working out efficiently

100+ Studies Analyzed For Most Time Effective Workout Tips

October 05, 2021

Life is short and so is most people’s time that why this new research focused on time efficient training should get you excited. Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review was published in June 2021. A few of the most well respected names in exercise science poured over 100 different studies to generate some guidelines to follow if you’re short on time but still want to make strength and hypertrophy gains in the gym. Be aware that if you read this article, you won’t have any more excuses to why you can’t stay in shape or can’t hit the gym. In this post we’ll summarize the researchers’ key points so you can put science to practice.

What is the most time efficient exercise?

Strength training is beneficial for the vast majority of the population because of the numerous health benefits. However, up to a quarter of the world’s population is at risk for health-related problems due to inactivity. One common excuse for not staying in shape and following a regimented exercise program is the lack of time.

That’s where this study comes in, giving you the exact tips and tricks to maximize your efficiency. The researchers looked at how multiple variables could be altered to optimize training efficiency. Some of the variables they looked at were:

  • Training Variables (frequency, load, volume, rest periods, exercise selection, muscle action and tempo)
  • Training Techniques (Drop sets, Rest-pause sets, Supersets)
  • Training Volume Needed To maintain Muscle Mass and Strength
  • Pre-warm up & Stretching

Tips for Efficient Fitness Training

The researchers of this narrative on time efficient training looked at multiple aspects of strength training. They divided their findings into the following categories and gave brief recommendations on each topic. 

1. Training Frequency & Volume

The common recommendation is that people should train 2-3 times weekly. But new studies are showing that less frequent training can produce similar effects if training volume is the matched. Therefore, the number of times you train each muscle group can be reduced if you’re able to match training volume (sets x reps) or total volume loading (sets x reps x loads). With that said, higher training frequency can result in higher training volumes which enables the potential for more strength and muscle gains.

Training volume seems to be the dominant factor related to hypertrophy and strength gains as studies like this showed frequent short training sessions of 15 minutes in length might be comparable to regular training sessions.

Other interesting findings based on training frequency showed that muscle gains can be attained through training with low volume. This study showed that single set training once per week can be effective in increasing strength and hypertrophy. It’s important to note that different muscle groups have different responses to stimuli and the amount of volume needed for growth. Generally speaking, the lower body muscles will respond better to higher volume compared with upper body muscles unless the trainee is advanced. In this case the upper body muscles might require more training volume to grow.

The last area that was covered regarding training frequency was how many sets are needed per week for strength and hypertrophy gains. A meta-analysis was done which showed that hypertrophic gains were made in less than 5 sets (+5%), 5-9 weekly sets (+7%) and 10+ sets (+10%). This means that higher training volume will lead to more gains but you can still make progress with lower training volume. The researchers advised at least 4 weekly sets per muscle then adjust based on progress made.

2. Training Load & Repetitions

Training load is typically defined as the target reps to muscle failure or a percentage of 1 rep max. American College of Sports Medicine breaks down  reps as:

  • 1-5 reps for power & strength
  • 6-12 reps for strength & hypertrophy
  • 15-25 reps for muscular endurance

New research has shown that hypertrophic response can be the result of wide rep ranges up to 40 reps, as long as they’re performed at a high intensity and total volume is sufficient. Seeing how the main purpose of this narrative is based on time efficient training, heavy-loads may be preferential because you’ll be doing less reps which takes less time. Overall, the most effective zone for muscle gain still seems to be in the 6-12 rep range.

3. Exercise Selection

Within exercise selection, the researchers broke it down into type of exercise and equipment used.

Multi Joint vs Single Joint Exercises

Most exercises can be classified as single joint (isolation exercises) or multi joint (compound exercises). We always recommend employing a mixture of exercises into your workout program. In general, multi joint exercises will produce more strength improvements in shorter time-frames according to this study.

If you’re short of time for training and want maximum results then you should prioritize multi joint big compound exercises.

Free Weights & Machines

Resistance training can be done with the use of a variety of equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, cable machines, Smith machines and so on. There is little scientific evidence to say that one training modality is far superior to the next.

However, free weights tend to make it easier to mimic real-life or sport specific movements.

