The Four Minute Workouts-How Research and Experimentation Supports a Minimalist Approach to Exercise

The title may be loaded, but the goal of this post is to leave you with some excellent workouts that do everything from increase your cardiovascular endurance to building muscle; all in the span of 4-10 minutes.

The research is there to support doing less exercise at a higher intensity. You could say it has been available since Arthur Jones pushed Casey Viator through his HIT workouts in the Colorado Experiment. The Tabata study, which tested trained athletes using 4-minute high intensity cycling intervals proved there was real science behind the idea.  

At Canada’s McMaster University, the scientists tested subjects using 10 1-minute sprint intervals on a stationary bike. What they found was that even with 60 second rests in between sprints, the effect was equivalent to longer endurance training sessions.

For people who don’t like long cardio sessions anyway, consider the advice of Alwyn Cosgrove, who prefers cardio intervals using a variety of exercise equipment and one’s own bodyweight. The result? Less impact on knees and other joints and greater fat-burning potential through increased muscular development.

So how do you get started? How can you add to your current cache of routines? Do some exercises work better than others?

Get started by choosing the duration of the intervals and how much rest you will take between them. For instance, if you want to follow the Tabata method, do maximum effort on an exercise for 20 seconds, rest for 10 seconds and repeat. Do this for a total of four minutes or 8 sets. The key to this method is an all-out effort every set.  Repeat after 2-3 minutes of rest if you can (or want to.)

If you want to use the protocol of the McMaster’s University experiment, do 10 1- minute intervals at high to maximum intensity, resting 60 seconds between each. After 1 minute of all-out work, you should need that rest.

Some exercises are better suited to giving an all-out effort that really gets the heart pumping. Bodyweight exercises are one example. Try one of the following to experiment with this protocol:

-Burpees (Jumping Burpees.)
-Jump Squats/Bodyweight Squats
-Bear Crawls
-Lateral Lunges or ‘Skaters.’

Ballistic movements not only get the heart racing, but can increase strength and power as well. The perfect choice is a kettlebell, but if you don’t have one, a dumbbell can be substituted, as long as you are careful. With a kettlebell or dumbbell, try the following:

-KB Swings
-KB Snatch
-Clean and Press/Clean and Jerk
-Push Presses

The studies mentioned above were targeted at improving the average person’s general conditioning or at increasing the maximum oxygen uptake of an athlete. They did not test for muscular development, but the Colorado Experiment did. Regardless of the scientific validity of this event, it is worth trying this protocol as a means of increasing muscle size and, as a consequence, increasing strength. Here are my suggestions:

Use the 4-minute protocol, but instead of using all-out effort, create constant tension by not locking out at the top or bottom of the movement, and taking 3-4 seconds for the concentric and eccentric parts of the movement. For a whole body workout, choose 3 or 4 exercises and perform each for 4 minutes, using the 20 seconds on/10 seconds rest approach. For example:

-Deadlifts or Squats
-Standing Overhead Presses

If you are in a real hurry, try using one exercise for overall strength. Call it an abbreviated barbell or dumbbell complex if you will. For example,
-Bent-over Rows+Deadlifts+Pushups


Back Squat, Overhead Press in bottom position, Overhead Squat.

By changing the exercise or increasing the weight, this simple routine will help a busy person stay in shape and get stronger. Experiment with different versions of it to see what works best for you. However, keep the intensity high by using constant tension and an adequate resistance.

Even if this seems like ridiculous underachieving, don’t underestimate how effective it can be. Challenge yourself to give an absolute 100 percent effort for a few minutes a day.  It might just convince you to add this method to your fitness toolbox permanently. Just as Tim Ferriss says in his book “The Four Hour Body,” the minimum effective dose is all you need. Anything else is a waste of time and resources.

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