Time-efficient training is a vitally important topic because lack of time is one of the most commonly reported barriers to exercising consistently.
For many people, “no time to train” is their number one problem, or at least it’s their biggest perceived problem. I say “perceived” because if they knew about the time-saving training strategies you’re about to learn in this blog post, they wouldn’t see “no time” as a problem anymore.
Not enough time to read either? (lol): Scroll to the 3-minute summary at the bottom of this page.
Another issue is that despite the long list of incredible benefits that come from weight training, including reducing cardio-metabolic disease risk, most of the general population does not lift. When most people think about starting to exercise, they favor cardiovascular activities, especially if they’re carrying excess body fat.
Recently, one of the most exhaustive scientific reports ever written on this subject was published in the journal, Sports Medicine. 107 different studies were cited by the authors, lead by Vegard Iverson from the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. The noted hypertrophy expert Brad Schoenfeld from Lehman College and others were also involved in the project.
The purpose was to critically evaluate all of the available scientific research to determine how strength training can be most effectively carried out in a time-efficient manner, without meaningfully compromising results.
A traditional strength training program for beginner or intermediate lifters involves training every major muscle group with 8 to 10 exercises, for 3 or 4 sets each, for 5 to 12 repetitions, with 2 or 3 minutes between sets (up to 5 minutes for maximum strength training). It also includes a warm up and sometimes stretching as well.
Basic strength training programs like these can take an hour or more and involve at least 3 or 4 sessions a week. Advanced lifting programs for hypertrophy sometimes run well over an hour and may be performed 5 and sometimes even 6 days a week.For individuals who are unable or unwilling to commit this much time to training, understanding the best methods to cut training time but still gain muscle and strength is extremely valuable.
For athletes and bodybuilders who want to optimize muscle size and strength gains, there are certain minimum thresholds of training volume that need to be reached. For athletic excellence and for maximizing strength and muscular potential, there’s no way around making the commitment to invest a certain amount of time.
But for the recreational lifter who is busy with work and family commitments, the research has revealed many techniques for time-efficient training. If you use these methods, the gains may not always be 100% of the results possible when one has the luxury of unlimited training time. However, by using the right tactics, training time can be cut in half while still producing robust results that would make the average fitness enthusiast very happy.
In this report, I will share all of these scientifically proven time-efficiency training tactics, in detail, as they were explained by Iverson and colleagues in their narrative review, along with my own commentary. This is a complete and exhaustive report (equal to about 20 pages). You may want to bookmark or print this to save it for reference. For a quick 3-minute summary with 10 key takeaway points, skip to the bottom of the page.
Traditional guidelines for the general population usually call for resistance training 3 or 4 days per week. Advanced strength athletes and bodybuilders often train 5 or 6 days per week. These workouts often last over an hour.
When seeing these recommendations and common training practices, this is often discouraging and causes busy people with time restrictions not to train at all. This is not surprising given the human tendency to think dichotomously (in all-or-nothing terms). When people feel like they’re not doing something exactly right, they choose to do nothing.
This is unfortunate because studies have clearly shown that any amount of training, even a single day per week can provide benefits. A single hard set is better than zero sets. Two minutes is better than zero minutes (in fact, you’ll learn about a drop set bicep workout below that built as much muscle in 2 minutes as workouts that took 7 or 11 minutes).
Something is always better than nothing. That is the first point to burn into your brain about time-efficient training.
In a study from 2018, researchers compared strength gains from training 1 day a week (low frequency), 2 days a week (medium frequency) or 3 days a week or more (high frequency). The higher frequencies did produce greater strength, but surprisingly, only by a small margin. In trainees who managed to do the same amount of weekly volume and squeeze it into a single day as opposed to spreading it over 2, 3 or 4 days, the results were almost the same.
Another 2018 study by Brad Shoenfeld confirmed it. His meta-analysis found that frequency had no meaningful impact on muscle growth when weekly volume was matched. The reason working each muscle more frequently is recommended for athletes who want to maximize gains is because a higher weekly frequency of training usually leads to a higher weekly volume.
For those who want maximum time efficiency however, simply hitting a certain weekly volume can be sufficient and training multiple days of the week is not necessary. This approach will require longer workouts, but could mean as few as 1 or 2 days a week in the gym. For example, I know people who simply cannot train Monday through Friday without giving up sleep which they don’t want to do. But just 1 or preferably 2 higher volume workouts on the weekend is not only worthwhile, it can be effective if enough volume is completed.
