Monday, August 26, 2013

'The Scientific 7-Minute Workout' Revised

In a recent New York Times article, The Scientific 7-Minute Workout, fitness columnist Gretchen Reynolds relates the findings of a couple of Florida-based strength and conditioning specialists (see the original ACSM article here).

When it comes to exercise, Reynolds reports that less is more. That is, science shows that the days of spending an hour straight on the stationary bike are over. The caveat? The few minutes you do spend training each day must be all-out, maximum effort.

"The Scientific 7-Minute Workout"
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The "Scientific 7-Minute Workout" is essentially high-intensity interval training (HIIT). It calls for a series of 12 body-weight exercises performed as vigorously as possible for 30 seconds, with 10 seconds of rest between each.

In her article, Reynolds eloquently turns exercise physiology gibberish into practicable gym floor application; however, she fails to point out some major flaws on the part of the authors of the paper.

It's a proven fact that HIIT yields tremendous health benefits. The problem, then, lies not in the interval scheme or short duration, but rather in the Floridians' exercise selection.

The journal article Reynolds cites claims its program is balanced -- that it targets all the major muscle groups. In fact, the "Scientific 7-Minute Workout" falls extremely short in this exact respect.

Sure, the 12 exercises prescribed will get you breathing heavy, sweating profusely, and feeling the adrenaline rush. Unfortunately, though, over time they will also leave you out of muscular balance and in pain.

Specifically, the program calls for six knee dominant lower body exercises but no hip dominant ones. Similarly, the upper body regime consists of three pushing movements (two of which, the push-ups and push-ups and rotation, are redundant) and no pulling ones. This amounts to a huge overemphasis on the "mirror muscles" (i.e. the front of the body). 

Moreover, two of the exercises listed have no place in anyone's routine: crunches and tricep dips on a chair are injurious to the low back and shoulder, respectively. Moving into posterior pelvic tilt on the squat, as depicted in the cartoon (not in the journal), can also be harmful to the lumbar spine.

The Scientific 7-Minute Workout isn't all bad; it just needs a shape-up. Here's how to make it better:

  • For the core, replace the crunch with a bird dog, an anti-rotation movement.

  • For the upper body, replace the tricep dip on chair with another body-weight exercise: pull-ups. If you don't have access to a pull-up bar, do bent-over rows with a resistance band. To add variety to the push-up routine, perform one version "close," with elbows tucked in at the sides and the other "wide," with elbows out. The former will target the triceps and shoulders; the latter will build the chest.

  • For the lower body, maintain anterior pelvic tilt on squats, and incorporate a couple of posterior chain exercises. Replace stationary lunges with walking ones to better target the hips. Likewise, substitute glute bridging for wall sits. The dynamic nature of glute bridging will strengthen the hips through their full range of motion.

"The Scientific 7-Minute Workout" -- REVISED

Finally, remember to follow proper progressions. For newcomers to this type of training, switch up the work-to-rest ratio from 3-to-1 to something more comfortable, like 20 seconds of work followed by 20 seconds of rest. For advanced trainees, if regular push-ups don't present a challenge, elevate the feet or perform clap push-ups. If step-ups feel like rest, add in a jump at the top.

Reynolds correctly hits on the considerable health benefits of high-intensity, short duration exercise, as presented in the article she cites. Unfortunately, she is far from critical enough with regards to the authors' exercise selection. Fear not, though. The revised Scientific 7-Minute Workout will give you all the great benefits of the original -- without the risk of long-term damage.

Special thanks to Kate Maum for expertly demonstrating the revisions to the Scientific 7-Minute Workout.

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