What are micro-workouts, why are they trending and How you can get the most out of your micro-workouts

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Last month as the Australian Capital Territory joined the list of states currently in lockdown in Australia, one of my long-term clients called me because he needed a home program.

No problem, I said. I’ve been doing home programs for clients for the past 18 months now so I’m pretty creative with them at this point! So, I wrote him and upper-lower body program for 4 days a week with bands and body weight, perfectly tailored to his strength and experience level, and sent it off to him.

A week later I messaged him to ask how he went with the program. I was expecting him to tell me how well he went with it, and how he didn’t think he could get such a kick-ass workout with just some bands and his body weight…but instead, he regrettably informed me that he hadn’t even done a single workout.

Between home schooling his child and trying to run multiple businesses, he had virtually no time left for exercising. Bear in mind, this is someone who has been working out consistently for the past 15 plus years, so regular exercise was very much a part of his everyday lifestyle.

But here lies the problem…many people believe that if they can’t exercise for 45 minutes to an hour at least 3-4 days per week then they might as well not even bother!

This “all or nothing” mentality is what stops so many people for reaching their goals when they are too busy to spend hours a week exercising or when life gets in the way.

However, nothing could be further from the truth…enter micro-workouts!

What is a Micro-Workout?

Micro-workouts, as the name implies, are very brief workouts which take a fraction of the time a normal workout does. These workouts can take as little as a few minutes at a time, up to 15-25 minutes at most, and they can be applied to both resistance and cardiovascular training.

With the rise of remote and flexible working, micro-workouts have become quite the trending topic in the fitness industry as they allow people to squeeze in a workout, no matter how chaotic their day may get!

Now, we are not going to sit here and pretend that you can get the same results training 15 minutes a day as you would if you spent 45 minutes to an hour in the gym. The evidence is pretty clear that higher weekly volumes (> 10 sets per body part) are superior at least as far as muscle growth is concerned.

However, you can get still get great results training with abbreviated workouts, or at the very least maintain your gains when you are traveling, or life gets in the way. It is certainly better than doing nothing at all!

Are micro-workouts scientifically proven to work?

The most recent evidence shows that [2]:

  • Strength and muscle size can be maintained for up to 32 weeks with as little as 1 session of strength training per week and 1 set per exercise.
  • Endurance performance can be maintained for up to 15 weeks with as little as 2 sessions per week or only 13-26 minutes per session.

Even elite athletes are generally able to maintain most of their strength during the season with minimal strength training volume. The exception may be older populations, who require slightly higher volumes to maintain their strength and muscle mass [2].

However, with some intelligent programming, you don’t just have to rely on maintaining your gains with abbreviated workouts, you can actually make some progress!I want to try micro-workouts, but I’m not sure where to start!

How to make micro-workouts more effective

There are several ways you can make micro-workout more effective and get even more bang for your buck.

  1. Split Your Daily Workout

You might not have 45 minutes to an hour at a time to workout, but can you squeeze in two 20-25 minutes workout a day? For example, when training the upper body you can do all the pushing muscles in the morning and all the pulling muscles in the evening. Or, when training the lower body you can hit the quads in the morning, then hit the glutes and hamstrings in the evening.

  1. Use Antagonist Supersets

When time is of the essence, instead of performing one exercise, then resting until the next set, you can take a short rest then perform an exercise for the opposing muscle group, take another short rest, then go back to your first exercise.

For example, perform a set of push ups, rest briefly, then perform a set of chin ups, rest briefly, and repeat. This in essence allows you to cut your workout duration in half while still allowing sufficient local muscle recovery to take place.

  1. Use the Most for Bang Exercises

When you are training with abbreviated workouts select exercises that target multiple muscle groups such as chin ups, dips, push ups, lunges, step-ups, and single leg squats. These exercises give you more bang for your buck than wasting your time with dumbbell curls or triceps kickbacks when your time is limited.

Now some people take this too far and start doing hybrid exercises such as a lunge with a curl, or a squat into a shoulder press. While those exercise are good for getting your heart rate up, they don’t do much for muscular development since the loading is limited.

  1. Do a Full Body Circuit!

If your primary goal is fat loss and you just want to burn more calories in the most time efficient manner while maintaining your strength and muscle mass, you try doing a full body circuit two to three times a week. Pick 4-5 exercises that target all the major muscle groups of the body and perform 1-3 sets of 6-20 reps each, resting 30-45 second in between.

Here is an example workout:

A1. Alternating Dumbbell Lunges or Step Ups: 1-3 x 10-15 reps, rest 45 secs

A2. Push Ups or Dips: 1-3 x 10-15, rest 45 secs

A3. Swiss Ball Leg Curls or Single Leg Glute Bridge: 1-3 x 12-15, rest 45 secs

A4. Chin Up or Inverted Rows: 1-3 x 8-12, rest 45 secs

  1. Do a Tabata Workout

Don’t even have 15-20 minutes to fit in your aerobic training? Fear not! The Tabata protocol has been shown to produce increases in aerobic power that are similar to traditional aerobic training while being far less time consuming [3]. In fact, it only takes 4 minutes!

Here’s what the protocol looks like. Pick a full body movement such as a burpee or a thruster and do as many reps as possible in 20 seconds. Then rest only 10 seconds and repeat for 8 rounds. That’s it…a very simple and time efficient way to improve your aerobic fitness if you are really crunched for time.

 

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References:

  1. Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. J Sports Sci. 2017 Jun;35(11):1073-1082. doi: 10.1080/02640414.2016.1210197. Epub 2016 Jul 19. PMID: 27433992.
  2. Spiering BA, Mujika I, Sharp MA, Foulis SA. Maintaining Physical Performance: The Minimal Dose of Exercise Needed to Preserve Endurance and Strength Over Time. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 May 1;35(5):1449-1458. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003964. PMID: 33629972.
  3. Viana RB, de Lira CAB, Naves JPA, Coswig VS, Del Vecchio FB, Gentil P. Tabata protocol: a review of its application, variations and outcomes. Clin Physiol Funct Imaging. 2019 Jan;39(1):1-8. doi: 10.1111/cpf.12513. Epub 2018 Apr 2. PMID: 29608238.

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