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Hacking Your Workouts: Get Better Results in Less Time

By Adam Trainor October 11, 2019

Gold? Diamonds? Oil?

Forget them all!

When it comes to valuable commodities, time should be at the top of the most-prized list.

Time is something most of us wish we had more of, and it’s something you can’t buy. Everyone has the same 24 hours a day, and 168 hours per week.

Despite its obvious value, a lot of people waste time. One of the most obvious (to me at least!) culprits for time-wasting is exercise.

I’m not saying exercise is a waste of time. It’s just that a lot of people waste time during their workouts.

They spend way too much time on unproductive exercise methods, do more exercise than is necessary, or simply fail to follow workouts designed to meet their goals.

A lot of people say they don’t have time to exercise. I believe part of that reason is that, when it comes to working out, the fitness industry tends to have a “more is better” attitude.

Longer workouts may provide you with better results but are those extra benefits proportional to the amount of time you have to spend working out?

Probably not.

I believe in treating exercise time and energy like money to be invested. I want the best possible return for my efforts.

Here are five of my favorite hacks for shorter, more productive workouts. 

1. Build muscles in minutes with one set to failure training

How many sets of an exercise do you need to do to increase your strength, build muscle, or get toned?

According to bodybuilders, the answer is usually “a lot!”

Building muscle

Most exercisers do several sets per exercise, multiple exercises per muscle group, and work a couple of muscle groups per workout.

This approach means that many exercises follow split routines, where different muscle groups are trained on different days. People using this approach typically hit the gym 4-5 times a week, for 60-90 minutes per session.

That's a BIG commitment!  

It turns out that, unless you have dreams of becoming a champion bodybuilder, you don’t need such lengthy or frequent workouts. Instead of spending hours in the gym, you can achieve excellent results from workouts that last minutes rather than hours.

According to a study (1) conducted at the Center for Exercise Science, Department of Exercise and Sports Sciences, University of Florida, Gainesville, USA, single-set strength training can produce similar results to multiple set training.

If you are serious about hacking your workout and spending less time in the gym, a single set that takes you close to or reaches momentary muscular failure is an excellent option.

Not sure where to start? Here's a full-body workout to try. 

This program should be repeated 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days. Even if you work out our three times a week, you'll spend less time working out per week than most people spend on a single session.

 

Exercise

Sets

Reps*

1

Leg extension

1

15-20

2

Leg presses

1

8-12

3

Dumbbell bench press

1

8-12

4

Chest supported rows

1

8-12

5

Leg curls

1

15-20

6

Barbell hip thrusts

1

8-12

7

Shoulder press

1

8-12

8

Pull-ups

1

AMRAP

9

Triceps pushdowns

1

8-12

10

Barbell curls

1

8-12

11

Hanging knee raises

1

AMRAP

12

Side planks

1

ALAP

 

*After a brief warm-up, do just one set to momentary muscular failure. Adjust your weights so that each set ends somewhere within the prescribed rep range. For exercises designated AMRAP (as many reps as possible) or ALAP (as long as possible) just work as hard as you can.

Additional time-saving bonus:

Move quickly from one exercise to the next to get a free cardio workout!

2. Get fitter and leaner with mini cardio bursts

Cardio is one of the most time-consuming forms of exercise.

Cardio

If you head out for a run or a bike ride, you won’t get much benefit from anything less than a 20 to 30-minute workout. If you are already pretty fit, you may need to exercise for an hour or more at a time.

Group exercise classes also tend to last between 40 to 60 minutes.

If you want to hit the gym to lift weights and want to do cardio too, you can kiss goodbye to about six hours per week, and potentially more.

But what if you made more use of your gym time?

After all, if you do multiple-set strength training, you probably spend at least half of your workout resting between sets. If your workout consists of 20 sets, that's over 20 minutes spent doing nothing.

What a waste!

Make better use of this downtime by doing a brief burst of cardio between sets of strength training. This will save you from having to dedicate additional time to cardio workouts and also help you burn more calories per workout. A brief burst of cardio will also increase circulation, which may speed up recovery between sets and exercises.

Here is an example of a full-body workout with mini cardio bursts during the recovery periods. Do this workout 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days.

There is no need to do any additional cardio sessions as this program includes 28 minutes of cardio along with the strength training.

 

Exercise

Sets

Reps

Recovery*

1

Squats

3

12, 10, 8

60 seconds jump rope

2

Leg curls

3

15

60 seconds exercise bike

3

Bench press

3

12, 10, 8

60 seconds treadmill

4

Bent over rows

3

12, 10, 8

60 seconds shadow boxing

5

Walking lunges

3

12 per leg

60 seconds high knee marching

6

Shoulder press

3

12, 10, 8

60 seconds rower

7

Lat pulldown

3

12, 10, 8

60 seconds elliptical

8

Skull crushers

2

12, 10

60 seconds step-ups

9

Dumbbell curls

2

12, 10

60 seconds jumping jacks

10

Cable wood chops

3

15 per side

60 seconds burpees

 

*Take 10-15 seconds after finishing cardio burst and then do your next set.

