A Better Scientific Seven Minute Workout

I know…I know…what you’re thinking…

You’re thinking 7 minutes isn’t enough to get the results I want to get!

Well smarty pants…

In my last post I proved you that you can get a result in as little as 7 minutes. Technically 6 minutes of actually working hard and 8 minutes total time committment but who’s counting? 🤫

It might not be the best result, but it’s a result. Today I’m going to show you how to get a better result from less than 10 minutes a day of exercise.

Look, it’s a natural assumption many people make. We’ve been told/taught that we need to do 150 minutes a week or whatever. Fairly arbitrary advice you might have read or seen somewhere.

That amount of time would be nice, but not everybody has it, and sure in an ideal world you could (maybe should) progress away from working so much (the stress of that much work isn’t all that great for your health either) but life is rarely ideal so you have to do the best you can.

Life hands you lemons, you make lemonade.

The main goal of this blog is to help you develop skills that translate into physical results. Of course exercising has to be a focal point for that. I’m trying in any way I can to find a routine that will resonate with you.

If you’ve only got 10 minutes a day to exercise this is an amazing starting point for you. If you just want to make fitness part of your regular routine, this is a great starting point for you. If you just need a way to ease back into training, this is an excellent way to do that too.

I don’t even know why it was named the seven minute workout to begin with. It takes longer than 7 minutes to complete it and even if you only accounted for the time you spend exercising it’s six minutes of work, not seven. 🤔

Using the scientific seven minute workout (S7MW) protocol as a base, I’m going to show how to optimize smaller daily workouts for maximum results with a few tweaks. Let’s call it the Eight Minute Workout, like the original one should have been called anyway.

Seven Minute Workout Fixes

AKA The Eight Minute Workout

Come on’ Darren, stop being such a harsh critic of the S7MW, lighten up... Anything that gets people moving is good. I agree. I just think there are some better ways to get this done and in many cases they are even easier than the S7MW.

Instead of 12 different exercises. I’m going to show you 7. Instead of doing the same thing every single day. I’m going to show you how to mix things up more effectively simply by doing 2 slightly different workouts, done on opposite days of the week.

Small tweaks can lead to better results so here are the fixes and at if you want to skip to the end I’ll reveal the exercise program.

Step #1 – Add a Warm-Up.

HUGE problem with the original S7MW. How could anyone in their right mind design a workout that was supposed to be ‘high intensity’ without implementing a good warm up?

Answer: They lied. It wasn’t that ‘high’ an intensity…

Jokes aside, if you’re going to do resistance training, even calisthenic bodyweight resistance training, you should warm up.

All of the research quoted in composition of the original S7MW used a minimum of 2 minutes for a warm up. All of it. Most of the research was done solely on a stationary bike exercise too. Meaning the movement pattern requirements are minimal. There is only one way to move the pedals on a bike so warm up requirements are lower.

How could they miss this? Well, they tried to incorporate the warm up into the design by putting jumping jacks and wall sits first. 

It’s not much, but I guess it’s something.

What to do instead: The Big Three

Dr. Stuart McGill, a highly respected spine expert proposed that three exercises done near daily do wonders for your spine health.

Given that the point of a warm up is actually the opposite of what everyone thinks it is.

i.e. A warm-up isn’t really about limbering or loosening up. It’s about getting the right amount of stiffness and neural activation where you need it.

These 3 exercises (or variations thereof) are usually my minimum exercise recommendations:

30 seconds, 10 second break of each of these is 2 minutes and 40 seconds.

  1. McGill Curl Up (AKA Crunch or Sit Up) with a 5 second hold (6 reps)
  2. Alternating BirdDog with a 5 second hold (3 reps per side)
  3. Right Side Plank 3×10 seconds
  4. Left Side Plank 3×10 seconds

Is It Perfect?

Of course not, but we’re time crunched and with less than 10 minutes to exercise. You’ll just be hitting your workout stride as you terminate the workout.

You can’t fire a cannon from a canoe. These exercises develop the proper neural activation or stiffness in the spine so that the muscles of your torso are at least somewhat prepared for the exercises to come.

I prefer 6-12 movement preparation exercises but like I said, when you’re handed lemons you make lemonade. If you’re short on time, 6-12 movements will take you 4-10 minutes to get through. Too long for our purposes but once you’ve freed up 10 minutes a day, there is nothing stopping you from adding a few more minutes here and there.

If you do, consider adding more to the warm up (I’ll detail that in a future post/program), and/or adding some self massage or foam rolling to the mix.

Step #2 – Invest a Little In Yourself

In an attempt to appeal to the millions of people who refuse to invest even a tiny amount of money into themselves, the original S7MW does them a serious disservice.

Lets ignore a large percentage of muscle entirely!

Because apparently we’re all cheapskates, here is a workout where all you need is a chair to complete it. And you already have a chair right? What did that chair cost you? 20, 40, 100 dollars?

Come on, if you can afford an app or an internet connection, you can afford $20 for a band and a door anchor on Amazon.

Heck, home exercise equipment has become so cheap you can get an entire set of bands, with handles a door anchor and a carrying bag, for less than the price of a KFC family feast bucket.

