Trigger workouts: The intermittent workout method that could transform the way you exercise.
Whether you’re short on time or want to try something new, “trigger workouts” might be just what you’re looking for.


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We have a workout experiment for you.

It’s simple. It’s effective. And it’s tailor-made for people who work from home.

If that’s your situation right now, there may be no better time to try these workouts.

We call them ‘trigger workouts.’ But they’re also known as intermittent workouts, micro-workouts, and mini-workouts.

Give these workouts a shot, and they might help you:

  • Move more frequently throughout your day for better overall health
  • Make working out seem “easier” while improving your fitness
  • Do lots of exercise—without needing an hour of uninterrupted time
  • Take short work breaks that invigorate your mind
  • Have fun trying out a new approach to exercise

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Let’s start with the background.

Most well-rounded workouts last about an hour and total around 100 to 200 reps at most.

Okay, that might not be what most people do on their own. But as the exercise program director here at Precision Nutrition, it’s how I design workouts for our clients.

In one of these workouts, you’ll do about 25-50 total reps of primary exercises—movement like squats, deadlifts, pullups, and presses.

You may do 10 sets of three, five sets of 10, or the ole reliable “5×5” template (or any variation in that range). A very high-volume workout might feature 10 sets of 10 repetitions.

After this, you might do some accessory work: core exercises, lunges, or some isolation work for your arms or hamstrings.

These are typically lighter movements done to provide more total work.

Overall, you’re looking at a total training volume of about a hundred reps or so for any single workout. All wrapped up in about an hour.

But what happens after this hour of hard work? 

Chances are, you go sit in your chairs for the rest of your day.

Chairs? As in plural?

Well, yes.

There’s probably the chair where you do your work and the chair where you eat your meals. And the chair where you relax in front of your TV. (Or don’t relax, if you’re watching the news.)

And before quarantine, you probably had even more chairs, like the one you commuted to work in.

We can cram a lot of movement into an hour of exercise.

But that one hour is still a brief intermission in a day that’s otherwise defined by stillness. 

Modern workers can spend as much as 15 hours per day in a chair.1 This takes a toll on our bodies and our minds.

Some research has shown that even an hour of intense exercise isn’t enough to counteract all the effects of a sedentary lifestyle.2

What would happen if we reversed this?

What if we spent most of the day physically moving, with only an hour or two of stillness in the middle?

What if we moved continuously and did thousands of reps of movement over the entire day? 

This may sound ludicrous, but think of people who do manual labor for a living.

Construction workers, furniture movers, military personnel and agricultural workers regularly see long days of almost continuous movement. Professional and Olympic athletes may spend much of their day training.

Our bodies can handle an incredible volume of work. 

I know first hand.

Several years ago, I found myself testing out an absurd version of this idea.

When we created the Precision Nutrition exercise library of over 400 exercises, we spent 2.5 weeks professionally filming every movement and pose.

Each exercise was filmed from multiple angles, with both demonstrations of good repetitions and flawed repetitions from each angle.

For every shot, we’d do a few practice reps first, and we’d usually need multiple takes. We averaged about 35 exercises a day.

This worked out to around 1,000 repetitions per day on the low side and as much as twice that on longer days.

We used real weights for all the dumbbell-based exercises. So most of my reps were done with 50-pound dumbbells.

(Despite this, the worst single day was when we did bodyweight-only movements and filmed all the ab stuff.)

To review, that’s 1,000+ repetitions per day of different exercises, spread over about 10 hours per day, 5 days per week, for 2.5 weeks.

It was the ultimate intermittent workout.

Fortunately, I was able to eat well (a PN specialty, you might say) and get quality sleep during this time. If those two pieces weren’t in place, things would have gone much differently.

So, what happened? 

Here’s me at the start of the shoot, in all my double-chinned glory:

And here I am on one of the last days of the shoot, after many, many intermittent workouts:

My body went through quite a transformation in a short amount of time. I gained muscle and got leaner, and even after a few rest days, my work capacity was through the roof.

