The Scientific Seven Minute Workout Is All Hype
I know people are losing their $^&! over the seven minute workout right now (S7MW?) but if I came up with a 6 minute workout could I supersede it on the popularity hierarchy?
Look I get that people are time pressed and any exercise is better than no exercise, but is this the panacea of health?
My thoughts are leaning toward no…
Though it may be a great way to introduce a routine, the long-term implications aren’t as interesting or unique as most people are likely to hope for.
Do you do it every day? Every other day?
Problems with the Seven Minute Workout
Let’s ignore for a minute that the authors had the audacity to call it the ‘SCIENTIFIC’ seven minute workout without much the way of science to support the idea…
I realize it was in a scientific journal, but the general public may not always be aware that opinion pieces are often published in scientific journals. This is an opinion piece, not a study or even a scientific analysis.
Also forget the fact that it’s 6 minutes of work — 12 exercises for 30 seconds each — and not seven minutes of total time committment. If you count 12 ten second breaks, you end up with 8 minutes of a time committment.
Deal breaker? What the Scientific 8 minute workout isn’t sexy enough for you?
The one minute workout! Only takes 3 minutes to warm up, 2 minutes to cool down and 4 minutes of rest between intervals!
So you mean 10 minutes?
Why do these types of fitness trends always hinge on a fabricated practicality and give people a false sense of security? Why not just call it the 8 minute workout? It’s not even the 6 minute workout! Makes no sense…
Oh and there isn’t much in the way of a quality warm up either so you know, take that as you will. I know I don’t like to just jump into ‘high intensity’ exercise and that it takes me a minimum of 3-5 minutes just to feel remotely close to pushing my body.
When I ran track we would warm up for 20-40 minutes, it’s not practical for someone who just wants to work out quickly but if you want to do something at a high intensity a good warm up is crucial.
This is bodyweight circuit training masquerading as a high quality high intensity training protocol and I have to admit I’m highly skeptical.
The main problems here are that the authors are trying to extrapolate ideas from high intensity interval training (or HIIT for short) research but are using bodyweight circuit training modalities. Confused? Me too…
When you look at research into body weight circuit training, well the picture you paint isn’t as rosy. There are many papers on that, curiously missing here.
Basically what I see as a fitness professional is someone repackaging circuit training under the guise of HIIT training. Which seems to be becoming a bit of a buzzword.
I have an idea, what if I authored a paper where I ignored all the research on the modality I was pushing but tried to make it seem like it was basically the same thing as this new high intensity interval training thing we keep seeing. Meaning, let’s repackage something old as something new again.
Sound familiar in the fitness world? It should! It happens over and over again. I’m sure I’ll be back here writing about the 2 minute workout in 6-10 years.
HIIT research is almost always done on a bike and appears to show some promise, but that isn’t what the S7MW is, and that’s the problem in my view. Good in theory, but not intellectually that honest.
I’m sure the authors didn’t deliberately do this, or at least I want to give the benefit of the doubt but I was curious just how much science they referenced actually supported their theory…
Let’s Go Through the Science Shall We?
I’m a bit of a fitness geek, so I’ve actually read a lot of these before.
Normally, I don’t use a ton of research on this blog but just so you know that I can, I’m going to do a bit of a breakdown.
*Skip this part if research doesn’t interest you…
I just want to go through quickly some of the problems with the research quoted and below I’ll talk about some ideas for making it better and getting more out of your seven minutes if that’s truly all you have.
Paper by Paper:
#1 – Actually a book, relatively old (2004) from the National Academy of Sports Medicine. A fancy sounding name for an organization that has no official ties to government health agencies (like the American College of Sports Medicine does) or research agencies (like the National Strength and Conditioning Association does). They make money selling relatively sub-par training certifications online and while there are certainly worse places to get certified if you have no education in exercise science, I recommend the ACSM or NSCA certifications LONG before this, though you could use it for continuing education credits…
#2 – Compared 40 minutes of circuit training at 50% of *1 rep max (a weight you could lift at least 15-20 times), to 40 minutes of strength training at 80-90% 1 rep max (a weight you could life 3-8 times) and 40 minutes of endurance cycling. Found that *EPOC was greater for the strength training and circuit groups. Problem here is that it’s 40 minutes not seven! And they used external load, not body weight…
Also strength training got the best result and would yield more muscle mass retention than both though that wasn’t directly investigated.