Pros of free weights:

  • Great for multi joint exercises
  • Allow for heavy loads
  • Useful for all body types
  • More versatile

Cons of free weights:

  • Bigger learning curve
  • More injuries
  • Spotter required

Pros of machines:

  • Easier for beginners
  • Can train to failure
  • Less chance of injury
  • No spotter required

Cons of machines:

  • Less multi joint exercise options

Dumbbells and barbells both are great for strength and hypertrophy training. The main differences between these are that barbells allow for heavier loads to be lifted because the need to stabilize the weight is reduced. This study showed that resistance trained people could lift 20% heavier loads compared with dumbbells.

Overall, barbells will stimulate more muscle activation and will allow for lifting heavier loads. This means barbell exercises can also be more efficient when considering the limited time factor. Dumbbells are great for exercises that require more range of motion or to target specific muscles.

The researchers concluded that the best equipment for time efficient training would be dependent on a number of aspects including lifting experience, available equipment and targeted exercises.

Bilateral vs Unilateral Exercises

Many exercises can be performed bilaterally or unilaterally. Bilateral training is when you train both sides of the body at the same time, like squats or bench press. You can lift heavier loads as there is greater stability and more muscle mass involved. Unilateral training is where you perform exercises one side at a time like dumbbell bicep curls.

Both bilateral and unilateral exercises produce similar results when it comes to hypertrophy for both trained and untrained individuals. Therefore, with regards to limited training time, bilateral training will be more time effective and should be prioritized. The exception to this is if the person needs to train for more core-activation or to increase difficulty if training at home with limited equipment.

Elastic Resistance Bands

Elastic resistance bands a.k.a. loop resistance bands can be considered a time efficient alternative to free weights if not available. Resistance bands offer some invaluable benefits such as portability, cost and versatility. Multiple studies have shown that resistance bands will produce similar muscle activation to free weights in both single joint and multi joint exercises. However, if free weights are available for heavy load multi joint exercises, then that is the preferential option.

Related: Benefits of Resistance Bands

Bodyweight Training

Bodyweight training presents numerous benefits as they can be done practically anywhere and are good for your overall health. As for hypertrophy, there’s not much evidence to show that bodyweight training can stimulate muscle growth.

This study did show that certain upper body bodyweight exercises such as pull ups, chin ups and push ups can lead to muscle growth. However, there is the potential for bodyweight exercises to help with strength and muscle mass gain. Even though you can’t necessarily add external loads, you can change body positioning to make certain exercises more difficult. You can also train to failure with bodyweight exercises, this low-load high repetition method can be effective for hypertrophy training.

The researchers suggest that a well thought out bodyweight program could potential lead to muscular improvements.

More Resources On Bodyweight Training:

4. Muscle Action

There are three types of muscle action concentric (when the muscle shortens), eccentric (when the muscle lengthens) and isometric (when there’s no change in muscle length). Each muscle action has its own merit. Concentric actions enables higher rates of force, eccentric actions allow for more power exertion and isometric actions offer the chance to apply force in pain-free joint angles. Most exercises will be the combination of eccentric and concentric actions which should also be used for the purpose of time efficiency.

5. Repetition Velocity (Tempo)

Repetition velocity is the time it takes to complete one rep or both muscle actions of the concentric and eccentric. General recommendations from American College of Sports Medicine for beginners and intermediates to complete exercises with a rep velocity of 1-2 second concentric 1-4 second eccentric phase. Many people assume that the more time under tension, the better chance for hypertrophy to occur. However, in 2015 a meta-analysis was done that showed similar hypertrophic gains for rep tempos ranging from .5 seconds to 8 seconds. This means that varying rep tempos can lead to hypertrophy but in regards to saving time you should aim for a faster velocity. The researchers recommend that you avoid super slow tempos over 10 seconds if training for strength, power or hypertrophy.

6. Rest Periods

Rest periods is the amount of time you will rest between sets. The rest period is vital for allowing the body to remove lactic acid and replenish the natural chemicals needed by your muscles for contraction. Industry standards for rest periods are as follows:

  • 3-5 mins when training for strength
  • 1-2 mins when training for hypertrophy
  • Less than 1 minute when training for endurance

There’s been some interesting studies that show shorter rest periods can still lead to strength gains but the researchers recommend 1–2-minute rest intervals for untrained people and 2 or more minutes for trained people.

7. Training Methods

Lastly, the researchers looked at a few different time saving training methods. Although there are other training methods, they focused on supersets, drop sets and rest-pause sets.

