The 5BX plan, or how to achieve physical fitness in 11 minutes a day

I first came across the 5BX plan back in the early 1990s. Since then I have probably started the programme a dozen times or so, on occasion reaching my target level.

The cover of the Penguin paperback copy I have dating from 1990 describes the 5BX plan as “the 11 minute exercise plan for men…for getting fit, feeling fit and staying fit”.

In the late 1950’s one third of Royal Canadian Air Force (RCAF) pilots were considered insufficiently fit to fly. Bill Orban, a Canadian athlete, scientist and academic working for the Canadian Department of National Defence, was tasked with developing a fitness program to address this issue.

The result was the 5BX (5 Basic Exercises) plan first published in 1961. Described as an early version of the now popular HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) program1, the 5BX program is ideal for those of us searching for the holy grail of fitness programs. Firstly, because many RCAF pilots were located in remote bases in northern Canada with no access to gymnasium facilities, the 5BX plan does not require access to specialised equipment. Secondly, the plan requires only 11 minutes per day to be spent on the exercises.

The 5BX plan consists of six charts arranged in increasing order of difficulty. Each chart is composed of five exercises that are performed within 11 minutes. The five basic exercises remain the same throughout the charts, but more difficult variations are introduced and number of repetitions increased.

The first four exercises are callisthenics and the last an aerobic exercise, as follows:

  1. Stretching
  2. Sit-up
  3. Back extension
  4. Push-up
  5. Running in place

The final exercise can be substituted for a walk or run. I opt for this choice.

The aim is to work through the levels until you reach the appropriate one for your age. In my case as a  50-60 year old man I should reach and maintain Chart 2, Level C+, although inevitably I’m tempted by the level suitable for Flying Crew aged 45-9 (Chart 3, level B). This is partly in homage to my dad, and partly because I am, after all, a marathon runner and (part-time) triathlete.

The first stages are almost ridiculously easy but by the time you reach your target level are just taxing enough to abandon through lack of time. Last year I reached my target level on holiday, but then failed to carry on while travelling home and all was lost. This year one of my resolutions is to begin once again, and to stick with the programme this time.

The exercises have somewhat fallen out of fashion in later years, partly because they are considered to be unsafe due to the fact that they are unsupervised, and partly because the sit-up exercises in the higher levels are potentially damaging to the spine. The former is just silly, the latter can be resolved by replacing the sit-ups with crunches. John Walker, founder of Autodesk, Inc and co-author of AutoCAD, has developed a version that is suitable for everyone as part of his (excellent) Hacker’s Diet, which I hope to write more about on another occasion.

I am currently on Chart 1, level D+. You can follow my progress, or lack of it, on my personal twitter account at https://twitter.com/hibbott/

Download a copy of the 5BX plan here.

1 Amy Lewis, Good Housekeeping, How to get a body like Helen Mirren, 25 September 2014

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