We have a workout experiment for you.
It’s simple. It’s effective. And it’s tailor-made for people who work from home.
If that’s your situation right now, there may be no better time to try these workouts.
We call them ‘trigger workouts.’ But they’re also known as intermittent workouts, micro-workouts, and mini-workouts.
Give these workouts a shot, and they might help you:
– Move more frequently throughout your day for better overall health
– Make working out seem “easier” while improving your fitness
– Do lots of exercise—without needing an hour of uninterrupted time
– Take short work breaks that invigorate your mind
– Have fun trying out a new approach to exercise
Let’s start with the background.
Most well-rounded workouts last about an hour and total around 100 to 200 reps at most.
Okay, that might not be what most people do on their own. But it’s how we design workouts for our clients here at Reebok CrossFit Glevum.
In one of our workouts, you’ll do about 25-50 total reps of primary exercises—movements like squats, deadlifts, pullups, and presses.
After this, you might do some accessory work: core exercises, lunges, or some isolation work for your arms or hamstrings.
These are typically lighter movements done to provide more total work.
Overall, you’re looking at a total training volume of about a hundred reps or so for any single workout. All wrapped up in about an hour.
But what happens after this hour of hard work?
Chances are, you go sit in your chairs for the rest of your day.
There’s probably the chair where you do your work and the chair where you eat your meals. And the chair where you relax in front of your TV. (Or don’t relax, if you’re watching the news.)
And before quarantine, you probably had even more chairs, like the one you commuted to work in.
We can cram a lot of movement into an hour of exercise.
But that one hour is still a brief intermission in a day that’s otherwise defined by stillness.
Modern workers can spend as much as 15 hours per day in a chair. This takes a toll on our bodies and our minds. Some research has shown that even an hour of intense exercise isn’t enough to counteract all the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.
What would happen if we reversed this?
What if we spent most of the day physically moving, with only an hour or two of stillness in the middle?
What if we moved continuously and did thousands of reps of movement over the entire day?
This may sound ludicrous but think of people who do manual jobs for a living. Construction workers, furniture movers, military personnel and agricultural workers regularly see long days of almost continuous movement. Professional and Olympic athletes may spend much of their day training.
Our bodies can handle an incredible volume of work.
Why reversing the formula works
Physical activity produces a lot of changes in the body, even after a relatively short time.
Muscles contract, circulation increases, nutrients are shuttled into cells, and energy expenditure climbs. The body’s management of insulin improves, and we also see changes in hormonal function and energy metabolism.
The benefits don’t stop at your muscles.
Our brains also change in response to movement. Physical activity, ranging from traditional gym exercise to simple walking, can improve mood and cognitive function, and helps reduce the effects of ageing on the brain.
In one study a group of people were fed an extra 1,000 calories above their baseline for eight weeks. Based on simple calorie math, they should have each gained 16 pounds by the end of the study. Instead, some gained as much as 9.5 pounds, while others added less than a pound.
The main difference? The people who gained the least weight compensated for the extra calories by moving more throughout the day.
This doesn’t mean they went to the gym for longer.
Instead, it was “non-exercise physical activity” that made the difference. The people who gained the least weight did the most fidgeting and walking spread throughout the course of their day.
Remember, our bodies are in a state of constant flux. We’re always adapting to whatever we’re doing in a given moment. So if we’re sitting still for hours on end, we’re getting better at… sitting still for hours on end. But if we’re moving around a lot—and then recovering from that movement—we’re getting better at that instead.
The vastly underrated benefit of intermittent workouts
Pavel Tsatsouline, founder and chairman of StrongFirst, made some aspects of this training approach famous when he coined the term “greasing the groove”.
“Greasing the groove” is as much about motor learning and skill acquisition as it is about stress responses and physiological adaptations. It’s a way to strengthen a motor pattern by practicing it more frequently.
