Four big learnings on health (Part Four: Exercise and X3)
I was debating whether to title this post “The Ultimate Pandemic Workout”, “Maximum Efficiency with Maximum Results”, or something else, but stuck with the thematic of my four-part series on health.
In the first three Parts, I covered:
1. Nutrition (and my vegan power breakfast smoothie recipe)
2. The Cooper Clinic
Two and a half years ago I had a really traumatic injury the day before the TED 2018 conference in Vancouver. I wrote about it on Facebook:
I knew that this injury would change my workouts forever, and I mentally chose positivity — that it would change them for the better. After eventually healing enough, I started to go to physical therapy to get my strength back. I noticed that the workouts were almost all based on strength bands instead of free weights, which I had grown up using (and didn’t really “evolve” from that). I want to thank JD Whittemore and his team at Texas Physical Therapy Specialists again for all of their care — they were truly terrific.
Once I graduated from Texas Physical Therapy Specialists in November of 2018, I was looking for that new kind of workout. I had reconnected with Deepak Suthar, who I used to work with at Bazaarvoice. Deepak had launched the Texas franchise of OsteoStrong, as I wrote about in Part Three. I was quickly regaining strength at OsteoStrong, and it was there where Deepak started to teach me about X3. Initially, I was skeptical but I reminded myself to be open-minded.
Like my physical therapy was, X3 is based entirely on strength bands coupled with a single bar and a plate you stand on for some of the exercises. Elisabeth Rushton has a very comprehensive review published here, and you can find many videos about it on YouTube, including this one by the founder, John Jaquish, walking you through Day One.
X3 is an extraordinarily efficient system, pushing your muscles to a quick fatigue without the same risk of injury that I experienced in Vancouver. For example, when you are doing a traditional bench press your muscles are limited to the weight you can press up at the bottom of the range, where the bar is close to your chest. Your pec tendons are very stretched out at the bottom and carrying the brunt of that load — this is in fact where I ripped my left pec tendon off the bone. I learned through surgery and then physical therapy that this is a fairly common injury, especially for bodybuilders and powerlifters. By contrast, at the bottom of the range in an X3 chest press the band is fairly slack and that gives you a far less chance of injury. You don’t have a lot of tension in a vulnerable position. This also means you can add significantly more weight (by using the larger X3 bands) because the tension increases as you press to your strength zone, at the top of the range when your arms are the most outstretched and your pecs are firing the hardest.
There are eight core exercises for X3 — four for pull days and four for push days. Over time as my strength quickly recovered and then exceeded where I was before my injury, I added two additional X3 exercises.
Here are the five exercises for Pull days, in the order I do them:
2. Bicep curls
5. Traps (the extra X3 exercise I added, using a narrow grip on the bar with the band doubled over)
And here are the five for Push days, also in order:
1. Chest press
2. Tricep pull-downs
3. Chest flies, alternating between crossing over and under each time (the extra X3 exercise I added, using the doubled-over band only)
4. Shoulder press
All of these are very well documented in various places on the Web, and if you buy an X3 it also comes with instructional videos.
X3 was so effective that I bought one for our office for our team members to use and used to regularly show them how to do the workouts. Unfortunately, that changed in March as we all went to a work-from-home mode to help bend the curve and protect ourselves and our families from COVID-19.
The gains I made were pretty incredible, especially for someone who typically works around 90 hours per week, between being the CEO of data.world and managing our investments. I’m stronger and in more shape right now than I’ve been in 20 years, thanks to X3 and my overall workout and diet. Here’s a photo that our son took of me doing X3 bicep curls.
I cancelled my gym membership about three months into X3. Although X3 is an expensive upfront cost, you’ll gain your money back quickly with the monthly gym fees saved and you’ll also massively optimize your time. And X3 is an entire body workout, which promotes balance in building your body and developing whole body strength.
However, I don’t just do X3 for my daily workout. X3 claims that it will only take you ten minutes to do daily, but I personally don’t recommend that. My daily workout, which incorporates X3, takes a total of around one hour. I start with around ten minutes of stretches, followed by a now 19-minute-30-second plank (yes, I definitely time this), then multiple bodyweight exercises, and finally finish with X3. I’ve done this workout for at least 600 days over the past two years, so I feel pretty qualified to share it with you now. Consistency is key and it will take you around 30-40 minutes per day when you are starting out (building up your plank time really elongates this workout). As a very busy person, that consistency is one of the things I love the most about this workout — you are hitting your muscle groups every other day and getting more daily workouts in per week. Back when I went to a gym, I was lucky to go more than three times per week because of how much time the commute took back and forth and balancing work and family with it all. X3 is also easy to travel with, although you will need to check your bag (but it beats finding a gym or your hotel not having one at all).
Putting it altogether, here is exactly what I do for my daily workout (and I workout 5-6 times per week):
Brett’s Ultimate Pandemic Workout
I start with 5 stretches, primarily for my lower back and hips. These are very important as the only injury I’ve gotten doing an X3 exercise is a lower-back muscle pull (and usually that has been on the deadlift). Those stopped over 12 months ago and they never took more than a few days to recover from. Note that I do all of my work on a computer, like a typical knowledge economy worker, and that means a lot of sitting. These stretches and exercises will help you recover from sitting so much, which weakens your core. A weak core is the fastest path to injury, especially as you get older.
It is very important that you do all of these exercises and stretches on a nice yoga mat. As you can see in the photo above, I workout without wearing shoes so that my feet also build strength (think yoga). Personally, I use the Manduka Pro Series yoga mats. They are expensive but very much worth it, especially as you build up to a longer plank.