Supersets

Superset training is when you combine two exercises back-to-back without a rest in between. This type of training allows for more training volume in shorter time periods. Super sets can be done by pairing exercises on the same muscle group like squats and leg extensions or can be done with different muscle groups such as lat pull down and bench press. Because the purpose of this post revolves are training with little free time, we won’t consider supersetting same muscle groups to be a good approach. There is some evidence that supersets of antagonist and agonist exercises can improve strength performance. More research needs to be done to definitively say how the body responds to supersets.

Related: Chest And Back Superset Workout: Intermediate To Advanced

Drop Sets

Drop sets reduce rest time between sets. To do a drop set you will perform one set then reduce the load then perform another set then once more reduce load and do another set. Drop sets generally reduce the load 20-25% each set and 1-3 drops are used per exercise with each set going to muscular failure.

Drops sets need to be studied more but according to the scientists, drop sets enable shorter workouts with little to no negative effects on training volume or training outcomes. Therefore, drop sets might be a viable solution for those who have little time to train. It is important to note that you should approach drop sets with multi joint exercises with extreme caution as it could lead to potential injury.

Rest-Pause Sets

Rest pause training method is where you will plan rest periods in the middle of your sets. The are two common approaches to rest-pause sets as:

  • Perform 4-6 sets of 1 rep using a weight close to 1RM
  • Perform 1 set to failure followed by 20 second rest then another set to failure. Repeat until desired reps are finished.

Rest-pauses are used so that there are short breaks for recovery when lifting heavy loads with high power output. The researchers believe that although the rest-pause method needs more study, that it can be a good training modality when time is of the essence. Once again caution is needed if using the rest-pause method with big multi joint lifts due to the high intensity.

What’s the least amount of training needed to preserve muscle?

Use it or lose it, many people might be familiar with this phrase related to weight training. The researchers pointed to this study which had 70 young (20-35 yrs old) and old (60-75 yrs old) men perform 3 sets of 3 different leg exercises 3 times a week.

Then the participants were split into three groups and proceeded to train for 32 weeks. One group didn’t train, one group did 3 sets of all exercises once a week and the last group did 1 set for all exercises once a week. Both of the maintenance groups maintained or increased 1RM. However, only the young participants maintained their hypertrophic gains. This means for time frames of up to 32 weeks young adults could maintain muscle mass and strength by one weekly session while older adults might need to increase weekly training volume to maintain muscle.

This matched other studies that suggested one training session of 3-4 sets for each exercise weekly may be enough to maintain muscle and strength for a while. The researchers noted that maintenance training volume could differ depending on the individual.

Are Warm Ups & Stretching Necessary?

The researchers looked at the topic of warm ups and stretching and whether they’re necessary if you’re pressed for time. The warms were divided into two types:

  • General Warm Up: For example, riding a stationary bike for 10-15 minutes to get the blood flowing and heart rate up.
  • Exercise Specific Warm Up: This is where you’ll do some warm up sets of the exercise before attempting to lift heavier loads of that same exercise

The researchers looked to studies like this which showed both types of warm ups failed to provide any significant benefits in regards to fatigue or total maximum reps. Other studies showed that exercise specific warm up showed some positive benefits while the general warm up failed to produce any positive effects.

Therefore, they conclude that short exercise specific warm ups would suffice and that they are more important when lifting heavier loads.

Stretching is great for improving joint mobility. But in regards to saving time while training, stretching might not be imperative. Scientific studies don’t back the claims that stretching will reduce DOMS, prevent injuries or improve performance. Static stretching can actually reduce strength if done prior to lifting as demonstrated by studies like this. If short on time, then stretching shouldn’t be a priority in your workout programming unless your end goal is to improve mobility.

how to workout efficiently

Final Note & Key Takeaways

It’s vital for your health to do some strength training even if it’s at a bare minimum. It's not easy to fit a structured strength training program into a busy life but it's possible to accomplish if you follow these key points:

  • Focus on bilateral multi joint exercises with at least 4 sets per muscle group per week with sets of 6-15 reps.
  • Try to use some time efficient training strategies such as supersets, drop sets and/or rest-pause sets to save time while getting the same training volume completed.
  • Keep warmups short and specific to the muscle group you're working that day.

Time Efficient Workout Protocols:



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