Athletic Training

| May 28, 2021

Ways to get more out of your workout without (really) working out more

Being an efficient lifter helps with getting the most out of your workout and likely saving you some time in the process.

By Trevor Mah

Read time: 8 min.

Being an efficient lifter helps with getting the most out of your workout and likely saving you some time in the process. In our busy worlds, there are times when life gets in the way and things may not always work out. If you are crunched for time, a full workout laid out in front of you can look overwhelming.

For instance, a full session can include:

  1. SMR (self-myofascial release, a method of easing trigger points usually through a foam roller or rubber ball)
  2. Dynamic stretching
  3. Cardio warmup
  4. Resistance training
  5. Cardio finisher
  6. Static stretching
  7. Cooldown breathwork

While all of this can certainly be completed in a regular one-hour workout, distraction from many forms can delay your progress, or even make you skip out on a few of them. The bulk of most workouts usually do come from the actual resistance/lifting time, so focusing on your work capacity in this portion can help get you more from your workout without necessarily doing more.

Work capacity can be defined as the amount of output you are capable of in a certain amount of time during an exercise session. Generally, a higher working capacity would correlate with stronger cardiovascular conditioning. The time we normally spend working out is likely limited based on a variety of factors. Even if you don’t have anywhere to be and can workout for as long as you want, chances are you would be less efficient as time passes.

While improving work capacity can certainly be a solid goal in your plan, sometimes it overlaps with just being efficient for the precious time you spend at the gym, or at home working out. Here are a few ways to get a little bit more out of your workout by making the best use of your time (and giving your heart a bit of attention at the same time).

Train Unilaterally

It is very common for many exercise programs to include bilateral exercises (i.e. both legs or arms used at the same time). While many trainers recommend a good deal of unilateral work in programs to work on muscle imbalances and other benefits (see Benefits of Prioritizing Unilateral Training), unilateral training can also help you get more volume from your training due to the total time under tension based on your extended set.

Take a quick look at this simple workout example:

Workout 1

3x10: goblet squat

3x10: split squats (per leg)

3x10: cable seated row

Workout 2

3x10: dumbbell 3-point bench row (per arm)

3x10: barbell bench press

3x10: landmine overhead press (per arm)

Exercise choices aside, the main thing you will notice is that Workout 2 requires a “second” set for the other appendage. The math simply shows that you would be performing twice as many total repetitions (and total time under tension, because you are counting tempo right?) when it is all said and done. While these sets would take longer by comparison, this essentially extends the amount of work performed. The same muscle groups are still generally targeted, but you benefit from additional volume with a simple exercise swap.

While it may feel foreign to train fully unilateral at first, sprinkling some of them into your routine can give you this training benefit without significantly compromising the integrity of your program. You will get an additional benefit from the toll it takes on your cardiovascular system due to the simple nature of the exercise as well (i.e. Bulgarian split squats because they are everyone’s favourite, right?)

While I do understand that doing more work doesn’t necessarily save you time overall, this can be addressed by the next point:

Progressive Overload for Your Rest Periods

The concept of progressive overload is commonly associated with increasing the resistance of your exercises at specific times in your training blocks. Many programs are based on this principle for improvement for strength, muscle gain, etc. What tends to get overlooked is that progressive overload can be applied to almost every other training variable, not just improving the amount of weight you lift. If your goals are cardiovascular and condition based, then this is fairly straightforward.

For lifting, this can be a great way to shave time off in your overall workout and re-invest those extra minutes towards something else. In keeping with the theme of efficiency, applying progressive overload towards your rest period variable can be something that could spice up your program and provide a different challenge. To be clear, this would mean decreasing the amount of time you spend resting between sets; thereby, increasing the stress on your body.

For starters, tracking the amount of rest between sets would be essential. While there are many guidelines you can follow based on energy system recovery out there, all these systems can be trained for improvement. For example, if you tend to rest anywhere from 60-120 seconds between sets, try shaving off 15-20 seconds each week until you are about half of what you started. If you can still lift efficiently with the same intensity and volume, then your ability to recover has improved.

