We don’t know how many people have no time to work out because there’s no such data but it’s believed to be somewhere between “a lot” and “a shitload.”
And I’m not talking about people killing their brain cells watching Netflix for four hours a day:
I’m talking about folks who honestly have no time to workout and telling them “Dude, you have 24 hours a day—like everyone else!” would make them hate every molecule in your body.
If you’re one of such people, with two jobs you hate to hell and back or 17 children to feed, I’ve done some research on your behalf.
And I’m happy to announce that I’m a bit wiser now—I now know how can you design a training program to reduce training time without meaningfully compromising muscle or strength gains. Or fat loss.
It’s because Schoenfeld et al. investigated exactly that:
A typical effective resistance training program for beginners or intermediates involves training major muscle groups with 2–4 sets, 3–12 repetitions, 2–5 min rest between sets, 2–4 times per week.1
A single session often takes an hour or longer to complete—too long if you have 17 mouths waiting for you at home to rip your head off unless you feed them. NOW.
So here’s how to manipulate training variables to cut that time almost in half, according to Schoenfeld and colleagues (you’d still need to train at least twice per week to optimize gainz):
Training Volume and Frequency
Training volume (weekly sets per major muscle group) and frequency (how often you train) are the most important variables related to training time.
A 2017 meta-analysis looked at how many weekly sets you need to perform to see muscle growth. Researchers split the studies into three groups:
They found the dose-response relationship—increased training volume produced more muscle growth:
Doing fewer than 5 weekly sets per muscle produced an average gain of 5.4%. 4 weekly sets can easily be covered in a single session.
So if your schedule allows only one weekly session, don’t fret—this will suffice for muscle growth. It won’t be as optimal as performing 10-20 weekly sets but you will progress.
Any progress is progress. No matter how small or slow.
If you can train more often, then the recommendation2 for training frequency for beginners is 2-3 days/week:
Training Load and Repetitions
If your time in the gym is limited, doing 15–40 repetitions is just… galactically stupid (unless you do home-based training). It takes way too long.
That said, you should prefer heavier loads. Stick to the 6-12 rep range.
Not only the weight of the evidence indicates that this loading zone is effective for increasing size and strength but it also lets you complete a workout quicker.
Just make sure to train with lower RIRs (reps in reserve)—since you only train 1-3 times per week, it means less volume being done and recovery isn’t an issue for you. So go close or to failure on every set.
This will increase the level of stimulus without increasing the time required to train.
Multi-Joint and Single Joint Exercises
Single-joint exercises target specific muscles. Think of a bicep curl:
Multi-joint exercises involve several muscle groups which allow lifting heavier weights. Think of a squat:
Since multi-joint exercises activate several groups of muscles simultaneously, it’s smart to design your program with more focus on exercises like a squat, bench press, barbell row, overhead press, etc.
This way, a greater amount of muscle mass will be trained in a shorter period of time.
Free-Weight and Machine Exercises
Pitting free weights against machines is like pitting fruits against vegetables—eating both will make your diet healthier. Same here—free weights and machines are equally effective for increasing muscle and strength (I proved it here).
So there’s no reason to avoid machines if you have access to them. And if you’re pressed by time, machines can be a great way to shorten your workouts.
Let’s say you want to do a barbell hip thrust. The set up for barbell hip thrust sucks dick. It really does.
You need to get a damn bench, a damn barbell, and goddamn plates. Then, assemble everything. If that wasn’t enough, you’ll probably also need to elevate a barbell so that you could get in a position. This means MORE goddamn plates.
Alternatively, you could just head to the Smith machine. No eye-watering hassle there.
So if you have machines available to you, use them. They should be a PART of a logically designed training program.
Bilateral and Unilateral Exercises
Exercises can be done unilaterally—training one side of the body at the same time, e.g. lunges. Or bilaterally—training both sides of the body at the same time, e.g. leg press.
Obviously, since both sides of the body are trained simultaneously, you should prioritize bilateral exercises.
Leave unilateral exercises for home-based training or specific reasons such as fixing strength or muscular imbalance.
As I said here, sufficient rest between sets will ensure that you’re achieving local muscle fatigue rather than systemic and getting sufficient and stimulative volume in.
So make sure that you’re not doing silly burpees or jumping jacks between sets because…
Recovering properly between sets will allow you to push each set with a high effort which in turn will result in better muscle and strength gains.
So take a 1-minute rest for smaller muscle groups and at least a 2-minute rest for major muscle groups.3
Now, I understand that resting for 2 minutes after every set will make your workouts longer. But don’t worry, I gotchu—here are two advanced training methods that limit the amount of passive rest without significantly compromising results:
Supersets involve doing two sets of DIFFERENT exercises back to back without rest in between. Here’s how you’d train with traditional sets:
And this is how you’d approach supersets:
So you’d cut training time in almost half without compromising training volume. And that’s what we see in literature too:
Just make sure to pair exercises for different muscle groups—for example, leg press for the quads and Romanian deadlifts for the hamstrings.
This won’t hurt performance because target muscles in these exercises are non-overlapping.
2. Drop Sets
Drop sets involve doing sets to or close to failure, reducing the weight by 20–25%, and then immediately doing another set or multiple sets—drop sets. Every drop set should allow you to perform 5-10 reps.
Or you could do a drop set on the last normal set:
This way you will minimize rest between sets without reducing total training volume.
By the way, if you don’t want your trachea to be crushed by a hill of weight plates, utilize drop sets mainly in isolation or machine exercises.
With all this information blasted at you, you may think that designing a workout plan is harder than splitting the atom. Not at all.
Here’s a simple example of a possible workout:
Leg press with 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Romanian deadlift with 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Barbell bench press with 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Bent-over barbell row with 4 sets of 6-12 reps
Overhead barbell/dumbbell press with 3 sets of 6-12 reps (drop set on the last set)
Barbell hip thrust with 3 sets of 6-12 reps (drop set on the last set)
The whole workout would take 40-45 minutes to complete. Add 5-10 minutes for 1-2 warm sets for each of the exercises and you’re looking at a 45-55-minute workout.
And don’t tell me that you can’t find time for 2-3 such workouts. I won’t believe you. I will probably think it’s straight-up full assault BS.
- If you have no time to work out, stick to 1-3 weekly sessions with 2-4 sets/muscle group/session. Preferably more (≥ 10 sets) if you want optimal muscle growth.
- Stick mostly to the 6-12 rep range done at or close to failure.
- Make multi-joint, compound exercises the foundation of your training.
- Use the mix of both free weight and machine exercises (depending on available equipment or your lifting experience).
- Perform bilateral exercises unless your training goal asks for unilateral exercises.
- Take a 1-minute rest for smaller muscle groups and at least a 2-minute rest between compound lifts. Limit that rest by using supersets and/or drop sets.
I refuse to believe that you’re so busy that you can’t find 2-3 hours per week to work out. If you think can’t, then you don’t have a time issue. You have a time management issue.
If fitness is important enough for you, you will take an honest look at how you’re spending your time. Once you do that and find a few extra hours to train, the above methods will help you to get the most out of those 2-3 sessions.
Originally published by me at Medium on June 30, 2021.