Although you can’t necessarily shortcut your way to health, there are certainly ways to maximize your exercise time that go above and beyond traditional workouts. One of the more appealing aspects of this type of fitness “biohacking” is the ability to get maximum effects with a minimal effective dose of effort, or to achieve more than one fitness result at the same time with as much efficiency as possible. These techniques allow you to achieve fitness, fat loss, or performance results faster than you would normally be able to.
Hacking a workout can be as simple as knowing what tools to have on hand that will allow you to get an effective workout anytime, anywhere, to advanced tactics that combine multiple elements of training that synergistically work together to provide you with enhanced exercise productivity and as much bang for the buck as possible in the minimum amount of time.
Biohacking also takes into consideration the latest science and technology that further enhance training and your body’s response to stimuli. By blending ancestral living with modern technology, you can make exercising and molding your body not only incredibly fun, but also engage in better living through science. This will let you quickly and cleanly shortcut your way to a lean physique, using everything that modern science has taught us about efficient exercise.
But don’t think these tactics are just for the advanced athlete! These methods can be utilized by anyone to achieve specific goals at a faster rate. So let’s begin with the ultimate, travel-friendly toolkit that ensures a killer workout without access to a gym.
1) Hacking Your Vacations & Working Out Anywhere
When you’re on the road, you probably want to focus more on museums, family, friends, the beach, or business (depending on what kind of trip it is), and focus less on the gym. But you don’t have to cut out your workouts completely, you just need to optimize the time you spend on them by knowing exactly which tools to have on hand. If you travel with as little as a kettlebell, a suspension trainer, an elastic band and a couple of light “sliders” (think tiny plates the size of paper plates), you can still get in a tough, quick workout from just about anywhere. Here's a list of exercises you can perform with the portable exercise equipment mentioned above:
-Around the world
-Single arm clean to overhead press
-Suspended pushups with knee-to-chest
-Left and right leg suspended lunges
-Skipping in place
The fact is, from family reunions to road trips to long airplane rides, there are ways for you to take your workouts with you wherever you go. And these methods are just as effective at home as they are on vacation, eliminating just about any excuse you may have keeping you from exercising.
2) Blood Flow Restriction Training
This technique is also called occlusion training. The concept is simple: you take an elastic band or piece of plastic tubing (which a lot of gyms carry), wrap it around the muscle you want to work like a tourniquet, and then do your workout. For example, if it’s arm day and you’re doing bicep curls, you’d wrap the band or tubing around your arm first, then do the movement.
Over the past few years, a lot of research has surfaced on this style of training, and there’s a little bit more to it than just getting a better pump. When you cut off a little bit of blood flow to a muscle, then train it, the massive dose of growth hormone to that muscle is due to the lactic acid that builds up in the tissue, which your blood can’t drain while restricted. There’s even a study that was recently performed on seniors that found that they were able to build muscle as they got older, at a lower risk of injury, when they trained with occlusion training or blood-flow restricted training.
An article on the relation of hypoxia (which you’ll learn more about just a bit) and neuromuscular function stated that the hypoxic conditions created within muscles during vascular occlusion played a key role in improving strength and muscular efficiency during training. Not only that, but it suggested that occlusion training at 30-50% of your 1RM may be just as effective as high-intensity resistance training at 70-85% of your 1RM.
One study concluded that low-intensity occlusion training has unique benefits in growth hormone release, muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size due to the increase of cells), and strength training for those with joint pain, or anyone who is unable to sustain high weight loads, like athletes who are unloading and postoperative patients. Another study done on division IA football players determined that occlusion training done at 20% of 1 rep max (1RM) resulted in strength increases of 7% to 8 % in just 4 weeks.
A Japanese technique that employs a device called a “kaatsu” training device achieves the same effect. Whatever you call it, and wherever it comes from, the concept is the same. You limit blood flow to a muscle while training, and as a response, that muscle turns out more growth hormone, a better tolerance to lactic acid, and better cardiovascular blood flow. One of the common bits of equipment used for this is known as a BFR band, which just stands for blood-flow restriction band. It's easy to put on, easy to train with, and easy to remove.
You can also use it for bodyweight training. An easy workout might look like this: wrap both arms, then do 30 pushups, rest, do 20 pushups, rest, do 10 pushups. By the end, you’ll feel like a complete wimp. 10 pushups becomes next to impossible when you cut off the blood flow to the muscles.
Again, this is a very simple hack to increase strength and lactic acid tolerance, build muscle mass, and accelerate the results. But, while the BFR band is pretty straightforward, some of the Japanese Kaatsu devices can get really intense. They’re handheld devices that allow you to adjust the millimeters of mercury on your legs and your arms, and the tubes inflate and deflate as you go, so you can take this “biohack your training” thing to the absolute limit while doing occlusion training. Whether you use the BFR band or a Kaatsu device, occlusion training is a highly effective method of increasing strength, both at home and on the road.
