The no-sweat workouts: have you joined the micro-fitness club?

The electrical muscle toner

It is when I am wired up to the machine and getting ready to be shot full of volts, and I look over to Janis — the handsome, blond, half-Estonian boy with the vulpine smile and his hand on the dial — that Stanley Milgram and Philip Zimbardo pass through my mind.

They were the authors of the famous experiments that claimed to show just how easily power over others can become the capacity and the desire to inflict pain.

Janis is my master now. I am trussed up and plugged in and if he wants to give me a seriously bad time he has only to turn that wheel to the right. It is while I’m thinking this that I notice that he has a skull tattooed over one set of knuckles.

My predicament is down to being in pursuit once more of the exercise grail. I am a busy, busy man. I am also an averagely lazy man. And a restless one. I don’t want (if I can avoid it) to invest the best part of two hours a day, three times a week, in getting gym gear together, travelling to a gym, changing, lockering, banging about for 60 minutes, delockering, showering and travelling back. I want to do something quick and magical to make myself muscly. Show me someone who actually wants to spend time in a gym and I’ll show you a short film on athlete’s foot.

The grail is whatever can be devised to make exercise shorter and more intense. Just do this (whatever it is) for 20 minutes and you’ll get the same benefits as an hour’s trundling and lifting. Some readers may remember the vibration plate, still on sale but rarely glimpsed, which you stood on for five seconds and shed half your body weight. Others may even now be undergoing high-intensity training or HIT (a variation on interval training), which definitely works but can be very hard and sweaty.

A company calling itself EPulsive (I know, I told them, but the delightful young boss is a Spaniard) is training Britishers with EMS — electrical muscle stimulation. You wear a special suit, do some mild resistance exercises, and as you move the young Estonian delivers an electrical current to your main muscle groups.

The company’s claim is that 98 per cent of your muscles can be trained simultaneously, whereas in conventional exercise you’ll train only a few. Among athletes “EMS training can be up to 18 times more effective than conventional training”, though there is no figure for Aaronovitches. Over 12 weeks, EPulsive says, you can lose 9 per cent of your body fat and 4kg simply by being electrocuted regularly.

I begin my squats, he delivers the current

So here I am. I have changed into very tight, black underwear, vest and pants, which I hope have been well washed, and step out of the changing room to find Janis brushing water across the dozen or so conductor pads on the inside of a futuristic black jacket. I put this on, zip it up and conductive straps are added across my bum and thighs and to my arms. Then the cable is attached and I’m ready to be volted up.

Actually, since Janis turns out not to be a sadist, most of the next 20 minutes is all right. The water inside the suit is a bit cold, but after a few exercises I warm up a bit. At Janis’s say-so I begin a move — squats or biceps curls without weights — and as I do he delivers the current. It’s going to all the muscles but you feel it most in the muscle being worked. So it’s a series of tingles plus at least one mild shock. Now it’s my glutes, now it’s my abs, and — the only remotely painful one — my pathetic triceps. (Triceps? The one at the back of your arm behind your biceps. The one that’s always weedy because you don’t even know it’s there.)

Tricep dips help to strengthen and tone the muscles at the back of the arm

It’s only when we come to this muscle, in an exercise involving bringing my arms over my head, that I feel something intense. It’s like a surge that, when it stops, makes me drop my hands as if I’ve suddenly lost all strength. I become aware of another odd thing. After 15 minutes in which I feel I’ve not really done anything, I’m sweating. Not profusely but like I have done something.

Then it’s over. I change, Janis packs up and I wonder whether anything happened. The German Journal of Sports Medicine published a study concluding that “compared to HIT, EMS can be considered as an even more time-efficient but pricey option for subjects who aim to improve their body composition and general strength”.

I read that but was mildly sceptical. And then, two days later, my muscles began to hurt exactly like they do after quite intense workouts. My laterals hummed, my biceps gypped and my triceps shrieked. Oh, I thought, it must work then.

Can you get fit in under 15 minutes?
By Anna Maxted

Many of us fully intend to take a two-hour restorative yoga class after work or burn off our biscuit consumption with 40 lengths of the pool. Apart from the rich or retired, though, who can regularly afford the great swathes of guiltless time required to exercise properly? The good news is that there may be no need.

Thanks to the rise of the microworkout — and the proliferation of apps such as the 12 Minute Athlete or the 7 Minute Workout — in the time it takes to eat a doughnut at your desk you can tone your abs and boost your cardio fitness. So even the busiest no longer have the excuse to postpone exertion. And, crucially, scientific research suggests that it works.

5-minute yoga
The first app I download is the free 5 Minute Yoga. I stand in my sitting room, and even my cunning mind, so practised at wriggling out of exercise, fails to produce an excuse. I think: “It’s five minutes — how bad can it be?”

My mistake is to not bother clicking on “information”, which reads: “Do not attempt this program if you . . . suffer from any back problems.” The first pose is called “big toe”. Considering this is billed as “ideal for beginners”, the instructions are optimistically brief.

Still, I inhale, bend from the hip and try to touch the floor “if possible”. It isn’t. I hold the pose for a minute and feel puffed in a way that suggests that my lower back objects. A timer pings and I progress to “bound angle”, sitting with the soles of my feet touching and letting my knees drop to the sides. “Sit with a straight back.” It feels anatomically unachievable. I have to use my arms to push up; otherwise, I strain then slump in a weak curl.

