Can Short Workouts Be Effective?

The answer is a resounding yes! Short workouts can be an absolute game changer.

In the world of all-or-nothing fitness, it’s easy to feel that if you don’t go to the gym for 90 minutes, six days a week, you’re just wasting your time.

But in today’s post, I hope to change your mind! Short, time-efficient workouts can be extremely effective… as long as you do it right.

As a mom, I often go through seasons where I have to rely on compressed workouts to maintain my fitness at all. Even as a personal trainer, there are weeks (or months) when my workouts are nothing to write home about – I’m just showing up, putting in the minimum required effort, and moving on with my day. But the truth is that simplicity and consistency are the all-stars of progress! The value of shorter workouts is that they can get you through a tough season, serving as a bridge that allows you to make progress over a tricky chasm of time management. The cliche is true: something is better than nothing.

In other words, short workouts help to defuse perfectionism, which is often what stalls out a healthy lifestyle journey. 

To help make that point, today I’m joined by my friend, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and nutrition coach extraordinaire, Bryan Fitzsimmons. Bryan owns the coaching company Fit 40, and he focuses on helping moms 40+ navigate fitness and take control of life.

Bryan Fitzsimmons Rachel Trotta

Bryan and I see extremely eye-to-eye when it comes to practical, impactful strategies for weight management and health (check out our podcast episode here). He’s incredibly smart and simultaneously down-to-earth, so I asked him to come on the blog and talk about something that I know many of us struggle with: how do you make shorter workouts an effective and integral part of your program, and – most importantly – a powerful alternative to “waiting until things calm down” to hit the gym again?

Bryan’s going to take the post now, with ideas for 15-30 minute workouts that really work!


The Ultimate Guide to Short Workouts That Get Serious Results

Author: Bryan Fitzsimmons 

Bryan Fitzsimmons Fit 40

If your goal is to get stronger and build muscle there are 2 main concepts to focus on:

  1. Volume – the number of sets per week for a particular muscle group 
  2. Progressive overload – doing more weight, reps, or sets for a particular muscle group 

When you lead with these concepts, time doesn’t become as much of a factor.

Let’s take volume for example.

When it comes to building muscle and strength, ideally we want around 10 sets per muscle group per week. However, if you haven’t been lifting weights for very long you can see improvements from as little as 1-4 sets per week according to this study and this study

Not too shabby for a fraction of the effort.

It is important to note that as you increase the amount of sets, and get closer to that goal of 10 per week, you will get even stronger and increase the amount of muscle you build.

The reason I mention this is because so many people believe if they can’t do what is “optimal,” there is no point in exercising at all. But clearly, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

So what would this look like?

You have to ask yourself two questions:

  • How many days per week can you devote to working out?
  • How much time do you have for each workout?

Let’s say you only have 15-30 minutes for 2-3 days out of the week. This is plenty of time to build muscle and get stronger, focusing on that minimum of 1-4 sets. 

Because of the time constraint, the best workout style to accomplish that goal would be a circuit. Circuit training involves 3 or more exercises performed in a row with a rest at the end when all exercises have been completed.

When planning workouts it also helps to plan for your worst week imaginable. Let’s say you had the week from hell where the kids were sick, work was nuts, and you just want to rip your hair out from all the stress. If you were only able to do 1 of these workouts you would still be on track to make progress. 

***Note from Rachel here: that concept of “planning for your worst” is literally one of the best coaching and life tips possible. How often do weeks go exactly according to plan? Almost never. Don’t plan for great weeks – plan for “okay” or even bad weeks. And then it’s delightful when you get more done than you planned. Okay, back to Bryan…*** 

Taking this into account, it would make the most sense to try and work every muscle group during these workout sessions. The best way to do that in a short amount of time is by using what are called compound exercises. These exercises work several muscle groups all at one time as opposed to isolation exercises that only work one muscle at a time. 

For example, squats work the quads, glutes, abs, upper back, and hamstrings. Whereas a leg extension only works the quads.

***Rachel again: absolute yes to full-body workouts made up of mostly compound exercises… this is how I write my client workouts 90% of the time. “Split” workouts – think “leg day” – are certainly effective for maximizing volume and progressive overload, but they also have an important weakness – if you miss one, you’ve missed out on all the sets from that workout, and it’s hard to make up. Full-body workouts give you insurance that you if miss one, you’re not missing everything. Okay, back to Bryan…***

An easy way to set up your workouts, to hit all muscle groups, is by selecting one exercise per movement pattern. The basic ones I like to stick to are pulling, pushing, hinging, squatting, and core exercises. To make it even simpler you can break it down to push, pull, legs, abs. So you would only need 4-5 exercises to hit almost every single muscle in your body.

