"I don't have the time." How often have you used that as an excuse to not work out? No shame here — we've all said it at least once. But you can overcome that mental obstacle by relying on workouts under 30 minutes that consist of super simple exercises.
To prove that you don't need to spend hours in the gym performing relentlessly complex routines, LIVESTRONG.com had three expert personal trainers chime in on the benefits of simplifying your workout routine and how to implement changes right away.
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Why You Should Simplify Your Workout Routine
1. You'll free up more time.
Despite the scientific evidence that supports short and simple workouts, many people still believe that you need to spend hours and hours in the gym each week to achieve the desired results. That's just not true, says Nick Rizzo, fitness research director at RunRepeat.
"People feel like if they aren't putting in the extra time, they won't get anywhere or that they are less than," he says. They've been taught to believe that they should be completely annihilated, sore and exhausted after every workout, Rizzo says. In reality, science doesn't support the idea that soreness always means improvement. And shorter workouts leaves you with more time for other things.
2. You'll reduce your risk of overtraining.
Workouts that are too long or too intense can lead to overtraining syndrome, which is characterized by a lack of energy, diminishing performance in the gym, poor sleep, reduced appetite, headaches, decreases immune function, depression and loss of enthusiasm for training.
Avoiding this is one of the most significant benefits of simplifying your workouts. It can help you reduce unnecessary central fatigue, which is defined as all of the stressors that can affect your performance, says James Shapiro, an NYC personal trainer.
3. You'll firm up your goals.
"You have to get clear on what you're trying to achieve," Rizzo says. "Having clarity in your goals and why you want to achieve them always helps with motivation and consistency."
And science backs him up. Goal-setting was linked to higher achievement by June 2019 research published in Motivation Science, largely because set-in-stone goals provide a roadmap for you to track and visualize your progress. When you have a goal, you'll be more selective with the exercises you do, only choosing the ones that will help you make progress.
4. You'll stay motivated.
Knowing that your workouts will only take 30 minutes versus an hour or two helps you maintain the desire to stay consistent with your workouts. On really busy days, even 15 minutes of movement can make a big difference, says Alex Robles, MD and personal trainer. "The key is that you do something consistently to keep the momentum going, and it is much easier to do so with a short and simple workout."
5. You'll notice more significant gains.
There are only a handful of exercises you really need to do at any given time to get great results, Robles says. "If you try to do too many exercises and overcomplicate your workout, your results become diluted," he says. "This is what I like to call majoring in the minors."
In other words, your biceps don't need three different types of curls four times a week, Robles says, and you don't need to isolate and extensively train every single muscle in your body — sticking to the basics is often much more effective.
How to Simplify Your Workout Routine
1. Establish a workout split.
Regardless of your goals, establishing a consistent workout split is key to saving time and energy. Here's an example of a workout split for someone who's new to the gym, courtesy of Robles, who recommends a two- or three-times per week full-body split, where you train both upper-body and lower-body exercises on the same day.
- Bench press: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Dumbbell walking lunges: 3 sets of 8 reps on each leg
- Seated cable row: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Deadlift: 3 sets of 8 reps
- Dumbbell overhead press: 3 sets of 10 reps
- Pull-ups: 3 sets of 8 reps
2. Stick to compound movements.
"Your body is meant to move as one entire unit," says Robles. "In the real world, we don't isolate specific muscles: every movement we do requires us to recruit multiple muscle groups at once."
Compound exercises do just that by strengthening movement patterns that you do on a daily basis. These include the squat, deadlift, bench press, shoulder press, pull-up, dip and lunge. In essence, compound moves are ones that use more than one join at a time (as opposed to isolation exercises, which focuses on one joint at a time, such as the biceps curl).
The best example is the squat, Robles says. Everyone squats every day, multiple times a day: Every time you sit in a chair, on the toilet, or get into your car, you squat. Benefits of focusing on compound movements include:
3. Only add new moves every so often.
Did you know that you can still see fitness gains even if you do the same exact workout over and over again? Yep, it's true, Robles says. As long as you follow the principle of progressive overload — consistently increasing the challenge to your body via one variable at a time — you'll still see progress.
For instance, you can get stronger at squats and develop muscle mass in your legs by squatting 5 sets of 5 reps once a week, as long as you slowly increase the weight each time you perform the workout. So there's no need to use a different squat variation every time you hit the gym, Robles says.
Instead, wait about 12 weeks to introduce variation to your exercise selection. Robles gives some examples: "If you are doing a barbell back squat, and you have been stuck on the same weight and the same reps for a few weeks, that may be a sign that you need to change things up," he says. "At this point I would recommend going to a front squat and improving your front squat strength for eight to 12 weeks."
This technique works because the new movement still trains the same functional movement pattern, but in a slightly different way, Robles says. And just as importantly, this reduces the amount of time you spend agonizing over your workout programming. Other examples of this technique include:
- Bench press to incline bench press
- Overhead press to close-grip overhead press
- Conventional deadlift to Romanian deadlift
"Working with tempo, the amount of sets, reps, and rest time are all great," Shapiro says, "but when you start going through multiple variations of any exercise, your body cannot adjust properly to the stimulus in time."
4. Give yourself a time limit.
If you're like most people, you probably already have a built-in time limit to your workouts, due to other obligations like work and family. However, you can still benefit from giving yourself a hard limit, Shapiro says.
"You [should] spend less time in the gym than you do taking care of the other facets that contribute to your results: sleep, nutrition, hydration, stress relief, and recovery. You can severely undermine your results by under-performing in any of these other areas; no time in the gym can reverse any of the effects caused by being deficient in these lifestyle choices."
So even if you do have two hours in the gym, that doesn't necessarily mean you should spend all that time hitting the weights. After all, sometimes the shortest workouts are the most effective.
5. Give yourself a movement limit.
No, this doesn't mean a limit how much activity you engage in — you should move your body whenever possible! This means limiting how many different exercises you complete in a session.
According to Rizzo, doing fewer movements in a workout gives you much more time to focus on the ones that matter: "[This] forces you to be highly selective in what your workouts consist of," Rizzo says, "significantly increasing the amount of time, energy, sets and reps you spend on the exercises you do include."
6. Focus on your most important goal.
Though you might be inspired by Instagram to perfect your handstand and rope climb, you'll benefit much more from focusing on things like speed, endurance and strength. Whatever's most important to you right now should take center stage in the majority of your workouts.
For instance, if you want to run a marathon, you should spend most of your time running (though you'll absolutely benefit from cross-training). If you want to compete in your first powerlifting meet, focus on squatting, deadlifting and bench pressing. If you want to get better at hiking, spend some time on the stairclimber and doing high-volume leg training.
By narrowing your focus, you'll enjoy the benefits of more free time, as well as more significant gains pertaining to your goals. As Rizzo so eloquently puts it, "It doesn't take a lot to make progress; it just takes consistency and focus."
- Progress in Cardiovascular Diseases: High Intensity Interval Training for Maximizing Health Outcomes.
- Journal of Experimental Biology: Muscle damage and muscle remodeling: no pain, no gain?
- Journal of Sports Medicine: Diagnosis and prevention of overtraining syndrome: an opinion on education strategies
- American Psychological Association: The Development of Goal Setting Theory: A Half Century Retrospective
- Applied Physiology, Nutrition, and Metabolism: Is high-intensity interval training a time-efficient exercise strategy to improve health and fitness?