A Simple, But Not Easy 20-Minute Weight-Loss Workout

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  • October 7, 2016
A Simple, But Not Easy 20-Minute Weight-Loss Workout

The idea of “cardio” has a bit of a stigma. Cardio, by definition, is currently out-of-style and because of the tough-guy mentality that pervades many of the training systems in today’s fitness industry, classic cardio for weight loss and conditioning has become taboo.

Well, I’m here to tell you, there’s a workout out there that not only keeps us old timers who love our cardio and our cardio machines happy, but will also give the “hard as nails” group something to chew on.

How I Discovered This Weight-Loss Workout

How many of you remember the Body-for-Life program? Bill Phillips created the system over fifteen years ago. Within the program, perhaps the most impactful tool provided is the cardio plan, effectively named the 20-Minute Aerobics Solution. It’s an interval program that forces the user (if you choose to follow it exactly as written) to work at very intense levels that strip your frame of body fat. Not only that, it’s a fabulous conditioning builder and can radically influence some of the markers we look at for health.

I’m not allowed to make medical claims for you, so I will tell you what this workout has done for me. With an assertive diet change and this cardio routine, I dropped close to thirty pounds and reduced my blood pressure from 170/110 to 128/78 in one month. How do I know this? Because I had a bit of a cardiac incident in June followed by some stern conversations with my doctor, so I put myself to work. I monitored my vitals regularly for this month, and watched a daily shift occur in not only my body weight but also my blood pressure. It was quite amazing.

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How Hard Am I Really Working?

How many of you have heard of the Borg Scale of Perceived Exertion? It’s a fancy way of measuring how hard you think you are working. Mysteriously, the Borg Scale starts at the number 6 and peaks out at 20 — 6 being next-to-no work and 20 meaning pedal to the metal, as hard as you can go.

The 20-Minute Aerobic Solution uses a similar scale, but sticks to something a little more familiar to all of us, the classic 1-10. Remember, this is going to be a measurement on how hard you think you are physically working — 1 being what I’m doing now (sitting and typing) to 10 where I’d be sprinting as hard as I can down the street. Here’s my advice on how you can visualize these levels:

  • Level 1: Sitting
  • Level 2: Slow walk
  • Level 3: Walk
  • Level 4: Brisk walk
  • Level 5: Easy jog
  • Level 6: Jog
  • Level 7: Fast jog
  • Level 8: Run
  • Level 9: Hard run
  • Level 10: Sprint

Like the program says in the name, we are only working for 20 minutes. What we need to understand is that these are going to be 20 very specific minutes. The protocol is based off our 1-10 and you need to stick to what is prescribed. The routine breaks down like this:

Simple But Not Easy Weight-Loss Workout

Where most people screw this up is they think the “level” prescription is the level setting on the machine they are using. Remember, “level” means how hard you feel you are working. You could set your machine to its resistance setting level 1 and go as hard as you can to equate to your level 10 (effort) or high point in the cardio plan. This program is about you being focused on how you are feeling, and then actually trying to increase your work output to match the prescribed levels.

What you will quickly find is that this is not easy. Most of us rarely work at all-out levels, so when you do this the first time, it takes some gauging. Don’t worry, you will get the hang of it quickly and will be able to adjust on the fly.

What You Eat Post-Workout Really Matters

It is recommended to do this fasted, first thing in the morning. You can have water, but the program’s effectiveness was determined when participants did it with an empty belly. Furthermore, it is recommended that you wait to eat for an hour after you have finished. I know waiting to eat can feel daunting, but if you want maximum efficiency, try to follow the guidelines. If you absolutely have to eat something soon after your session, eat a protein- and fat-dense meal or snack like some eggs or chicken breast.

A Simple, But Not Easy 20-Minute Weight-Loss Workout

The important thing is that you want to avoid consuming carbohydrates for the hour following your training session. Imagine you have two cups that are nearly full. One cup represents the total concentration of carbohydrates in the body (in the brain, the liver, muscles, etc.). The other cup is the representation of the total amount of fat you are carrying. In an ideal situation, we want to empty the fat cup as much as possible to achieve that lean, muscular body we all want.

