Hey there! Usually, I start these things with a story or anecdote, you know, one to rope you in and help you identify with me or whatever, but instead, I just want to let you in on a secret:
I don’t really love to train. Sure, working in a gym gives me very few excuses and I rarely skip workouts, but just because I’ve made my career out of training folks hardly means I’m chomping at the bit to sling some weight.
In fact, most are punch the clock, git ‘er done kind of workouts, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ll also tell you this: I hate wasting time in the gym.
So I’m always looking for ways to optimize workouts for my clients and myself. Between warming up, strength training, ab work, stretching, mobility; there’s a lot to consider in your program. Compound this with a busy work schedule and hectic home life, how would you go about maximizing all these qualities? Can it even be done?
Five ways to improve efficiency, increase muscle mass and strength, and burn some fat without sacrificing more time in the gym.
Caution: “more” =/= better. Better = better. We’re looking for optimal, not kitchen sink. Some of the most efficient workouts are addition by subtraction: be judicious when selecting one or more of the following techniques.
Workout Fillers: better use of your time than Facebook and Tinder
Workout “fillers” are drills or exercises that “fill time” as you rest between heavier and more challenging exercises. Fillers should be low-intensity and not interfere with the main task at hand. Here’s an example of the “old way” of doing things:
- Barbell Deadlifts 4×4 @ 85% rest 3 minutes
Your central nervous system (CNS), responsible for the size and intensity of your muscle contractions, needs to fully recover between heavy lifts so you can perform optimally on the next set. I recommend 2-5 minutes of rest for anything in the 1-5 rep range. Short of checking Facebook and Tinder during rest, what could you do with that time?
You add fillers:
A1) Deadlift 4×4
A2) T-spine Windmill 4×8/side
A3) Ab Wheel Rollout 4×10
Here, you’re using your rest between heavy deadlifts to work on T-spine mobility (important for those who sit most of their day) and anti-extension ab work through the ab wheel (because #abs). There’s nothing wrong with plain resting, but that doesn’t mean we can’t add a few light things to get more from our workouts, like this:
A1) Deadlift 4×4
A2) Hip Mobility Complex 4×3/side
A3) Band Pullaparts 4×25
Big deadlift + hip mobility + upper back/posterior delt work = savage use of your time and efforts, Batman.
Choose mobility drills, abs, or even stretches in between your heavy lifts to make more of your time, but remember: fillers shouldn’t interfere with the main lift. Keep them light, easy, and relevant to your goals and needs.
Supersets: the Superhero’s Hero
Father Time probably invented Supersets, and he’d probably get pretty anxious seeing too many trainees waiting around for their next set when they could be busy lifting more weights and getting more jacked!
Aside: not everything needs to be a superset, but many exercises can easily be paired in a superset, which would drive a better training effect (read: get more jacked faster) and decrease time in the gym.
The trick is to pick exercises that don’t interfere or compete with the same muscle groups. A couple of examples:
A1) Barbell Bench Press 3×5
A2) DB 1-arm Row 3×10/side
This combination challenges the chest, shoulders, and triceps with the bench and the back/biceps with the row. Full upper body contact with minimal time investment.
A1) Trap Bar Deadlift 3×8
A2) DB Incline Bench Press 3×8
Here we have the trap bar deadlift, which targets the muscles of the backside of the body, supersetting with an Incline DB press, targeting the chest, shoulders, and triceps of the upper body.
A1) Barbell Back Squats 4×6
A2) Chin-ups 4x as many reps
Barbell squats target the quads, glutes, and core, while chin-ups target the forearms and lats of the upper body.
Examples of bad supersets – or rather, bad application – would be exercises that challenge the same muscle groups, challenge grip strength, or challenge your recovery between lifts and thus impede total performance. Remember, we’re trying to get more out of our training session, not disrupt progress along the way.
Set Extenders: Embrace the Suck. Savor it!
Set extension techniques literally extend the current set, allowing you to squeeze more work out of your exercises. By extending the set, you’re increasing the total volume of work and increasing metabolic stress, two mechanisms that drive new muscle growth.
The most popular set-extension technique is the dropset, where you start with a weight, do your reps, reduce the weight, and keep going. Examples:
A1) Barbell Back Squat x 10 @ 185 lbs dropset to 155 lbs for 8-10 reps
A1) Barbell Bench Press x 5 @ 225 lbs dropset to 205 lbs for 5+ reps
By dropping the load you can continue working well past failure. Pro-tip: a 10-20% reduction in weight works well. Please avoid failure on dangerous lifts like squats and bench press: dying under the bar is a bad look for everyone.
