If you’re a busy person like me, chances are that you don’t really want to spend more time in the gym than you have to. Let’s be honest: workouts are sometimes, well, boring.
We all know that one workout where we end up going to the gym, slogging it out for an hour or two, and then getting absolutely bonkers exhausted. Afterwards, we don’t feel like going back. That happens all the time, and it sucks - but it’s also completely avoidable.
There’s plenty of ways that you can shorten your workouts and increase the efficiency of your workouts so that you can get more done in less time. That means more time to get back to catching up on Twin Peaks after just a half hour to forty five minutes of solid training. Win-win, right?
Here are some simple tips you can use to maximize your workout efficiency.
Full Body Workouts
It’s quite popular to focus on “body part splits” in lifting these days. In a body part split, you train different body parts on different days so that while one muscle group is recovering, you can still train another. Commonly we see week-long splits, where you train each muscle group once per week.
I’m not going to go too deeply into the reasoning on this (I’ve covered it in the article on training frequency), but this can be a huge waste for most lifters. Instead, full body workouts (where you train more than one muscle group, or even all muscle groups, per day) tend to be much more time efficient, and allow you to get more work in, faster.
My most common recommendation to get the best of both worlds is to perform a simple upper/lower split - train all your upper body work one day, all your lower body work another, rest, repeat. This manages to keep some of the best aspects of both the full body and the split approach by keeping it simple.
You can also make it act more like a traditional split by alternating the focus of your upper and lower body days. By training your bench press hard on one upper body day and your overhead press or back hard on another, but still hitting all the same muscle groups on both upper body days, you can get a solid workout in and train a lot of different movements effectively without needing to do the same stuff in the same ways, over and over.
This may have been confusing, but here’s the takeaway:
Full body workouts save time. Do more at once so that you don't need to go into the gym as frequently.
Ditch The Bicep Curls
Bicep curls are a waste, I hate them.
Okay, so that’s not entirely true, but they are a poor return on your time investment when you could be working out much larger muscle groups.
Exercises which target just one muscle group (and a relatively small amount of muscle) are called isolation exercises. That includes stuff like your bicep curls, tricep extensions, and lateral raises - so basically, most of your arm workouts.
In contrast, compound exercises target a lot of muscles at the same time. This includes stuff like your bench press, row, squat, deadlift, and overhead press.
Compound exercises use more muscle at once, burn more calories, and lead to more overall muscular growth. This is why they should be the staple of most training programs.
Sadly, most people don’t focus on these lifts. I sure didn’t when I first started lifting. Using isolation exercises isn’t necessarily a bad thing - it’s just not usually a good use of your time. That means that they have their place for those looking to maximize their performance or muscle growth, but aren’t so useful for the average lifter.
Skip the isolation exercises and focus on the more time-efficient compound ones.
Supersets are a method where you pair two exercises back to back with minimal rest. While you’re working one muscle group, the other one rests - it's the principle of a body part split, but applied on a very small time period. Typically, you pick two exercises which use different muscle groups that don’t interfere with each other.
Supersets can be an easy way to make isolation exercises (if you’re still using them) a bit more time efficient. Pairing bicep curls and tricep extensions, for example, helps you get in arm work faster. You can also pair a compound exercise with an isolation exercise - for example, pairing bench presses and bicep curls.
However, pairing is important - if you pair two exercises that don’t work well together, you might just compromise your ability to get in good quality work. Pairing two compound exercises, for example, can be a disaster because with so many muscles involved, there can be overlap in terms of what muscles used. Pairing a deadlift (which tires the lower back) with a standing overhead press (which requires low back stability to avoid injury with the weight overhead) can be a bad idea - so in this example, you may only want to pair a deadlift with a seated overhead press, a bench press, or an isolation exercise.
Supersets aren’t necessarily the holy grail, but they can usually shave time off your workouts and make it easier to get on with your life, without negatively impacting the amount of work you can perform.
Here are some examples of supersets I sometimes use with clients:
Bicep Exercise/Tricep Exercise or Face Pull
Bench Press/Squat, Deadlift, or Lunge Variant
Pushup/Bodyweight Squat or Pullup
Bicep or Tricep Exercise/Squat or Deadlift
Overhead Press/Front Squat
The options are endless, but give a few a try and see if they work for you - if a particular pairing feels weird, makes you too tired, or makes it hard to complete sets with a good rhythm, it’s a sign that maybe you should try another one.
Up The Intensity
Intensity is a measure of how hard you’re working. When it comes to cardio, that means upping the speed or resistance. When it comes to lifting weights, that means upping the weight used (relative to your maximum strength).
Since you're using a higher intensity, the typical setup is to perform short, powerful intervals - alternating high intensity work with a brief rest period. Sprints and bike sprints are the most well known intervals when it comes to cardio. Something like a 1:2 interval (30 sec of high intensity work for every 1 minute of rest) or a 1:1 interval (30 sec of high intensity work for every 30 sec of rest) is common.
For weight training, the typical recommendation is to pick a heavy weight and perform a set to complete failure (you can't lift another rep) and then take a short rest before moving on to another set with the same exercise, or another exercise.
Studies like the tabata study have shown that high intensity training can have highly potent effects - however, many people use these studies to justify weird, goofy training programs that violate various other principles of exercise science. You can't expect to simply perform intervals of any exercise and get the same effect.
