Why did this workout zap me so badly, and how can I fix this?
June 11, 2013 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Today, I tried to get back into the swing of working out with the NYTimes seven minute workout. I made it until about Step 8 before I got light-headed and had to stop. I know I'm out of shape, but why did this workout zap me so badly, and what can I do to fix this?

It's summer, and I've got some time, so I've decided to finally do something about the fact that I'm not in shape. I eat well, and I'm losing weight that way, so this is more for endurance, stamina, and such things. I hate getting winded so easily during any sort of activity (including romantic fun with my wife).

She'd found the NYTimes workout linked to above, and we gave it a shot. Now, I know I'm out of shape - I'm 28, 6'1, 220lbs, no muscle to speak of - but I've done jogging before, and I can make it through the first bit of Couch to 5K without much trouble. I can go jogging, and it knocks the wind out of my sails, but I survive it. This killed me within 10 minutes.

I need to get healthier, and I need to get in shape. I know that includes cardio and strength. What can I do to get past this so I can do more than 10 minutes without dying? Is this just a wall people hit early on with this kind of thing? Am I trying to run before I can walk, so to speak?
posted by SNWidget to Health & Fitness (27 answers total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
You might want to head to the doctor and have your heart checked before embarking on this...
posted by cairdeas at 5:44 PM on June 11, 2013

Done with correct form in 7 minutes, this workout would be intense for someone in very good shape. It sounds like you underestimated the intensity and pushed yourself way too hard.

Ramp up to doing this series as prescribed. There's nothing wrong with starting slowly and mastering the moves. These exercises are most effective when you've mastered both correct form and using muscle power rather than momentum. There's a reason why the workout is only 7 minutes long.
posted by quince at 5:45 PM on June 11, 2013 [15 favorites]

Homes this is not jogging, lol. Jogging is aerobic exercise, and your heart rate - for exercise - should be staying relatively low. This is not like that, it's designed to get your heart pumping very hard and very fast. You reaction is not only super common for someone who is out of shape - particularly with regards to this kind of exercise - but also a sign that you are doing the work out as intended. Basically, if you don't feel absolutely wrecked/even a little spewy after this kind of training (and it's not the exercises, per se, it's the intensity, there are workouts like this for running, cycling, weights, you name it), then you aren't doing it properly.

The good news for you, is that multiple studies have shown a dramatic increase in response time and improvement in these kind of programs. Often a lot faster than, say, a jogging program. Of course, it won't feel fast to spewy old you, but it will be fast.

A word of caution, however, you will improve quickly, but only at these kind of high-intensity, short duration exercises. Your fitness for other types of exercise may improve far more slowly, if at all. Good luck!
posted by smoke at 5:45 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

There is a reason that every workout program has a disclaimer at the beginning that you should consult a doctor before starting any exercise program. It's because you should.

You don't mention having seen a doctor recently. But really, there is so much going on in a workout, that nobody here can even begin to guess. Not even the doctors that frequent this place. You could be anemic, maybe you were dehydrated, maybe there's something going on with your heart and/or lungs, you could have some other health problem. You could, as others have mentioned, be a picture of health for your level of fitness, and just need some time to get acclimated to working out.

Trust me, from personal experience, it's worth it to know the difference.
posted by bilabial at 5:48 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Getting winded with just mild to moderate exercise at your age is a warning that you've ignored. Now that this exercise program has opened your eyes, you need to get a medical checkup before you throw yourself into intense exercise. Just do it - it's not a big deal and it might be more important than you think.
posted by aryma at 5:50 PM on June 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

I don't want to be a dick, but:

1. You're out of shape. This workout is ambitious for you or any beginner.
2. The first bit of Couch to 5K is supposed to be easy. You're not supposed to run hard until after you've completed the program and built up your stamina. C 2 5K is designed to be a gentle introduction to running. This workout you linked to is designed to be a workout.
3. You say you got lightheaded. What does that mean, exactly? Did you feel like you were going to pass out? Or did you just feel really uncomfortable? Because feeling uncomfortable happens when you're working out, at least sometimes. I am not in your head, but if it really felt like something was wrong, go see a doctor. Or if you haven't seen a doctor in a while, just go.

