Lack of time is among the most commonly reported barriers to engaging in physical activity, with good reason! In today’s fast-paced world, most of us are overworked, stressed, and feeling a general sense of hopelessness when it comes to finding time to workout. However, with a little planning, you can design a quick and easy workout that fits into even the busiest schedule.
It is the goal of this blog post to give you some evidence-based recommendations based on a 2021 review published in the Journal of Sports Medicine by Iversen et al for building a time-efficient workout without sacrificing results that you can do at home or in the gym. You will find this step-by-step approach below!
Step 1: Choosing your exercises
For a quick and efficient workout, you’ll want to choose exercises that work for multiple muscle groups at once.
Also known as bilateral, multi-joint or compound movements, these exercises are superior to single-joint exercises from a time efficiency, muscle building and strength standpoint due to the large muscles involved. In fact, most compound movements activate sufficient muscles from the secondary muscles to elicit muscle growth (i.e increasing tricep size with bench press).
Here are some minimal evidence-based recommendations for exercise selection that you can include in your workout. Be sure to perform one of each.
Leg press exercises (e.g squats) Squats work the legs, glutes, and core. You can do squats with just your bodyweight or add weight with dumbbells or a barbell.
One upper-body pulling exercise (e.g pull-up) Pull-ups are my go-to back exercises, targeting the entire back musculature, core, shoulders and arms. If you can’t perform a pull-up, consider using a band or machine.
One upper-body pushing exercise (e.g bench press) The bench press works the chest, shoulders, triceps, and core. If you do not have access to a bench press, the push-up is a great option. You can do push-ups on your toes or knees and modify the exercise by doing incline or decline push-ups.
Step 2: Determine Your Reps and Sets
Once you’ve chosen your exercises, you’ll need to determine how many reps and sets to do.
Also known as training volume, total sets per major muscle group done per week is a good way to quantify the total work being done (1). You can make strength training more time efficient by performing a minimum of four or more sets per muscle group using a rep structure between 6-15 reps (1). In addition, with this loading scheme, you will need to work within a Rating of Perceived Exertion, or RPE, of at least 7/10, which translates to 1-2 reps left.
Here's how that would look:
Squats >4 weekly sets of 8 reps
Pull-up >4 weekly sets of 10 reps
Bench press >4 weekly sets of 12 reps
Step 3: Rest Periods
Often the first thing people think to do when they want to shorten their workout is to reduce the rest between sets. However, resting properly between sets, especially compound movements such as squats, is essential for maximizing strength and muscle gains as longer periods are better for strength.
Now you don’t need to be waiting around three or more minutes between sets to get great results. A 2017 systematic review by Grgic et al. shared evidence that less than 1-minute rest still produced great results. Therefore, resting 1-2 minutes between sets is advised as a good middle ground.
Between workout rest
How many workouts should you do per week? Well, you'd be surprised. As emerging evidence indicates, what matters more is the total amount of sets you do per major muscle group.
In fact, no significant effect of training frequency, or training sessions per week was observed for strength gains. Training a muscle one day per week appears to induce similar strength gains as training ≥ 3 times per week, so long as the total training volume is the same (1).
Step 4: Warm up & cool down
Most people spend too much time warming up. It can add unnecessary time to your workout, especially when time is of the essence. In particular, it is likely that the need for a warm-up is more important when training in the low repetition range using heavy weights, as the initial repetitions could be considered a specific warm-up when training with higher repetitions (1).
With this in mind, prioritize stretching if the goal of training is to develop better flexibility or mobility. A quick 5-minute dynamic and movement-specific warm-up, such as warming up with just the bar for bench press, is sufficient the vast majority of the time.
Step 5: Add in time-saving methods
There are additional methods and systems you can incorporate into your training plan that can minimize performance decrements and maximize efficiency, such as supersets, drop sets, and rest-pause methods. I will touch on supersets specifically below, and if you have questions on this or the other training methods not covered, send me a message.
Referring to performing two exercises back-to-back with minimal to no rest, you can do supersets with most exercises to target similar or different muscle groups.
Of interest for you is targeting different muscle groups, where you may train a chest exercise followed by a back exercise. This gives the first muscle group rest and minimizes the performance decreases associated with performing two exercises in succession (1). In support of this, Robbins et al. compared performing the bench press in a superset or alone for 8 weeks. Both male groups showed similar strength increases but the superset group took approximately half the time!
Designing an efficient and effective workout is no longer a far cry. Busy business professionals, single mothers, and students alike can all incorporate these strategies to cut their workouts to 20-30 minutes, without compromising effectiveness. Gone are the days of excuses, and these workout strategies will ensure you fit exercise into even the busiest schedules.
By choosing effective exercises, determining your reps and sets, choosing the right rest periods, being effective with your warm-ups and using some of the other time-saving strategies I have laid out, you’ll be seeing results and feeling great in no time.
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Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No time to lift? Designing time-efficient training programs for strength and hypertrophy: a narrative review. Sports Medicine, 51(10), 2079-2095.