More importantly you won’t be skipping an entire set of muscles, that in today’s desk based work environment, often go untrained already.

Yep I’m talking about your back and arm flexion muscles. Start with a small investment in a band and a door anchor, then consider slightly larger investments for a suspension trainer and/or a chin up bar.

I get that this workout is designed to be 100% free but all pushing and no pulling makes Jack a dull boy.

Step #3 – Cut Out the Bullshit

I’m not normally this blunt but I’m just going to say it:

  • The wall sit is pointless. This exercise should be in purgatory. It’s lazy exercise prescription. An old gym class form of punishment.
  • The crunch is redundant — we’re already doing the better McGill crunch in our newly proposed warm up.
  • The high knees and jumping jacks are lame attempts to add ‘cardio’ into this mix.
  • You don’t need two different push up variations, pick one.
  • The dips are more of the same (more triceps, just like push ups) and they also sacrifice good humeral head positioning
  • The squats, lunges and step up are all training the same muscle groups.

For someone pressed for time, there is a lot of useless crap in this workout!

In an effort to appeal to your sense or need for ‘variety’ the creators have decided every exercise should be different. There is no good reason for all this redundancy other than that.

What to do instead: Multiple Sets

Research continually shows that multiple sets outdo single sets. This meta-regression found that 2 or 3 sets of an exercise led to 46% more strength than 1 set. This meta-analysis found that multiple sets (2-6) yielded at least a 40% increase in muscle growth (hypertrophy) compared to 1 set.

It doesn’t take a genius to conclude that 2+ sets are better than 1. You’re leaving true progress on the table by limiting yourself to one set of anything.

The only good reason to only do one set of something is a lack of time. Remember that anything is better than nothing so if you’re only going to do one set, you can train every muscle in your body with 4 exercises, not twelve — not including our 3 proposed warm up drills.

That means that the S7MW should have originally been the scientific 2 minute and 40 second workout:

  1. Squat or Lunge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  2. Row or Chin Up for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  3. Hinge or Bridge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  4. Push Up Variation for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds

Done. Why add all the wasted space?

Add our proposed warm up to it and we have the 5 minutes and 20 second workout. Doesn’t have much of a ring to it and we still have 2 more minutes and 40 seconds to play with.

The obvious solution? Do 2 sets of everything instead of adding all that extra crap for the sake of adding it. We end up with:

  1. McGill Curl-Up (AKA Crunch/Sit-up) for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (6×3 second holds)
  2. Alternating BirdDog for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (3×5 second holds ea side)
  3. Right Side Plank for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (3×10 seconds)
  4. Left Side Plank for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (3×10 seconds)
  5. Squat or Alternating Lunge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  6. Row or Chin Up for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  7. Hinge or Bridge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  8. Push Up Variation for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  9. Squat or Alternating Lunge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  10. Row or Chin Up for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  11. Hinge or Bridge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  12. Push Up Variation for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds

Much better. Isn’t it? Still 8 minutes of total time investment with 2 minutes of resting or switching between exercises.

Add a third set and you’re only at a 10 minute and 40 second time investment. Simple but good progression. If you can free up 8 minutes, I’m willing to bet you can free up 11 after a month of practice. 😉

Step #4 – Add Structure

Are you supposed to do S7MW every day? Once a week? Twice a week? Who knows??

There is no specific weekly prescription in the original article, nor the NYT’s article. I can’t be bothered to pay for an app to see if I missed something.

Without further instruction, most people just do it every day. Or most days, ignoring whatever days you might miss Not judging, that’s the right attitude to have: Flexibility.

The problem is if you do end up doing it everyday. Notably because you shouldn’t be able to do it every day. If you’re actually resistance training, you can’t recover adequately in 24 hours. 

I suspect why this is one reason a paper from my most recent S7MW article found that people plateaued in a mere 3 weeks. Simply doing too much of the same. You can’t exercise in the long-term if you’re burning yourself out.

The sad reality of training, especially resistance training is that you typically need about 48 hours of recovery to maximize your results. Your body adapts between workouts, not during. While we’re at it, your bodyweight is still a resistance, so you need a day off in between.

What to do instead: Cardiovascular Exercise

When you combine cardiovascular exercise with resistance training in a continuous circuit like fashion you get a bunch of interference. You get a poor result in both domains. When you do them on different days, you get a lot more out of each.

You can shift the days if you are more productive on weekends or want a rest day on another day that isn’t Sunday.

I’ve got 3 suggestions for you:

  1. ≤10 minutes of: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off on a Stationary Bike (or rower)
  2. ≤10 minutes of: 3 minutes fast walking, 3 minutes slow walking
  3. The 10 Minute McMaster Sprint Interval Protocol

OK so a stationary bike isn’t free but you can pick a decent folding one up online these days for $150-300. Conversely if you have a bike and live in a warm place, just do the same 30s on/10s off protocol or if you have access to a gym do it there.

I recommend the bike because it’s non-weight bearing and foolproof. You can’t screw the technique up and the injury risk potential is low. This is especially true if you’re new to exercise, you need to prepare your joints for the pounding of something like running and that can take months to do properly.