The obvious conclusion: If you’re serious about getting in shape, you should quit your job and spend 10 hours per day working out.

I’m kidding, of course.

But…

What can we learn from this, and what can you take from it that can be used today, in a realistic way?

Let’s run through some of the factors at play here:

  • I reversed the standard formula. Instead of an hour of exercise squeezed into an otherwise full day of inactivity, I spent most of my day doing physical work punctuated by occasional stillness. (That’s one the key benefits of intermittent workouts.)
  • My activity was intermittent. We filmed male and female versions of each exercise, so each of us rested while the other was on camera.
  • I wasn’t “working out.” I didn’t do a single pushup or carry a dumbbell around because I wanted to induce physiological stress. It was the opposite. I did that stuff to finish the day’s filming. Plus, I had the mental perspective of trying to make every repetition cost me as little as possible.
  • The movement was open-ended. There was never a fixed number of repetitions. I was never doing a set of 5 or 10 reps because that was in my plan or because it was all I could do. I just did reps until the videographer told me to stop. In other words, I went on as long as I had to.
  • I was using submaximal loads. Yes, I did a ton of reps. But most were with a weight that was generally less than half of what my max effort would be (for the dumbbell-based movements).

Let’s take a closer look at these.

Why reversing the formula works

Physical activity produces a lot of changes in the body, even after a relatively short time.

Muscles contract, circulation increases, nutrients are shuttled into cells, and energy expenditure climbs. The body’s management of insulin improves, and we also see changes in hormonal function and energy metabolism.3-5

The benefits don’t stop at your muscles.

Our brains also change in response to movement. Physical activity, ranging from traditional gym exercise to simple walking, can improve mood and cognitive function, and helps reduce the effects of aging on the brain.6-10

In one study—which we discussed in this article about the benefits of reverse dieting—a group of people were fed an extra 1,000 calories above their baseline for eight weeks.11

Based on simple calorie math, they should have each gained 16 pounds by the end of the study. Instead, some gained as much as 9.5 pounds, while others added less than a pound.

The main difference? The people who gained the least weight compensated for the extra calories by moving more throughout the day.

This doesn’t mean they went to the gym for longer. 

Instead, it was “non-exercise physical activity” that made the difference.

The people who gained the least weight did the most fidgeting and walking spread throughout the course of their day.

Remember, our bodies are in a state of constant flux. We’re always adapting to whatever we’re doing in a given moment.

So if we’re sitting still for hours on end, we’re getting better at… sitting still for hours on end.

But if we’re moving around a lot—and then recovering from that movement—we’re getting better at that instead.

The real beauty of open-ended workouts

It might be tempting to think the body is sort of like a car: When we “run out of gas,” we stop moving. But our perceptions of effort and fatigue—and our ability to do physical work—are actually far more complex.12,13

Fatigue is essentially a complex emotion derived from an ever-changing milieu of past experience and current data.

During activity, our brains take into account things like:

  • our hydration status
  • the ambient temperature and humidity
  • our blood glucose levels
  • body temperature

Then it compares these factors against our prior experiences under similar circumstances.

It uses this information to regulate how much effort we can produce and how tired we feel.

For example, runners on a hot humid day will begin their race at a slower pace than they would on a cool, dry day—even though they haven’t yet accumulated mechanical fatigue.

Our minds are constantly referring to what we did in the past to decide what we can do today.

Most exercise is done using fixed, known quantities, and there’s generally an element of “chasing” pain or fatigue involved. (Read: You’re trying to exhaust your muscles.)

When we plan to do five sets of five squats, it creates an association in our minds: “This is a reasonable estimate of the most squats we can do.”

In the case of five sets of five squats, completing 25 total reps is known, safe territory. More than that is unknown and therefore potentially threatening.

