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How To Train When You Have Limited Time

In this post I am going to answer a question from a subscriber.

Here’s the question:

“[…] I’ve been trying to balance an exhausting work schedule (since August I’ve been working 12-18hrs days 7days week)  this will finally loosen up a tiny bit after Thanksgiving –  I can’t wait!  So my nutrition and workout has completely suffered along with any muscle definition/strength etc  : (

Could you writte a post about what 3-5 total body weight exercises I could do a day with obviously extremely limited time and […] I really want to build muscle and strength efficiently, however using all forms of energy (mental, physical, emotional etc) is being pulled in 10 different directions makes working out and nutrition challenging! If I have a realistic plan, that could greatly help. Currently, with no days off yet and constantly on the run, expending so much energy, I’ve focused on getting at least 30min to 1hr more of sleep each night so I can function the next day.

I have a pull up bar that I use to hang and try to do one chin up and or reverse chin ups.
UBP, sandbag, yoga mat, towels for plank drills and TVA work, but I need a plan to be consistent with the hopes to grow and improve. […] “

First of all thanks for the question.

I totally understand that you have no time. I have been in the same situation when I was studying in university. Even though it probably wasn’t as stressful as your current situation, I still had a very little time to train.

I have been in the same situation when I was studying in university. Even though it probably wasn’t as stressful as your current situation, I still had a very little time to train.

Fortunately, there are some ways that you can train effectively even if you have limited time and I in this post I’m going to cover some of them.

First Things First

The most important think that you have to consider is the stress you are currently experiencing. You have to realize that by adding a workout in your day, you are going to increase the stress in your life [1].

Furthermore, if you are working 12-18 hours, that means that some days you are left only with less than 6 hours of sleep.

Currently, you are on the right track by increasing your sleep time, but I recommend you to take care of your sleep completely before starting a training program. I recognize that sometimes you will still have to work a lot of hours, but try to have an average of 7-8 hours of sleep through the weekend.

This is very important. If you add a training routine without taking care of your sleep you will not be able to recover from it and you can end up in a worse situation than the one you currently are.

Program Outline

To begin with, you are going to train for 7 days per week.

A sample training week is going to look like this:

1st day -> Strength training
2nd day -> Circuit training + Isometrics
3rd day -> Strength training
4th day -> Circuit Training + Isometrics
5th day -> Strength Training
6th day -> Rest (mobility drills, flexibility, yoga, etc) or circuit training
7th day -> Rest

You are going to follow this layout for 3-4 weeks. After that, you are going to add a deload week for recovery. During the deload week, you are going to decrease the intensity of your training.

If during the training period you feel overwhelmed and tired, replace one training day or more with a rest (mobility, flexibility, etc) day.

This might seem like a big commitment right now, and it is. For this reason, you have to start slowly by building the habit over a longer period of time.

In the first month, you can train only with mobility sessions, which are not very stressful. Focus on practicing at the same time every day to build the habit successfully.

After 30 days, you can start replacing the mobility session with either strength or circuit training.

Circuit training and conditioning

The goal of circuit training is to increase your endurance and conditioning. It is also going to help you burn fat and increase your muscle definition.

Circuits by default do not require much time to be completed.

Here are some sample conditioning drills that require approximately 15 minutes.

Workout #1: The Century Workout [2]

  • Warm up 2-3 minutes
  • Perform one circuit as fast as possible with good form
    • A1: 40 squats
    • A2: 30 push ups
    • A3: 20 knee raises
    • A4: 10 pull ups
  • Cool down 1-2 minutes

Time required: 10 minutes (depending on your speed)

Workout #2: Burpee Challenge

Time required: 15 minutes

Workout #3: Bodyweight Tabata [3]

  • Warm up 2-3 minutes
  • Tabata squats
  • Rest one min
  • Tabata push ups
  • Cool down 1-2 minutes

Time required: 15 minutes

Workout #4: Burpees + core

  • Warm up 2-3 minutes
  • A1: 60s of AMRAP burpees
  • A2: 60s of AMRAP Lying Leg Raises (or other core exercises)
  • A3: 30s static hip bridge
  • Cool down 1-2 minutes

Go from A1 to A3 without rest, then rest 60s. Repeat 3-5 times.

Time required: 15-20 minutes

Workout #5: 14min Bodyweight Challenge [4]

  • Warm up 2-3 minutes
  • AMRAP of the following in 14 minutes
    • A1: 2 pull ups
    • A2: 4 push ups
    • A3: 6 squats
  • Cool down 1-2 minutes

Time required: 20 minutes

Workout Notes:

  • During the warm up prepare your wrist (60s), then your shoulders (60s) and lastly do 5-10 push ups, 10-20 squats and jumping jacks to elevate your heart rate.
  • In the cool-down rest in the squat position and let your heart rate drop. After that do light stretching for 60s.
  • If a workout seems too difficult for your current level, modify it by using easier exercise variations. You can replace push ups with knee push ups, make burpees easier by, not doing the push up/jump, etc.
  • You can also practice for less time or fewer rounds. You can start with 30s, after a while increase to 45s and then 60s (for workout #4), etc.
  • Some circuits don’t contain pulling exercises. That’s because if you train with the GTG method, you are going to do lot’s of pulling during the strength training days.

