[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[2] 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.


[1]”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.

[2] CEO Health & Wellness Survey, Apollo Life

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  1. Hi Sarah, good question and I’ll have to think about it. The big challenge with zero equipment plans is that the pulling and hip dominant (backside) exercises are tough to do without equipment, but arguably they are the most important.

  2. Hi Elsbeth – you have some really good points here about balance! I like your plans a lot — but could you come up with a zero-equipment circuit C for travelling? thanks!

  3. Hi Ann,

    If you scroll through the comments, you should see a really long one that I wrote that has a few suggestions for each. Beyond that, I am not sure if there is a good online source that helps to list what exercises fall into each. Maybe there needs to be one! if you’re looking for good book recommendations that tend to provide well-balanced workout options, I would suggest you try the New Rules of Lifting or Core Performance books. They are fantastic.

  4. Hi San,

    If you look back in the comments, you will hopefully find a long comment I posted that includes 2 suggestions. Let me know if you don’t find it and I’ll send it to you. I agree that it’s great to get people motivated to do something. And in most cases, something is better than nothing. The problem, though, is that if the something is not well thought out, it can lead to injury, which will then lead to someone being even more sedentary.

  5. Hi Jim,

    Big thanks for giving me the opportunity to provide my favourite answer to an either or question. Q: “When you say “horizontal or vertical” do you mean that people should be doing push-ups (horizontal) and military press (vertical) or rows (horizontal) and pull-ups (vertical)?” A: “Yes”.

    I never get tired of that. 🙂 In all seriousness though, what I mean is that you should think about pairing a pull with a push, so in your upper body day, if you have time for all four, do all four. If you will only have time for 2, then I would suggest one of the following:
    push-ups and rows (especially if you have shoulder issues)
    One workout do push-ups and pull-ups, and another workout do rows and military press. But this is for those of you with healthy shoulders.

  6. It should more accurately be named the “7-minute circuit” as well. The workout in the journal specifies 2 or 3 reps of the circuit, so 14-21 minutes (well, more if you figure in a short break between circuits).

  7. When you say “horizontal or vertical” do you mean that people should be doing push-ups (horizontal) and military press (vertical) or rows (horizontal) and pull-ups (vertical)?

    I’m looking at upper body one day, lower body and core the other.

  8. Hi,

    okay so why don’t you give us a 7 minute workout that you think covers all body parts?

    i think the magic of this “scientific” workout is not that it is the best thing there is, but it gets people motivated enough to start it.. see how many hackers are doing it compared to doing nothing.. so it may not be the best but it is still better that doing nothing.

  9. Thanks for the thorough and thoughtful reply, Elsbeth. I will look into these exercises.

  10. Hi Ginny, fair point. I have done so in the next (or previous? not sure how this will look) comment. I hope you find it helpful.

  11. Thanks for the comment, Joseph. I do have ideas for better workout options, and I’ll provide an example of one. But a few things that I hope you (and anyone else reading this) will consider:
    – a generic magazine or newspaper workout is rarely a good idea. It might be for a 25 year old whose body moves perfectly, but for anyone who has been around the block a few times, it’s not very smart. Have any previous and/or nagging injuries? How are your shoulders, knees, backs, and hips? If any of those things are a little off, then a generic workout may make those things worse. Just a note.
    – For that same reason, I actually don’t buy the concept that the 7 minute HICT workout is a good idea for most people. Well, for anyone really. I think it can be a good idea as an occasional workout, or in addition to one’s regular workout, but it’s less than ideal otherwise. For the person whose body isn’t perfect, a workout is a great opportunity to add in a good body-specific warm-up to try to address some of the shortcomings. And for those who do move well but have performance desires (like, say, basketball or soccer 😉 ), I agree with the authors of the journal when they say that it’s an “inferior” approach. Is HICT a better option than cardio for most people? Definitely! Well, maybe not for an endurance athlete. And it’s definitely got a place for the busy person. But my hope is that it wouldn’t be the only workout you get in a week. Treat your body to a little more time so that you can really get more strength, power, agility, endurance, and flexibility.
    – It is definitely tough to get a proper, balanced workout without equipment, and unfortunately, it is the movements we need the most that are the hardest to do without equipment. So if you have even a bit of equipment – say a suspension trainer (TRX, Jungle Gym, rings), or a couple of kettlebells or dumbbells, that would be preferable.
    – With all that out of the way, I’ve got two suggested circuit options for you instead. The first is almost bodyweight. I know, that probably sounds like a cop out, but honestly, I’d rather someone figure out a way to get a few tools for a good workout than go without for less.
    – and last note: if any of the exercises in this list are painful, please don’t do them!
    In both cases, go for the same work:rest ratio as in the posted protocol.
    Circuit A – for those who have a suspension trainer of some sort – it can be hooked up to a tree or a door in your house:
    1. Suspension trainer Rear foot elevated split squat (knee dominant)
    2. Inverted row to leg curl (combination upper pull and hip dominant)
    3. Swimmer (combination upper push, anti-extension core, and lateral core)
    4. Y-T-W-hugs (upper pull)
    5. half-pendulum (lateral core)
    6. Mountain climber (anti-extension core)
    7. Single leg hip lift (hip dominant)
    (A video of the circuit)

    Circuit B: (go with 30 seconds in each of the sides, so single leg squat will be 30s of one then 30s of the other). This one has 2 options for each – a more beginner option and a more advanced option.
    1. Split squat (can add a pause midway), or single leg squat to a chair (knee dominant)
    2. One arm row (requires a weight, but often you can put books, or other household items in a strong back pack or tool bag and use that. Please be careful and make sure the bag can hold what you’re putting in it. And please keep your back straight!), or chin/pull-ups if you have the bar and can do them. (upper pull)
    3. Single leg glute bridge, or single leg shoulder elevated hip lifts, or a single leg, shoulder and foot elevated hip lift for the really strong (hip dominant)
    4. Push-ups (if you rock at push-ups, consider adding a pause at the bottom; if you can’t do proper push-ups, consider incline versions) (upper push)
    5. Side plank, or bench side plank hold, or plank to side plank if you’re bored of the holds (lateral core)
    6. Plank or single leg lowering (anti-extension core)
    7. 3 way mini-band (or theraband tied in a loop) hip matrix (still good without resistance). For this one, I’d play around with the timing for the circuit – I usually get people doing 10 ea of the 4 directions – not sure how long that takes in all honesty. (combination core extension, flexion, lateral) Click the name of this ex for a video of this one. Progress this one by not touching down in between.

    I hope that’s helpful. Let me know if you’d like to see videos of any of the exercises and I’ll either try to find you a good one on the internet, or video one.

  12. I am a recreational athlete (soccer and basketball ~8 hours per week) and I thought this looked enticing.

    If you have actual better ideas (and “better” means not only addressing the concerns you mentioned with hip vs. knee dominance and pull vs push but also having the virtues of this program: rapid and with no weights required) I would love to hear them and consider putting them into practice.

  13. fair enough, but then, i don’t hear you offering a better time constrained workout.

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