*For those that don’t know, 1 Rep Max or 1 Repetition Max is the perceived maximum amount of weight you could move for one repetition, while EPOC measures the metabolic boost you get after training.
#3 – Position stand by the ACSM, actually recommends a minimum of 20 minutes of vigorous cardiovascular exercise for 3 times a week (almost 3 times as much as the authors conclude). More than double what the S7MW recommends.
So far, nothing much in the way of scientific evidence.
#4 – I actually love the work that Martin Gibala and Jonathan Little have done on high intensity interval training at McMaster, but this paper looks at protocols lasting 15-30 minutes still, not seven. It’s also much higher intensity interval training on a bike erg, not bodyweight circuit training. Does anyone really think that holding a squat for 30 seconds at the bottom in similar to a 30 second sprint on a bike? Lastly it discusses more specifically improving insulin sensitivity as opposed to anything else, like say body fat losses…
#5 – More wonderful HIIT research coming out of McMaster (near where I grew up!), but this time looking at four to six 30 second sprints, with 4 minutes of light aerobic work in between and probably a 4 minute warm up, so a time commitment of 22-31 minutes. And again, not circuit training, this is interval training. Specifically a Wingate. If you’ve never done one of these, it’s incredibly difficult once, let alone four to six times.
#6 – Finally some actual circuit training research! Basically all this shows is that it increases EPOC, not a surprise. However, once again, they used external load at 75% of 20RM (a strange way to record this but basically about 30-40% of 1RM) and not body weight. They also did two circuits of 8 exercises, at 2 seconds a rep, each exercise would take at least 40 seconds to complete, and then they were allowed either 20 seconds rest or 60 seconds rest between exercises. Not exactly the same thing, right?
Again, you’re looking at a minimum of 16 minutes here in most cases and most likely closer to 30 for the 60 second rest group. Interestingly enough, the group that rested more (60 sec) had a greater EPOC — so maybe you should rest 60 seconds between exercises in the seven minute workout and not 10 seconds?
Food for thought…
#7 – Just doesn’t really apply to this situation. This compared 1 set of 10 exercises, to 3 sets of 10 exercises and the differences in energy expenditure, basically it found they were similar. Once more, the study used external load at 10RM (about 75% of 1 RM), with a commitment of roughly 15 minutes for the 1 set group. It doesn’t really discuss rest intervals either, but I assume they are about 60-70 seconds each exercise; Given maybe 20 seconds to complete each exercise, that means 11 or so minutes spent resting.
I strongly question the statistical analysis in this study in the first place, it looks as if they were comparing based on the time commitment. i.e. energy expenditure per minute of time invested. If the results are similar based on time investment, then the results shouldn’t be very surprising or useful. They don’t have the results charted to know for certain, just p values, which might mean P hacking. I seriously doubt that the absolute values would be the same for 1 versus 3 given other research I’ve read on this subject.
This paper would be in defiance of a few other papers I’ve read. Three sets of anything while not 3x better is still generally 60-ish% better than one set and has continually been shown to be statistically more effective than one set. If time committment is the issue, then I’d say the single set approach is the problem for time investment and not the number of total sets per unit of time invested.
#8 – Is another paper as opposed to a study. Though probably the most supportive paper used thus far. All the same, seems to support my ‘it’s better than nothing‘ thinking. Of note: The research quoted in this article, does not seem to be listed in the S7MW paper and most of the research specific to circuit training shows small improvements in mostly untrained subjects.
I’d say the research was not used because it’s dated and doesn’t show very significant results or it was done in unhealthy populations like those suffering from hypertension. For instance:
“In terms of cardiovascular function, studies have shown little to mild improvement in aerobic capacity (5% to 9.5%) from participation in circuit weight training as compared to other aerobic modalities (5% to 25%) (Kass & Castriotta, 1994; Peterson, Miller, Quinney, & Wenger, 1988).
Kass and Castriotta support the contention that the mild increases in aerobic capacity are due primarily to increases in fat-free mass from the circuit weight training, and not changes from the main factors affecting aerobic capacity: cardiac output (heart rate x stroke volume) or arterial-venous oxygen difference (exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide at the cellular level).”
