I used to feel like the length of my workout indicated its quality. Looking back, all I can do is shake my head at that idea. I could’ve gotten better results and had way more free time for other things if I had shortened my workouts and just been more efficient.
It took me far too long to recognize that you can do a kickass workout in a pretty short amount of time. I’m not sure who started the idea that the ideal time for a workout is an hour, but that’s extremely arbitrary and untrue. As I’ve said many times, I think way too many people are overtraining, especially the women I see on social media. Hour-long runs every day are doing your body no favors – I’ll tell you that. And a “50-minute HIIT class” is a complete oxymoron that will destroy your hormones in the long run. 50 minutes is not HIIT. I digress.
I personally have found better results with shorter workouts, and I’ve seen the same thing again and again with others, as well. This usually happens because the body is no longer in stress mode, and cortisol levels go down. Also, the muscles have more time to repair and actually get stronger. Beyond that, a shorter workout allows you to be more mentally focused and therefore work harder in that smaller amount of time. It’s about quality over quantity. When you go into the gym feeling like you HAVE to be there for a certain amount of time, it will just make you drag. Especially if it’s long.
We are all busy. Why spend more time than you need to in the gym, especially when it’s probably harming your body in the long run to do so?
Over time, I’ve found a few strategies that I always use to make my workouts as efficient as possible. Some of these tips are logistics, and some have to do with actually programming your workouts. Both are equally important, and any time-saving tip is worth it, in my opinion!
What To Do Before ANY Workout:
- Get off your phone. Far too many people waste time in between exercises/sets/etc. looking at their phones. If you want to get the most out of your workout, make your workout time WORKOUT TIME. Only. Not phone time. Phones are huge distractions. I used to think that my phone wasn’t really a distraction, and I would use it during my rest time or even during certain exercises. You know, trying to multitask. The truth is that it was not only mentally distracting me, but it was making me take longer rests than necessary and/or making me go slower during the workout. Focus on the workout. The phone will be there later. Nowadays I turn my phone on silent and flip it over so I can’t see the screen light up. Even just the notifications popping up makes me turn my head, and I don’t want that distraction.
- Go in with a plan. Don’t waste time trying to figure out what you’re going to do once you’re there or once you’re in the middle of the workout. Plan ahead of time, whether that means planning your actual exercises / sets / reps / etc., or just making sure to pick the workout class you’re going to attend. If you program your own workouts, don’t waste your time at the gym deciding what exercise to do next while you’re in the middle of your workout. Write it out ahead of time, go in, get it done, and finish. If you’re not programming your own workouts, make sure you’ve picked the workout ahead of time, and read through each exercise to make sure you know how to do everything before you start. That way, if you come across an exercise that you’re not familiar with, you can look up proper form / watch a YouTube video / ask someone who knows what they’re doing before you start, and you won’t waste time during your workout trying to figure it out.
- Get your equipment set up ahead of time. This goes back to the whole idea of planning beforehand. Basically, you want to get yourself set up so that once you start your workout, you don’t need to take unnecessary breaks or pauses in between. If you’re using your own equipment, have it all laid out and set up in front of you. Have the right weight plates on, the right resistance bands out, your yoga mat laid out, the space cleared, and so on all before you start. That requires already knowing your workout plan ahead of time, and then using that list to set out the equipment you need. If you’re at the gym, grab the dumbbells you need before you start, or stand in a strategic spot so you’re close to everything you’ll be using. If you’re waiting for a certain piece of equipment or a certain machine, plan on using another piece of equipment/machine nearby that’s in low-demand while you’re waiting, or set up a yoga mat close by so you can do other moves while you’re waiting.
- Work out at home. This is really more of what works for me personally, but it saves me a lot of time to do my workouts from home. I don’t have to spend time getting to the gym, waiting for equipment to be available, and potentially getting distracted by other people or things while I’m there. At home, there’s no one to distract me (unless I allow it via phone), and I don’t have to wait around for any equipment or space to be free. This might not be helpful for everyone, though. If you’re someone who uses workouts as part of your social time, then this might not work for you at all! You do YOU.
- Do a workout you actually like. This might seem obvious, but I need to say it. It saddens me how many people do workouts that they don’t even enjoy because they think it will get them the best results. People feel like they “have to” do certain things to reach a specific goal. The truth is, the best workout is the one you want to do. When you’re doing a workout you enjoy, you’ll be more motivated and will work much harder/ more efficiently. If you’re planning on doing a workout that you’re dreading, you’ll subconsciously not work as hard and will probably go slower because you’re just dragging through the workout. The mental drag translates into physical inefficiency.
How to Program Workouts for Max Efficiency:
- Use full body workouts. If you’re someone who doesn’t have a lot of time to go to the gym or can only go a few days a week, full body workouts are the way to go. It’s more efficient and effective to work your entire body a few times a week than it is to hit certain muscles just once a week. Plus, full body workouts tend to be more functional and will actually translate to real life movements. When you work your full body, you can program your workout so that you need less rest time in between exercises (will get to that in a second), which will shorten your whole workout.
