Why Is High-Intensity Training Making Headlines?

CrossFit Elysium and HIIT training ITB


The New York Times has been on the rampage lately with stories like these:

“The Rise of the Minimalist Workout”

“The Scientific 7-Minute Workout”

“The 4-Minute Workout”

Each time one of these gets published, they fly to the top of the charts as a most-emailed article. I’ve wondered how much that has to do with CrossFitters passing them around as sort of a mainstream validation of what they already know works. Or how much it has to do with people who are simply interested in a workout that you can finish within a single playing of Stairway to Heaven.

Each of the stories refers to research studies  that basically look at exercise in the black-and-white terms of biochemical response to a workout. “Biogenesis” of mitochondria, for example. When you look under a microscope and can see that a full-tilt 7-minute workout composed of compound movements boosts mitochondrial growth into the same ballpark as a 90-minute bike ride at moderate intensity, than there’s definitely an appeal for those stressed for time or for those who just want to get in shape but want the workouts over as rapidly as possible.

It’s not magic, of course, and one of the things I imagine is a common reaction in the CrossFit world to these stories is this: Sure, you can get a lot out of a four-minute met-con, but it’s a long four minutes.

One of the studies included a group that did 1 x 4-minutes very hard and a group that did 4 x 4-minutes very hard with just one minute rest intervals:

 After briefly warming up, these volunteers ran on a treadmill at 90 percent of their maximal heart rate — a tiring pace, says Dr. Tjonna, at which “you cannot talk in full sentences, but can use single words” — for four four-minute intervals, with three minutes of slow walking between, followed by a brief cool-down. The entire session was repeated three times a week for 10 weeks. The second group, however, completed only one four-minute strenuous run. They, too, exercised three times a week for 10 weeks.

I had to imagine the look on some of the faces of the volunteers in being asked to go at 90% of their max heart rate for 4 minutes, be it one times or four times. They couldn’t speak in sentences, but they could utter single words. I can imagine those words being some rather potent and expressed like whipping a throwing star.

The bottom line is, yes, you can definitely get  a lot out of a 4 to 7 minute workout, but I can’t imagine that too many people with sedentary backgrounds getting very far on their own. This is where I’d refer them to the nearest CrossFit gym so they could navigate their way into this brand of training with a supervising coach and a group of comrades to suffer through it with.

On that note, I openly admit that I can’t push myself as hard alone as I can in a group. In recent months my conditioning has lapsed and gone backward. So I am joining Amity CrossFit here in Palo Alto to reinvigorate my training. It will be like starting all over. Actually a good opportunity to do some reporting on what it’s like to start CrossFit in the first place.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.