Intense and short workouts are a solution to lack of time; see 20 minute sequence


Sometimes I only have 20 minutes to train. What are the most effective exercises for making the best use of my time?

One of the biggest barriers to setting a regular exercise routine is lack of time. Finding an extra hour (or more, if you include the commute to the gym) to exercise most days of the week can seem like an insurmountable challenge, especially if you have a busy work schedule, family responsibilities, or a long commute.

The good news is that you can get the same (or even better) results from a 20-minute intense workout as from an hour-long session.

A large 2019 study found that, for example, skipping 30 minutes of sitting every day for moderate to vigorous physical activity is associated with a 45% reduction in mortality risk. And many studies have concluded that short, intense exercise two to three times a week can improve lung function and cardiovascular health.

Experts from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that most adults get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week, but you can cut that in half to 75 minutes a week if your workout is intense.

Stephen J. Carter, a cardiovascular physiologist at Indiana University’s Bloomington School of Public Health, said shorter, more intense workouts are better than longer, less intense workouts for lowering cardiovascular disease risk and overall mortality rates.

“People can really get a lot of favorable benefits in a short period of time,” Carter said.

How to do an effective workout in 20 minutes?

Maillard Howell, head of fitness at Reebok and a partner at Dean CrossFit in Brooklyn, New York, said the key to getting an effective workout in a short amount of time is to focus on compound exercises.

A compound exercise is one that uses multiple muscle groups at the same time to perform a movement — such as squats, push-ups, or deadlifts. Isolation exercises like biceps or calves don’t get your heart rate up as quickly as compound exercises and mostly work one muscle group at a time.

If you’re short on time, “you want big moves that use big muscles,” Howell said.

When you use multiple muscle groups, your body diverts blood from organs to working muscles, Carter said, which ends up raising your heart rate.

Exercising the heart this way two or three times a week can have a number of cardiovascular benefits, Carter said, including lowering heart rate (a sign of a healthy heart) and blood pressure.

In addition to compound movements, the other secret to making a short workout effective is minimizing rest time between exercise repetitions and transitioning between movements, Howell said. You don’t want to rush through an exercise and risk bad form, but you also don’t want to stop moving and take a five-minute break in the middle of your workout.

“I don’t need you to go any faster, just don’t slow down,” Howell said.

How to prepare for training?

With any workout, Howell said it’s essential to start with a warm-up and end with a cool-down. But for a 20-minute workout your warm-up will have to be efficient.

“You don’t want to spend 15 minutes warming up,” Carter said. “That means you’re going to have to take warming up seriously.”

He recommended a three- to five-minute warm-up with the goal of increasing circulation. “I keep the thing dynamic. I just want to start moving and I’m a big fan of getting my body temperature up before a workout,” said Howell.

He likes to do the cat-cow yoga pose, where you start on all fours, arch your back and look at the ceiling, then round your back, letting your head hang between your shoulders. Repeat this movement about 15 times until your body starts to feel looser. Then move on to some jumping jacks and high knees where you bring your knees up to your chest one at a time, marching or running in place.

What should the training be?

One of Howell’s favorite time-efficient, no-equipment, full-body workouts is simple and scales to any fitness level or skill.

The workout is: five bodyweight squats, five push-ups and a 30-second plank — repeating six times, resting for no more than 30 seconds between rounds. If you can’t do a floor push-up, do it against a bench or stable bench. You can modify the plank by placing your knees on the floor or doing the plank while standing with your forearms on the wall.

If that’s easy for you, Howell said, you can increase the intensity by trying 10 squats, 10 push-ups and a 60-second plank — repeating 10 times.

If you have access to a dumbbell or kettlebell, Howell suggested including them in the mix. You can change bodyweight squats to goblet squats by holding a kettlebell or dumbbell with both hands at chest height as you squat.

Set a timer for 20 minutes and try to do 15 cup squats, 15 kettlebell or dumbbell swings, and five minutes of jogging on the treadmill (or around the block) at a moderate pace. Repeat this routine until the 20 minutes are up.

One of Carter’s favorite high-intensity exercises is an overhead dumbbell supinated squat, which involves holding dumbbells across your shoulders as you descend into the squat and then pushing the dumbbells overhead as you lift up.

“It’s a really tough workout,” Carter said, “and people can squat down to whatever level they’re comfortable with and use modest weights.”

How to finish training?

After finishing the workout—and catching his breath—Howell suggested a three- to four-minute cool-down. He recommended static floor stretches such as the pigeon pose – with one leg stretched out behind you and the other bent in front with the side of your calf resting on the floor. You can place your calf on a bench to make it easier, or just do any stretch that feels good.

Remember to keep challenging yourself once you get stronger and improve your cardiovascular fitness. After a few weeks, try a slightly heavier weight, more reps, or perhaps a more challenging version of the movement.

“You’re not going to get all the good things that come from exercise if you keep doing the same thing at the same weight all the time,” Howell said, “so start playing around with something a little heavier and go for it.”

Translated by Luiz Roberto M. Gonçalves

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