Most people don't have the time (or desire) to spend countless hours at the gym. And that's OK. Longer workouts don't necessarily equal better ones. In fact, with some smart planning, shorter sweat sessions can be just as effective — if not more — whether your goal is building muscle, improving heart health, increasing endurance or losing weight.
Here, Jake Harcoff, CSCS, a certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of AIM Athletic, shares five effective strategies for more effective workouts when you're tight for time.
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To make the best use of your time, always approach every workout with a plan: "Know what you’re doing before you get to the gym and remove all the guesswork from your training session,” Harcoff says. Planning includes programming your exercises as well as determining your sets, reps and rest intervals.
1. Do Drop Sets
As far as saving time, there's one fitness term you should know: Drop setting. Here's how it works: You perform an exercise with a specific amount of weight for as many reps as possible until your muscles are maxed out (read: you can't complete another single rep), then you remove some weight (i.e., drop the weight) and repeat the same pattern, per the American Council on Exercise.
Let's say you're doing a shoulder press with 12-pound dumbbells. First, you'll perform as many reps as you can with good form, then you'll drop those weights and switch them for, say, 8-pound weights. Then, you'll complete as many reps as it takes until you temporarily fatigue the muscle.
"The theory is because you drop the weight of each subsequent set, resting becomes unnecessary, saving you time," Harcoff says.
The best part is that drop sets build just as much muscle mass as regular sets, Harcoff says. "This is possibly due to an increased amount of time that the target muscle is under tension," he explains.
Drop sets can also improve your cardiovascular system. "Lifting weights in and of itself can be considered a form of HIIT [high-intensity interval training], but when you remove the rest periods between sets, you begin to skew towards more aerobic energy systems being utilized," he says.
The one downside to drop sets is that they may not be sufficient in stimulating strength gains, Harcoff says. "If getting stronger is the focus, you'll need to plan your workouts accordingly to allow rest in between sets, so that you can properly progress your lifts," he explains.
2. Step Up With Supersets
"Supersets, similar to drop sets, make working out more efficient by removing the time spent resting between exercises," Harcoff says.
Unlike drop sets, though, supersets involve performing a pair (sometimes a group) of exercises back-to-back, with little to no break in between moves.
In a true superset, you typically combine exercises that target opposing muscles (think: hamstrings and quads, chest and back, biceps and triceps) or completely unrelated muscle groups.
So, let's say you're doing the chest press and dumbbell rows. Even though you're not resting between exercises, your back muscles still get a tiny timeout while you work your chest, and vice versa.
This training technique is what enables you to push through without petering out. "Ideally, this means you can still increase the load, and progressively push towards overloading the muscle, which allows for both strength and mass gains with shorter overall workouts," Harcoff says.
"Also, like drop sets, there is potential for an aerobic stimulus with this type of training, which can increase caloric burn and thus fat loss," he adds.
3. Incorporate Compound Movements
When you want more bang for your exercise buck, look no further than compound movements.
Compound movements like squats and deadlifts target multiple muscle groups and joints simultaneously. And since they hit many muscles at once, they're more time-efficient than doing several sets of separate, single-joint isolation exercises, Harcoff says.
"I really like the idea of incorporating compound movements as a timesaver, especially because they can be beneficial for all sorts of exercisers, whether their goals are endurance, strength or fat loss driven," he says.
Plus, compound movements are more functional as they mimic daily life (and many sports) more closely than isolation exercises, Harcoff adds. For instance, you need to squat to pick up something from the floor and when you go skiing.
Keep in mind, though, that these multi-joint movements will likely have a larger learning curve and a greater risk of injury, Harcoff says. That's why it's always best to focus on good form (quality over quantity) and to perform a proper warm-up.
4. Consider HIIT
Perhaps the most efficient and effective workouts, HIIT gets a lot of hype. And with good reason. High-intensity interval training — which involves alternating between bouts of all-out effort and rest (or active recovery) — is an ideal exercise format for people who want to sneak in a quick sweat without sacrificing workout quality.
Indeed, the goal of HIIT is to accomplish as much as possible in a fixed period. Setting this intention alone can go a long way when it comes to staying focused and making the most of your routine: for those 10 or 15 minutes of HIIT, you'll mean business.
"Since your entire workout will likely be timed, the risk of wasting time chatting with someone else at the gym or talking on your phone between sets is eliminated," Harcoff says.
And pushing yourself will pay off. HIIT training is terrific for those who are trying to enhance their endurance or increase fat burning, Harcoff says. Some research even shows you can improve body composition in as little as 8-minute sessions, he says.
However, HIIT may not be as helpful for building strength or muscle since these goals typically require more rest and longer sets, Harcoff says. With the built-in time constraints, you simply won't be able to lift enough weight to progressively overload the intended muscles, he explains.
Plus, HIIT isn't for everyone. People with heart problems, joint issues and those new to working out should skip HIIT.
Even if you're healthy, injury-free and an exercise veteran, you should only do HIIT two to three days a week to avoid the risk of injury and overtraining.
5. Try EMOM Training
EMOM — short for "every minute on the minute" — is a type of HIIT training that will help you get even more out of your workouts in less time.
In EMOM training, you work against the clock. At the start of every minute, you do an exercise for a specific number of reps. Once you finish the reps, you recover for the rest of the minute.
"Essentially, EMOMs shorten workout duration by not only putting a time cap on the entire workout but also modulating rest length," Harcoff says. You're less likely to squander time scrolling on your phone after a set of squats that took 25 seconds when you only have 35 seconds to catch your breath before the next set starts, he says.
Since EMOM adds a cardiovascular dynamic to the training stimulus, it's ideal for individuals looking to train for aerobic, fat loss or Crossfit performance, Harcoff says.
Conversely, because of the short rest periods — which don't allow enough time for the muscles to recover between sets — this workout modality isn't great for strength-focused exercisers and bodybuilders unless used at the very end of the session as a final burnout set, Harcoff says.
Like other forms of HIIT, you might want to skip this style if you're newer to training since it's incredibly challenging, Harcoff says.
That said, you can also adapt EMOM workouts to fit your fitness level as you work to increase your cardio and endurance. For example, "EMOMs can be programmed to every two minutes on the minute, or more, if longer rest periods are needed," he says.