World’s Fittest Man – His Secret to Fitness Is Really No Mystery

World’s Fittest Man – His Secret to Fitness Is Really No Mystery

Yearly Archives: 2004

World’s Fittest Man – His Secret to Fitness Is Really No Mystery

Imagine the burden of being Joe Decker, the world’s fittest man.

He goes to a party and inevitably meets some bozo (like me) who demands that he make a muscle or flash his abs or drop to the floor to see who can do the most push-ups.

Decker takes it in stride.

“It’s not a burden at all,” he said. “I don’t see myself as the world’s fittest man. I see myself still as just Joe.”

A farmboy from Illinois, Decker is as aw-shucks decent as Jimmy Stewart, as wholesome as a box of corn flakes.

But he’s no average Joe. The Guinness Book of World Records certified Decker as the world’s fittest man in 2001 after, within 24 hours, he biked 100 miles, ran 10 miles, hiked 10 miles, power-walked 5 miles (all this on a track), kayaked 6 miles, skied on a NordicTrack 10 miles, rowed 10 miles, swam 2 miles, did 3,000 abdominal crunches, 1,100 jumping jacks, 1,000 leg lifts, 1,100 push-ups and lifted, cumulatively, 278,540 pounds.

For recreation, Decker competes in ultra-endurance contests. In 2000, he almost killed himself when he took part in the Raid Gauloises, a 520-mile race across the Himalayas (air thick with yak-dung dust infected his lungs). Last April, Decker ran the Marathon des Sables – 152 miles across the Sahara.

A year ago November, I saw Decker at a party in Radnor. Earlier in the day, he had finished the Philadelphia Marathon. The day before, he had completed the JFK 50-miler in Maryland, part of which follows the rugged Appalachian Trail through the mountains. (In my 20s, I used to run the same race; afterward, my legs were so beat I was crippled for days.)

Decker, 33, a personal trainer who lives in Rockville, Md., was once normal. In fact, after a football injury sidelined him in high school, he ballooned. He was so out of shape that when he joined the Army, he flunked the fitness test.

Later, after dropping out of college, he drifted to New Orleans. He worked as a bartender and partied like mad. He drank, took drugs, and ate without restraint. A typical “meal”: 30 or 40 chicken wings at Hooters, washed down with a few pitchers of beer. He began looking like the guy who plays the big, fat, obnoxious fiance on TV.

You can see for yourself by checking out the photo in The World’s Fittest You: Four Weeks to Total Fitness (Dutton, $24.95).

The book is just like its author: plain and straight-on. “No gimmicks, gadgets or gizmos,” Decker said.

The secret to fitness?

“You’re going to have to work,” he said.

I asked Decker about the subtitle, Four Weeks to Total Fitness: “How can anyone become totally fit in just four weeks?”

“You’re not going to look like Arnold or Cindy Crawford,” Decker said. “But you’ll have the tools to construct a better body and to become healthier, not just physically but also emotionally and spiritually. It’s not just about aesthetics or standing in front of the mirror in skimpy underwear and admiring yourself. It’s about getting outside, doing stuff and enjoying your life.”

Decker’s book shows you how, with illustrated exercises, workout plans, nutrition advice (both carbs and fat are good; excess calories are the real enemy!), and recipes. But the most valuable lesson is this: The body is enormously adaptable.

This is both good and bad. On the good side, it’s why, after an acclimating spell, we’re able to tolerate the cold of winter. On the bad side:

“Given a constant load day after day, the body will adapt,” Decker said. “The body will plateau and want to stay at that point.” Result: no growth, no improvement.

His advice: Shock your body.

Exercise scientists call it “nonlinear periodization.” What it means is mixing it up, surprising and challenging your body so it doesn’t get stale, you don’t get bored. Says Decker: “It’s like kicking your own butt.”

You do so by applying what Decker calls “the FIT Equation” (for Frequency, Intensity and Time). By playing with these variables, by constantly shaking things up, you throw your body off guard. It responds by growing stronger, tougher, more resilient, and durable.

Example: When weightlifting, instead of doing five sets of each exercise, do two sets of 12 repetitions, with a two-minute break between sets. Next workout, do three sets of 10 reps, with a one-minute break in between. Or one set of five reps, with a barely manageable weight.

Or do an all-barbell workout. Then an all-machine workout. Then a workout mixing machines and dumbbells. Said Decker: “You not only get better results, you also eliminate the boredom factor.”

Runners can do likewise by punctuating training runs with sprints. Decker breaks up his LSD (long slow distance) by periodically running all out from utility pole to utility pole.

Above all, play. Decker leads an early-morning boot-camp workout. For a body-shocking change-up, he sometimes takes his clients to a rock pile. Using rocks ranging from 20 to 50 pounds, they do presses, curls, crunches, lunges, push-ups.

“I’ve got CEOs, guys making a quarter-million a year, holding rocks and rolling around in the mud,” Decker said. “They love it. We have all kinds of fun!…

“I wake up every day just on fire. I can’t sleep. At 5 a.m., my eyes pop open and I’m ready to run outside and hit the playground. It’s an incredible feeling. And if I can do it, a guy who was 50 pounds overweight, you can, too!”

