Yes, it absolutely is.
Hundreds of studies have been published over the last decade or so on the style of training we do (albeit, using a variety of different exercise modalities), and the research is pretty clear – for safe, efficient and lasting adaptations, it’s less about the number of hours you spend at the gym each week, and more about the quality of the training stimulus that you get. In other words, it’s all about the effectiveness and efficiency of the work that you do while in the gym. In fact, it’s been found over and over again that with the right exercise format, you can achieve in a few minutes what we traditionally thought would take 60 to 90 minutes. If you’re curious, a lot of the relevant research can be found by searching for any of these terms on an academic search engine: High-Intensity Interval Training, High-Intensity Intermittent Exercise, Sprint Interval Training, or Maximal Aerobic Speed.
You see, when done right, mere minutes of exercise can yield effects that last 12 – 48 hours after you’re done with your workout. Don’t take this the wrong way – a couple of minutes once a week isn’t going to cut it. Consistency is important, so you should be exercising frequently – it’s just that you don’t need to spend a long time doing it each time.
Think of it like a productivity hack. Yes, you can get it done in a shorter amount of time, and that’s great, but you still have to put the hard work in when you’re working in order to get your desired outcome. Wouldn’t you rather be able to get a lot done in a short period of time, versus the same amount done over a long period of time?
This style of training is most often called High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which you can read about here. It’s not fancy, and it’s not even new. There’s nothing revolutionary about what we do at Ritual – athletes have been training this way for years, for a very simple reason. If I’m a professional tennis player, much of my time is going to have to be spent fine-tuning things like specific technical skills and strategy. However, at the end of the day, I still need to make sure I have the fitness capacity (and mental fortitude) to play a full 3-hour match when I need to. Decades ago, exercise scientists figured out how to use HIIT to build this fitness capacity, so athletes could spend more time focusing on the other important details of the game. Although it’s been around for a while, HIIT is relatively new to the fitness world, and what we’ve done is taken the effort to scale and adapt this type of training so it’s suitable for everyone, and not specific to a particular sport. We then made that product as user-friendly as possible, with the primary aim of helping busy people get their ‘fitness’ done as efficiently as possible.
In fact, HIIT is so well established for it’s effectiveness (i.e. getting results in less time per session and with a smaller overall workload) that over the last 10 years or so, a lot of the research has focused on the benefits of HIIT that stretch far beyond the “will this help me look better naked” stuff. Great researchers have been discovering how HIIT can actually make you healthier on the inside, too. Amongst other benefits, with frequent exposure to this type of training, you can increase your VO2 Max (greater heart and lung capacity), promote fat oxidation (so you use fat at a faster rate and more efficiently than before), and reduce metabolic risk factors through increased insulin sensitivity (basically, you deal with sugar better, making you less likely to get diseases associated with obesity). I don’t know about you, but these sound pretty awesome to me. In more recent years, researchers have even been looking into using HIIT for people with heart disease, type 2 diabetes and other serious conditions to speed recovery and promote better health. That’s how well established this ‘intensity’ thing is.
When it comes to using HIIT for general fitness, the more interesting topic is about the logic that goes behind how we put the workouts together each month. The sprint-rest-repeat format is easy to understand, but programming sessions in a way that enables people of all fitness levels to train at the same time, that encourages balanced overall development in the long-term, and that allows people to get the personalisation they need when they need it… that’s where the magic is.
It would be easy to wake up in the morning and scribble down a ‘sinister’ workout on a scrap of paper just before a session starts. To pay attention to every detail and variable so you keep people safe while they push hard, to balance programs so clients get maximum benefit from their 20 minutes, and to consistently provide quality coaching… that’s far less easy. There’s a wealth of exercise science research on the completely separate topic of how to keep athletes in balance so they can last longer in their sport of choice. Adapting this knowledge to our format of training at Ritual is a challenge we take on every month – we meticulously plan and balance variables according to a series of complementary rules for each day, week and month. We don’t just do this because we’re insane – we do this because we want to create an experience where you can just show up, and have things taken care of for you.
This is also important because, with HIIT, there is a risk of overdoing it. For obvious reasons, the industry doesn’t want you to know this. Sure, you can get pretty fast fat loss (if you don’t pick up an injury along the way) by smashing yourself with hour-long HIIT sessions 6 days a week, but in the long run, you run a real risk of getting overuse injuries, a weakened immune system, adrenal fatigue, and other hormonal issues, amongst other things. Yes, too much of a good thing can be bad – and that’s yet another reason why we keep our workouts to 20 minutes. You see, with a 20-minute session, you can access a whole range of intensities: you can get anything from a low-to-moderate intensity active recovery session in that primes you for a harder workout later in the week, to an extremely challenging high-intensity session that will stress your system enough to elicit awesome training effects, but without pushing it too far. As a busy person with a dozen other things to get done today, your training should challenge you enough to get the effects you want (including the mental and productivity benefits of smart exercise), but not so much that you leave feeling fatigued and unable to perform at your optimum. Exercise should make your life better, not be hindrance to your performance outside of the gym.
This 20-minute thing is absolutely not a fad – it’s an actual sustainable life hack. For most people, this is the future of exercise, simply because everybody is time-starved. With obesity, high blood pressure, abnormal cholesterol or triglyceride levels and high blood sugar rates as high as they are globally, combined with the sedentary lifestyles that we all lead, it’s obvious that we need to figure out how to build healthy rituals into our lives. The number one reason that people give for not exercising regularly? Not enough time.
20 minutes today, whenever you can, sounds pretty manageable, doesn’t it?