Monday, August 09, 2010

Book and workout review: You Are Your Own Gym by Mark Lauren

Note: The author's publicist provided me with a copy of You are Your Own Gym so that I could try the exercises and do a review. No other compensation was provided and the opinions of the book I express here are my own.

As regular readers of my blog will recall, I have known for a long time that the missing link in my exercise program has been strength training. I have been doing long sessions of running, biking, and swimming.  Even with my attempts (admittedly, not always successful) to limit my calories, I haven't been experiencing much weight loss. I knew that strength training would help, and I even bought equipment (a BOSU, resistance bands, kettlebells, videos) to help me do it, but I still couldn't get motivated.  When Mark Lauren's publicist approached me about a book based on all bodyweight exercises, "a total fitness package that requires no gym, no weights, nothing but your own body—the most advanced fitness machine ever created," I thought I'd try it. With no equipment needed and no need to watch instructional videos, I thought I might finally have found something I could stick with.  Besides, Lauren had trained Special Operations officers, some of the fittest of the fit in the U.S. military. I thought he might know a thing or two about fitness.  Besides, just thinking about the lives of military men and women made me want to toughen up and stop making excuses.

I was invited to submit questions for a virtual interview:

1.  Your website shows pictures of incredibly buff people and your blurb talks about military personnel and other super-fit people. I'm your average, middle-aged, middle-American woman who has about twenty pounds to lose. Can your book help someone like me get in shape?

Absolutely! My clients that are the least fit are actually the ones that make that fastest progress. The 125 bodyweight exercises in my book come with many variations that allow you to adjust the difficulty of most of them. A push-up for example, can be made easy enough for anyone by placing the hands against a wall. As an individual progresses the exercise can be made harder by placing the hands on lower surfaces until the hands are eventually on the ground. The feet can then be elevated, pauses can be incorporated, and the hands can be placed on an unstable surface to make the exercise still harder. This entire progression can then be used with a single limb movement or 1-arm Push-up. There is much more variety and freedom with bodyweight exercises than people realize. There is a lot of room for creativity. These movements can be used to develop cardiovascular endurance, muscular endurance, strength, and power in individuals of all athletics abilities, but most importantly, it's an extremely time effective method of positively affecting body composition.

2. I know I need to do strength training, and I have bought other strength training books and I find it hard to actually use them.  I love to run, bike, swim, do yoga, but strength training is not fun for me. How can I get motivated?

Studies have proven that short intense workouts are far superior to steady state training or "cardio" in developing all aspects of fitness including, ironically, cardiovascular endurance. The forum on my website shows two such studies. The workouts in my program require that you train only 16-40 minutes 4-5 days per week. Plus, these workouts can be done absolutely anywhere. I maintain my fitness with less time than most people spend driving to and from the gym. What makes these workouts so incredibly effective is that they allow you develop muscle, which is essential in developing a fast youthful metabolism, and these workouts have a lasting impact on your metabolism causing you to burn many more calories for up to 36 hours after the completion of the training.

High intensity interval and strength training is not comfortable, but neither is anything else that is truly effective. Change will not occur without a strong enough demand, and because of this fact, it is necessary for us to occasionally set aside our comfort for the sake of our goals. This method of training is the most time efficient and effective method of developing all around fitness, and it requires only a very small sacrifice of your time. What motivates me is that I know my goals are more important to me than my comfort.

3. What are the advantages of body-weight training over using weights?

Many exercises requiring weights or machines isolate one or two muscle groups while having the user sitting or lying down. Nowhere in day to day living will you find yourself straining only or two muscle groups while sitting or lying down. At least not while you're alone. Bodyweight exercises engage many muscles at once, are more demanding of balance and flexibility, and they can safely be done anywhere. There are functional exercises requiring weights but these are complex movements that are often done with poor form. Our fitness should not be dependent on trainers, gadgets, or gyms.

4. Are there specific exercises you would recommend for runners who are trying to stave off injuries? What about swimmers? Are your programs customizable for different sports or activities?

I would recommend the programs in my book as they are, since they were originally developed for Special Operations trainees that were required to run and swim. These programs build general all around fitness or general physical preparedness. In my book You Are Your Own Gym I explain the science behind the structure of my program so that people can create their own programs or customize what I've created for them. I encourage people to tailor these programs to their needs after they've become familiar enough with bodyweight training, since we are all individuals with varying needs, goals, and situations.

5. I know this is a bad question to ask, but how soon can someone doing your program expect to see results? 

I often get feedback that people feel a positive change after only two weeks of using my program. Initially, the user will experience the feeling of having a stronger core and the development of a physique that is a cohesive whole rather than one that is made of many separate parts. I advocate an approach that does not neglect long-term success. This program isn't about dropping x amount of weight in x amount of time only to gain it all back when you inevitably fall of the horse. Many diets and programs are all about the short-term and completely neglect the long-term, because it's smart marketing. The only way to true lasting fitness and well being is to take the long approach. The tortoise wins this race! Understand and embrace the fitness and nutrition principles that are outlined in my book. That is the first step. After that it's simply
a matter of applying them and being consistent, not for weeks or months but years.
 I read the book and was impressed by Lauren's no-nonsense approach.  "We have a choice: To take care of ourselves or to simply let time make us worse. Most people in this world choose to lose. They drag themselves through a second-rate life, overweight and under-energetic." The book provides a brief overview of Lauren's philosophy, but more than half of the pages are exercises with clear, easy-to-follow photographs that show each step of the exercise. There are training plans that go from Basic to Master Class.

