In the weekly tussle between ‘life’ and ‘workouts’, it’s often ‘life’ that wins, but missing sessions in the gym is guaranteed to kill your strength and performance gains. This is why any kind of session really is better than nothing, but you can play it smart in order to maximize the effectiveness of the time you do have available.
Top athletes like PGA heavy hitter Bryson DeChambeau know that building new strength and power to up their game isn’t an overnight thing – it takes consistent and progressive overload.
So, use these RSNG-approved exercise hacks to make your time in the gym more productive than ever, and slash the time you spend there, without compromising your personal and performance goals…
1. Keep At Least Some Kit At Home One fortunate side-effect of the pandemic was to make home workouts more of a thing, with PTs forced to get creative and post home workout videos, using ad-hoc training aids like ‘a bag of books’. Luckily the world-wide shortage of home training equipment has eased, and you can now buy a basic set of kettlebells or dumb-bells, which is truly all you need for a muscle-testing, body-conditioning workout, which hits all of your muscle groups and can be completed without a time-consuming trip to the gym.
Of course, traveling is another reason we skip workouts so think out of the box and buy some light weight – but heavy load – resistance bands. These can amp up a bodyweight workout in your hotel room to the point of actually creating muscle exhaustion (rather than an aerobic session).
2. Try Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) The mantra of personal trainers everywhere is that “There Are No Shortcuts”. In sports science, there are set benchmarks for reaching enough muscle fatigue within a workout, in order to trigger gains in muscle strength and size. These are like an algorithm – you can’t break the rules (without reaching for illegal and health-trashing steroids, that is).
Except that now, maybe, you can. Blood Flow Restriction (BFR) training isn’t a new idea, and it’s been the secret weapon for high-end athletes looking for that extra edge, for years. It’s just that to do it safely and effectively has required specialist equipment, and professional, qualified supervision.
Now, kit makers such as Hytro have developed a safe way to self-administer BFR with their new gym apparel, and deliver the promise of lifting less weight for fewer sets in order to achieve complete muscle exhaustion in significantly less time. It’s a huge topic, so to find out how it works, read our in-depth preview of the technology, coming soon.
3. Stop Bleeding Time There’s a tendency for gym workouts to bleed time around their edges. What I mean by that is every time you stop for a chat, check your phone, or faff around setting up a weight rack, you burn time. It’s not much but it all adds up. For instance, simply moving to a different set of weights or machine for each exercise will add around 12 minutes to the average workout!
If you’re short on time, try picking a single bench, a barbell and a pair of dumb-bells. Stick your headphones in, switch off notifications, and focus on getting your sets done. You should also be using a stopwatch or timer to time your rests, allowing 60 seconds between sets and just 2-3 minutes between exercises. (You can cut that rest time in half for core conditioning exercises, which will make them more effective too.) This will make your workout fly by.
4. Think ‘Intensity’ Rather Than ‘Volume’ This hack works best when combined with the one above, because it will help you to achieve the thing that most gym workouts fail on: the correct level of intensity. As Head of Training at WIT Fitness, Gustavo vaz Tostes tells me: “Your muscles can’t count. Meaning, if I give you three sets of 10 bench presses to do, your body doesn’t know it has done 10 unless it is fatigued by that. If you feel you could have done five more reps, then the weight you have used, and therefore the intensity of the exercise, is wrong.”
On the other hand, if you've picked the right weight to lift, then you will only just be able to complete 10 reps with good form. And by the end of the workout the muscle, or muscle group, you have targeted should be completely exhausted. This will maximize the training stimulus of the workout, and therefore your possible gains – and by reaching muscle exhaustion faster, you will save yourself time!
What this boils down to is that your body is the best judge of how hard you are working, and the chances are that you may be doing too many sets and reps but at not a high enough intensity, which will multiply the time you spend at the gym.
In fact, Vaz Tostes says he has seen some people spending two hours in the gym, but because they are not putting in the correct intensity when they do lift, they are maybe not even managing to get as much training stimulus as someone training for 30-40 minutes with the correct intensity.
