Getting Serious About the 7-Minute Workout

A closer look at HIIT training, and how to get maximum benefit in minimum time

It comes as no surprise that the 7-minute workout went viral in this day and age, where multitasking is de rigueur and time is the ultimate luxury. We’re all looking to get everything done as fast as possible, so who can afford to pass up on an opportunity to lose weight and build muscle in just seven minutes?

But like so many things in the viral news frenzy, the facts sometimes demand a little context.

The New York Times seemed definitive about the routine when it said, “Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant. The upside is, after seven minutes, you’re done.”

That’s not entirely the case. The researchers at the American College of Sports Medicine actually suggested that you perform two to three sets of seven minutes apiece if you have time. That would make the complete workout 14 to 21 minutes, which, admittedly, is still pretty darned fast. Sadly, though, it means you won't get all of your high-knees, wall sits and side planks done in the time it takes to get through the grocery checkout line.

The workout is comprised of 12 high-intensity exercises that require only your body weight, a chair and the nearest wall to complete. While The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends 150 minutes of moderate exercise (in 30- to 60-minute intervals) a week and/or 75 minutes of intense exercise, the 7-minute workout is designed to reap the same benefits in much less time. Each exercise is to be performed for 30 seconds with an additional 30-second rest in between exercises.

The benefits of rest, however, have come under scrutiny in a recent article by Outside, which cites a new study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology (EJAP). The study compared active and passive recovery modes during a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout similar to the 7-minute workout.

In the study, a sample of the athletes passively recovered by sitting down, while another group actively rested by doing moderate exercise between sets. The group that actively rested between sets saw the highest increase in VO2 max, which is commonly used to gauge how physically fit a person is.

It’s a paradox, but resting less may help you recover better, Dr. Michael J. Joyner, a physician-researcher at the Mayo Clinic told Outside. The reason is twofold. When you’re tapping out a set of intervals, “going from 30 to 60 is a lot easier than 0 to 60,” he says.

It’s hard to argue with that logic. Muscles that are already warmed up have a better chance of achieving max output. What's more, going from cold to full bore is an easy way to strain a muscle, according to the study.

Additionally, Outside spoke with fitness expert Brad Schoenfeld, M.Sc., C.S.C.S., who said that in order to see a significant aerobic boost, you need to activate large muscle groups that some of the 7-minute workout exercises don't hit. In order to work those large muscle groups, the EJAP study suggests that your 30-second active rest periods should consist of jogging, jumping jacks or some other aerobic exercise. Addtionally, be sure that more of your interval exercises target large muscle groups—burpees, pull-ups, mountain climbers, tuck jumps and dips, for example.

The facts seem clear. To reap benefits from a HIIT workout, set aside at least 21 minutes to exercise, engage large muscle groups, and practice active resting. For best results, do it 3-4 times a week, and never stop!