Got less time to exercise as life returns to normal? Writer Priyankaa Joshi certainly does, which is why she swapped her usual workout routine for a week of seven-minute workouts to see if she could save time on her training while improving her strength and fitness.
Over the past year, I’ve developed a pretty solid exercise routine. Working from home has allowed me to get up, drink my coffee and fit in a 30-to-45 minute workout before I log in to my computer at 9am. On a good week, I’ll do two runs (between 5-10k), a couple of full-body dumbbell workouts and a yoga session. If I happen to have a lie-in, I’ll exercise in the evenings – after all, there’s been little else to do bar watching Netflix, cooking and dreaded Zoom quizzes.
But now that life is returning to normal and my days are busier, I have less time, energy and inclination to workout. So when I stumbled on a seven-minute HIIT video on YouTube, my interest was piqued. Could I save time on my training while improving my strength and fitness?
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Seven-minute workouts have soared in popularity in the last few years. If you’re not familiar, the concept is simple – you do just seven minutes of intense exercise per day. This workout style hit the fitness scene back in 2013 after a scientifically tested seven-minute workout was published in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health and Fitness Journal. Authors of the article found that seven minutes of bodyweight high-intensity circuit training can improve your endurance, muscular fitness, insulin sensitivity and VO2 max (your capacity to deliver and utilise oxygen in the muscles).
I wanted to see whether these workouts could deliver the benefits of my sweaty runs and intense strength sessions in a fraction of the time. So, I decided to swap my usual exercise routine for seven-minute workouts for seven days. Here’s how it went…
THE SEVEN-MINUTE WORKOUT CHALLENGE
On Mondays, I usually wake up at 6.30am and go for a run, but thanks to my new routine, I got to have a lovely lie-in and roll out of bed at 8am. After a sociable weekend, the extra sleep was very welcome.
I kicked off the challenge with Fitness Blender’s scientific seven-minute workout video, which involved 30-second bursts of jumping jacks, a wall sit, press-ups, crunches, step-ups, squats, tricep dips, plank, high knees, lunges, press-ups with a rotation and a side plank.
I was surprised to find myself out of breath and breaking a sweat just a couple of minutes in. I felt really good afterwards, although it felt strange launching straight into the workout without a warm-up (which isn’t usually advised).
With over 102 million views on YouTube, I had to try Lucy Wyndham-Read’s seven-minute workout to see what all the fuss was about. Watching the video beforehand, I thought it looked incredibly easy and I was right. The seven 60-second intervals include simple exercises like walk-outs, skater lunges and bicycle crunches. Although my heart was pumping a little by the end, it wasn’t particularly challenging. Honestly, it felt more like a warm-up. I think Lucy’s workout is better suited for beginners or those who are looking to get back into fitness after a break.
By day three, I missed strength training so decided to give GymRa’s seven-minute full-body dumbbell workout a go. The short circuit was made up of cardio moves using light weights including squats with a bicep curl, single arm chest fly and a deadlift and row combo. I did feel the burn but seven minutes just didn’t feel long enough to engage my muscles or work on my strength.
On today’s schedule was a strong abs and core workout featuring all your classic ab exercises; reverse crunches, Russian twists, flutter kicks and so on. Like the previous two days, I didn’t feel very challenged. The ab workout was fine in itself but usually, I would do a short core circuit after a run or one of my longer workouts so this just didn’t feel like enough.
I went back to Fitness Blender’s video from Monday as I realised seven-minute workouts are best suited to HIIT-style training where you have to really push yourself for short periods. I overslept so squeezed the video in on my lunch break, with plenty of time spare to shower and make poached eggs and avocado on toast. On the whole, I enjoyed it and I felt way more accomplished than I had over the past three days.
I slept pretty badly so I couldn’t face working out when I got up. I kept pushing it back until around 5pm when I made myself a strong coffee and did the seven-minute Fitness Blender video. Mentally, it was much easier getting my workout done knowing that it would be over in a matter of minutes. If I knew that half an hour of training lay ahead of me, I might not have bothered. Having said that, due to my tiredness, I really didn’t have the energy to give it my all. It was a very “meh” workout.
My final seven-minute workout of the week was Fitness Blender again and honestly, I was glad it was the last one. It was my fourth time doing the same high-intensity routine in a week and the lack of warm-ups and cool-downs was starting to take its toll on my body. I was also really missing my longer workouts by this point. What I’d have given to get out for a Sunday run…!