5. Build Your Warm-Up Into Your Session Thoroughly warming up your body before lifting weights, or doing resistance exercises, is essential to avoid injury and maximize your performance. That said, there are ways to incorporate your warm up into your workout goals, and save time.
Firstly, try to warm up on the way to the gym by walking, cycling or jogging there. Then, when you are in the gym you can jump on the rowing machine for a 500m, full-body blast that will open up your lungs and get the blood really pumping around your body, which should take less than two minutes, with some practice. Turn it into a bit of a game by trying to beat your score from last time. Oh, and set the resistance to 7/ 10 because this is the level used by actual rowers, and will warm you up both aerobically and anaerobically.
Finally, do lighter sets of the exercises you will be doing later, as part of your warm up. This will get your muscles and joints fired up, and prepare your brain to execute the lifts under heavier loads, while also giving you an opportunity to dial in perfect form.
This phase could include lifting an unweighted barbell or light dumb-bells. Not only will this provide a more targeted warm up, but it also contributes to muscle fatigue, which is what you are working towards anyway. It can also be a natural way to build into doing Pyramid sets, where you add a little weight to each set, and progressively increase the intensity.
6. Complete A Circuit There’s something pseudo-magical about the effect of a good circuit training session on the body. Repeating a string of demanding resistance exercises, back to back, that you have to push yourself through will leave you feeling physically shattered (but strangely energized), on a runner’s high (but strangely calm) and as hungry as a horse (but you’ve earnt the calories, so go for it).
Doing these circuits regularly only entrenches this feeling, and will deliver body conditioning results that you will actually notice. This is partly due to the fact that such workouts have a metabolic conditioning effect, says MMA conditioning coach Funk Roberts. “Because the workouts are intense and short, while targeting your entire body, you maximize your growth hormone and testosterone production while keeping cortisol levels low (high cortisol levels decrease testosterone). Plus, since we are using metabolic training you also benefit from EPOC (After Burn Effect), so you will burn calories during and after you have done your workout.”
In 30-40 minutes, you can complete a 3-4 round circuit of 6-7 dumbbell exercises, with a 1-2 minute rest between each circuit, that will leave your whole body completely worked.
7. Go Hypoxic Cardio training can be an important element in raising our body’s athletic capacity. The fitter we are, the higher the threshold will be for us to switch from using oxygen for energy, and burning the sugar stored in our muscles and liver for energy. This allows us to save those reserves of explosive energy for when they are really needed, rather than just walking up a steep hill on a golf course, for instance. The problem is, cardio workouts are time consuming, which is where hypoxic chambers come in…
Slogging along on a running machine within an oxygen-depleted chamber might sound like some obscure form of torture, but the science behind it holds the key to cutting workout time. High-end gyms such as London’s The Third Place house hypoxic training chambers that artificially reduce the oxygen content of the air to mimic working at high altitude.
“There is significantly less oxygen, so both your breathing and heart rate increase to compensate, and 15 minutes in the chamber is equivalent to one hour of normal training,” says Will Pate, senior trainer at Third Space. Yup, you read that right: 60 minutes of intense training, done and dusted in less time than it takes to do a regular warm up!
(And watch this space for more on Hypoxic training because I will be the RSNG guinea pig for seeing how effective regular workouts in this chamber can be…)
8. Finish With A Drop Set We’ve all been there: you need to get back to work/ off to meet a friend but you’ve still got those final three sets to do, which will take your muscles to complete exhaustion. They often target smaller movements with a lighter weight and more reps, and a rest in between each set, but this is all so time consuming, and you also risk losing the intensity you’ve worked so hard to maintain (see point Number 4).
Instead, replace those final three sets with one Drop Set. According to research in the Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, a single Drop Set can lead to greater muscle growth than doing three conventional sets. What you do is this: perform an exercise to the point where you would lose perfect form, then stop.
Now, decrease the amount of weight you are lifting and immediately do another set of reps. Then, drop the weight once more for a final set. You’ve just slashed minutes off your workout and have more efficiently exhausted your muscles by safely deploying progressive muscular overload – good job!