Going in the other direction, another possibility is “micro workouts” where you train with a higher frequency, but the sessions are shorter, perhaps as little as 15 minutes at a time for a full body workout. Using some of the techniques below, working only 1 or 2 body parts would take just minutes. Depending on a person’s work, family, and life situation, this could be an appealing and feasible approach as well. Again, what matters more than the number of workouts in a calendar week is hitting a minimum effective volume dose in a week and doing that consistently week after week.
Training Volume (How Many Sets)
Over the past decade of research, volume has emerged as one of the most important variables related to muscle and strength gains. Volume is simply the amount of physical work you do in a session of resistance training.
Some people do the math to quantify work performed as volume load. This is the product of the sets X reps X weight. Some people call this tonnage because on compound exercises, the number can add up into the thousands of pounds. For example, if you leg press 500 pounds for 3 sets of 10 reps, that’s 15,000 pounds of work performed on that exercise.
Another way to quantify volume is the number of hard sets you perform. A hard set means that the intensity of effort is high enough to stimulate muscle growth. Stopping a set too soon, before the reps even start to feel difficult is not very stimulating. Training to failure is unquestionably an all out effort, but is not necessary to stimulate growth. A hard growth-stimulating effort is usually described as training within 1 to 3 reps of failure. This means warm up sets don’t count.
Traditional training programs call for 2 to 4 sets per exercise per workout (usually at least 3 sets), at least 2 to 3 days per week. That would be a weekly volume of 4 to 12 sets per week (per muscle group). Higher training volumes have been proven to produce greater gains than lower volumes, up to a certain point. The current consensus is that between 10 and 20 hard sets per body part per week is optimal for muscle gains.
10 to 12 sets per muscle per week probably produces the majority of gains. Additional gains come at a much diminished rate of return. That’s good for time-restricted people to know (because 20 sets is a ton of sets!)
Busy people need to assess whether the results from extra volume are worth it, if doing the higher volume is feasible at all. If most of the possible gains are captured by the first 10 sets or so, then usually only advanced bodybuilders and athletes who want one hundred percent of possible gains will put in the time to train with high volume at the upper end of the range.
Surprisingly to many people, even a very low training volume can still produce some good gains. Doing a single hard set for each major muscle 3 times per week can increase strength and hypertrophy. The gains are not as large as doing 10 sets or more per week, but again, something is always better than nothing.
In the past, many exercise scientists have agreed that doing 1 set of 6 to 12 reps, using 70-85% of 1-rep max 2 to 3 times per week is the minimum effective dose in resistance trained individuals. The authors of this new review suggested that if you want appreciable gains in minimum time, shoot for 4 sets or more per week per muscle group.
A new and interesting finding from a 2019 study was that the lower body requires more sets than the upper body to achieve appreciable gains. If you adopt a low volume training approach and you find your legs aren’t getting bigger and stronger, consider staying at or near the minimum dose for upper body, but try adding a little bit more for legs.
A final interesting note about volume is that the more years of experience you have training, the more sets you may need to continue to stimulate more gains. As your training age increases, if you are still so time-restricted that you can’t do more volume, even when using all the time efficiency techniques available to you, then understand that gains may get harder and you may have to settle for small, slow gains or even for maintenance until you work out a way to make more time to train.
Training Load And Repetitions
Load is simply how much weight you lift. Training load is usually defined as a percentage of 1 repetition maximum or as a target repetition to muscular failure. For example, a 12 rep max (12 RM) is a weight that allows you to lift it 12 times, but you can’t complete a 13th rep.
Because training based on a repetition maximum goes hand in hand with the amount of weight you use, we will discuss load and reps together.
Generally, low rep training (1 to 5) is considered very heavy and optimal for strength. Medium reps (6 to 12) is considered moderately heavy and optimal for hypertrophy. High rep training (15 to 25) is considered light and best for muscular endurance.
This is still a good description of loads and repetitions. However, contrary to what we used to believe, recent research has suggested that high reps with lighter loads can stimulate muscle growth under one important condition – the sets are performed at a high intensity of effort (to failure or close to it).
When training with heavy weights, it’s not as important to train to failure because the magnitude of the load forces a muscle to recruit a large number of fibers right from the start of the set. During a lighter high rep set, fewer muscle fibers are needed at the start of the set and only as they fatigue do additional fibers begin to be recruited. If reps are too low however (1 to 3 for example), the total volume may be lower as compared to moderate reps, resulting in good strength gains but not as much hypertrophy compared to moderate reps.
When it comes to time efficiency, a consideration that should be obvious but is sometimes overlooked is that doing high reps takes longer. It takes 3 times as long to do 30 reps as 10 reps. So while it’s possible to gain muscle with a very high rep set if you go to failure, if you’re interested in time-efficient training, it makes more sense to use moderate reps. In addition, high rep sets aren’t as effective for strength gains. This is especially true in well-trained individuals.
