After nearly two years of surgeries and healing, I finally started to get back into the habit of working out only a few months before COVID-19 hit the US. While I was disappointed, I wasn’t discouraged and spent a lot of this year trying out random workouts that can be done from home. The Caroline Girvan EPIC Program is truly one of the best. This science-backed workout is tough, fun, and varied, and I wanted to share my review of the EPIC Program and some of the science behind it.
I’ve reviewed a few other health and fitness influencers here, but this is my first “in-depth” review of a program.
If you’re looking for a comparison of EPIC I vs. EPIC Heat, I’ve recently written that up! Find my comparison of the two here.
What do I mean by workout backed by science?
First, I just want to address my goals for working out as I know that everyone has different intentions when they are picking an exercise program. If your goals are drastically different, there may be better exercise plans for you.
My goals for working out:
- Increase strength – especially upper body strength
- Increase mobility– get better at things that will help me have less pain throughout the day, such as increased ankle mobility for squats or hip flexor mobility for running
- Increase balance– eliminate “dominant” side imbalances that came up from injuries/surgeries
- Lose fat and increase muscle mass– I don’t care about losing weight because the scale means basically nothing. I’m sure I’ll write about this in the future, but BMI isn’t an indicator of physical fitness, and subcutaneous fat percentage is a more accurate measure for athletes.
Some examples of workouts that are not backed by science (a.k.a. workouts to avoid).
Anything that claims you can spot-reduce (especially the stomach). You might gain strength from doing hundreds of crunches. But you can’t spot-reduce fat no matter how many crunches you do. The same goes for ‘toning’- I have a whole article about why toning is bogus, and I avoid workouts that use these terms.
Anything that claims cardio is a waste of your time. While a lot of these “you don’t need cardio” folks are right in their logic that weightlifting can be cardio if you lift weights fast enough, it’s not the same thing. A LOT of the weightlifting plans out there give you way too long of a break between sets to give you the sustained cardiovascular effort recommended for health (30 min and 5 days a week).
Plus, if you’re just looking at calorie burn, it’s definitely not– you can find the MET score of different activities, and calculate calories burned for your weight. Running a 10-minute mile has a MET score of 9.8, versus only 6 for intense weightlifting.
Anything where form isn’t the MOST IMPORTANT thing. A lot of people like to rag on CrossFit for encouraging bad form with swinging pullups and flopping burpees, but this isn’t just a CrossFit issue. The incidence of injury in CrossFit is pretty similar to other similar sports. The problem is the general attitude a lot of people have towards fitness: push it until you puke, and keep going no matter what. Form is the single most important thing to avoid injury, and getting your workouts from those who focus on the correct form is essential.
Anything that says you need to take a certain supplement or stick to an incredibly restrictive diet to see progress. If you don’t know much about the supplement industry, I’d definitely suggest you read this– they’re not well regulated and the research behind them doesn’t always follow solid scientific methods.
Finally, the last thing (not an issue of being science-based, but definitely not Girls Love Evidence-approved), is the idea that there are specific workouts for men and workouts for women. Earlier this year, my partner and I did P90X, and I enjoyed that the modification wasn’t based on gender, but on ability. A lot of workouts seem to have a weird gender bias and I don’t love that.
Yes, there are some differences in the distribution of muscle mass of cis men and women—on average, cisgender men tend to have more upper body muscle mass than cisgender women. That said, skipping leg day because it’s for “the girls” results in looking like a triangle, and never working your arms or chest can mean terrible posture, regardless of how awesome your butt might look after a workout plan that only focuses on the booty.
A breakdown of the Caroline Girvan EPIC Program
The program lasts five days a week, with one active rest day and one actual rest day. Active rest is up to you—a walk, yoga, a run. The rest day should be used to fully rest and recover. On my active rest days, I usually ran 3-6 miles at a moderate pace (~9 min miles) or did a Vinyasa yoga flow.
The split of the workouts varies—usually, it is three workouts focused on upper body or lower body, specific muscle groups (shoulders, triceps, etc.), or even a specific exercise (the dreaded lunge day, RIP). Day Four is usually a full-body workout, and Day Five is a HIIT workout.
Almost all of the workouts are on/off type exercises, with X amount of seconds on and X amount of seconds off. There are a few days that include complexes or supersets.
What you need
Part of the reason I picked this program is because it required so little equipment.
I used 5 lb. dumbbells and 12 lb. dumbbells for the majority of the workout because this is what I had. Caroline Girvan recommends heavier weights on her website, but you can always increase the speed if you want to work harder.
Alternatively, you can find some heavy things around your house and throw them in a backpack if you want a heavier weight to squat or hip thrust.
You will also need some kind of mat. I love my Alo polyurethane yoga mat because it means I don’t slide all over the place, but the Gaiam mat I used before I got more serious about yoga is quite a bit cheaper, and you can find them on sale at Sierra for even less. Personally, I think having a little bit more cushion is nice for these workouts—sometimes you’ll have to put your knee down, and if you’re on hardwood, this doesn’t feel great.
Caroline also uses a yoga block and resistance bands in her videos, but these aren’t fully necessary. Again, because I do yoga fairly frequently, I already had a yoga block from Manduka, but when I’ve done these workouts with my partner, one of us would use Murakami’s 1Q84 or a dictionary. It’s fairly flexible.
