No Time to Lift? A Quick Summary & Exercise Routines

~ 1250 words, ~6 min. reading time

I ran across this recent paper by Iversen et al. Basically, they were trying to figure out how to make a time-optimized lifting routine for people who don’t have much time to get to the gym. They have pretty good summaries of their findings, so I’m going to offer a couple quick routines for people with little to no equipment.

Routine 1: “I have dumbbells in a variety of weights (or adjustable dumbbells)” 2x per week to progress, 1x per week to maintain

This is the kind of routine I would do if I was more pressed for time than I am.

Set 1: 10 dumbbell squats (Deload rule: if the weight you choose makes it so you can’t do these, decrease the weight before the next set)

Rest 2+ minutes

Set 2: dumbbell squats, as many reps as possible, up to 20. (Deload/Progression rule: <10, decrease weight 5 lb per side for next work out. 10-11, keep weight the same for next workout, 12+, increase weight 5 lb per side for next work out, 15+, make that 10lb.)

Set 3: 20 reps of dumbbell floor press using a “rest-pause” technique. Do as many reps as possible (track reps for the first set), then pause for 20 seconds. Then, do as many as possible, pause 20 seconds, and so on, until you have a total of at least 20 reps. (Deload/Progression rule: <10 reps in first set, decrease weight 2.5 lb per side for next work out. 10-11, keep weight the same for next workout, 12+, increase weight 2.5 lb per side for next work out, 15+, make that 5lb.)

Set 4: 20 reps of one-arm dumbbell rows using rest-pause, as above (do each side separately, and start and count first set with non-dominant side).

I suspect this would take about 15 minutes to complete, maybe less. And, if it’s more convenient for you, you can break this up over 3 days – so instead of working out 2 days a week, you work out 6 days a week, but the “workout” is a single exercise that can be completed in under 5 minutes.

What if you have more time? In that case, increase the number of sets of squats (2+ min rest between), always progressing/deloading based on the last set, and increase the number of reps of the other two exercises, progressing/deloading based on the first set of those.

Reasoning: evidence is that people can generally progress with as little as 4 sets per muscle group per week. Iversen et al suggest using 3 exercises: a leg exercise (like squat), a push (like floor press), and a pull (like rows). Now, technically this looks like 4 sets of legs and 2 sets of push and 2 of pull per week. HOWEVER, Iversen et al. also cite research that using rest-pause for 20 total reps is similar to doing 5 sets of 4 (and actually might be better by some measures). Also, training TO failure instead of just “close to” failure is way easier for those of us without as much bodily awareness. If you ask me “How many more reps could you do?” I literally don’t know. It’s just something I can’t feel easily. But, I *can* feel when my body just doesn’t want to do any more – like if I can get a partial rep done but no more. Why not use rest-pause for squats? Rest-pause can be pretty intense, so it is generally not advised for “big” exercises. I’m pushing it here with the floor presses because, in my opinion, dumbbell floor presses are much safer than barbell bench presses. The reason is simple: if you fail a dumbbell press, you can drop the dumbbells on the floor. But, if you fail on a barbell press, you can end up dropping the bar on your neck, causing serious problems – maybe even killing you. So, DON’T do rest-pause for barbell bench presses. Always be aware of what happens if things go wrong. In terms of rep choices – I recommend 10 because that’s enough that warm up sets are not necessary.

Routine 2: “I have me!” 2x per week to progress, 1x per week to maintain

Suppose you have no actual equipment. Perhaps you’re just starting or you’re on vacation. Now what? I highly recommend looking at Start Bodyweight. It turns out that your body doesn’t *care* where resistance comes from. Here, I’m just boiling down based on Iversen et al’s principles.

Exercise 1: 20 bodyweight squats using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Exercise 2: 20 pushups using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Exercise 3: 20 horizontal pulls using a rest-pause technique – do as many as you can (pick a variation where you can do 10-20 in the first set), rest 20 sec, then do as many as you can again, etc. until you get up to 20+ total.

Progression: try to add a rep to the 1st set each workout. Once you get up to 20 in a single set, move up to the next variation

What if you have more time? Increase the the number of reps, or add additional exercises from Start Bodyweight.

Routine 3: “I have bands!” 2 x per week to make progress, 1 x per week for maintenance.

One of the first pieces of equipment I bought was resistance bands. They’re super cheap – you can usually get a set for $20-$30. I bought them because I wasn’t sure that I was actually going to stick with it enough to make it worthwhile to buy weights, which tend to be much pricier. (Note: I don’t have a *lot* of weights, and what I have are the least expensive I could find, but I’ve still spent about $200-$250 on them over time.) So, they’re a good first step while you’re trying to build momentum. They’re also very portable, so good for traveling.

Routine is simple: follow routine 2’s structure, doing resistance band squats, chest presses, and rows, progress using the same rules as in Routine #2.

Various Notes

(1) These routines are designed to provide SOME results with a minimal time commitment. They are NOT optimized for results.

(2) For better results: (A) add in two more types of exercises – a vertical pull (pull up for example) and a vertical push (like a shoulder press), (B) increase the number of sets. There seems to be some evidence that 4-6 sets per muscle group per workout is good, with the goal of getting 10+ sets per week. While there is some debate about this, there is some evidence that “overtraining”, at least in terms of number of sets per week, is not a real thing, as improving results have been documented all the way up to 45 sets of an exercise each week. There are, however, diminishing returns for most exercises it seems. So, while 10 sets is better than 9, the benefit of bumping from 4 to 5 is greater than bumping from 9 to 10. There is also *some* evidence that there may even be negative returns in sets per WORKOUT past a certain point. But, that’s unclear. In brief: it seems fairly clear that the best way to add sets is to spread them out over time in any case.

(3) I know there were a couple comments related to this paper that the paper published. Unfortunately, it’s the weekend and I don’t have access to the journal from home, and those comments are locked. I’ll want to check those at some point.

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