Pavel has people practice a strength skill such as a kettlebell swing or a pushup in regular intervals spaced throughout the day. An important piece of this is that you’re not trying to beat yourself up. You’re deliberately staying relaxed and not training to failure.
You simply mix in sets of technically crisp, high-quality reps throughout your day.
It’s a fantastic way to improve your skill in strength movements.
How to build your own intermittent workouts
We call this idea of doing a set or three of an exercise every time you walk past a certain object or are reminded by a timer “trigger workouts.” (It’s way easier to say than “intermittent.”)
RCFG coaches have been prescribing these trigger workouts with certain clients for years.
Trigger workouts are a great way to improve fitness and motor skills. And, as discussed above, they may even be more beneficial for certain aspects of health than a one-hour workout done once per day (if you’re otherwise sedentary). Trigger workouts are also a sneaky way to get in a lot of exercise on days when you otherwise wouldn’t have time for a full workout.
Here’s what you do.
Step 1: Establish your trigger.
This can be anything from a timer to an object in your house. During the lockdown, I’ve been putting a Dumbbell on my floor near the stairs. I run into it whenever I’m either going to the kitchen or the bathroom. Every time I walk by it I do a few sets of swings, shoulder presses, or squats.
In the past, I’ve had gymnast rings in my garage and would do a few sets of dips each time I walked in. Whatever you choose, make it somewhat frequent.
Ideally, you’ll be moving around about once per hour.
If you’re working from home (like lots of others right now), this gives you enough time to do focused work, while still keeping your body from fusing with your chair.
It also gives you a brief, regular break from the mental demands of work.
Step 2: Pick an exercise.
Generally, choose a movement that works a lot of big muscle groups and that can be done safely without a warmup. Read: It’s not the best time to test your personal best deadlift. Consider exercises like:
– Kettlebell Swings or Snatches
– Goblet Squats
– Bodyweight Squats
– Lunge Variations
– Ring Rows
– Overhead Presses
– Banded Movements
– Ab Movements like Planks or Sit-ups
You can also mix in some favourite stretches or mobility drills. Come up with a handful of movements, and try to get about an equal mix of upper and lower body movements.
Step 3: Decide how many reps and sets to do.
The specific number here isn’t critical.
You’re just trying to make physical work feel easy. Stay at a level where you don’t feel a significant “burn,” and you’re nowhere near failure.
As a general rule, it’s better to do multiple sets of lower reps than one long set of a bunch of reps. For most exercises, try starting with 5 reps at a time.
An example trigger workout day:
08:00 AM: 5 pushups, 5 dead bugs (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds
09:00 AM: 5 goblet squats, 10 kettlebell swings, 5 lunges (per side)
10:30 AM: 10 band pull-aparts, 5 pushups, repeated for 3 total rounds
11:30 AM: 5 goblet squats, 5 dumbbell rows (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds
01:00 PM: 5 sit-ups, 5 band good mornings, 5 band pull-apart, repeated for 3 total rounds
02:30 PM: 10-second side plank (each side), 5 dumbbell lunges (each side), repeated for 2 total rounds
03:30 PM: 5 dumbbell rows (each side), 5 single-leg, dumbbell deadlifts (each side), repeated for 3 total rounds
05:00 PM: 5 dumbbell shoulder press (per side), 10 band pull-aparts, repeated for 2 total rounds
Total repetitions: 359
Of course, you can also just pick one or two exercises, or a single circuit, and repeat that over the course of the day.
You don’t have to give up other types of exercise altogether.
In fact, don’t.
Where possible, use trigger workouts with some conventional training, and go play outside.
This training method works best when it’s done in combination with the type of maximal strength training and periodic high-intensity work that’s done in a gym (even if that’s currently at-home). At least over the long term.
It’s also best when balanced with dynamic, open-ended, and enjoyable activities outdoors. The kind that put you in situations that require more movement variability.
So once in a while (or as often as you can), go for a real hike.
We hear that’s pretty good for you, too.