12-minute functional fitness
Using the power law to fail faster, get stronger, and live longer
A few weeks ago, I decided to try an experiment in functional fitness. I wanted to see if I could get stronger by working out less frequently, but at a higher intensity. And it worked! This would seem counter-intuitive, if it weren’t for something called the power law.
Peter Thiel bases his investment strategy on the fact that we don’t live in a normal world — we live under the power law, where most big results or “outputs” come from just a few events or “inputs.”
For example, in venture capital, most of a fund’s returns (outputs) come from a small number of portfolio companies (inputs). Similarly, more damage is caused by a few of the largest magnitude earthquakes than hundreds of thousands of smaller ones.
You see the same distribution in fitness results: fewer workouts at higher intensity get better results than daily exercise at a lower intensity.
In a power law world, exercise isn’t about burning calories, toning, or conditioning. It’s about maximally weakening your body to trigger a deep, long-term adaptation.
Pushing muscles to failure triggers hormonal changes and alters the way your DNA expresses itself. Certain genes only express past a certain threshold of intensity. Accordingly, modern sedentary people are losing our physical inheritance. Our genetic blueprints for strength are going dormant — especially as we get older. The secondary effects of lost muscle include accelerated aging, tumor growth, inflammation, and decreased bone density.
Fortunately, many studies have shown that a large fraction of muscle lost over a long period can be restored with one year of well-designed resistance training. The secondary effects of aging also tend to reverse when muscle loss is reversed.
How to: the Push-up Drop Set
The book Body by Science surveys the literature on fitness and overall health and recommends a routine of just 12 minutes of exercise per week. What matters most is how you use those 12 minutes.
Realizing the epigenetic benefits of exercise requires a level of stress that sends the right signals to your muscles that they need to get stronger, but without damaging them. This means going to the point of failure, or the psychological stopping point, without too many repetitions.
Working out to failure sounds scary, but it’s safe and doesn’t require heavy weights or explosive movements — just slow, steady movements under enough resistance to generate failure within a few minutes per exercise. It’s time efficient by necessity.
Most people fall into one of two categories:
- Sedentary, hate working out → loss of muscle mass and cascade of aging side-effects
- Exercise addict → wear-and-tear, insufficient recovery, and ultimately breakdown of muscle mass to fuel impractical cardio workouts.
Neither promotes optimal health. Exercise is good, but less is more.
I decided to take the experiment a step further — cutting the recommended workout time in half, but increasing the intensity even further.
Here’s what my once-per-week, 6-minute workout looks like — the pushup drop set. Just body weight. No fancy machines necessary:
1. Start with a pushup form that will lead you to failure within 60–90 seconds. I use a downward incline (“decline”) with my feet about 1.5' above my hands.
2. “Drop” the resistance by lowering your feet relative to your hands. If you started in a decline, move to a regular pushup. If you started with a regular pushup, move to an incline or kneeling pushup.
3. Drop the resistance one or two more times — spending no more than 5 or 6 minutes total.
The last 30 seconds may not involve any vertical pushing motion. If you’re doing it right, you will stop moving but continue to resist gravity to wring out the last drops of failure.
DIY Body by Science: N=1
Berkeley researchers have found that certain stresses trigger long-term adaptations and improve the fitness and longevity of mice.
But people are not mice.
How, then, do we assess the claim that six minutes of pure, hard exercise once/week is as effective as 1 hour/day moderate activity?
I often engage in fancy hand-waving about epigenetics and resistance training, although until recently I was relatively ignorant of the science. I started with first principles, i.e., the power law, because appeals to “science” as an authority are bogged down with conflicting “expert” opinions, biased funding sources, and poorly-designed studies.
The authors of Body by Science note that “even in [the realm of science], one has to be careful to look closely at the studies that have been conducted, as not all studies represent an honest attempt to find the truth.”
The best double-blind, randomized controlled trials seem to square with the power law preference for high-intensity muscular effort. It produces none of the wear-and-tear of endurance exercise while providing most of the cardiovascular and strength benefits.
However, the best science comes from observation in our own lives. Functional fitness is about asking, “What works?” and then testing it on a sample size of 1 (n=1), aka YOURSELF.
The book briefly touches on the idea of the drop set, and recommends against it, in favor of 5 separate workouts, each one taking around 90 seconds, with 30–45 seconds in between exercises to recover.
Someone replied to my last email wondering how “cardio” (aka aerobic exercise) fits into this approach, and what to do for other muscle groups like the legs. My notes summarize the myth of cardio conditioning, and include a template for a “Big 5" workout that maxes out the major muscle groups in under 12 minutes. If you have a routine emphasizing greater endurance that already works for you, I’d suggest giving this a try for a couple of weeks and seeing if you notice any changes.
According to Body by Science, your cardiovascular system can’t tell whether you’re riding a stationary bike or doing a leg press. What matters is effort, unless you’re training for endurance events, in which case you will need to train your body for endurance. Most people just want to feel healthier and stronger in every day life.
My email newsletter is geared towards people who wants to get more results out of less time and effort — not necessarily the elite athlete, or the person who already derives significant emotional benefits from long-distance exercise.
McGuff endorses Nautilus machines, since free weights add risk of injury if your form is bad. You can reduce risk by following the advice of Starting Strength (PDF) — a safety-focused power-lifting manual — or you can just stick with slow bodyweight exercises.
This video demonstrates a modified “Big 5” bodyweight workout that anyone can do at home. [Note: You may have to adjust the resistance of certain exercises to reach failure in each category within 12 minutes.]
For those looking to go deeper, I cobbled together some resources to help keep your routine fresh:
Videos inspiration for a well-rounded routine:
- If you get bored with regular pushups: 20 Advanced Push-Up Variations to Build Strength | GMB Fitness
- A short video I made with my friend Ben a while ago on maxing out using the “80–20 rule” — another term for the power law.
Other Exercises that fit the Power Law
- Alternate between sprinting and walking/jogging. Sprint in 60–90 second bursts, repeating 3–5 times.
- Sports like tennis and basketball that active high intensity “fast twitch muscles.”
- Cycling with high intensity intervals. Just 90 seconds of all-out peddling on a stationary bike provides adequate exercise for the average person for a full week.
Podcasts about High Intensity Strength Training:
- How to Reverse Aging with Art De Vany (#239) | The Blog of Author Tim Ferriss
- Art De Vany on Steroids, Baseball, and Evolutionary Fitness — Econlib
From a foundation of strength, you can build whatever movements feel good on top without thinking of daily exercise as a chore.
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