I love the micro-workout approach to strength training. There are a lot of ways to approach micro-workouts. For me, they are a way to break up a single workout into several parts and spread those parts throughout the day. For example, a typical full-body workout for me would be three sets of push-ups, three sets of pull-ups and three sets of squats. Done together and with honest effort (each set taken a few reps short of failure), this would be a fairly exhausting routine that would take about 30-40 minutes or more. With the micro-workout approach, I typically would do the push-ups in the morning, the pull-ups in the early afternoon, and the squats in the later afternoon or evening. Each segment takes only 10 minutes or so (and this is one of the many benefits of micro-workouts), and so I squeeze them in when I have time and don’t have to plan my workout for a time of the day where I can spend 40 minutes. Additionally, I don’t have to be intimidated by the volume when I know I’m only doing a third of it at a time.
The Problem with Micro-Workouts
The problem with micro-workouts relates directly to the benefits of micro-workouts. If you’re doing them so your workouts are quicker, more approachable, and less taxing, then you may be inadvertently shortchanging yourself. The idea that you can just “get it over with quickly” could be the problem and might mean that you are not putting in an honest effort on each segment and each set.
Additionally, honest productive workouts have a kind of a flow, where you warm up slowly and then start conservatively so as not to waste all your energy, and then build up to the more intense work. This can take time. Everyone is familiar with the feeling of really being “in the zone”, where you’re warmed up and the sets are going well and you feel strong and with each set you want to do more. The feeling that you might be on the verge of a PR or breakthrough can be very intoxicating. At the very least, it reminds us of why we are doing this. It can take time to get to this place and by definition micro-workouts might be over before you have a chance to get there.
Furthermore, it might be as mentally challenging to contemplate having to do three workouts day rather than one, no matter how short they are. I usually save my squats for later in the day. But squats happen to be the exercise where I am really trying to build up to high reps. This is daunting and exhausting, and much more difficult to face when it’s later in the day, I’m already pretty tired, and I just want to eat dinner and relax. The point here is to give yourself the opportunity to put in an honest effort, and sometimes micro-workouts may not be the best way to do this.
Case in point: Ladders. As a refreshing change and a way to try and add to my maximum reps, I’ve been doing a lot of ladders lately. With ladders, you take a single exercise and perform a single rep, rest as long as needed, then do two reps, rest, then three reps and so on until you reach the set where you would not be able to perform another rep with good form. At that point you can quit, or work your way back down the ladder to one. This a very good way to add to your max. reps in an exercise.
Yesterday I did pull-up ladders. In the pull-up piece of a micro-workout, I would normally do a small warmup and then do three sets, taking each set out to one or two reps shy of failure. For me this is usually something like 9, 8, 7 if I’m strict with the form. That’s a total of 24 reps, and I’m seldom eager to push the first set because I know I have two more to go. Consequently I generally don’t make much progress. In the pull-up ladder workout that I did yesterday, I made it to 10. So that’s 1, 2, 3, 4…. 8, 9, 10. That’s a total of 55 reps (over twice as many as in the micro-workout), and what’s more, the more intense sets, by definition, are performed at the end of the workout. Sets of 10 or even 9 would have been very difficult in my 3-set micro-workout approach, but here I was able to get that set of 10 after 45 reps. There was a flow that happened and each set built on the previous one, which in turn fueled my motivation and desire to improve.
Furthermore, with ladders you are really in the moment and are very focused and motivated to keep going. With micro-workouts sometimes I find that I just want to get it over with. This doesn’t lend itself to honest effort or progress. But with ladders, not only do you really want to get another set, which you know if you do will be better than all the others, but you also really want to take it one set further in the next workout. Eleven, here I come!
The down-side of course is that a ladder workout takes more time and you’re likely not going to do much else in terms of strength training that day. But what you DID do was certainly more solid and productive than a rushed 3-set workout.
Micro-workouts are fantastic if you are limited in time and have the self-discipline to make those 10 minute segments as productive as you possibly can. They are also paradigm-busters and show you that working out can be accomplished in many different ways than the standard hour-and-a-half at the gym. But they may not be the best strategy for all of your workouts all of the time, particularly if you are feeling stuck, unmotivated or more focused on the time expenditure aspect of the workout than the effort and effectiveness. If you feel that you may be here, give ladders a try.