In 1956, when Bill Orban took a position with the Department of National Defence in Canada, he was tasked with designing a fitness program that would whip Royal Canadian Air Force pilots into shape.
Orban held a PhD and was an engineer by training. Considered a pioneer in the then-emerging field of physical fitness, he devised an innovative training program that aimed to quickly shift the one-third of pilots who were not considered fit to fly into top physical form.
He got to work and developed the 5BX, or the 5 Basic Exercises, plan for men, and the XBX, 10 Basic Exercises, plan for women.
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5BX for Men
The 5BX plan includes six charts arranged in increasing order of difficulty. Each chart lists five exercises performed in the same order within 11 minutes. The first four exercises are calisthenics — a type of body-weight, strength-training exercise. The fifth exercise is an aerobic exercise designed to increase the heart rate and get you sweating a bit.
As you progress through the plan, the number of repetitions of a specific exercise increases, as does the difficulty level of each exercise. You start with the basic chart 1, and as your fitness increases, you move on to the next chart. There are six charts, or levels, in total.
The easiest chart, chart 1, includes:
— Forward bend exercise. Standing with feet shoulder width apart, bend down to touch the toes and stretch up again with straight knees. Repeat for 2 minutes.
— Prone core exercise. Lie on your back with arms at your sides. Elevate your head off the floor so you can see your feet. Keep legs straight and hold head and shoulders off the floor for 1 minute.
— Supine core exercise. Lie on your stomach with palms under the thighs. Raise head and one leg, then lower and raise the alternate legs. Keep legs straight at the knee, and thighs must clear the palms. Repeat for 1 minute
— Upper body exercise. Lie on your stomach with palms flat on the floor under the shoulders. Straighten arms, lifting the upper body and keeping the knees on the floor. Bend arms and lower the body in a sort of modified push-up. Keep the body straight and extend arms fully. Touch chest to the floor to complete one movement. Repeat for 1 minute.
— Stationary run. Run in place with high knees for 6 minutes. After every 75 steps, do 10 “scissor jumps.” Scissor jumps involve standing with right leg and left arm extended forward and left leg and right arm extended backward. Jump up and exchange the position of the arms and legs before landing.
More advanced charts include modified sit-ups, jumping jacks and squats. You can access the entire 5BX plan in its original pamphlet layout online for free.
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XBX for Women
With XBX, the progression idea is also integral. This program also includes charts that progressively increase in difficulty. The first four exercises focus primarily on flexibility, while exercises 5 through 9 build muscle strength. Exercise 10 develops aerobic capacity.
1. Toe touching.
2. Knee raising.
3. Lateral bending.
4. Arm circling.
5. Partial sit-ups.
6. Chest and leg raising.
7. Side leg raising.
9. Leg lifting.
10. Run and hop.
You can access the full XBX program in its original pamphlet layout online.
Why These Workouts Are Useful
Both plans were considered ground-breaking because they didn’t require access to any specialized equipment — an important element given that many of the pilots who’d be using the system were deployed in locations where there was no gym access or fitness equipment.
The plans were also hailed for how simple they were to follow and how little time was needed to complete a session. The 5BX plan requires just 11 minutes, and the XBX takes just 12 minutes per day.
These programs grew out of Orban’s research into fitness and how a longer duration of exercise doesn’t always translate into improved fitness. Indeed, intense, shorter rounds of activity could pay big dividends in a little time, Orban discovered, and he used that guiding principle to develop 5BX and XBX.
The Origins of HIIT
Anel Pla, a certified personal trainer and chief wellness officer based in the greater New York City metro area, notes that 5BX “is sort of like the granddaddy of HIIT training,” a type of training that involves high-intensity exercises with rest intervals.
This approach to fitness has become very popular in recent years, with the rise of programs that leverage this approach such as CrossFit. The idea of moving through a progression of time-limited exercises is an idea that has been proven to pay dividends in a short time.
Albert Matheny, an athlete, trainer and registered dietitian based in New York City, describes 5BX as a pattern of “calisthenics” that don’t necessarily have the same high-intensity groundings of some of the more popular programs of today, but do share some similarities in how these movements can be leveraged for total body development. Matheny is also chief operating officer at ARENA Innovation Corp., a company that makes a versatile at-home fitness system. At its core, 5BX probably looks familiar to many people who do HIIT workouts today.
Matheny says that while 5BX doesn’t quite qualify as HIIT training as we tend to think of it today, it can be adapted to that approach. It can be a good addition to your fitness regimen as it trains many basic movements that are central to most sports and overall physical fitness.
Indeed, the basic movements in chart 1 can be great for older adults who might have some mobility concerns or those who are rehabbing after an injury because they focus on common movements that form the foundation of so many other movements and activities. And because there’s no equipment needed, you can do these exercises just about anywhere, anytime.
Recently, 5BX and XBX have been receiving renewed attention as celebrities like Helen Mirren have been using these old-school programs to stay trim and fit in just minutes a day.
Evolving into High Intensity Interval Training
For HIIT to really work, you have to put in some real effort, Matheny says. “Like the name says, the intensity has to be high. I would categorize that as 80% of your maximum heart rate or higher” for an exercise to qualify as high intensity, he says.
To calculate your maximum heart rate, subtract your age from the number 220.
The use of intervals is also key to achieving the burn that HIIT is so well known for. The exercises should be completed in “short bouts followed by longer rest periods.” Matheny says that some fitness marketing people have leveraged the popularity of this term and applied it to their programming when really, they aren’t quite offering HIIT workouts. Applying the term to workouts that don’t include a lot of rest in between bursts of intense work isn’t really accurate.
The concept of switching exercises to work out all the major muscle groups in a short period of time remains appealing, no matter whether it’s truly a HIIT approach or a basic training program. “With this program, you’re changing the exercises so you’re stressing different muscular systems,” Matheny says. This can be good for full body development and providing a total workout.
If you’re looking to start a new fitness routine, it’s best to start slow and ramp up gently.
Pla also says it’s important to make sure you get some advice from a trainer or coach who can help you learn the correct form and build a plan that will keep you from getting injured.
When she started on her own fitness journey — which eventually led to shedding some 90 pounds — Pla says she used a mix of cardio, HIIT and strength training to lose weight in a reasonable timeline while building strength and endurance.
“I’m 100% into HIIT training, but it’s not something you can do every day. I think it’s something you should mix up because once you start doing something every day, the body kind of gets used to it.”
To see ongoing improvements, you have to keep the body from getting too comfortable and complacent with a specific routine.
Matheny agrees that HIIT shouldn’t be the only type of exercise you’re doing. Using a food analogy, he says “HIIT shouldn’t be the main course. It’s like the side dish that you incorporate into your overall training. Just have a variety and understand where you’re at.” 5BX can certainly fit into the overall plan as calisthenics or a more intense piece of the puzzle.
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