After three more poses I casually stagger back to my desk. Triumph is overlaid with a whisper of foreboding. In the olden days of attending Pilates in real life I’d bore the instructor about my worn lower spinal discs. As I recall, she advised me to avoid bending from the hip. Today’s lesson is that a micro workout doesn’t give you a micro backache. Some 48 hours of co-dydramol later, I still have post-traumatic app-avoidance.

5-minute Pilates
Once I feel sufficiently pain-free, I browse the net and choose a 5-Minute Thigh-Sculpting Pilates Workout video on YouTube by the “celebrity yoga and Pilates instructor” Kristin McGee — “as fast as it is effective” — courtesy of Popsugar Fitness.

I have ten minutes before school pick-up, so I rest my laptop on the sofa and press play. Kristin, brisk and professional, makes every millisecond count. Alas, half the time, even as she demonstrates the move (“Now we’re gonna do a passé, dégagé — up, straighten, and release”), I don’t know what she’s talking about. I find myself repeating instructions aloud: “Like a peeing dog?” Face to face this would simply be rude.

Nonetheless, the next morning pinpoints of tightness at the tops of my thigh muscles indicate that I’ve been active. My arms also feel worked. I watch Kristin again to bone up on the peeing-dog move before a second attempt.

7-minute workout
I’m also keen to try the micro-workout of the moment: Johnson & Johnson’s 7 Minute Workout app, downloaded two million times. This free app is reassuringly sophisticated: health warnings, video tutorials, 72 exercises and a range of levels.

I watch a demonstration of the scary-sounding “bird-dog push-up”. A man raises himself on one arm and a leg from a plank position. The voice-over is English accented, clear and concise. “Downward dog grasshopper” is worse: push up into a plank and “bring your right knee towards your left elbow”. I’m hoping there’s something for the non-Olympian.

I’m offered a warm-up, which increases the time to nine minutes. Jumping jacks, then, on to a whirlwind of 30 seconds of wall sit-ups, press-ups and abdominal crunches. For those with a short attention span it’s fantastic. Squats, step-ups, triceps dips, plank — although by the time we get to “high knees” I’m eagerly looking forward to this being over. My heart pounds. I manage two lunges. “Push-up and rotation” — seriously; how much longer? Side plank. Then I’m offered a cool down (3.24 minutes? We’re busy people). “Great effort!” it says on the screen.

There’s no way this isn’t making a difference. I’m exhausted. And the next day there’s a pleasing ache in my pectorals. Yet can ten minutes really be enough? Isn’t this the fitness equivalent of a cleaner who dusts around objects instead of underneath?

UK government exercise guidelines suggest bouts of moderate-intensity activity totalling 150 minutes weekly — 30 minutes daily is advised, but “10 minutes” is also cited. Also, research by the Department of Kinesiology at McMaster University in Canada, published in the journal of the Public Library of Science in 2014, found that “short-term internal training that involved only one minute of hard exercise three times weekly stimulated physiological changes linked to improved health”.

“One minute?” I say in disbelief to the report’s lead author, the exercise physiologist Professor Martin Gibala, in a transatlantic call. He explains that athletes have long known that interval training (alternating relatively intense exercise with periods of lower intensity or rest) “will yield superior benefits” in terms of cardiovascular and endurance fitness than “traditional continuous exercise”.

With this knowledge, Gibala’s 2014 study, he says, involved a “workout time commitment, start to finish, [of] ten minutes. That was broken up into a two-minute easy warm-up. Then subjects did three 20-second bursts of all-out exercise [on a stationary bicycle] with two minutes of recovery. Then a three-minute cool down.

“Within that ten minutes there was only one minute of very intense exercise. When people did that three times a week for six weeks, we saw very marked improvements in their cardiovascular fitness as well as changes in their muscles and changes in their blood sugar control.”

Gibala emphasises that studies have been relatively small and short-term. However, he says, “we know that if you improve your cardiorespiratory fitness that translates into a percentage reduction in your risk of dying or of developing chronic diseases”. How does a large dose of the traditional continuous exercise approach compare with these microworkouts? “I think there’s good evidence that you see similar benefits.”

12-minute workout
Reinvigorated by this, I try Krista Stryker, who founded the £2.29 12 Minute Athlete app. She told The Wall Street Journal it was “designed to be exhausting and tends to attract serious exercisers”. With a flutter of fear I download it.

The 12 Minute Athlete is a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout that is “insanely effective”. Choosing a program, I tap on “bodyweight only” — no kettle bells for me, thanks. “110 per cent” fills the screen. “Burpees,” says a voice. A countdown fills the screen. You’re expected to know what you’re doing and crack on — if not, you click on “i”, whereupon Krista demonstrates in a pink top and short shorts in a field. I’m not doing that, I think.

After ten seconds’ rest, a voice says: “Reptile push-ups.” No idea. Krista, on a beach, demonstrates. She also demonstrates V-ups: lie flat, raise your legs and torso in a V and touch your toes. She might as well ask me to fly. I delete The 12M Athlete, but the 7M Workout stays. And after four rounds of thigh-sculpting, I’m expecting a pert behind. I’ve done my last hour on the treadmill. Brevity is the soul of fit.