Around mid-2013, a study on the “7-minute workout” was published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal, and the rest is history. Soon the popularity of the workout exploded in the media, apps were created, videos proliferated, everyone wanted in on the the miraculous time-saving strategy for “maximum results with minimal investment”, as the title of the study itself proclaimed.
Like most people, after reading “The Scientific 7-minute workout” piece in the New York Times in 2013, I did not bother to actually read the original study (which is unfortunately behind a paywall, although you can access a pdf version of it for free here). Until now I had no idea about the original context in which the study was done.
I have tried doing the workout quite a few times, and it was perfectly fine. However, it never felt really like the right minimal useful dose of exercise to me – I’m not sure if it was the perfectionist in me, or the skeptic rebelling against this “too good to be true” abridged version.
So now in 2020, at the 7-year anniversary of the 7-minute workout, I decided to take a deeper look at the original study – how it was invented, what are the scientific principles behind it, and are there any potential cons of the 7-minute workout.
If you’ve been wondering whether you’re doing the workout wrong, or maybe you’re not seeing the results you’ve expected, maybe it’s because of one or more of these 7 reasons why the 7-minute workout may not be right for you.
7 reasons why the 7-minute workout may not be right for you
- The 7-minute workout is too hard
- The 7-minute workout can be difficult to modify to your needs
- The 7-minute workout only works when you can keep it really intense
- The 7-minute workout may rush you to injury
- The 7-minute workout excludes warm-up and cool-down
- The 7 minute workout is most likely not enough exercise for you
- The 7-minute workout will probably lead you to a plateau
- Extra: The 7-minute workout is not (necessarily) HIIT
1. The 7-minute workout is too hard
So, let’s recall that the original 7-minute circuit includes a sequence of 12 exercises done for 30 sec, with a 10-second rest between each exercise bout. It’s an example of what’s called HICT – high-intensity circuit training. Here are the exercises in the classic 7-min workout sequence:
1) Jumping jacks, 2) Wall sits, 3) Push-ups, 4) Abdominal crunches, 5) Step-ups onto a chair, 6) Squats, 7) Triceps dips on a chair, 8) Planks, 9) High knees running in place, 10) Lunges, 11) Push-ups with rotation, 12) Side planks.
Though these are common, sort of “classical”, body-weight exercises, they can be hard to do for a lot of people, especially those of us who are just starting out with fitness, or getting back to it, or people with injuries or issues such as bad knees, hip pain, and so on. In reality, the original 7-minute workout is not accessible for “athletes of a certain age or body type”, as Tara Parker-Pope of the NYT puts it.
From the study itself:
Contraindications: 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.
2. The 7-minute workout can be difficult to modify to your needs
Of course, you can pick some easy modifications to the exercises to adapt the workout to your own personal situation. For example, you can replace full push-ups with inclined push-ups that you can do off a (coffee) table, or even off a wall for a beginner-friendly version.
However, not just any combination of exercises would work as a 7-minute workout. The 7-minute workout was designed to target 4 major aspects of physical fitness: 1) your cardio ability, 2) your lower body muscles, 3) your upper body muscles, and 4) your core muscles. And, in this specific order.
Exercises in an HICT circuit should be placed in an order that allows for opposing muscle groups to alternate between resting and working in subsequent exercise stations.
So, you should be hitting big muscles (like those quads and glutes with a Wall sit), and then giving them a couple of minutes’ time to recover before exerting them again. But still keeping the rest between exercise intervals very short (preferably 5 seconds, and max 30 seconds).
If this sounds complex, it’s because it kind of is. Remember, this was a very carefully designed circuit that aimed to condense the essence of a HIIT routine into a 7-minute intense blast – kind of like an espresso is to an Americano.
3. The 7-minute workout only works when you can keep it really intense
Which leads up to another shortcoming – adapting the 7-minute workout sort of defies the purpose of the workout, as it was originally intended. As one of the study’s authors says the point of the workout is for it to feel quite hard: “7 minutes is only good if it’s hard seven minutes. Stay within your discomfort zone, but not within the pain zone”.
In fact, the 30-second bouts were designed to be sufficient for people to get to a HIIT-comparable metabolic impact, to “trade total exercise time for total exercise effort”:
To maximize the metabolic impact of the exercise, time should be sufficient enough to allow for the proper execution of 15 to 20 repetitions of an exercise. A 30-second exercise bout is adequate to allow for this because most participants are able to acquire and maintain appropriate intensity for 30 seconds.
I don’t know about you but I don’t usually manage to do 15-20 Jumping jacks in 30 seconds, let alone Lunges or Push-ups. The reality is that for the vast majority of people who are not seriously into sports or training (which is the vast majority of the population), it’s hard to keep up the crazy intensity to do a rep of these exercises every 1-2 seconds. So, that trade-off we talked about – keeping it short and intense – is probably not achievable unless you’re already quite fit.
