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It happens to all of us. The best intentions and well-thought-out plans will inevitably be taken over by the duties of work, parenthood, or even just laziness. A good workout will do more than just make you sweat. The thing I try to impart on every attendee of a certification or workshop is that LESS IS MORE. Often a shorter, concentrated session can be far more beneficial than a long, drawn-out sweat-fest. With that said, there will be times when you’ve allotted yourself an hour that somehow transforms into only 10-20 minutes. So, without further ado, here are 7 tips to get the most from a session cut short or even if you just need a break and want to get more from less.

Tip #1: Don’t let it get to you

Stress is a killer and the added stress of trying to fit in a 60-minute session when you can do an incredible amount of work in fifteen minutes will ruin a perfectly good workout. Attitude is everything and when minutes matter you can’t waste any of that precious focus on anything other than the task at hand. Let go of what could have been and embrace what is. Just accept the fact that it’s going to be short and it’s going to be intense. 

Tip #2: Just Flow

Kettlebells are one of the best pieces of equipment to add to your training program (not THE best so settle down, barbell people). They allow you to get a lot done in a short amount of time and can help you increase strength, explosive power, and even some muscle if you get the volume and intensity just right. The biggest benefit is the ability to transition seamlessly from position to position creating a powerful chain of movements. The focus and intensity required will not only burn a ton of calories but also creates a sort of movement mediation session. This combination leaves you feeling like you put in work, but you'll also feel incredibly energized.  

Give this a try: If you’re kettlebell savvy then pick a light kettlebell, set the timer for 5 minutes and flow. Don’t worry about reps, sets, etc. Just MOVE. Let the exercises string together as fluidly as possible, but don’t worry if you get stuck. These sessions are meant to be creative and a mental (and physical) break from the structured sets/reps you probably normally do. The goal is to not put the bell down (unless you feel pain). Push through slight discomfort or judgment and just keep moving. Some of my favorite workouts are kettlebell or bodyweight flows that go through a variety of ranges and planes of motion with high attention to the movements and transitions and low attachment to what the flow should actually look like.

Tip #3: Use the biggest bang for your buck exercises

If time is of the essence you can’t afford to play with anything less than the most calorie-depleting, muscle-enhancing movements. Any compound lift (a movement that crosses multiple joints like overhead presses or pull-ups) will be better than isolation exercises (single joint movements like curls). By hitting big movements you up the calorie expenditure and maximize your time. A circuit comprising of compound lifts with moderate to heavy weight won’t take much time and will leave you fairly winded with a good dose of strength work as well. Win-win (and another win for the potential hypertrophy effect). I’m not taking away from single joint movements so don’t get your bodybuilding tank in a wad. But when the clock is ticking and you’ve got kid (or dog) pickup fast approaching, we’ve got to go with the big moves.

Give this a try: Pick an exercise from one of the basic movement patterns. I’ll help you out here. The Vertical Press (barbell overhead press), Vertical Pull (pull up or lat pulldown), Squat (dumbbell goblet squat), Hinge (barbell deadlift), and horizontal press (pushup) will do you just fine. If we want to get even more in-depth we can add a carry (farmer’s walk) and something rotational (kettlebell lateral swing), but for now, we’re going to keep it with the basic five-movement patterns. With those, you’re going to pick a movement from each one and use them as a circuit. This will help you produce the biggest calorie expenditure as well and even help you maintain/build muscle if done properly. Aim for 5-10 reps and 3-5 sets with as little rest between as you can. The rest will be determined by the weight you choose so choose accordingly. 

Tip #4: Simplify things with complexes

Complexes are by far one of the best methods to get in a lot of volume in a short amount of time. A complex is a string of movements that “flow” into each other easily and are to be completed without putting the tool down. Complexes can be performed with a barbell, kettlebells, dumbbells, a heavy kid, or just about anything not tied down to the ground. The volume adds up quickly so no need to go heavy. From a time under tension standpoint, they can’t be beat, which will not only build cardiovascular health but also muscular endurance and even hypertrophy.

Give this a try: Pick 5-8 movements with a light barbell and cycle through them without putting the weight down. Here’s an example for you that is my go-to for athletes who can’t afford to spend hours training.

  1. Hang Clean

  2. Front Squat

  3. Overhead Press

  4. Back Squat

  5. Good Morning

  6. Bent Over Row

Perform 5-8 repetitions of each movement with 90-120 seconds between sets. Do not put the barbell down between movements. You’ll want to but don’t. That’s what makes them so powerful. Make sure to pick a weight that’s appropriate for the toughest exercise for you. This means some will feel light (at first). Don’t worry. That feeling won’t last long. Complete 3-5 sets for a session in under 20 minutes that will feel like an eternity. In a good way.

Tip #5: Be Explosive

There are a handful of tools that I love to utilize that allow me to be explosive but are also user-friendly. Medicine balls, kettlebells, and plyometrics are all intense, nervous system firing movements that don’t need a lot of volume to get value. In fact, less is more. A circuit of medicine balls slams or throws, ballistic kettlebell movements (swings, snatches, cleans, etc) and plyometrics (anywhere from low rep, high engagement jumps to quick, higher rep movements) is a great way to build athleticism, remove boredom, and shed body fat in record time.  

The best explosive tip I have for those who are physically capable and have a limited amount of time is to incorporate the jump rope. This is one of the best and cheapest pieces of equipment you can own. Add it in between movements to keep your heart rate up, perform intervals, or set the timer and go. You really can’t go wrong.

Tip #6: Add some time under tension

Sometimes slowing things down is the best way to intensify and shorten a session without cutting yourself short from the potential value of that workout. During sessions utilizing isometric holds, carries, and slower tempo lifts are great ways to build strength and get the most from the training. The added benefit of increasing the time under tension is the ability to slow down the movement and help you to really master it.

Give this a try: Grab a light kettlebell and perform a rep. Create full body tension and count five seconds on the ascent and five seconds on the descent. Use a weight where five reps is BRUTAL. Put it down, shake it off (literally) and then repeat on the other side. Don’t forget the full body tension. After completing both arms, take inventory and see how you feel. It should feel like 2-3 sets have been done because of how much intention and neural drive you put into it. It’s not something you have to do every time (slow down the tempo) but it’s a great way to intensify a lighter a load and get a lot of solid practice done in a short amount of time.

Tip #7: Get high (reps)

Lastly, this is a favorite of old (and new) school bodybuilders to absolutely stimulate and annihilate every muscle fiber targeted. High reps for the longest time has been belittled by its low rep counterpart as inferior and useless, but high reps absolutely have their place. From hypertrophy (if the weight is challenging enough) to muscular and cardiovascular endurance, a high rep workout is one of the most challenging things you’ll ever do. The beautiful part is that you're done in record time. One of the best (and worst) workouts I’ve ever done was inflicted on me by a bodybuilder friend. We did three movements. The barbell deadlift, the one arm dumbbell row, and the lat pull down. Each movement was prescribed 30 reps with a weight you could probably have done 10-15 with and been happy. Not only was I more exhausted and sweatier from this than I had been in a long time, but I was done in 18 minutes. The soreness would have made me thought it was a two-hour session.  

Alright, there you have it. You’ve got no excuses if your time gets cut short. With these tips, you’ll be able to make the most of your session regardless of the length and if you apply some of these principles to your current training you’re gonna see some major gains.

To learn more from Marcus, follow him on Instagram: @kettlebellexercises
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