On Wall Street, on the sixth floor of the Gild Hall hotel, I’m standing in perhaps the smallest gym in New York City, a “fitness center” hardly bigger than a walk-in closet. It’s standard-issue hotel fare—spare white walls and a concrete floor, outfitted with only a single treadmill and a StairMaster. But for the guy I’m with, we may as well be in a fully stocked Crunch.
His name is Chris Jordan, and he’s the director of exercise physiology at Johnson & Johnson’s Human Performance Institute, based in Orlando, FL. He’s visiting New York to give a series of talks about the science of exercise, and he’s taken me here to show me that rooms like this have everything I need to achieve a fat-shredding, full-body workout. In fact, we’ve got more than enough, he says, because we don’t even need the machines. Jordan is the man behind Johnson & Johnson’s Official 7-Minute Workout exercise app, which guides users—typically working professionals on the go—through a quick succession of high-intensity body-weight bursts; last year it became one of Apple’s top downloaded Health & Fitness apps, and it’s remained one ever since.
When it arrived on the scene, the Official 7-Minute Workout seemed to cap a never-ending game of one-upmanship in training circles for the shortest effective workout imaginable. In 2012, trainer Jillian Michaels of The Biggest Loser fame debuted a 30-minute workout called Bodyshred, which was taught at national chains like Crunch and YMCA. Not long afterward, Tony Horton, the savvy inventor of the cult hit P90X, cut his proprietary workout in half—down to 30 minutes—when he released P90X3. Soon 20-minute and 15-minute workouts started showing up everywhere. Then last June, Shaun T, creator of Insanity and Hip Hop Abs, showed up on The Dr. Oz Show promoting his new 5-Minute Fat Blasting Workout, a series of high knees, sprinting in place, lunges, and other body-weight exercises he proceeded to put the middle-age TV host through while the studio audience cheered him along. “Let’s get moving and burn off the fat!” Oz barked, as if temporarily possessed by Richard Simmons.
None of these programs, however, struck a chord quite like Jordan’s seven-minute routine, which is why I’ve tracked him down with some questions. Before he joined the Human Performance Institute, he worked with both the U.S. Air Force and British Army. But because his job now is to get the most out of corporate athletes—the aging CEOs, CFOs, and other execs whose calendars are almost always full—he’s managed to become one of the world’s top evangelists for micro exercise routines that can be completed basically anywhere.
Sure, they’re convenient, I tell him as we stand in our mini gym, but can someone really get fit in only seven minutes a day? After all, the American Heart Association has decreed that 150 minutes of “moderate intensity” exercise per week is the baseline for good health. If you did the Official 7-Minute Workout every day, you’d get only 49 minutes—so, not even a third of that. (Though, admittedly, the short session is completed at a higher intensity—more on that later.) Can you really build muscle in such a short period of time—or are you just doing the bare minimum for what’s considered “healthy”?
Jordan laughs. “All those questions are the equivalent of asking whether or not exercise works,” he says. “But the answer is yes, they work. And the real question is, are you willing to put in what it takes? Because doing a great workout followed by several days of nothing because you’re traveling doesn’t cut it. For them to work, the key is consistency.”
And that’s when he shuts the door and says it’s time to get to work.
As a training tool, short workouts go back to at least the 1930s, when Olympic decathlete and national coach Gösta Holmér created Fartlek, which roughly translates to “speed play.” “You run as fast as you can to a tree and then fall back,” says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., a physiologist at McMaster University in Canada. Roger Bannister, the first human to break the four-minute mile, did something similar when he trained for his world-record run. “He did 400-meter repeats,” says Gibala. “He was training less than 30 minutes, and when he made the final assault on the record, he dropped the volume, because he thought he was overtrained.”
In the 1990s, Izumi Tabata, the famous Japanese researcher who studied speed skaters, tested a protocol of 20 seconds of hardcore exercise followed by 10 seconds of rest. This was repeated for eight cycles for a total of four minutes of exercise. Athletes in Tabata’s studies built muscle and increased aerobic activity just as they would have in a much longer, more traditional workout routine. Ever since, Tabata’s teachings have been incredibly popular in military and martial arts circles. (It’s too bad no one thought to brand it the “4-Minute Workout.” Today, there are dozens of Tabata timers for smartphones that let you manipulate the active and rest periods.)
