Krista Stryker on Exercising Without a Gym, Vegetarianism, and Unleashing Your Inner Athlete
This top trainer favors HIIT resistance training workouts as the most time-efficient way to get fit
Being healthy and in shape requires exercise, and that usually means going to a gym. Not everyone likes gyms, but the good news is, you don’t have to.
Krista Stryker specializes in designing workouts that don’t require a gym, or even very much equipment. Not only can her workouts be done anywhere, but they’re also fast — typically either 12 or 16 minutes long. Hence the name of her coaching practice: 12 Minute Athlete.
Such short workouts can be incredibly intense, but the upside is that they’re also extremely time-efficient; many people on Krista’s programs only need to work out for one or two hours a week.
In this interview, Krista explains her training philosophy, her diet, and how to get into athletic condition without setting foot in a gym, and with only a couple hours of exercise per week.
Why did you start 12 Minute Athlete?
When I first got into the fitness industry after college, I was working long hours as a personal trainer at a popular gym in New York City. On top of working with my clients, I was working out for hours every day, I wasn’t seeing the results I wanted, and I was incredibly exhausted, with little time or energy in my day to do anything else.
After trying all kinds of workouts, I discovered high-intensity interval training. HIIT changed everything for me. All of a sudden I was busting out push-ups, pull-ups, and burpees and still had energy left over to enjoy my life. My strength and confidence skyrocketed.
These short, powerful workouts got great results for my clients too. I started 12 Minute Athlete to share my workouts with more people at all stages of their fitness journey, to help them unlock their full athletic potential.
12 Minute Athlete is a program of high-intensity interval workouts that you can do with limited space, little or no equipment, and a very short amount of time. It’s a super-efficient, super-effective approach to fitness.
One of our core beliefs is that “everybody is an athlete.” You can adapt the workouts to start at any level and keep adjusting them as you progress. You can see incredible results from these workouts in a short amount of time, even if you don’t think of yourself an athlete or a fitness person when you’re starting out.
Can you give us one or two examples of the sort of 12-minute workouts you design?
One of my favorite types of HIIT workouts are ones that alternate some sort of strength-building exercise with another that gets your heart rate up or focuses on another body part. That way you’re always giving one part of your body some sort of rest while keeping the workout as short and efficient as possible.
Why 12 minutes? How much can people accomplish by just doing 12 minute workouts a few days a week?
The signature 12 Minute Athlete workout is broken down into six exercises that you perform in 30-second intervals with 10 seconds of rest in between. You do this for three circuits in total, which equals 12 minutes.
We do, of course, have workouts that are 10 minutes, or even 20, but when I started the company, I did so many of those 12 minute HIIT workouts myself and with my clients that I decided that would be the basis of the brand.
Twelve minutes is such a good number in my mind because it’s one that you really can’t make excuses about — everyone has an extra 12 minutes in their day to fit in a workout. Plus, it’s an amount of time that you really can go all out during. HIIT workouts should be very intense if you’re doing them right, and if you’re working out for much more than 15 or 20 minutes at a time, you’re most likely doing a moderate-intensity workout, not a high-intensity one.
How many days a week should people do these 12-minute workouts?
It really depends on your goals. If these are your only workouts, you should aim to do them three to five days a week.
If you’re already fairly active and do other sports-specific or resistance training workouts, including them in your routine two to four days a week will still help you build strength and conditioning, as well as get leaner if that’s your goal.
No matter what, make sure to take at least one day off a week of intense training to give your body a chance to rest.
One of the main downsides to your HIIT workouts would seem to be that there’s little you can do to progress the weight of the exercises over time. How much does this limit their usefulness for someone who wants to put on muscle? And what can people do to increase the resistance with bodyweight exercises?
I wouldn’t say this is necessarily true. One of the things I love most about bodyweight training is that there are always ways to progress and make exercises harder.
For example, if regular push-ups are no longer challenging to you, you can make them more difficult by either adding an element of explosiveness (think clapping push-ups, even Superman push-ups), or, you can add resistance (by adding a band or weight vest to your push-ups).
