Fit in your 40s: ‘earthquake’ workouts are a big timesaver – but do they work?

Zoe Williams
·3-min read

In normal life I’m a spendthrift, but I have pockets of tightness, weird things I’m averse to splashing money on, including but not limited to the posh seats in cinemas, tights and online workouts. I don’t mean the explosion in paid-for fitness content online, which was just people trying to keep their businesses alive. I’m talking about the slightly cult-like programmes whose expense is part of the business model: it’s about creating expressive online communities who gee each other along because they want to get their money’s worth. Which, actually, is quite smart, but I still don’t want to pay out. That’s what I thought of the Insanity workout, anyway, part of the Beachbody franchise, a concept I already disapprove of, since anybody whose body is on a beach de facto, in my view, already has a beach body.

Yet, one way or another, these programmes have spawned free content in their image, which is how I came upon Shaun T, an Insanity trainer gone rogue with his own videos. He promises the Earth, this man – five-minute workouts that are as effective as half an hour’s exercise; free stuff that’s as good as paid-for stuff.

So, the way it works – if indeed it does – is that all the exercises are twice as fast as you’d normally do them. On cardio day, it’s extremely fast squats, extremely fast lunges and a considerable (within the five-minute scope) amount of running on the spot. The comments underneath his YouTube videos are hilarious. One person came downstairs after five minutes of cardio to find his mum looking online for an earthquake warning. There are moves that are considerably harder than your regular run of things – chest and abs day has a push-off, like a push-up except, from kneeling, you fall into the position, then push yourself up. You need a lot of core engagement to even consider it, and it’s still insanely hard.

Fitness wisdom suggests you should get almost to activity-rest parity – that is, do one minute of very high-intensity work and then rest for 45 seconds. This, being only five minutes, is all high intensity and you have to think of the remainder of the day as your rest period.

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The genius of it is that there is no way of wriggling out of five minutes. It is nothing. You could lose that time looking for your phone. Looking at your phone. Nobody’s day is so packed as to not accommodate it, which is where – I guess – its “as effective as 30 minutes” promise comes from. Anything that you regularly do will be more effective than something you intend to do but don’t.

What I learned

The short-workout vogue for breaking sessions down by body part is useful, psychologically. Once you’ve done some limbs, you’re gripped by an irrational fear of looking lopsided.