Aim for an Effective AND Efficient Workout

How nice would it be if our time allowance in the gym was equal to the number of exercise variations?

Trick question. It really wouldn’t be super great. Who wants to spend hours and hours in the gym?

Personally, I’d rather be spending time outside, enjoying a craft beer with friends, cooking a new recipe, or hanging out with my family. While training is a big part of my life, it doesn’t occupy the majority of my time, and I don’t want it to either.

As a result, I’m forced to prioritize. Based on my goals, exercise history, injuries, and preferences, I have to choose the best exercise variations for me. There’s no way I’m able to include them all. I also have to organize my workout in a way that allows me to move through the exercises efficiently. If you’re short on time and don’t have all day to spend at the gym, here are a few tips!

DO NOT skip the warm up.

Before we get into what we should do, let’s touch on one thing I see all the time: skipping the warm up.

“Oh, I was short on time so I skipped the warm up and I was able to get in all of my training still!”

*Insert a cringe face from Emily*

While you may think you’re saving yourself time by skipping or abbreviating the warm up, going right from sitting at a desk to hopping on the treadmill or lifting heavy weights is a surefire way to increase injury risk and decrease performance throughout the workout.

The warm up is the base of the pyramid for the rest of the training session. Without it, injury risk increases, performance suffers, and progress is left on the table. Check out my previous article here for an efficient and effective warm up, regardless of what your workout includes!

Alright, once that we’ve laid the foundation with our warm up, let’s touch on three things that you should take into consideration during your workouts if you’re short on time.

Choose compound movements.

If we’re short on time, the first area to look at is exercise selection. What exercises are you choosing that cause your workouts to take a while? Are you performing multi-joint, compound movements or exercises that target a single muscle at a time?

When you’re looking to get the most bang for your buck in a short amount of time, multi-joint, compound exercises are the way to go! A great example is a bicep curl vs. a chin up. During a bicep curl, the biceps are the primary muscle working. It’s a relatively small muscle, and one that’s used quite often in everyday life. However, a chin up incorporates the muscles of the back, shoulders, core, and arms. In fact, biceps are still a primary muscle in the chin up! Below is a comparison of the muscle activation of the bicep curl (left) vs. chin up (right).

Muscle activation during a bicep curl
Muscle activation during a chin up

When you’re short on time, choose variations that target the small muscles while hitting those bigger muscles as well. Examples of these compound exercises include: squats, lunges, deadlifts, bent rows, push-ups, pull-ups or chin ups, and overhead press. Once those are incorporated, then add in accessories at the end.

Incorporate supersets or circuits.

Instead of cutting smaller exercises out altogether, we can cut down the rest time between each. Organizing our workout in either supersets or circuits not only allows for a metabolic component to be added, but increases efficiency.

A superset is a pair of exercises that work opposing muscle groups. An example would be a bench press and then a bent row. Perform a set of bench press. Then, without resting, complete a set of bent row. Rest only after the bent row is complete and repeat as many times as desired.

A circuit is a series of exercises that may work different muscles throughout. This allows you to work each while limiting rest times in between. For example, you may have a circuit of goblet squats, chin ups, and a dead bug. Move through the lower body, upper body, and core exercise for a set number of times. Rest can be incorporated at the end of each round or as needed with the goal of as many rounds as possible within a set time frame.

Perform priority movements first.

On occasion, we go into the gym without having a definitive end time. We may be expecting a call or meeting to pop up, but still want to fit in a workout. Perhaps we weren’t able to get to the gym as early as we had hoped and the 90 minutes we expected turns into 45. In this case, I suggest choosing your priority movements or areas of training first. Then add in the extras, if there’s time. This is going to look different for everyone.

If your goal is building strength or muscle, you’re undoubtedly going to choose a heavy, compound lift first. If you have a goal of running a race in the near future, the cardio portion of your workout may take priority. Assess your goals and, after your warm up, start with whichever is the priority for you! The accessories can be added in after the fact or during a second short session, if you really want to fit them into your day.

Ultimately, being short on time is a simple fix to get in your workout for the day. Even if you need to do something completely "off program", setting up a quick circuit or walking on the treadmill beats sitting at your desk or on the couch!