The discovery that light weight training to failure can build muscle equally well as medium or low reps has lead some people to say that there’s no such thing as a hypertrophy zone for reps (in the middle range). However, the researchers in this review suggested it is still reasonable to emphasize the 6 to 15 rep range for most of your training if hypertrophy is your goal. Doing high reps with lighter weights is a viable method but not the most time efficient.
There are countless exercises to choose from when designing a resistance training program. Your choice may depend on your goals, equipment available and even personal preference. When one of your goals is time-efficient training, then here is what current recommendations look like based on the latest science.
1. Multi joint vs single joint.
Multi-joint exercises include squats, rows and presses. Single-joint exercises include leg extensions, lateral raises and flyes. The multi-joint exercises activate larger areas of muscle mass and are more efficient for building strength. When you have plenty of time, it’s beneficial to prioritize multi-joint exercises and also include single-joint exercises. When your time is limited and only one exercise can be chosen, multi-joint exercises are the ideal option.
2. Free weights vs machines.
There is strong evidence that machines can produce similar muscle gains as free weights. An advantage of free weights is that it’s easier to simulate functional movements and sports-specific activities. Many free weight exercises are also compound movements which allow the use of heavy weights. Among free weight equipment, barbells allow the use of more weight than dumbbells. Dumbbells and machines are great tools, but when faced with a choice of one or the other due to time restraints, including multi-joint barbell exercises is the most efficient and should be prioritized.
Ultimately, choice of exercise will also depend on what kind of equipment is available, the presence of orthopedic injuries, and experience level (some barbell exercises require a lot of practice and skill to perform effectively and safely). Also remember that waiting for machines in a gym may waste time and that it’s possible to create do a complete training routine at one station with a single barbell.
3. Bilateral vs unilateral.
Strength training exercises can be done with one limb (unilaterally) or with both limbs at the same time (bilaterally). Bilateral exercises provide more stability, allow you to use more total muscle mass and lift heavier weights. This is one reason people seeking time efficiency may want to favor bilateral exercises. In addition, an obvious downside of unilateral exercises is that you must do a set for each side rather than train both sides at the same time, making unilateral training more time consuming. If you choose barbell squats, you can do 3 sets and you’re done. If you choose a unilateral exercise like split squats, a unilateral exercise, doing 3 sets actually means you have to do 6 sets – 3 with each leg.
Time permitting, including unilateral exercises is a good idea to activate the core, build stability, and train sports-specific movements. Unilateral work is also helpful to achieve balanced development, especially if you have one side stronger than the other. However, bilateral exercises are more time-efficient and should be favored when your time is limited, unless core activation and sports specific training are your priorities.
4. Resistance band training.
Bands provide similar, but not superior strength gains as training with traditional equipment such as barbells and machines. However, many of the subjects in the studies on elastic band training were beginners or patients in rehabilitative settings. It’s questionable whether advanced trainees can make equivalent gains with bands that they can with free weights and traditional equipment.
During lower body training in particular (squats), muscle activation in healthy men and women with training experience is lower when using elastic bands alone compared to free weights. Using resistance bands is a viable and time efficient training option, especially for home and travel training. But the reasons above (and others), when you’re time-restricted, using conventional equipment, if available, is preferred for optimizing results, especially for heavy multiple-joint exercises and lower body training.
5. Bodyweight training.
Bodyweight exercises including push ups, dips, pull-ups, and chin-ups are all effective for strength and hypertrophy. They’re also convenient. Even if you’re strong enough to perform high-reps on bodyweight exercises like push ups, recall that if you can train with a high intensity of effort (to failure or close to it), these “light” high-rep sets can stimulate hypertrophy.
A downside is that if you can do 30, 40 or more reps of a bodyweight resistance exercise, that takes 3 to 4 times as long as 10 reps of a free weight or machine exercise. Loading a push up, pull up, or dip with a weighted vest or belt is a good option so you can train heavier and finish quicker. Otherwise, you must alter the exercise form (go from push ups off knees to a standard push up for example). This makes it hard to quantify progressive overload. In addition, it’s difficult to properly load the lower body and continue to add resistance. Bodyweight squats are more like cardio than resistance training.
With these considerations in mind, it is a viable option to include some multi-joint bodyweight resistance exercises as part of a brief, time-efficient training plan (pull-ups are fantastic). However, doing bodyweight exercises exclusively is unlikely to be as effective as traditional training with free weights and machines, especially for the lower body.
Repetition Speed And Muscle Action
Muscle actions include the lengthening of the muscle, also known as the eccentric contraction (lowering the weight), and the shortening of the muscle, known as the concentric contraction (lifting the weight). Athletes sometimes isolate a muscle action, like emphasizing the eccentric (the negative) to achieve a particular effect. Most of the time however, strength training combines concentric and eccentric actions in every rep and must include both for the most optimal and efficient results.