3) Unstable Surfaces For Better Balance & Core Stabilization Strength
There’s actually a book out that introduces great training methods with tools like Neuro-Grips called Neuro-Mass. The basic idea is to make the surface beneath your hands while doing a pushup, less stable, which requires you to activate more muscles in your chest and core when you do each rep. While there are other technologies out there that achieve the same effect by providing an unstable surface, perhaps more efficiently, you don’t need a high-tech computer or a $1,000 vibrating platform to stand on to get more muscular activation.
You can also get a set of sliding tools (or just a set of paper plates – just as effective). All you have to do is put your feet on them, and on any surface you can slide on, do things like mountain climbers, plank walks or crab walks – anything where you drag your legs and feet around as excess weight. You can even do stuff like pushups on them, sliding each hand out, alternating, as you hit the bottom of the movement, which will help to activate more of the stabilizing muscles and add a unique challenge to a familiar exercise.
You may have seen other types of balance gear at your gym, like balance pillows or BOSU balls, which achieve a similar result. You may have even tried yourself to do a squat on a half-BOSU ball. If you’ve used any of these types of things, you know how difficult a working surface they provide, as well as the benefits that you reap when you use them consistently.
4) Restricted Breathing For Better Oxygen Utilization
Another simple method for improving your training is biohacking your breathing. When you restrict your access to oxygen and force your inspiratory-expiratory muscles (the muscles in your abdomen that contract and relax your lungs and diaphragm) to work harder to force oxygen in and carbon dioxide out, you build a stronger diaphragm, stronger inspiratory-expiratory muscles, and even develop a higher tolerance to carbon dioxide.
You may have seen one of these devices before, maybe even on actors training for a role in some action-packed Hollywood movie: an oxygen-restriction mask, sometimes called an altitude training mask. The purpose of oxygen-restricted training (or inspiratory muscle training/IMT) is to make it harder to draw air into your lungs, thus restricting the amount of oxygen you can take in in a given breath.
Now, contrary to popular belief, oxygen-restriction masks don’t actually simulate training on top of a mountain. It doesn’t decrease the partial pressure of oxygen in the air that you’re breathing, which is hypoxic training. Some forms of restricted breathing training give you the benefits of both resisted breathing and hypoxic training, training in an environment with reduced oxygen. And many resisted-breathing devices are marketed as hypoxic-training devices, like SWAT team gas masks, or any mask that makes you look like the Batman villain, Bane. The truth is though, they don’t actually change the atmospheric pressure you’re training in. For a mask to do that, it has to be designed as an “intermittent hypoxic training” mask. When you’re charging down the treadmill, sporting your scary-looking altitude-training mask, you’re still breathing air that is approximately 21% oxygen, with the same partial oxygen pressure of whatever altitude you happen to be at. The mask just restricts the total amount of air you can inhale at once.
Real hypoxic training would require driving up to the top of a mountain, and running there, sleeping in an altitude training tent made by companies like Hypoxico, or using IHT sessions (intermittent hypoxic training sessions – using low-oxygen air through a mask) to expose your body to periods of hypoxia (9 to 14% oxygen). Think the Rocky Mountains in Colorado: that’s where you’d get real hypoxic training. This type of training, particularly when done at 95% of lactate threshold workload, is especially effective for improving aerobic capacity and endurance performance in normal oxygen-level environments.
The benefits of hypoxic training are undeniable. Deprived of oxygen, your body makes more hemoglobin (contained within red blood cells) to shuttle oxygen to your muscles, and produces more hormone and immune system adaptations. But, while you can purchase masks that achieve this effect, they typically run between $6,000 and $12,000 – not exactly something you just put on your Christmas wishlist.
So, the average fitness nut is limited to restricted-breathing training. But, by making breathing a heck of a lot harder, it’s still incredibly effective. It trains the inspiratory-expiratory muscles and the diaphragm and increases your tolerance to low amounts of oxygen and the build-up of CO2 that accumulates in the dead space of the mask. If you’re trying to improve ventilatory capacity, mental tolerance and stress resilience in low-oxygen, low-air situations, these masks are the way to go. Other benefits include increased heart stroke volume, which is an increased amount of blood circulated with each heart pump. This results in more oxygen available for your muscles to extract as they work. You can even use gear like the Powerlung to get a lung workout without exercising. So this type of training is still extremely efficient at improving your ventilatory capacity and VO2 max.
5) Sauna For Cardiovascular Improvements, Fat Loss, & Muscle Gain
Longevity & Heart Health
A report in JAMA Internal Medicine shows that regularly spending time in a sauna may help keep your heart healthy and extend life. Researchers from the University of Eastern Finland tracked 2,300 middle-aged men for an average of 20 years. They found that the more sessions per week men spent in the sauna, the lower their risk of sudden cardiac death and fatal coronary heart disease. The sauna also extended the life of participants with other illnesses, including cancer.
