How To Exercise When You Are Time Poor

Too little time is a problem that nearly everyone suffers from at some point.

There are lots of demands on your time, especially if you work full time and have people who depend on you (young kids or older adults). It is inevitable that on some days, “me time” is hard to come by.

Many people crumble when they get into these types of situations. Instead of trying to find a way to best utilize the little time they have they just “wing it” and hope for the best. This almost inevitably ends up with them squandering the little free time available to them by scrolling through a social media feed.

To avoid this problem, it is imperative to plan your day!

Personally, I think that everyone should plan their day regardless of how much free time they have because it always results in optimal utilization of your time. For me knowing exactly what I want to do and when I am going to do it results in far less stress in my life while at the same time being much more productive. Who doesn’t want that?

So step one when time is scarce is to plan your day so you know how much free time you have and at what point in your day you have it.

The next question becomes “what to do with that time?”

The answer to that question depends on what the rest of your week looks like?

Is this an isolated scenario? Is this just one day where you don’t have a ton of time or is this going to be a week-long (or even longer) situation?

If it’s just 1-3 days in a random week maybe during your short window of self care you go for a walk, read a book, meditate, go get coffee at a local coffee shop with a friend, anything you like that helps you destress, relax, and refills your bucket.

If this is going to be a longer term situation, then you need to not only plan your day but you probably want to plan out the week as well.

Which days can you realistically exercise?

Which days will be more conducive to rest days?

It is important to remember that in these times of high stress, you probably want to allocate more time to relaxation than to intense formal workouts, so maybe instead of trying to workout 6 days a week you only workout 3 days, and do something relaxing the other 3 days. For all of you type A personalities freaking out about only working out 3 days a week…IT IS GOING TO BE OK I PROMISE YOU ARE NOT GOING TO LOSE ANY FITNESS OR MUSCLE MASS!

In fact if we look at research in this area doing 1-4 sets per week gets you 64% of the hypertrophy (muscle size) gains and 81% of the strength gains! The amount of benefit you get when doing more severely diminishes beyond that!

Now that you have your 3 workout days selected, you need to decide what to do. Again having a plan of what you are going to do for exercise on which day ahead of time is going to save precious time and mental capacity on that given day.

Ideally we are getting in 2-3 resistance training sessions in a week, so if you have 3 days to workout 2 of those days should be allocated to resistance training and the third day should be some form of cardiovascular work.

Again in an ideal world day 1 would be resistance training, day 2 cardiovascular training, and day 3 resistance training, with 1 or 2 rest days in between. Now that might not be possible and all 3 days might be back to back, and day 1 and 2, or days 2 and 3 might have to be resistance training. That is OK! Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough! Sacrificing some degree of performance is fine in these situations, so don’t stress if you can’t schedule things optimally.

As far as what to do in these workouts it’s going to be hard to give specifics since a lot will depend on the individual, but I will try and make some general recommendations that should apply to MOST PEOPLE. Obviously there will be some people where these recommendations would not be the best…there is your warning…consider your own context and goals!

Since this article is about constraints on your time, I am going to shy away from what the obvious form of cardio people will want to do in this situation…high intensity interval training (HIIT). The last thing you need is MORE stress. In addition HIIT is going to require additional recovery, and you are probably not in a place where recovery is going to be optimal. While HIIT might burn more calories, and could have a greater training effect, in the end you might not get either of those benefits if the added stress ends up negating those advantages.

For this reason I would suggest that you do an easier form of cardio. This is the perfect situation where maximum aerobic function (MAF) training can be useful. To do MAF training all you need is a heart rate monitor. What you are going to do is take your age, subtract it from 180, and that is your heart rate limit. While you are doing your cardio workout, you should try and keep your heart rate under this limit at all times. If you don’t have a heart rate monitor, breathing only through your nose is a pretty good way to make sure the intensity is low enough. Pick whatever form of cardio you like, swimming, running, biking, rowing, the elliptical, anything works, just keep your heart rate below 180 – age and do it for whatever time you have available.

When it comes to strength training in a time crunch you are going to want to get the most bang for your buck as possible, we need to be efficient both in our time utilization and in our exercise selection.

