The Grand Experiment – Abs Without Breaking a Sweat

I wasn’t ready to post about this, but I’ve been getting questions about what seems to be a conflicting opinion regarding my fitness protocol. On one hand, I think Tabatas and sprints are great. Yet I openly admit that I don’t do them, but I never explained why. In the post The Myth of Cardiovascular Training, I confessed just how little exercise I do.

When I was in college I ran two sub-4 hour marathons and had a resting heart rate in the 50s. Since the late 90s, I havent ran at all. Not a single block. I go for long and short walks plus I lift weights. I only lift weights 1 or 2 times a week and then for less than 30 minutes.I havent broken a sweat exercising in many years. Even though I am older and exercise far less than I used to, I am in the best shape of my life and my resting heart rate is still in the 50s.


If I believe that brief high burst exercise is good for you, why don’t I do any? For that explanation, I need to go back a few years. From the late 90s until 2009, I had periods of back pain. One of the triggers for that back pain was running. During this decade, I believed there was something broken with me and I was unable to run. It has only been recently that I discovered the cause of my back pain was not related to running.

In early 2009, I had just gone through a period of bad back pain. This was also the same period that I was exploring Intermittent Fasting, Cold Weather Training, and lower carbohydrate diets. I was getting leaner despite the fact I couldn’t exercise. This was a paradigm shift in my thinking. Like most people, up until that moment I believed in the “diet + exercise” thesis on getting lean. I was getting leaner than I had been in 10 years and I wasn’t even exercising. Then I got an idea for The Grand Experiment.

The Grand Experiment

Could one get lean without breaking a sweat? Could I prove that diet alone could be responsible for getting one lean? This means absolutely no cardio, sprints or intervals. I could still go for walks and lift weights, but nothing else. Remember that at this time, I was still struggling with back pain. The only question left was to define the word “lean”. I decided to use the Level 3* definition explained in the post Moving Up the Leanness Levels.

  • Level 0 You are mostly lean, but your abs arent quite flat.
  • Level 1 Flat stomach with no ab definition.
  • Level 2 Level 1 + some upper ab definition.
  • Level 3 Level 2 + lower ab definition.
  • Level 4 Level 3 with deep cuts and dry (no water weight)

I take the opposite approach of many fitness professionals. They would prefer you did 10 things to improve your body composition on the hopes that at least one will work. Not me. I like to add one thing at a time and then measure. I want to know the magnitude of the variable I’m adjusting. This means I need to keep things the same and then tweak one thing. Doing Tabatas or sprints while I’m testing a new diet variable wouldn’t tell me what caused the change in body composition. Fortunately, I am patient and consider physique hacking to be more of a research puzzle than discipline.

The Results (So far)

When I started The Grand Experiment, I was at Level 0. Today, I am *so close* to Level 3. Some mornings, I am at Level 3, but not for the majority of the week. I’m still dialing in some new aspects to my diet, so I’m hesitant to end the experiment and start doing intervals. What The Grand Experiment has proven so far is that cardio is absolutely not necessary to achieve flat abs. This is exactly what I predicted.

* I now believe the Level defintions are a good starting point, but not complete. It is still possible to have an undefined linea albinea and handles with lower ab definition. Level 3 probably needs to be broken down into components.


Add yours

  1. like you, i maintain leanness despite not doing any cardio in about 4 years. i have done some anaerobic work over the last few years but not much at all in the last year. my training consists of heavy (to me at least) resistance stuff once or twice a week. i don’t do hardly any formal ab work either. the rectus abdominis, obliques, and serratus anterior are all distinguishable. what a vain turd i am to say that….oh well i do train and eat right to look good along with feel good.

    body fat regulation is 85+% diet. i also think that weight training doesn’t get it’s proper credit in regard to fat loss and body fat maintenance.

  2. @Chuck – I really hesitated to post this, because I didn’t want to come off as vain. My mission was never to get ripped, but to prove that cardio is crap and to encourage others to devote more time to fixing their diet.

    You are probably right on the 85% number. We have many cases of people that used both diet and exercise to get lean, but the false conclusions most people derive is that they play an equal role. The Grand Experiment is all about destroying that myth.

  3. @mas
    there is a fine line between being vain and having a disorder. i don’t train all that often and anyone who has seen the quantities i eat know i am not near the disorder stage. imo, it is healthy to have pride in your appearance and strive to look good. once you stop caring enough to do something about it, your health will fall off along with your appearance. on the other hand i am mostly against cosmetic surgeries and procedures.

  4. Another thing I wanted to do was show to the people that are injured and legitimately can not exercise that there is a way to lean out just via diet.

  5. Hi MAS – You know I can go on about this all day. So apologies at the outset.

    First – To highlight that it’s possible to get very lean on *zero* exercise; one doesn’t need even need to lift weights. OK – maybe no more than one set of 10 pullups once a week…

    Robb Wolf talks about the ultimate measure of your health routines as being “how you look, feel and perform.” The problem is, the only objective measure possible of those three criteria is how you *perform.*

    And I’m interested in functional fitness in an ancestral context. If I’m consistentlly 0.5 seconds faster than you over 40 yards, I have a higher likelihood of passing on my genes 😉

  6. @GWhitney – I knew you’d comment and I do not disagree with anything you say. However, this experiment was never about performance. It was just about leanness.

