Making Most out of 20 Minutes Workout Time: Expert Tips

If you have only 20 minutes a day to work out, you need to make the most of that time. In actual fact, the type of workout that’s best suited to you will depend on what your training goals are. We’re going to assume that your goal is overall fitness and will break it down into two broad categories of Strength and Endurance. Choose only one of the following at a time: –

20-mins-workout

Strength

If you want to gain strength quickly, weights are your friend. You should: –

  • Focus on big, compound lifts such as the deadlift, rows, squats and bench press.
    These lifts put the most weight across your body and engage a large number of muscle groups all at the same time. They build functional strength and will let you make gains in a relatively short period of time. Correct form should be a priority.
  • Low volume, High frequency is the way to go. If you’re someone who is pressed for time, you want to spread your training load evenly from one day across to the next. There is no point in killing yourself today only to realize you won’t be recovered enough to work out again tomorrow.
  • Keep the weight well below your max. and keep the intensity at a level that you can sustain throughout the week. If you do more reps., do fewer sets and vice versa to keep the total workout time at 20 minutes.
  • Work multiple body parts and do most/all your lifts every single time. Go easy on the deadlift (2-3 times a week is fine) but apart from that, you should aim to do them all every time you work out.
  • Muscle synthesis after lifting works for between 12-24 hours. By doing one body part/muscle group at a time, you’re losing out on the 24-hour hypertrophy gains you would have made across all your target areas. Keep the volume low and it is possible for you to do this day-in-day-out and progress further relative to the time you’re putting in.

Avoid wasting time on accessory movements such as bicep curls, leg extensions and the like. They are an extremely inefficient way of training, usually propagated by body builders/physique competitors who are in the gym all day and worried more about aesthetics rather than functional strength/fitness.

The mentality of training one body part at a time and doing every set to failure also comes from the same camp, considering many of them are on steroids which decreases their recovery time, increases their work capacity as well as the muscle synthesis window to as much as 3 days. Someone who has to be productive at work, fulfil various other obligations and has different training goals should not be following their advice.

Endurance

Building endurance is all about training the circulatory system. Here’s what you should do: –

  • Workout Indoors. Get a spin bike, home trainer, rowing machine or treadmill and complete your workouts in a controlled environment. Sure, you may feel like going out for a run or bike ride but chances are that you’ll encounter traffic, undulating terrain, wind and other factors that will mess up your training load. The quality of your workout will be much better when you have to deal with a sustained workload. Leave the long, leisurely runs/rides for the weekend.
  • Find the sweet spot. Your ‘sweet spot’ is a level of intensity just a bit below what you could hold for an hour. So about 90% of your FTP (functional threshold power), 80% of your max. heart rate or about a 4 on a scale of 1-10 RPE (rate of perceived exertion), where 1 is at rest and 10 is an all-out sprint. Look any of these terms up if you aren’t familiar with them.
  • Basically, the idea is to train at an intensity slightly lower than what you could do for an hour. This training zone gets you the fastest results and the biggest physiological response for your training. Gauge the intensity you are comfortable with depending on how often you work out and how long your body takes to recover. You should be able to do these 20-minute sweet spot efforts every day.
  • Increase your cadence. Cadence refers to your rep. frequency per minute. On a bike this is the number of times you pedal per minute (RPM) and similarly when running it is measured in steps per minute. Increasing cadence shifts more of the workload from the neuro-muscular system to the circulatory system. This may help you get higher net gains over time as a result of circulatory adaptations (increased lung capacity, blood volume and oxygen uptake in general).

Avoid exercising at the same intensity all the time. While training at your sweet spot will have you making progress faster, it may come at the expense of top-end power/explosiveness since this type of workout will slowly recruit more intermediate muscle fibres. A good way to combat this is to ‘surge’ once or twice between your sweet spot intervals. A surge is a ~10 second effort at around 150% FTP or 8 out of 10 RPE, so not quite a sprint but almost as fast. This will tell your body that you still need those fast-twitch muscles and will decrease the likelihood of them getting re-appropriated.

Closing Thoughts

Rest is just as important as work. Your body only absorbs the training when you rest and recover. With that in mind you must take a day off at-least once a week. Use the 20 minutes of your rest day to focus on stretching, flexibility and isometric core-related exercise but nothing too strenuous. While the information here will definitively help you build and maintain fitness, we hope you’ll be able to give your body more than 20 minutes in the future and take your fitness to the next level.

References

The American Journal of Physiology