Ultra-Brief Workouts: The Agony and The Satisfaction

To say I have a love-hate relationship with exercise would be too strong. But I’ve never truly enjoyed it, and for the relatively small fraction of my life when I’ve done it regularly, it has been at best a chore.

One of those times was in medical school. For a quarter or two, I went to the pool regularly. After a vacation, I returned to the pool and ran into my friend Brad. When I asked how his vacation was, he said, “Great!” and proceeded to tell me about biking a century or maybe two, hiking, running. I realized that there two kinds of people in the world: the ones who exercise more when they’re on vacation, and the ones who exercise less. Both kinds were represented in that conversation, and you can see which I was.

I seem to have an abiding interest in getting something for, well, if not nothing, then “as little as possible” (hence: short-term therapy, no-knead bread, and no doubt a number of other hyphen-bearing shortcuts). So when I started to hear about 20-minute workouts using high-intensity interval training, I got interested. [Spoiler alert: 20 minutes is way too long.]

In traditional cardio exercise, you work out at a moderate level for 45 or more minutes. Research was showing, though, that by alternating, say, one-minute periods of high-intensity exercise with one-minute periods of easy exercise for a total of 20 minutes, you could get the same benefit. “Who doesn’t have time to exercise for 20 minutes?” I asked myself. So I borrowed my sister’s rowing machine, put it in my basement, and got started. I am happy to say I kept a log of more-or-less what I did. The rowing machine lets you read off the number of watts you are generating, which means you can gauge any progress you are making, which is the key to motivation and evaluation. If you decide to start exercising or to change your regimen, I really recommend that you log what you are doing, including not just what you are doing but also some measure of your performance. I’ve glanced back at this fairly frequently, although this is actually the first time I’ve looked it over in any detail. I started in September 2012.

The first thing I noticed is that I could not do all-out exercise for a minute, rest for a minute, and then do all-out exercise again. So I wound up setting a target for the exercise bursts that was about as high as I could do and still complete 20 minutes. On the last round, I would go all-out. Initially my target was to stay just above 160; by the end of the year, my target was to stay above 195.

I did this off and on for a number of years. Looking back, it seems that when I would stop I would lose capacity that I would regain over 3-4 months and then have more modest gains. Toward the end of 2016, I tried the “7-Minute Workout,” which is a collection of what used to be called calisthenics. It was great, I could see quick improvement in my capacity, but then I got all kinds of tendinitis and had to stop after a couple of months.

In August 2018 I read “The One-Minute Workout,” Martin Gibala’s summary of his and others’ research that was the basis for the NY Times coverage I’d read previously. It confirmed my reservations about the 20 minutes of one-minute-on-one-minute-off I had been doing. Apparently, what really matters is actually doing maximal exercise. Scaling back your efforts so that you can complete 20 minutes, as I had been doing, is probably counterproductive. It also seems that you don’t necessarily need one full minute of maximal exercise; 30 seconds works. Even 20 seconds may work, but even I am not going to go that minimal. Three repetitions is good. Even just doing one is good, but three is at least somewhat better.

So I came up with my own 7-minute workout. Three minutes of warm-up seems excessive, so I do two. I don’t do a cool-down, I just sit there panting and sometimes moaning or swearing until I can get up and go log my results. My wife, who is a devotee of Orange Theory, scoffs at what a—trying to find a paraphrase for “wimp,” which is not a word she uses—ah, yes, “lightweight” I am. She was happy when I told her that I did wind up lengthening the workout to 8 minutes, although she was less impressed when I told her that I had found the rest periods were not sufficiently long.

So here is what I came up with:

Time

Activity

Duration

0:00

Warm-up (light)

2 minutes

2:00

Max exercise

30 seconds

2:30

Light exercise

2 minutes

4:30

Max exercise

30 seconds

5:00

Light exercise

2″ 30 seconds

7:30

Max exercise

30 seconds

8:00

Stop, moan, etc.

up to you

When I started, my maximum effort was around 300 or below. Here it is 6 months later and my maximum is around 380 or a bit more. I’m pretty happy with the improvement, both in my numbers and in my body. I do this every other day; apparently it is not clear that doing it daily adds much benefit. I’m now alternating it with some even more modest weight-bearing exercise on the off days.

“Agony” is probably too strong a word for how I feel at the end, but it is definitely unpleasant. I do not feel motivated to increase my level of effort or time investment beyond what I am doing. “Ecstasy” would definitely be too strong for the up side, but for a guy who doesn’t like to exercise, “satisfaction” is a reasonable description.

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