Short, but Not So Sweet

Want to get in shape on your coffee break? Try insta-workouts—just don't get carried away.


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RECENTLY, I DROVE TO a nearby strip mall to visit my local Quick Gym USA. The place is the size of a Wendy’s and about as smartly decorated, with a plastic fern at the entrance. Behind it are four ROM (range of motion) exercise machines. You’ve probably seen these things in in-flight magazines they cost $15,000, promise to whip you into shape in four minutes per day, and look like a dentist’s chair as designed by Chuck Norris. Most of us can’t afford ROMs; Quick Gym’s appeal is that you get access to the machine for $35 per month. Of course, the workouts last only four minutes so, well, you do the math.

Quick Gyms address that timeless fitness question: How little can I get away with? While pro athletes get paid to work out, the “less-is-more” approach can be akin to a revelation for us normal folks, as is evidenced by Quick Gym’s growth: Since the first facility opened in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2005, 28 more have opened in nine states.

Short, extreme bouts of training came into vogue during the seventies, when Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus machines, asserted that exercise should be hard, brief, and infrequent. Some bodybuilders took this method to such lengths that their training consisted of a single lift involving the heaviest weight they could hoist. (Not recommended!) It would take about 20 years for the research to trickle into the mainstream, but in the past decade, high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, has become de rigueur everywhere from NFL training camps to high-end health clubs like Equinox. More recently, CrossFit has put a more gymnastic spin on this kind of training. One of HIIT’s great benefits is that it burns calories for hours after the workout.

Some of the most persuasive research supporting the efficacy of short, intense workouts came out of Ontario’s McMaster University in 2006. Researchers had a group of cyclists perform 30-second sprints four to seven times per session over the course of two weeks (total time committed: about 2.5 hours). A second group rode for 90 to 120 minutes per session at a more moderate effort (total: 10.5 hours). The riders’ improvements were “remarkably similar,” the study concluded.

“The tradeoff,” says Martin Gibala, the study’s director, “is that if you do it right, it frickin’ hurts.”

Aye, there’s the rub, as I found out at Quick Gym. Founder Dwayne Victor set me up on one of the ass-busting contraptions. There are two sections, one for your upper body and one for your lower. The first works like a stationary rower: You push and pull on chrome handles that move like oars. A flywheel design automatically adjusts the resistance, so the harder you try, the harder it becomes sort of a sweatier version of a Chinese finger puzzle. The other part of the machine is basically an extreme stair stepper, requiring you to mash up and down on a pair of foot pads. Most devotees do lower body one day and upper body on another. I did both.

Yep, it was quick, and it hurt. But because of the machine’s automatic resistance, using the ROM is a little bit like going to college you get out of it what you put in. And how many people are willing to row at the level of exertion required to make a four-minute workout the only exercise they need? I, for one, couldn’t get very excited about the prospect.

My main beef, though, is that Quick Gym reinforces the idea that exercise is a chore, like picking up dry cleaning. What about playing tennis with a friend, or taking an all-day hike? High-intensity interval training is great I get it every Sunday, during my weekly soccer game but it works best when you vary the duration and routine. “Life is an interval sport,” Gibala told me. He’s right, and for most of us, it lasts a lot longer than four minutes.