There are ways to regress and progress nearly every bodyweight exercise to continuously build strength.
As for adding muscle, there is a certain level of athletic muscle that HIIT and bodyweight training will naturally add (just look at gymnasts — they tend to have the highest strength to muscle ratio of any athlete). And while you can certainly put on some muscle doing HIIT workouts alone, we also do a lot of circuit-style workouts on 12 Minute Athlete that allow for even more muscle building opportunities if that’s your goal. Here are a few examples of exercises that will help you build serious muscle:
- Handstand push-ups
- Shrimp or pistol squats
- Leg raises or toes to bar
- Explosive or resisted push-ups
- Explosive or resisted triceps dips
- Front/back levers
Conversely, “bodyweight” can often be too heavy for overweight, novice trainees. If someone struggles to do even one lunge or push-up, how should they work up to it?
Another thing I love about bodyweight training — there are always ways to regress every exercise, no matter what your fitness level!
For example, if you can’t do a full push-up on the ground, simply place your hands on a higher surface and perform your push-ups that way. The higher the surface, the easier the push-up will feel. I much prefer this to the standard knee push-up because it allows for better progress and helps you use all the same muscles you’d be using with a full push-up on the ground.
The same holds true with pretty much any bodyweight exercise. Here are some examples (listed from most difficult to easiest):
• Pull-up regressions: negative pull-up, jumping pull-up, flex hang, bodyweight row
• Pistol squat regressions: pistol squat negative, assisted pistol squat, bottom of pistol hold
• Jump lunges: Lunges in place, assisted lunges
To regress an exercise, think about trying to keep the same form while taking as much load off the exercise as possible.
Which pieces of exercise equipment should someone own if they want to rely primarily on this style of workout?
Although you can do a lot at home with no equipment at all, I do recommend gradually acquiring a few pieces of equipment to add to your home gym.
My top choices would be a pull-up bar (doorway or ceiling), jump rope, and a medium-weight medicine ball or pair of dumbbells.
If you have more space and are willing to invest a little more, other great tools are a dip bar (for dips, bodyweight rows, leg raises, etc.), an adjustable sandbag, gymnastics rings, a few different weights of medicine balls and/or dumbbells, a plyo box for jumping, and a single (or a few different weights) kettlebell.
Other than your HIIT workouts, what other things do you do to stay in shape?
I’m a huge fan of finding other things outside of your workouts that get you active yet having fun. I’m always trying new sports or activities and am generally fairly active during my daily life between walking places, biking around town, and trying to tire out my dog, Rocket.
In recent years, I’ve become pretty dedicated to working on handstands and have gone from not being able to hold any sort of freestanding handstand to making some serious progress on my one-arm handstand. I also have really fallen in love with boxing and am currently training for my first amateur match later this year.
I encourage people to try different sports and activities to try and find something that gets you moving but feels more like fun than an actual workout.
You follow a vegetarian diet; what’s the rationale behind that, and how big of a difference do you think it makes?
First off, I don’t eat any sort of meat but do eat eggs, cheese, and dairy products. I originally became a vegetarian at age seven because I loved animals so much and just have found ways to work with it over the years.
I definitely wouldn’t recommend vegetarianism for everyone — I really don’t believe there’s a one-size-fits-all diet that works for all people. It’s really important to learn to listen to your body and what works for you and your activity level and lifestyle.
You recently released a 12 Minute Athlete Book. What’s the purpose behind this book, and how does it differ from what’s on your website and your app?
I actually started out my career as a writer — I always thought I’d end up as a journalist and actually worked as an intern for local Portland, Oregon area papers (where I’m from), as well as the local NPR station. After getting out of college, I worked as a freelance writer for a couple of years before starting to get interested in fitness and eventually getting my personal training certification while I was living in Amsterdam, Holland.
After that I mainly focused on personal training for a couple of years before deciding to combine my interests of writing and fitness and starting my blog, 12 Minute Athlete. From there, it was only a matter of time before I decided to write a book.
Aside from being another resource for people to turn to, the book really ties everything together in one place rather than having to search my site for it. I also talk a lot about my own personal journey, as well as creating the right mindset for lifelong fitness in the book.
