Are "Micro-Workouts" BS?

When is minimalism the right prescription and when does it let you down?

Are "Micro-Workouts" BS?
Photo by Kenny Eliason / Unsplash

Before anyone gets their undies in a bunch, you should all recall that I'm a huge fan of minimalism in general.  In the context of training, consider:

I read a recent newsletter recommending things like:

  • 20 squats every time you get out of your car
  • 10 squats every time you use the bathroom
  • 5 pull ups every time you walk through a doorway
  • 20 push-ups before every meal and a 10 min walk after
  • etc...

I've made similar recommendations in the past, when appropriate, so what do these things actually "get you?"

The answer is:  "More than if you didn't do them."

I don't know where 90 - 100 hours of something over the course of the year "will get you."  I do know that if you spend 15 - 20 minutes per day focusing on something, you should not be in the same place in a year's time.

When / Where Minimalism Fails:

The above prescriptions have to be appropriate to one's expectations.  I have a client, in his mid-40s, that wants to start playing guitar and is willing to invest in a tutor for one one-hour lesson / week and maybe squeeze in another hour of practice throughout the week.

There's nothing wrong with this.  I told him out loud, "At 2 hours / week you can definitely improve and get a hell of a lot of enjoyment out of something (which is his aim in this case) – and it's a better choice than alcohol."  Are you going to sell out a stadium?  No.  You're not even going to rock the local pub at 2 hours / week.

I've heard rumors that Dan Gable started every day with 400 push ups.  How many national championships had he already won before he started doing that?  Michael Jordan tied his shoes in a very particular way; will tying your shoes like that make you play like Jordan?

The Fallacy of 1% Gains and the Quantified Self:

I've written about this before (1) and the punchline is that; if you're measuring gains by the day and by whole percentages, you're still a beginner.  You are young enough in whatever discipline you're doing that that scope even makes sense.

Usain Bolt's fastest competition 100m was in 2009 (9.58 seconds)(2).  Now, let's look at his performances in the Olympic Finals:

  • Bejing Olympics: 2008, 9.63s
  • Personal Best: 2009, 9.58s (- 0.52% / year)
  • London Olympics: 2012, 9.63s (+ 0.17% / year)
  • Rio de Janeiro Olympics: 2016, 9.81s (+ 0.47% / year)

At the highest level we're talking about a fraction of a percent (0.1 - 0.5) improvement or decline over an entire year(!).  If  you think you'll sustain a 1% gain / day indefinitely you are not operating at a high level.

This is the "bio-hacking" fallacy.  The idea that whatever click-bait an influencer is pedaling on TikTok or quips that catch your eye on a magazine cover are the magic bullet / pill / potion no else has figured out and will be your ticket to success.

10,000 Hours... Yet, Again:

A few caveats that get missed in this quip from Gladwell's book (3):

  • That's 10,000 hours of mindful / focused training.  Not zoned out milling around like everyone on recumbent bikes at a globo-gym.
  • The break between "outstanding" and "pretty good" isn't that far. 10,000 hours vs. 8,000.
  • The divide between "pretty good" and just "good" is even further.  8,000 hours vs. 4,000.

I like shooting, but I'm not a shooter.  I've maybe put 500 rounds through my carry pistol this year.  My uncle does that in a month, easily.  Every month.  For 60 years.  If I was gifted 10,000 rounds of ammo and my uncle never touched a trigger for the time it took me to use those rounds, then we went head-to-head on the range who would win?

Obvious.  Or, at least it should be.

If you haven't put in 4,000 hours of focused effort, or at least enough time to understand The Dunning-Kruger Effect, then no amount of "hacking" or feel good memes are going to help you keep pace with someone that's put in 1,000 hours this year alone.

The great wisdom of Dan John also tells us to do: "a little bit, often, for a long time."  Most people never get past the first part (doing a little) and succumb to an infinite regression – occasionally for a while vs. often and for a long time.

All Hope is Not Gone:

I've mentioned before that the last jiujitsu competitions I did were prepared for in less than ideal conditions.  However, I had over 1,000 hours of mat time by that point in my career (not counting strength, conditioning, and striking).

There is a time and place for "micro-workouts."

  • Some sports require voluminous training (we'll argue intensity vs. duration elsewhere).
  • Sometimes you have to "get training in where you can" because of extraneous life circumstances.
  • Sometimes you just aren't that good... yet.

For the latter, I'll refer people back to my Barbells and Bell Curves post series (4) where I discussed how to allot your budgeted training time.

Regarding "life happening"; starting where you're at is just fine – in fact inevitable.  However, "just getting by" is a terrible place to stay and surely won't lead to "pretty good", let alone "great."

The pull of inertia is strong and comfort creep is real.  We are creatures of habit and you're building them whether you want to be or not.


Do what you have to do; to get by or to get to the next level.  Then, ask yourself which is more important to you and do it again.  There is no wrong answer in this case, but be warned, the truth is always found out.

The next Tom Brady, Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, etc. are out there.  The problem is that everyone think's it's them and it's not.  

If your claim is that that statement "is elitist", then I ask: "Is your problem really with me, or with your own life choices and lack of fulfillment?"  Because, you sound like the plate-full-of-mac-n-cheese person at the office potluck, saying to the steak-n-salad person minding their own business:

(insert stink-face and passive-aggressive tone):
"look at you being all healthy."

The same person likely has every excuse under the sun for not changing their current predicament.  Yet, they've got cupboards and closets full of:

  • pH balanced water,
  • synthetic multivitamins,
  • "fat burner" supplements,
  • a dozen other (synthetic supplements) because they won't change their diet,
  • "superfoods",
  • every fitness tech-toy under the sun,
  • on and on...

In this person's case, "micro" is code for "I don't really want to do the work necessary to get the results I say I want."  Then, correspondingly...

It takes a certain kind of wretchedness to mask your contempt for yourself as pity for someone else and spit it on their happiness.  Demand better of yourself, for yourself.  "Micro" or not, do the work.  You'll know it's enough, when you stop asking if it is.

"the person" is you

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