The most common excuse people from all walks of life have for skipping workouts or abstaining from exercise altogether is time—or more accurately, the lack of it. But a series of studies recently profiled by the New York Times have raised an alluring prospect: What if you could do an effective workout that was only four seconds long?
That’s not the whole story, of course; expecting results from a single work period shorter in length than the time it takes to tie your shoelaces would be an outlandish prospect for even the most gullible gym-goer. The four second bursts of activity—intense bouts of pedaling on specialized stationary bikes—referenced in the coverage were sometimes repeated up to 30 times over the course of the trials, with opportunities for subjects to recover for 15 to 30 seconds between rounds. Over three trials, Dr. Edward Coyle, a University of Texas professor of kinesiology and health education, found that the protocol could help his subjects metabolize fat better, improve leg muscle mass and maximal power, and improve their aerobic fitness.
If you’re a fitness junkie, this type of protocol shouldn’t be wholly unfamiliar. The setup falls within the realm of High Intensity Interval Training (H.I.I.T.), although the work periods are shorter than usual and the effort required might be more demanding. Interval training-based gym gear like the CAROL bike are designed using similar principles. But the four second timing is extreme; even Tabata, the protocol most associated with super fast workouts, creates four-minute routines using 20-second work intervals.
Dr. Coyle developed the four-second protocol after testing pro athletes on the stationary bikes, according to the Times report. He found that those subjects could max out their level aerobic effort and power output in just two seconds, then repeat the same level of performance for multiple bursts with brief rest in between each effort. To introduce the method to the general population of exercisers, who would take longer to generate peak output, Coyle doubled the time to four.
So should you cut your Tabata intervals even shorter the next time you’re looking to jam in a lightning fast workout? Maybe not just yet. There are some caveats to viewing these studies as conclusive for your own purposes. All three were conducted with small, very specific populations. One of the studies had only eight participants, another 11, and the last only untrained 50 to 68 year olds. The protocol was also only performed on the specialized stationary bike, so if you don’t have access to the right equipment, you might struggle to recreate the same results. In fact, if you’re not working on an apparatus like a spin bike or fan bike and tried to do four second of sprints or burpees, you might really shortchange yourself.
“Here’s why: Sprints, burpees, etc.: All those things require a level of mechanics and are relatively high-skill,” explains Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S. “Skill level is high, so reaching max effort becomes challenging unless the skill is owned.” Essentially, unless you have absolutely perfect form, you won’t be likely to be able to work yourself up to peak output that fast. And if you’re not reaching that level of effort, you’re not going to reap the benefits within that short timeframe.
Besides, only doing super-short, intense workouts is probably not the most effective way for you to stay in shape. Training hard means that you have to recover, so it’s best to only take on interval workouts like this two or three times per week. And Dr. Coyle’s research suggested that spending time in in sedentary positions after the bursts of training, as you might after feeling like you had already checked your workout box for the day, could undermine all the work you had done. You might be better served to mix up your training instead, including strength training, yoga, or even longer active periods like walks to be more balanced when you have the time.
All that said, some effort, no matter how quick, is better than no effort. “In general, it’s going to be a good idea to get up and move around throughout the day,” Dr. Coyle told the Times, “and then sometimes, also, to move around in a way that is physically intense.”
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