The idea seems like something you’d see on TV at 3 am, with some cheesy, fit pitchman making too-good-to-be-true claims. As you process the reported benefits—more muscle, less fat—everything in your body screams “scam,” but the source isn’t QVC—it is The New York Times and the rage that is the 7-minute workout.
We’re not talking about a piece of equipment that looks like it was dreamt up by 13-year-old boys, it’s research published in the American College of Sports Medicine Health and Fitness Journal.
Next thing you know, Forbes is writing about the workout and the buzz has spread to Good Morning America. The 7-minute workout is real and it works…at least, that’s what the mainstream media would have you believe. And yet, doesn’t this feel a little played out? I mean, have we already forgotten about “8-Minute Abs?” It’s been nearly 20 years since it was released, and during that time obesity rates have nearly doubled.
Here’s a disclaimer: I don’t have a problem with the 7-minute workout. I take issue with setting unrealistic expectations that trick people into believing a “minimum effective dose” can lead to maximum results. This is the foundation of frustration.
New scientific discoveries are capable of uncovering new information that alters what we believe and thought was true; in fact, it happens all the time. The problem is we oftentimes trust what we want to believe rather than seek to prove if it’s true. That’s the issue with the recent release of the 7-minute workout. We’ve been misled by a catchy title that has some benefits but falls short on long-term promises.
There’s no denying that exercise—in any dose—is good for your body. In fact, when I travel, I’m constantly settling for 10-15 minute workouts instead of my normal 30- to 60-minute session. And you can have a great workout in less than 10 minutes.
But don’t confuse the part from the whole: it is very difficult (and unlikely) to build a healthy body by working out 7 minutes per day and only performing bodyweight exercises, which is the foundation of the 7-minute workout. And I’ll go on record that you’d be hard pressed to find anyone that has. After all, if it only took 7 minutes to get into great shape, the struggle to lose fat would be less of an issue.
Before you start cranking out the “perfect workout” at home and expecting dramatic results or buy into the inevitable 7-minute session coming soon to a gym near you, here’s what you can really take away from the research, and what you can realistically expect to achieve if you follow this routine.
Understand that research in the exercise field oftentimes falls within two categories: Studies that use prior research to validate prior concepts or designs that test something new while building on previous research. The 7-minute workout is more of the former; it looked at the perceived benefits of a 7-minute workout and deduced many benefits based on research that was already completed.
That doesn’t make the research bad or inaccurate, if not for one small problem: The studies used to “prove” the concepts don’t mirror the workout that is being lauded as the 7-minute fix for your body. That’s like saying that because there’s research showing low carb diets help with weight loss that a diet with no carbs will guarantee that you will drop fat. It doesn’t work like that. As always, the devil is in the details.
In the case of this circuit-training program, the claims outpace reality. That’s why I reached out to Brad Schoenfeld, author of The Max Muscle Plan. Schoenfeld is one of the leaders in muscle-building research, and a guy who literally wrote the book on packing on muscle. Here are some of his takeaways:
The general idea of the 7-minute workout is that you perform 12 bodyweight exercises as a circuit. This type of exercise is categorized as “high intensity circuit training.” No problem there, but once we moved beyond how to label the type of exercise that’s where the problems begin. “The authors make big leaps that are not substantiated,” says Schoenfeld.
Remember, the justification of this program is validated by prior research explaining why this type of workout will build muscle and burn fat. And yet, three of the four references cited are based on types of high intensity training—not interval training. “And the one circuit training study they do cite by Murphy et al. 1992 used a protocol that was nearly 3 times as long as the one proposed by the authors,” says Schoenfeld.
Even then, that study found a boost in EPOC (consider this your metabolism) that resulted in a whopping 25 additional calories burned. I don’t know about you, but I don’t consider 25 extra calories a fat-shredding workout.
The other big flaw of this workout—besides the fact that the benefits are based on dissimilar types of training—is that the design of the program doesn’t lend itself to some of the big claims being made. No matter what anyone tells you, not all exercises are created equal. Some require more effort, activate more muscle fibers, and will generate more results. Does anyone really think that bodyweight squats are as hard as heavy barbell squats?
The authors correctly state, “When resistance training exercises using multiple large muscles are used with very little rest between sets, they can elicit aerobic and metabolic benefits.” That’s true. But if you look at the 7-minute solution, many of the exercises—crunch, plank, side plank—are not large muscle exercises, says Schoenfeld.
Another issue is that these exercises are all bodyweight moves. That’s not to say bodyweight exercise can’t be effective. I’ve seen enough crazy YouTube videos to know that bodyweight moves does a body good. And they are also extremely convenient for anyone without access to a gym. But the greatest benefit of high intensity training—not to mention the circuit training study mentioned–wasn’t performed with bodyweight exercises; they were done with added resistance, says Schoenfeld, where the weight could be manipulated to correspond to a given rep-max. (In other words, a percentage of your max strength.) The use of bodyweight does not afford this benefit, and for those who are fairly fit it would be difficult to achieve a consistent maximum level of intensity for 30 seconds that would compare to doing a similar length of time with added resistance. To use the squat example: Doing 80% of your 1-rep max on squats for a similar period of time would be much more difficult than doing 7-minutes of bodyweight squats.
The use of bodyweight does not afford this benefit, and for those who are fairly fit, it would be difficult to achieve a consistent maximum level of intensity for 30 seconds that would compare to doing a similar length of time with added resistance. To use the squat example: Doing 80% of your 1-rep max on squats for a similar period of time would be much more difficult than doing 7-minutes of bodyweight squats.
What’s more, from an aerobic endurance standpoint, it has been shown that high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can be an excellent alternative to traditional steady-state exercise. “However, the types of exercise performed here are not ideal for accomplishing the task,” says Schoenfeld. Exercises such as the crunch, plank and side plank will have minimal effects on energy expenditure and the amount of calories you can burn.
To further weaken their claims, the 30-second duration is not ideal for building muscular endurance. Generally, you’d want it to be about twice as long to really focus on local muscular endurance, adds Schoenfeld. Even in terms of muscle building, the research is being stretched to muscle-defying limits
Mistake #2: The exercises in the 7-minute workout as not as effective at achieving the reported benefits.
Just in case you were wondering, it’s also very unlikely that this routine would optimize strength. The low-intensity studies (bodyweight is low intensity) have consistently showed suboptimal strength gains when compared to heavy weight training, says Schoenfeld. “That’s because the big problem with bodyweight exercise is that you are limited to what you weigh—there is no means to overload the muscles within a given repetition range. Thus, this routine would be a poor choice for anyone looking to maximize their strength.
The 7-minute workout undeniably has some benefits. In fact, I gave it a test drive and it was difficult, raised my heart rate, and I’ve been training consistently for more than 15 years. To that end, there is nothing wrong with the workout, and it can be a great solution for anyone looking for a quick workout.
The problem is with the claims being made. The suggested benefits are very overstated for anyone who possesses even modest muscular fitness, says Schoenfeld. More importantly, it is not a well-designed routine for anyone who wants to maximize specific fitness goals such as burning fat, building muscle, or increasing strength. The funny part? The science used to “support” the claims is the same science that proves the claims are inaccurate.
While I wish the promises were true, changing your body will still require more than 7 minutes per day.