Fitness and science are inherently connected, and while a lab might seem like the furthest thing from a neighborhood gym, today’s exercisers owe an awful lot to smart people in white coats. Over the past two decades, one of those very important scientific developments has been high-intensity interval training (HIIT), intense bouts of exercise mixed with short rest intervals (like the increasingly famous, extremely effective, and downright gut-wrenching Tabata protocol).

This week, The New York Times is reporting researchers out of Orlando have developed an even more ideal interval method that fulfills all basic recommendations for adult exercise — in under seven minutes. We put the bodyweight circuit to the test to see if it lives up to the flattering coverage.

What It Is

We’re always quick to tout the benefits of interval training, especially for its ability to train multiple metabolic pathways at once (i.e. making us better at both short, fast bursts and longer, slower workouts)Sprint interval and endurance training are equally effective in increasing muscle microvascular density and eNOS content in sedentary males. Cocks, M., Shaw, C.S., Shepherd, S.O., et al. School of Sport and Exercise Sciences, Liverpool John Moores University, Liverpool, U.K. Journal of Physiology 2013 Feb 1;591(Pt 3):641-56.. Now, researchers from the Human Performance Institute (HPI) in Orlando have combined the latest exercise science to create a better interval program that can be done anywhere, anytime. The routine involves the following twelve exercises performed for 30 seconds each with 10-second rest/transition periods before the next move:

  1. Jumping jacks
  2. Wall sit
  3. Push-up
  4. Abdominal crunch
  5. Step-up onto chair
  6. Squat
  7. Triceps dip on chair
  8. Plank
  9. High knees/running in place
  10. Lunge
  11. Push-up and rotation
  12. Side plank

When the workout is performed at a high enough intensity, the developers claim the routine fulfills the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) guidelines for vigorous physical activity, combining both metabolic and resistance training into one sessionAmerican College of Sports Medicine position stand. Quantity and quality of exercise for developing and maintaining cardiorespiratory, musculoskeletal, and neuromotor fitness in apparently healthy adults: guidance for prescribing exericse. Garber, C.E., Blissmer, B., Deschenes, M.R., et al. American College of Sports Medicine. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise. 2011 Jul.. While the team that designed the workout admits there’s no “ideal” number of stations in a bodyweight interval circuit, the 12 they included in the sample template hit virtually every major muscle group. The 30-second intervals were included to allow for most people to perform 15 to 20 reps of each (with good form).

Testing It Out

To test the circuit, I was joined by Greatist’s outreach director and resident marathoner Laura Schwecherl (who had actually performed a track workout earlier in the day). Full disclosure, I’m an active CrossFitter and do 4-5 WODs per week (CrossFit slang for “Workout of the Day,” usually short and intense metabolic conditioning), so both of us are pretty familiar with HIIT and related methodologies.

Since the workout requires only bodyweight, a wall, and a chair for each person, setup was a breeze. (Beyond a few jump squats and some 10-meter jogs, we didn’t perform any significant warm-up.) I used an interval timer app on my smartphone to call out the prescribed work/rest periods, which kept us on pace throughout. I went about as fast as possible out of the gate and hit between 18 and 30 reps for each non-static move. Laura — who could probably smoke my pace when fresh — kept her moves in the 15 to 20-rep range for all seven minutes. While my pace didn’t slow during any of the 30-second work intervals, I did feel some muscle fatigue during the lunges and push-up-to-rotation set (the second move involving push-ups). By the end, my breathing was elevated and I was sporting an early layer of sweat, but nothing more than if I’d just completed a solid dynamic warm-up.

The Verdict

The researchers say their sample workout can also be performed two or even three times in a row depending on fitness level, and if I’d put a full 21 minutes into the circuit, I would have been pretty wiped. Just once through, and I felt like we were just getting warm. Laura suggested one or two rounds of the circuit would be a nice finish to a medium-length run.

While the intensity wasn’t quite what I’d hoped for — substituting harder moves like pull-ups, single-leg squats, and burpees would probably fix that in a hurry — I was pleasantly surprised how the circuit hit a large range of motion. And while it might not be the most obvious on paper, the exercise ordering was hardly random. For example, step-ups loosened up my hips prior to the squats, as did the high knees before the set of lunges. The planks at the end were deceptively tough since my core had already been taxed throughout.

The HPI circuit won’t revolutionize how I exercise, but at the end of the day, it’s a well-designed, beginner-friendly circuit busy people can perform in the privacy of their homes or offices. And while it will probably be relegated to my routine as a (well-designed) warm-up, if I’m ever stuck at home on a rainy day, I might just see how many rounds I can go without tapping out. It isn’t going to transform anyone from couch potato to elite athlete, but if programs like this can get more people exploring the realm of intense exercise, we’ll call it a win.

Photo: Laura Schwecherl

What are your favorite interval routines? Let us know in the comments below, and tweet the author @d_tao.