    Your recent comments have made me come the closest to ending this experiment. I’m almost ready to declare victory and take your advice. Maybe there is a way I could add a few sprints a week without breaking a sweat? 🙂

  7. I should have said before: I’m with you, buddy, on the no sweat thing!
    Most of my sprint workouts don’t involve any sweating at all, unless it’s a very hot day. The total amount of “work” time for these workout is about 90 seconds.

    I’m also not into warming up or cooling down very much. I think if you’re on a super low inflammation diet (and lots of magnesium/bone broth) the bones, joints and muscles don’t actually need much warming up. The progressively faster sprints take care of any necessary adaptation.

  8. Be careful, I don’t know what ages you are but I pulled some muscles trying to sprint from with non warmed up muscles.
    It took me 4 weeks to recover.
    Now I always warm up but just during 30-40 seconds.

  9. @GWhitney – 90 seconds! I can get on board with that.

    @Ahrand – I mostly subscribe to GWhitney’s beliefs about not needing to warm up if you get the nutrition right. However, I am a strong believer in warming up for psychological reasons. Your 30-40 second rule sounds perfect to me.

  10. Sorry to drift this from exercise to diet, but what impact do you think caffeine has on your leanness efforts? Getting leaner has been a goal of mine (currently level 1 verging on level 2), and I am wondering whether my coffee consumption (~12 oz. a day, typically French press) is holding me back.

  11. This could well be just me making excuses for myself, but I think there is probably quite a lot of genetic variation in leanness. I.e. some people have more prominently defined musculature than others.

    On a very lean day I am probably Level 3 – Whoopeee! But what’s the point? In effect I need to *underfeed* myself to get to Level 3 and beyond. Underfeeding leads to drops in performance.

    For Paleo man, leanness of Level 3 and beyond (particularly among men in their 40s and beyond) was probably a counter indicator of prowess as a hunter. When you weren’t sure how you would get your next meal, you didn’t go around worried about getting to Level 4 leanness…

  12. @Geoff – Great question. I think that the individual response to caffeine is wildly varied. I track my caffeine intake and my sleep quality. The moment I recognize that my sleep quality and duration is suffering is the moment that I reduce intake. I also try and reduce my caffeine levels during the summer. More on that in a future post.

    @GWhitney – I believe Level 4 in most cases is a hydration & camera trick. If I load up on water for several days, then restrict water for another day, and follow that up with a water spike and some “pumping exercises” (high reps, very low weight), then someone that is Level 3 will appear Level 4. Having a tan, good lighting and a great photographer also help.

    For me the point of Level 3 is to – in the words of James Brown – “hit it and quit it”. It is a goal very few men over 30 ever achieve. That is what makes it enticing. My goal all along has been to hit Level 3, take the photos and then go get some ice cream and move onto the next challenge – such as dunking a basketball. This is not a sustainability goal – like cold weather training or episodic fasting.

  13. Just a wild guess but I bet you could “hit it and quit it” after a mini 3 to 4 day diet consuming nothing but bone broth, coconut oil and bacon…

  14. @gw
    Re: caveman leanness
    I imagine it was seasonal like MAS has talked about. Primitive man probably packed on fat during times of plenty, ie the fertile times when edible plants were plentiful. Wilds animals always fatten up in the fall. They are gorging themselves on all the forage they can find because they know rough times are a comin’. Can’t imagine our ancestors were much different.

    Regarding genetics, yes, there are people who are more apt to being super lean. I can remember football teammates who were just genetic freaks in that respect. Would be interesting to see them now 15 years later. That wasn’t me although I also was not apt to putting on fat (hovered around 10% bf) or muscle easily either. I did notice this change in my mid 30s. I started putting on unneeded fat (no imminent famine). That is how I started paleo and have had many other benefits to go along with the ease of maintaining relative leanness.

  15. @GWhitney – Interesting idea. Time for more disclosures. I am eating almond butter and dairy daily. There is a general consensus that this is bad for getting super lean. I’m skeptical. They may be right or it just may take a lot longer. I don’t know, but I’m interested in finding out.

    I could try your idea and then if it works, add back in the dairy and see what happens. So many variables.

  16. For what it’s worth, I’m about 75% certain that what kept me in the past from getting to Level 3 was regular consumption of nut butters (which I love!). Now I rarely have the stuff except a couple of time a week in my immediate post workout recovery shake and about once a month on my paleo waffles..

  17. @GWhitney – I suspect the stubborn fat is not a result of my current diet, but the poor choices I made starting about the 10th grade. The damage of many years of veggie oils and soy products can take years to undo (based of Dr. Enig’s research).

  18. Maybe – but I think three solid years of eating super clean should sort everything out… unless of course you’re still consuming a lot of caffeine 😉

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