That ties in with repetition speed (velocity) which is a major variable to think about when you want maximum time efficiency. Repetition speed is the time it takes to complete the entire rep – both the concentric and eccentric action.
Trainers and exercise organizations often recommend fairly slow reps. For beginners, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) suggests a slow (2 second concentric and 4 second eccentric) to moderate (1 second concentric and 2 second eccentric) rep speed. For the novice lifter, performing each repetition slowly helps them more easily learn the correct exercise form.
For experienced lifters, the ideal repetition speed may vary. It can depend on the exercise and on a lifter’s goals. When the goal is power, some exercises may even be performed with an explosive (fast) concentric action.
For many years, a number of training gurus proposed that using very slow reps (from 4 seconds to 10 seconds or in some cases even longer) can produce more muscle growth. This hypothesis survived for a long time including in the form of programs such as “super slow” or “time under tension” training.
It has also been suggested that when doing long slow reps you can even gain muscle when using light weights. Very slow reps might have some practical value to people who train at home and don’t have heavy weights or for people who find heavy weights bother their joints.
However, many studies, including a major meta-analysis in 2015 by Schoenfeld and colleagues found that when training is done to failure, a particular repetition speed is unlikely to produce greater muscle growth than another. In fact, the analysis found that repetitions with combined (eccentric and concentric) speeds anywhere from half a second to 8 seconds all resulted in similar muscle hypertrophy.
Other research has found while slow reps may have some utility, and all reps should be done in a controlled fashion when hypertrophy is the goal, there is a threshold where super slow reps (greater than 10 seconds) actually produce an inferior hypertrophic response. There is also research suggesting that when it comes to strength and power gains, faster velocities can be superior, especially when not training close to failure.
Considering all this information in the context of making your training time efficient, you can see that slowing down your reps too much does not provide extra muscle building benefits, but it does make your workout longer, possibly much longer. A 1 second concentric and a 2 second eccentric is a 3 second rep. A 2 second concentric and a 4 second eccentric is a 6 second rep. That doubles your active training time. And if you get into really slow rep speeds like 10 seconds, your active training time almost triples.
The fact that you need to rest in between sets for an optimal response to resistance training is frustrating to people with limited time to train. Most time-constrained individuals have a strong urge to zip right through the workout with very short rest intervals between sets. When they do so, they often feel like they’ve accomplished their goal of completing a speedy workout.
However, getting your workout done quicker doesn’t mean you’ll gain more muscle and strength. The reverse is often true if you don’t know what you’re doing. Adequate rest periods between sets are a crucial program variable for optimizing gains in strength and muscle mass. The rest interval between sets allows the body to remove lactic acid, and replenish ATP and phosphocreatine, which are organic chemicals involved in muscle contraction.
What happens if you don’t rest enough between sets is you don’t replenish these chemicals or recover enough to put a full effort into the next set. As a result, your repetitions tend to drop. With short rest intervals, sometimes you’re even forced to reduce the amount of weight you use. This produces a lower total volume load (weight X reps X sets). Anything you change in your workouts that makes you lift less weight or do fewer reps than usual is a negative, not a positive.
By cutting rest periods to a very brief interval, you may succeed at reducing training time, but there’s a possibility that you’ll have to accept a compromise – increased time efficiency, but decreased effectiveness.
When you want to maximize strength, a common guideline for rest periods between sets is 3 to 5 minutes. A rest period of 3 to 5 minutes is a long time and it’s probably unacceptable for someone who is time restricted. Nevertheless, if maximum strength is the goal, longer rest intervals are needed, otherwise the load you can lift will drop off.
If your goal is muscle growth (hypertrophy), you don’t have to rest that long. A common guideline when training for hypertrophy is 1 to 2 minutes between each set.
Sometimes you’ll even hear that rest periods of 30 to 60 seconds are acceptable if your goal is muscular endurance or if you’re training small muscles or isolation exercises. However, there is almost always a compromise in strength. When rest periods drop below a minute, there might be a compromise in muscle hypertrophy as well if your total volume drops.
Current guidelines based on research still suggest 2 to 5 minute rest intervals as optimal. Where in that range is best depends on whether your goal is hypertrophy or maximum strength. But if time efficiency is a must for you, there is good news.
Two dozen different studies have found that in both beginners and trained people, robust muscle gains can still be made when using short rest intervals of 1 minute. The strength gains may not be the maximum possible, but they are still significant. These studies suggested that in beginners, rest intervals between 1 and 2 minutes are adequate. In trained lifters, 2 minute rest intervals are recommended, especially if strength is a priority.
