reps of that, up to the beast which I think is – it’s 48 kilograms. I’m not sure what it is in pounds. But it’s over 100 pounds for 52 reps.
And that was it, that’s the entire workout. And it’s not minimalism for the sake of minimalism. It’s not how little can I do to just eke out progress. It’s how much do I need to do to make the maximal amount of progress but without adding unnecessary workloads that’s going to affect my recovery. In that particular case, it’s a bit of a long answer, but that’s the approach that I took.
Craig Ballantyne: That’s a very important point, how little work to get maximum results. And like you said, not just to eke out the progress. So that’s some impressive stuff. And then one other thing that kind of relates to that you mentioned in the book was a comment that people shouldn’t try and just stay in peak shape all year round. Can you maybe comment on how that approach then connects with the training in the book and maybe give us some comforting words to people who are trying to stay at low body fat all year round and why it’s really hard to do that?
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. I think at the end of the day the purpose of improving your physical machine, improving your body, is quality of life. So there has to be some translation of quality of life. And if you look at any of the top bodybuilders, fitness competitors, if you look at certainly power lifters. And the quote I used in the book was from Marty Gallagher, who coached Ed Coan. Ed Coan is the most successful power lifter in the history of the sport. He deadlifted 900 pounds at 200 pounds – or 220, it doesn’t really matter. It’s so ridiculous to be almost unbelievable. However, he said that trying to stay in peak condition all year round is a trip to the mental ward, and it’s true.
So what I prefer to attempt to do is to change my definition of peak conditions throughout the year. What I mean by that is for people who have only been going to the gym to lose body fat it is a lot of fun, and it reinvigorates you and gives you more scope and more enthusiasm if you start targeting other types of skills as well.
And what I mean by that is I only did the gym and then combat sports training, like kickboxing, for the longest time. And only in the last few years have I set aside, okay here are 12 weeks, I’m going to work on swimming. Here are 12 weeks. I’m going to work on distance running. Okay here are 12 weeks. I’m going to work on maximal deadlift. Here’s 12 weeks. I’m going to work on who knows, high repetition kettlebell presses, which is not something I did but hypothetically something like that. Here’s 12 weeks, I’m going to actually go to the batting cages and I’m going to learn how to be a homerun hitter. Something like that.
So varying the definition of peak condition so that it correlates to different goals I think is very, very valuable because mentally when a program becomes stale that’s generally when you also plateau and that’s when you also let yourself slide from your routine regardless. So you might as well plan for that and go in basically 12 week cycles with different objectives, because 12 weeks really is plenty of time to make incredible progress with any of the things I just mentioned.
I couldn’t swim at all. When I say swim I mean I could do one or two laps in an Olympic pool, and my heart rate would be at 200, and I’d get out of the pool and quit. I went from that because of my lung issues to swimming 40 laps, a workout with no problem in the span of one week just by looking at the biomechanics and tweaking the biomechanics with the help of a few coaches, and that’s also in the book. However, the changes do not have to take a long time.
There are a few exceptions to that. The one exception I would say is you want to be very careful with the maximal strength just because your muscular strength will far exceed your tendon and ligament strengths. You want to be very intelligent about that, because certainly if you go from 300 pounds to 600 pounds, or 200 pounds to 400 pounds overnight you can do some damage to yourself if you’re not careful. So you just have to – that’s another reason to build in, let’s say the higher rep of kettlebell swings, in between those workouts so you space your progress a bit more.
Craig Ballantyne: And then when somebody does those 12 weeks, they’re going to have that high level that, even if you kind of go away from the for a while you’re always going to have that built up so much better than if you tried to improve incrementally by a small amount over the course of a year. You’d actually be further ahead if you did 12 weeks of it hard core then took your time off.
Tim Ferriss: Absolutely. I totally agree. And the reason is related to one of the principles in The 4-Hour Workweek, which is Parkinson’s Law. So the complexity of the task will swell, fill the time that you have to complete it. So if you have a year and there’s no particular goal in mind it’s just to maintain – well, let’s just say the goal is to maintain a certain low body fat. You can be fairly sloppy if you have a year, somewhat disorganized. If you have 12 weeks to hit a performance goal that also produces the side effect, the physical benefits which I highly encourage.
I like people to have one physique goal, one type of appearance goal, and one type of performance goal. The performance goal is very important. Then suddenly you get a hell of a lot more done, number one. And number two, it just makes life more interesting. And as for me, I didn’t realize how much I was missing by only doing strength training all the time. I really didn’t realize how much I’ve missed maybe because I thought I couldn’t do those things. Running, you’ve got to be kidding me. I hate running. It makes me feel like I’m going to have a heart attack so I can’t run. That was assumption number one. Swimming, forget it. I almost drowned. My lung’s out of whack, can’t swim, assumption number two.
