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Efficient Gym Workouts for Busy People

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squat for normal person

This article is a collection of my personal favorite gym-based workouts. I have spent hundreds of hours in the gym over the past 5 years and have tried just about everything. I’ve distilled all this experimentation and learning into some of the most efficient exercises you can do.

When it comes to weight lifting, I highly favor complex, free-form moves over specialized, isolated moves.

I also favor “super-setting”, which alternates exercises of one muscle group with exercises of another muscle group. This keeps the heart rate up and minimizes total down time in the gym – because who wants to hang out watching gym TV for half of their 45 minute workout??

My philosophy is to be efficient, get in and get out, and utilize the most effective combo-muscle moves that also incorporate balance, stability, and cardio (raising heart rate) where possible.

Really quick though: If you haven’t already, please read these two articles:
* Foundations of Fitness
* 5 Levels of Fitness

These articles talk through the approach you should take to the Exercise portion of Health (Remember, Overall Health is broken up into Nutrition, Fitness, and Emotional Health). They define and discuss key terms, and in them I also mention several different workouts that I do.

This article, then, expands on those workouts and tells you exactly how you can replicate them. This article focuses on my gym workouts. If you’re interested in the at-home/non-gym workouts, you can get those here.

Cardio Workout 1 – LISS/MISS – Incline Treadmill

45 minute time commitment (but even 30 is OK!)

1. Get on the treadmill. Set the speed to 3.5 and the incline to 3. Warm up your body for 5 minutes.
2. Increase the incline to 6, keeping the speed at 3.5. Walk for 10 minutes.
3. Increase the incline to 7, keeping the speed at 3.5. Walk for 15 minutes.
4. Increase the incline to 8, keeping the speed at 3.5. Walk for 10 minutes.
5. Increase the incline to 9, and reduce speed to 3.2. Walk for 5 minutes.
6. Decrease incline to 3, keeping the speed at 3.2. Walk for 5 minutes as a cool-down (optional, or walk around gym for a bit).
7. Spend at least 1-2 minutes stretching your hamstrings, hips and low back.

**This is my all time FAVORITE workout when nothing else sounds appetizing! If you are not in the mood for anything high intensity, not in the mood to “think” about what weight training to do, you just want to hop on somewhere, ignore the world, zone out and get your exercise in – this is the perfect workout for you.

I do this workout when I’m stressed, when I’m anxious, when I’m on my period, when I’m sick, when it’s rainy – you name it. This is the perfect fall-back workout that is 10 times better than laying on the couch doing nothing! Feel free to adjust the incline levels to your heart rate and energy level for the day. Even if you set it at 5.0 incline and that’s all you can do for 30 minutes – you won. You got out there and did something! You get to check off your daily exercise to-do item.

Cardio Workout 2 – Elliptical HIIT

20-25 minute time commitment

1. Hop on an elliptical that has natural motion and does not result in a cross-country ski motion (I like the Precor brand with moving arms). Set both incline and resistance to 10 and warm up for 3-5 minutes at a speed consistent enough to raise heart rate into the 120’s.

2. Begin Intervals: Increase resistance to 14, and pedal as hard as you can for 15-20 seconds. Immediately reduce resistance back to 10 again and pedal as slowly as you would like for recovery time, for 40-45 seconds. (One cycle is one minute).

3. Perform a total of 15-20 intervals. Increase resistance to 15 or beyond, if needed. Adjust your “high intensity” speed and duration to your heart rate, paying close attention to EACH cycle. (You may feel better at the beginning of one cycle, and not quite recovered at another cycle.) It is OK to have some cycles at 100% effort and other cycles that are semi-recovery at 60-70% effort. Your true recovery period should be barely peddling, at 10-20% effort.

4. Cool down for 3-5 minutes at an easy, steady state.

5. Stretch your hamstrings, low back and hips for a couple of minutes off the machine.

** This is my FAVORITE introductory HIIT workout, because it is safe, low-impact, and can be adjusted easily with each cycle based on your heart rate, recovery time and fatigue level. It is easy to overdo it on your heart rate or cause muscle/joint strains with sprints. If you are new to the world of HIIT, consider mastering the elliptical HIIT before you move on to treadmill or track sprints.

Cardio Workout 3 – Sprint HIIT – Incline Treadmill

20-25 minute time commitment

1. Hop on a treadmill that allows for two different speed presets. That is, you click one button to achieve a desired speed, rather than a constant manual setting in between.

2. Set initial speed to 3.5 and incline to 2. Incline will remain at 2 for duration of workout to prevent injury during sprints. Walk for 5 minutes to warm up.

3. Increase speed to 5.5 mph, and jog lightly for 5 minutes to further warm up (due to high impact nature of this workout)

4. Reduce speed to 3.0- your recovery speed – and walk just until you’ve caught your breath.

5. First sprint: Increase speed to 7 and run until you feel slightly out of breath. It could be 20 seconds, or a minute. (We start with a slower sprint to allow your joints to prepare, and to prevent injury at higher speeds.)

6. 3.0 should be a programmed speed, click it and either slow down with the belt or hop off onto the side until it has slowed down. Then walk until you have caught your breath.

7. 7.0 should be the other programmed speed – click it and jog along with the belt until it is at 7.0. Manually increase speed to 7.5 and then run at the new higher speed until you feel out of breath again.