Another promising finding in the research is that trained individuals were able to build up tolerance for short rest intervals. If you suddenly slash your rest periods from 2 minutes to 30 seconds, you will undoubtedly see the amount of reps and or weight you can use plummet. But if you progressively reduce rest intervals over time (many weeks), you can continue to see excellent hypertrophy and you’ll be able to sustain your strength better with this gradual approach.
If you want to know how much short rest intervals reduce your performance compared to longer rest intervals, track your volume load (weight x reps x sets). If you see a small drop, but you’ve cut your workout time dramatically, it’s an acceptable trade off. If you see a major drop, and your reps are falling off with each set, those are signs that you’ve probably cut your rest intervals too much.
What about circuit training? Wasn’t circuit training mentioned as a time-efficient resistance training method? Circuit training is a time efficient alternative to traditional weight training with 1 to 2 minute plus rest intervals, but it is used more for general fitness and conditioning and much less effective for strength and hypertrophy. In the most recent science review, circuit training was not even mentioned, let alone recommended when hypertrophy and strength are priorities. Instead of circuit training, the research suggests other advanced time-saving methods including supersets, drop sets and rest pause sets.
Advanced Time-Saving Methods: Supersets
Superset training (also known as paired set training), refers to doing two exercises in a row with little to no rest in between. After the second exercise, a normal rest interval (1 to 2 minutes) is taken. Then the exercises are repeated, usually for 3 total supersets.
Because the rest period is eliminated between each pair of exercises, you can see how much time this can save. Supersets are an extremely effective technique for time saving training. A huge advantage of this method is that you can do supersets with opposing (antagonistic muscle groups). This not only avoids interference between the exercises (one muscle is resting while the other is working), studies show that it may even improve performance even though there’s little rest between the exercises.
An example of an antagonistic superset is doing a pushing exercise like a bench press and then a pulling exercise like a row one after the other with no rest. The rest interval doesn’t come until after the second exercise is completed. Another classic example would be a tricep extension supersetted with a bicep curl back to back.
Supersets were used by champion bodybuilders at least as far back as the 1960s but it wasn’t until the last decade or so that research started to confirm how effective this method is. In at least a half a dozen studies, subjects showed increases in strength while cutting training times by as much as half.
Many bodybuilders like same muscle supersets (such as a bench press supersetted to dumbbell flyes). This is also time efficient, but it’s a hypertrophy technique, not as effective for strength.
There is something special about antagonist supersets making them not only time efficient but also effective for building strength. Scientists think that antagonist preloading facilitates increased neural activation which increases strength and can increase total training volume. This is why this method is arguably superior than simply cutting rest intervals to less than 60 seconds in straight sets.
Because supersets are effective for building both strength and muscle and they can cut training time in half, it’s no wonder that TNB TURBO has become our most popular training program of all time – it is based almost completely on antagonist supersets. Click here to learn more about TNB TURBO Training
Advanced Time-Saving Methods: Drop Sets
In drop set training, you start by performing a traditional set, then at the end of the set instead of stopping and taking a rest break, you reduce the weight and then immediately do another set (or multiple sets). The typical weight reduction is 20% to 25%.
All the drop sets are usually performed to failure or at least very close to failure. Normally, you are not advised to take all sets to failure but to leave a couple reps in the tank. In the case of drop sets done for time saving, the workout is so brief, there is little chance of overtraining. It is strenuous however (and it burns).
Research on drop sets shows that the technique is not necessarily better than regular straight sets when volume is the same. The advantage is that drop sets can be used in a way that workout time is slashed dramatically and yet an equivalent amount of muscle is still gained.
You may have heard of drop sets before, and you may have even used them. But what most people don’t realize is that there is a way to use drop sets for time efficiency that’s different than the way many bodybuilders use drop sets.
Bodybuilders will often add drop sets on top of their existing workout to increase their training volume and to make sure they achieve progressive overload beyond the last workout. However, doing this means they are adding time to the workout as well.
For example, I might do 3 sets of barbell curls with 100 pounds for 10 reps. On the next workout, if I don’t feel like I can increase the weight or the reps, I can still add a drop set on the third set of curls. That increases the training volume and achieves progressive overload. But it does make the workout a little longer.
Now imagine that instead of doing 3 straight sets with 1 or 2 minutes rest between each set, I did 1 set and then a drop set with 3 weight drops. Then I’m finished with that exercise. The volume would be similar, but the time required is much lower.
A workout consisting of 1 set with a drop set is so short in fact, you may finish feeling like it wasn’t enough to be effective. Yet research shows that a single drop set produces similar muscle gains as multiple straight sets if you do enough drops so volume is matched. The only downside is that this technique, which involves weight reductions, is not optimal for gaining strength.