Doing isolation exercises is probably not going to be the best idea when time is short and you only have 2 days a week to exercise. Spending 10 minutes doing bicep curls when you only have 1 hour total to strength train in a given week takes more than 15% of your time and only exercises one muscle. Doing chin ups on the other hand for 10 minutes not only works your biceps but also your back, in other words chin ups work more than one muscle at a time. Picking exercises that work as many muscles as possible is going to be more productive for each minute of time we have.

Another way to be efficient with our time is to use a technique called supersetting. All this means is that instead of doing exercise A for 3 sets and resting in between each set, then moving on to exercise B for 3 sets and resting in between each set, we will do a set of exercise A then as fast as possible move into doing a set of exercise B then rest and repeat for 3 sets.

In addition we want to be stringy with our rest time between each set. This is not the situation to be scrolling social media between each set. In fact I would suggest putting your phone in airplane mode during your workout to minimize distractions and focus on your workout. Instead of reaching for your phone, focus on stabilizing your breathing. How fast can you regain your composure, slow down your breath, and slow your heart rate? This will help you recover faster and be ready quicker to tackle your next set.

As far as what exercises to pick, here are some full body exercises to consider:

  • Deadlift (traditional, trap bar, romanian, summo)
  • Squat Pattern (back, front, split, goblet, bands)
  • Pull Up
  • Chin Up
  • Overhead Press (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, landmine, bands)
  • Bench Press (barbell, dumbbell, push ups work too)
  • Row (barbell, dumbbell, kettlebell, bands)
  • Loaded Carry (two arms or single arm)

For example on day 1 you could do 3 sets of deadlifts, chin ups, overhead press, rows. On day 2 you can do 3 sets of squats, pull ups, bench press, loaded carry.

The final variable is how many reps should you do? Again because we are time limited, it means we want to go closer to failure than we would if we had more time. Anywhere between 6-15 reps should be doable, you can load any of the above exercises (or not) to hit the appropriate rep range for you. You probably want to stop 1-2 reps shy of failure though, don’t go all out, again that might take too long to recover from.

Below is a summary of everything I layed out assuming you have 3 days to workout and 30 minutes each day.

Day 1 – Resistance Training – 3 Sets Of Each Exercise

1a. Deadlift, 6-15 reps stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure

1b. Chin Ups, AMRAP, stopping 2 reps shy of failure

2a. Overhead Press, 6-15 reps, stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure

2b. Barbell/DB/KB Row, 6-15 reps, stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure

Day 2 – Cardio

Pick your favorite form of cardio and limit your heart rate to 180-age for the entire session.

This could be running, biking, rowing, swimming, hiking, the elliptical.

Use whatever time you have available

Day 1 – Resistance Training – 3 Sets Of Each Exercise

1a. Squats 6-15 reps stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure

1b. Pull Ups, AMRAP, stopping 2 reps shy of failure

2a. Bench Press, 6-15 reps, stopping 1-2 reps shy of failure

2b. Loaded Carry, challenging weight that you can carry for a minute strait

One thing that we have not addressed to this point is the topic of warmups and cooldowns. Again, when time is tight at the gym the first thing most people cut out is their warmup and cooldown to get to what will help them reach their goal. Unfortunately if you skip the warmup and hurt yourself you are worse off than if you warmed up and cut an exercise from our routine. For that reason I am not going to say to not warmup, but just like with our strength training routine we should be efficient.

One way to minimize your warmup and cooldown time is to try and be active throughout the day as much as possible. This will help keep you loose, and get fresh oxygen and blood to the muscles throughout the day.

The other thing you can do is to warmup and cooldown by focusing only on the muscles you will be exercising that day. If you know there are areas of your body that require more attention than others, focus on those first.

Ultimately I would suggest you keep a warmup and cooldown in your routine, even if that means removing an exercise in order to keep you injury free and feeling good.

Time is not a luxury for many of us today, and there are going to be times where we have less time than we would like to exercise. To make the most out of our time we should first plan out our week to know exactly when and how much time each day we have for ourselves. On the days we do exercise we need to be selective with what we do and make sure we do it efficiently. You can do a lot with 30 minutes if you go in with a plan and keep your focus during the workout. In some cases you might not only maintain your fitness but could even make gains in your fitness. If however you don’t spend some time thinking about when and what you want to do the chances of you actually getting any exercise will greatly decrease.

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