[Updated content toward the end]
The New York Times just published a “Scientific 7-minute workout” claims:
“In 12 exercises deploying only body weight, a chair and a wall, it fulfills the latest mandates for high-intensity effort, which essentially combines a long run and a visit to the weight room into about seven minutes of steady discomfort — all of it based on science.”
“Based on science” is a great term, isn’t it? A bit like the “based on a true story” claim we see in many blockbuster movies. When you read this piece please remember the notion that “based on a true story” and “true story” are very different.
In fact, the reader were to follow the link to the article in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, they would see this caution about the program:
“Because of the elevated demand for exercise intensity in HICT protocols, caution should be taken when prescribing this protocol to individuals who are overweight/obese, detrained, previously injured, or elderly or for individuals with comorbidities. For individuals with hypertension or heart disease, the isometric exercises (wall sit, plank, and side plank) are not recommended. The isometric exercises can be substituted with dynamic exercises. For all individuals, the Valsalva maneuver should be avoided, particularly for the isometric exercises. Proper execution requires a willing and able participant who can handle a great degree of discomfort for a relatively short duration. It is also essential that participants in an HICT understand proper exercise form and technique. As with all exercise programs, prior medical clearance from a physician is recommended.
Although HICT can be an efficient means by which to improve health and decrease body fat, it may be inferior to creating absolute strength and power, specific endurance, and other specific performance variables (3). If these are the goals of a program, as with competitive athletes, traditional programs may elicit greater absolute gains.”
This program is supposed to be for “high-performing professionals from a variety of industries“. If we are to assume those professionals are CEOs, then there are some interesting statistics to consider:
- 82% of CEOs are overweight
- 69% are in poor physical fitness condition
- 58% have high cardiac risk
So given the cautions outlined within the published journal article itself, is this really an appropriate protocol?
Beyond the cautions that the creators of the protocol posted (please take these seriously if you’re considering this!), there is another aspect of this workout that I don’t care for: the exercise selection itself. In an ideal world, your workout would include a balance of exercises that will help to keep your body…balanced. I won’t even claim that to be “based on science” because it’s just sensible. Although it is also “based on science”. In fact I would even go as far as to say it is science.
What does it mean to have balance of exercises? There are many ways to look at this, but my preference is to approach it with movement-based exercise selection instead of muscle-based. I wish I could remember which great trainer I learned this concept from, but basically the notion is: If you train muscles, you’ll probably forget some; if you train movement, you’ll be covered.
What does a balanced movement-based workout include? You can actually get it down to 7 exercises:
- Hip dominant: Something where the hips are the driver, and that primarily works your backside, often with a focus on glutes. This is also sometimes called a lower body pull. A deadlift is a great example.
- Knee dominant: This time the knees are the drivers, and it primarily works the front side, often focused on quads. Sometimes referred to as a lower body push. Squats are knee dominant.
- Upper body push: I think you see where I’m going with this approach. In this case, you’re pushing something with the upper body. There are two subcategories of this movement: the vertical and horizontal pushes. It typically works the front side of your upper body, and includes exercises like push-ups and bench press.
- Upper body pull: This exercise also tends to have two subcategories: vertical and horizontal. It typically works the backside of your upper body, and includes exercises like pull-ups and rows.
- Anti-extension and flexion core: This is the most popular variety of core muscle, working the muscles that help you to flex and that help you to prevent extension. They work the front side of the core, or the “six-pack muscles”. People love working these! Anterior core exercises typically include planks and crunches, although I’ll note a big caution about crunches if you have any back issues.
- Lateral or rotary core: I call these the smarter but less popular sibling of the anti-extension core exercises. They have a lot of value, but are often overlooked. These exercises are critical to sports performance, and low back pain reduction. They work the muscles along the side of your core, and include exercises like side planks and cable chops and lifts.
- Extension and anti-flexion core: Glutes are all the rage these days, which has helped this category gain popularity. This category of exercise work the glute family as well as the spinal stabilizers, and are as important as the lateral core exercises for both sports performance and low back health. This category includes bird dogs, band hip extensions, and glute bridges.
I think as you read through that, you’ll be thinking “yup, that includes about everything”. Now take a look at the 12 exercises in the original workout. How balanced is it?
By my calculations, it includes:
- 5 Knee dominant: Wall sit, step up, squat, high knees running in place, lunge
- 0 hip dominant:
- 3 upper pushes: Push-up, triceps dip, Push-up and rotation
- 0 upper pulls:
- 2 anti-extension/flexion core: abdominal crunch, plank
- 2 lateral core: push-up and rotation, side plank
- 0 extension/anti-flexion
I didn’t put the jumping jacks anywhere, but would argue it would also belong in the knee dominant category.
Clearly not a balanced program! Now here’s the real zinger: of all the exercise categories, which do you think are most important for “high-performing professionals from a variety of industries“?
If you said hip dominant, upper pulls and extension core, give yourself an imaginary prize! Most executives spend way too much time sitting, be it at a desk, or on a plane, train, or automobile. Sitting tends to tighten our front side muscles, and stretch our backside muscles. In order to help overcome these work postural habits, we need extra strength work for our backside.
Most top trainers and strength coaches aim to have at least as many upper pulls as pushes, and at least as many hip dominant exercises as knee dominant for our clients, and many of us aim for twice as many pulls as pushes and twice as many hip dominant as knee dominant for our desk sitting clients. I’ve never met a quality trainer who would recommend 5:0 knee dominant to hip dominant, or 3:0 upper push to upper pull.
Considering all of that, does anybody else think that this program is maybe not a great idea?
Update: Since this post went up, The New York Times seem to have come to their senses. In October 2014, they published The Advanced 7-Minute Workout.
Elsbeth Vaino, B.Sc., CSCS, is an engineer turned personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.
”HIGH-INTENSITY CIRCUIT TRAINING USING BODY WEIGHT: Maximum Results With Minimal Investment”, ACSM Health & Fitness Journal, May/June 2013 – Volume 17 – Issue 3 – p 8–13.
 CEO Health & Wellness Survey, Apollo Life
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