“Personal trainers have been using short workouts for ages, and they knew it was working,” says Gibala. “But the difference is there wasn’t the body of scientific research to prove it. So as researchers, we’re now playing catch-up. We’re doing the measurements, taking muscle biopsies, and proving it works.”
Gibala recently developed the quickest workout so far, but it’s so short that it doesn’t seem believable. It’s called the 1-Minute Workout, and while it sounds laughable, the prestigious science journal PLOS One published a study proving its effectiveness last year. Participants in the study did three 20-second all-out efforts on an exercise bike separated by two minutes of rest, with a two-minute warmup and two-minute cooldown. They did this three times a week, and after six weeks they had improved their aerobic capacity by 12%.
Meanwhile, Jordan spearheaded his own research to prove the efficacy of a seven-minute workout program he was working on for Johnson & Johnson and published his findings in 2013 in the American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal. He found that short, intense bouts of exercise are effective for losing weight, preventing chronic illness, building muscle, and improving aerobic capacity. For his research, he used a circuit of 12 body-weight movements (think pushups, squats, planks) and recommended doing each exercise for 30 seconds followed by five seconds of rest. One circuit lasts, of course, seven minutes, though Jordan initially recommended that it be done two or three times in a session, making it actually a 14-minute or 21-minute workout, respectively.
Regardless, when The New York Times reported on the study at the time, the headline was “The Scientific 7-Minute Workout.” Later that year, it released its own proprietary Web-based workout app, also called the Scientific 7-Minute Workout. Johnson & Johnson countered with its Official 7-Minute Workout app later. Even so, almost overnight, developers from around the world flooded iTunes with copycats.
Whatever name the workout goes by, Jordan’s and Gibala’s research both offer evidence that short, intense interval workouts can help you build muscle, boost aerobic capacity, and improve biomarkers. When you engage in one of these rapid-fire sessions, you ignite your body’s stress response: Your blood pressure, heart rate, and metabolism instantly spike, and your body begins its process of churning fat and carbs into fuel and rushing blood to your muscles. The positive health effects are instantaneous.
“When it comes to the immediate health benefits of this sort of high-intensity exercise, it’s all about blood sugar,” says Timothy Church, Ph.D., a professor of preventive medicine at Pennington Biomedical Research Center at Louisiana State University. When you jump rope or bang out pushups to exhaustion, your body instantly starts burning blood sugar—and lower blood sugar, in the longer term, means less weight gain (and dramatically lower chances of developing insidious conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, and dementia). The intense stress on your muscles builds your body’s aerobic capacity, too. And, as with other forms of exercise, when your muscles grow, they pull on your skeletal system, increasing your bone density. A lot of new research also shows that interval training triggers the release of macrophages and killer T cells, boosting the body’s immune function for hours after your last pushup or pullup.
Today’s most cutting-edge science on the benefits of high-intensity exercise has to do with the brain. It triggers the formation of a protein known as the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), nicknamed “Miracle-Gro for the brain.” Top researchers believe BDNF is responsible for improving memory, balance, concentration, and mood. They also believe that, as the name suggests, it helps regenerate brain cells. And recent studies indicate that BDNF is also largely responsible for helping the brain adapt to outside pressures (such as, for instance, being able to distinguish between a car backfiring and a gunshot).
So does this mean you should give up your traditional weight routine or your five-mile run for short workouts?
“The devil is in the details,” says Gibala. “No one would suggest that an elite marathoner could get away with solely doing intervals,” he says. But if you’re a regular guy looking to reap the benefits of traditional gym routines, you’re in luck. Gibala says that when you compare the benefits of 30 minutes of intervals versus 30 minutes of regular endurance exercise, the intervals will invariably win because they’re much more intense. And if you compare a short period of intervals with a longer period of endurance exercise, the benefits are roughly similar. In other words: With a disciplined diet, there’s no reason you can’t be a really fit guy, even ripped, by squeezing your routine into a lightning-round session that lasts less than 10 minutes a day—as long as you keep the intensity up and keep your workouts consistent.
But there’s one important hitch: “Your body will adapt to a seven-minute program pretty quickly,” says Jordan. “It’s important to keep up the intensity as you adapt.” So while a short routine will yield quick gains and visible results in a short period of time, you need to progress from one to three rounds over time. (And, he says, you shouldn’t go more than two consecutive days without exercising, because this sort of body-weight training is all about consistency.) So, of course, that means the ideal short workout is actually more like 21 minutes, not seven.
