Learn from the world's fittest man

2004-07-20 12:37

Joe KitaCape Town - When you've spent 32 hours doing over 50 000 sit-ups, among numerous other fitness 'impossibles', it's no wonder that Steve Sokol knows a thing or two about exercise and training. Here's what we can learn from him.

Christmas day, 1980. It's raining heavily and triathlete Steve Sokol doesn't feel like getting wet. So he starts doing sit-ups. Two hours later, the turkey is cooked, but Sokol isn't: He's done 3 000 and still feels fresh.

Inspired by his performance that day, Sokol did half a million more sit-ups in the next six months and then set a world record of 52 003 (non-stop) in 32 hours, 17 minutes. It left him with second-degree burns on his butt and a blazing desire to see what other feats he could achieve.

Since then, Sokol has set nearly two dozen world fitness records, including 804.65km of stationary cycling in 24 hours, 4 026.4m of vertical climbing on a simulator in one hour, 3 333 squat thrusts in four hours, 30 000 star jumps in 7.5 hours, 5.5 continuous hours on a cross-country ski machine and 1 000 sit-ups in 16 minutes, 37 seconds. (That's more than one per second.)

The Guinness Book of World Records recently featured the 42-year-old Sokol on its television show, Guinness Primetime in the US. Participating in a one-man 'endurathon', he completed 15 grueling events in just fewer than 24 hours to earn the title of "World's Fittest Man".

What makes Sokol's stunt unique is how much you can learn from it. Besides being incredibly fit, Sokol is an exercise physiologist and knows plenty about training and performance.

The challenge: endurathon: 15 events in 24 hours.

10:08: Cycle 88.5km
Start carbo-loading three to four days before an endurance event. To reap longer-lasting benefits from this extra fuel, start at a moderate pace. "High-intensity exercise burns carbohydrates very quickly," says Sokol.

Try and maintain a cadence (pedal speed) of 80 to 110rpm, which will allow you to ride further and faster with less fatigue and knee strain. When your rate slows, shift to an easier gear.

13:38: Power-walk eight kilometres
When making a comeback most people decide to get back in shape by heading for the weight room or running. The first strategy is flawed because strength training doesn't burn enough kilojoules to trigger fat loss immediately. The second approach - jogging - is so difficult and tedious that it's often quickly abandoned. The best way to stage a comeback is by walking. You'll build strength, increase endurance and burn kilojoules without a lot of pain. Start out slow and gradually increase speed. When you can average 8km/h, you'll be able to begin (and enjoy) a running programme.

14:41: Cycle 30 kilometres
Sit to climb. Many cyclists spring out of the saddle when they reach a hill. Sokol says it's smarter to stay seated on all but the steepest inclines and to use your gears to maintain a quick cadence. Grinding up hills in a big gear while standing will quickly turn your thigh muscles to pudding.

16:09: Paddle eight kilometres
Athletes with the most impressive abdominals are kayakers. The secret is the paddling motion, which employs the torso and back muscles. To avoid blisters, sore hands and upper-body fatigue, hold the paddle with a light grip; you should never see white knuckles.

18:08: Hike 16 kilometres
Buy boots that are slightly bigger than the shoes you normally wear. Two reasons: Firstly, your feet swell with strenuous use, and secondly, when hiking downhill you'll need extra room in the boot's toe box to accommodate your foot as it slides forward.

21:40: 1 000 crunches
Crunches don't burn fat; aerobic exercise does. Five to 10 minutes' worth of ab exercises, three times per week, is all anyone needs for tone and definition. Fewer crunches equal better abs. 'Fewer but harder' is Sokol's tune. Each crunch he does in training lasts four seconds. "Make your stomach muscles work almost to the point of cramping on every repetition."


Reverse crunch: Lie on your back, legs in the air, knees bent 90 degrees. But don't try to bring your thighs or knees to your chest; think about bringing your hips there. This works the section below the belly button.

Oblique crunch: Lie on your back, left foot flat on the floor, right ankle on the left knee. But don't try to bring your right elbow across to your left knee; try to bring your right shoulder there. This works the muscles on the sides of the abdomen. Do a set or two of these to each side after the traditional crunches.

22:32: 1 000 star jumps
"Star jumps are like a skipping rope for the uncoordinated," says Sokol. "They can be done anywhere, work most parts of the body and build cardiovascular endurance."

