Achieving Optimal Efficiency

After three months at HBS, most students figure out how to power through cases efficiently. What once took hours is reduced significantly, with the same or even better results. The trick is focus. Think about how much longer it takes to get through cases in Spangler, with people stopping by every 7 minutes, versus the quiet of Baker or your own room.

Since everyone knows this, I am consistently amazed when friends express dissatisfaction with their ROS (return on sweat equity) from their workouts. Whatever their personal goals: weight loss/gain, muscle toning/building, cardiovascular fitness, etc., the complaint is the same – lots of time/effort = lower than expected results.

Now, two things could be gong on here. The first is that these individuals have unrealistic expectations. While this is a serious consideration, its implications are beyond my training, so let us assume for the purposes of this article that we understand we all cannot achieve 5.5% body fat.

A much more likely cause is that inefficiency in execution and misinformation have rendered the fitness program ineffective. As we move away from this place of 3 hour “work days” and close access to great equipment, this inefficiency will magnify – causing some to continually spiral towards poor fitness, literally exercising themselves out of shape.

Building an efficient exercise and nutrition program is not difficult, but it does take expertise. See a trainer, discuss your goals and ask questions. Be honest about how much time/effort you plan to put in to your workouts – this will determine the types of exercises your trainer recommends.

I’ll try to help by clearing up a few common misperceptions I’ve found are prevalent at HBS:

1. Lift really heavy weights to build muscle, lift light weights to get toned.
This is a common, and dangerous, misperception. In its extreme it leads some to injury and others to complacency. The rule of thumb is simple – lift enough weight so that your last repetition (rep) is the last possible one you can perform without assistance. Your personal fitness goals will determine the number of repetitions to perform. In general, to build mass do 3-5 sets of 4-7 reps, to tone muscle do 4-5 sets of 12-15 reps. Never lift weight that you cannot control with perfect form. Conversely, standing in front of the mirror and doing 50 arm curls with 2 pound weights does little to nothing for you. Work to exhaustion, and you will see results.

2. Women who lift weights will get bulky.
This is my least favorite misperception, because no matter how many times it is corrected, it still persists. Let’s be clear: it takes professional bodybuilders years to put on lean mass – you will not pack on muscle in a few weeks just because you grab a weight. In fact, lifting weights and increasing your body’s percentage of muscle mass versus fat will increase your metabolism (muscle burns energy more efficiently). Women who tell me they want Madonna’s arms and then spend 3 hours hopping up and down on a Stairmaster are missing the point – Madonna hits the weights like a pro. With regards to how much and how often, there isn’t much difference between women and men when it comes to weight training. All the rules listed above apply to the ladies as well. Lift enough weight to make it count. Your diet will determine whether you wind up looking toned or stocky.

3. It takes tons of time to build a good body.
True, in some sense. People with “perfect” bodies usually have the luxury of private trainers and tons of time. However, a really efficient and effective workout doesn’t have to last days. The key is intensity. Maximize each moment you spend in the gym. A good program that gets results can take as little as 45 minutes, 3 times a week + 2 cardio sessions outside the gym (running, etc. for at least an hour). Most people I see at Shad, if they aren’t chatting with friends, are moping around from machine to machine, wasting time. Utilize active rest-which means “resting” a muscle group you just worked out while doing different exercises (abs, or opposing muscle groups, i.e. resting your biceps by working out your triceps). Know what you are going to do before you get into the gym. Two or three exercises for each muscle group, working two muscle groups each visit is plenty. See below:

Day 1
Chest, Biceps
+ abs (5 minutes)

Day 2
Shoulders, Triceps
+ abs (5 minutes)

Day 3
Back, Legs
+ abs (5 minutes)

4. I want to lose fat in my legs, so I should use the bike or something that works my legs.

This one is very simple. No. There is no such thing as spot fat reduction. The body just doesn’t work that way. If anyone says this, walk away. Any cardiovascular exercise that raises the heart rate to 50-80% of your maximum (see a chart or trainer to determine your max heart rate) for more than 45 minutes burns fat. Where you burn fat and where you accumulate it is a function of your gender and genetics. It’s true, some people have trouble burning fat in certain spots – but before you give up or rush to liposuction, be aware that even trouble spots can be greatly reduced by an adjustment to your diet. See a nutritionist if you are doing everything right and the fat still isn’t going away.

I feel compelled to mention something about gym etiquette. If you are using a machine, make sure you allow people to “work in” between sets. This doesn’t really affect the efficiency of your workout, it just bothers me immensely when I am trying to get my workout done and someone is using the machine as a rest stop between sets.

Finally, just a quick note about misinformation. You wouldn’t trust someone’s investment advice just because they’re rich, right? They might have inherited the money without the slightest market sense to go with it. Correspondingly, don’t trust people in the gym simply because they have a good body. Most of the information I hear around Shad is wrong (ie, you cannot work the ‘upper’ and ‘lower’ abs since there is not upper and lower abs. The abdominal muscle is a single, long muscle*.) Talk to the trainers or someone who knows.

Yours in health,
The Shad Scholar

Note: The Shad Scholar is an RC student andan NFPT (National Federation of Personal Trainers) Level 1 Certified Personal Trainer/Nutrition Counselor.

* The trick to toned abs is to work your lower back.

Editor’s Note: If you have a question regarding fitness, email it to and the Shad Scholar will try to answer it in a future column.