A few questions:

1. What time of day were you working out? Were you outside? I got really nauseous and wanted to cry running recently because it was hotter than it had been in a while. I didn't suddenly fall off the fitness wagon - I was just really hot, and maybe dehydrated. I see people running in LA in the afternoon and it blows my mind. No need to torture yourself.
2. Did you read the article? It's a high-intensity, short workout. It's supposed to be "unpleasant." High intensity interval training makes highly trained athletes barf and cry.
3. Have you thought about more gradual ways to build up your fitness? Maybe continue with Couch 2 5K, go to some yoga classes, etc.? No need to burn out and feel terrible right away.
4. Is the appeal of the 7 minute workout that it seemed like a shortcut or something? Step away from that line of thinking or you will get really frustrated. It's a slow journey. The tortoise wins the race and such.

You are improving. You don't need to be embarrassed by ANYTHING you do while working out. You are your only competition. You don't need to impress anyone. Good luck.
posted by ablazingsaddle at 5:51 PM on June 11, 2013 [12 favorites]

I've been incorporating parts of the scientific 7-minute workout into my intervals, and it's no foolin' about 7 minutes of intense discomfort. It is not an easy workout, even though it's ostensibly only 7 minutes long. To think, you're really supposed to do 3 circuits!

Anyway, think about moving bits from the article into an easier routine, or also consider temporarily increasing your rest-time between sets. For example, I do some body weight circuits (chin-ups, tricep-dips, lunges, squats, ab roller, etc.) anyway, but started doing planks and step-ups and some other things from the NYT workout. Try to keep your heart rate up but steady. I also jog on the elliptical for a while to keep the heart going, and then spend the last third of my workout stretching.
posted by carsonb at 5:51 PM on June 11, 2013

Why did that workout zap you?

It's a tough workout! You're alternating big muscles that require lots of oxygen to make them go, with little rest in between sets. You're taxing lungs and heart along with those muscles.

A while back I did a few rounds of P90X and the CardioX workout was a killer (occasionally light-headed killer) but the one that just destroyed me alternated tough upper body exercises (pushups, planks, chin-ups, groan) with tough lower-body exercise (one-legged squats, chair poses, lunges oh groan don't cry for me now im already dead).

It'll get easier if you keep at it, but do yourself a favor and back off at first. Spend the first couple of weeks focusing on getting the form of each exercise right. Reduce the length of time for each exercise (from 30 seconds to 15 seconds?), and give yourself a little extra recovery in between. You may not get the full effect of the HIIT and strength training, but you'll get plenty of benefit. And you won't pass out and die.

If you really want to monitor your progress and control your exertion, get a heart-rate monitor watch and strap it on for every workout.

Good for you for making the effort to get fit and try something so challenging. Don't give up! (Or as they say in P90X: "Do your best and forget the rest!")
posted by notyou at 5:59 PM on June 11, 2013

HIIT is very demanding on the body. Before you do that, more than for other kinds of exercise, I'd get checked out by a doctor. HIIT is designed to make you winded. But if you are excessively winded, it may be because you're may be out of shape, but you also may get excessively winded because you have CVD issues. Now, you're 28, so it's not likely that you have serious heart problems, but better safe than sorry.

Before you engage in HIIT, you should try to get some basic conditioning, as it will allow you to maximize the benefits without injury. Try to get some aerobic exercise so that you have a minimum level of cardio-respiratory fitness. You should be able to get through a 5K run at moderate speed (8 minute mile speed) without getting winded - work on that.

Also, start with anaerobic exercise, but don't worry about the nonsense pushed by old-school trainers (lift to failure etc.) - start with lower weight/intensity and higher repetitions (instead of the opposite usually pushed by trainers); the reason for that, is that you want to prevent unnecessary muscle injury and condition your joints and tendons. When you're comfortable with lighter weight higher repetition exercise, slowly transition to increasing the weight and lowering the reps. In the context of the article, instead of using weights use isometric exercises which can be modified to be easier or harder, as well as controlling things like angle of incline on the pushups etc. (start with easier).

Once you have fulfilled these conditions:

1) Been given the all-clear by a doctor

2) Are in reasonable aerobic shape

3) Have a reasonable anaerobic foundation

you are ready to take on HIIT, but even so, you should ease into it, by making the rest intervals longer to start with, before conforming to the classic HIIT routine as outlined in the article.