23:07: 1 000 leg lifts
Warning! Dangerous exercise. Although Sokol has set multiple world records for leg lifts, he contends that most guys should never do them because it can strain the lower back. This exercise mainly works the hip-flexor muscles, not the abdominals, as many believe.

00:38: 1 000 push-ups
Inhale as you drop towards the floor, and then exhale as you push back up. "The rhythm focuses your energy," says Sokol. "All that fresh oxygen minimises lactic acid build-up, which is what causes the burning sensation in your shoulders, chest and triceps."

Make push-up power progressive, do each version until it seems relatively easy, then advance to the next level.

Knee push-up: Same as a regular push-up, only your knees are on the ground.
Conventional push-up: Keep your torso straight and your abdominals tight. Envision doing a bench press; the arm movement is the same.
Incline push-up: Put both feet on a step and your palms on the floor. Such an incline increases the weight on your hands by as much as 10 kilograms.

01:40: Run 15km on a treadmill
If you watch Olympic sprinters in slow motion, you'll notice that their facial muscles are so relaxed that their cheeks flap. High-level athletes have mastered the ability to relax muscles that would sap energy and oxygen if they were tense. Think 'soft face' on your next run, and see what a difference it makes.

03:01: Row 15km on an ergometer
Sokol estimates that 80% of the energy for rowing comes from the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles, while only 20% comes from the arms and chest. For better technique and performance, think '80/20' as you row.

Stationary rowing is torturously tedious. So don't try to do it steadily for long periods, row 'pieces' by dividing your workout into segments based on either time or distance.

05:45: Lift a total of 22 000kg
When lifting weight remember that it's the resting, eating and sleeping after the workout that make you stronger and not the workout itself.

Lat pull-down: The key to doing this exercise effectively is to pull with your elbows, not your hands. This ensures that your back muscles do most of the work.
Bench press: Inhale and expand your chest as you lower the weight, then exhale forcefully and blow the weight up.
Biceps curl: Don't just bend your arm up and down. Grasp the dumbbell so that your palm faces your hip. Then turn your wrist as you raise the weight, finishing with your palm facing the front of your shoulder. This uses the entire muscle and spurs growth.

06:55: Swim 3km
The most common mistake novice swimmers make is trying to muscle the water, pulling and kicking as hard as possible. Sokol recommends keeping three images in mind: Dolphin, torpedo, submarine. "You want to be long and sleek in the water - glide after every stroke and roll from side to side."

Don't concentrate on distance. Sokol contends that you'll actually become fitter and develop better form by swimming shorter segments.

08:44: Cycle 40km
Active rest. It's sometimes better to go for a very easy ride or 'spin' the day after a hard bike ride than to rest completely.

Fab four

Here are four of Sokol's favourite 'pressed-for-time' programmes:

Best 15-minute workout: Start with a few minutes of star jumps and running in place to warm up, then alternate sets of push-ups, abdominal crunches and bodyweight squats.

Best 30-minute workout: Pick your favourite cardiovascular exercise and sandwich 20 minutes of anaerobic threshold (AT) work between five minutes of warm-up and cool-down. Your AT is the exertion point at which you begin panting and can no longer carry on a conversation. Stay just below this.

Best 45-minute workout: Warm up with five minutes of your favourite aerobic exercise, then do 20 minutes of intervals (one minute hard, one minute easy). Cool down for five minutes, then follow with 15 minutes of high-intensity weight training. Alternate pushing and pulling exercises (biceps/triceps, quads/hamstrings, etc).

Best 60-minute workout: Pick your top three exercise goals, then allot them 30, 20 and 10 minutes respectively. If your priority is to lose fat, spend the first half-hour of the workout exercising aerobically. If your second priority is to be stronger, lift weights for the next 20 minutes. If your third priority is flexibility, stretch for the final 10 minutes.

Workout: Reverse crunch Lie on your back, legs in the air, knees bent 90 degrees. But don't try to bring your thighs or knees to your chest; think about bringing your hips there. This works the section below the belly button.

Oblique crunch: Lie on your back, left foot flat on the floor, right ankle on the left knee. But don't try to bring your right elbow across to your left knee; try to bring your right shoulder there. This works the muscles on the sides of the abdomen. Do a set or two of these to each side after the traditional crunches.


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