When you do drop sets this way for time efficiency, the length of your workout is easily cut in half, and even more.
In one study, men were split into three groups. One group did dumbbell curls starting at 80% of 1RM followed by 4 drop sets at 65%, 50%, 40% and 30% of 1RM. The second group did 3 traditional sets using 80% of 1RM. The third group did 3 traditional sets using 30% of 1 RM for high reps. All sets were taken to failure and the workouts were repeated 2 to 3 days per week for 8 weeks.
All 3 groups showed similar increase in muscle gains. This again showed that you can gain muscle training heavy, light, or with a combination of both. All 3 methods were effective. The difference was the efficiency.
The drop set group was finished with the bicep training in approximately 2 minutes. The heavy load group took 7 minutes. The light weight, high rep group took 11 to 12 minutes. In this case you can see how drop sets can cut training time by up to 3 to 5 times, depending on what other workout you compare it to. This study was also a good example of how high rep, light weight training can build muscle but it can also make your workouts much longer and is not an efficient method.
Coaches and researchers recommend drop set training especially for isolation exercises. It’s an outstanding method for exercises like bicep curls, tricep extensions, lateral raises, leg extensions and leg curls. Previously, we recommended mostly multi-joint exercises for time efficient training, but when doing drop sets, if you use them on multi-joint exercises you must be aware of practical issues and safety concerns. It’s not advisable to use the drop set technique on an exercise where you could get stuck under the bar or easily injured unless you use extreme caution and use all safety mechanisms.
Advanced Time-Saving Techniques: Rest Pause Sets
Rest-pause training involves performing a regular set and at the end of the set, rather than taking a normal rest interval (2 minutes, etc) you take a very short break, typically 20 seconds (sometimes less), then continuing with smaller sets (“mini sets”) using the same weight.
For example If you’re doing barbell curls with 100 pounds and you reach failure or close to failure after 10 reps, you put the bar down and rest for only 20 seconds. Then you pick the bar back up and do as many more reps as you can. Since you did not achieve full recovery in 20 seconds, you will not get 10 reps, but you may be able to perform 4 to 5 reps (a smaller “mini set”). Then you put the bar down again, rest about 20 seconds and continue for another mini set.
If you got 5 reps on the first mini set, you may get 5 again, but usually as fatigue accumulates with each mini set, the reps drop, so it’s more likely you’ll only manage 3 or 4 reps. Once again you’ll put the bar down and continue for another mini set. You may only manage 2 to 3 reps at this point. Some trainees end the rest pause set after a specific number of rounds, often 3 or 4 mini sets. Others continue until they can barely complete a single rep.
Regardless of which way you implement rest-pause, it’s an intense technique so it is best suited for experienced lifters.
There are other variations of rest pause training. One is to aim for the same number of reps in each mini set – often 4 reps, give or take one. This requires allowing a full 20 seconds or perhaps slightly longer since resting only 10 to 15 seconds will result in greater repetition drop off. Another is doing clusters of singles with very heavy weight. However, the method described above is most common and most practical.
Both rest-pause and drop sets could be called set extension techniques (as well as time efficiency training techniques) but the biggest difference is that in rest-pause training you do not reduce the weight during the mini sets. Therefore, the reps are lower in the rest-pause mini sets. With lower reps and heavier weights used, rest pause may be an ideal time efficiency method when strength is a priority goal.
There’s no evidence that rest-pause training is better than traditional training if all other variables are equal. However, research does show that rest-pause training can produce equivalent strength and muscle gains in less time. One study found that a traditional training program took 57 minutes to complete, while a rest-pause protocol was completed in 35 minutes.
Like drop sets, the rest-pause technique can be used to increase volume and achieve progressive overload, but that increases workout duration. For time restricted individuals, 1 set of rest-pause (the main set plus all the mini sets) per exercise would take the place of 3 traditional straight sets.
Maintenance And Minimum Effective Dose
For most people, there are occasions in life when work, family and other obligations appear to get in the way of their usual training regimen. At times like these, it’s tempting for people to take an all-or-nothing attitude and abandon their training completely.
When training is completely stopped, you don’t lose muscle instantly, but muscle is maintained only for a short time without resistance training. You won’t lose much with only 2 or 3 weeks off, but after that, muscles begin to atrophy and strength is lost.
It’s encouraging and motivating to know that strength and muscle mass can be maintained with even very small doses of training. Studies have shown that both men and women can maintain what they have when lifting only once or twice a week.
