Do 30-day fitness challenges you see on social media really work?

Plank and squat challenges may be all over your social media feed, but here's what you need to know about doing them safely and effectively.
Image: Athletic woman with smartwatch listening to music and doing jump squats on urban stadium stands
While a squat challenge will build your glutes, thighs and hamstrings, it neglects the upper body and core.wundervisuals / Getty Images
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By Stephanie Mansour

You’ve probably seen fitness challenge calendars pop up on your social media feed at some point — whether it’s a trending 30-day plank challenge on Pinterest or the month-long squat challenge your neighbor posted on Facebook.

Joining in can be tempting. After all, we can surely find the motivation to stick with a specific exercise for just 30 days.

But do these simple 30-day challenges really work? Can you expect to see noticeable changes in your body from committing to one exercise every day for a month?

The lowdown on 30-day challenges

The answer is yes and no, according to Mike Siemens, Corporate Exercise Physiology Director at Canyon Ranch. You should see results from a workout program in 4 to 8 weeks, he says. So in that regard a 30-day challenge is a great way to start making progress. But he warns: “Patience is the key here.”

The best-case scenario, with optimal nutrition and consistent exercise, is one pound of real fat loss per week. Building muscle, on the other hand, can take a while and is dependent on your age and genetics. “Count on maximum 1 pound of muscle gain per 4 to 8 weeks — and that is if all the training, eating, sleeping, recovery, hormones and genetics are working together,” he says. “30 days is certainly long enough to start to see the beginnings of some nice changes.”

It takes about 3 to 4 weeks for people to start feeling really good while exercising so if you can get over that first 3-week hump of physical adaptation things get a lot more fun.

Mike Siemens, Corporate Exercise Physiology Director at Canyon Ranch

And what about the psychological aspect of a 30-day challenge? When it comes to staying mentally motivated and committed to a routine, why does “30 days” seem to strike a chord with so many people? “Humans love finite goals. The idea of the same workout regimen for the rest of time is unbearable to most people. Especially in today's society of short attention spans and need for constant variety, we crave focused programs of 30 days or less,” Siemens says. “It takes about 3 to 4 weeks for people to start feeling really good while exercising so if you can get over that first 3-week hump of physical adaptation things get a lot more fun and pleasant, which increases likelihood of sticking with it.”

So 30 days is enough time to see some initial weight loss and get your head in the game. But is it enough time to make any other significant impacts on your health?

One study found that even jogging for 5-10 minutes a day can reduce your risk of heart disease. Exercising regularly can also help you lower blood sugar, boost your metabolism, increase cardiovascular health, increase muscle mass, decrease stress, and reduce your risk for many other diseases. With a consistent healthy diet and exercise, you’ll be able to see small differences in your overall physique and energy levels in a month.

But it’s best to temper your expectations. “If it takes 1 to 2 weeks to lose a pound of fat, you can appreciate the time involved to see changes in body shape,” Siemens explains. “Visualize this: A pound of butter that you buy in the store is about the same size as a pound of body fat. Remember that all the fat loss will not come off of your desired body part unfortunately.”

The verdict: While you can’t work miracles in 30 days, you can make promising strides towards improving your health, setting yourself up for weight loss success and mentally committing to an exercise plan. Ready to give one a try? Here’s what to know about some of the most popular challenges you’ll see on social media.

30-day squat challenge

This challenge typically involves you doing anywhere from 25 - 200 squats per day in efforts to build a better backside. While this challenge is fantastic for burning calories and building muscle, doing the same type of squat every day won’t be as beneficial for your body as varying the types of squats. When you alternate the type of exercises you’re doing, you target different muscles in your glutes, thighs and core.

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Pros: This squat challenge will build your glutes, thighs, hamstrings and lower leg muscles. It’ll help with balance and lower body strength.

Cons: It neglects the upper body and core and over-works the lower body.

Expert take: “The gluteal region has 3 large muscles, along with many smaller muscles. The thighs have the quadriceps made up of four large muscles. The hamstrings are made up of three muscles, along with several muscles in the inner thigh (adductor region). Different foot positions, different bar placements on the back, different ranges of motion and different exercises (squats, lunges, plyometrics, bridges and more) are needed to work all of these muscle groups,” says Siemens. “Still need proof? If you are a regular back squatter, try doing a workout of 3 or 4 sets of front squats or lunges and let me know if you are sore 36 hours later or not.” (Spoiler: you will be). So while a squat challenge will help build those muscles, it will also not efficiently target all of your lower body muscles in a well-rounded way.

Make it your own: Instead of doing this challenge daily, do it every other day to give yourself a day off in between so your muscles can recover. And when you do get your squats in, change up your form! Do regular squats one day, then open the feet and knees wider to do a wide leg open toe squat another day, and try a static hold squat for a period of time instead of repetitions another day. If you want to add even more of a punch to your 30-day squat challenge, try adding a resistance band! Studies have shown that when you add an exercise band to squats you’ll be using more muscles than using body weight alone.