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World’s fittest man says if he could get in shape, so can you

January 30, 2004
Original Article

It wasn’t that long ago that Joe Decker, the “world’s fittest man,” hid his flabby white gut and “man breasts” under a T-shirt every time he went swimming at the beach.

Those were days when Decker, now 33, liked to party hard, then binge on 50 chicken wings, chased by several pitchers of beer, maybe followed by pizza.

They were the days before he ran a 135-mile race in the desert, or finished the Raid Gauloises, an extreme adventure race that took him 520 miles across the Himalayas.

And that’s why this “average Joe” thinks his fitness plan resonates with others: “If a knucklehead like me can do it, anyone can.”

He’s written a book for ordinary people, “The World’s Fittest You: Four Weeks to Total Fitness.”

In person, Decker, who met us at the Bellevue Bally’s Total Fitness recently, is an energetic man. At 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, he’s muscular and sculpted, but not an obvious he-man.

But he says fitness isn’t about looks.

“The guys are always sizing me up because I’m not ripped like they are,” says Decker, who lives in Rockville, Md. “I don’t care about aesthetics. Fitness is not standing there looking good in the mirror with a shaved chest.”

Nor, says Decker, is it about one discipline, such as benching the most weight or running the fastest race.

It’s about being well-rounded in all areas of fitness — strength, cardiovascular endurance and flexibility.

He says people can have fun with fitness by finding a variety of activities they enjoy. By changing workouts constantly, recent research suggests, your body won’t become used to the same routine and will better respond to different stimuli.

“Boredom is the No. 1 cause of people quitting programs or not working out,” Decker said. “So I tend to play games with myself.”

In the gym, he might spend 15 minutes each on a stationary bike, then a rowing machine, elliptical trainer and treadmill. Or, he might do intervals, changing pace from easy to hard repeatedly.

Decker has a simple acronym for remembering the elements of exercise: FIT, the Frequency, Intensity and Time put into a workout.

He tells readers upfront that being fit takes effort and can’t be achieved by supplements, pills or eight-minute workouts. Nor should people focus on looking perfect, an unrealistic expectation.

“I’m not promising that you’re going to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Cindy Crawford,” he said. “You’re just going to feel better and look better.”

His well-rounded book offers specific workouts, ways to assess your fitness, workout logs, weightlifting photos as well as healthy menus and recipes.

“If you want to be here as long as you can and enjoy this life that you’ve got, then you’ve got to take care of yourself,” he said.

During the week, he eats lean proteins such as chicken breast, egg whites, beans and turkey, along with fruits, veggies and unprocessed grains such as brown rice, oatmeal and fiber-filled breads. Decker avoids super starchy foods, but eats a normal ratio of about 55 to 60 percent carbs in his diet.

On the weekends, he relaxes, recently enjoying pizza, beer and chocolate cheesecake on a night out.

As a child, Decker was physically active, but chubby, and he gained more weight after a football injury. When Decker joined the army, he couldn’t run two miles and failed the military’s physical fitness test. The army put him on a restricted diet and extra exercise.

After three years of service, Decker spent two restless years in college, before he wound up bartending in New Orleans and living a party lifestyle. He was overindulging on food, overdrinking and overweight.

“I had actually thought about suicide — whether it was subconscious or conscious,” Decker said. “Because I was so unhappy with the person looking at me in the mirror.”

Decker returned home to his parents’ Illinois farm and got cleaned up. He turned to fitness to stop his destructive habits.

“It actually saved my life,” he says.  And Decker, in his all-or-nothing way, went full throttle, admitting, “I’m all OCD (obsessive compulsive disorder).”

He got in shape at home, using an old weight set. Within a few months he trained his body from walking a few blocks to running a 5K. He went back to school for a bachelor’s degree in exercise science.

Always eager for a new goal, Decker challenged himself to run a marathon, then worked up to a 50-miler.

At the Badwater 135, a 135-mile race up a mountain in Death Valley, Decker hit a wall. He had almost five gallons of water sloshing in his belly, because he didn’t have the right electrolyte balance to absorb the water. Overheated, dehydrated, nauseous and pained with a headache, Decker staggered through the 130-degree temperatures at only mile 40.

He came close to quitting, but he’s a glass is half-full type: “I just can’t give up on myself,” he said.

Friends ran to the store for a canister of salt and he felt better after downing a small handful. He finished the race.

Decker went on in 2000 to run the grand slam of ultramarathons, a four-pack of 100-mile races.

Always hungry for another way to push himself, he heard about Guinness’ 24-hour physical fitness challenge and began training.

In December 2000, he broke the previous record in the challenge.

“It makes me tired every time I talk about it,” he said. “I didn’t do it for my ego or to call myself the world’s fittest man. I’m about experiencing different things in life.”

Decker has kept his own list of “little goals” since he was 18.

To date, he has crossed off some major items — writing a book, reading classic literature (recent title: Upton Sinclair‘s “The Jungle”), running across the Sahara, skydiving, attending Carnivale in Rio.

His to-do list is an interesting mix, as varied as his fitness activities. He has almost finished his pilot’s license. He wants to learn another language, play piano, climb Everest, swim the English Channel, run with the bulls in Pamplona and earn a master’s degree in history.