Stretch 1: Lay down on your back and pull your knees to your chest. I’ve done this stretch for so long that I can literally feel my spine decompress. I can actually get my lower-back muscles to move while doing this. This video shows you how to do it with each knee and then both knees but I just do both knees from the beginning. Also, let me take the time here to thank my good friend Brett Jenks, CEO of Rare, an incredible NGO and data.world customer, for giving me the original idea for this stretch and a few others below. Brett adopted these after so many intercontinental plane flights (Rare is very global) to help alleviate lower-back pain, and he was kind enough to pass these onto me.
Stretches 2 and 3: Staying on my back, I stretch my knees from one side to the other, letting them lay on each side for around 30 seconds each. I really take my time with all of these stretches, and that is why they take me around 10 minutes. This is my time to really relax and decompress from all of the sitting. This video shows you how.
Stretches 4 and 5: Staying on my back, I then stretch each knee across my chest, as shown on this video. I sometimes feel my back slightly pop on this stretch, and that is totally normal and feels quite good. Kind of like going to a chiropractor, but without commute or fees. Note that I used to go to a chiropractor once every two weeks but I haven’t since the pandemic began and still feel great.
Warm-up exercise for my plank: To warm up my abs for what is now a very challenging plank, I lift my lower hips barely off of the ground while trying to keep my spine mostly on the ground. My knees are bent and I’m primarily engaging my lower abs although I can feel all of my abs firing. I do around 80 of these but I started out with around 20 or so. My only goal here is to fire up my abs for my plank, and I’m not doing this to exhaustion. This video is somewhat similar although I’m not using a bench — my feet are planted on the ground (on my yoga mat) with my knees bent.
Planking: I wrote about how to do my planking exercise already, and I’ve now built up to 19 minutes and 30 seconds. I never did a plank longer than 3 minutes and 30 seconds prior to my injury. The key here is consistency — and I built up to this length over a two-year period by “simply” adding 10–15 seconds per week (and a few weeks over that two years I plateaued and needed to wait one more week to build up more strength before increasing my time). Isn’t this the secret to becoming good at anything? Very incremental and slow progress — not some quick-fix gimmick? Building up like this has dramatically decreased back pain and made me much stronger overall. Simple tasks, like getting up out of bed, are now very easy.
Note that this exercise is actually four planks in one — a traditional elbow plank, followed by lifting one foot off the ground and holding, then another and holding, and finishing back in the original planking position with both feet on the ground. My post on planking describes how to do it in detail. It is a pretty incredible feeling — you go from a normal body temperature to sweating by the end of it and I can literally feel my body temperature rise from minute to minute. The mental challenge of going for over 19 minutes now is pretty awesome — my body “wants” to stop but I press on with my mind. There are of course other benefits to building your mental discipline.
Side-leg lifts: Now it is time to fire up my legs more as X3 is a total body exercise system. And I also want to hit my oblique muscles more. This article describes how to do them and I typically do 22 per side, although I started out around 10 per side. Remember in doing these exercises that you want to keep enough gas in your tank to do X3 at the end — as that is your fastest path to build strength and muscle mass.
One-handed stands: Now I need to fire up my chest more for X3. I get in a one-handed push-up position, but I just hold each side for 25 seconds. When I first started out, I held each side for around 10 seconds. Again, you want to get fired up here, not totally fatigued.
10-second push-up: To fire up my chest a bit more, I then do a very slow push-up with my elbows close to my sides (wide-grip push-ups can lead to too much tension on your pec tendons). Five seconds down and five seconds up. Just one.
Child’s pose (yoga): I now go into child’s pose to relax for 20–30 seconds. This video shows you how. This feels so good after all of those body weight exercises.
Lunges: To fire up my legs more, I now stand up and finish with 22 lunges on each side. The first video in this article shows you how.
Whew, I’m now ready for strength training and muscle mass building with X3. All of that took me around 40 minutes to do, but you will start out with less time, like around 20 minutes. This is because your plank will probably start at somewhere between 1-4 minutes, depending on your overall level of conditioning.
X3 exercises: I now do my five X3 exercises (as detailed above) depending on whether it is Pull or Push day. Around 1pm today (Sunday), I’ll be doing Pull exercises, but during a regular workday I typically do these exercises around 5:30 or 6pm. Work is quieter then, so it really allows me to focus.
One note on X3 — make sure you really focus on form, as show in John Jaquish’s how-to videos. Also make sure to always keep your fists in a punching, facing forward position for the push exercises — you don’t want to strain your wrists. And don’t get frustrated as you hit plateaus — sometimes it will take awhile for your forearm strength to catch up, for example, but be confident that you are building overall body strength and eventually everything will fall in line as your weaker muscles catch up (often because of years going to the gym and compensating incorrectly).
If you want more proof and you are a Dave Asprey “Bulletproof” diet fan, like my wife is, I recommend watching Dave’s interview of John Jaquish to learn more about the science behind this.
Often people ask me, “What do you listen to during that long plank?” Well, it isn’t just the plank. My overall exercise routine lasts around an hour now, and I love to multitask. I also find that it goes by faster if I’m not just listening to my own breath and grunts. Some people listen to music during their exercise time, but I choose to listen to podcasts or audio books. This helps me accomplish my goal of an Always Be Learning life, as I wrote about in Chapter 4 of my book, The Entrepreneur’s Essentials. Right now I’m working my way through Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder by Nissim Taleb but I’m alternating that with episodes of The Daily, Sam Harris, The Journal, and many other podcasts (I recently finished Bill Gates and Rashida Jones Ask Big Questions, which was excellent).
I hope this pandemic exercise routine changes your life, as it did mine. It will, of course, outlive the pandemic (and thankfully it started before the pandemic for me, so I was already very used to it). I feel stronger and healthier than I have in 20 years and my life is far more time-optimized as well. Plus, no gym fees!
Now watch The Game Changers and adopt a plant-based diet and you’ll feel better than ever, inside and out!