How I strength train when I don’t have time

written by Philip Stefanov  |  OCTOBER 17, 2023

I’d love to have 90 minutes to go to the gym, warm up, and take my time with each set. Sadly, that’s not always possible. Sometimes, all I have is 20 minutes, so time management is paramount.

So, allow me to share some of the tactics I’ve used to stay on track as much as possible, even when life got hectic.

1. Home Workouts

Home training isn’t everyone’s favorite, but it can be an alternative to gym or outdoor workouts.

I enjoy working out at home because it saves me time. I don’t have to commute, spend time checking in or conversing with people in the locker room, or wait around for equipment.

Those things might not seem like a big deal, but they add up and can easily make your workouts twice as long.

For home training, I have a pair of adjustable dumbbells, a set of resistance bands, a band door anchor (for attachment), and an exercise mat. These essential items allow me to do dozens of movements to target all the major muscle groups. I’ll probably get a pull-up bar at some point, too.

2. Circuits

Circuits don’t typically come to mind when someone thinks about muscle or strength gain, but they are effective and could allow us to accumulate enough training volume in little time.

What I like about circuits is that I can do 1, 2, or 3+ rounds depending on how much time I have. Even if pressed for time, I can cover the bare minimum with a single circuit and go about my day.

But, if I have more time, I can add a second round and a third, hopefully creating a stronger stimulus for better results.

Here’s what a circuit might look like for me:

Pendlay Rows (Barbell) Push Ups Bulgarian Split Squat Tricep Kickback (Dumbbell) Face Pulls

I try to combine isolation and compound exercises to make these more manageable because I jump from movement to movement with virtually no rest in between.

I also focus on proper form and aim for a certain number of reps instead of timing each exercise. That allows me to maintain a steady tempo and avoid technique breakdown as I get winded.

Plus, I try to sequence my movements so that one doesn’t hinder my performance on the next. It certainly takes some trial and error, but it’s worth it if you want to train more efficiently.

For example, the above circuit is good because I don’t emphasize the same muscle group on two or more exercises in a row. This allows me to jump from activity to activity, maintain proper form, and achieve progressive overload.

The only downside is that this is mentally demanding, and I get pretty winded by the time I’m done.

3. Pairing it Up

Supersets are another fantastic tool worth using, especially when trying to add volume in a short period. Rather than doing one exercise at a time, pair them up and perform them back-to-back with a minute or so of recovery in between.

To make the most of them, I recommend pairing agonist-antagonist muscle groups (e.g., the biceps and triceps) and compound with isolation exercises (e.g., barbell rows with chest flyes).

Pairing exercises for the same muscle group (e.g., bench press with chest fly) or compound with compound lifts (e.g., squat with overhead press) could lead to too much fatigue, hinder your performance, and reduce your overall training volume.

4. Drop Setting Until it Hurts

Drop sets are a fantastic tool to accumulate training volume, push yourself beyond failure, and create a solid growth stimulus without spending much time in training. Plus, they can be fun to do and lead to some of the best muscle pumps you’re going to get.

To make the most of drop sets, I leave them for isolation exercises like:

  • Bicep curls
  • Tricep extensions
  • Lateral raises
  • Leg extensions
  • Calf raises
  • Hamstring curls

If I’m particularly pressed for time, I might even do a triple drop set, where I reduce the resistance twice to exhaust my muscles and push way beyond failure.

For example, if I use a single dumbbell for overhead tricep extension, it might look like this:

20 kg to failure ⇒ 12 kg to failure ⇒ 6 kg to failure

The sequence doesn’t take longer than 90 seconds, but my triceps are burning and shaking by the end.

5. Emphasis on Compound Lifts

Years ago, I came across an interesting idea from James Clear:

Reduce the scope, but stick to the schedule.

It’s simple yet effective, but we rarely think about it. Rather than trying to be perfect all the time, a better approach is to do what we can with our time and resources.

In the case of lifting, maybe a full workout isn’t always possible. But does that mean you shouldn’t go to the gym at all? Absolutely no. It simply means you should change your approach and do what you can.

One way to apply the principle is to reduce the scope of your workout, perhaps by not doing specific exercises. For instance, let’s say the following is your scheduled workout:

Flat barbell bench press - 5 sets, 6-10 reps
Incline dumbbell press - 4 sets, 8-12 reps
Chest dip - 3 sets at RPE 8
Lateral raises - 3 sets, 15-20 reps
Tricep extensions - 3 sets, 15-20 reps
Chest fly - 3 sets, 15-20 reps (last one to failure)

If you don’t have the time for it, simply focus on the core lifts, push yourself hard, and go about your day:

Flat barbell bench press - 5 sets, 6-10 reps
Incline dumbbell press - 4 sets, 8-12 reps
Chest dip - 3 sets at RPE 8
Lateral raises - 3 sets, 15-20 reps
Tricep extensions - 3 sets, 15-20 reps
Chest fly - 3 sets, 15-20 reps (last one to failure)

6. Don’t Forget About Progressive Overload

As soon as I shorten my workouts due to time constraints, my focus shifts from progress to maintenance. This isn’t necessarily bad because sometimes, maintaining what you have is all you can hope for.

That said, I try to consciously remind myself that just because my training isn’t optimal doesn’t mean it can’t be effective.

To avoid spinning my wheels, I push myself hard, especially when my workouts last for 20 minutes or less. The way I see it, I can train long, or I can train hard, but I can’t do both in a sustainable way.

So, if my workouts end up shorter, I compensate by pushing myself harder, often taking sets to failure and beyond.

Thanks for sticking around. I'll catch you next week!


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