In particular, while you can get really time-efficient results, you can also generate a lot of fatigue and stress in a very short period of time. If you’re not prepared for that kind of high intensity, you might be at an increased risk for injury. This means that you should approach this method carefully.
Additionally, you should take care when combining high intensity work with something like supersets - which tend to work better with lower intensities.
Here’s an example of a high intensity weight training routine and a high intensity cardio routine.
Intervals - 30 sec of high speed (fast as you can go) alternated with 60 sec of low speed (easy rest) - repeat for 6-10 sets. Can be done on treadmills, spin cycles, and rowers. Doesn’t work so well with ellipticals or stairmasters.
Dumbbell or Barbell Bench Press - pick a weight and do 1 set to failure. Record results and plan on aiming for more weight or reps in the future.
Goblet Squat or Barbell Back Squat - pick a weight and do 1 set to failure. Record results and plan on aiming for more weight or reps in the future.
Barbell Seated Overhead Press - pick a weight and do 1 set to failure. Record results and plan on aiming for more weight or reps in the future.
Barbell or Kettlebell Deadlift - pick a weight and do 1 set to failure. Record results and plan on aiming for more weight or reps in the future.
Machine Row or Lat Pulldown - pick a weight and do 1 set to failure. Record results and plan on aiming for more weight or reps in the future.
(If you’re feeling good after 1 round of these exercises, you may want to try a 2nd or a 3rd - but this might take time to get used to.)
Programs like this are short and sweet - and can usually be completed in just a half hour or so. This makes them very attractive if you don’t have a ton of time. But - this shorter workout means you have to keep the intensity higher, and that means that the workout will be much rougher. If you struggle to keep intensity high, it may not be a good fit.
Fewer Exercises Is Better
If you’re the person who does five chest exercises per day - cut that out. If you’re putting in the right amount of work, you should only need 1-2 hard compound exercises per body part per day.
Think about it this way - if you push yourself hard enough on 1 chest exercise, that should tire your muscles out fully, correct? That means that if you have excess energy left over, you probably weren’t pushing yourself hard enough.
It’s not always this simple - yes, sometimes you do need more exercise variety to hit the muscle in slightly different ways. However, you shouldn’t need more than 1 or 2 exercises per body part per day. Get that variety in on other days if you need more of it, and focus on hitting that one exercise harder instead of worrying about multiple exercises.
Keep Yourself On Track
Let’s be real. A lot of us waste time at the gym that we don’t have to. One of the best ways to shorten your time in the gym is to get a bit stricter about keeping to your schedule.
It used to be the belief in the past that shorter rest periods were better for endurance style lifting (<1min), and longer rest periods were better for strength style lifting (2.5-5min), with size training falling in the center (1-2.5 min).
However, more recent research suggests that longer rest periods are always better, since you can recover more and do more work. That doesn’t mean I suggest 10 minute long rest periods - just that it’s probably better to shoot for the upper end of that 5 minutes per set, or wait until you feel as fully recovered as possible instead of charging in while you’re still getting over the last set.
That being said, it’s a tradeoff - longer rest periods may mean more work and better results, but it also means more time in the gym. Also, let’s be honest - a lot of us spend more than five minutes messing around on our phones in the gym, a classic case of "fucking around on Facebook". This excess time isn't productive, since chances are that you're already fully recovered (as recovered as you're going to be, that is).
Here’s an easy way to keep yourself honest: set a timer. You can download an interval timer app on your phone and set it to intervals of 1 minute - then, count minutes and be prepared to start a new set when your time’s up. I’ve always got headphones in, so this keeps me on track without bothering anyone around me.
Or, set it up for a 30 second lifting interval (or however long it normally takes you to complete a set) followed by an interval of your chosen rest period length. This simplifies things so that you don’t have to count minutes, but it’s a bit less flexible.
Whatever the case, having this timer makes it much easier to get off your ass and start lifting when the time’s right. If you find yourself starting to struggle to complete sets in the given time interval, it’s probably a sign that you’re getting too exhausted to continue, or that you’re making the individual sets a bit too hard.
You can also extend your rest periods a bit as you get more tired out - this is the method I use. Typically I’ll start off with a 3 minute rest, and then increase it to 5 minutes by the end of the workout as I get more exhausted. This is the reason I prefer setting a generic 1 minute interval, because I can make this adjustment on the fly without needing to change my interval timer.
Setting a timer is a powerful method of keeping yourself on track. Likewise, a trainer or training partner can do the same, but you may not have access to one.
- Ditch the body part splits, or use a simple upper/lower split, focusing on full body workouts. This increases your time efficiency and focuses on the work that matters.
- Ditch the focus on isolation exercises for your biceps, triceps, shoulders, calves, and traps. Focus instead on whole body compound movements which have a greater return on your time investment.
- Supersets allow you to minimize rest times and get work in quicker. Take care to pair exercises that work well together and won't compromise the quality of your work.
- High intensity training methods are difficult but provide a greater return on your time - if you're up for them.
- Limit the number of exercises you're training per day. Focus on hitting 1-2 exercises per muscle group hard instead of doing 3+ exercises per muscle group per day and not really pushing hard.
- Keep yourself on track and limit your "fucking around" time by using outside methods like a timer, trainer, or exercise partner.
Are you interested in perfecting your deadlift and building legendary strength and muscle? Check out my free ebook, Deadlift Every Day.