Four ways to get more out of your workout in less time

Spend less time in the gym with moves that are designed to push you harder while maximizing every minute.

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Woman exercising in the gym doing a dead lift
Try dead lifts to pack multi-joint movements into your workout (Photo iStock).

I’ve heard plenty of excuses for why people don’t exercise, and having no time is always number one. There are ways of getting in more of a workout in less time however. Remember, there’s far more to exercise than burning calories. Yes, cramming a more intense workout in will burn extra calories, but there are a lot of added benefits associated with pushing to your limits. They include:

  • An enhanced training response. This means you get stronger, faster and more physically capable.
  • An improved health response. Although it’s certainly possible to overdo it, generally speaking, the harder you workout, the more benefits there are in terms of improvements of cardiovascular profile, risk of dementia, mental well-being, stress, risk of osteoporosis and more.
  • An enhanced ability to make wise food choices. There’s a direct relationship between the intensity of exercise and your ability to resist junk food and crave healthier fuel.

How do you do more in less time? It’s all about intensity. You need to ease your way into this so as not to get injured, over-trained or burnt out. Here are some tips to help you spend less time in the gym while still getting great results:

1. Choose a tougher aerobic machine
If it’s cardio you’re into then the treadmill should be your go-to machine. To be honest, I think going outside to run is the best method (it’s shown to be more enjoyable and people run faster and further while outside), but if you’re choosing a machine for your sweat session, I’ve ranked them below from least effective to most (in my opinion):

  • Recumbent bike: These are pretty tame as far as a workout goes. You’re better off just taking a walk to be honest.
  • Stairmaster: The traditional, early model ranks low for effectiveness because the feet stay planted and the range of motion is very small.
  • Stationary bike: I’m more in favour of these bikes versus the recumbent bikes, because they encourage harder workouts and have great cardiovascular benefits. They’re closer to what it feels like to actually ride a bike.
  • Elliptical: These will give you a good workout, especially if you pump those arms. My only criticism is that inertia has a tendency to help you out with these things.
  • Stair climber: You’ll get a much harder workout because it’s like walking up a down escalator. The feet have to lift off, and it does a very good job of mimicking actual stair climbing. You’d be surprised how tough these machines really are. Don’t be surprised if you’re winded after 20 minutes.
  • Rowing machine: This is a great workout, and most people hate it after five minutes. Unlike the elliptical, all the pulling has to be done by you, which means the arm, back and cardiovascular benefits are greater.
  • Treadmill: Go hard on this one. Try one of these great treadmill workouts whether you’re a beginner or a pro.

The goal with a harder machine is to go harder. Getting on a treadmill and setting it to walk won’t cut it. If you only have 20 minutes, push those 20 minutes fast and hard.

2. Focus on multi-joint movements
When it comes to lifting weights, the best way to do more in less time is to move more than one joint at a time. Wanting nice arms is fine, but you’re not doing much for your body spending time on just biceps curls and tricep extensions. There are six basic lifts that make up a comprehensive lifting routine. You can do just these, and never do a single-isolation exercise (where only a knee, ankle or elbow move for example), and sculpt your body into something awesome. The six moves are:

1. Squats: Probably the single most effective exercise. For a more comprehensive look at why squats are so good for you click here.
2. Bench pressing: Mix it up between barbells and dumbbells
3. Pull-ups: It’s okay to use a machine for this
4. Rows: One armed rows with dumbbells are great, but seated cable rows are fine too
5. Dead lift: Make sure you’re careful with your technique to protect your low back
6. Overhead press: Can be problematic for people with shoulder injuries, so if you have any pain please stop

I advise having a qualified instructor show you how to complete each one of these moves properly.

3. Take shorter breaks between sets
Don’t wait until you’re completely recovered to go for your next set. Bring a water bottle so you don’t have to wait at the fountain. Don’t get caught up socializing between sets (an iPod can help with this if people are always coming up to talk to you). Instead, consider using a stopwatch to time your breaks between sets and keep them as short as you can. They can’t be so short you have no gas for the next set, but after a certain period of time you’re wasting it. Figure out your minimum recovery period for the amount of weight you’re lifting and stick with that.

You can go as little as 30 seconds between sets if the weight isn’t too heavy. The heavier the weight you’re using the longer the rest will have to be. On average, you can keep it to about a minute between sets, although if you’re doing really heavy strength training for just a few reps then you’ll need at least two minutes. The trick is to go again the instant you feel ready, with no dawdling or stalling.

4. Use your rest breaks between sets for other exercises
There are a number of ways to do this. They include:

  • Supersets: This means working the opposing muscle between sets. For example, skip back and forth between chest and back exercises (which oppose each other) to make for a non-stop workout. This can also be done with biceps and triceps or quadriceps and hamstrings.
  • Compound sets: This involves a non-stop lifting routine where you use the same muscle group, but via a different exercise. For example: barbell biceps curls with cable curls, or squats with lunges.
  • Work the midsection: Between your sets try some midsection twists like the wood chop (seen here in exercise number three).
  • Jump on a spin bike for a minute between sets.

I’ll remind you that’s it’s important to ease your way into these higher-intensity workouts, because you don’t want to get injured. It’s also important to note what I said about high-intensity exercise leading to the development of better eating behaviours.

Be sure that you don’t push so hard that you’re wiped out for the rest of the day because this will also wipe out your ability to make wise food choices. The goal here is to push at an intensity where you feel invigorated and charged up for the other daily living tasks, not so done that you just want to collapse onto the couch and order pizza.

Follow the jump to see if a seven-minute workout is the key to improving your fitness.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. His syndicated column “In-Your-Face Fitness” for the Chicago Tribune runs in dozens of major newspapers across the U.S., and he also interviews celebrities about their fitness regimens for the Los Angeles Times. Fell, also the senior fitness columnist for AskMen.com, is based in Calgary, an avid runner, cyclist and weightlifter, and wishes he had more opportunities to go downhill skiing with his wife and two children. You can look for his first book out in early 2014. Visit his site for a free metabolism report.