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Olympian efforts

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With the 2013 UCI Track Cycling World Championships upon us, ShortList’s Mark Bailey hits the gym with Sir Chris Hoy to see how hard it is to train like a knight

You know you’re in trouble when you realise that the person you are due to meet for a gym workout has legs the size of your waist. Sir Chris Hoy, the British track cycling superstar, has colossal 27in thighs, which enable him to squat 240kg (more than 2.5 times his bodyweight), cycle around a velodrome at speeds of nearly 50mph and generate more torque (rotational force) than a Ferrari Enzo (700Nm versus 657Nm). Those powerful pistons have driven him to six Olympic gold medals – more than any other British Olympian in history. In comparison, I have 20in thighs, which exclusively squat on sofas, and the last time I touched anything golden was to unwrap the foil of a Ferrero Rocher.

If the stats aren’t frightening enough, the sight of Hoy, 36, arriving at the eponymous Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome in Glasgow certainly is. His Herculean physique appears to have been hewn out of the volcanic Castle Rock of his native Edinburgh, and his legs are a cluster of muscular peaks and valleys that practically demand their own topographical map. Things don’t get much better when he tells me about his standard morning gym sessions. “If you’re doing a mix of one-set maximum lifts and high-repetition sets, you can find yourself lifting nearly 10 tonnes in 10 minutes,” he says.

Fortunately, Hoy is an affable giant who is eager to dismantle any misconceptions about weight training and highlight its values to the ordinary gent. “My workouts are designed to build power on the track, but the same exercises with smaller weights can burn fat, build muscle and improve your core and posture,” he explains. “There is a myth that to burn fat you should do low-intensity exercise for long durations, so you’ll often see people reading magazines on exercise bikes and barely breaking sweat.

But after a weights session you have a post-exercise elevation in your metabolism, which burns fat. Also, your body has to learn that if this workout happens again it needs to be ready for it, so it adapts by building muscle.”

THE HOY REGIME

The workout Hoy shows me is made up of squats, stiff-leg deadlifts, Bulgarian squats and an abs exercise called ‘stirring the pot’. “The exercises work your legs hard, but they also target your back, shoulders, arms and core – you work your whole body without realising,” says Hoy. Maximum results in minimum time is perfect for any time-crunched modern man.

Before we start Hoy shares three of his training secrets. First, forego your morning date with doe-eyed BBC presenter Susanna Reid by training before work. “After lying in bed for eight hours your spine is elongated, but throughout the day it compresses, so the morning is better for preventing injury and maintaining form,” he explains. It is also when your testosterone levels are highest, so you’ll feel stronger – and possibly hairier and angrier, which can only help.

Second, warm up with dynamic movements such as lunges rather than on an exercise bike or running machine, which won’t work your muscles through a full range of movement. And finally, when doing squats, structure your workout around two targets: three sets of 10 repetitions and your one-set max. “Doing more reps with lighter weights is about volume, which increases hypertrophy [muscle growth], whereas a one-rep max is about your maximum strength, which builds power.” Aim for both and you’ll build both muscle and power.

‘STIRRING THE POT’

All this muscle-building and fat-burning is great but, like most guys, I could also do with toning my midriff. Hoy has a special move that can tighten up your core. “My coach calls it ‘stirring the pot’,” he says. “It looks really weird but it works well.” Start by leaning on a Swiss ball with your forearms, keeping your stomach tightly clenched and your back straight. “If you suck in your stomach, you use a muscle called the transversus abdominis,” he explains. This muscle works like a natural corset for your paunch. “When you are leaning on the ball, just imagine stirring a giant pot, by rotating your arms one way, then the other.” It feels more like a recipe for face-planting in front of a sporting icon and my flabby core is shaking. “Your body has to work hard to maintain stability, so it works your muscles laterally, too,” says Hoy. When I listen back to my Dictaphone, he is chatting fluently during the exercise, while I sound as though I’m halfway through a marathon.

STIFF-LEG DEADLIFTS

Any exercise containing the word ‘dead’ in its title is a worry, but Hoy’s second move will give you the posture of Daniel Craig. “The stiff-leg deadlift takes your quads out of the equation, which means it works your glutes, lower back and hip extensors,” explains Hoy. These are all crucial components for a powerful physique and a confident stance when you’re in the office, or the pub. With a weighted bar on the floor, stand with your shins against the bar and your legs straight. “Your knees should not be locked out, but slightly flexed,” says Hoy. Keeping your back straight, lift the bar and use your hamstrings and glutes to raise it repeatedly from just below your knees up to your waist. “Squeeze your bum and suck in your stomach,” is Hoy’s memorable advice. As we lift side by side, I’m reminded of the industrial waste facility I saw over the road from the velodrome: Hoy’s movements are smooth and mechanical like the machinery crushing metal outside. I resemble the scrap in the skips. “Tomorrow morning you will really feel it,” says Hoy. I fear it won’t take that long.

SQUATS

This leg-buster is the key gym exercise for Hoy. It develops your glutes, which are the biggest muscle group in your body. But as muscle is metabolically active, the bigger your glutes, the more fat you burn, so it’s worth the wincing.

Hoy talks me through the correct technique: stand centrally under a bar in a squat rack with your feet just wider than shoulder-width apart and slightly pointing out; lift the bar on to your back and keep your chest upright, then bend at the legs and hips as if sitting down, making sure your knees are tracking over your feet and don’t go past your toes, before driving powerfully upwards. “Keep your back straight throughout,” says Hoy.

It is quite daunting having Britain’s Olympic flag carrier staring intently at my trembling knees, but reassuring, too: Hoy patiently corrects my weight from the balls of my feet on to my heels. Hoy can squat 240kg, but when I later give it a go my best effort is 90kg. However, I’m pleased to know I can rescue an average person from a burning building – so long as they don’t play rugby or like doughnuts.

BULGARIAN SQUATS

Hoy’s final exercise, the Bulgarian squat, works your core and your legs. “This is similar to the squat, but you use a bench to elevate your back leg, adopt a lunge-like position and then, with dumbbells in each hand, squat down and drive up with one leg,” explains Hoy. “Your core has to work hard to maintain your balance, and as it is a single-leg drill it also works your individual legs harder. If you lose your balance, you can just drop your dumbbells – not too hard or you’ll incur the wrath of the gym owner.”

Technique, as ever, is crucial: your front knee should come down directly above your front foot and Hoy tells me to keep my posture upright and my shoulders back and to avoid tilting forwards. I’m wobbling again. “That wobbliness is just your core trying to control your balance,” says Hoy calmly. “It’s proof that it’s working.” We’re using 14kg weights, but when I do this later the best I can manage for three sets is 10kg in each hand, and it hurts like hell. If this is how Bulgarians do their squats, no wonder Dimitar Berbatov always looks so miserable.

NO PAIN, NO GAIN

Copying Sir Chris Hoy’s workout won’t turn you into a knight of the realm, but it can help you build muscle, zap fat and tighten your abs, which is enough for me. But, when the pain kicks in, it’s worth remembering that Sir Chris has had it worse. “When I do lactate training drills on the stationary exercise bike, I fall off the bike and curl up in a ball,” he says. “The pain is hard to describe. You just lie there for 15 minutes and feel nauseous.” Let’s leave that one to the big man.

Sir Chris Hoy is a brand ambassador for endurance nutrition brand Science In Sport; scienceinsport.com

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