Aug 262009


We’re all sick of seeing those spurious claims that, “in just five minutes a day, you too can look like this suspiciously perky actor, just by using our Uber Gizmo!” What they all conveniently omit is the fact that to look like that, you’ve gotta do plenty of other stuff, as well as eat carefully.  Details, schmetails.

However, it’s entirely possible to make some meaningful gains in about ten minutes per workout, and the magic phrase is “interval training.”

Interval training can be likened to squad-based combat games. The idea is that you spend a few seconds in furious action, and about twice as long between rounds, thinking about your next move. Then keep doing it over and over again. The short breaks between abbreviated maximum-effort bursts means that these are kick-butt cardio and stamina workouts. The high-intensity of going all-out means that you’re also working the muscles themselves in ways that build strength and really burn a bunch of energy (bringing our old friend EPOC into play) which means it’ll help you lose weight, too.

Trainers and group fitness classes use this approach for things like aerobics and cycling (also called spin class), but you can apply it to anything you want, from sprinting to weightlifting complexes.  For example, one of the trainers cited in the NPR article, employing a 20 minute workout of 8 seconds of high-energy work followed by a 12 second recovery at a modest pace for four months, reported that folks using this approach lost more than three times as much fat (not just weight, fat) as folks who did 40 minute sessions at a moderate pace (6 lbs to just under 2 lbs).  My degree wasn’t in mathematics, but I’m thinking that 3 times more weight lost in half the workout time looks like a pretty good improvement in terms of results-per-minute.

There are several variations on this general approach. Most conventional HIIT (high intensity interval training) employs a 2-to-1 rest to work ratio.  For each ten second burst of effort, you recover at half speed for twice as long. Tabata intervals are at the “evil” end of the spectrum, where you go all-out for twenty seconds, rest for ten, and then do it again – for a total of eight iterations. This can easily be four of the most challenging (and occasionally unpleasant) minutes of your life.

No matter which flavor of intervals you find to your liking, the effort you put into the intense portion is the real key.  Don’t cheat yourself or your workout: you really do want to go as hard as you can (without hurting yourself, obviously) to get the most out of it.  There doesn’t need to be anything fancy involved at all, either. I personally do things like pushups, or jumping jacks, or just plain backyard sprints.  Plus, the constant changes in intensity keep things from getting boring. Changing things up beats the heck out of zoning out on the treadmill for 45 minutes.

But, if you think about it, if you do 30 minutes of regular HIIT work, you’re only busting your butt for ten minutes out of that half hour. Sure, it’s not five minutes a day on the Ab-Blaster NINE THOUSAND or whatever the product du jour is, but – and here’s the most important part – it’s a whole lot more effective.

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  One Response to “Gone in sixty (or so) seconds”

  1. I tried Tabata’s for the first time last night, and I’m still worn out from it. There’s a few things I’m going to switch in my routine, (weights was a BAD idea, exercise bike didn’t offer enough resistance) so I’m going to make a few tweaks and do it again tonight. The major thing I noticed was that I had that post-workout high going for about another three hours. Good stuff! Can’t wait to see how I look six weeks down the line!

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