3. Build muscle faster using less weight with blood flow restriction training

A lot of exercisers base their workouts on something called bro-science.

Bro science is the term used to describe exercise practices that sound like they might work but are not backed by legitimate research.

Bro science

One example of bro-science is the concept of spot reduction which suggests doing lots of sets and reps for a specific part of your body will speed up fat loss.

Newsflash: it doesn't!

Every now and then, a piece of bro-science crosses over to real science, and one such example is blood flow restriction training. BFR for short, and also known as occlusion training, this workout method involves using elastic straps to reduce blood flow into your working muscles.

The bands are fastened around and above the muscle you want to train. On a tightness scale of 1-10, the band should be about 6-7. Starved of oxygen, your muscles will have to work much harder than usual, which triggers an increased training response and adaptation.

Or, in bro-speak, you’ll get “hella swole and pumped!”

This training method is so intense that most exercisers only need a few sets using light to moderate weight to get a great workout. According to Strength and Conditioning Research (2), several studies support the benefits of BFR training, and it really has graduated out of bro science and into real science.

4. Squeeze exercise into even the busiest day with micro-workouts 

Do you want to know a secret?

I’ve been working out while I’m writing this article.

No, I’m not using dictating software, and nor do I have a secretary to write down my words of wisdom. Instead, I’m breaking up my desk time with micro-workouts.

Exercise is traditionally done in single, uninterrupted blocks. We put aside an hour or so and work out until it’s time to stop.

But what if you take that one-hour workout, break it down into much smaller chunks, and then spread those chunks out throughout your day, like five minutes every hour?

You’ll accumulate the same amount of exercise but without having to dedicate a solid hour to your workout.

I use this method a lot when I have a lot of work to do and can't spare the time to go to the gym. As an added benefit, it breaks up long periods of sitting, which can help offset the postural problems caused by too much desk time.

The longest I’ve ever relied on this method is one month. During that time, a peppered my days with lots of micro-workouts. I was amazed to find that, when I did get back to the gym, I hadn’t lost any strength or fitness.

Fitness win

Also, despite having worked out for no more than 5-10 minutes at a time for over four weeks, I experienced no post-exercise muscle soreness after my return to the gym. I might not have gained much fitness, but I didn’t lose any either.

I call that a success!

Lack of time may stop you from going to the gym, but it doesn’t have to stop you from working out.

Just break up your day with short bouts of jump rope, push-ups, pull-ups, and resistance band exercises to preserve your hard-won fitness.

5. Tabata training: The most time-efficient workout ever!

If you are serious about hacking your workout down to the barest of bones, Tabata training is for you.

Tabata training, often just called Tabatas, is a form of high-intensity interval training, HIIT for short. It was first popularized in 1996 by Japanese sports scientist Izumi Tabata.

In his studies (3), Tabata discovered that a very high intensity but brief workout could have a significant impact on both aerobic and anaerobic fitness.

How brief?

Four minutes!

Mind blown

Tabata training involves doing 20 seconds of maximal intensity exercise, followed by a ten-second rest. Eight sets are usually performed, to total four.

For Tabatas to work, Dr. Tabata suggests an intensity level of 170% of VO2 maximum.

Most exercisers will not have access to a sports laboratory, so that number isn't very helpful. Instead, if you want to try Tabatas for yourself, just make sure you treat each interval as an all-out race – leave nothing in the tank.

If you get to the end of your workout feeling like you could have done more, you weren't working hard enough. Short of a root canal without anesthetic, Tabatas should feel like the longest four minutes of your life!

Tabata used a stationary bike in his studies, but other viable exercise options include:

  ○  Burpees

  ○  Kettlebell swings

  ○  Running or rowing sprints

  ○  Jump rope, especially double-unders

  ○  Barbell thrusters

  ○  Punching a heavy bag

Exercises that won't work include things like planks, push-ups, and biceps curls. They involve too few muscle groups to have much of an effect on your heart and lungs. The best Tabata exercises are those that use lots of muscle groups at the same time.

Tabata training has been popular for a few years now but, like so many fitness industry trends, it’s become very dilated. Tabata training classes are now commonplace, and many of them last 40-60 minutes.

If you can do Tabata training for that long, you aren’t doing real Tabatas. Tabata’s studies were done on very fit Olympic speed skaters, and THEY only did four minutes at a time.

Done right, four minutes should be all you need.

In conclusion...

Whether you are short of time or just want to spend less time working out, these five strategies will help. Exercise is vital for your long-term health, but that doesn't mean you have to dedicate hours and hours of your precious time to reach your fitness goals. 

In fact, if you exercise not just hard but smart too, you can achieve the same or even better results in a fraction of the time.

References:

1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/10647555

2. https://www.strengthandconditioningresearch.com/blood-flow-restriction-training-bfr/#6

3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8897392


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