I’m probably starting to sound like a broken record, but if you don’t take anything else away from anything I’ve written here remember this; the keys to progress are to train very hard, very briefly, and give your body adequate time for recovery between workouts. Stated differently, the worst mistakes you can make with your training are to do too much, too often, but not hard enough.
Unfortunately, these three mistakes are the most common.
It’s not unusual for people who don’t know any better to boast to friends and acquaintances about the amount of time they spend in the gym or “working out” each week. Never mind that most of their time is spent looking at themselves in the mirror or socializing, they’re putting in the hours, and in their minds that equates to dedication.
While dedication is usually admirable, in this case it is just misguided. They are operating under the assumption results from exercise are proportional to the time invested or the volume of work performed, and that by spending more time they will produce greater results. Many also believe it is necessary to perform several different types of activities to improve different aspects of fitness; resistance training for muscular strength and endurance, steady-state activities or interval training for cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning, stretching for flexibility, etc.
All of this adds up to a lot of weekly hours in the gym.
On the low end, the American College of Sports Medicine’s current physical activity guidelines recommend at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity steady-state activity five days a week (60 to 90 for those needing to lose fat) and 30 minutes of strength training twice weekly, for a total of around 4 hours per week. On the higher end, some bodybuilding programs require up to 10 hours or more.
Whether you’re a bodybuilder or athlete or someone just trying to get fit or lose a bit of fat, the actual amount of weekly exercise required for optimum results is far less.
How much less? On average only four hours a month. Not four hours a week, but four hours a month. And this assumes you’re training in a gym during peak hours where crowds and inefficient equipment layouts increase the time it should take to get through a workout. If you go during off-peak hours, have a home gym or have personal training in a private high intensity training studio you can cut that time by half or more.
There are several reasons for this:
- Exercise does not directly produce any improvements, it stimulates the body to produce them as an adaptive response. For this to occur the body must be allowed adequate time to recover from the stress of the workout and produce the improvements. Depending on the individual, the intensity of training and other factors this process can require anywhere from a few days to a week or longer. If too much exercise is done too frequently the cumulative stress will exceed body’s ability to recover and adapt and rather than improve you will plateau or get weaker.
- The degree to which the body is stimulated to improve is proportional to how intensely you train – not how much you do or how long you work out – and there is an inverse relationship between the intensity and volume of exercise. The harder you train the less is required and the longer the recovery needed between workouts.
- High intensity strength training will improve cardiovascular and metabolic conditioning better than moderate-intensity steady-state activity making it unnecessary to perform additional activities for that purpose.
- As long as exercises for all the major muscle groups and involving all the major joints are performed through a full range of motion flexibility will also be improved making additional stretching unnecessary.
- Neither moderate-intensity steady-state or high intensity interval training (AKA “cardio”) are necessary for or make a significant contribution to fat loss. The muscle-preserving, metabolic and hormonal effects of even very brief and infrequent high intensity strength training contribute far more to improving body composition.
How can this be done in only four hours a month? Consider the following basic workouts, which address all major muscle groups.
With free weights and body weight:
- Barbell Squat
- Chin Up
- Barbell Press
- Dumbbell One-Legged Calf Raise
- Barbell Row
- Dip or Bench Press
- Stiff-Legged Deadlift
- Weighted Crunch
- Barbell Wrist Curl
- Barbell Wrist Extension
- Leg Press
- Close, Underhand-Grip Pulldown
- Shoulder Press
- Calf Raise
- Seated Row
- Chest Press or Seated Dip
- Back Extension
- Abdominal Flexion
- Wrist Curl (Nautilus Super Forearm or Cable Machine)
- Wrist Extension(Nautilus Super Forearm or Cable Machine)
Only one set of each exercise is necessary. If the first set is done properly more sets will not improve your results but will increase fatigue and add to the limited amount of stress your body can recover from.
Using a slow, controlled speed of movement, a set of 7 to 10 repetitions should only take around 50 to 80 seconds, averaging a little over one minute per exercise. Even if you rest for two full minutes between exercises, your total workout time would be just under 30 minutes. Done twice weekly – which is plenty if you’re training hard enough – this amounts to less than four hours a month.
If you work out at home or train in a private studio the rest and set-up time between exercises can be reduced significantly, cutting the time required for the above workouts down to less than 15 minutes. Advanced trainees or those working out with an experienced HIT trainer may require even fewer exercises, in some cases as little as 3 to 5.
What can a person expect from training only four hours a month?
Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Work Week gained 34 pounds of muscle in four weeks using this approach, with only four hours of training. He covers his training and diet in detail in his upcoming book The 4-Hour Body, which also features yours truly in the section on abdominal training.
When I first started doing high intensity training using Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty I also trained twice weekly on even shorter routines and gained nearly 30 pounds of muscle over a period of six months. I’ve had several male clients consistently gain a pound of muscle or more weekly over their first few months of training. One man I trained gained 8 pounds of muscle during his first three weeks of training.
I’ve had men and women lose huge amounts of fat training less than four hours a month as well, including one woman who lost over 100 pounds in a year and a man who lost over 30 pounds in two months.
Many people have been getting excellent results following the Body by Science program which involves once weekly 12 minute workouts. That’s less than 10 hours per year. And they’re getting better results than people training as many hours per week following conventional bodybuilding programs.
I train twice weekly, alternating between the following workouts, each of which usually takes about 10 to 12 minutes to complete including set up but can be finished in under 6 minutes if I rush between exercises. The specialization routine is included in every second or third rotation.
- Barbell Squat
- Weighted Chin Up (Nautilus Omni Multi Exercise)
- Standing Barbell Press
- Wrist Curl (Nautilus OME)
- Wrist Extension(Nautilus OME)
- Shrug Bar Deadlift
- Weighted Dip(Nautilus OME)
- Arm Curl(Nautilus OME)
- Standing Calf Raise (Nautilus OME)
- Ivanko Super Gripper
- Negative-Only Weighted Chin Ups (10 second negatives)
- Negative-Only Weighted Dips (10 second negatives)
- Arm Curls
- Tricep Extensions
- Dumbbell Lateral Raise
Not including the minute or so it takes to load the bars or set up the multi-exercise, the total time for each of the above workouts the last cycle was 10:00, 9:48 and 9:21. My total training time for a month is less than 90 minutes.
If you’re not currently working out because you thought you don’t have the time, now you know you do. If you still have doubts the only thing you have to lose by trying for just one month is four hours. What you have to gain, however, is invaluable. Proper exercise can literally change your life.
If you’re currently spending several hours a week in the gym and not just because you enjoy the social atmosphere (some people just like hanging out in gyms, which is fine) take a week or two off (you’re probably overtrained and need the recovery time) then drop the “cardio” and just do two hard strength training workouts a week for a month or two instead. If you don’t get better results (you will) or if you’re really addicted to the endorphin fix of “cardio” or really do just like hanging out at the gym you can always go back to what you were doing before.
However, if you’ve been working out for more than an hour or two a day most days of the week you have even more to gain from cutting back than the people who haven’t been working out will gain from starting; not only will your results improve, you’ll also get back irreplaceable time that can be better spent with family and friends or pursuing other interests.