Basically, the study clearly states what previous research has established: short super-intensive workouts can bring the health benefits of regular length workouts if and only if you push yourself extremely hard:
HICT [high-intensity circuit training] can be an efficient approach to decreasing insulin resistance as well — a major factor in developing type 2 diabetes. Positive changes have been observed in insulin resistance in as little as 8 minutes per week when executed at an intensity more than 100% V O2max
4. The 7-minute workout may rush you to injury
A more important concern when doing the 7-minute workout, especially for beginners, seniors, or people with injuries and prior issues, is that the 7-minute workout promotes a specific mindset.
Go fast! Push yourself hard! Max out those reps!
While this is good advice for experienced athletes looking to pack vigorous exercise into a tight time, it would be pretty bad advice for mostly everyone else.
From the original study:
Proper execution requires a willing and able participant who can handle a great degree of discomfort for a relatively short duration.
Exercising in general, and the 7-minute workout exercises in particular, may seem simple but they do require coordination, precision, and effort to a) learn the correct form, b) work your muscles through the entire range of motion, and c) learn how to maintain that form for the duration of the exercise.
With a 7-minute workout people are theoretically encouraged to try to do as many reps as possible within 30 seconds to maximize the intensity. However, this could lead to fast and rushed exercising.
Going fast, you’re more likely to end up exercising with bad form. Why is this a recipe for disaster? Not only could it result directly in injuries, but you could end up learning the incorrect way to activate the right muscles, which could lead to compensatory activation in other muscles and chronic trauma in the long-term.
At the very least, when you exercise with bad form, you risk not getting the benefits of that exercise. For example, holding planks while letting your lower back arch won’t do much for your core strength, and doing “shallow” pushups fast, without going though the full range of motion, works your arms very differently than a properly executed pushup.
5. The 7-minute workout excludes warm-up and cool-down
With the 7-minute it’s also easy to skip on the warm-up before and the cool-down after your workout. By design, there is no dedicated warm-up and cool-down section into the 7-minute workout. Although the first couple exercises could be used for warming-up, most of the 7-minute workouts, and certainly the original one, aren’t designed with this in mind.
Skipping a warm-up and a cool-down increases the chance of injury, especially because a lot of people will start their workout after having been sedentary for a long time during the day.
The American Heart Association recommends warming up and cooling down when exercising, to adapt your heart and body muscles gradually to starting and ending (intensive) workouts. Warming-up can be critical for preventing injuries.
Cooling-down can decrease muscle pain and stiffness, and prevent sudden heart rate and blood pressure drops that can lead to light-headedness.
6. The 7 minute workout is most likely not enough exercise for you
Interestingly, the 7-minute workout wasn’t meant to be your complete workout, but rather a circuit to repeat a few times depending on how much time you’ve got:
Our approach combines aerobic and resistance training into a single exercise bout lasting approximately 7 minutes. Participants can repeat the 7-minute bout 2 to 3 times, depending on the amount of time they have.
In the original article itself, the authors of the 7-minute study recommend that you exercise for…at least 20 minutes! Ugh, turns out there are no shortcuts!
Because most individuals may not be able to execute the program at an intensity significantly greater than 100% of their V ̇O2max, following the established ACSM guidelines for high-intensity exercise of at least 20 minutes is recommended (3). This may require multiple repetitions (or circuits) of a multi-station exercise circuit.
7. The 7-minute workout will probably lead you to a plateau
And then, there’s the problem of any repetitive routine done regularly – the dreaded plateau. Our bodies are amazing at learning, and becoming efficient at what we ask of them. Run 5 miles often (and correctly), and you’ll get better at running 5 miles. Do the 7-minute workout exercises, and you’ll get better at doing them (for 30 seconds a piece that is). Ironically, if you stick to it, the reward for your persistence will be that your body will end up adapting to the 7-minute workout.
Not to speak of an even simpler truth – doing the same routine over and over again quickly becomes boring. In fact, after the original NYT piece on the 7-minute workout was published, readers who had stuck to it apparently began tweeting requests for an updated advanced version of the 7-minute workout, because “the workout became too easy or humdrum, as tends to happen when exercises are repeated without variation”. And boring exercise is definitely not very motivating to come back to.
8. Extra: The 7-minute workout is not necessarily HIIT
Finally, you should manage your expectations about the results you’re likely to get from doing the 7-minute workout. Although the 7-minute workout includes some cardio exercises, it’s mostly body-weight exercises for resistance training. So it’s not entirely a big surprise that a recent 2017 study concludes that the 7-minute workout is on the low end of the high-intensity exercise spectrum:
Our data show that 7Min elicits substantial changes in HR, oxygen uptake, and Bla [blood lactate concentration], but they are of insufficient magnitude to represent HIIE [High intensity interval exercise].
So, the 7-minute workout is not exactly a HIIT routine either (although there is some cardio involved).
While the 7-minute workout could work great to help you get into a consistent exercise habit, it will probably not provide the same health benefits over the long-term as more varied and longer HIIT routines.
Also, be aware that it’s a good idea to incorporate at least a couple minutes of warm-up and cool-down before and after to minimize the risk of injury. And finally, always focus on good form, and don’t rely on the 7-minute workout as you only exercise – it’s a good start, but be ready to graduate to longer workouts once you have the habit established.
Why settle for boring when it can be fun?
Want to pick your workout duration, body area, training style, and more? Check out our free personalizable workout videos via the free app!