How to Make the Most of Limited Gym Time

How to Make the Most of Limited Gym Time
Photo: Dirima, Shutterstock

Maybe you have to sign up for a time slot at your gym, when you used to be able to mosey on in anytime you liked. Maybe they kick you out after an hour so they can clean. Or maybe your gym is operating as usual, but you’d rather limit the amount of time you spend with strangers who are breathing heavily. How do you make the most of the time you’ve got? We’ve got a few strategies for you.

Split your workouts into gym and home

In the Before Times, your “gym time” and “workout time” may have been the same. But it doesn’t have to be that way, especially if you’ve snagged some dumbbells to keep at home or found some bodyweight workouts you love.

Sit down and split your current workout routine into two lists: things you need the gym to do, and things you don’t. For example, if you have dumbbells at home but no barbell or rack, your lists might look something like this:

At the gym:

  • squats
  • pullups
  • bench press
  • rowing machine intervals

At home:

  • curls
  • planks
  • pushups
  • running

Once you’ve got your lists, see if you can rearrange your workouts. Instead of barbell lifts followed by lighter accessory work at the gym, maybe you can do the barbell lifts and skedaddle, leaving the accessories for home.

Or if you normally warm up with a bit of cardio, you could start your workouts by walking to the gym or by jogging laps around the parking lot, instead of using the treadmill.

Do fewer, bigger lifts

If you’re used to doing a bodybuilding-style routine with a million different little exercises, consider that bigger, full-body lifts might use your time better. A barbell (or even a Smith machine) squat works more muscles in less time than doing every leg machine in the gym.

For that reason, it’s worth shaking up your routine if it lets you condense your lifts into a few bigger ones. Instead of going five times a week and working a different body part each time (the classic “bro split” with a chest day, an arm day, and so on), you may get just as much benefit from going three times a week and doing big lifts on those days.

If you’ve never done the barbell lifts before, go ahead and book a session with a trainer or coach so you can get started with good form. That’s another excellent use of gym time: learning how to lift better, with somebody who can have their eyes on you in person.

Create strategic supersets

Supersets are a classic hack to save time in the gym. While one set of muscles is resting, you can let another do some work.

Sometimes a workout program will call for a specific pair of exercises to be done as a superset. For example, you might do bicep curls followed immediately by tricep extensions, and then a short rest before repeating the sequence. Supersets, or their close cousin circuit training, are sometimes used to keep your heart rate up as a form of conditioning. That’s an option, too.

But you can also do supersets as part of a regular lifting program, just to save time. For example, many squat racks have a bar or a set of handles on which you can do pull-ups. If you’re resting five minutes between heavy squat sets, use one of those minutes to get a couple of pull-ups in.

Similarly, a press and a row can work well together: grab a pair of dumbbells as you head to your bench press station, and do rows in between sets of bench.

You may need to rearrange the order in which you do things, or even change up your equipment (doing those squat rack pull-ups in place of the lat pulldown machine, for example) but with a little creativity you may be able to slash your gym time nearly in half.

Do intense intervals for your cardio

Not all cardio needs to be HIIT. But if you can do slow, easy cardio outside the gym — by taking brisk walks, for example — use your gym time for whatever gives the biggest bang for your buck. Hard intervals on the rower, bike, or stair climber may get you in and out in 20 minutes or less, and then you can round out your cardio needs with easier work at home.

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