Hacking the One-Minute Workout

​It's shorter and more intense.  That's obvious.  But if you think that's all there is to the one-minute workout, think again.  Let's look at the reasons most people quit exercising and apply physiology, neuroscience and psychology to see how brief high-intensity intervals have many other hidden advantages over standard old-school slow cardio.

Why You Quit

  1. TIme
  2. Boredom
  3. Too Tough
  4. No Results
  5. Lack of Motivation


This is obviously why the one-minute workout has gotten so much attention.  First, let's clarify -  it's not really one minute.  The researchers who designed the study defined Sprint Interval Training (SIT) as three 20-second bursts of all-out effort with 2 minutes of low intensity exercise in between, plus a 3-minute warmup and 2-minute cool-down. So the total time commitment was 10 minutes, three times per week.  This was compared to the boring cardio routine we're all used to, referred to as Moderate Intensity Continuous Training (MICT) for 45 minutes, three times a week.  The measurable cardiac, metabolic, and musculoskeletal benefits at 6 weeks from SIT were comparable to MICT. 


In order to test a hypothesis in the lab, conditions have to be precise and more importantly, they have to minimize or completely eliminate variables.  The awesomeness of science is that once that hypothesis is proven, it can be applied in variety of non-lab-like situations.

The boredom problem solved - intervals introduce an infinite mix of possibilities so you never have to do the same workout twice.

You're not a lab rat.  Intense intervals can be anything you want them to be.  You can jump rope for one interval, sprint to the beach for the second, and swim in the ocean for the third.  Any activity in which you can exert maximal effort will do, so the potential to mix it up is infinite.  What's even better is that you can introduce all kinds of variables and almost anything can be a low intensity "rest" interval.  In this case I'm using jump rope moves for the sprints, and yoga for the low intensity intervals, with randomization and "wild cards" at variable intervals.  Read more about mind-hacking your intervals for maximum benefit here.

The graphic on the left shows a segment  of one of my jump yoga interval designs using the app Seconds​. I use jump rope and other beach calisthenics as my high-intensity intervals and yoga poses as my low intensity rests.  I also use randomization and wild cards.

​The point is that researchers are required by the scientific method to squeeze interval training into the same box as all other clinical interventions and maintain absolute uniformity.  But you can customize your high-intensity intervals, your low-intensity rests, the randomness of your intervals, and change it up on different days based on the weather or how you're feeling.  This gives you so much more control over your workouts.

Daniel Pink, in an awesome TED talk, says that ​the most powerful motivators are autonomy, mastery, and purpose.  This ability to customize intervals for fun is a powerful expression of autonomy - every day my workout is unique and it belongs uniquely to me.  I am the only person on the planet doing this exact workout today.  Click on the button below to download my entire library of mind-hacked, optimized interval workouts free.

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Too Tough

There's a fundamental problem with every workout you've ever tried - it's teaching you to work out like someone else, not like yourself.  All those cardio machines at the gym are programmed the same way - around averages - to target someone else's heart rate limits.  

How do laboratory designed workouts measure intensity?  By targeting averages, other people's heart rates, average resistance, and subjective measures of perceived intensity.

The problem is that, by design, these workouts are guaranteed to be either too easy or too intense, making it more likely that you'll quit out of boredom or fear.

The huge advantage intervals have is that you can easily dial in your own limits based on immediate, easily measurable physiological feedback - from your own body and brain.  You don't have to start day one at the intensity prescribed in the laboratory protocol, and as you progress your tolerance for intensity will improve quickly as your cardiopulmonary system adapts to the bursts of activity.

This type of physiologic customization is rarely mentioned, but is much more likely to keep you with the program than trying to climb the mountain of 45 minutes of cardio at 70% of someone else's heart rate.

No Results

According to James Clear, there are 2 keys to motivation:

  1. work on tasks of just manageable difficulty
  2. measure your progress with immediate feedback.

​He says that the most powerful motivator is "seeing yourself making progress in the moment".

​With high intensity intervals you will feel the increase in endurance and stamina almost immediately, and your progress will be obvious to you.  Your breathless threshold will be less intense, more tolerable, and slower in onset.  If you monitor your heart rate, the increased efficiency of your cardiovascular system will be reflected in a lower heart rate necessary to achieve the same level of intensity.  You will notice yourself burning through intervals today that seemed brutal only a few days earlier.

All of this immediate feed​back gives you a huge advantage over old school cardio, which basically just exhausts you, and gives you much slower feedback.   Immediate feedback is a powerful motivator.

Lack of Motivation

Decisions are tough, and every little one you make saps a skosh of your willpower, fatiguing it like a muscle.  Why?  Because decisions involve change and our brains are remarkably resistant to change.

 A mind-bogglingly tiny percentage, .0005%, of the 10 million bits of information processed by the brain every second is devoted to deliberate thought.  So we're essentially running in default mode, on autopilot, going with the flow, 99.9995% of the time.   Our brains are built to avoid making decisions.

Judges are far more likely to grant parole to prisoners when they're not fatigued by many previous decisions.  Think about how remarkable that fact is.  Regardless of the crime, the number of decisions a judge has previously made is a determinant factor in whether he will be grant a change in prisoner status.  Decision-fatigued judges cling to the status quo, and your brain does too.

The status quo is staying in bed instead of working out.  The status quo is noshing on whatever is at eye level in the fridge instead of cooking a healthy meal.  The more decisions you have to make, the less likely your are to do anything except go with the flow.  This is perhaps the biggest advantage of interval training over old-school slow cardio - it has to be planned in advance.

You can go for a jog just by putting on your shoes and running out the door.  You can quit anytime.  But in order to do intervals you have to decide, at a minimum, what your intense intervals are going to be, how long they are, what your rest intervals are going to be and for how long.  At minimum, you need a timer and a plan.  I use the app Seconds and a jumprope.  I have dozens of different combinations of pre-programmed intervals.

​Automating as many decisions as possible avoids decision fatigue, so you don't waste your willpower.  Structuring and planning your workout in advance not only makes it easier to start by reducing the number of steps to get there but it also avoids a huge waste of willpower on repetitive decisions.  As James Clear said "Willpower isn’t something you have or something you lack. It rises and falls."  Pre-planning your intervals allows you to preserve your willpower and focus it on what really matters: the intensity of your workout.


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