How To Train Effectively In Less Time At The Gym

arnold_s1 As an experienced strength trainer, one of the biggest mistakes I see new members make is working out for too long, too often. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s two-hour, twice-daily workouts back in the 1970s are the stuff of legend, but times have changed.

Schwarzenegger was a pioneer, but he was also a genetic freak – what worked for him almost certainly won’t work for you. Lifting weights was Schwarzenegger’s life – this is a luxury working people can rarely afford.

Here’s the good news – you can achieve outstanding results by spending less time at the gym! Just follow these simple tips:

Everything Is In The Preparation

The time you spend at the gym is not limited to those minutes when you’re actually working out. Getting your gym kit ready, driving to the gym, getting dressed, getting undressed, showering afterwards, driving home – all this stuff adds up. Get in the habit of considering your total gym time, which includes all of these things plus the actual workout itself. Now, consider what you can do to shave off some precious minutes before and after your workout.

For example:

  • Join a gym that is close to home.
  • If possible, only visit the gym at off-peak, or less busy times
  • Prepare your gym bag the evening before your workout.
  • Consider showering when you get home, rather than at the gym.

Lift Weights No More Than Three Times A Week

As a new gym user, it’s easy to want to get the most value out of your expensive membership, and it’s not uncommon to see people hitting the gym five, six or even seven days a week! Even for a veteran this is counter-productive – your muscles need rest and recovery. By overtraining them you will encourage atrophy. Not only will they not grow, they might even shrink!

For the first 4-6 months of your membership, three visits to the gym each week is more than sufficient to obtain great results without risking damage to your health. It’s also a regimen that is easy to maintain.

Don’t Worry If You Miss A Workout

Life has a habit of putting things in your way, particularly when you’re trying to do something productive. From time to time something will happen that will mean you will have to skip a workout.

Here’s the thing – don’t worry about it. Just make up the workout the next day, or as soon as you can. One great method I’ve used to ensure I get to workout three times per week is to not plan my days off in advance. Many people like to take the weekends off, or only go to the gym Monday, Wednesdays and Fridays. That sounds great on paper, but what if life gets in the way?

While it is essential that the body gets sufficient rest (see below), if you don’t plan your days off and attempt to go to the gym whenever you possibly can, you will find that you miss very few workouts. Think of your gym visits and recovery periods as constantly ongoing – by taking a day off in between each visit, you’ll automatically hit your target of three sessions each week.

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Do A Full-Body Workout

None of us are professional bodybuilders, so why do so many of us attempt to follow their workouts? Bodybuilding magazines are notorious for this, endlessly publishing the routines of modern pros that are far too advance and strenuous for regular people.

A full-body workout is a great time-saver but also a regimen that offers the most benefits for beginner and intermediate gym users. Many new gym users concentrate entirely on the so-called ‘beach muscles’ – chest, shoulders and particularly biceps. This is counterproductive, as the largest muscle groups – back and legs – are often completely ignored. The body likes to grow proportionately, so by favouring some muscle groups over others you won’t see the best results.

Focus on the larger muscle groups through compound exercises. These move the body through multiple joint movements and provide complete muscle fibre stimulation, as opposed to isolation exercises, which focus on a single joint.

Example compound exercises include barbell squats, pull-ups, dead lifts, bent-over rows, bench press, military press, dips and lunges. (Tip: search YouTube for working examples of all of these exercises.)

Each full-body workout should contain six or seven of these compound exercises, performed in reverse-order of muscle size, i.e., legs, back, chest and then shoulders. (See example workout below).

Workout For No More Than 40 Minutes!

Your total time at the gym should take no more than 40 minutes, which includes preparation. Ideally, you should be lifting weights for no more than 30 minutes in total, which includes all exercises and rest between sets. Keep the intensity high.

To achieve this, it’s important to look at your workout program intelligently. Each exercise should be broken down into ‘warm-up’ and ‘working sets’ – the former prepares the muscle for the more intensive shock of the latter, which should be heaviest possible weight you can lift while maintaining proper form.

The size of the muscle group will determine the number of sets and repetitions necessary. Additionally, as a muscle group is warmed up there is less of a need for ‘warm-up’ sets with each new exercise.

Here’s an example workout:

Barbell Squat: 2 x 10 (warm-up sets), 2 x 8 (working sets)

Pull Ups: 2 x 10 (weight-assisted), 1 x 8
Dead Lifts: 1 x 10, 1 x 6-8
Bent-Over Rows: 1 x 6-8

Bench Press: 2 x 10, 1 x 6-8

Military Press: 1 x 10, 1 x 6-8

Total Exercises Performed: 6
Total Sets: 15

Each set, with rest, should last about two minutes, which makes 30 minutes in total.


A superset involves performing two exercises back-to-back without rest. For best results you should use opposing muscle groups. For example, one could superset back with chest by doing one set of pull-ups immediately followed by one set of dips. This counts as one superset. Then rest and repeat. It’s a great way to save time and produces great results. Consider using the superset method on alternate months, as the impact on the body, particularly with compound exercises, is significant.


Rest is essential to muscle gain. If you visit the gym too regularly or don’t have sufficient rest between sets, your progress will suffer.

A good rule of thumb is to rest 45-60 seconds between each set. Consider resting an additional 30 seconds between exercises (i.e., 90 seconds). Be mindful of your total workout time!

If you plan to workout three times per week, you need a minimum of 48 hours of rest between workouts. This is essential. Your body needs the recovery time, and trying to do too much will lead to poor results.

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Don’t Waste Time

Increasingly gyms have become places for people to meet and chat with their friends. Don’t waste time chatting at the gym. Leave your mobile phone in your locker and if you workout with friends, keep it as professional as possible.

By following the advice above, you can ensure that your gym sessions will be as productive as possible. Because you’ll be spending less time there but still seeing great results, you’ll also have a strong motivation to keep going.


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