According to the study, participants who had two or three sauna sessions a week had a 22% reduced chance of suffering sudden cardiac death. Men who had four to seven sauna sessions of at least 20 minutes each, had the greatest benefits. Compared with those who had just one sauna session a week, they had a 63% lower risk of sudden cardiac death, 50% lower risk of CVD (cardiovascular disease) death, 48% lower risk of CHD (coronary heart disease) death and were 40% less likely to die from all causes.
Researchers reported that the benefit to cardiovascular health was likely due to the decrease in blood pressure and an increase in blood vessel diameter that both infrared exposure and heat exposure can provide.
Increased Cardiovascular Performance
Research has shown 30 minutes of sauna treatment after exercise can cause an increase in oxygen consumption and red blood cell production that parallels the use of erythropoietin (EPO). In the high temperatures of an infrared sauna, your skin heats up and core body temperature rises. Then, in response to these increased heat levels, the blood vessels near your skin dilate and cause an increase in cardiac output. This causes your heart rate to shoot up from 60-70bpm (beats per minute) to as high as over 150bpm in the sauna. So with regular sauna use, you not only train your heart muscles and improve your cardiac output, but you also help the body's regulatory system move blood around the body to areas that need cooling.
You can enhance this cardiovascular conditioning even more when your sauna is combined with alternating sessions into a cool shower, a quick dip into a cold pool or lake, or a step into your backyard to shower yourself down with a garden hose. Each time you rapidly change temperature (from hot to cool or vice-versa), your heart rate increases by as much as 60%, which is very comparable to the heart rate increase experienced during moderate exercise.
Detoxification & Fat Loss
A sauna can also purify the body from the inside out, eliminating compounds such as PCB’s, metals and toxins that are stored in fat cells, which can undergo lipolysis and release toxins upon exposure to infrared-based heat. Yep, you read that right: you are going to battle against and killing little screaming fat cells to death when you sweat in a sauna. They don’t shrink: they die (especially when combined with niacin, which research has some interesting findings on).
Growth hormone is crucial for repair and recovery of muscles, and research has shown that two 20-minute sauna sessions separated by a 30-minute cooling period elevated growth hormone levels two-fold over baseline. Two 15-minute sauna sessions at an even warmer temperature separated by a 30-minute cooling period resulted in a five-fold increase in growth hormone.
Perhaps even better is that repeated exposure to whole-body, intermittent hyperthermia through sauna use boosts growth hormone immediately afterward, and two one-hour sauna sessions for 7 days has been shown to increase growth hormone by 16-fold. Yeah, that’s right: you don’t need to go buy fancy supplements or creams to increase growth hormone. You can just make your body hot instead and get a growth hormone increase
It is also important to note that when hyperthermia and exercise are combined, they induce a synergistic increase in growth hormone, which is why you should do yoga, push-ups and squats, or any other exercise in a sauna. For an additional recovery benefit, sauna also increases blood flow to the skeletal muscles, which helps to keep them fueled with glucose, amino acids, fatty acids, and oxygen, while removing by-products of metabolic processes such as lactic acid and calcium ions.
Pain Relief & Mobility
In a report in The Annals of Clinical Research Volume 20, Dr. H. Isomäki discusses research results that show benefits of sauna for the relief of pain and increased mobility. In the study, the pain relief induced by a sauna was attributed to an increase in the release of anti-inflammatory compounds such as noradrenaline, adrenaline, cortisol and growth hormones, as well as an increase in positive stress on the body, causing it to releases natural pain-killing endorphins. More than 50% of participants reported temporary relief of pain and an increase in mobility, most likely due to the fact that tissues comprised of collagen, such as tendons, fascia, and joint articular capsules, become more flexible when exposed to increased temperatures.
Muscle Growth & Fat Loss
Sauna conditioning can lend itself to promoting muscle growth and fat loss by improving insulin sensitivity and decreasing muscle protein catabolism. Intermittent hyperthermia has been shown to reduce insulin resistance in obese mice, and in this case insulin resistant diabetic mice were subjected to 30 minutes of heat treatment, three times a week for twelve weeks. The results were a 31% decrease in insulin levels and a significant reduction in blood glucose levels, both of which can contribute to an increase in muscle growth and an increase in weight control and fat loss.
It has also been shown that a 30-minute intermittent hyperthermic treatment can cause a significant expression of something called heat shock proteins in muscle, which is correlated with 30% more muscle regrowth than a control group during seven days subsequent to a week of immobilization. In other words, let’s say you can’t weight train, you’ve got a recovery day or you want to maintain muscle but you’re injured. Based on the research cited above, via the use of a sauna instead, you can still maintain muscle.
These are five great examples of ways you can utilize more upper body and core muscles, stimulate greater growth hormone release, build up tolerance to lactic acid while you train, and increase inspiratory-expiratory muscle strength. Many of these tools will help you see faster results than you’d see while training with no extra help. And there are plenty of other techniques out there that will help you reach all kinds of goals that we'll explain in later articles, but for now, these tactics are a great way for you to enhance your workouts for superhuman results.