10 Tips To Boost Gains While Spending Less Time In The Gym

crunches

1. Cut The Chit-Chat

Yes, that was a great movie you saw last night and you want to tell your gym buddies all about it. Yes, that Spinning instructor has been kind of giving you little looks here and there and you want to try talking to her. And yes, it’s always a ripe time to debate who the greatest Mr. Olympia of all time is. But why are you in the gym?

If you truly have no other social outlet in your life other than the gym, then perhaps it’s a place you don’t mind whiling away most of your free time. But if you have other, more productive things you’d rather be doing than spend unnecessary hours in a noisy gym, it’s time to zip your lip and train. It’s hard when you’re used to being Joe Garrulous.

Everyone expects you to sit at the juice bar, the modern equivalent of the porch of the old General Store, and hold court with hours of idle gossip and trivia. Your pals will still want to yap it up. One way to shut them off without seeming rude is to wear a pair of headphones every time you train.

Most people won’t ask you to take them off to speak unless they have something important to say. In the gym, it’s rare that any of the conversations are life or death matters. Do not hang around the juice bar, or the front desk, or anywhere else you may tend to get caught up in conversations.

If you have a training partner who prefers jaw-jacking over actual training, get rid of the louse. You may come off as rude or arrogant all of a sudden, but it’s a decision you’ll have to make and follow through on if you wish to start making your gym time more efficient.

2. Have A Plan Of Attack

“Hmm. Leg day today. Let’s see, I haven’t squatted in a few weeks, maybe I’ll do that. Let me try a couple sets. Nah. I’m not feeling them right. Maybe I should do leg presses? But wait, all that plate loading …” Is this you? Do you wait until you get to the gym and then start deciding how you’ll train that day?

If so, you’re wasting a good deal of time on something that should already be fleshed out before you arrived. Have a good idea of exactly what you’re going to do before you walk through that gym door. Nothing is worse than finishing your first exercise, then wasting precious minutes as you survey the gym floor and look for inspiration on what to do next.

Have a good idea of exactly what you’re going to do before you walk through that gym door.

Your pump is rapidly diminishing, and the clock, as always, is ticking away. Either the night before, that day, or at least on the ride over to the gym formulate your workout, deciding which exercises you’ll do and in what order. Of course, someone might be using the equipment you wanted, but that’s why we remain flexible.

There’s an old saying that goes, “If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail.” Put a bit of preparation into your training and you will instead have successful, productive workouts.

3. Cut Breaks Down

How many times do you head to the bathroom during your workout? If it’s more than once or twice, either you have a bladder the size of a gerbil’s or you’re subconsciously employing a stall tactic.

While you do need to keep hydrated, a dozen trips to the water fountain all add up to time wasted. Carry a water bottle instead.

4. Cut Rest Time Between Sets

Many of us, and I guiltily include myself, have borrowed a tenet from the world of powerlifting concerning resting between sets. Powerlifters will rest 3-to-5 minutes, sometimes longer, between sets to fully recover from the all-out effort of near-maximum lifts.

Many bodybuilders have mistakenly adopted the same method, theorizing that it will allow them to lift heavier as well. What we seem to have forgotten is that there is a huge difference between strength training and bodybuilding. If getting stronger is your No. 1 goal, then by all means long rest periods will serve you well.

If instead, as the case is for most of us, an impressive physique with huge muscles is your goal, then you should be doing more reps with less weight and resting less. It should take no more than 90 seconds for your breathing to return to normal and the lactic acid to clear from the muscle group after an intense set of 8-to-12 reps. (The rep range just about every scientific study has determined optimal for producing growth)

Anything beyond two minutes and you’re just wasting time. Move on the next set or the next exercise as soon as you are able!

5. Use Supersets & Drop Sets

If you really want to whack a muscle mercilessly in the shortest time possible, start employing supersets and drop sets. You can try the incredible pre-exhaust method developed by Bob Kennedy and Arthur Jones, supersetting an isolation movement for a bodypart with a compound movement, (ex. leg extensions with leg press) or sets for antagonistic muscle groups, like biceps and triceps, or chest and back. Drop sets are a further way to extend the set and take your muscle fibers into a deeper state of annihilation. Best of all, both techniques will do the same job as a standard workout of straight sets, yet in a fraction of the time.

If you really want to whack a muscle mercilessly in the shortest time possible, start employing supersets and drop sets.

6. Avoid Redundant Exercises

Why is it that some people will do flat barbell bench presses, flat dumbbell presses, and then machine flat bench presses, all in the same workout? Either they just love to train chest, or they don’t realize that they’re doing the same exercise three times in a row. Examine your own routine.

Are you efficient, or do you often do many exercises for the exact same muscle function? Take the time to learn a little bit about anatomy and kinesiology, and you’ll get a better grasp on how to structure your workouts more efficiently.

Unlike Mentzer, I don’t believe one exercise can work an entire muscle group, but you should only hit a muscle from the same angle once each workout.

7. Train At Off-Peak Hours

This isn’t an option for everyone, which is why every gym in the world is jam-packed at 6 p.m. on weekdays, especially on Mondays. It’s difficult to get a workout done in an hour when there’s a line for every bench and machine, and the music and chatter combine for a chaotic cacophony of confusion.