A mechanical advantage dropset (MADS) is a method in which you use your body’s natural strength curve and leverages to keep the set going. Two examples:
- Push-up MADS:
- Push-ups with feet elevated x 10-15
- Push-ups with feet on the floor x 10-15
- Push-ups with hands elevated on a bench x as many as possible
- Pull-up/Chin-up MADS:
- Wide-grip Pullups x as many
- Neutral-grip pullups x as many
- Chin-ups x as many
- Inverted Rows x as many
With MADS you can increase time under tension, drive metabolic stress (ow it burns!) and drive more volume, all of which make you stronger and build more muscle.
Let’s say you can do 10 really great push-ups, but then hit a wall and can’t do more. You’ve been trying for weeks and nothing is helping your push-ups get any better. Try Cluster Sets:
Instead of doing 3 sets of 10 (3×10) Push-ups, you do 3x(4×3) Push-ups. With the cluster set, you’re doing 4 “mini” sets of 3 reps (for a total of 12) while resting 10-15 seconds between mini sets. This allows you to accumulate more reps without sacrificing technique.
Another example: weighted chin-ups
Let’s say you can normally do 5 great reps with 45 lbs strapped around your waist. With a 4x(4×2) weighted chin-up scheme, your lift looks like this:
2 reps (rest 15s) + 2 reps (rest 15s) + 2 reps (rest 15s) + 2 reps (rest 90s) = 8 total reps at your previous 5 rep max. Do four total sets this way and you’ve completed 32 weighted chin-ups whereas before you might have gotten 15-20.
Density Circuits (aka AMRAP)
Density circuits or “as many rounds as possible” is when you race against the clock. Pick a handful of exercises for the circuit, set your timer, and get to work.
- Pick exercises that require max effort but utilize minimal equipment.
- For safety and efficiency, keep things simple (goblet squats > power cleans)
- Move quickly but maintain good form throughout.
Here are a few examples:
Timer for 10 minutes, as many rounds
F1) Skip rope x 150 skips
F2) Push-ups x 10
F3) Inverted Rows x 15
F4) Bear Crawl x 40 yards
Timer for 8 minutes, as many rounds:
F1) Farmer’s Walk x 40 yards
F2) Tricep Pressdown x 15
F3) Battle Ropes x 30s
F4) BW Squats x 15
Timer for 9 minutes, as many rounds:
F1) Goblet squat x 10
F2) Close-grip Push-ups x 10
F3) Chin-ups x 5
F4) Reverse Crunch x 10
Anything goes, but I’d suggest keeping things simple and safe so you can perform well, sweat it out, and minimize risk.
Tempo and Isometric Holds: Buuurn, bae
Both of these are like set-extension techniques, sorta. They both drive more volume, time-under-tension, and metabolic stress, all of which are mechanisms that induce greater muscle growth.
Instead of “gripping and ripping” the weights as usual, find a spot in the ROM and pause there. Savor it. Spend a few seconds fully contracted and see how it feels. Try this:
A1) Seated Cable Rows 3×12 w/5-count Iso holds
When you pull the cable towards your chest and squeeze your shoulder blades together, HOLD for a full 5-count before lowering the weights again. Do this on every rep and feel as your muscles quiver and your blood burns. Done right and you’ll be doing rows for at least 60s or more, plenty of time to drive a harsh but beneficial training effect.
A1) Goblet Pause Squats 3×8 w/5-count Iso holds
When you hit the hole, hang out there for a 5-count. I bet you never thought a squat could feel so good and so awful all at the same time.
While isometric holds are essentially normal reps with a pause in the middle, tempo is where you deliberately lower a weight eccentrically for a set time. The eccentric portion of a lift is when your muscles are contracted but then stretch while under load: like the descent into a squat; the lowering of DBs or Barbells to your chest during a bench press; the lowering of the weight stack in a cable row, cable tricep pressdown, or a cable lat pulldown, for example.
Tempo, like Iso holds, increases time under tension which is a great way to increase metabolic and eccentric stress to a muscle group, forcing it to become stronger and bigger for the next workout.
Pick an exercise (a row, squat, or pressing motion) and perform the contraction part of the exercise quickly (think “x” for explosive, or as fast as possible) then when you’re lowering the weight back down, count to five or six between the start and end of the lowering phase. It’s hard, it will suck, and it will change you for the better.
Ok. That’s five.
To get more from your workouts, be judicious when adding one or more of the above techniques. Add value and efficiency to what you’re already doing, don’t detract from your performance or add excess time to your gym routine.
Got questions? Shoot me a message and I’m happy to help you troubleshoot. Happy lifting!