Some say that he has two left hands, and his nose can tell when it will rain. All we know is that he's called DFM.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Can You Achieve Fitness Success Working Out Just One Minute A Day?

There seem to be two schools of thought when it comes to training: An “old” school of training, in which you go to failure on every set as often as possible, and an even older school of training that championed a more moderate-intensity workout done more frequently. I’m not sure why or how, but somehow this system of moderation got pushed out of the public conscious in the past forty years or so, but fortunately was not completely forgotten.

While visiting South Korea for two months back in March and April of last year, I developed a serious shoulder injury, ironically, from doing too much climbing (a pulling movement), and not enough chest and shoulder exercise (pushing). After spending all summer slowly rehabbing to the point where I could do more than a single push-up without my shoulder screaming at me in pain, I was determined not to let such a serious injury befall me again if I could help it.

While I knew I would be too busy to partake in a serious body weight training regimen during this latest trip to Korea, I remembered the advice of Matt Furey (he was relatively popular a few years ago for a body weight training system he was trying to sell called Combat Conditioning) that instead of trying to go from zero to hero, a new trainee should just try to work out for “one minute a day," This is where my big experiment got its start.

Taking from the idea that weight training exercise done for shorter periods, but with more frequency is, is more effective than longer bouts of exercise, done less frequently (more on this concept in a future post), I decided that I would endeavour to do just one set of sub-maximal push-ups per day, every day, for the remainder of my stay in Korea – about four and a half months.

I chose to use the same type of push-up each workout, and during each test, so that my experiment would remain at least somewhat scientific. The type of push-up I chose involved having the hands positioned directly under the shoulders, fingers pointing forwards, elbows staying tight to my body throughout the exercise. I chose this type of push-up because I felt it would protect my shoulder/rotator cuffs better than the more standard, elbows out, hands wide-apart version.

During a fitness test I took six weeks before the start of this experiment, I managed to score 41 push-ups in the same manner described above. I took 41 to be my current max, as it was consistent with other tests I had done before my injury.

The protocol for my workout involved completing 30 repetitions without touching my knees to the ground, or taking a hand off the floor. However, I allowed myself to take as many rests as I felt were necessary to complete the 30 reps while still being able to feel somewhat fresh at the end of the set.

In this experiment, my philosophy was that the intensity of the exercise was of far less importance than the total volume of work I would end up completing in a week or month. As the days and weeks progressed, I found it easier and easier to complete the 30 repetitions, and eventually got to the point where I could complete all 30 without resting once. (Note: I chose 30 repetitions because it was a nice round number that was fairly close to my max, but still easily attainable.)

After one month of daily workouts I retested myself. I completed the test in exactly the exact same form described above, and in the exact same manner as I completed each workout. The result of my first test was a score of 52 repetitions. This matched my second highest score ever, and was only two off of my all-time record of 54 set back in high school.

My motivation bolstered by what I considered a fantastic result, I continued on with my plan to complete just 30 repetitions a day, every day, for another month. However, about halfway through this second month, I felt that 30 repetitions had become too easy to complete, and so I increased my daily workout number to an ambitious 32 repetitions.

My second test resulted in a score of 60 repetitions – my highest ever total by a score of 6, and nearly 20 more repetitions than I could complete at the start of the program. For the next two weeks I completed 32, and then later 35 repetitions each workout (still just one workout a day).I then tested myself again and still scored 60 repetitions, but I had stopped a few reps short of my max on this test.

Confident that I could have probably eked out at least three to four more reps during my last test, I continued on training at a daily volume of 35 repetitions performed in one continuous set.I was also still performing the repetitions without a break at this point because the jump in reps from 32 to 35 was so minimal, and I had the capacity for much higher numbers. About a week before the next test I increased my workout repetition number to 37. Three weeks after the last test, I tested myself again and completed a whopping 70 repetitions, nearly twice as many as I could do when I started.

I believe though, that in my quest to hit 70 reps during the test I pushed my mind and body to their limit (or at least it felt like I had). Despite the elation I felt after performing a hitherto unthinkable number of push-ups, I remember feeling a bit fatigued during my next day’s workout (something that had not happened in any of the other workouts that followed a test day in previous months).

Furthermore, rather than following the “time-tested” formula of continuing to do the same number of push-ups as I was doing in my workout just before the test, and then slightly increasing the number of reps a couple of weeks later, I must have decided that my new 70 rep test score made me the king of working out, and that I could do whatever I pleased and get away with it. After just two post-test workouts at 37 repetitions, I decided to change my formula to working out with 2/3 of the max repetitions from the recently completed test. In this case that meant jumping from 37 repetitions per workout to 46 repetitions. It turns out this was a big mistake, as my workouts started to go from bad to worse.

At first I seemed to be able to tough out all 46 repetitions with only a minimum of trouble.However, as the days went on, and quite quickly I might add, that slight fatigue began to increase, and the “minimum of trouble” I was experiencing a few days before started turning into a lot of trouble. As the workouts became harder my motivation started to drop, and about a week after I made the change, the unthinkable happened, and I skipped two workouts because I didn't want to do them.

I was unhappy with this latest turn of events, and I decided to get back on track and figure out what had gone wrong. I remembered that when I first started the experiment I took multiple breaks during my work set to complete the repetitions fatigue free. Immediately after re-employing this work-rest-work method, I found that my motivation to workout had returned, but that the damage to my nervous system had already been done, as the speed and vigorousness with which I could complete the repetitions just a month earlier were now gone.


I didn't start my experiment originally with the intention to prove anything, I was merely too lazy to work out more than a few sets a day, and I thought it would be interesting to see if I could still build up enough “total reps” to improve my push-up maximum with only one sub-maximal set a day. That said, I think it’s interesting to note that despite my decline in push-up proficiency near the end of the experiment, I did in fact improve my push-up max number significantly and consistently for three straight months.

If you are just new to working out, or know someone who is, you/they may find it comforting to know that you can do just one set a day, even for just one minute a day, and still achieve fitness success.

I have since started this experiment over again from the beginning and am currently working out with 30 pushups a day. I will carry the program out over a the course of this upcoming summer, with the ultimate goal to see if I can achieve 100 pushups a day performing only one training set a day.

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