A lot of us get hung up on this idea of what an exercise session is supposed to look like. We think about driving over to the gym, squeezing into a crowded class, or working through a room full of complex contraptions, machines, and heavy plates. In our minds, it has to be a certain duration or intensity, or it doesn’t count. It has to have a warm-up and a cool-down, and we’re supposed to sweat so we’ll need to shower when it’s over. That mindset turns the simple act of moving your muscles into something you don’t have time for, something you’re too tired or sore to do today, something that seems too overwhelming for the moment you’re in right now. Don’t underestimate the power of short, at home workouts.
I’m challenging you to change your mindset, emerge from our flawed, dated and narrow approach to fitness and step into a much broader perspective about what it means to be fit. The concept of microworkouts is taking hold, and being touted by emerging science, respected coaches, trainers and elite athletes. I’m seeing a shift in the way people think about how to get fit: we’ve had enough with making the same mistakes over and over.
Microworkouts: Reframing our Approach to Exercise
The revolution is definitely a work in progress, and I still see misguided and destructive marketing messages and programming being thrust upon well-intentioned fitness enthusiasts. I still see the “no pain, no gain” approach being encouraged by fitness personalities and celebrated on social media.
For those of us willing to examine outdated beliefs and behavior patterns, and replace them with simple ways to get fitter, healthier, and happier, together we can help usher in a New Fitness movement.
I can attest that things like frequent traveling, minor aches and pains limiting certain activities, or hectic periods of work can throw me off even the most regimented fitness devotee. Often I won’t even realize that my routine has been slipping until I review my workout journals and realize I haven’t bagged a formal sprint session in three weeks.
What are Microworkouts?
Microworkouts are quick strength moves that you do throughout the course of the day. They can take a few seconds or a few minutes, they can be structured or unstructured, and you can roll them into the more mundane parts of your day, like waiting for your morning coffee to brew or going out to get the mail. These brief, at home workouts don’t seem like much while you’re doing them, but the effects compound over time.
Some examples of microworkouts:
Doing calf raises every time you climb the stairs in your house
Holding a plank while you’re waiting for your smoothie to blend
Ripping out a quick set of tricep dips at your desk before every meeting
The key is that you don’t overthink it. You do it, and then it’s over until you decide to do another microworkout. Even though they involve true energy expenditure, microworkouts seem effortless. The benefits compound over time, and you don’t feel like you’re disrupting the flow of your day at all.
In Keto For Life, we call it JFW, or Just F—ing Walk. Quick, at home workouts or microworkouts outdoors might sneak in there next. If it stops there for the day, great. Or, you may be up for that long-standing foundation of structured cardio, resistance training, or sprint workouts.
Reference the Primal Blueprint Fitness Pyramid recommending 2-5 hours per week of cardio at aerobic heart rates (180 minus age in beats per minute or below), two strength sessions per week lasting 10-30 minutes emphasizing functional, full-body movements, and one sprint workout every 7-10 days featuring all-out efforts lasting between 10-20 seconds with full rest between. These are simply guidelines. Life happens, and microworkouts are there to fill the gap.
Mark’s August 2019 post on microworkouts attracted a ton of feedback from readers. Clearly, this concept is taking hold in the fitness scene and is poised to become a major stand-alone element of a well-balanced program. Devoted MDA reader, Primal Health Coach, and 50+ athletic wonder Stephen Rader wrote a nice article with photos here. Rader mentions that microworkouts are great for skill acquisition because they don’t wear you out and can be performed frequently. He also pointed out that the Blue Zone research is touting the concept as a winning longevity component. Here’s a helpful podcast/video from Matt Schifferle at the Red Delta Project on the subject. He makes an excellent point that frequency and consistency are fitness essentials, and it can often be difficult to achieve those with a formal workout routine.
Matt makes the clever comparison that a microworkout is like chillin’ at home and watching Netflix, or watching a quick video on your mobile device, versus a proper evening out at the movie theaters. A theater experience is still fantastic (as is a full-length workout at the gym), but it’s not always practical, and it’s often less appealing than a micro-entertainment experience at home.