Though the cover says "Work out less, eat more," I think that most people would find themselves eating both a lot less food and a radically different diet on the plan that Lauren outlines here. The diet plan is sort of a combination of the Paleo Diet plan and Body for Life.  He gives a sample day's diet that shows three meals of whole grains, vegetables, one fruit serving, and lean meat and fish.  There are two snacks of protein shakes.  I haven't tried it, but it sounds pretty spartan.  I am sure it would result in rapid weight loss for anyone who could manage to follow it.  I am working on incorporating some of his ideas into my own plan but am not ready to commit to something this strict yet.  I don't think there's anything wrong with the diet plan, just the "eat more" claim.

The other quibble I have with the book is the subtitle of Chapter 4, Strength Training, which is "Why Cardio is a Waste of Your Time." I do follow his points (and I am living proof) that it is difficult to lose weight by doing only steady-state aerobic exercise, because it doesn't burn a lot of calories, tends to increase your appetite, and may actually result in muscle loss if it is not accompanied by strength training. But I have a hard time wrapping my head around the notion that it would be a good idea to be sedentary other than 16-45 minutes of strength training 4-5 days a week. The Spec Ops guys that Lauren uses as his illustration of ideal fitness have an occupation that requires them to be constantly active. Since many civilians have desk jobs, I think we have to consciously add activity to our lives to make up for the many hours we spend sitting, and since we can't do pushups all day, cardio is going to have to be part of the picture.  I have cut back a bit on my cardio activities but am still running, biking, swimming, etc.

Other than these two minor points, though, I was impressed with the book and anxious to get started.  My husband had agreed to try the program out with me so that we could have two guinea pigs for the experiment instead of just one.

Though the book says that the only equipment you need to be fit is your own body, the two core "pull" exercises in the basic program, "Let Me Ins" and "Let Me Ups," require something to pull against.  Lauren suggests doorknobs and broomsticks, but we live in an old house and I was afraid that we might pull the doorknobs off with the Let Me Ins and break our broom (which has a plastic handle) with the Let Me Ups, so we went to a playground to do the first upper-body workout.  There were no kids using the equipment, so we were able to use a post for the Let Me Ins and a rope ladder for the Let Me Ups. The equipment wasn't ideal, and it's not always easy to find a playground without kids using it, so I am still looking for better alternatives.  A picnic table worked well for the modified pushups and dips.  These exercises are simple, but not easy. The first two weeks of the Basic program have you doing 7-minute "Ladders." You start with 1 rep of the exercise, then 2, then 3, etc., resting as long between each set as it took you to do the exercises. That means you get a short rest with a 1-rep set and a longer rest with a 4-rep set.  You would think that 7 minutes isn't a long time, but try doing this workout! It was a real challenge for both of us. Both of us had been running and biking all summer, but neither had done much strength training, so we were starting from scratch.

We came home from the park exhausted. I felt like I had bowling balls tied to my elbows. I had a hard time washing my hair in the shower because I had to force myself to raise my arms over my head -- they didn't want to go. I thought I might lose weight because my arms were too tired to lift a fork.   Even after eating I had very little energy and didn't want to do anything. I went to a Pilates Reformer class the day after and was really limited in what I could do. For about two days after we did this first workout, both of us felt miserable.  Everything hurt.  The second day was lower-body exercises, which we could do in our living room because they required no equipment at all. This workout was less difficult for us but definitely not easy. We took two rest days between the lower-body day and the next upper-body day to give our sore muscles time to recover.  We also cheated a little and cut the upper-body sets to 5 minutes instead of 7. The next workout was hard but we didn't feel so knocked out afterward. Two days ago we did the third upper-body workout, and I think we might be ready to do the full 7-minute sets next time. You have to commit to push through those first tough days if you are going to do a program like this, but it does get easier.

I really like the simplicity of these workouts and also the feeling that we are doing something hardcore.  I think it's something that we can stick with, especially if we solve our equipment challenges for the upper-body set. I don't see any results yet (and wouldn't expect to after just a little more than a week) but feel stronger already.

I would recommend You Are Your Own Gym to people with a moderate level of fitness and up who are ready to challenge themselves, especially people who want a blunt, no-nonsense approach to workouts.  You can find out more about the author at his website,, or on his book's facebook fan page, where you can see photos of some of his exercises. If you decide to try it, let me know how you like it, once your arms recover enough for you to type.


  1. It seems like many of us have missing links in our workouts. I hate cardio and love weights. I can get intense workouts with weight lifting circuits so cardio is averted :). Just getting into yoga. Thanks for reminding me I need to work on those gaps.

  2. Btw, see you on #Fitblog, I am relatively new (


"Count your calories, work out when you can, and try to be good to yourself. All the rest is bulls**t." -- Jillian Michaels at BlogHer '07