When deciding how much you can cut down your training when going into a minimalist training program and still maintain what you have, age is factor. One study compared younger (20 to 35) and older (60 to 75) men and discovered that both groups were actually gaining muscle with only 3 sets of 3 exercises done 3 days a week.
In a follow-up period, training was reduced to only 1 or 2 days per week. With only 1 day a week of training, the younger men maintained the muscle they gained during the first phase. Older men were also able to maintain, but only in the 2 days per week training program. It appears younger people have an advantage and older people should consider 2 days a week of resistance training for maintenance.
Genetics may also play a role. Some people can hold onto muscle with less training. It will take a little experimenting to find your minimum effective dose. The important thing to know is that it doesn’t take a lot of training to maintain the strength and muscle you already have. When life seems to get in the way, commit to continue training, but use time efficiency techniques or cut back to a minimal frequency that works for you. Don’t stop completely.
The Minimalist Training Routine
One of the simplest minimalist, low time commitment workout plans consists of only 3 exercises. You hit every major muscle in the body at least indirectly, and the routine is still highly effective when performed with traditional sets and reps at least 2 days a week and ideally 3 days a week:
1. Push (bench press, overhead press, etc)
2. Pull (row, pull up, etc)
3. Squat (or leg press)
When someone has a little more time, it can be expanded to 4 or 5 exercises, adding a core/abs exercise and a hinge movement like a Romanian deadlift.
Using some of the time efficiency techniques explained in this report can cut the training time even more. For example the push and pull exercises can be supersetted.
Necessity Of Warm Up And Stretching
Warming up before strength training is almost universally recommended. Some people have elaborate, lengthy warm ups, intended to prepare the body physically and mentally for the work ahead. Others spend time working on mobility or flexibility routines. In both cases the lifter believes it will enhance performance and reduce risk of injury.
Warm ups fall into two categories: General warm up is something like 5 to 10 minutes on a bike or piece of cardio to increase body temperature. Specific warm ups are usually lighter sets of the weight lifting exercise you’re about to perform to increase muscle activation and provide neuromuscular rehearsal.
Although general warm ups are widely practiced and some people swear they need them, and they help, evidence of performance benefits prior to weight lifting is limited. Exercise specific warm ups seem to provide greater benefits for improving workout performance.
For this reason, when you are time-restricted, include the specific warm up and consider the general warm up optional.
The biggest surprise to most people is that evidence proving warm ups reduce injury risk from strength training are also limited. In addition, warm ups are likely more beneficial when training heavy with low reps than when training with medium and high reps.
Many people stretch because they want to increase joint mobility and naturally of course, stretching is effective for that purpose. But stretching is also often promoted by trainers and the media as an important part of a training session to improve performance, reduce injuries and lessen delayed onset muscle soreness.
Again surprisingly to most people, scientific evidence does not support the proposition that stretching will improve strength training performance, reduce injuries or mitigate soreness.
In fact, static stretching can reduce strength and power if it is done immediately before lifting. This is why people who do want to stretch to improve range of motion are advised to do it after lifting, not before. Dynamic types of stretching (which some people call mobility exercise) do not seem to reduce strength like static stretching, so those who want to do some kind of flexibility work before lifting should opt for the dynamic kind.
Two comprehensive science reviews both concluded that static stretching does not reduce delayed onset muscle soreness in healthy adults, regardless of whether it is done before or after lifting.
Another thing to remember is that contrary to the myth that weight lifting makes you muscle bound, weight training performed through a full range of motio, actually improves flexibility. Weight training is active flexibility as well.
If increasing your joint mobility or range of motion is important to you, one way to fit it in efficiently is to superset resistance training exercises with flexibility exercises. While between set static stretching or loaded stretching have been topics of discussion, it’s arguably not ideal to hold static stretches between sets, but to choose active flexibility or mobility exercises and perform those between sets.
If your joint mobility is already adequate and if you need a time efficient fitness routine, it appears that stretching does not need to be a high priority and neither does general warm ups. Specific warm ups, on the other hand, look to be the most beneficial, especially when you are going to be lifting heavy.
Summary And Practical Application
Scientific research has now highlighted the most important practical guidelines to keep in mind any time you need a training program that can be done with a minimal weekly time commitment.
Below, I have summarized them in a 3-minute checklist that you can come back to for reference in the future any time you need to know how to keep building muscle and strength while reducing your time spent training.
1. How Many Sets (volume).
When you’re time-constrained, do at least 4 hard sets of at least 6 to 12 reps per muscle group per week as a minimum effective dose. If your goal is to gain more strength and muscle size, and you want to get closer to an optimal dose, try to squeeze in more (up to 10 sets). Employ any time efficiency technique that’s practical for you to do so. Also consider tracking your volume load (aka tonnage) which is sets X reps X weight. When using time efficiency techniques and especially when reducing rest intervals, make sure it’s not causing your total volume to drop too much.