But when physical activity is shifted away from fixed quantities—and into open-ended performance (that is, it goes on for as long as it has to)—these associations change.

Your brain no longer sees your effort level as “this is the most I can do for X time or Y reps.” It sees your effort level as being set at “sustainable for as long as necessary.”

This altered association changes your stress response. Not just in the moment, but also in the future—when your brain reflects on past experience to decide how hard an activity should feel.

As an example, imagine how you’d feel if someone told you to do alternating step-ups on a box in the gym for as long as you could.

Now compare that to someone asking you how long you’d be willing to hike up a steep mountainside in a beautiful forest.

You may spend hours happily doing a similar movement on the hike, but if you were counting numbers in the gym, you’d quickly be miserable (or at least bored out of your mind).

And you’d likely feel far more exhausted in the gym.

How to use stress to your advantage (finally)

The stress response that you’re producing when you exercise—and that you’re teaching your brain to associate with exercise in the future—is an important piece of the training process.

We can think of that stress response as being either distress or eustress.

Distress, as you’re no doubt aware, is thought of as negative stress. It can feel overwhelming. This can break you down.

Eustress is considered positive—it’s usually short lasting and in a “dose” that feels manageable. This can build your resilience.

The division between distress and eustress is driven largely by our perception of two variables: predictability and control.14-17

Predictability is essentially our brain’s answer to the question, “Do I know what’s happening, and do I have the resources to cope with it?”

Control is our perception of how much influence we can exert over a situation.

In a distress state, our sense of predictability and control is low, and the situation is seen as threatening.

Our brain is sufficiently uncertain of our ability to handle it. As a result, it ramps up a strong epinephrine (a.k.a. adrenaline) and cortisol-heavy response.

In a eustress state, we have a strong sense of predictability and control.

Our brain reads the scenario as challenging rather than threatening.

Our physiological response is also different. Rather than epinephrine, we produce predominantly more norepinephrine, and less cortisol.

The response is more accurately matched to the “mere physiological demand” of the situation, rather than the “better safe than sorry” adrenaline response we feel in a threatening situation.

And, once the event has passed, we return more quickly back to baseline.

For an example of a eustress-based response, think of someone who spends their day tossing hay bales on a farm or carrying bricks on a construction site.

Their body will do what it needs to get the work done and no more. There’s no anxiety, no maxed out heart rate—just efficiency. And a huge work capacity.

The vastly underrated benefit of intermittent workouts

Pavel Tsatsouline, founder and chairman of StrongFirst, made some aspects of this training approach famous when he coined the term greasing the groove.

Greasing the groove is as much about motor learning and skill acquisition as it is about stress responses and physiological adaptations. It’s a way to strengthen a motor pattern by practicing it more frequently.

Pavel has people practice a strength skill such as a kettlebell swing or a pushup in regular intervals spaced throughout the day.

An important piece of this is that you’re not trying to beat yourself up. You’re deliberately staying relaxed and not training to failure.

You simply mix in sets of technically crisp, high-quality reps throughout your day.

It’s a fantastic way to improve your skill in strength movements.

We used a similar technique in the special operations community. (I spent six years in Naval Special Operations as a Special Warfare Combat Crewman.)

In training, when pushups made up a significant portion of our day, we’d often do pushups on our off days using a timer.

Anywhere from every 10 minutes to every hour, we’d knock out a few easy sets of pushups. We’d slowly build up how many we could do in a set while still making it feel relaxed and easy.

Over time, our capacity for pushups became remarkably high. 

Once we made it through training, these types of intermittent workouts remained a regular feature, but often in the form of a pullup bar.

Most any team house that a unit lives in would have a pullup bar in front of it somewhere, and we’d all make a habit of doing at least a set of pullups every time we walked past.

How to build your own intermittent workouts

We call this idea of doing a set or three of an exercise every time you walk past a certain object or are reminded by a timer “trigger workouts.” (It’s way easier to say than “intermittent.”)