Here are some examples of those movement patterns, and you can use them as a menu for creating great workouts: 

  • Pull – Pull-downs, Chin-ups, Rows, Reverse Flys
  • Push – Pushups, Bench Presses, Pec Flys
  • Hinge – Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Bridges
  • Squat – Squats, Lunges, Wall Sits
  • Core – Carries, Crunches, Planks/Holds, Pallof Presses, Ab Wheel Rollouts, Crawls

When you do 4-5 exercises for 1-4 rounds with a minute or two of rest between each circuit you can get all of this done easily in 15-30 minutes. If you wanted to incorporate more cardio, you could take those 4-5 exercises and set a timer to complete as many rounds as possible within 15-30 minutes with less rest. 

If I were picking the best 5 exercises for a great beginner workout with a pair of dumbbells I would set it up like this:

  • Dumbbell Rows x 10 each (pull)
  • Wall or Kneeling Pushups x 5 (push)
  • Dumbbell Romanian Deadlifts x 10 (hinge) 
  • Goblet Squat x 10 (squat) 
  • Plank x 30-60 seconds (core) 

Again for 1-4 sets, or for as many rounds as possible for 15-30 minutes.

Here are some coaching notes to keep in mind when you’re devising short, simple circuits…

The Order of the Exercises

There is a specific reason I put that example workout in that particular order. One thing to keep in mind is that we want to get as much as we can out of each exercise. This requires us to put the exercises in an order where the performance of the following exercise is affected as little as possible. For example, doing Dumbbell Rows could tax your grip so much that if you were to do Romanian Deadlifts right after you would not be able to hold as much weight. If you aren’t able to use as much weight, you will get worse results than if you optimized the order the exercises are in. So instead, having an exercise in between them, like Pushups as you see above, gives you time for your grip to recover so you can get the most out of the Romanian Deadlifts.

Eliminating Troublesome Exercises

Another issue many people face is when certain exercises hurt. A common problem is when people’s knees get cranky from squatting or lunging. One simple way to get around this is to just get rid of the squatting category, or to choose a more stable variation, like a wall sit. You still have the hinge category in the workout, which will help to hit the legs even without intense squatting or lunging. 

Modifying Exercises

Last but not least is the use of partial range of motion. Many times with exercises like chest presses for example, the shoulders will experience pain or discomfort from using too much of a range of motion. This is also common with squats when people aim for “ass to grass” because someone told them that’s the “right” way to do it. There is no one right way to do any exercise. That’s why, if doing a normal dumbbell or barbell bench press hurts, moving to the floor to do a floor press variation can be a night and day difference. It could potentially eliminate that pain and allow you to train normally, because the range of motion is smaller and the shoulders are less stressed. Or in the case of the squat, going down to a box or bench instead of as low as possible can achieve the same effect. When in doubt, opt for the exercise variation that feels best as you load heavier weights and/or add repetitions (progressive overload). 

Aiming for Optimal Intensity in Short Workouts

The last point I want to stress, because this is extremely important, is the goal of doing the right amount of work. 

Not the most work possible

Do you fall into the “no pain, no gain” trap? Workouts can become a test of how much you can beat your body up. 

However, this is the total opposite of what you want to do. Yes, exercise should be challenging and you should sweat and feel a little sore. But overall you should end each workout session feeling better than when you started. This helps to build the habit of showing up because you actually enjoy how you feel. This usually leads to better consistency than ending a workout feeling like you are going to puke or have trouble just standing up. Because who would want to keep showing up for that? Personally, I wouldn’t.

To wrap it all up, if you stick to these time friendly workouts that check off all the boxes while finding a way to enjoy it, you will be unstoppable.

You will be that fit person who can participate in life instead of sitting on the sidelines. 

The person who sets a life changing example for their kids.

And you can do it in as little as 15-30 minutes a week.

So let’s get to work.


Let’s Review…

Rachel here again!

Just to recap…

  • Use a “menu” of five major movement patterns
    • Pull – Pull-downs, Chin-ups, Rows, Reverse Flys
    • Push – Pushups, Bench Presses, Pec Flys
    • Hinge – Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts, Bridges
    • Squat – Squats, Lunges, Wall Sits
    • Core – Carries, Crunches, Planks/Holds, Pallof Presses, Ab Wheel Rollouts, Crawls
  • Choose one exercise from each category
  • Put the exercises in an order that makes sense in terms of minimizing fatigue and maximizing the weight that you can use
  • Do 5-10 reps – or 30-60 seconds – of each exercise, and move them like a circuit, repeating the circuit 1-4 times with 1-2 minutes of rest between repeats (or set a timer for 15-30 minutes and repeat the circuit as many times as possible with as little rest as possible)
  • Select the right amount of intensity (i.e., weight and range of motion), so that you maximize your actual muscular workload without compromising form or joint health

And just a tip from me… seriously, set a timer! And when the timer goes off, you’re done, even if you’re in the middle of a set. So much of our difficulty with exercise time management is anxiety – that the workout will run over time, that we will be late to our next commitment, that we won’t have time to shower and get ready, that we’ll be away from our kids too long, etc. Just set a timer with a time limit that makes you feel comfortable, and go!

I really appreciate Bryan doing this guest post – if you want more helpful and inspiring content from Bryan Fitzsimmons, you can…

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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