30-day plank challenge

Plank challenges are another fan favorite. This is partly because planks have so many positive benefits for your body, and they allow you to work the whole body with one move. Planks work to strengthen your core, meaning you’ll see improvements with your posture as well as being able to see improvement with back pain if you have it. Make sure you are you are keeping the proper posture by keeping your abs pulled in, heels reaching towards the back and crown of your head reaching forward.

Pros: A plank pose works the upper body, lower body, core and the front and back of the body. It is a total-body exercise that’s fairly simple to commit to once you get the right form. This also can be done daily because while you are using your whole body, it primarily focuses on strengthening the core, which is made up of very small muscles that can be worked everyday.

Cons: If you don’t use proper form, you are highly at risk for neck pain, shoulder pain and back pain. Make sure your form is correct!

A Better Plank

April 10, 201700:28

Expert take: Many challenges that deal with planking involve you holding a standard plank for a period of time each day. In theory it is a good idea to strategically increase the period of time that you plank each day — but increasing the time too drastically too fast could put you at risk for adverse effects. Always listen to your body and go at your own pace. While it is realistic to build core strength quickly if practiced regularly, manage your expectations, too. Starting with a 10-second plank today means you’ll most likely be able to build up gradually to 60 seconds within 30 days.

Make it your own: Worried about not having enough core strength to hold yourself up for this challenge? Start with a modified plank on your knees. Slowly build up to a full plank position. Also, remember to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth rather than holding your breath. Even though this is a static exercise, the whole body is working to maintain this position, so breathing is key.

30-day cardio challenges

High intensity interval training (HIIT) challenges are usually very intense, meaning you’ll feel like you’ve spent hours at the gym in only 20 minutes (or even less). HIIT workouts can be cardio, strength training or a combination of both. The HIIT challenges get your heart rate up by having you move quickly between exercises with little down time. Some HIIT workout challenges will focus just on cardio, like a combination of jogging and then running sprints; others may be cardio mixed with strength training, like high knees and then burpees; and still others may be plyometrics like jumping rope and then jump squats or jumping lunges.

Pros: These types of workouts allow you to get maximum results in a short amount of time, making these challenges great if you have a hectic schedule. Plus, research finds that HIIT workouts may outperform traditional cardio when it comes to fat loss.

Cons: Some challenges don’t take you through proper warm up and cool downs. These exercises help you to safely increase your heartbeat as well as safely slow it down. Studies have even shown that including a warm up can help to relieve muscle soreness. Not properly warming up or cooling down the body also increases your risk of injury.

Expert take: While the intensity of HIIT workouts are a benefit, these challenges typically aren’t best suited for beginners. The intensity can lead to an elevated risk of injury to someone who isn’t performing the moves correctly. If you’re new to the workout world, I strongly recommend using a personal trainer or even just going to the gym and asking an instructor to demo how to properly perform the moves.

Make it your own: Be sure to incorporate a few dynamic stretches at the beginning of these workouts and a few static stretches at the end of each workout. For a beginner, I recommend looking for a cardio challenge that is focused on one form of cardio rather than one that moves you through a variety of exercises. For example, walking or running challenges would be a great place to start. If you do participate in a HIIT workout challenge, be mindful of modifying moves to work with your body. Push-ups can always be done on your knees rather than from a plank position; lunges can always be done while holding onto a bar or counter-top for balance; jump squats can be modified by eliminating the jump and even simply squatting only halfway.

30-day burpee challenge

Burpee challenges are similar to a squat or plank challenge, except that they provide you with 5 exercises in 1! This is a huge bang for your workout buck. Essentially you’ll be performing a squat, a jump, a plank, a push-up, and then another jump forward into a squat. This full body exercise works the arms, legs, core, and back and gets your heart rate up.

Pros: You’ll be able to see your progress quickly with burpees because there are so many movements — and muscle groups — involved in the exercise. You’ll also be able to work on flexibility because of the different positions required for each exercise. For example, stepping back in and out of a plank requires an increased flexibility in the hip flexors.

Cons: Doing the same movements daily can wreak havoc on your joints, especially if you’re pushing yourself too hard, too soon. As much fun as jumping up in the air and speeding through the 5 exercises looks, make sure that your need for speed is not compromising your form.

Expert take: “Burpees are a great total-body exercise,” says Siemens. “They get the heart rate up quickly, and train coordination, muscle endurance and power all at the same time.” While Siemens likes burpees as an exercise, he warns to be smart about going after burpee challenges. “If you are not doing a lot of push ups, bench pressing or lower back strengthening, then do not jump into a huge number of burpees,” he says. He recommends to train up to this challenge by starting with a few months of push-ups, even with bent knees as a modification.

Make it your own: If you’re new to burpees, or have any knee or hip issues, modify the exercise by removing the jumps at first. Instead of jumping back to plank, step one foot back, then the other. Then, instead of jumping out of your squat at the top, come up onto your toes in a heel raise instead. “If you have sensitive knees, avoid the jumping at the end — but you could add four high knee steps in one place instead of the jumps,” Siemens says. These modifications will make burpees a lower impact exercise. You can always begin to add one or both jumps in as you get stronger and more comfortable with the movement.

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