PN coaches have been doing these trigger workouts with certain clients for years.

Trigger workouts are a great way to improve fitness and motor skills. And, as discussed above, they may even be more beneficial for certain aspects of health than a one-hour workout done once per day (if you’re otherwise sedentary).

Trigger workouts are also a sneaky way to get in a lot of exercise on days when you otherwise wouldn’t have time for a full workout.

Here’s what you do.

Step 1: Establish your trigger.

This can be anything from a timer to an object in your house.

Lately, I’ve been putting a kettlebell on my floor near the stairs. I run into it whenever I’m either going to the kitchen or the bathroom.

Every time I walk by it I do a few sets of swings, snatches, or ab movements.

In the past I’ve had gymnast rings in my garage and would do a few sets of pullups every hour when a timer went off.

Whatever you choose, make it somewhat frequent.

Ideally, you’ll be moving around about once per hour. 

If you’re working from home (like millions of others right now), this gives you enough time to do focused work, while still keeping your body from fusing with your chair.

It also gives you a brief, regular break from the mental demands of work.

Step 2: Pick an exercise.

Generally, choose a movement that works a lot of big muscle groups (sorry bros, not a good place for curls) and that can be done safely without a warmup. Read: It’s not the best time to test your personal best deadlift.

Consider exercises like:

  • Kettlebell swings or snatches (only if you’ve been well-trained in the technique)
  • Goblet squats
  • Bodyweight squats
  • Lunge variations
  • Pushups
  • Dumbbell rows
  • Ring rows
  • Pullups
  • Overhead presses (if your shoulders do well with them)
  • Band movements like pull-aparts or no-moneys
  • Ab movements like roll-outs or planks

You can also mix in some favorite stretches or mobility drills.

Come up with a handful of movements, and try to get about an equal mix of upper and lower body movements.

For the sake of your shoulders, it’s often helpful to do about twice as many reps of pulling movements—such as rows and pull-aparts—as you do pushing movements like pushups and presses.

Step 3: Decide how many reps and sets to do.

The specific number here isn’t critical.

You’re just trying to make physical work feel easy. Stay at a level where you don’t feel a significant “burn,” and you’re nowhere near failure.

As a general rule, it’s better to do multiple sets of lower reps than one long set of a bunch of reps. For most exercises, try starting with 5 reps at a time.

An example trigger workout day:

8 am: 5 pushups, 5 dead bugs (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds

9 am: 5 goblet squats, 10 kettlebell swings, 5 lunges (per side)

10:30 am: 10 band pull-aparts, 5 pushups, repeated for 3 total rounds

11:30 am: 5 goblet squats, 5 dumbbell rows (per side), repeated for 4 total rounds

1:00 pm: 5 ab wheel roll-outs, 5 banded no-moneys, 5 pull-aparts, repeated for 3 total rounds

2:30 pm: 10-second side plank (per side), 5 dumbbell lunges (per side), repeated for 2 total rounds

3:30 pm: 5 dumbbell rows (per side), 5 single-leg dumbbell deadlifts (per side), repeated for 3 total rounds

5:00 pm: 5 dumbbell overhead presses (per side), 10 band pull-aparts, repeated for 2 total rounds

Total repetitions: 359

Of course, you can also just pick one or two exercises, or a single circuit, and repeat that over the course of the day.

You don’t have to give up other types of exercise altogether.

In fact, don’t.

Where possible, use trigger workouts with some conventional training, and go play outside.

This training method works best when it’s done in combination with the type of maximal strength training and periodic high-intensity work that’s done in a gym (even if that’s your home gym). At least over the long term.

It’s also best when balanced with dynamic, open-ended, and enjoyable activities outdoors. The kind that put you in situations that require more movement variability.

So once in a while (or as often as you can), go for a real hike.

We hear that’s pretty good for you, too. 

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

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