- Use resistance that’s enough to challenge you, but not so much that you need to spend a lot of time resting. This takes trial and error, but you basically just need to find your sweet spot. If you use too little resistance, you might have to do a ton of reps to really work the muscles, depending on your fitness level, which could take a really long time. If you use too much resistance, though, you’ll spend too much time resting in between exercises, which will also lengthen the entire workout. Find the resistance/weight that challenges you but also allows you to keep going at a good pace with proper form.
- Use supersets and/or circuits within your workout. Supersets are when you place two different exercises back to back so that you can take less rest in between the exercises since the muscles from the first exercise will have time to rest while you do the second exercise. For example: Exercise A, Exercise B, Rest, Exercise A, Exercise B, Rest, etc. This is much more efficient than straight sets, where you do your first set, rest, do the second set, rest, etc. Circuits are the same idea – you do a few exercises back to back and repeat them with little to no rest in between. For example: Exercise A, Exercise B, Exercise C, Rest, Exercise A, B, C, Rest, A, B, C, etc. You can do this with as many exercises as you want!
- Use AMRAPs. AMRAP stands for “As Many Reps As Possible.” This is one of my go-to strategies when I’m short on time. All you do is set a timer and do as many reps as possible within that timeframe. This can be done with one exercise or a few. For instance, you could do a quick workout of as many burpees as possible in 10 minutes. Usually, though, I do this with a few exercises. An example would be 10 squats, 20 lunges, and 15 pushups for 15 minutes. For that AMRAP, you would repeat 10 squats, 20 lunges, and 15 pushups as many times as you could in 15 minutes. AMRAPs are killer, and the key is to push yourself. You want to do as many reps as you can with minimal rest. AMRAPs are an amazing way to create a very short but effective workout.
- Go for a HIIT or Tabata workout. HIIT, or high intensity interval training, is another key strategy for when I’m short on time. The key to HIIT, though, is to truly push yourself to your limits. You pick a time interval for work and an interval for rest, and then you repeat that for however long your workout is going to be. HIIT workouts are short. You don’t need more than 10-15 minutes. 20, maybe, but if you’re going that long, you’re probably not truly pushing yourself as hard as you could. If you’re really doing a HIIT workout, you’ll basically feel like you want to die very quickly. It should be a struggle to get even to 15 minutes.
You can start off with shorter work intervals and then increase them as you become stronger, and you can use any type of movement. You can sprint, jump rope, or do plyometric bodyweight movements, for example. Try doing 30 seconds of work then 30 seconds of rest, and repeating that 8-10 times. Depending on the exercises you’re doing and your fitness level, you could advance to 40 seconds on, 20 seconds off, or you could pick any other work to rest ratio. The key though, is to actually push yourself to your absolute limits during the work interval. Like I said, if you’re doing it right, you’ll literally feel like you’re going to die. (Tabata, by the way, is only 4 minutes. 20 seconds on, 10 seconds off. 8 rounds. If you’re doing this correctly, it will be the hardest 4 minutes of your life.)
You can also do “versions” of HIIT / tabata workouts by using the same format but only going to about 80% or less of your max potential, then pairing exercises back to back. For instance, you could put in 80% effort and do 3 “tabatas” of different exercises.
- When choosing exercises, place opposing muscle groups back to back. You can use this strategy within a circuit or superset to make everything more efficient. For example, you could do an exercise that works your chest, then follow that up with something that works your back. Similar idea with upper and lower body movements. Try doing an upper body move, like a military press, and then following that with a lower body movement, like a squat. This allows your upper body to rest while your lower body is working and vice versa, minimizing your overall rest time so the total workout time is shorter.
- Utilize compound movements. When you’re short on time, you don’t need to waste time isolating small muscles. Choose movements that work multiple muscles at once, like pushups, squats, lunges, military presses, etc. That gives you way more bang for your buck. Along the same lines, you can combine movements and do two at once to hit more muscle groups at one time. For example, you could do a squat press, squat to curl, deadlift to row, lunge to press, lunge twist, and so on. This allows you to get two movements in at once, and works more of your body in less time.
- Follow up a strength move with a cardio move. The idea here is to pair something that leaves you out of breath with something that lets you catch your breath. For instance, burpees then squats. Both will work a lot of your body, but burpees are more of a cardio move while squats are more strength-focused. This lets you “catch your breath” from the burpees while still working hard during squats. Ab exercises are also great “in-between” exercises to minimize rest time, because they let you slow down for a moment while still working another muscle. For instance, do burpees then leg lifts, then back to burpees. You can use those leg lifts as your “rest.”
The idea behind all of these strategies is to work hard but fast, minimizing rest time. I like to do strength moves at a faster pace in order to raise my heart rate so I can get my strength training and “cardio” in at the same time. It saves me a lot of time, and I don’t get bored!
If you employ a few of these strategies at once, there’s no reason why you can’t complete an amazing workout in a short amount of time. Some of my best workouts have been less than 20 minutes long. Get in, do work, get out. YOU GOT THIS.