THE PROS OF A SEVEN MINUTE WORKOUT
Having completed my seven-minute workout challenge, I can definitely see the benefits. First and foremost, these speedy workouts are amazing when you’re short of time or stuck in an exercise rut.
“They’re great for motivation,” agrees personal trainer and fitness influencer Hayley Madigan. “Seven minutes of working out is a lot easier on the mind than an hour-long workout – so you’re less likely to make excuses.”
This is certainly true in my case. When I’m super tired or have a busy workday, the idea of a long workout is overwhelming whereas squeezing in seven minutes seems doable.
Fitness coach Daine Mitchell, who describes seven-minute workouts as “micro workouts”, says they’re a great tool for when your schedule is jam-packed. “They can give you a much-needed break, both physically and mentally,” he says. “After a micro-workout, you’ll likely feel less stressed and more focused, with the added feel-good factor from all the endorphins.”
But can seven-minute workouts actually help you get fitter? Yes, if you’re at the start of your fitness journey or getting back into training. “The moves are simple and you don’t need much equipment so they’re great for getting into an exercise routine and building confidence,” says Mitchell.
If you’ve been exercising for a while, you can still reap some rewards so long as you’re working hard enough, says Madigan. “You can improve your fitness levels by improving your VO2 max through HIIT training, but need to make sure you’re pushing yourself to at least 80% of your maximum effort,” she explains.
Why seven minutes may not be enough
Because the workouts are so short, there’s really only so much you can achieve before progress starts to stall. “Depending on what your goal is, to allow your body to become fitter and stronger, you have to gradually increase the stimulus of training by making progressions such as reducing rest time, increasing reps, work time or weight,” says Mitchell. “When limited to just seven minutes, it can become difficult to advance after a period of time.”
If you do want to keep seeing progress with seven-minute workouts, Madigan suggests adding in an extra round or two, or incorporating a set of dumbbells into the workout to ensure you’re challenging yourself and improving your fitness levels.
If your goal is to gain muscle, however, she explains that it’s unlikely you’ll make tangible progress doing short workouts. “You’ll need to add in some additional weight training to build up your overall strength,” she says. “Adding in full-body compound movements like deadlifts and squats can help with this.”
Too little time
Another issue is whether seven minutes of exercise a day is enough. Sure, it’s a great place to start but according to the NHS’ physical activity guidelines, adults aged between 19 and 64 should aim for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. It’s important to incorporate further movement into your week whether that’s walking, running, yoga or weight training – depending on your personal goals.
“If you’re at the very beginning of your fitness journey then these super-short sessions might be enough to stress the body,” says biomechanics coach and founder of Onetrack Run Club, Anthony Fletcher. “But for people who are already on their way with fitness, seven minutes is too little time to prepare and execute an exercise routine that’s going to enhance your health or fitness abilities.”
Potential for injury
According to Fletcher, something isn’t always better than nothing. “I wouldn’t advocate doing a seven-minute workout unless there’s separate time to prepare for the session – a lot can go wrong in seven minutes,” he says.
“For a HIIT session, the preparation time is more important than the workout itself. A good warm-up gets the enzymes in the muscles working so they can produce energy. This helps to limit the risk of injury and aids post-session recovery,” he continues.
Risk of burnout
Because HIIT requires you to put your all into moves for a short period, it’s important not to overdo it. PT and nutritionist Sarah Campus warns against using it as your sole source of training, pointing out that it can increase your risk of burnout. “Too much HIIT training can mimic stress, stop you sleeping and ruin your appetite,” she explains.
Cortisol is released during high-intensity exercise because it puts your body under huge amounts of stress. As such, it’s incredibly important to give yourself sufficient time to rest and recover in between HIIT sessions.
“If you’re experiencing a lot of stress with work or in your personal life, you want to keep high-intensity exercise to just once a week,” advises PT and nutrition coach Jackie Torres. “When you place further stress on your body during a stressful time and you don’t allow for it to recover, your body simply won’t be able to reap the benefits of the training,” she explains.
All in all, I did enjoy my week of seven-minute workouts but they won’t be replacing my usual exercise routine. With the challenge, I wanted to see if I could get the same strength and endurance benefits of my usual workouts in a short space of time but that wasn’t the case.
Having said that, there is a time and place for them. They’re no denying that these short, sharp workouts are a great tool to help you maintain your fitness when life gets in the way. I’ll definitely be keeping them on standby for days when my schedule is overwhelming or my motivation slips.
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