All this takes time. It will be months before you can do full-on HIIT like that, but cutting the time short is a quick way to injury. Your major obstacle is going to be motivating yourself to keep at it, even if it seems that progress is slow - you must continue to resist hurrying things along. Give yourself 6-8 months before going full-on HIIT.
posted by VikingSword at 5:59 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all the comments.

I have been to a doctor recently, and I'm healthy in those respects. I let her know I was going to be working out, and she told me it was a great idea. She suggested a combination of cardio/strength, so I figured this was a direction.

I understand that this was supposed to be compact and intense. I guess I underestimated how out of shape I actually was, and how little strength training I've ever done. I'm not sure what I expected.

And everyone feel free to be a dick to me. Seriously. I, apparently, headed into this without doing much thinking, as when I think, I usually don't end up doing anything (analysis paralysis and whatnot). This was me throwing myself into something to get off of my ass and getting pushed back on it.
posted by SNWidget at 6:05 PM on June 11, 2013

You might prefer Jillian Michael's 30 Day Shred program. It's a 20 minute routine that you do every day. The nice part is that it has 3 levels. It starts you out easy-ish and then you can make it harder when you're ready. As a totally out of shape person, level 1 was tough and I was really wiped, but I got through it. It's doable but effective. I am not a shill.
posted by bleep at 6:21 PM on June 11, 2013

Response by poster: You might prefer Jillian Michael's 30 Day Shred program. It's a 20 minute routine that you do every day.

I've tried that as well, but not for a while. If memory serves, I got my ass handed to me by that as well, but at least I could make it through the first stage.
posted by SNWidget at 6:28 PM on June 11, 2013

You can always do the complete routine, but at a reduced intensity, and work up to the intensity.

You're going to have to ramp up no matter what you do. Couch to 5K is brilliant because the ramp up is exceedingly gentle, and doesn't scare people off. This is a different beast entirely. If it's too much or too unpleasant, do something else with a slower ramp up.
posted by Miko at 6:48 PM on June 11, 2013

I'm in okay shape, but not great. I've been alternating walking/running with this body weight workout at nerdfitness. It's got some of the same movements as the workout you tried, but definitely less off it. It might be a worth checking out as a starting point.
posted by bizzyb at 7:16 PM on June 11, 2013

The workout is designed to make you feel like crap, temporarily. The end of the NYT article states "throughout, the intensity hovers at about an 8 on a discomfort scale of 1 to 10, Mr. Jordan says. Those seven minutes should be, in a word, unpleasant."

If you click through from the NYT to the actual journal article where this workout was presented, there are quite a few caveats*:
Because of the elevated demand for exercise intensity in HICT protocols, caution should be taken when prescribing this protocol to individuals who are overweight/obese, detrained [emphasis mine], previously injured, or elderly or for individuals with comorbidities. For individuals with hypertension or heart disease, the isometric exercises (wall sit, plank, and side plank) are not recommended. The isometric exercises can be substituted with dynamic exercises. For all individuals, the Valsalva maneuver should be avoided, particularly for the isometric exercises. Proper execution requires a willing and able participant who can handle a great degree of discomfort for a relatively short duration. It is also essential that participants in an HICT understand proper exercise form and technique. As with all exercise programs, prior medical clearance from a physician is recommended.
So, it would probably make sense to do other exercises to work up your cardiovascular capacity before doing this workout, if you're as significantly out of shape as you describe. If you get winded during any activity, this workout is not a good way to start exercising.

* In addition to ignoring these rather important warnings, the Times article plays pretty fast and loose with the actual workout recommendations. The original journal article describes doing this 7-minute workout two or three times in a row, but "The 21-Minute Workout" probably wouldn't grab so many page views because it just sounds like exercise.
posted by vytae at 7:32 PM on June 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have been to a doctor recently, and I'm healthy in those respects.

Just to double-check. Did she give you a really thorough heart checkup or did she just listen with the stethescope for a few moments?
posted by cairdeas at 7:34 PM on June 11, 2013

Response by poster: Just to double-check. Did she give you a really thorough heart checkup or did she just listen with the stethescope for a few moments?

I guess it wasn't as thorough as I'd imagined. I'll go back in with questions specific towards starting any sort of strength/cardio.