8. Repeat this cycle of 3.0 as a base walking pace, and sprints increasing in speed by 1/2 mph each time or two, until you feel at the edge of control (usually this is around 9 or 9.5 mph for me). Remember that this is a motorized treadmill and therefore inherently more dangerous than sprinting on a natural surface. Use the “hop off” to the sides if you need to, if things start feeling out of control.

9. Finish your intervals at this top speed. Aim for 10 sprint/walk cycles in before you stop. You can start with 5 cycles and work your way up, if you like. Don’t do more than 15 cycles – it’s too hard on your body.

10. End the workout with 3-5 minutes of walking as cool-down, followed by 2-3 minutes of stretching hips, hamstrings and low back off the treadmill.

** This is my FAVORITE workout to do when I’m feeling super energetic and badass! (Besides a great strength training workout of course.) There is something about sprinting on a treadmill that just makes you feel like a machine. It also technically requires less effort than sprinting on static ground because, well, the ground is moving for you! Which helps propel you.

So while you really have to be at the top of your focus game for this workout to avoid catastrophe, once you have a taste of treadmill interval sprints (and see how fast they shave belly fat off), you’ll be hooked. Just be careful with how often you do them. They’re high impact and can be hard on the joints – and the nervous system.

Strength Workout 1 – Weights Core (Abs & Back)

30-35 minute time commitment

1. Warm-Up: Plank and Plank-Jacks for 1 minute each
2. Warm-Up: Commandos, 2 sets of 5 reps on each arm

For weighted core workouts, you want to use enough weight sufficient to perform 12-15 reps for each exercise. Core benefits from higher reps. Perform 3 rounds (sets) of each exercise group. This workout is designed in “super sets” – one exercise for abs and one exercise for back without rest in between. Supersets allow for greater time efficiency in the gym, so that one muscle group rests while another is being worked.

1. Cable Crunch (Ab)/Cable Row (Back) Superset
2. Captains Chair (Ab)/Pull-Ups (Back) Superset
3. Ab Machine Slider/Back Extension Superset
4. Bent-Leg Jack-knife/Weighted Side Plank Dips Superset
5. Farmer’s Walk alternating sides Superset
6. Optional: Incline crunches/Bent-over Dumbbell Fly Superset

Strength Workout 2 – Weights Upper Body (Shoulders, Triceps, Biceps, Upper Back)

30-35 minute time commitment

1. Warm Up: Push-ups and/or Commandos – Reps to Fatigue, 2 rounds

For weighted upper body workouts, you want to use enough weight sufficient to perform 12-15 reps for each exercise. Upper body, like core, has smaller muscles that fatigue easier, and they benefit from higher reps of slightly lower weight. Perform 3 rounds (sets) of each exercise group. This workout is designed in “super sets” – one exercise for shoulders or chest and one exercise for triceps or upper back without rest in between. (I do not specifically train biceps because they tend to be dominant and get worked anyway.) Supersets allow for greater time efficiency in the gym, so that one muscle group rests while another is being worked.

1. Bench Press/Upright Row Superset
2. Lateral Raises/Tricep Dip Superset
3. Bent-Over Fly/Bent-Over Kickback OR Tricep Cable Press Superset
4. Incline Bench Press/Overhead Press Superset
5. Low Row/Lat Pulldown Machine Superset
6. Around the Worlds to Fatigue

Strength Workout 3 – Weights Lower Body (Low Back, Glutes, Hamstrings and Quadriceps)

40-45 minute time commitment

1. Warm-Up: Side-Skaters
2. Warm-Up: Squats using only bodyweight, or a free-form barbell at an easy weight level

For weighted lower body workouts, you want to use enough weight sufficient to perform 8-12 reps for each exercise. Your lower body has larger muscles with greater glycogen stores. This makes them take longer to fatigue, and makes them capable of greater weight load. So your larger lower body muscles benefit from enough weight sufficient that you can do 8-10 reps to fatigue. They also benefit from something called progressive load (which is increasing weight with each set).

Perform 3 rounds (sets) of each exercise group. This workout is designed in “super sets” – ie one exercise for glutes/hamstrings and one exercise for quads/back, without rest in between. Supersets allow for greater time efficiency in the gym, so that one muscle group rests while another is being worked. There is no need to rest between superset, unless your heart is pounding or you need a water break.

1. Goblet Squat/Deadball Slam Superset
2. Squat/Deadlifts Superset (I use mini barbell, feel free to use squat rack or smith machine)
3. Hip Thrust/Walking Lunges (or Bulgarian Split Squat) Superset
4. Cable Kickback/Hack Squat Superset
5. Leg Press/Hamstring Curl Superset
6. Back Extension (round your back and squeeze your butt or pause at the top)/Hip Adductor Superset
7. Optional for Mobility: Single-Leg Sit-To-Stand
8. Optional for Burnout: Double or Single Leg Press at Moderate Weight to Muscle Fatigue

Note: this is a lot of exercise to work through. Feel free to break these up into alternating workouts, or cap your leg workout at 45 minutes, particularly if you are not an advanced lifter. For beginners to intermediate, longer than that and you begin to risk injury or break down muscle too severely, which can lead to muscle LOSS, not gain. The exercises are listed in order of their importance/priority, from a free weights and compound muscle group perspective.

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