How Short Can a Workout Be and Still Be Effective?

How Short Can a Workout Be and Still Be Effective?


A woman in fitness clothes looking at her watch

Photo: Jacob Lund (Shutterstock)

Ultra-short exercise protocols tend to have a life cycle like this: First, a researcher comes up with a question to which an unbelievably short workout might be an answer. Then, they do a study that shows people improved some aspect of fitness while doing it. Next, the New York Times writes about it. And last of all, it becomes a thing bandied about on Youtube channels and shared amongst people who have gotten the impression that it’s a good standalone workout. Think of the Seven Minute Workout, or of HIIT more generally.

The latest lion cub in this circle of life has just been born, and it’s a four-second workout, which I read about in (surprise) the New York Times. And I think it’s time we sit down for a little intervention.

Nobody is doing a four-second workout properly

The shorter a workout gets, the more people think “oh hey, I could fit that in!”

But the difficulty of making yourself do a workout doesn’t actually have much to do with the amount of time it takes. I mean, sure, 30 minutes is easier to do than 90. But is 20 really any less of an obstacle than 30? Is the entire experience of a 10-minute workout (including changing your clothes and warming up) that different from one that is 20 minutes? I’d argue it’s not.

And in shaving down the time the nature of the exercise changes drastically. Researchers often point out that their test subjects have to push unbelievably hard to correctly do the lab protocol; most people exercising on their own just don’t get there unless they are trained athletes.

What’s more, we don’t have the same setup. Tabatas (20 seconds hard, 10 seconds rest) and Wingate sprints (30 seconds hard, four minutes rest) are intended to be done on a cycle ergometer with the resistance set by the researcher who is with you in the lab. The four-second workout is done on a special type of bike with a sales pitch boasting the four-second workout as the bike’s main “benefit.” It’s unlikely you will get anywhere near the same workout by doing burpees in your living room or by tapping the resistance buttons on the bike at the gym.

As we discussed earlier with regard to the HIIT trend, the stuff people do when they think they’re executing a super-short, super-efficient workout is a lot lower intensity than they intend. These workouts also tend to mix different types of exercises (strength, cardio, etc) to an extent that you may not really realize the benefits of any of them.

So, can you do a four-second workout on your own, say by sprinting up a hill repeatedly? Maybe some people can. But when you do the prescribed number of rounds and add the required rest periods, you’re already up to a 15-minute workout anyway.

Short workouts shouldn’t be your entire routine

Let’s talk about another popular type of short workout. The “greasing the groove” approach involves splitting up a large volume of work over the course of a day. You’ll do a set of pullups once an hour, every hour, perhaps—and it’s true that if you do this day-in and day-out you’ll end up with an impressive number of pullups under your belt.

But what good would it do you to only ever do pullups? This is a great approach for improving your pullups outside of normal workouts; it’s not a substitute for a more generalized exercise program. If this is all you do, you’re missing out on leg strength, pushing strength, cardio fitness, and more. You need strength and cardio to be a healthy, fit person.

Remember, exercise guidelines recommend we all get at least 75 to 150 minutes of activity each week, which doesn’t count strength training. You can walk for 150 minutes, jog for 75, or come up with your own mix of activities that keeps you busy for that length of time. If you want to use 45 of those minutes for a handful of 15-minute sessions, that’s fine, but it doesn’t let you off the hook for the rest.

Minimalist workouts aren’t a good option for most of us

Super short workouts make sense for two people:

1. Those who would otherwise do absolutely nothing

and

2. Those who already have a strong base of strength and aerobic fitness, and just kinda need a break for a little bit.

If you are in the first group, congratulations on starting your fitness journey! Walking one block is better than sitting on your couch. Doing 10 air squats is better than doing zero. Chugging up the stairs a few times, even if you only spend a few minutes in total doing it, is absolutely an improvement over doing nothing at all.

But then you take the next step of your fitness journey by doing more.

Likewise, the strength and conditioning world is full of stories of accomplished athletes who won medals and set personal records after spending a few months on a minimalist routine. But these people weren’t beginners who kicked off their athletic careers that way; they already had a huge base of fitness and their bodies were able to take advantage of the extra recovery and specialization that minimalist training can provide.

How to tell which super short workouts could help you

I’m not saying no one should ever do a short workout, just that we need to be thoughtful about what we’re doing and why.

First, are you in one of the two categories above—the completely inexperienced and the extremely accomplished? Go for it, and just use your best judgment.

For the rest of us, super short workouts can still be an option in addition to the rest of our routines. If you want to improve a specific lift or skill, practicing it often (as in greasing the groove) may help in addition to your normal strength routine.

Likewise, if you do a lot of cardio, a short interval session or two can be a good addition. You don’t need a specific protocol developed in a lab; the tried-and-true routines developed by athletes and coaches are probably a wiser choice. We have a rundown of speedwork for runners here; that’s a good place to start.

But how short are we talking?

So how short can any one workout be, and still be effective? That depends entirely on what else you’re doing, much like how foods aren’t “healthy” or “unhealthy” on their own, but have to be considered in the context of your entire diet.

I would say if you’re looking at a workout that is less than 20 minutes long, you should ask yourself what this workout adds to your life, and whether it’s standing in for something that could be more effective. In most cases you’d probably be happier with the results from 30 minutes of normal cardio than from 10 minutes of puke-worthy intervals, and that definitely beats 10 minutes of what’s meant to be hard but ends up being easy cardio.

The most important thing to ask yourself in that moment of soul-searching is whether you are simply shying away from hard work. Hard work and consistency are the essential components for success in fitness, whether you’re trying to win competitions or just be a tough, strong, all-around fit person. You improve by finding ways to safely and sustainably do more, not by looking for excuses to do less.



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