Can you give us an example of a full day of eating for you? That is, everything you’d eat in a day?
I’m pretty active on a daily basis, so I make sure to get in enough food and nutrients to keep my energy levels up.
I usually start the day with a bowl of steel-cut oats with flax seeds, cinnamon, and a little peanut butter stirred in and topped with berries.
For a snack, I’ll have a piece of fruit like an apple with some nuts and maybe a protein bar (I look for ones with as few ingredients as possible).
For lunch, I’ll often have rice or quinoa with veggies and protein like tofu or tempeh.
I’ll often work out in the afternoon, so I’ll eat a small snack beforehand, then follow it up with a protein shake, usually made with plant-based protein powder, frozen banana, and frozen berries.
For dinner, I’ll mix it up — sometimes I’ll have tacos with lots of veggies, or I’ll make pasta with broccoli and asparagus, or have a different variation of lunch with rice and protein and veggies.
I try and include veggies in most of my meals!
I definitely have a sweet tooth, so I’ll almost always have dessert, usually some dark chocolate or maybe frozen yogurt with fruit.
Do you periodize your training in any way, or do you pretty much do the same style of training month after month?
I’m personally not overly strict about periodization, but it generally tends to happen naturally depending on my fitness goals. When I’m super focused on something like a new handstand trick, or I’m preparing for a fight, I’ll work really hard towards that one thing and generally lay off of most other things I’ve been working on (or at least not make them my main focus).
Once that goal is complete, I’ll pivot towards something else. As a general rule I try and listen to my body, and if I feel it needs some extra rest, I’ll back off for a while.
Building on that, how do people following this method progress over time? Do they focus on adding reps? Do more challenging exercises? Do longer workouts? Look for ways to add weight?
I’m a huge believer in creating fitness goals to keep motivation levels up and to keep making progress. Clear, specific goals give you a way to measure your progress and help keep you motivated when you inevitably reach a plateau. They also make it less likely you’ll just get into that “more is always better” mindset that some active people get trapped in (especially endurance athletes).
When you create specific goals, it also makes it much clearer on how to progress your workouts and keep challenging yourself.
For example, if you decide on a goal to do your first pull-up, you’ll want to add some pull-up specific training to your workout. You can add it as a separate focused bit before or after your workout, or just include it in a circuit. It doesn’t have to be a lot, but you do need to do it consistently and ideally take notes after each workout to track your progress.
If you’ve already reached a certain level of strength and want to put on some extra muscle, you can add an extra challenge by wearing a weight vest or adding resistance bands like Rubberbanditz to your push ups, dips, pull ups, and various other exercises. (John: Not to be confused with The Rubberbandits.)
Get super clear on your goals first, then tailor your workouts around them to keep making progress.
One Hour of Exercise a Week Without Going to the Gym?
Yes, it’s possible. You can get into amazing shape with as little as one hour of exercise—outdoors or inside your home—per week. HIIT resistance training workouts are the most time-efficient way to train because they serve double duty as both muscle-building and cardio exercise.
The caveat is that for that one hour a week, you have to work very, very hard. Krista’s HIIT workouts require you to exercise like crazy for 12 to 16 minutes, with no more than 10 seconds of rest at a time. If you’re willing and able to go all out on those workouts, four or five days a week, and eat a decently healthy diet, that can be enough to get into better than average shape.
If you want things to be a little easier, you can always take 30 seconds of rest between sets, and do a few minutes of sprinting afterward — for a total of about two hours of exercise per week.
Alternatively, if you still want to go to the gym but just want to do it less often, and have more flexibility about when you go, you can always hit the gym two to three days a week, and do this style of workout two to three days a week, for a well-rounded training program that takes less time than a gym-only program. In fact, this is how I train right now.
Then again, you can do just fine using only these workouts—and many people do.
Ultimately, you should consider this style of training to be another tool in your toolbox—another strategy you can use to design the training program that works best for you. To get started with this style of training, you can download the 12 Minute Athlete app to access hundreds of Krista’s HIIT workouts directly from your phone.