2. Weekly Frequency.
Volume per week (sets or volume load) is more important than weekly frequency. If longer workouts less frequently fit your schedule, that’s fine. If “micro workouts” of only 15 minutes or so, more frequently fit your schedule, that’s fine too. Don’t worry as much about the number of days per week you train as the number of effective sets you do. Even a single long workout per week could be enough for some people to maintain what they have.
3. Minimum frequency to maintain.
Remember that if you are okay settling for maintaining the strength and muscle you already have, it takes very little training frequency to do that. Doing 2 days a week of lifting is enough, and young people with favorable genetics may be able to get by with little as 1 weekly session (it may be a longer workout to accumulate enough volume). It’s okay to use minimalist training routines when life gets hectic, and then go back to more traditional routines with higher volumes when you have the time.
4. Rest intervals.
When you do traditional straight set training, don’t dismiss the importance of rest intervals. However the 3 to 5 minute intervals used for maximum strength and powerlifting are not necessary. Untrained individuals can thrive on 1 to 2 minute rest intervals. Trained individuals usually need longer and should aim for 2 minutes to optimize gains. To increase time efficiency you can gradually reduce rest intervals from 2 minutes down to 60 seconds and even 30 seconds, and this allows time for adaptation and minimizes drops in performance. However, dropping rest periods below 1 to 2 minutes will compromise effectiveness somewhat, especially strength. Make sure you’re okay with the trade off between cutting workout time and reducing gains.
You can gain muscle with low reps, medium reps or high reps. Low reps with heavier weights (1 to 5 reps) produce better strength gains. Higher reps with light weights (15 to 25 or more) can build muscle if taken to failure, but remember that high rep sets take longer and are not as effective for strength gains. Doing 6 to 12 reps for most of your training makes sense when time efficiency is a priority.
6. Rep speed (velocity).
Slowing the repetition speed somewhat has some utility, mainly to help beginners learn proper form, to make a light weight feel heavier which enables working though joint pain, or to allow effective hypertrophy training when heavy weights aren’t available. There is little difference in gains between rep speeds of a half a second and 8 seconds. Remember that slow reps make your workouts longer.
7. Advanced time-saving techniques.
Supersets (mainly antagonist supersets), drop sets, and rest pause sets can all maintain your training volume while cutting training time approximately in half and sometimes even more. One drop set or rest pause set can replace 3 straight sets. Supersets are one of the most popular, scientifically proven and effective techniques. Click here to learn more.
8. Exercise selection.
Emphasize multi-joint exercises that involve the largest area of muscle mass and let you use the most weight. Include barbell training if possible, but dumbbell, machine, and even bodyweight or resistance band exercises are feasible options and you can also choose based on personal preference and equipment availability. Choose mostly bilateral (two arms or legs at the same time) exercises, because while one-arm exercises are beneficial, they also make workouts longer.
9. Warm up.
If you are time-restricted, skip the general warm up (like riding a bike) and do only the specific warm ups (lighter sets of the exercise you’re about to do).
If your joint mobility is already adequate, and you have little time to train, skip static stretching completely. If increasing flexibility is a priority, do static stretching after lifting, not before, and or do only dynamic flexibility exercises before lifting. Dynamic flexibility (mobility) exercises can also be done in between sets.
Train hard and expect success!
Founder & CEO, Burn the Fat Inner Circle
Author of Burn the Fat, Feed the Muscle
Author of The BFFM Guide to Flexible Meal Planning For Fat Loss
PS. If you would like a training plan to build more muscle in less time, even cutting your workout time by half, at home or in the gym, then be sure to check out The New Body (TNB) Turbo and click the link below:
About Tom Venuto
Tom Venuto is a natural bodybuilding and fat loss expert. He is also a recipe creator specializing in fat-burning, muscle-building cooking. Tom is a former competitive bodybuilder and today works as a full-time fitness coach, writer, blogger, and author. In his spare time, he is an avid outdoor enthusiast and backpacker. His book, Burn The Fat, Feed The Muscle is an international bestseller, first as an ebook and now as a hardcover and audiobook. The Body Fat Solution, Tom’s book about emotional eating and long-term weight maintenance, was an Oprah Magazine and Men’s Fitness Magazine pick. Tom is also the founder of Burn The Fat Inner Circle – a fitness support community with over 52,000 members worldwide since 2006. Click here for membership details
Iverson M, Norum M, Schoenfeld B, Fimland M, No time to lift? Designing Time-efficient training programs for strength and hypertrophy: A narrative review, Sports Medicine, 2021.