If you are able, try to train in the early morning, the late morning, afternoon or late in the evening. If you’re used to the hassle and headache of the crowd scene, you’ll be delighted to find what a different experience it is to have a near-empty gym at your disposal.

With no waiting around, you should be able to shave off a good block of time from your training.

8. Use More Machines

Another way to save time in the gym is to use more machines rather than free weights. Easy, hardcore ironheads, I’m not advocating a machines-only policy. That wouldn’t help most people gain much muscle. But face facts: it takes a long time to load plates and bring heavy dumbbells over to benches. It takes just one second to change the pin on a selected weight stack.

Another way to save time in the gym is to use more machines rather than free weights.

If you’re anti-machine, give them a chance anyway. It might take you more than 20 minutes to do three sets of barbell rows, what with all the plate loading and unloading, plus securing the plates with collars or clips. Three sets on a seated cable row should take no more than seven minutes.

Besides, machines and cables can give your body and mind a break from the clunky iron once in a while. It’s your time. You make the call.

9. Minimize The Use Of Straps & Wraps

Straps and wraps are a habit that many of us fell into without even realizing it. Certainly straps help you hold on to more weight, but isn’t that just because they’re taking the place of a strong grip and well-developed forearms? Many of us wear straps not only on deadlifts, but chins, curls, side laterals, and other exercises where they have no legitimate place.

Worst of all, think about all the time it takes you to strap in for every single set. It may seem like it’s just thirty seconds or so, but add that up over five exercises for 3-or-4 sets each and you can see how it creeps up on you. You’ll be amazed at how much your forearms grow in the first month after you stop using straps for everything. Wraps are even worse.

Unless you have an actual knee problem, there is no reason in the world you need to be wrapping your knees for squatting or leg pressing movements. Most people simply use them to be able to use more weight. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates had the best answer when someone once asked him why he didn’t use knee wraps to squat more.

The Shadow replied, “I could put a giant spring under my arse as well, but what good would that do me?” I can honestly say the only time I ever hurt my knee squatting was when I was using wraps. They make you feel invincible and can bait you into using more weight than you can safely handle.

Worst of all, they can take over five minutes of your precious time to wrap for each set. Screw that! Toss the straps away and save any wrapping for Christmas presents.

10. Train On A Near-Empty Stomach

This sounds bizarre, but I’m trying to give you every possible idea to get in and out of the gym faster. Odds are that if you’re full of food, you won’t have any urgent reason to want to finish your workout faster.

If, however, hunger pangs are starting to chew at your tummy like a rabid pit bull terrier, you’ll have an excellent motivation to hurry up and get right to that post-workout shake.

Finishing your last meal two hours before you start training should give you enough energy to train, yet make you want to end your training session in an hour or less.

How To Build Your Own Workout Routine

I get this email at least once a day, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t have the perfect answer for everybody.  Considering that a program should be developed around a person’s biology, age, goals, diet, free time, etc, there’s a lot of factors I can’t get in ten minutes through email.

I can certainly offer up suggestions, but there’s one person that knows what’s best for you: YOU.  Developing a workout routine for yourself can be scary, but it’s really not too difficult and kind of fun once you understand the basics.

First of all, what are you doing now. Is it working?  Are you safe and is it making you healthier?  If so, keep doing it!  However, if you’re JUST getting started, you want to mix things up, or you’re ready to start lifting weights (after reading that weight training is the fat-burning prize fight victor), it’s good to understand what goes into a program so you can build one for yourself.

Determine Your Situation

How much time can you devote to exercise?

If you can do an hour a day, that’s awesome.  If you have a wife, three kids, and two jobs, then maybe you can only do thirty minutes every other day.  That’s fine too.  Whatever your time commitment is, developing the most efficient workout is crucial.  Why spend two hours in a gym when you can get just as much accomplished in 30 minutes?

What Exercises Should I Do?

  • Quads – squats, lunges, one legged squats, box jumps.
  • Butt and Hamstrings – hip raises, deadlifts, straight leg deadlifts, good mornings, step ups.
  • Push (chest, shoulders, and triceps) – overhead press, bench press, incline dumbbell press, push ups, dips.
  • Pull (back, biceps, and forearms) – chin ups, pull ups, inverse body weight rows, dumbbell rows.
  • Core (abs and lower back) – planks, side planks, exercise ball crunches, mountain climbers, jumping knee tucks, hanging leg raises.

Pick one exercise from each category above for a workout, and you’ll work almost every single muscle in your body. These are just a few examples for what you can do, but you really don’t need to make things more complicated than this.

Add some variety – If you do the same routine, three days a week, for months and months both you and your muscles will get bored.  If you do bench presses on Monday, go with shoulder presses on Wednesday and dips on Friday.  Squats on Monday? Try lunges on Wednesday and box jumps on Friday.  Pick a different exercise each time and your muscles will stay excited (and so will you).

Lastly, your muscles don’t get built in the gym, they get built when you’re resting. Give your muscles 48-72 hours to recover between workouts.  A Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout works well to ensure enough time to recover.

