What did a recent study of a short Dutch workout called Fit20 reveal about the benefits of working out for just 20 minutes once a week? The biggest takeaway might be that training like a pro athlete isn't the right approach for mere mortals.
It makes logical sense that if you want to be the best you can be at a sport, you should train like the best. And there's big business to support that notion as well. Everything from professional training plans to your favorite sports star's nutritional supplements to their morning routines is sold, traded, shared, and reshared on social media.
But what if I told you that you're actually shooting yourself in the foot by training like Felix, Rapinoe, Curry, or Bolt?
Let’s start with a recent study that plotted the progression of thousands of people following an ultra-minimalist training plan. As sports science writer Alex Hutchinson put it in his Outside magazine article:
There’s good news and bad news in a remarkable new multi-year study of nearly 15,000 people who followed an ultra-minimalist strength training plan involving just one short workout a week. The good news is that the training really works, despite taking less than 20 minutes a week all in street clothes. The bad news is that it eventually stops working, or at least gets less effective…
The last part of that quote may have you scratching your head. But the study researchers argue that this leveling-off phenomenon may actually be much more universal rather than specific to this particular training plan. And that point is precisely why this study has some important implications for how we mere mortals should train and set goals.
The Fit20 Study
The Dutch training plan that the researchers looked at is called Fit20. It involves one solitary workout per week for—you guessed it—about 20 minutes. The workout typically includes six exercises on a Nautilus One exercise machine.
The workout may be short, but it's intense and challenging.
The exercises are chest press, pulldown, leg press, abdominal flexion, back extension, and either hip adduction or abduction.
If that isn’t minimal enough for you, the workout calls for only one set of each exercise. And it requires you to use a weight that will have you reach failure—the point when you feel like you can’t do another rep—after just four to six reps.
The key is that the few reps you do are performed pretty darn slowly. To be precise, 10 seconds in the concentric phase and 10 seconds in the eccentric phase—that's basically 10 seconds up and 10 seconds down. And the rest period between each exercise is kept to about 20 seconds. And, at least for the study, there was no music, no mirrors, and no fun allowed. The workout may be short, but it's intense and challenging.
After the study ended, what did the researchers find? Well, all the exercises produced basically the same result—the athletes saw some rapid gains for about a year, which slowed to more gradual gains after that. They kept gaining, but the margins of improvement were smaller.
A 30% gain over a year and 50% over seven is pretty impressive for any workout program, let alone one that only happens just once a week for 20 minutes.
In fact, the average across the study showed that the athletes got about 30% stronger in the first year but after seven years they were only about 50 percent stronger. But don't be fooled by the word "only." A 30% gain over a year and 50% over seven is pretty impressive for any workout program, let alone one that only happens just once a week for 20 minutes.
I know there are a least a few of you that are shaking your head saying “No, Brock. If that were good enough, why did Arnold spend 75 minutes, six days a week at the gym?” And that is where the difference between exercising for health and performance comes in.
Exercising for health or performance
Studies like these are often red herrings for exercise enthusiasts and writers like me. It would be easy for you or me to say “OK, great! So I only have to work out hard once per week for 20 minutes to be healthy.”
Wouldn't it be great if fitness worked like that? But this takeaway is missing some important factors. This study wasn’t measuring for markers of good health, it was only tracking strength gains. Look at it this way:
- The world’s fastest marathon runner, Eliud Kipchoge, isn’t worried about his ability to carry a heavy pack up a mountain trail.
- World champion tennis player Serena Williams isn’t worried about being able to cycle around Europe on vacation.
- The top shot putter in the world, Thomas Walsh, isn’t worried about being able to squat down and play with a child or pet.
- Top Tour de France cyclist Tadej Pogačar isn’t concerned with the bone density in his hips.
They all have very specific jobs that happen to be fitness-related. So, real-life functional fitness isn't a concern for them in the way it would be for you or me. The problem is, we still look to them for workout advice when our goals are (or at least should be) very different.
Fitness in real life
This problem is compounded when the workouts we adopt from the pros take time away from our jobs, families, hobbies, and other aspects of our lives that bring us joy and health. We're trying to keep up a training regimen that is literally someone’s job while we are also working our own very real jobs. That's not sustainable.
Two-time guest on this podcast and former professional triathlete, Brad Kearns, explained it well in my episode called The Secret of an Aging Athlete. He said his life “... consisted of a lot of sleep and recovery time between each workout and not much else.” In fact, recovery played a bigger role in his life than almost anything. He would have a custom smoothie and a nap after a hard workout, not rush off to a day job.
He went on to say “I was asleep for half of my life when I was a professional athlete.” And because he wasn't rushing off to a 9-to-5 every day, he experienced lower amounts of stress than a "weekend warrior" would.
Keep your goals in mind
If you are a professional athlete, you're likely OK with trading a bit of good health for a shot at fame, fortune, and glory (or at least a gold medal). But that doesn’t mean the rest of us should be. I am willing to bet that if you were to ask Eliud Kipchoge if he thinks running 42.2 km in less than two hours is the key to living a happy, long, and healthy life he would likely laugh. (Politely, though—he seems like a lovely fellow.) The point is that he is not running a marathon to be healthy, he is running it because it's his job.
I am not saying that we shouldn’t have lofty goals of achieving our own version of an Olympic gold medal. But as we learned in the study, it takes a lot less to achieve a good result than it does to achieve ultimate performance. That's important when you have other priorities in your life.
At the conclusion of the article I mentioned earlier, science writer Alex Hutchinson sums it up like this.
... the question reminds me of the epidemiological data suggesting that you can get 'most' of the [health] benefits of running by doing as little as five minutes a day. That doesn’t square with the experience of competitive runners, who don’t get 'mostly' race-fit on five minutes a day. The key is to remember that the minimum dose for health and the optimal dose for performance are two separate questions.
So, next time you're considering engaging in a workout regimen that has you working out for 60 or 90 minutes a day, take a pause. You don't have to throw away your fitness routine in favor of a minimalist Fit20-type plan, but consider that there's a middle ground that could be more efficient for getting you to your real goal.