Doing lower intensity, longer duration cardio appears on paper like the answer to our fitness wishes. That style of exercise bypasses the need for sugars (carbohydrates) and, in theory, our fat storage becomes our body’s primary fuel source. But hold on! Even with a well-balanced diet, if you are consuming carbs, the body goes through a system of checks and balances when deciding on its fuel source. The brain has enough sugar? Check. The liver has what it needs? Check. And if you’re doing low-intensity “fat burning” cardio, then your muscles still have a full dose of sugars waiting to be used.

With your carbohydrate cup full (your organs and tissues being topped off with carbs), any incoming carbohydrates can’t fit in the carb cup, so the excess carbs get stored in the fat cup. As a result, we end up in a cycle of slowly emptying the fat cup, followed by unintentionally refilling it with over-flowing carbs. So in the end, fat-burning workouts don’t really end up getting rid of much fat. You know those friends of yours who are dedicated to their exercise program yet their body never really changes? This is likely what you are seeing.

A Simple, But Not Easy 20-Minute Weight-Loss Workout

What higher intensity cardio does is address the carbohydrate cup. Imagine this. You do the workout outlined above, where due to the level of intensity our carbohydrate cup gets the biggest role in fueling the activity. You wait your hour, then have a sensible breakfast like some eggs, a banana, and some juice (a well rounded meal of carbs, proteins, and fats). Since you have lowered the carb cup with your exercise, that concentration of carbohydrates doesn’t overfill the cup.

Then, which is the most exciting piece to this, brushing your teeth, walking from place to place at work, talking on your phone (all of which are fat burning activities because of their relative low intensity) all begin to slowly chip away at the fat cup. Without the excess carbohydrate spillover, you get the chance reduce the fat concentration in the body in a more permanent way.

The Proof Is in the Pudding

Nearly every recommendation I give here on the Whole Life Challenge is something I have test driven on myself. I am a product of these things and even though, like you, I am still finding my way, there are a few things on which I firmly stand. This cardio program is one of them. It’s been a useful tool in my kit for over fifteen years.

If you follow the plan as it is written, you will get results. If you try it, post to the comments and let us know how it goes!

Photo 1 (CC BY 2.0) by CampusFrance.
Chris Holder
Chris Holder comes to The Whole Life Challenge with an incredibly diversified background. With over thirty years as an athlete and strength and conditioning coach, Chris is also a Daoist Priest and Medical Qigong Doctor.

Under the tutelage of legendary Kung Fu and Qigong Grand Master Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, Chris has been at the forefront of Qigong research at Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo, California. Dr. Holder has created a working laboratory within his strength program blending both eastern medical and spiritual practices with western scientific strength training protocols. Having concluded the first-of-its-kind Qigong/strength training study in the winter of 2015, Dr. Holder and his staff are preparing research on Qigong and the induction of flow states along with research investigating Qigong's impact on inflammation in high-level CrossFit athletes.

Known in many circles as a pioneer of kettlebell training at the college level, Chris, a Senior RKC, opened the door in the early 2000s to break the mold and monotony of the traditional methods of training college student-athletes. Having been mentored by some of the most recognizable gurus in the strength training world, Chris is an accomplished Olympic lifting coach, a fully decorated Z-Health Trainer, and a go-to expert on fixing issues with CrossFit competitors.
  • Brooke Fanady

    How many times a week do you recommend doing this workout?

    • susan pate

      From Body for Life
      Cardio-Training Plan
      Warm up the first 2 minutes at Intensity Level 5
      Minutes 2-3 move from Intensity Level 5 to 6
      Minutes 4-5, 6-10 and 11-14 work your way from Intensity Level 6 to Level 9, maintain for one minute.
      Minutes 15-19 work your way from Intensity Level 6 to Level 10 (High Point at Level 10), maintain for one minute.
      Minute 20 cool down to Intensity Level 5 for one minute.
      Alternate weight-training and cardio workouts for six consecutive days and rest on the seventh day.

