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How to Improve Exercise Efficiency in the Gym and Clinic

Finding time to exercise is no easy task for many people.

During a leadership training I completed in 2016, the instructor asked us to use a substation for the phrase “I don't have time.” Instead, we were to use “I do not prioritize.” Try it and see how it makes you feel. If it makes you squirm, you are likely failing to prioritize something should. The problem with this substitution is it is shame- and guilt-inducing in situations it should not be.

Enter exercise.

If you say you don't have time to exercise but binge-watch Netflix 3 hours a day, you are being dishonest with yourself. But in many cases, exercise is competing with other health priorities, such as sufficient sleep, family time, mental health tasks (e.g. reading, meditation, or journaling), and preparing healthy meals. Those should be prioritized as well. In some cases, the issue is a lack of resources, such as gym equipment or a safe area to walk or run. To simply say someone isn’t prioritizing exercise is using shame as a battering ram.

While there are many areas to address — health inequality being a big one — I am going to focus on one often misunderstood. Exercise efficiency.

How to be more efficient with exercise

As a physical therapist, exercise efficiency is important both within and outside the clinic. As mentioned above, many patients don’t have 60–90 minutes to exercise daily. In the clinic, I am often limited to 60-minute sessions, in which I need to assess, educate, and lead a patient through an exercise regimen.

Being efficient with exercise is critical.

A recent research review in Sports Medicine takes a look at the current state of exercise research to help us understand how to be more efficient with exercise. This review looked specifically at building muscle and strength. They cover many different exercise variables but there are four primary ones to focus on.

#1. How often do I need to train?

Before jumping into the recommendations there is a key point to address: effect size. In research, you will often read something is ‘significant.’ This simply means the difference between two numbers is likely real, not due to chance. It does not mean the difference is meaningful.

Let’s take muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) as an example. To maximize muscle hypertrophy, you need to eat sufficient protein — current research suggests at least 0.5 g/kg of body weight — sleep well, and exercise appropriately. In general, the more volume — provided you can recover between exercise bouts — the better. But more is better isn’t helpful for creating a specific plan.

Most research guidelines recommend two to three training bouts a week for strength and hypertrophy. But we are looking for the most efficient methods of training. Time is short.

How about a single session? Some research shows only one session is needed per week but it comes with a large caveat. The total volume needs to be the same as multiple sessions. So instead of three 30 minute sessions, you complete one 90 minute session. That can help — less prep and drive time, only need to coordinate a single day — but finding a 90+ minute chunk in a week can be challenging. Granted, time is not the determining factor.

When studies compare volume, they are concerned with sets, reps, and load. If you can reduce your rest time — get off of your phone and cut the chatter — to the minimum amount needed, you can plow through a workout. Unless you are an experienced lifter who is strength training (loads greater than 85% of 1 rep max), the rest should be less than 2 minutes between sets, even as low as 30 seconds. Bunch your volume into a total-body session, and you save time. The reverse strategy works as well.

Micro dosing is keeping workouts to15 minutes or less. This is a Pinterest favorite. Again, the total volume is king. That does not mean you can do one pushup a minute for every waking minute and become a professional bodybuilder. The exercise still needs to induce a metabolic effect by challenging your body. But intense 15-minute sessions can do the trick.

Ok, so we have options. Let’s start layering in the details.

Going back to the practice guidelines, weekly training volume should include 4–12 sets of exercise per muscle group. The large gap signifies the large differences in people who studied in research. If you have been lifting weight for years and want to maximize your gains, you need to live near 12 sets. If you are a novice lifter or are simply looking to achieve an effect, four is enough.

If you are using compound exercises like the squat, bench, or deadlift, you can get away with a single set of exercises two to three times a week. That’s it. The results won’t be Instagram-worthy, but you can get stronger. Again, if you are well trained, the stimulus likely won’t be challenging enough

#2. How heavy do I need to train?

Along with volume, the training load is the most important variable. Traditional views are heavy loads are needed for building strength, moderate loads for hypertrophy, and light loads for endurance. Recent research tells us there is substantial crossover.

