Slogging it out for hours in the gym in a bid to drop the winter weight? You're doing it wrong, says strength and conditioning guru Charles Poliquin. Follow his method and you're promised killer abs by doing as little as 45 minutes a day, three days a week.
Yes, there is a catch.
The Poliquin method claims to be a scientific approach to weight loss: basic strength and resistance workouts coupled with a customised diet based on your hormonal profile, nutritional supplementation and - the hardest part - a strict dose of discipline.
The results render not just taut physiques, but also superhuman athletic feats. Since the 1980s, Canadian-born Poliquin has been whipping Olympic and professional athletes into winning shape.
Recently, more Hongkongers have been seeking out Poliquin-certified trainers to experience what is claimed to be the "gold standard" in personal training.
"It's been a game changer," says Maartje Bus, 38, who's been training with the Poliquin method for 18 months at Raw studio in Central with dramatic results - her body fat has dropped from 15 to 10 per cent.
Bus trains three times per week, and supplements her workouts with field hockey and the odd run.
"I look toned and healthy, and have increased my lean muscle mass and gained a lot of strength. I have a lot more energy, too," she says.
Earlier this year, she clocked a personal best one hour, 45 minutes in a half-marathon with no specific running training.
Poliquin's dedication to strength training in the '80s, when the world was embracing the aerobics boom, set him apart. Frustrated with the lack of quality research in English, he taught himself German and read up on the latest research in European journals.
With his muscular body as proof of his methods, Poliquin was approached by a Canadian national team volleyball player to train him. Within months, the player was the most powerful on the team, leading Poliquin to train other athletes.
The programme structure of Poliquin's workouts makes the difference. Poliquin-certified trainer Mikey Leung at Joint Dynamics in Central requires clients to commit to a 12-week programme, rotating through training blocks of around three to four weeks. Although exercises remain largely the same within a block, the weight lifted is increased progressively.
"Only 45 minutes to an hour is required, as any more than that and you're actually elevating cortisol, the stress hormone in the body," says Leung. In spite of the relatively short duration, Leung warns that it's not an easy workout. "You should always be outside your comfort zone."
Another key feature is tempo, also called "time under tension", which is the time spent on the concentric (muscle shortening) and eccentric (muscle lengthening) phases of a lift.
Research published in the journal Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism in 2012 verifies Poliquin's approach. The study, by Christopher Scott from the University of Southern Maine's department of exercise, health, and sport sciences, randomly assigned 10 men to perform the same lifting workout at three different tempos: 1.5 seconds down and 1.5 seconds up; four seconds down and one second up; and one second down and four seconds up.
There tempo of one second down and four seconds up had the greatest excess post-exercise oxygen consumption - the metabolic boost which continues to burn calories after exercise - and total energy expenditure.
Diet is another critical aspect of the method. "As Poliquin says, 'You cannot out train a bad diet'," says Lucie Powell of Ultimate Performance gym in Central. Poliquin advises a modified Paleolithic diet that's high in protein and with sources of quality fat and fibre.
What you eat and when, claims Poliquin, does what science deems impossible: to reduce fat at specific spots. Poliquin's BioSignature Modulation assesses 12 sites in the body where fat deposits develop - cheek, chin, triceps, pectorals, shoulders, glutes and parts of the legs - and gives trainers insight into how a person best loses weight.
According to Poliquin, each of these 12 sites correlates to a hormone that, when present in excess, signals the body to store fat. Too much of the stress hormone cortisol, for example, piles on belly fat.
"When you have an immunological response to food you produce an inflammatory response too. This has an effect on the fat cells because the inflammatory markers limit the release of fatty acids from the fat cells for energy," says Miles Price, a functional nutritionist at Life Clinic who is also trained in the Poliquin method.
Once one's fat distribution pattern is determined, the trainer prescribes a customised plan of supplements, diets and workouts. Each trouble spot is treated by mix of herbal supplements and vitamins that are said to neutralise and balance hormone levels. For the fat on the back of the arms, for example, liquorice root, ginseng and rhodiola rosea might be prescribed, says Poliquin.
One of Leung's clients says the method changed his thinking on exercise. "I thought I had a handle on how to get results," says David, 38, an investment banker. "I was surprised a lot of my practices were counterproductive to achieving my goals. I was doing more harm than good, and I was exhausted for the privilege."
Running, for example, increases cortisol and leads the body to store fat for energy, according to Powell. She was once a "gym bunny", running on the treadmill for an hour a day. Yet, she had "never been fatter". She hasn't run in two years and claims to be the leanest she's ever been.
Although many women shy away from weights and the gym for fear of getting bulky, Powell is emphatic that weight training, rather than a cardio-based programme, is the only true way to sculpt your perfect body.
It was a challenging shift for Dee Cheung, who spent her life looking at the scales. Last year, she tried the Poliquin method at Ultimate Performance. After 12 weeks she dropped from 22 to 13 per cent body fat, though the scales showed that she had shed only two kilograms.
"When you shift the focus on increasing your lean muscle mass, your stored body fat will decrease as a result. It's a positive way of understanding your health," says Cheung, 28, a yoga teacher.
As with many fitness methods out there, Poliquin has its detractors too, with some fitness and wellness experts calling it pseudoscience or worse. The lack of research and scientific data on the method doesn't help.
Price cautions that BioSignature is not a complete solution. "It's a means for personal trainers to advise very simply on hormonal imbalances, which is the domain of a qualified medical doctor. [Hormonal imbalances are] a contributing factor, but not the only factor to weight loss. The physiological process of fat loss is complicated and multifactorial." Price recommends a complete blood work be done in the event that weight loss is unsuccessful.
"Some of Mr Poliquin's claims are pure supposition, and some are clearly contradicted by science," says Jonathan Cane, an exercise physiologist and a co-founder of City Coach Multisport in New York City, in a 2012 article in Details magazine.