How to Maximize Gym Time
Let’s face it, life is busy. Whether we’re single, married, have ten kids, have no kids, in school, working, you name it- we’re always racing the clock! Although our schedules are hectic, many of us realize the importance of finding time in our day to squeeze in some exercise. When working with a limited slot of time, we want to find ways to optimize that part of our day so we can be efficient, work hard, and get results. There are certain things that we can do to maximize our gym time and get more bang for our buck.
Unless this is your first time ever reading this blog or hearing from me, you know that my biggest pet-peeve (and with good reason!) is to see (or even HEAR) about people wandering aimlessly about life – well, at least the fitness side of it – with no plan. Ack! I mean, unless you are completely new to working out, or testing out gym equipment is your hobby, get a plan – and work that baby. Not only is following some sort of plan best for maximizing gym time, but it's best for maximizing RESULTS! In other words, if you want to workout with purpose, having a plan is non-negotiable.
Random workouts – especially once you move past the newbie gain phase – often equal random results. You may ultimately desire to move to a more intuitive style of workouts, but when time is of the essence and you're not quite familiar with how certain things fit – just stick to the plan.
Trust me, I've been there, and I know how easy it is to get sucked into the “atmosphere” and completely lose 2 hours of your day before feeling like you've done enough to warrant leaving. I also know that amount of time is completely unnecessary, and is typically a contributing factor to why many of us will totally scrap our workout if we're running short on time. If you have a plan (preferably created by a professional, unless you are familiar with periodization and putting together effective workout combos) you have an accurate measure of how “done” you are at any given time increments. Let your trainer know that you are time crunched, or search out specifically, workout plans that fit with your goals and available time slots. Don't follow some random 6-day, 1hour/day, workout split if you only have time to hit the gym 3 days/wk for 30-45 min, tops.
This is where the OCD-plan-follower can relax a bit, and the ADD exerciser can rejoice. Yes, an overall, solid, plan is first and foremost, but remind yourself that it's OK (and often necessary) to be flexible. Why? Because there will be a time that you get to the gym, totally pumped to hit the squat rack. You'll head in, struttin your stuff with your Converses and new beasty, striped knee-high socks, and bam – all squat racks taken. Argh! This happens a lot in busier gyms during peak times. Don’t rely on one particular piece of equipment for your exercises. Have an idea of what you want to do, but don’t be married to it.
For instance: If it’s leg day – and you're scheduled to do squats – you’re good no matter what, because you have a backup plan. Full squat racks aren’t stopping you, it’s off to the hack squat machine or an empty area to do squats with dumbbells. Bench day and no rack available? Head for the Smith machine (add extra weight to make up the bar weight difference), or take a set of dumbbells or even the straight curl bar (many gyms have up to 120 lbs) over to the free weight adjustable bench area.
Now this does NOT mean that you should take a professionally written program and chop it up by doing your own take on EVERY move, but you should know how to if you ever truly needed. Take the time on a less busy/off day to get to know alternate pieces of equipment that can generally get the job done (or ask your trainer if you're working a plan they've given you). Often there are pieces of equipment that look completely different, yet perform similar functions (like the seated vs lying leg curl machines)
When pressed for time, supersets can be a godsend.
Supersets consist of doing two exercises back to back with no rest in between. You can do exercises for either the same or different muscle groups. For example, you can use the rope attachment on a cable machine and do overhead tricep extensions, one set, and then move the rope down a little and do regular tricep extensions, one set, and repeat. Minimizing time between sets not only does the obvious- saves time- but it really adds a burn to the muscles, as it works muscle fibers differently than normal-set weight training.
Tri-sets (three exercises done back to back), and giant sets (four or more exercises done in a row) also fit into this category. With all supersets, you perform the entire set of two or more exercises, then rest as instructed in your program. If no rest period is indicated, typically 30 seconds is appropriate.
Word of caution for the ladies. Many ladies who are drawn to more endurance style workouts will enjoy supersets because they will feel like they are truly “working” – but I would be cautious of falling into the superset trap of thinking that every thing is better when superset. Sometimes longer rests are called for, and necessary, even in shorter workouts – depending on the phase. So if you are always short on time in the gym, be sure to switch up the types of supersets you do (one month superset the same muscle group, the next month group opposing parts, etc), when the supersets are performed in the workout (on every set one month, on every other set the next, etc), and from time to time put supersets aside altogether for an entire phase or two.
HIIT is praised mostly for two reasons – one, it is a huge time saver and two – the intensity level leads to quicker results than regular cardio and puts your body in a calorie burning state for hours after. Imagine swapping that twenty minute trek on the dreadmill with a quick eight minute sprint session. Suddenly, you've gained twelve minutes that you can use to do strength training, ab exercises, stretching, etc. This means that if you were used to splitting up your strength and cardio work to two separate workouts of an hour or so, you can now condense them both into ONE workout that is an hour or less.
Try adding true HIIT or Tabata finishers to your strength workouts, rather than dedicating an entire day to each. What do I mean by “true?” Well, because HIIT has become all the rage, we are now bombarded with HIIT workouts popping up left and right ranging anywhere from 10-60 minutes. While they may all be hard in their own right, true HIIT brings the intensity like no other. Intensity meaning that if you can do any interval for longer than 30ish seconds, or any workout lasting longer than 20ish minutes (not including any warmup/cooldown)…it's not hard enough. You need super intense intervals where you are going at a crazy, all-out (RPE 10+) effort for 20-30 seconds (and absolutely can't go longer even if you wanted), and then resting for another 20-30 before repeating. This type of training is short and to the point, making it perfect to tack on to the end of you workout.
A couple words of warning with HIIT. 1) It's not for everyone, allow yourself to work up to it if you're newer to working out (perhaps with one of the HIIT-like workouts with longer duration or intervals mentioned above). 2) If a 20 minute HIIT workout early in the AM leaves you worn out and more sedentary than usual for the rest of the day – you are negating the benefits of the afterburn. You may want to stick to 30-40 min of a different cardio activity that will still allow you to get in normal amounts of daily activity/productivity every day.
Above all, the most important way to maximize your workout is to have laser beam focus. Don't stress over having to shorten your gym time for a season. Be fully present, engaged in the workout, giving it your all, and knowing that it's enough. If you head into a workout feeling obligated, and like you just have to get it done to get it out of the way, you won’t be as efficient as possible. If you practice negative self-talk and feel that working out serves as a form of punishment for bad food choices, you'll have a hard time finding yourself getting in a good sweat (or being satisfied with a less sweaty workout). Remembering why you choose to be active is important, encouraging part of your journey. While physical benefits (toned muscles, smaller waistlines) are a nice perk of working out, living a healthier and happier life far surpass them all.
Photo Cred: Danilo Rizzuti