If the training uses a high level of effort (training to failure is not necessary) the load doesn’t matter much for hypertrophy. One study — which combined the results of multiple studies — showed training with high loads (≥ 60% of 1 rep max) compared to low-loads (< 60% of 1 RM, often 15–40 repetitions range) resulted in similar increases in hypertrophy. The load didn’t matter.

For strength gains, load matters but strength can still improve with light loads. If you want to be a powerlifter though, you have to pick up heavy things. If you want to be time-efficient, heavy loads may be preferable as you don’t need to perform as many repetitions, however, one of the biggest time sucks is traveling to a gym. Unless you have a home gym, it is unlikely you can exercise with heavy loads at home. This brings me to the next point. Which type of exercise is best?

#3. Which exercises should I focus on?

barbell with weights and weight machine
Author altered image (orignial images from Getty Images)

In short, multi-joint exercises should be prioritized as they induce a greater metabolic stimulus in a shorter amount of time than single-joint. If you have the time to do a 90–120 minute workout, throw in the bicep curls. If you are trying to be time-efficient, hit biceps with your back during rows.

How about machines vs. free-weight? This one is tricky. Machines, like single-joint exercises, are easier to perform, making them a favorite of novice lifters. It is easier to add load and train at a high intensity without worry about form. Machines, however, require time and space, limiting the option for at-home workouts.

For home workouts, free weights, resistance bands, and body-weight exercises are the most common options. Resistance bands are the inferior option, but they can still lead to positive results. As your training improves, you have to be more creative with body-weight exercise programming. Some calisthenics workouts can among the most challenging workouts available, however. Free weights give you more options, particularly for high loads, potentially making the workouts more time-efficient.

Other time-saving techniques include supersets, drop sets, and rest-pause. These methods can cut training time in half while maintaining training volume. Here is a brief description of each:

  • Supersets: performing two or more exercises in succession with limited or no rest between them (see below).

graphic showing work-rest ratios for supersets vs. traditional sets
Iversen et al. Sports Medicine.
  • Drop sets: perform a traditional set, reduce the load (often 20–25%), then immediately perform another 1–3 sets. Each drop set is performed to failure.

  • Rest-pause method: Building mini-rest periods within a set. Here is an example from one study showing greater hypertrophy for the rest-pause group. The traditional group performed 3 sets of 6 repetitions with 80% of 1 rep max with 2–3 minutes of rest between sets. The rest-pause group performed one set to failure (also 80% of 1 rep max load) with a 20 s interset rest interval until a total of 18 repetitions was performed. The traditional group took 57 minutes to complete the session while the rest-pause group took only 35 minutes.

#4 Do I need a warm-up?

This section will be brief. Stretching is not needed. It does not reduce muscle soreness, prepare the body for exercise, or even improve mobility for more than a short period of time. If you want to improve your mobility, such as squatting deeper, you will get more benefits from strength training than stretching.

As for warming up — increasing metabolic activity to prepare for exercise — it depends on your intended training. General warm-ups, such as riding a bike or jogging, are not needed. If you are going to lift high loads (greater than 80% of your 1 rep max) then a specific warm-up (using lighter loads of the specific lift) may be beneficial. If you are using light loads, skip the warm-up. It won’t help with performance or prevent injury.

A few final considerations

inforgrahic summarizing the article
Iversen et al. Sports Medicine.

As you can see, there are many levers you can pull to reduce the time demands of exercise. First, determine your goals and which resources are available to you. Next, decide which types of exercise you enjoy. You are more likely to stick with a program you enjoy and find meaning with. If you hate running, don’t run.

After those baseline factors have been determined, figure out which variables you can manipulate to maximize your efficiency. While this article focuses on building muscle and strength, similar results are found with cardiovascular health. High-intensity interval training is effective and time-efficient.

If someone tells you there is only one way to exercise, they are either lying to you or ignorant to exercise research. Some strategies are more effective than others but we aren’t talking about joining the USA Olympic Weightlifting team.

Find what works for you and your goals.

1 Comment

Todd Brian
Todd Brian
Aug 08, 2021

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