Be Fit and Out of the Gym in 13 Minutes

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

How little is enough when it comes to exercise? Just 13 minutes is the answer. You can work out for less than a quarter of an hour and get the same benefit as someone who stays in the gym for 70 minutes.

If you’ve lived in New York City, you’ve heard the catchphrase of the radio station 10-10 WINS:

You give us 22 minutes, we’ll give you the world …

The station’s patter is part of the background chatter of surely the noisiest city on earth. It’s an all-news station, so 10-10 WINS is talking about its loop, which repeats every 20 minutes … plus 2 for ads.

But they could just as easily be talking about exercise. Give us 22 minutes, and you’ll get back the world …

A lot of clients ask, “How little do I need to exercise to stay fit? Healthy? Not dead?”

The answer is “Not a lot.”

To be honest, 15 minutes is probably enough. Do that every day, and you’ll be in good shape. Hell, 13 minutes might be enough … plus 2 for ads (or Instagram gym selfies, which are the same thing).

All the participants did 8-12 reps but some performed only one set – and got the same benefit.

That much is clear from a new study. It sought to answer the age-old question of “How little do I need to do?” Answer: 13 mins. That’s 780 seconds.

The catch: those better be 13 exhausting minutes. Push it hard, and you can be in and out of the gym in 25% of your lunch break. Hey, grab a sandwich on your way.

Researchers took 34 young men, healthy but not especially fit, who had been doing some kind of resistance training, the most-obvious form of which is lifting weights. And they got them to lift weights.

Before they got going, the folks with the clipboards tested how strong the young men were, and measured them up. Then all the men did 7 gym exercises, 3 times a week for 8 weeks.

But they did it slightly differently, in ways that saw some spend much longer in the gym than others.

One group did five sets of each exercise, which took around 70 minutes. One group did three sets, which took around 40 minutes. And one group did one set, which took just 13 minutes.

All the men still did 8 to 12 repetitions for each set of the seven exercises: a barbell bench press; a dumbbell military press; a wide-grip lat pulldown; a seated cable row; a barbell squat; a machine leg press; and a leg extension.

Guess what? After two months, all the guys got stronger. But the guys who did one set and then took off in next to no time saw just the same strength gains as the guys who were in there for more than an hour.

The key? All the guys made sure they were exhausted on every exercise. By the end of the five sets, or three sets, or one set, they couldn’t do any more reps. Their muscles were spent. They had lifted “to failure.”

The key to successful resistance training is to push your body to its limits. Then it will respond by getting stronger, fitter. You get cardio fit, too, from exercising this way. Your heart will be beating hard when you hit your “failure” point.

The one-set wonders also had the same gains in endurance as the five-set sweaters. The scientists measured how many times they could bench press a light weight before getting tired, to test their stamina.

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The guys working out did 7 exercises: a barbell bench press; a military press; a lat pulldown; a seated row (pictured); a barbell squat; a leg press; and a leg extension.

After two months, the results were the same, no matter how many sets you did. The only difference between the guys who did five sets and those that did one set was that the five-set guys had bigger muscles. They weren’t any stronger. But they looked bigger.

The tests show “there is a separation between muscular strength and hypertrophy,” or getting larger muscles, Brad Schoenfeld, the lead author of the study, told The New York Times. He’s director of the human performance program at Lehman College in the Bronx, in noisy New York City. You can be strong and sleek.

So if you’re going for bulk, go long. Some people like that musclehead look. But if you’re looking to get fit, look toned, and stay strong, pushing yourself to your limits on one or two sets should be enough.

Personally, I like to do 2 to 3 sets of any exercise, and anywhere from 12 to 20 reps. That’s just me. Maybe I’m old fashioned.

It seems remarkable, a little too-good-to-be-true, that you can get the same benefit with one set. Still, that’s exactly what the findings of the research, published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, show.

We’re all always really busy, and an awful lot of people say they’d love to exercise … if they only had the time.

Well, I think we can spare 13 minutes, most of the time. We can all work that short workout into our day. And remember: these guys only did it three times a week.

So next time you’re wondering whether you’ve got time to get to the gym, or can be bothered to exercise, bear in mind how long it takes: 780 seconds.

If you wanna time it, listening to 10-10 WINS might be a cool way of doing it. They take 20 minutes to do their news workout.

You’ll be done by the time they’re telling you what Jay-Z and Beyoncé are up to, whether the Yankees won (they did!), and if the traffic’s snarled on the George Washington Bridge.

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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