I'm really feeling like a dummy for not completely seeing what I was getting myself into.
posted by SNWidget at 8:19 PM on June 11, 2013

I need to get healthier, and I need to get in shape. I know that includes cardio and strength.

The most important part of beginning any long-term plan is defining your desired goals. What are your goals? Are they performance-based (SUCH AS: a mile in XX:XX, YYY bench press, Z number of pullups) or are they aesthetic/body composition based (SUCH AS: AA% body fat, BBB total pounds) or are they "health based" (SUCH AS: NN resting heart rate, OO blood pressure)?

These are just a few examples. Find your baseline, set concrete goals, and then you can create a plan to work towards them.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 9:27 PM on June 11, 2013

Sometimes people hold their breath while working out, particularly weight lifting. Make sure you are not doing that.
posted by srboisvert at 10:31 PM on June 11, 2013 [3 favorites]

Workouts are supposed to hand you your ass fairly regularly. It's not supposed to be easy. I think people's medical concerns are overblown.

I do a similar workout sometimes from a plan for University of Michigan soccer players and they are supposed to do 45 seconds on / 45 seconds rest through 12 similar exercises, rest 5 minutes, and repeat. Division 1 college athletes do it twice as part of an extended training session, I'm 31 and pretty fit and I can get through it ok, without the repeat, as part of a somewhat less extended training session, you're out of shape and a similar workout kicked your butt. That's as expected to me.

But I am a little confused about: it's a seven minute workout, if I understand it correctly? You said that it killed you within 10 minutes. It's supposed to kill you in seven minutes...right? Why were you doing it for 10 minutes?
posted by Kwine at 10:52 PM on June 11, 2013

It's seven minutes when you know the correct order and position for each of the exercises by heart, and ten is pretty quick if you're referencing the graphic for every other one.
posted by carsonb at 10:55 PM on June 11, 2013

If it makes you feel any better, I think you're not alone in misjudging the intensity of exercise when you're not used to it.

Getting fit is like learning a language in that before you start, you think of it as a relatively quick process, almost like a binary opposition: "I am 'not fit', I will work out a bit and then I will 'be fit'."

When you learn a language, you tend to think "I don't speak Spanish (or whatever). I will study, then I will speak Spanish".

It's only when you start doing either that you realise what an incomprehensibly long journey it is between those two poles - to the extent that you virtually never arrive at the other end. However far along you are on the journey, you will always think you need to get a little bit further.

Sounds like you've expected to leap straight from one end of the journey to the other, and only then realised how vast the distance is.

The good news is that every little step along the way is worth making.
posted by penguin pie at 9:10 AM on June 12, 2013 [1 favorite]

The first few times I did the 30 day shred, which is basically the same thing, I thought it was impossible and wasn't able to finish it. I was insanely sore the first couple weeks. I can't even describe how sore. I took Advil to go to sleep. I had to take multiple breaks to get through the entire video.

But eventually I did. The soreness largely subsided. So yeah the first week or two is hell. Which will then be replaced by a more tolerable low level misery.
posted by whoaali at 10:27 AM on June 12, 2013

I work out regularly in a high-intensity context with some limited circuit-like workouts as my baseline. I'm in pretty darned good shape. A few weeks ago I did the workout from that NY Times article and I made it through once and then made it about 2/3 of the way through a second round before I punked out. That shit is hard. It's designed to be hard. I don't recommend you start an exercise program with that because you will fail and give up and do nothing.

Find something fun and do that for a few months till you have an exercise habit. Think dance classes, kayaking, biking with friends, zumba - something engaging and that you can make a regular time commitment to. Then work on pushing yourself with more grueling shit like this.
posted by latkes at 10:26 PM on June 12, 2013

It's okay for workouts to be hard and scary. For me, this is kind of why I workout. I'm a total physical coward - I hate pain and I'll weasel out of anything uncomfortable or dangerous - so I use the gym as a kind of 'low stakes' way to work on those tendencies.

Which is my way of saying it's okay to be blindsided by the intensity of certain workouts. So you know that particular routine is suck central. Good. You'll know that the next time you do it, and the next time, and the next time. You'll find a version of yourself that embraces intense workouts and deals with the suckiness. For me, developing that new identity is maybe even more important than the physical fitness.
posted by nerdfish at 5:40 AM on June 13, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've been doing this workout since I read about it, so that's about a month and a week. I've had terrific results, so let me tell you guys about it.