In other words, aerobic training is unsurprisingly about 2.5x better at improving aerobic capacity than circuit training and yields more significant benefits to specific cardiac markers. What makes the authors believe that their protocol is going to outperform these norms?
#9 – I couldn’t be bothered to get the full text because well the abstract doesn’t really say much of anything. Basically only that EPOC increases with intensity. Again, shocking! Not really… I did find this quote to be interesting though, why use this as support of your argument:
“This is further reinforced by acknowledging that the exercise stimuli required to promote a prolonged EPOC are unlikely to be tolerated by non-athletic individuals. The role of exercise in the maintenance of body mass is therefore predominantly mediated via the cumulative effect of the energy expenditure during the actual exercise.”
Basically the intensities needed to hit high amounts of EPOC are very difficult for beginners. You’re probably better off using resistance training instead. It will feel easier, you can do it every other day but the tradeoff may be 20-40 minutes a session instead of 9 minutes every day.
#10 – Again, not looking at anything remotely close to seven minutes, and HIIT, not circuit training. This is more Gibala research that looked at 8-12 reps of 60 seconds all out and 75 seconds of recovery, so 18 minutes at a minimum, not including the warm up.
#11 – Unfortunately doesn’t really prove anything about the S7MW. A paper discussing growth hormone and its influence on fatty acid oxidation. Just not that relevant, it would be if there was a paper showing that circuit training increased growth hormone and thus fatty acid oxidation, but it doesn’t nearly as much as resistance training. Growth hormone as a difference maker in the fat loss process is likely over-rated in this regard anyway, as we don’t have that much control over that variable as we do others.
#12 – This one was hard to find. One of the more supportive pieces in theory, suggests that circuit training leads to higher EPOC than traditional set training. However again, they used external load not body weight.
Of note: I couldn’t obtain the full research paper so I am not totally aware of the methods. Some things seem off: The Circuit group used 50% 1RM, while the weight group used 80% but there is no mention of reps or sets or total volume. The abstract suggests that the EPOC data was calculated, rather than directly measured. Like #7, I question some of the results as being relative to the time investment, and not the total result. The strength training took 50 minutes versus 19 minutes for the circuit training, so when you make it relative to time investment, no doubt you see some statistical differences. I’ve read other papers that suggest intensity should lead to higher total EPOC so the results here seem off. I’d have to read the whole paper to know for sure…
#13 – Shows that HIIT improves fatty acid and carbohydrate metabolism/utilization. We know that. Again HIIT is not circuit training. These were particularly grueling aerobic V02max intervals too, not 30 seconds on, 10 seconds off. This researched ten x 4 minute aerobic intervals with 2 minutes of recovery between intervals, for a total time commitment of 60 minutes! Does that sound at all like the S7MW?
#14 – This one was mis-referenced, but I think I found the right one. Again shows that interval training improves insulin sensitivity, but used a minimum of 4 Wingate Intervals, meaning at least an 18 minute time commitment, not including a warm up. Not circuit training…
#15 – Again I don’t personally see the relevance of this study to the SSMW’s proposition, but it’s an interesting study. It compared different intensities of 1 set of bench press and energy expenditure. Not surprisingly it found that you expended more energy when you did more work (rep ranges between 37-56% of 1RM) than when you trained more intense hypertrophy-strength (rep ranges between 70-90% 1RM). The authors conclude that this isn’t at all surprising, because the endurance groups did more total work (462 ± 131 J as opposed to 253 ± 93 J).
#16 – Ahh the famous first Tabata Study. I know this one well. It’s only 8 minutes of training right, and it works?? Or so it seems… this is still one of the most relevant, but it wasn’t circuit training still. What nobody refers to is that the HIIT group still did a 10 minute warm up, and one 30 minute aerobic session each week. So 70 minutes of aerobic work on top of the 32 weekly interval training. Technically each training session lasted 18 minutes at least (not including a cooldown) and the participants were highly trained hitting a crazy intensity of 170% of maximum oxygen uptake. Not sure 30 seconds of bodyweight squats can be compared…
#17 – And the famous work of Steven Boutcher. Well famous to me, I know this research well because he was the first person I’m aware of to look at HIIT and it’s effects specifically on fat loss. And well, not surprisingly, it works better, but seemingly specific to a special protocol he’s developed. Seriously, if you’re into research, you need to read this labs work (along with Gibala/Little/Tabata).
