TRY IT: Cut Down on Workout Time

28 Apr

Image by notanartist

Before you get too excited, I have to throw in the disclaimer that your goals in the gym determine to a large extent the amount of time you have to hang out there.


A lot of people think they need to spend a certain amount of time exercising instead of looking at how much total energy they are expending.

What’s the Minimum?

For non-athletes, you’ve got three basic goals at the gym:

  1. Maintaining health
  2. Losing Weight
  3. Gaining muscle

All three of these objective can be met in a few hours a week.

The American College of Sports Medicine gives this minimum for physical activity to maintain cardiovascular health in those 65 and under:

Do moderately intense cardio 30 minutes a day, five days a week


Do vigorously intense cardio 20 minutes a day, 3 days a week

I know! It’s like a fitness loophole!

So, this is a minimum for health but it’s still far from the hour a day that a lot of people spend watching Oprah on the treadmill, trying to get their minutes in.

The idea of course is that if you work harder, you can stop sooner.

Sometimes knowing that your workout is 20 minutes instead of 60 is also a pretty huge motivator to get it done.

If you’re looking to lose weight or gain muscle, this same principle works. You work at a higher intensity (be that heart rate or weight load) for a shorter period of time.

Balancing Work and Rest: Intervals and SuperIntervals

One of the best ways to increase intensity without overdoing it is by using interval training.

There are many, many ways to structure these workouts but basically you do a short period of very intense work followed by a period of lower intensity work.

The length of the intervals and the level of intensity needs to be suited to your fitness level, but here are some basic ideas:

  • Beginner: 20 seconds sprint followed by 1 minute walking, repeat 10 times.
  • Intermediate: 6 repetitions of 70% your 1 repetition maximum weight for each resistance training exercise. Rest 90 seconds between each.
  • Advanced: 40 seconds of high intensity plyometrics (tuck jumps, jump squats, burpees) followed by 20 seconds of rest. OR Superintervals – the Tabata!

If you really want to get in and out of the gym, the Tabata is for you. Although often modified to create a longer training session, the traditional Tabata is 4 minutes long.

Yes, the whole workout. Four minutes. That’s it.

The format is 20 seconds work (any exercise), 10 seconds rest for 8 rounds.

At about 150% of your maximum oxygen intake (read: as hard as you can possibly work).

Warning: Seriously don’t do this if you don’t have at least 6 months of training…and don’t mind feeling a bit nauseated after.

Avoiding Plateaus

Just like if you jog on the treadmill everyday for an hour, doing the same interval training every week will eventually result in diminishing returns.

The great news is that this doesn’t mean you have to increase your training time.

A good way to avoid plateaus is to 1) switch up the rotation or 2) increase the intensity.

Remember that your body adapts over time. While it was challenging to do 20 jumping jacks in a 20 second interval when you started, you may need to acknowledge that you could really be getting 25 in now.

Increasing the intensity of your work and adding new exercises will ensure continued progress.

Losing Weight and Gaining Strength

Pretty much everyone who has fitness goals needs to do some cardio and some weights. One or the other just doesn’t cut it.

But your fitness goals can dictate what your focus is.

If you just want to stay healthy, a couple sessions of cardio and a couple sessions of weights per week will be just fine.

If you want to gain muscle, you’ll need to get in 2-4 solid weight training sessions (depending on length) and…. same goes for those of you trying to lose weight.

Cardio is great for calorie burning, but so is resistance training. Lifting weights will build muscle to support better training sessions and it also creates a shapelier figure for both genders.

ACSM recommends 5 hours per week of activity for weight loss and maintenance.

I think you can very reasonably accomplish this in 20-30 minutes per day if you kick it up a notch with interval cardio and high weight-low repetition resistance training.

Instead of 60 minutes at one speed on a cardio machine, trying doing hills or sprints, reducing the amount of rest over time.

For resistance training, try to find the weight that works for 5-8 repetitions before you have a strong fatigue in the muscle.

This is a good guideline for strength building in general, and those who would like make this a focus can rotate between workouts using 1-3, 5-6 and 7-8 repetitions per set. Just make sure to pick a weight that really challenges you on the last repetition of each set.

Resources for Quick Workouts

I’m a big fan of creating my own workouts. I like to listen to music and just go through the exercises that I’ve jotted down on a slip of paper.

It’s fun, it’s customized and I can do it at my own pace.

I also understand that some people like a bit more structure. Some ideas:

  • Find an interval training class at your gym.
  • Look for High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) videos. I like Cathe’s HIIT video with 3 very challenging 20 minute workouts. Insanity with Shaun T is also really fun but it is pretty intense. Be prepared to modify!
  • Work with a trainer. Even if you don’t need them to hover over you while you work out, a trainer can write up some workouts for you to do on your own (we call it “programming”).

And remember, this is supposed to be challenging! Don’t try this then complain that it’s too hard. Take longer breaks, work your way up to the whole workout.

If it’s comfortable when you first try it, you need a harder workout.

Have you found a creative way to cut time from your workouts? How often do you workout each week and for how long? Do you enjoy interval workouts? What exercises do you use? Let me know in the comments!


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