How to make your workouts shorter

Sometimes you’re short on time. Or energy. Or both.

And sometimes you just reeeeeally don’t feel like getting a workout in.

And that’s OK. It happens to everybody -- even those of us who work in the fitness industry.

To be honest, I’ve personally not been feeling like working out at all lately so I consider it a win if I can make myself do anything remotely resembling a workout.

So it’s just something that happens from time to time. Sometimes it’s because motivation is low. And sometimes it’s because of life.

Either way, if you want to lose weight and/or get healthy, you’ll have to navigate these situations and find ways to avoid the dreaded “pause until things get easier”. Because at best that means losing hard earned momentum/results and at worst that means quitting.

In this post, I’ll show you a few ways to shorten your workouts while sacrificing only a small amount of results. In other words, this is how you cut out the unnecessary and really maximize your time at the gym.

Learn to slow down, but not stop entirely

First off, something is always better than nothing. So if you’re really struggling to find the time or the mental energy to workout, just do whatever feels the least daunting.

This could mean doing 1 set of your favorite exercise or forgoing strength training entirely in favor of some light mobility exercises like the ones below.

Point is, if you’re having a really hard time, don’t worry about what exercises are the most effective. Worry about which exercises you’re most likely to do.

That said, this post focuses on showing you what to prioritize in your workout to get most of the results in significantly less gym time.

Just keep in mind that it’s still worth working out even if you’re not “maximizing”.

The Pareto Principle

Also called the 80/20 rule, the Pareto Principle initially gained popularity as a business strategy. However, it’s a useful concept in general. It’s the idea that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts.

Applied to strength training this means that not everything you do in the gym is equally important. For example, something like curls will not be as effective as pull ups given the same level of time and effort. Nothing against curls, but they’re more like dessert rather than the main course. To give another example, while planks are important, they aren’t going to induce the same drastic effects on your body that heavy squats will.

So this comes down to knowing which exercises give you the most bang for your buck. Because you want to use your limited gym time wisely.

These bang for your buck exercises will all be multi-joint, multi-muscle moves, namely what Coach Dan John refers to as the fundamental movement patterns:

  • Push - Bench Press, Overhead Press, Push-Up
  • Pull - Pull-Up, Dumbbell Row, Bent Over Row
  • Squat - Back Squat, Front Squat, Zercher Squat
  • Hinge - Sumo Deadlift, Kettlebell Swing, Hip Thrust
  • Carry - Farmer Walk

If you only have half an hour, I recommend doing just one big, multi-muslce exercise, hitting it hard, then doing 1 lap of heavy farmer walks to wrap up.

For example, you can get an amazing workout by just focusing on back squats (5 x 10, 3 x 8, 5 x 5 etc. Don’t overthink the reps -- doesn’t matter so much as long as the effort is there).

Would I tell an online client to do this if they have longer to workout? No.

Is it optimal given the necessity of a short workout? I’d say so.

If you did something like this:

Day 1: Back Squat

Day 2: Bench Press

Day 3: Deadlift

You’d still see some pretty solid progress so long as you worked on nudging up the weight and/or the reps over time. So don’t stress about skipping the other stuff in your workout.

A slightly less minimalistic option is picking two exercises per workout -- one upper body and one lower body. You won’t be able to push each respective exercise as hard as in the plan above because you have more on the agenda. However, it’ll give you more balance with your exercise selection.

It could look something like this:

Day 1: Front Squat and Dumbbell Row

Day 2: Deadlift and Bench Press

Or this:

Day 1: Back Squat and Pull-Up

Day 2: Hip Thrust and Overhead Press

If you lift 3 days a week then simply alternate between the two e.g. Monday: Day 1, Wednesday: Day 2, Friday: Day 1, Monday: Day 2, and so on.

Doing supersets is the most efficient use of your time here. A superset is when you pair two exercises back to back. For example, one set of back squats, then one set of pull-ups, then one set of back squats etc. until you’ve completed the desired number of sets.

Think about progress differently

There are many ways to make a workout more difficult to prevent plateaus. Adding weight or reps certainly comes to mind. But there are other methods, like doing an exercise more slowly, or using less rest time. I want to talk about the latter.

If you keep the weight and reps the same, yet decrease rest time in between sets, you increase the intensity of your workout. This gives your body reason to adapt AKA get stronger and build muscle.

Cut your rest time as much as necessary to fit your workout in. If you’re used to longer rest times, you’ll probably have to drop the weight down significantly. And you’d still do well to drop some of the fluff/extra credit from your workout (stuff like curls, tricep extensions etc.).

Cutting rest time adds enough challenge to keep you seeing results, while greatly reducing the time needed for a workout. With this method, the more you progress, the shorter and shorter your workouts get. Until it’s time to add weight.

When should you add weight then?

If you cut your rest time down to 15 seconds in between exercises, can maintain good technique, and not want to die, probably time to up the weights.

It could look something like this:

  • Wk 1: 45 second rest
  • Wk 2: 30 second rest
  • Wk 3: 15 second rest
  • Wk 4: 15 second rest
  • Wk 5 (add weight): 45 second rest

Another option is just setting a time limit and doing as much of your workout as you can within that time frame. Most well designed workouts put the most important exercises first anyway. So by just doing as much as you can, you automatically prioritize exercises well. Because whoever wrote your program should have already done that part for you.

Wrapping up

Part of a workout is always better than no workout.

And I know it can feel like there’s no point if you can’t do a full workout, but I assure you progress isn’t an on/off switch.

You can make more or less progress -- it’s still progress. It still counts.

Besides, in difficult times maintenance is progress. Simply not losing progress is a massive victory.

It’s also important to remember that not every exercise in your program contributes equally to your results. Some lifts, namely your multi-muscle, barbell exercises have a much bigger impact than something like a leg extension where you can’t move as much weight around.

So it’s important to prioritize those bang for your buck exercises to maximize your time and your results whenever it’s hard to get to the gym for your full workout. That way, you don’t have to start back from square one whenever you have no control over your schedule.


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Posted on May 22, 2019