28 December 2018
4 WAYS TO SAVE TIME IN THE GYM
F YOU ARE SOMEONE WHO HAS MINIMAL TIME TO WORKOUT, OR PERHAPS A CHANGE IN LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES SIMPLY MEANS YOU CAN NO LONGER DEDICATE HOURS ON END TO YOUR TRAINING, FEAR NOT. THESE FOUR TIPS WILL ALLOW YOU TO GET IN AND OUT OF THE GYM AND STILL PROVIDE FOR AN EFFECTIVE AND BENEFICIAL TRAINING…
F YOU ARE SOMEONE WHO HAS MINIMAL TIME TO WORKOUT, OR PERHAPS A CHANGE IN LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES SIMPLY MEANS YOU CAN NO LONGER DEDICATE HOURS ON END TO YOUR TRAINING, FEAR NOT. THESE FOUR TIPS WILL ALLOW YOU TO GET IN AND OUT OF THE GYM AND STILL PROVIDE FOR AN EFFECTIVE AND BENEFICIAL TRAINING SESSION.
1. SET CLEAR TIME CONSTRAINTS
Remember Parkinson’s Law: work expands to fill the time allotted – regardless of how much time it actually needs. Thus, while allowing yourself unlimited time at the gym can feel like the right call (“Need more time? Take it!”), doing so can both consciously and unconsciously lead you to use that time less efficiently. As such, if you want to use your training time efficiently, it’s important to set a clear time limit for each workout, even if it includes some flexibility (we’ll come back to this).
Ideally, the time limits you put on your workouts will effectively account for both your overall scheduling demands and your training program. Fully acknowledging the wide variance which exists between individuals in terms of their day-to-day obligations and the amount of time their training program realistically demands, I would suggest the following guidelines for workout length:
- Pure hypertrophy sessions: 45-75 minutes
- Combined strength and hypertrophy sessions (i.e. ‘powerbuilding’): 60-90 minutes
- Powerlifting sessions: 60-90 minutes, with a bias toward the top end of that range
Note that I generally recommend trainees of all types (barring perhaps professional athletes) avoid workouts of greater than 90 minutes (1.5 hours) in duration, as it’s been my experience longer sessions almost necessarily result in a problematic reduction in physical performance and mental focus caused by fatigue.
2. MAKE YOUR WARMUP SHORT & SPECIFIC
With long warmups, consisting of low-intensity cardio and/or extensive mobility and activation drills, seeming to have surged in popularity in recent years, it’s worth keeping in mind why we warm up in the first place: to improve performance and decrease injury risk (and perhaps to improve muscle activation, although this objective is of arguable legitimacy in the context of properly-designed training). It’s also worth keeping in mind there is no physiological free lunch, and an improper warmup routine can actually hamper that which it’s intended to improve. Thus, it’s important one’s warmups be appropriately calibrated to the particular context in which they’re being performed.
These warmups can actually reduce performance by causing local (muscular) or general fatigue, and take up time which could otherwise be allocated toward the core of your workouts. As such, I recommend performing the least amount of low-intensity cardio necessary to raise your core body temperature (no more than ten minutes, at an intensity you could maintain for at least twice as long), improve whole-body mobility, and mentally prepare you for lifting, along with the least amount of mobility/activation work necessary to maximize performance and minimize injury risk, with this work being directly relevantto the particular lifts you’ll be performing in the workout itself. For example, prior to a lower body workout it might be best to focus on dynamic warmups which improve your hip and ankle mobility, and prior to an upper body workout you might want to focus on movements which encourage proper scapular positioning.
3. CHOOSE EXERCISES WITH A QUICK SETUP
While there is little doubt the ‘big’ compound lifts (e.g. squats, deadlifts, hip thrusts, bench press, and overhead press) should make up the core of one’s training, they aren’t without their own disadvantages. From the perspective of efficiency in particular, these exercises do have the clear advantage of allowing you to effectively train multiple muscles at the same time, but the fact multiple joints and muscles are involved results in relatively heavier loads being used. While this is not inherently problematic (except, perhaps, in the form of a certain degree of unavoidable injury risk), it does tend to yield longer warmup and setup times. This means that any given set of one of these exercises will require more total preparation (warmup + setup) time than will a set of a comparable machine exercise (note that this is not a claim that machine exercises are exactly as effective as their freeweight counterparts). As such, if your schedule is sufficiently restrictive that doing the heavy freeweight work you perhaps should be or want to be doing, or if you simply desire to use your time in the gym more efficiently, it can be helpful to make a greater percentage of your total training machine work. As a variation on this theme, it can also be beneficial to replace certain freeweight exercises with other, ‘smaller’ freeweight movements, exemplified by performing a dumbbell press in place of a barbell press. This way, you’ll get an even closer approximation of the intended stimulus, while still saving time.
These is a caveat to this: if you train with the goal of increasing strength on specific exercises, you obviously have no choice but to do those exercises if you desire to maximize that performance outcome. Thus, the recommendation to make alterations in one’s exercise selection is primarily useful in the context of pure hypertrophy training, as no one exercise is essential in that context. However, the strength trainee can still benefit to some extent by applying this principle to accessory work.
4. SHORTEN YOUR REST PERIODS
In my experience, most discussions about rest periods come to the conclusion it’s best to rest as long as necessary to fully recover between sets (at least, fully recover to the extent possible within a workout). This makes sense, as training volume (i.e. the amount of work you do in the gym) is strongly positively associated with muscle growth (in simpler terms, more volume generally yields more growth), and longer rest periods allow for greater total volume (as a function of better intra-set recovery and reduced fatigue). However, it’s important to understand that thinking about rest periods from this perspective only makes sense assuming unlimited time. For example, a hypothetical study might show that three-minute rest periods produce, on average, greater muscle and strength gains than do one-minute rest periods (see previous comment re: recovery). However, assuming other training variables were kept the same (which they would be in any well-designed study of this kind), the subjects in the three-minute group would necessarily end up spending much more time in the gym. Thus, ‘in the real world’ (note this is a phrase I usually dislike using, as I fear it may give the impression scientific research is somehow unreal in a way which undermines its legitimacy), we all have non-fitness-related obligations (whether they involve family, work, business, or school), and all of these obligations are constantly competing for our time and attention. As such, while it is indeed the case that longer rest periods can be superior in a particular context(i.e. workouts of unlimited duration), shorter rest periods are often the superior option in practice.
Note, however, I am not suggesting that you make your rest periods so short as to absolutely exhaust your cardiovascular system, as this is counterproductive from a performance standpoint, and distracting. Instead, I suggest experimenting with your rest periods, aiming to get the best recovery and performance bang for your time buck. In my experience, this usually translates to (at a minimum – again, we’re aiming to maximize efficiency here):
- 1.5-2 minutes for ‘big’ compound exercises such as squats and deadlifts when performed not near failure (any less and you’re really asking for performance decrements; keep in mind that exhaustion on these movements can easily result in form breakdown and injury)
- About a minute for most exercises (we’re assuming moderately demanding compound movements here – multi-joint machine exercises are generally good examples)
- 45-60 seconds for most isolation work
Finally, I would note that isolation exercises can demand a perhaps-counterintuitive amount of recovery time, as they allow for a particularly high level of local muscular fatigue to be generated.