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How to Maximize Your Workout When You Have No Time

By Steve Calechman
March 02, 2021

Consistent and regular workouts—totaling at least two-and-a-half hours of moderate-intensity exercise per week—comprise one of the pillars of good health. But sometimes, work obligations and family commitments can make scheduling time to hit the gym easier said than done. On days when an hour-long class or gym session isn’t possible, you can likely manage to carve out a little time, say, 20 minutes, to stick to your exercise goals.

Of course, you’ll have to overcome the urge to make excuses to just skip altogether (“Getting to the gym and back would take longer; besides, it’ll probably be really crowded and I won’t get anything done anyway.”). The truth is: Even a short amount of time can be productive. The first step is to shift your mindset. The gym can be great for workouts, but the place doesn’t have a monopoly on physical activity. “Every movement is exercise,” says Ethan Benda, a certified trainer in Kansas City, Missouri.

Once you grasp that, the only challenge is figuring out how to best use your small window. Here’s a plan for every type of exerciser, from workout newbie to gym rat.

When You’re Still Learning: The Newcomers

Those who are new to exercise face the biggest challenge when their schedule is upended. “You’re bad at exercise, you don’t have the habit,” says Alex McBrairty, fitness coach in Ann Arbor, Michigan. It’s a lot easier to make excuses to skip the gym if you’ve never established working out as part of your routine.

Instead of trying to motivate yourself to go to the gym when you know you only have 20 minutes to work out, just do something physical. You want to establish what McBrairty calls a Minimum Activity Plan or MAP, which is the least amount you can do and feel like you’ve done something. This could be a 10-minute walk, 15 minutes of stretching, or something else that doesn’t rely on equipment or a specific location. Try breaking out one of those seven-minute workout apps or 20-minute YouTube yoga videos—just be sure to choose something that includes a beginner routine. Your main goal is to build the exercise habit. That comes from being consistent and getting small wins, such as following through on your MAP. “It gets you successful, and you grow to getting excited,” he says.

Another way to fight the inertia that can keep us sofa-bound is to treat the time as a reward, not as punishment. “You have 15 minutes to do something. Make the best of it,” Benda says. If your new fitness program involves sessions with a trainer, have them write up a shorter workout plan just for times like this. If you’re already clear on the specific moves, you can start by doing 10 repetitions of each exercise in your normal routine, keeping your rest time to 30 seconds. For example, three sets for six different body parts is 18 total sets. With each set taking about 20 seconds, that’s six minutes of exercise, eight-and-a-half minutes of rest time, and you’re done in under 15 minutes.

You Could Go Either Way: The Occasional Exercisers

You regularly hit the gym or exercise studio one to two times a week. You don’t mind working out; but, you also don’t mind skipping if you have limited time. The answer is having alternatives. At the gym, pick your three favorite exercises and do two to three sets of 10 to 15 reps in a circuit routine: Do one set of the three exercises in a row, then rest, then do another set. This modified workout helps maintain the habit and also makes the time enjoyable. Exercise can slip into drudgery; but when you have fun, you excel and feel more positive about working out, McBrairty says.

If you don’t even have time to get to the gym, you can keep up your fitness commitment by doing a routine at home consisting of five to 10 body weight exercises, such as squats, push-ups, jumping jacks, lunges, triceps dips, abdominal crunches, leg raises, and mountain climbers (for this move, start in the push-up position and alternate bringing each knee toward the chest). Set a timer for however long you have to work out, and do 10 reps for each exercise, taking only as much rest as is needed. The benefit of this setup is that it works for anyone; it can be adjusted for level of experience; so, if you’re able, you can go faster and do more rounds, McBrairty says.

You Don’t Want to Miss a Day: The Regulars

For this group, the problem isn’t the worry that you’ll break your exercise habit, but that it almost feels worse not to work out. One option is using your personal MAP. But if you go to the gym, pick three big, compound movements, such as pull-ups, squats, deadlifts, push-ups, and do two to three sets of 10 reps for each exercise. It’ll work every muscle in your body and elevate your heart rate, suggests McBrairty.

Another option is what Benda calls the Diamond Protocol. Pick six exercises that you’re somewhat challenged by and complete 12 to 20 reps. Order them Numbers 1 through 6, alternating upper body and lower body, and pushing versus pulling exercises, so you don’t overtax any muscle group. Starting with Exercise Number 1, do one set of 12 to 20 reps, rest for 10 to 25 seconds. Do another set, rest, then do a set of Exercise Number 2. Continue the progression.

After you’ve done all six in a row, go back to the beginning but drop one exercise, starting with Exercise Number 1. Then, in the next round, eliminate Exercise Number 2, tapering down until your final set consists solely of Exercise Number 6. In total, you’ll do 36 sets in fewer than 20 minutes, and it will be a good challenge and change of pace. “You fit an hour’s work into 18 minutes, and because you’re disrupting your usual routine, the workout becomes both a mental and a physical challenge,” Benda says.

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