April 13, 2024

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I Tried the Bizarre Military Workout That Helen Mirren Swears by

6 min read
  • For most of her life, Helen Mirren has completed a daily 12-minute military workout.
  • I appreciate Mirren’s approach to life, so thought I would give it a try. 
  • It was complicated, boring, and I gave up after six days.

Seeing photos of Dame Helen Mirren the day after she appeared on the red carpet at Cannes back in May, I was in awe. The 77-year-old was effortlessly captivating, with hair long and tinted lavender, confidently herself.

Once a purple-haired woman myself, I wanted to know more about the iconic actress and quickly discovered Mirren’s routine sounded familiar to mine — minus the red carpets and movie sets. Her nightly face care routine is simple (cleanse and add a bit of moisturizer), she doesn’t go too crazy on her makeup, and she enjoys food and alcohol.

So when I discovered that the daily workout routine that had kept her in shape for decades is 12 minutes long — and considering I did fewer than 12 minutes of exercise in the past month — I thought “hey, maybe this is another part of our daily routines that we could share.”

Helen Mirren attends the "Jeanne du Barry" screening during the Cannes Film Festival.

Helen Mirren attends the “Jeanne du Barry” screening during the Cannes Film Festival, 2023.

Christophe Simon/Getty Images



According to a Yahoo News report from 2014, Mirren does a Royal Canadian Airforce workout from the ’50s, called the X BX Plan, which I found as a PDF via a quick Google search and hoped was as close as possible to what Mirren completes each day.

The 50-page pink pamphlet includes 12 exercises with a set number of reps to be completed in a limited amount of time, accompanied by diagrams and descriptions on how to do each one. 

You start at level one and move on to the next when that becomes easy. As the level increases, so do the number of reps.

You keep increasing the level until you hit your goal, which is determined by your age. The highest level is for age 15 to 17 (level 44), and a mere 30 for a 27-year-old like me.

Insider previously reported on how simple exercises can be effective without the need for flashy unnecessary equipment, and how modifying an exercise to make it harder, such as increasing the reps, is a good way to see results. So I figured maybe I could stick to this for more than a week, as my new workout routines rarely lasted that long.

Day one

Like all good fitness regimes, the first day of my new workout plan started on a Monday. Although, unlike good fitness regimes, I was returning from — and really feeling the effects of — a three-day music festival.

But I pulled my gym shorts out from the dark depths of my wardrobe anyway and started reading through the 51-page workout.

After thirty minutes of examining the complex PDF, I finally sussed out what day one would include.

The two-minute warm-up would be:

  • Three toe touches
  • Four knee raises
  • Five lateral bends
  • 24 arm circles (on each side)

This would be followed by the main bulk of the workout:

  • Four partial sit-ups in two minutes
  • Four chest and leg raises in one minute
  • Four side leg raises in one minute
  • Three push-ups (not to be confused with press-ups) in two minutes
  • Two leg lifts in one minute
  • “Run and hop” — essentially run on the spot for 50 paces per foot and then hop 10 times, all in the space of three minutes.

Amber Middleton running on the spot

I ran on the spot as part of the workout.

Amber Middleton



There was then the bonus round of a couple of exercises for “feet, ankles, and posture.”

I stuck on a podcast and began the workout.

Now, I’m no athlete, but the workout seemed painfully slow, even for a hungover person — who needs two entire minutes to complete four partial sit-ups?

The pamphlet’s foreword provided a half-explanation. It said the exercises had been “carefully selected” and the manner of use “designed to enable women to achieve physical well being for optimum living.”

It also told me that physical fitness improves “desirable qualities” including appearance, personality, and mental fitness.

My eye started to twitch as I saw the plan equating appearance with desirability but I reminded myself it was made in the ’50s and thought that increasing physical and mental fitness seemed like good goals, so I decided to continue with the workouts. 

Day Two

As I stretched my arms and jumped out of bed ready to begin the second day, I was tempted to skip a few levels after yesterday’s slow pace, but the workout notes said specifically that I must gradually work up the levels and that “as physical fitness improves, the work load is increased.” 

It also reminded me not to perform fast or vigorous activity “particularly if you are over the age of 30.”

As I am soon to turn 28, I accepted the fact that, in the eyes of X BX, I am approaching an elderly state and I must be careful with my health. I stuck with level two.

Amber doing sit ups

The partial sit ups were a breeze.

Amber Middleton



The workout was, again, very slow and boring. 

The workout notes explained why it was so gentle: “The X BX is designed to firm your muscles — not to convert you into a muscled woman” and it said it wouldn’t give me “bulky, unsightly muscles.”

I was slightly disappointed as I hoped to see some physical results and improve my strength, but I accepted the fact I wouldn’t be turning into the Incredible Hulk anytime soon.

Day three 

By day three, the pressure had amped up a notch: six partial sit-ups in two minutes.

My new workout regime had inspired me to complete a 10km run earlier in the day and so I was feeling a little tired, which added a new challenge to the exercises — perhaps now my muscles were more fatigued I’d improve my strength.

I actually felt my heart rate increase slightly as I ran 70 paces on the spot accompanied by some jumps. This was the first time I started to feel like the plan could be doing something.

Day four

By day four, I started to feel a little achy in the legs. This would probably be down to the run but perhaps the four leg raises were doing something, I wondered.

I breezed through the workout again, finding myself fed up as I ran on the spot like a child in gym class.

Day five

After four days of moaning to my roomates about the workout, I finally felt something on day five and even struggled to get the warm-up done in the allotted time.

I examined my biceps after but could see no new muscle definition. Disappointing.

Amber tensing her muscles

Searching for muscle definition

Amber Middleton



The workout didn’t result in much of a sweat but I did find myself enjoying the yoga vibe of the slow movements. I could even start to see how this could fit into someone’s daily routine as it was so manageable, even after a long day of work.

Day 6

Today I hit a milestone: I mustered up a slightly glistened brow during the 12 minutes. Maybe I’m finally getting somewhere, maybe this is the turning point, I thought to myself.

And then I never completed the workout again.

While the exercises themselves were simple, the 51-page PDF full of charts and diagrams was not — a 12-minute workout tended to begin with 20 minutes of scrolling before any actual exercise began.

I can appreciate a slow burn and not being pushed too hard — as this could lead to giving up — but I was bored out of my mind six days in and couldn’t stomach another workout, let alone 24 more, to reach my goal level. I’m unsure how Helen Mirren has been completing the workout for “her whole life,” as Yahoo News reported.

Insider reached out for comment from Helen Mirren but with no response as of yet, it remains a mystery whether she is still scrolling through the 51-page PDF and completing partial sit-ups nine years later.

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