How To Create Your Own Circuits

The above circuits are just an example. You can obviously create your own circuits if you want to experiment more or get bored with these ones.

Some exercises that you can create your circuits with are:

Strength Training

Strength training usually requires more time than conditioning, because it takes more time to recover between sets.

However, there are some other ways that you can train without needing big blocks of time, namely GTG [5] and Isometrics [6].

GTG or Greasing The Groove

This is the method I used when I had limited time in the university for strength training.

With the GTG method, you are going to train during the whole day, instead of training for 1-2 hours straight.

Instead of doing 5×5/ 3×5, etc. you are going to do a fixed number of reps through the whole day. For example, you can do 20 pull ups, by doing 10×2 during the whole day.

You should focus only on 2-3 exercises while using this system. A pushing exercise like dips, a pulling exercise like pull ups and a leg exercise like pistols or progressions of these.

Applying the method:

  1. Choose 3 exercises. One pulling, one pushing and one for the legs.
  2. Test yourself to find out what your max reps are for these movements.
  3. Choose a daily total rep goal (start slowly and be realistic).
  4. Break that amount in numerous sets through the day. If your goal is 15 pull ups, you can do 5×3.
  5. You should never go to failure or anywhere near it. If your max is 5 reps, do sets of 2. If your max is 7 rep, do sets of 3, etc.
  6. The rest between workouts should be more than an hour.

Progressing with GTG

If you want to get stronger you will have to use the progressive overload principle.

You can apply it like this:

1st week -> Go lightly. Do 4-5 sets through the day.

2nd week -> Add one more set during the day.

3rd week -> Reduce one set and add one more rep to each set.

4th week -> Go very lightly. Add one more set and decrease the reps by two in every set. One day instead of using GTG do a test and measure your progress.

If you are practicing with progressions like the ones at [How To Do One Arm Push Ups – Complete Guide], start with a progression that you can do at least 5 reps. Progress to the next one when you can do 5 reps of that progression.

For example, if you can do 5 reps max of progression #1, it can go like this:

1st week: 5×2 One arm push up progression #1 (both sides)

2nd week: 6×2 One arm push up progression #1 (both sides)

3rd week: 5×3 One arm Push Up progression #1 (both sides)

4th week: 6×1 One arm push up progression #1 (both sides). Replace the second day of GTG with a test. Test how many reps you can do on the next progression (#2). If you are able to do 5 or more, then practice with this progression for the next cycle. If not, do another test at the 3rd day of GTG to measure your new max for progression #1 and start the next cycle based on your new max.

The most difficult aspect of the GTG method are the pulling exercises because sometimes you will not be able to find something to hang from. At these cases, you can supplement with some pulling work at your conditioning workouts.

If you are more interested in strength rather than conditioning, you can practice GTG 5 days/ week. You can learn more about the whole approach and how to get the most out of the GTG method at Naked Warrior.

Isometrics

One of the biggest advantages of isometrics is that they don’t require a lot of time. You can get a quality strength training session in 10 minutes or less.

There are lots of ways to use isometrics. The sample isometric workout below [7] is focused on the upper body only.

  • Neck Training
    • Press Down x 5s
    • Press Right x 5s
    • Press Left x 5s
    • Press Back x 5s
    • Rest briefly and repeat the entire circuit 3 times.
  • Horizontal/side/overhead/behind wall push
    • Starting range push x 5s
    • Mid-range push x 5s
    • Peak-range push x 5s
    • Rest briefly and repeat the entire circuit 3 times.
  • Tower pull:
    • Starting range pull x 5s
    • Mid-range pull x 5s
    • Peak-range push x 5s
    • Rest briefly and repeat the entire circuit 3 times

For the towel pull you can have the towel behind your head and pull to widen your arms or step with one leg on the towel and practice isometric bent over rows or other variation. You can find another isometric routine using towels here [Towel Isometrics].

While doing isometrics, focus on achieving maximum tension as fast as possible.

Lastly, based on this program you are going to train isometrics during the conditioning days as the morning/afternoon workout, depending on when you do conditioning training.

Sample Training Plans

“Time will not fall out of the sky, but if you look hard enough, you can certainly make time for 10-minutes of training.” ~ Ross Enamait, Never Gymless

Complete Training Plan
Complete Training Plan
Circuit and isometrics training plan
Circuit and isometrics training plan

Remember that during the rest days you will have to do mobility and flexibility drills.

If you have any questions in regards to this post, feel free to comment below.

~Nick

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[1] You can check out this post for more information [Avoid Overtraining With Stress Management].

[2] For more information about the Century Workout you can check out his post [The Century Workout].

[3] You can find more about the Tabata Protocol here [High Intensity Inverval Training] and here [Tabata Interval].

[4] You can learn more about this circuit here [Bodyweight Challenge].

[6] I learned about the GTG method in “Naked Warrior” by Pavel Tsatsouline.

[6],[7] I learned about the use of isometrics in “Never Gymless” by Ross Enamait.

* Image: Guardian of time

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