First off, when I started doing this, I weighed around 245 lbs. I was definitely fat, although not as out of shape as you'd think - I regularly played racquetball three times a week, combined with a light routine of weights. However, I've been very unhappy with my weight, and my racquetball partner had a whole lot of stuff come up that continues to make him unavailable. So I decided to kick it up a few notches.

First of all, I started a no/low card diet at my wife's insistence, and then I designed a five day workout rotation. Days one and three are for circuit training. Days two and four are weight training - I do upper body on day two and everything else on day four. The intensity of the weight workouts was increased, so it takes almost an hour. The fifth day is rest, which is essential.

The first time I did the "seven minute" workout, I only did one circuit and I found it fairly strenuous. That was enough to convince me to design this rotation in the first place. Since then, I've worked up to the point where I can do three full circuits and a couple of additional exercises (40 exercises, total). It still leaves me destroyed on the floor in a pile of sweat, but that's because I push it every time, always trying to add another exercise or two.

My strength is definitely increasing. I'm at the point where I can do four complete pull-ups (I switched some of the exercises in the reference routine with stuff that uses the pull-up bar), which is no mean feat for a man of my size. The circuit training has almost as much to do with this as the weights, since I always feels some muscle soreness at the end.

But the big news: 20 pounds in five weeks. That has probably contributed a lot to my pull-up ability, and let's not underestimate the effects of my diet. It's NOT easy to eat salad everyday, but I found a place that makes me salad with avacado, goat cheese, onions and steak on mixed greens, so it could be worse (if you want to try this salad, I recommend either the balsamic vinaigrette or sesame ginger dressings...it's really quite tasty for under ten grams of carbs). But the results are practically addictive. I don't see myself stopping until I hit 200, though I don't have any illusions that the next 25 lbs will be as easy to lose as the last 20. Still!

Anyway, I mostly wanted to just report my own results, but I do have something to say for the original post. I'd agree that it's a good idea to check with a physician, because I think one circuit should be feasible unless you're truly out of shape. However, the workout really does kick your ass, so if you don't have any medical issues, don't be discouraged. Just keep at it, trying to add one exercise each time you do it, and you'll see your stamina really shoot up. If you do this three times a week, I think you can't help but see results.

Also, if my experience is any indication, and I think it is, I'd say that you'll have better results if you combine this with other activities. I think strength training can be useful in so many ways, even or especially when you are trying to lose flab. Muscles burn more calories that fat, pound for pound, so adding muscle weight will absolutely accelerate your fat loss. Also, building up strength is good for your joints (important if you're heavy, like me), and it's a wonderful sensation feeling your muscles becoming taut and defined.
posted by Edgewise at 5:02 PM on June 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Since a couple of people still apparently glance at this thread, I'll mention something that I found useful for performing this type of workout. I use an interval workout timer app on my (Android) phone with this routine. I like the one I use because you can give each step in your workouts a name, and when the workout is being performed, the name of the step (i.e. the exercise) is displayed, as is the one for the next step. This eliminates the need to memorize the workout in order. It also makes it feasible to design workouts with a lot more than twelve steps, which is exactly what I do. It keeps things more interesting, and I like to think I get better overall fitness by introducing more variation into what gets worked how much.

Anyway, the app I use is called "A HIIT Timer," which is a terrible name for a great app. It's free and I like its features, but there are other interval timers out there for various mobile devices, so see what you like. You can find A HIIT Timer here.

Keep in mind that the original paper is only describing a specific routine as an example. Since the principles are pretty clear, I think it's easy and probably a good idea to change it up. Like I said, I use a pull-up bar, because the reference routine has absolutely nothing that addresses the muscles it hits. Some people feel strongly that crunches are unhealthy; no problem, there are plenty of alternatives. Burpees and mountain climbers make great additions, too. I'd like to add a jump rope exercise to my routine at some point, but I may need a little more space for that. My usual circuit is actually comprised of twenty-four exercises, and I still can't yet complete two in a row.
posted by Edgewise at 11:45 PM on June 22, 2013

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