As soon as I fixed those things I go visit a friend in Tahoe, and he’s training for an Ironman. It’s like, “Yeah, let’s go swimming together. No problem.” I go to South Africa, and I meet with Timothy Noakes whose legendary for writing this book called the Lore of Running, it’s like the definitive guide to running on the planet. And he says, “Hey, you want to go for a run in the mountains?” “Sure, no problem.” And I can go running, and it’s not like I’m going to beat everybody, it’s not like I’m going to beat someone who ran 50 marathons. However, can I keep up with them for a decent run? Yes, absolutely, no problem. It makes life just a lot more fun. And you don’t have to always be clanking the plates together. You can actually get out and do other things. And for me that was a real breakthrough, and I’m hoping for many other people that will be true as well.
And that also applies to people who are just doing cardio or endurance stuff. It’s like if you’re just a lungs and legs person as they say, if you’re always doing cycling, and you’ve never done upper body pressing movements, like, “Dude, do some Westside. Then in 12 months getting really strong, and you’ll feel better about yourself.” And I think that there’s a lot to be said for diversifying your physical identity that way.
Craig Ballantyne: That’s a good way of putting things. Now completely switching gears, we definitely want to get into the fat loss hacking. So we’re going to start with the diet program that you used in there, the slow carb diet. If you can just start with an explanation of that, maybe the structure of the seven days, the meals, and then we’ll go from there.
Tim Ferriss: Yes. The slow carb diet is really, really simple, and I think that’s part of the reason it works. I attract hundreds of people following this prescription, have several thousand blog comments that I used also as feedback. The slow carb diet’s very straightforward. Really there are only a few rules. You can’t eat anything white. The only exception to that I can think of is cauliflower offhand. Cauliflower is fine, but you can’t eat bread. You can’t eat pasta. You’re going to get rid of grains, etc. Six days a week.
Okay, so you follow this diet six day a week, and you have one off day, one binge day so to speak. So don’t eat anything white, don’t drink your calories – so no milk, no fruit juice – don’t eat fruit. This is a controversial point that we can get into if you want, but fructose really stalls fat loss the way that most people consume it. Don’t eat fruit, certainly don’t drink fruit juice. Again, all these things apply six days a week. And then lean protein, 30 grams within 30 minutes of getting up.
So you’re basically eating vegetables and protein, very much a paleo-like diet, but you’re also adding in – and this is another controversial point – you’re also adding in legumes, things like lentils and beans and so forth like that just to maintain caloric load among other things. And that’s it.
And on the binge day you go nuts. So you spend one day a week, you do whatever the hell you want. There’s no calorie counting at all on the entire program. And on the binge day it doesn’t matter if you eat 10,000 calories, honestly. The last time, close to Halloween, that I had my binge day it was pretty disgusting. I’m not going to lie. This is really repulsive, but I bought all this candy, and I thought that I was going to have trick-or-theaters because I recently moved, and I got one trick-or-treater. So I bought all these Twix bars, and I ate two boxes of Twix bars, it’s like 3,000 calories of Twix bars, in about 20 minutes. I mean really disgusting behavior, but I like Twix, what can I say, and it was Halloween. So that type of behavior once a week will not throw you off course.
And I’ve been doing this for more than five years now. And that’s the exact diet, the exact same approach that my dad used, the exact same approach that many of the people in the book used to have lost more than 100 pounds. And it works. It works really effectively. It’s not complicated. It’s easy to follow if you travel, which can be more difficult with let’s say stricter varieties like paleo it can be more challenging if you’re in an airport, and you need to eat paleo, and you’re not allowed to have beans, for example. I just find that it’s very effective middle ground that allows people to be compliant for a much longer period of time. Fifty-eight percent of the people I tracked said it was the first diet, they’ve ever been able to follow. And that’s it, so that’s the slow carb diet.
That ends Part 2 of 3 of my interview with Tim about the “4-Hour Body”. I know that info will help you, but it gets even better in the rest of the interview.;
Now when you’re ready, let’s move to Part 3 of the interview where Tim and I discuss:
- Why red wine is the most acceptable alcohol on a fat loss program (controversial)
- The Cheat Meal vs Cheat Day Debate
- His amazing step-by-step plan for maximizing a cheat meal
- The one weird thing he puts on a pizza.