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"Time is money," Benjamin Franklin advised a young tradesman in a 1748 essay. Although we don’t know to what extent he applied Franklin’s wisdom, most of us do understand the implications of this adage in our own lives. When it comes to health and fitness, time is critical. We all lead busy lives and therefore want to maximize our results in minimal time, freeing us to pursue other activities. You probably know how to burn the most calories when it comes to cardio; that is easy—bump up the intensity, time, incline or distance.
But what about strength training? Getting better results isn't always a matter of lifting heavier weights or performing more repetitions (which also takes longer). You don't have to pour over published research or earn a degree in exercise physiology for the sake of better, more efficient workouts. Here are eight secrets that will help you get twice as much out of your strength-training efforts.
Double-Duty Tip #1: Try compound exercises.
Just like compound words combine two words to form a new, more complex one, compound exercises join two exercises that form a more effective new one. A wall sit with lateral dumbbell raise is one example; it combines two movements (the squat and lateral raise) into a single exercise. They differ from isolation exercises (like a simple biceps curl), which involve one movement.
Why it works: Compound exercises train multiple muscle systems to work together rather than isolating them to work independently. Since that's how we tend to move in real life, it's a more functional way to strength train. But compound exercises can also help you get better results. They recruit more muscle fibers than isolation exercises and stimulate the release of anabolic (muscle-building) hormones such as human growth hormone, allowing you to lift heavier weights. They'll also save you time. Why do three sets of squats and three sets of overhead presses (six total sets) when you can put the two together and finish in half the time?
How to do it: Amplify your results in half the time by doubling up lower body exercises such as lunges and squats with upper body moves. A few examples to get you started include side lunges with a dumbbell press or dumbbell chest presses on a stability ball (to help work your core and balance) instead of a bench. Remember to start with simple movements and light weights to develop proper form and technique. You can add weight and complexity over time as your body adapts to this timesaving workout strategy.
Double-Duty Tip #2: Skip the workout machines.
With a few sets of dumbbells (free weights), you can target every muscle group in your body without wasting time moving from machine to machine at the gym or switching between various pieces of equipment. It doesn't take much space to complete a dumbbell circuit either.
Why it works: Dumbbells help you develop power, strength, and endurance. In addition, they activate greater numbers of muscle fibers than exercise machines do (because machines passively hold your body in place, which doesn't require work on your part). You have to work harder to balance free weights yourself and maintain proper form and posture while performing each exercise. Dumbbells also help you achieve better balance and symmetry between both sides of the body; they demand your weak side to perform work unassisted by the dominant side. This forces both sides of your body to develop at the same rate. Dumbbells are a timesaving gem with minimal financial cost.
How to do it: For every gym machine exercise, there is a dumbbell equivalent. Find exercise ideas in SparkPeople's exercise library to get started. You can double your workout results and save precious time by pairing dumbbells and resistance bands. This research-tested shortcut also saves money (no need to purchase heavier dumbbells), and it adds variety to any exercise regimen.
Double-Duty Tip #3: One side is better than two.
It may be counterintuitive to think that performing an exercise using just one side of your body at a time (one-sided exercises, also called "unilateral" training) would give you better results in less time, but stick with me here. A few common examples of unilateral exercises include single-leg squats, one-arm dumbbell rows and single-arm lateral raises with a band.
Why it works: Not only do unilaterally trained muscles produce more force, but there are also other benefits to one-sided training that help you get more results for less time in the gym. For example, one-sided training can improve core strength by recruiting muscles of the lower back and abdomen to maintain posture, balance and coordination during each exercise. In addition, this technique thoroughly trains your stabilizer muscles, which create a solid body framework especially at the core, hip joints, and shoulders. Research also suggests a "crossover" effect: Performing one-sided exercises causes an increase in the strength of the untrained limb on the other side of the body. Finally, unilateral training adds variety to most workouts, offering a boost both physically and mentally.
How to do it: Double your results by combining one-sided training to both your upper and lower limbs at the same time. For example, perform a single arm dumbbell curl while standing on one leg. Another method to obtain twice the results is to perform a single arm chest press on a stability ball. The possibilities are endless, so be creative—just be sure to focus your creativity to one side of your body.
Double-Duty Tip #4: Get on the circuit train.
Developed in England in 1953, circuit training combines aerobic and strength-training exercises into a series of stations. Positioned around a given area, you visit each station in succession to perform the given exercise without resting between stations. While true circuit-training involves both strength and aerobic exercises (such as squats and jumping rope), you can also circuit train without adding the aerobic exercises at the gym or at home by moving quickly from one strength-training move to the next, reducing rest time and maximizing efficiency.
Why it works: Research suggests that circuit training is a time efficient method to enhance cardiovascular fitness and muscle endurance at the same time. There are so many advantages to this type of training: You can customize your circuit to suit your fitness goals; work alone or in small groups, which increases motivation and accountability; and add endless variety by changing up the exercise type, number and order. Save precious time at the gym by circuit training during your next workout, which will help you finish faster and give you both a cardio and a strength-training workout in one!
How to do it: To increase your calorie burn and muscle-building benefits, use heavier weights and perform fewer repetitions of each exercise. You can design your own circuit by simply moving quickly between each exercise in your planned workout without resting. For some 30-minute circuit-training workouts, click here.
The Best of the Rest: 4 More Tips for Strength-Training Efficiency
Add exercises between sets. This efficient approach can cut your workout time by 10-15 percent. Allow yourself 60 seconds between sets and use this time to train other muscle groups such as the abdominals and lower back. You can also spend this time stretching.
Bring a water bottle. Not only does this strategy save time by reducing the number of trips to the water fountain, it helps keep you hydrated, thus increasing performance during the workout.
Avoid peak hours. Most gyms are crowded between 4 p.m. and 8 p.m. Planning your workout outside these times reduces your wait time for equipment (and prevents you from chatting with other gym-goers).
Work your core. If you have only five minutes to work out, focus on your abdominals—arguably the most important muscles in the body. These muscles serve many functions: They protect the lower back, aid digestion and play a key role in maintaining posture.
In his Advice to a Young Tradesman, Franklin said the way to wealth was dependent on two things: industry and frugality; that is, waste neither time nor money. The same might be said for your health. Incorporating these efficient workout strategies will help to maximize your fitness level with a minimal investment of time. These techniques may not lead to riches in dollars and cents but to something better—improved health, which is priceless.
Brzycki, Matt and Fornicola, Fred. 2006. Dumbbell Training for Strength and Fitness. Blue River Press.
Franklin, Benjamin. 1905. Advice to a Young Tradesman. In Albert H. Smyth, ed., The Writing of Benjamin Franklin, vol. 2. New York: Macmillan.
Zhou, S. 2000. Chronic neural adaptations to unilateral exercise: Mechanisms of cross education. Exerc Sport Sci Rev 28: 177-184.
This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness expert, Jen Mueller, M.Ed., Certified Personal Trainer.
Glenn is an ACE-certified personal trainer who motivates clients to perform their best, both physically and mentally. He earned his doctorate in health psychology and is the owner of Fitness Motive, a wellness consulting company located in Cincinnati. Glenn also works as an adjunct university instructor at the University of Cincinnati. He enjoys the outdoors, reading, and has developed an affinity for the taste of dark chocolate.
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