    • Dr. Chris Holder

      Brooke- It depends on how fast you are looking to make progress… for me, I did one session everyday for my 30 days… it’s a bit of a bear the first few days, but you become comfortable in what you are doing (and if you used the same piece of equipment- elliptical, rower, stair master etc) and you can settle in to simply working… finding the right machine is really important… I use an old Precor elliptical that’s parked right next to my desk because I like the biomechanics of it… it feels “natural” to me, therefore I’m willing to get on it and work hard… in contrast, a machine that is uncomfortable or moves awkwardly can be a nightmare with this… comfort is key… If you are not in any rush and want to add this to your routine, I would say 4 times a week is the minimum to really see noticeable results… Good luck!

  • wrpickard

    This is an idiotic workout for anyone who is not ALREADY in pretty good shape, and it is irresponsible for this publication to publish it without caveats. If you have not already been running (or rowing) a lot, your joints will break down from this much concentrated stress within days, you will hurt yourself, and you will not achieve your goals.
    The concept is fine – interval training is well established – but this particular program must be tempered for the age and condition of the person attempting it.
    The workout should be preceded by a suitable warm up and followed by a cool down. Use the scale, but depending on your condition, start with the lower numbers at the bottom, and work you way up to the higher numbers.
    Starting at a 5 and building to 10 is absurd for an overweight, historically relatively sedentary person – particularly one with a cardiac issue! Talk to a doctor! and depending on the condition of your joints and muscles, start at 2 and ‘peak’ at 6 for the first several weeks, or even months.
    Losing 30 lbs. in a month is an equally absurd goal, and really, not particularly credible in this anecdote.
    If you want to set a goal and reach it and be able to sustain it and not damage your health along the way, then go ahead and set a goal of 30 lbs. but do it over 12-15 months. And include some light weight training too. Starving yourself down, even with aerobic exercise, will depress your metabolism so while you may starve off 30 lbs. half of what you lose will be muscle (and water), not fat, and the minute you stop the program, you’ll start putting the weight right back on.

    • http://www.breakingmuscle.com Becca Borawski Jenkins

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this workout. I think what’s important for all of us to remember is that each individual is in a different situation and has different biology. If someone is a large man and significantly overweight, then losing 30 pounds in a month is entirely feasible — without starving. This article in no way advocated starvation diets and instead promotes the idea of sensible, well-rounded meals. In addition, one of the great things about perceived exertion is that it makes a workout modifiable for all fitness levels, as long as we all remember that one person’s 7 and another person’s 7 cannot and should not be the same.

    • Dr. Chris Holder

      wrpickard- I’d like to share some of the reasons I wrote about this… hopefully my response here will give you some perspective on where my head was when I put it together… The most useful thing about this program is the perceived exertion element… a “10” is nothing more than how hard you feel you are working… it doesn’t give some minimum standards (level 20 on your machine, above 170 beats a minute or 250 rotations per minute etc)… it simply states, how hard you feel you are working… if any of the above mentioned variables were involved, I would have never written it, or invested the level of effort I have with this program… although the article is geared towards, and even titled, for someone who is looking to push their fitness to another level, the program itself accommodates any level of fitness… for a marathoner, that is capable of a ton of output (as far as the machine is concerned), but for even the novice, they have a perceived 5-10… regardless of how good, or poor shape a person is in, they all have a “5” and they all have a “9” in them… if that means sprinting around a track to one, or a brisk walk to another, the idea of how hard I’m working applies to us all… My personal journey (the weight loss and the BP markers) were simply to illustrate that I’m not writing about something I’ve heard about, I’m writing about something I have experienced first hand… when I started this, I had an abysmal diet and was 325 pounds… like it states in the article, I consulted with my doctor on multiple occasions and got his blessings to address my issues this way… 30 pounds, although dramatic, was still less than 10% of my body weight at the time and, again, closely monitored by my GP… If the article came off with the tone of, “You can lose 30 pounds in 30 days”, you and the other readers have my sincere apology… wasn’t my intention… my diet was refined, but I was by no means starving… I averaged around 2200-2500 calories per day, with the foundation of it behind Arbonne’s Thirty Days To Healthy Living program: cutting out gluten, dairy, sugar, caffeine and alcohol from my diet completely… I work an incredibly stressful job where I am on my feet up to 10 hours a day, so the dramatic diet change coupled with both this exercise regimen along with my continual movement (I’m a college strength coach who see’s over 500 athletes a day) and voila- 30lbs. The moment I removed the sugary drinks from my diet, which was admittedly my biggest vice, my calorie total per day plummeted… shamefully, I was probably taking in close to 5000 calories a day previously, half of which were derived from fluids… I know, I know, I’m ranting… I simply want you and the rest of our readers to know that my experience wasn’t some kind of fluke.. it was achieve by using a smart program and sound nutrition.