For lifts at a higher threshold (i.e. sub-max effort, or ~85%+ intensity), you naturally will require more rest to get the right energy system ready for your next lift. But the beauty of the human body is that even this energy pathway can be conditioned with diligent planning. Always err on the side of caution if you are planning this though, as you do not want to attempt any PRs if you are truly not quite ready.

Lastly, improving your ability to recover can also improve your lifts. When fatigued, faults in technique, form, execution, etc. are exposed. While you are trying to catch your breath, your focus shifts away from your lift making it difficult to maintain consistent form and tension can leak out. With proper programming, developing this proficiency for “fatigued lifting” can improve your overall performance due to being more (subconsciously) mindful. Basically, if you become really good at lifting under cardiovascular stress, then you should also become even better when lifting after a full rest. Again, there is a risk-reward to this, but if you are a relatively seasoned lifter and have good awareness then you can judge whether or not this can be beneficial for you.

If time is important for you, accounting for your rest periods can make you more cognizant of how efficient you are lifting. If you want to give yourself (and your heart) a bit of a challenge, this can be something you can try out. Just remember that at the end of the day, training should make you more resilient and not utterly exhaust you.

Active Rest Periods

Going back to the components of a full workout, you can cover many of your bases with a little bit of diligence and planning during your rest periods. Even if your rest period is one-minute or less, you can always be productive instead of doing nothing at all. Unless you are circuit training or even just performing supersets (more on that later), your proper use of your downtime can develop good training habits down the road.

Examples are the best way to illustrate this point. So here are a few scenarios that you can start doing (unless you are reading this during your rest period, but it’s not like your phone is a source of distraction right?).

1. Prepare joint/warm-up other body parts

A full body warmup can eat up time, but unless you are doing a full body movement (such as Olympic lifts), you can prepare another body part during your rest. For example, if you are squatting, you can take your rest time to actively prepare your shoulders, or anything else that isn’t really active. By the time you finish your sets and move onto your upper body exercises, they’ll already be warmed up.

2. Never Sit Down (or Try to Stay Moving)

After a hard lift, it’s normal to feel a bit drained, light headed, and/or close to vomiting. But unless you are utterly exasperated, you can stay focused by simply keeping your body moving. This can be as simple as taking a bit of a stroll around your gym for as long as your prescribed rest period tends to be.

I also tend to advocate the avoidance of sitting down, that is, being seated for too long. Even if your exercise is seated in nature, being in this position can make you too relaxed if you wait too long. Being “comfortable” can also set your mind adrift and before you know it, you’re on your phone spending too much time scrolling through memes. Plus, if you are generally sedentary, you’re already spending too much time seated. So why spend more time sitting at a place where you are actively trying to counteract those negative effects? At the very least, there are alternatives to staying still if you must. Rather than sitting down, you can kneel (bonus points if you are stretching your hip flexors), lean against a wall, proper one leg up on something. Bottom line: staying on your feet will be more effective than staying on your butt during your rest.

3. Reflect, Visualize, Execute

Touching back on distractions, it can be easy to lose your focus away from your workout. Whatever it may be, the hour you spend training should have almost all of your attention. Rest periods can cause you to wander, but with practice, you can keep your head in the game. One technique you can employ can be to simply reflect (how did that last set go? What can I do better? etc.), visualize (imagine your next set performed perfectly), and when the time is up, execute (perform the lift).

Honourable mentions: 
Supersets (or tri and giant sets)

Pairing workouts back to back can save you time and give you a great challenge if you pick the right exercises. For full body workouts, pairing compound upper and lower body exercises can really get everything going. Even for split programs, you can pile on the volume and give yourself the pump you’re looking for.

Partner Challenge Workouts & Assistance

Having a workout partner with similar goals can be motivating. Of course, this is assuming you don’t spend too much time socializing with each other. But having challenge related workouts can keep you both focused. While this can be something as simple as doing more reps (i.e. pushup challenge), it can be integrated into other parts of your workout such as assisting you in better variations of stretches, or fun warmup drills.

Being efficient is really never a bad thing. From saving time in a busy day, or simply getting more out of what you are already doing, mindfulness of how well you actually workout can make a significant difference and lead you to a quicker path towards your goals.

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