To start the program women did 10 minutes of work (5 minute warm-up with 5 minutes of HIIT) but they progressed to 25 minutes of work (5 minute warm up with 20 minutes of HIIT) by the end of the study. Once more the time investment was greater than seven minutes, eventually a lot more overall (3x) and it wasn’t circuit training, it was interval training.
I actually love the protocol used here, it’s 8 seconds hard and 12 seconds light on a bike. It’s very manageable for most people, even people completely new to training, you should try it. I’d do it instead of the S7MW if I didn’t think resistance training was so important, but that’s just me…
#18 – Last but not least. This is a monster of a research paper because it’s a meta-review looking at a bunch of other research papers on hypertrophy (muscle mass increases) in the quadricep based on mode of exercise. Doesn’t seem at all relevant to the S7MW, and actually sort of refutes the idea. It shows that higher intensity external load lifting yielded better results overall, but that taking muscles to technical failure (unlikely in only 30 seconds with light loads) was about as important if you couldn’t add a lot of load.
It also shows rather not surprisingly that more training volume leads to more hypertrophy, makes no mention of circuit training, nor HIIT interval training.
Most people want to be ‘toned’ and tone is just the muscle mass you have being visible to others. If you want that, or just want to be healthier in general, you want to preserve and likely build as much as you can muster before it starts wasting away.
And the Results Are?
Well that was a mouthful… If you’re still with me, and hopefully you skimmed that and largely trusted me to do some relatively detailed analysis.
That’s definitely the first time I’ve ever written something so ‘sciency’ on this blog.
However the logical conclusions remain that the authors seem to be reaching. The NYT picked up on this and blew the whole thing out of proportion.
Now I get it, if you’re doing this routine, I’m not bashing you. You’re doing something to better yourself and you should be commended. I just happen to think you could progress to something better.
You can likely get some cardiovascular endurance in 10 minutes if you’re new to this whole thing, but don’t ignore resistance training and don’t think you can boil that down to a mere eight minutes and forty seconds. You’re likely going to have to commit to more time at some point. Maybe the next step is 15 minutes, then 20, then 25 minutes and you see where I’m going with this — when you’re ready!
There is likely some minimum threshold for each person depending on the level of fitness that is important to you. You don’t have to start there, but I encourage you to work up to it. Use this workout as a springboard and not a means to an end.
Here are some other things I’m not wild about:
- Wall Sit – Just isn’t a useful exercise, no one needs to hold a 30 second static position here leaning against a wall and in my experience this has zero transfer to an actual squat or anything far more useful. Over-rated exercise, particularly when squats are already featured in the routine.
- The Crunch – Look most people just don’t need to add these to their routines. Most do an excessive amount to begin with and you just won’t be able to cause enough fatigue here in 30 seconds to get a good training result. Most people can easily handle more than 30 reps, assuming you could do one per second, you might get some fatigue but it likely isn’t much of a stimulus for most folks, even not particularly ‘unfit’ ones.
- The Tricep Dips – Hate the shoulder position, watch what happens to your shoulders when you execute this exercise. The shoulder joint can only be dislocated in the same direction as the deviation of the head of the upper arm bone (humerus). Doing this repeatedly makes most (more than 50%) people’s shoulders cranky, and really just isn’t worth the repetitive stress on the joint. One of my least favourite exercises.
The exercise selection overall leaves something to be desired in many cases, but fret not!
For those of you who care, check out the ‘Advanced Seven Minute Workout.’ It’s a significant improvement over the original, designed by a colleague I really respect, Mark Verstegen (see my recommended resources) and it’s far more scalable by actually using external load. I highly recommend that over just bodyweight if you can get your hands on some equipment.
You could also easily set up a suspension trainer or some bands and create a much better sequence, maybe that’s something I should share in future but this is more of a reality piece. I wasn’t keen on how this was being presented in the media and I hope you feel more educated after reading this.