 

How Many Repetitions Should I Do?

If you’re looking to burn fat while building some muscle, keep your number of repetitions per set in the 8-15 range.  If you can do more than 15 without much of a challenge, it’s not difficult enough for you.  Add weight or change the exercise so that it’s tougher.

If you’re looking to build size and strength, you should vary your rep ranges depending on the workout.  Although I’m currently following a variation of Mark Rippetoe’s Starting Strength (2nd edition) routine (heavy weight at five reps per set),  I’ll be switching to this type of routine in the next few weeks:

  • Low reps (5-8) and heavy weight on Mondays.
  • High reps (12-15) and lower weight on Wednesdays.
  • Medium reps (8-12) and medium weight on Fridays.

If you can keep your muscles guessing by constantly forcing them to adapt to different routines, they’re more likely to get harder, better, faster, stronger (thanks Daft Punk!).

What’s the significance of the different number of repetitions?

  • Reps in the 1-5 range build super dense muscle and strength (called myofibrillar hypertrophy).
  • Reps in the 6-12 range build a somewhat equal amounts of muscular strength and muscular endurance.
  • Reps in the 12+ range build muscular endurance and size (this is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy).

By doing rep ranges at each of these different increments, you’re building well-rounded, balanced muscles – full of endurance, explosive power, and strength.

You can even mix up your amount of weight and reps within a single exercise.  Here’s an example of what I’d do for a dumbbell chest press on a Friday:

  • 12 reps at 65 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 10 reps at 70 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 8 reps at 75 pound dumbbells, rest 90 seconds.
  • 6 reps at 80 pound dumbbells, done!

How Long Should I Wait Between Sets?

I purchased The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises, which is a great book LOADED with exercises, tons of pictures, and routines.  They have a very basic formula for how long to wait between your sets based on how many reps you’re doing for the exercise:

  • 1-3 Reps: Rest for 3 to 5 minutes
  • 4-7 Reps: Rest for 2 to 3 minutes
  • 8-12 Reps: Rest for 1 to 2 minutes
  • 13 Reps+: Rest for 1 minute or less

This one is easy: lift enough so that you can get through the set, but not too much that you have NO fuel left in the tank at the end.  How do you determine how much that is?  Trial and error.  When just starting out, or if you’re doing a new exercise for the first time, always err on the side of caution.

Now, if you’re doing exercises with just your body weight, you need to find a way to make each exercise more difficult as you get in shape – once you get past 20 reps for a particular exercise and you’re not gassed, it’s time to mix things up.

  • Can you do 20 push ups no problem? It’s time to start mixing them up to be more challenging.  Pick a variation from the Art of Manliness Push Up Article and make yourself work for it!
  • 20 bodyweight squats too easy? Hold some weights high above your head as you do the next set.  Try one-squats.  Always be challenging yourself.

How Long Should I Exercise?

If you’re doing 15-25 sets of total exercise, you should be able to get everything done within that 45 minute block.  Now, factor in a five or ten minute warm-up, and then stretching afterwards, and the workout can go a little bit longer.  If you can go for over an hour and you’re not completely worn out, you’re simply not pushing yourself hard enough.

Alternating Sets

Let’s say you’re doing four sets of squats and you plan on doing four sets of dumbbell bench presses after that.  If you wait two minutes between each set, this will take you around twenty minutes or so (factoring in the time to get set and actually do the set).

Because you’re exercising two completely different muscle groups, you can exercise one while the other is “resting.”  You’re now getting the same workout done in half the time.  Also, because you’re resting less, your body has to work harder so your heart is getting a workout too.  Jackpot.

Let’s see how this would play out in a sample workout:

  • Lunges alternating with incline dumbbell presses, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • Wait a few minutes to catch your breath and get set for your next two exercises.
  • Straight leg deadlifts alternating with wide-grip pull ups, four sets each, one minute between sets.
  • 3 Sets of planks, stretch, and get the hell out of there!

Circuits

A circuit requires you to do one set for EVERY exercise, one after the other, without stopping.  After you’ve done one set of each exercise in succession, you then repeat the process two, or three, or four more times. I’ve written about two body weight circuits here on the site:

Keep Track Of Everything

Keep a workout journal! You should be getting stronger, faster, or more fit with each day of exercise.  Maybe you can lift more weight, lift the same amount of weight more times than before, or you can finish the same routine faster than before.

Recap: Building a Workout Routine

Okay, so I realize that’s a ridiculous amount of info, but it’s all very important stuff.  Let’s break it down into easy chunks right here:

  • ALWAYS warm up – 5-10 minutes on a bike, rowing machine, jumping jacks, run up and down your stairs, etc.
  • Pick one exercise for each big muscle group – quads, butt and hamstrings, push, pull, and core.
  • Do 3-5 sets for each exercise.
  • Determine how many reps and how long you’ll wait between sets for each exercise.
  • Mix it up! Vary your reps, sets, and exercises.  Keep it interesting.
  • Increase your efficiency and work your heart by doing alternating sets or circuits.
  • Keep your workout to under and hour.
  • Stretch AFTER your workout.
  • Write everything down.