How to do Quick and Effective at Home Workouts (With Video)
The possibilities for microworkouts are infinite! All you need is some creativity and a way to put your body under some form of resistance load. The most important success factor for microworkouts is to adopt the proper mindset and commitment to the project. This is the difficult part, because we have been socialized to view workouts as a big production, requiring significant time, energy, and logistics. The truth is, home workouts can be just as effective.
Little things make a big difference. When some of your movement breaks include brief, explosive microworkout efforts, you enjoy not only the general benefits of movement, but also achieve a significant fitness benefit over time. If you start doing a single set of pull-ups here, a single set of deadlifts there, two years from now you will have hundreds of thousands of pounds and thousands of reps in the bank.
Here are four microworkouts that I do at home, including three that I have set up right in my home office.
Microworkout 1: Air Squat
Microworkout 2: Pull-ups, or Chin-ups
Microworkout 3: Stretch Cord Circuit
Microworkout 4: Hexbar Deadlift
Let’s take a three-step approach to excelling in microworkouts:
Commitment: I know your fitness to-do list is already long, not to mention your overall life to-do list. However, adding microworkouts into the mix is arguably the easiest way to boost your fitness. You don’t have to schedule time on your busy calendar, nor line up child care to escape for an hour to the gym. You simply have to acknowledge the importance of movement, and the incredible cumulative benefit of brief, explosive bursts, and make a sincere commitment to a microworkout program.
Environment: It’s essential to set yourself up for success with cues, triggers, implements, and apparatuses that make microworkouts compelling and impossible to ignore. The videos accompanying this piece offer some clever suggestions to help you get into the groove. Making a minimal investment in some Stretch Cordz gives you a ton of options to work different muscle groups. Ditto for installing a pull-up bar, a TRX kit, or having a kettlebell nearby. Beyond actual equipment, there are other environmental cues you can associate with microworkouts. For example, if you mount your pullup bar in your closet door, entering the closet is call for a set of pullups. Ditto for my hex bar located on the route to the garbage barrel. Put your microworkout triggers in plain sight, begging you to engage. If the example is doing a set of deep squats at your work desk, write a sticky note or use an app to generate a reminder every two hours. Alas, dialing in your environment will not automatically lead to success unless you integrate the next objective…
Incentives, Rewards, and Benchmarks: Establish some minimum standards to accomplish each day, such as one set of deep squats, one set of Stretch Cordz, and one additional effort choosing from pull-ups or kettlebells. Enter it into your calendar or display a simple sticky note. Don’t break for lunch or leave the office for the evening until you have completed your bare minimum objectives. When I finish a thoughtful email, hang up a lengthy phone call, or reach a natural breaking point in my writing, I’ll reward myself with a cognitive break in the form of a microworkout. If you can enroll a partner in your microworkout journey, this is the best source of inspiration and accountability. Perhaps you can meet in the building stairwell for a quick sprint up two flights of stairs at least once a day, or more by invitation. If you enjoy relaxing in the evening with digital entertainment, establish a rule that you’ll do at least one set of something during each episode of your binge-watch. There are many more ideas of this nature to consider, but it really helps to put some structure into the picture and take it seriously. Seriously, don’t leave the office, ever, until you do at least one set of deep squats every day.
Hopefully the videos will create some inspiration and momentum for your at home workouts. Let me know how microworkouts are going for you, and perhaps share some of your clever ideas for environment, incentives, rewards and benchmarks with the community. Good luck!
Brad is a New York Times bestselling co-author (with Mark!) of The Keto Reset Diet, hosts the B.rad podcast, is a Guinness World Record holder in Speedgolf, the #1 ranked US masters age 55-59 high jumper in 2020, and a former U.S. national champion and #3 world-ranked professional triathlete. Visit BradKearns.com to connect with Brad.