by Robert Maxwell
UPDATED 27 JULY 2018 - If you're busy, getting to the gym at all can be a challenge. Once you're there, it's tempting to race through exercises and reach the finish line sooner. Assuming you're someone who values strength and fitness enough to train regularly, getting through your workouts as quickly as possible is a valuable skill, but there's a right way and a wrong way to speed things up. Unless you're overtraining (you're probably not), I would never suggest shortening a workout by cutting exercises. That's counterproductive. Luckily for busy trainees, there's an alternative. Over the years I've learned several techniques for making workouts more efficient yet just as effective. I use them during every workout, and they've allowed me to reduce gym time by at least 30% without sacrificing results. Training fast has been extra important to me lately, with a house expansion to begin and a three-month-old baby at home. Here are my 6 best techniques for getting more done in less time at the gym.
Start warming up before the gym
This works better if you live close to your gym, and won't lose your warmup on the way there. If you have a home gym it works better still. Unless your job constantly occupies all four limbs, you should be able to squeeze in some warmup stretches before you punch out and head to the gym. With optimal planning, you can arrive fully stretched and ready to start your workout. There's no reason to warm up an the gym unless you live more than 25 minutes away. Even then, you can do most of your warmup ahead of time, with a quick re-stretch at the gym to freshen up. If I'm on my computer during the last hour of the workday, I often stretch right at my desk, then head to the gym ready to go. Shaving 10 to 15 minutes off your gym time is substantial, and helps you feel positive and efficient before you even unrack a barbell. Obviously you won't be able to do any warmup sets until you're at the gym, but I consider these part of the workout anyway. If your warmup stretches are done early, you will be too.
Don't warm up too long
When it comes to warmups, novice trainees tend to make one of two common mistakes. They make their warmups either too long or too short. Too short means higher risk of injury and feeling less strong during working sets. Too long wastes time and energy. It also means you'll be a slower and less energetic in the gym due to the extra effort, so your workout will be longer too. If your gym time is limited, don't spend any longer warming up than necessary. For most people, that's 10 to 15 minutes. If you're used to warming up longer, this might seem insufficient, but it's not. If you know the proper stretches to do before getting under a bar, do them efficiently and don't add any unnecessary extras, you'll find your warmup rarely goes beyond 10 minutes.
Do rapid-fire warmup sets
Once you're done stretching, you'll be ready for some warmup sets. I like to start with the empty bar for 15 reps, then work my way up to the full weight I'll be using, known as the "working weight". Three or four warmup sets is plenty, and there's no reason most of them can't be done back to back. Especially the lighter ones. The last warmup set is typically one rep with the working weight, and it's wise to rest a couple minutes after this, in preparation for working sets. Time between warmup sets is where many trainees lose efficiency. If your first warmup set is 15 reps with the bar, then 8 reps with 95 pounds, there's no reason to wait 2 or 3 minutes between. These sets are light enough that waiting won't save any energy to speak of. It'll just tack minutes onto your workout. Pump out your warmup sets fast, taking a short rest only after the last one. You'll probably be ready to hit the weights at least 5 minutes sooner.
Alternate your exercises
There's an expression, "a change is as good as a rest". This has applications in the weight room. When you're resting between sets, you're not exercising. Not exercising means you're getting no closer to completing the workout. That's where alternating exercises can help. Instead of taking 2 or 3 minutes to catch your breath after a set, jump right into the next exercise on your list. Do a set, then return to the first exercise and do another. This is called "super setting", and you can keep it up as long as your energy holds out. Doing it for an entire workout requires exceptional conditioning, since it means pumping out sets non-stop without rest until you're finished. If you're training heavy, chances are you won't be able to do this for the entire session. That's fine. If time's of the essence, do it as long as you can before fatigue weakens you enough to affect your lifts. Even if you can't super set an entire session, you can group two or three exercises together, resting only when you've finished one set of each. Depending on your endurance, this technique can shave as much as 20 or 30 minutes off your workout without sacrificing results.
Measure rest time
Most training programs make at least casual mention of rest time between sets. They often recommend specific lengths: 30 seconds, 1 minute, or 2 to 3 minutes of rest, depending on the exercise and rep range. That's a good thing, because it regulates workout intensity. Longer rests make training easier, and intensity lower. Serious trainees don't want low intensity. As long as your program is well designed, following recommended rest times is a good idea. Trouble is, most guys don't, even if they think they do. Regulating rest takes diligence. You've got to have a watch and use it between every set. If your program says 2 minutes, don't take 3. Start unracking the bar at 1:50. Lots of guys think they don't need a watch, believing they can get close enough to the right rest time by instinct. Unless you're very experienced, don't try this. For novice trainees, rest time almost always feels shorter than it is. You might think you've been sucking wind for only 2 minutes, but unless you're checking the clock, it's likely been closer to 4. Doubling rest time makes the workout less effective and longer. If you want to get out of the gym fast, check the clock between every set.
This might seem obvious, but it's surprising how much a workout can be shortened simply by moving faster. This applies before, during and after sets. Have to change into workout shoes? Tie your laces faster. Is the piece of equipment you need on the other side of the gym? Run there. A tremendous amount of time is wasted when trainees slowly meander toward their next exercise. You're working out to improve physically, so don't shortchange yourself. Moving quickly makes you better. Time can also be saved during the actual exercises. Don't stand there taking 15 breaths between every rep. Not only will this annoy anyone waiting on the equipment – it also wastes an opportunity to improve your conditioning. Even if you're on the last few reps of your final set, extremely long pauses shouldn't happen. They indicate poor cardiovascular fitness. So either spend more time on the treadmill, or reduce the weight. Making your warmups efficient and timing your rests won't help if your sets take 5 minutes each.
Bonus Tip: Mentally Plan your workouts ahead of time
You'd be surprised how much time you can waste in the gym scratching your head, thinking about your next set, debating what weight to use on your next exercise, and adding that weight up. In my experience, these seemingly insignificant parts of your training session can add up to increase your gym time by 30, 40 or even 50 percent, depending on how quickly you move and think. Not only is taking time to think and calculate during your workout a huge efficiency drain – it also hurts your performance, particularly once you've gained the strength and experience to lift very heavy weights. If you only become aware of the poundage you want to squat, bench, press, or deadlift 5 minutes before you make the attempt, you'll be far less likely to succeed if the weight is a serious challenge. That's because you haven't given your mind time to tune into the lift, subconsciously convincing your body that it can be done. This might seem like hocus-pocus, but I can tell you from personal experience that knowing the exact weight you want to lift on every exercise before you set foot in the gym makes a huge difference. You'll almost certainly train better and faster.