If you’re just trying to get into the swing of exercise non-weight bearing forms of cardio are best. If you think you can handle it, you could do jumping jacks or skip rope but please pay attention to how your body feels.

Walking is free and fairly low impact so it’s a great starting point.

This study found that the interval based approach (fast walking combined with slow walking) I recommended above, yielded a superior way to improve body composition, physical fitness, and glycemic control. Compared to straight walking for the same duration anyway.

The McMaster Sprint Interval Protocol was totally overblown by the media a year or two back as a way to get fit in 60 seconds. Not true. You can however use it to get fit in less than 10 minutes.

See it’s only 60 seconds of hard work on an stationary bike but it takes longer to actually complete:

  • 2 minute warm up
  • 20 seconds hard all out
  • 2 minutes recovery light
  • 20 seconds hard all out
  • 2 minutes recovery light
  • 20 seconds hard all out
  • 3 minute cool-down.

It’s 3 intervals of 20 seconds of hard work separated by a warm up and cool-down. I’d argue 3 minutes at the end was just an easy way to make it 10 minutes exactly. You could probably get away with little less.

In twelve weeks, this interval protocol proved to be as effective as 45 minutes of moderate continuous cycling with a 2 minute warm up and 3 minute cool-down!! At least for all the markers these scientists tested.

Doing this cardiovascular exercise on a day separately from the resistance training day will mean a better overall result for each physical quality. Less than 10 minutes of it, should also mean it’s supportive of recovery as most “cardio” that isn’t true HIIT should be.

While we’re on the topic of exercise. I like to tell everyone I work with to have at least one day off from “planned exercise.” You can play with your kids, go for some long walk or an epic hike. Play a game if you like, just give your body a break once a week.

Step #5 – Track a Metric

This brings me to the last major issue I have with the S7MW…

How do you know if you’re improving? Specifically with the resistance training day?

The problem with timed bodyweight exercise is that you can’t use either of the two typical markers of progress:

  • More reps
  • More weight

Markers of progress let you know when you plateau. If you can’t do more reps with a given weight or lift more weight, then it’s likely time to switch things up.*

Once you can get through an entire 30 seconds of work on any given exercise you could add load. Be that through thicker bands, adding some weight to the tool you’re using or even changing the mechanical lever.

That last bit (changing levers) is on my list of things to write more about in the future but in the meantime you can grab yourself a copy of the Naked Warrior by Pavel Tsatsouline.

More reps can be a good initial marker of progress, but there is always a limit on how many quality reps you can do in 30 seconds. Once you can do any exercise for the full 30 seconds, doing those reps faster actually makes things easier on you. Not harder. You begin to use momentum. This is a point of diminishing returns.

*Note: I’d argue that hypertrophy oriented programs should actually be extended a few weeks beyond this point but that’s the sole exception. The better scientific seven minute workout isn’t a hypertrophy program.

The Goal of the Scientific Seven Minute Workout

Again, it was never really discussed in the original workout but it’s noteworthy to the discussion of a metric. I assume the goal was just to have a really approachable workout that got people moving in a minimal amount of time.

I’d argue that the real goal was to improve mood and energy. Good subjective markers of improvement but you should still implement a tool for tracking it. With that in mind use this little tool to track before and after moods rather than sets/reps:

Improved energy and mood leads to improved confidence. If you can’t track improvement through weight or reps. Use energy or mood. Track it on a calendar ideally.

I’ll propose a way to take this program design a bit further with tracking in my next article.

Summary

I present to you ‘The Scientific Eight Minute Workout” because eight is better than seven. Also because it will actually take you 8 minutes to complete. 

Invest in a band or a suspension trainer for rows. Trust me, you’ll thank me for it later.

You’re going to alternate between a day of resistance training (Day 1) and a day of cardiovascular training (Day 2). Both use an interval based approach and you should take a day off once a week.

Day 1:

  1. McGill Crunch for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (6×3 second holds)
  2. Alternating BirdDog for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (3×5 second holds ea side)
  3. Right Side Plank for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds 3×10 seconds
  4. Left Side Plank for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds (3×10 seconds)
  5. Squat or Alternating Lunge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  6. Row or Chin Up for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  7. Hinge or Bridge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  8. Push Up Variation for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  9. Squat or Alternating Lunge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  10. Row or Chin Up for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  11. Hinge or Bridge for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds
  12. Push Up Variation for 30 seconds, rest 10 seconds

Day 2:

Pick one of the following cardiovascular routines:

  1. ≤10 minutes of: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off on a Stationary Bike (or rower)
  2. ≤10 minutes of: 3 minutes face, 3 minutes slow walking
  3. The 10 Minute McMaster Sprint Interval Protocol

You can try each of these out (or ask questions in the comments) before you commit to one method. Once you’ve decided on one, stick with it for at least 3 weeks. 

Track how you progress with both forms of exercise. If you’re consistent you’ll likely hit a plateau after 3 or 4 weeks. It could take a little longer if you aren’t as consistent but don’t let that discourage you. 

You will have to mix things up down the road to keep making progress, but that’s a topic for another day.


Also published on Medium.