Matt Gemmell

My new book CHANGER is out now!

An action-thriller novel — book 1 in the KESTREL series.

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Heart

health 3 min read

I’ve written previously about my workout routine, and also about my heart condition. My routine has naturally evolved over time, and I wanted to make a record of my current setup, since people ask me about it quite often.

Before breakfast each morning (usually seven days per week, and always at least six), I do a strength workout. The only equipment I use is a Powerbar 2 pull-up bar, some York dumbbells, and the floor.

I do some light stretching for a minute, then get started. Here’s what I do:

  • 8 pull-ups (overhand-grip, i.e. palms forward/away)
  • 12 push-ups, chest to the floor
  • 12 standing dumbbell curls, 10kg per arm
  • 20 leg-lifts, lying flat on back
  • 12 push-ups, chest to the floor
  • 8 pull-ups (underhand-grip, i.e. palms backward/inwards)
  • 12 push-ups, chest to the floor
  • 12 standing dumbbell curls, 10kg per arm
  • 20 leg-lifts, lying flat on back
  • 12 push-ups, chest to the floor

Dumbbell curls are from thigh to shoulder, both arms at the same time. Leg lifts mean lying flat on your back, inhaling, then as you exhale, lift your legs (always straight and together) so they point directly up at the ceiling. Let them down again slowly as you inhale, and keep going. Don’t rest until the reps are finished.

Don’t rush anything; technique is much more important. Adjust dumbbell weight to suit you: you should be able to do about ten reps with effort but not strain. If it’s really easy, add more weight instead of more reps. Be careful with your back. Learn how to safely pick up and put down dumbbells (lift using your legs, with your back straight at all times). If anything hurts, stop, do some light stretches, and come back tomorrow.

The list above is one set; I do six sets each morning. I occasionally switch to 12 pull-ups instead of 8, 20 curls instead of 12, 20 push-ups instead of 12, and 30 or even 50 leg-lifts instead of 20 (it’s the leg-lifts that will give you abs, assuming they’re not hidden under belly fat). There’s no real pattern for this, but I make a few additions as I feel like it, in at least several of my sets each morning. The whole workout takes about 35 minutes. Then I have breakfast, which is two scrambled eggs and a slice of (dry) wholemeal toast, with decaf black coffee.

I wait twenty or thirty minutes after breakfast, then I do one hour of cardio on my indoor bike, at 35km/h and 50% resistance (level 4, on a trusty old York c101). I keep going for the whole hour, without slowing the pace; you’ll need to build up to that level over a few months if you don’t cycle regularly already. Then it’s definitely time for a shower — but not before doing some leg-stretches for a minute or two, to avoid cramps during the night.

In the afternoon, I do two brisk walks, each of at least 20 minutes: going to the coffee shop I work from, and then coming home again later. I walk very quickly — it’s an ambient workout, not just a wander. Diet wise, I eat what you probably do; I just cut down on carbs most days. If we do a curry or a stir fry, we skip the rice (or make it out of cauliflower). If we do a pasta bolognese, we spiralise some courgettes instead of using spaghetti. If we’re doing fajitas, we’ll have one fewer tortilla each, but keep the filling on the plate. Other than that, it’s pretty normal — and I absolutely do have fries at least once a week, and I regularly have treats like cakes and chocolate and so on. Oh, and I barely drink alcohol — maybe four or five times a year, at most — but that’s because it can mess up my heart too. I don’t miss it.

That’s the whole thing. I’ve gotten rid of my Apple Watch, and I now use a Fitbit Charge 2. For my needs, it’s so much less hassle than the Watch, and it automatically tracks many kinds of workout without intervention (I do set it explicitly to track my strength and indoor-bike workouts). Of particular note is the Fitbit app on my iPhone, which lets me keep an eye on my cardio fitness level, daily resting pulse rate, and my average and peak heart rates while exercising. It’s a very good indicator of the health of my heart, and as someone with a (minor) heart problem, that’s understandably very important to me.

In the past three years of working out daily, I’ve transformed my fitness level. My waist size, blood pressure, body fat percentage, and resting pulse are all way down. My aerobic endurance, recovery, strength, and muscle mass are way up. My resting pulse alone is down by 40% since 2013, and is now excellent for my gender and age: it’s sub-60 bpm each day.

I had a record resting pulse rate of 52 bpm within the last week, while sitting working away on the iPad, and I’ve also had two personal-best times to 35 km on the indoor bike this week alone. This morning, I hit a peak pulse rate of 176 bpm while cycling, and it felt fantastic. Cardio is the thing. Don’t skip it.

If you want to see results, both body and stats-wise, feel free to look through my Instagram posts.

Even if you don’t do any strength stuff, make some tweaks to your diet, and get your heart sorted out. That’s my advice. May you live a long and healthy life.