    • HEALED

      I was a beginner 20 years ago when I did it and it worked and am doing it again now at 55 with 60 lbs. To lose. It is just right for you, too.

  • Kate_r

    So in one e-mail about posts you’ve sent a link to a post to remind me to focus holistically on my health and ignore fad diets and exercise regimes and a link to a post featuring a rapid weight loss (seriously are you encouraging that!) exercise regime that looks like a fad!

    • http://www.breakingmuscle.com Becca Borawski Jenkins

      Hi Kate_r — I’m sorry this comes across as a fad workout. Definitely not our intention. The workout itself has been around for over fifteen years, and is similar to other types of interval training that athletes and lay-people have been using for a long, long time. If you take a cycling class, indoor rowing, or treadmill class, these are the sorts of workouts you’ll typically encounter and are definitely not fad training.

    • Dr. Chris Holder

      Kate_r- When writing this, I chose to share this program because it is something I truly believe in… it’s a program I’ve employed, on and off, for over a decade and continue to have repeatable results… the intent of sharing it was for three reasons… first, many of the cardio/fat loss programs are more of the moderate to low intensity version and I wanted to touch on a higher intensity modality for variety for our readers… second, and as it is stated in the article with the whole “cup talk”, this approach is a proven way to address multiple variables for a person looking to make a change (fat loss, cardio vascular improvements etc)… lastly, this program is intelligently and clearly put together for ease of use… most of the other high intensity programs I have seen are a tabata themed or more of a “go until you crash” type of organization… this one uses smart, progressive increases in work that is directed at how the person feels (which is key- a grossly out of shape person can “feel” like they are working as hard as they can simply by walking up hill) vs go as hard as you can until you actually face plant… I hope this helps some with your concern…

  • Sue K

    Hoping I can use this method on the bike on the trainer. Keeping track of perceived effort minute to minute should keep my mind busy and avoid boredom. I totally get what you’re saying. Thanks.

    • http://www.wholelifechallenge.com Becca Borawski Jenkins

      That’s great, Sue – let us know how it goes for you!

  • Michele

    I would really like to ask how to use my Carb Cup first if I work out in the evening. I haven’t eaten since lunch (1:00) I am working out from 6-7 pm. Should I refrain from eating dinner until 8:00? How to I modify his suggestion for using Fat for fuel first if I only work out in the evening?

    • Dr. Chris Holder


      If this is the only way your workouts can happen, waiting to eat that late night can be hard… so, if you intend on eating dinner before hand, I would cut my carbs very low for that meal… what you are trying to do is minimize the availability of carbohydrates in your system for your body to call on during that workout… maybe allow yourself to eat a your day’s worth of carbohydrates in the morning and lunch, then start a serious cutback after your lunch… not sure if that will be as effective as doing it fasted upon waking, but it might be worth a try… keep me posted with your results!

      • Michele

        Thanks very much. I would not eat dinner before working out. I go straight from work. I will try and limit my carb consumption to breakfast and lunch. Should I refrain from eating carbs after I work out? Many thanks. I have been trying to reduce my body fat % all year-I’ve made some progress but need to step it up.


    Thanks. I did do the body for life 20 min. Aerobic solution and 3 days weight training with his program and lost 3p inches. That was 20 years ago and now I am starting over and doing what worked then, again. This time I will push harder as you suggested since a level 5 is more than brisk walking. I am almost 55 and need to lose 60 lbs. This is the best for beginners.

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