But 21 minutes may still sound like a pretty weak session for guys who camp out at the gym. Not so fast, says LSU’s Church, who points out that traditional exercise routines—say, longer lifting sessions with some light cardio mixed in—simply involve too much rest, as people spend so much of their hour at the gym talking, walking to the water fountain, or generally avoiding exercise altogether. “Most people are really doing hard work for only 15 to 20 minutes anyway,” he says.
Mike Chang, founder of the hit YouTube channel Six Pack Shortcuts, agrees. “You see guys on their phone or checking out the eye candy—they’re just there filling a time commitment.” When people question Chang about the effectiveness of short workouts, he simply puts them through a 10-minute session. “When they break at minute 8 and they’re hurting, I’m like, ‘I thought you said you normally work out for an hour?’”
And if you’re a CrossFitter, it’s a good bet you’re already a short-workout veteran. For example, one CrossFit workout of the day, or WOD, is 10 pushups and 10 air squats for 10 rounds. A similar WOD is done for time: 21 air squats followed by 21 pushups, then 15 and 15, followed by nine and nine. There are endless variations on these types of workouts, and what they all have in common is that they can be done quickly and anywhere. Ryan Halvorson, a trainer at Bird Rock Fit in San Diego and an editor at the Idea Health & Fitness Association, says, “When I’m on a big deadline and don’t have time to exercise I’ll drop to the floor and do one set of pushups to failure every two hours.”
But let’s be clear: Whether you go for seven minutes or 21, these short body-weight sessions will never turn you into Arnold. “If you want to add a large amount of muscle you still have to powerlift,” says Church. “But it’s not just the size of the muscle that matters, it’s the quality of the muscle.” And, he adds, quick intervals are great for improving muscle density and function. In fact, there’s one thing about how intervals impact muscle that remains a bit mysterious. Elite athletes who were thought to be trained to peak performance have seen gains after adding intervals to their routine. “Somehow, intervals allow their muscle to buffer pH more efficiently, which prevents fatigue,” says Gibala.
But the question remains: If you just want to be a fit guy, how short is too short?
“It’s all about context,” says Church. “I’m into jiu-jitsu, and I can tell you that a six-minute match is as intense a workout as any.”
At the Gild Hall hotel, I learn this firsthand: Jordan’s workout, funded by Johnson & Johnson, is by far the most expansive of the more than 100 seven-minute-workout-style iterations now crowding the Apple Store. It comprises a library of 72 exercises varying in duration and intensity for all fitness levels.
Because I’m an avid tennis player, Jordan cues up his iPad and chooses a program called “sports conditioning,” which is classified as “hard” and focuses on strength, cardio, and agility. Including the warmup, the total workout time is going to clock in at 23 minutes and seven seconds. Twenty-three minutes? Like a full-grown basketball player staring down an eight-foot goal, I’m feeling pretty confident.
Jordan declines to start with a warmup and launches into the routine. The sprightly looking interface begins by showing Jordan himself, decked out in sleek workout gear, performing the exercises against a white background. It begins with high knees. “Stay on your toes and keep your core engaged!” the iPad barks with a stern, vaguely British accent. “Swing your arms forcefully!” So, in our little four-by-four space, we each start pumping our legs.
Before long we’re doing unexpectedly killer “grasshopper” pushups that require you to twist one leg underneath your torso and back again before you complete the pushing-up motion. “People always ask me how you hit the lats with body-weight workouts,” says Jordan. “This is how.”
There are 12 exercises in all. There are Spiderman pushups and planks. One exercise hits the legs, and then the next works the shoulders and arms. Within a few minutes I’m soaked. (I also quickly realize how out of shape I’ve gotten over the past few months, thanks to an elbow injury.) After seven minutes we pause the program. I can’t imagine doing two more rounds. Blood is rushing to all my muscles, and I’m having trouble remembering the questions I wanted to ask. I take the iPad from Jordan and start scrolling through his app’s offerings to buy myself some more rest time.
“It’s about making every exercise you perform as simple and accessible as possible,” says Jordan, smiling. Then he takes the iPad back and starts the next round.