‘I don’t have enough time’: How to work out more efficiently if you’re short on time

Reducing time at the gym without compromising results could be key when it comes to strength training and maintaining the results when you’re on a tight schedule

Woman doing dumbbell squats during fitness class in gym.
Woman doing dumbbell squats during fitness class in gym.Thomas Barwick (Getty Images)
Sara Tabares

“I don’t have enough time. If I have to go to the gym, change, warm up, do a training plan for an hour and a half, shower, get dressed again... It takes me more than two hours!” says Alicia, a 46-year-old working divorced mother of two who has joint custody of her kids. “I have a lot of respect for people who can arrange their schedule or have outside help, but that’s not my situation. I would love to exercise, but... How do I do it? I’ve given up. I don’t have time,” she adds.

A training plan’s success comes from adapting it to the context of the person doing it. Reconciling work, family, leisure and self-care—and physical exercise falls into that category—might be complicated, but it is doable.

“I would love not to give up. I know it’s important if I want to live to a ripe-old age and continue to be independent, but I see it as impossible,” says Alicia. Her case is not unique; lack of time is one of the most commonly reported barriers that result in giving up on exercise programs. Studies, such as one recently published by the journal Sports Medicine, factor in this challenge and address the problem. Researchers say that strength training provides many other positive health benefits, including improved functional capacity, cardiometabolic risk profile and well-being. The question is: Can it be accomplished effectively and efficiently in less time? Understanding how to design exercise programs that reduce time without significantly compromising results could encourage more people like Alicia to participate and keep going.

Including warm-ups and stretching, gym workouts often take up one hour for several sessions per week. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a program for healthy beginner- or intermediate-level adults involves training all major muscle groups with 2-4 sets of 8-10 exercises of 3 to 12 repetitions with 2 to 5 minutes rest between sets, performed 2 to 4 times per week.

Frequency and volume

Frequency and volume are possibly the most important variables to consider when fitting exercise into a busy schedule. It is worth noting that weekly training volume seems to be a more important factor than frequency. According to studies, frequency is defined as the number of days you train per week (for example, Monday and Wednesday), while volume refers to the amount of training you do, that is, the total number of repetitions (sets and reps) and total volume load (sets, reps and loads).

General guidelines recommend that people train 2 to 3 times per week. Unfortunately, this guideline may cause those who find it difficult to get to the gym several times a week to do nothing at all because they see the goal as unattainable. However, emerging research indicates that it is possible to achieve similar effects by training once a week as compared to total weekly volume. A recently published meta-analysis found no strong evidence that frequency has a significant impact on muscle hypertrophy when the volume of training is the same. For those looking to save time, it seems more important to focus on acquiring sufficient weekly training volume than on a specific training frequency. This is a very practical solution, as it would allow you to choose to train weekly in one session based on your schedule. For example, some people might choose to perform several short training sessions spread throughout the week, while others may need to perform a single weekly training session of longer duration.

As the Sports Medicine review notes, gains in muscle mass can be achieved across a wide spectrum of intensities (loads), but if you use low loads (over 15 repetitions), the training must be done at high intensity. This may be particularly relevant if a person is exercising at home. That said, each muscle group should be trained with at least four sets per week, preferably more, if you want to gain muscle mass and can spare the necessary additional time to do them (10 sets or more).

Exercise selection

Squats, deadlifts, lunges, split squats... Which exercises can you include in your training if your goal is to perform them and get to work on time? Based on current evidence, bilateral exercises may be more efficient (both sides of the body are trained simultaneously) and should be prioritized unless core activation is critical to your training. That said, unilateral (one-legged) exercises are a viable option for increasing the difficulty of an exercise when fewer weights are available, as in home training.

As for rest intervals, beginners can rest for 1 to 2 minutes between sets, while more experienced exercisers will probably require over 2 minutes to maximize muscle gains. Shorter rest intervals should be used when performing exercises for small muscle groups, while longer rests are recommended when performing more demanding exercises.

Warm-ups could be divided into two categories: general warm-ups that serve to increase the core temperature of your muscles and body (e.g., 5 to 15 minutes of low-impact exercise, such as riding a bike at moderate intensity), and specific warm-ups that serve to provide neuromuscular activation for the exercise to be performed (e.g., doing squats with light weights before progressing to heavier weights). When scheduling time-efficient strength training, the authors of this study advise maintaining warm-ups that are specific to the exercise you’re doing; avoid prioritizing stretching unless the training’s main goal is to increase mobility. To that end, you can perform a specific warm-up for the first exercise for each muscle group, as they can be useful, particularly when working with heavy loads.

Time is the most precious thing you have; you treasure it. We do not have a time machine like in the Back to the Future movie that allows us to go forward and backward in time to change the decisions we make. Society pushes us to produce, to live on an eternal hamster wheel, and our physical and mental health can be damaged as a result. Taking care of ourselves is a revolutionary act of self-love. We are the choices that we make. Deciding to reorganize your strength training and incorporate it into your schedule, no matter how busy you may be, may be the best choice if you want to be healthy and avoid illness and dependency.

From theory to practice

According to studies, these are the recommendations for implementing strength and hypertrophy training programs with an eye toward saving time:

1. The importance of volume. Perform 4 weekly sets per muscle group. If you can, progressively increase the volume when possible (up to over 10 weekly sets).

2. Play around with the possibilities. If you are able to maintain weekly volume, study the options. You can do several short training sessions spread out over the week or a single longer weekly session.

3. The weight... How much should you use? A 6-15 RM (repetition maximum) load should be used to improve strength and hypertrophy.

4. Training at home. Lighter loads can be used if the training is done at high intensity (relevant for those who have a place to train at home). Resistance bands and your own body weight can help you do sustainable training.

5. Multi-joint and bilateral exercises. Prioritize exercises that move large muscle groups. Perform at least one that works the lower body (squat, deadlift, lunges...), one pulling exercise (for example: rowing or pull-ups) and one pushing exercise (such as push-ups or bench presses) for the upper body.

6. Warm-up. If saving time is essential for you, you could perform a specific warm-up for the first exercise for each muscle group. Strength training itself promotes improvement in mobility, as long as the moves are performed using good technique.

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