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Schaefer, of St. Paul, attributes her newfound fitness to short-burst training, a version of circuit training that sandwiches brief surges of high-intensity exercise between longer, less demanding bouts of activity. While top athletes have incorporated short-burst training, or SBT, into their workout routines for years, personal trainers and fitness instructors only recently have begun to recognize its benefits for the wider population.
"It fits what a lot of people are looking for now because it doesn't take as much time and yet people get the results," said Sheri Aggarwal, who leads SBT fitness classes at the SweatShop in St. Paul. "This is where the trends seem to be going."
Short-burst training tweaks the longtime belief that endurance is necessary to burn fat. According to recent studies, high-intensity training can be even more effective than long, steady exercise at trimming body fat and boosting muscle metabolism. And while aerobic training has long been touted for increasing the body's fat-burning efficiency between workouts, new research has found that SBT can ratchet those numbers even higher.
Feeling the burn
Just about anything done at near-maximum effort for up to 60 seconds qualifies as SBT. It could be sprinting 100 yards, or doing as many pushups or situps as possible. Lunges, pull-ups or a burst on a stationary bike also could work, as long as it's nearly all-out, lasts no longer than a minute and is followed by a longer recovery period. An example of a typical workout would be sprinting for 60 seconds, then walking on a treadmill for 5 minutes, then sprinting again and repeating the pattern several times, depending on a person's fitness level.
SweatShop owner Gayle Winegar embraced the potential of SBT two years ago, when she began offering classes based on its principles. TRX, which creates resistance through suspension straps, seemed like a natural fit. Next came kettlebell classes, which rely on bouts of quick, intense effort. In January, she added the latest SBT-focused class: Cardio Tramp, which uses Pilates Reformer machines attached to mini-trampolines, on which people "jump" horizontally at varying speeds and levels of resistance.
The SweatShop's SBT-based classes run only 25 minutes, but are still demanding enough to leave participants drenched in sweat. Classes are designed modularly, giving more conditioned clients the option of doubling up. They also complement each other. TRX focuses mostly on strength training, kettlebells work the core muscles, and Cardio Tramp develops both cardiovascular fitness and strength.
Winegar said her aim is to make the classes both time-efficient and fun, with so much variety that people don't realize how hard they're working.
"There's nothing boring about this," she said. "You're with your community and you get done in 25 minutes what it takes most people more than an hour to do."
Schaefer attended a short-burst boot camp a year ago, loved it and has been a devotee ever since. Quickly, she noticed she had more endurance and muscle definition, especially in her upper body.
"The best part is it's 25 minutes," she said. "You're in, you're out. You work hard, but then you're done."
At a recent Cardio Tramp class taught by Aggarwal, participants got their hearts pumping by jumping like crazy for bursts lasting one minute or less. Aggarwal tweaked leg and foot positions to work different muscle groups. Just when the intensity approached overload, she switched to less taxing movements that focused on strength, flexibility or stabilizing smaller muscle groups.
That value-added "downtime" is one of the best features of short-burst training in a class setting, Aggarwal said.
While research has uncovered the benefits of SBT, endurance training still has its place. Clearly, runners won't be able to complete a marathon by training hard for only 25 minutes a day. But research indicates that even long-distance runners could see improvement in their times and efficiency by working SBT into their training.
Anne Brataas, a longtime fitness buff, called the concept of a 25-minute, high-intensity class "brilliant." She figures she has taken exercise classes for nearly 37 of her 57 years and found most of them boring, too long or both.
Discovering short-burst training, Brataas said, has helped reframe her ideas of what it means to exercise.
"There was a time in my life when I would not swim unless I had 60 minutes because I would think I couldn't get my workout in," she said. "I had kids in my 40s, and that totally redefined time. ...
"Then it became more about high intensity instead of duration. This really feeds into my retrained brain."
Pam Schmid is a Twin Cities freelance writer.