For the resistance band, I had previously purchased a set of pretty bad quality ones earlier in 2020, and I used these. However, these are cheaper for a reason—mine roll up the legs, and the material hurts against bare skin. For future EPIC workouts, I’m getting fabric resistance bands like these from Marika.
(Photo on the left is what will hurt and pull out your leg hair, photo on the right is what Caroline uses that looks a bit more comfortable).
My Review of the Caroline Girvan EPIC Program
Overall, this is an excellent program for anyone looking to gain muscle and stay in shape at home. The critiques I have are super minor, and don’t have much to do with the actual workout itself.
Cons of the EPIC Program
I loved this workout plan so much, I really only have a few cons, if we can even call them that.
While she recommends a 5-minute warmup before the workout video, this isn’t included within the video, and is a separate link. At least in my experience *ahem*, this makes it a little easier to skip, and can lead to not being properly warmed up.
She plays music throughout the video, with a timer that beeps on and off to signal when an exercise should stop and start. While I don’t like being yelled at by trainers (my number one complaint about P90X), I also think it would be nice to have a few more pointers given on form to ensure I was doing an exercise correctly.
Additionally, the music she uses can get a little repetitive. I often put my own music in, but this did mean that I wasn’t able to hear the beep on the video.
Pros of the EPIC Program
The moment you’ve been waiting for: why the Caroline Girvan EPIC Program is legit.
First of all, it’s FREE. Entirely free! In a time when a lot of influencers and Internet personalities are selling their workout plans (despite having literally zero qualifications to do so), it is awesome to see a free plan from someone who is a certified Personal Trainer, Ironman, and marathoner. She actually knows what she is talking about, and has mentioned in interviews that she has decided to forgo a paid program because she wants it to be accessible to everyone.
It’s hard. Like, wow-I-might-need-to-take-a-break-for-the-rest-of-this-workout hard. As someone who is in fairly good shape, I find that a lot of workout plans are just a lot of bouncing around without much actual work. That is definitely not the case here. I finished more than one of these workouts drenched in sweat and cursing under my breath.
There’s no weird nutrition advice. The nutrition plan linked in the EPIC program guide on her website doesn’t give any recommendations based on calories and doesn’t vilify certain foods. She just wants people to eat well and eat enough to get the nutrients they need to work out. If you’ve been here a while, you know that I’m super skeptical of wellness trends, so I love Caroline’s fact-based approach.
There is a new video for every single day of the 50 days! It probably was an immense amount of work on her part, but this made all the difference. It made me excited about what my workout would be that day, rather than allowed me to dread that I might have to repeat a workout I hated.
And finally, the reason I think the EPIC Program is awesome: it relies on pretty solid scientific evidence. A lot of gym rats will tell you the only way to build muscle is to lift heavier weights, causing hypertrophy and muscle growth. This is all well and good, but it’s not super feasible when you’re at home.
The way Caroline’s workouts are structured, this is still possible with lower weights. Rarely is there a break longer than 30 seconds between sets, and a lot of the exercises she performs fall within the category of “HIFT”- High Intensity Functional Training. This means you get the cardiovascular benefits of a HIIT workout, with a bit more of a focus on muscle development.
The EPIC Program focuses on functional movements that often recruit more muscles than what is explicitly being worked. This allows for better stability and overall movement. I was shocked by how often the exercises that were bodyweight or balance-based were more challenging than those where I was lifting.
The breaks are strategically timed. With 30-40 seconds of an exercise, especially if you don’t have particularly heavy weights, you may do what seems like a ton of reps (especially if you’re used to lifting heavier weights). However, multiple studies have shown that low weight is equally effective for muscle gain if you complete more reps, and that coupling higher rep exercises with shorter breaks is the key to ensuring the low weight works.
Unfortunately, the sample sizes in many of these studies are quite a bit smaller than I would like (and a lot of them are only on cisgender men), but the results that come from these randomized controlled trials (RCTs) is still fairly convincing.
Final Thoughts on the EPIC Program
Caroline Girvan’s EPIC Program is a really well-executed program, based on sound science with a lot of variety. It doesn’t dive into aesthetics or weird nutrition tips, and the primary focus is clearly on getting strong.
As far as my own progress on EPIC, I didn’t see any dramatic changes in my physical appearance. My back and shoulders look more muscular and I feel like I have a bit more ab definition, but it’s not a wild transformation. However, I can definitely feel the difference when I am doing push-ups or standing on one leg. I feel significantly more mobile and balanced, and I feel less pain when running than I felt prior to starting. Since this addresses some of my primary goals, I feel confident in saying that the program was a positive experience for me.
Re: physical changes, I think it’s worth mentioning that I was already starting from a pretty fit baseline and that I still ate cake and fried chicken more than is probably recommended while doing the program. Were I to redo EPIC with this goal in mind, I would probably put a little more effort into tracking my protein intake to ensure I was getting enough, and I would probably eat dessert a little less frequently.
Overall, the Caroline Girvan EPIC Program is an awesome program for people who are sick of gimmicky workouts and just want to dial in and work their butts off. I’m looking forward to starting EPIC II after a few weeks of focusing on yoga and running.
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