The Question

You have 20 minutes to get a killer workout. What's the workout?

Christian Thibaudeau – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

If you have a fast training pace, 20 minutes is actually not that short for a workout.

For example, most CrossFit WODs last 8-15 minutes. Many will even do two WODs after a warm-up, though others will begin a session with a strength or skill component then do the WOD.

But depending on your objective – strength, size, fat loss – you can use different strategies for a short workout.

Let's say your goal is NOT fat loss. After all, it's easy to design a fat loss workout lasting 20 minutes or less... just string together a circuit of thrusters, Prowler pushing, farmer's walks, pulls-ups, dips, etc. and you got something decent.

Let's look at strength. When someone is strapped for time and his main goal is strength and size I recommend an EMOM approach. EMOM means that you start a set at the beginning of each minute (every minute on the minute). Here's an actual workout I did a few years back that completely destroyed me:

EMOM 21 minutes:

  • 4 front squats at 75%
  • 4 bench presses at 75%
  • 4 deadlifts at 75% (I actually did stone lifts, but most gyms don't have strongman stones)

You start a set at the beginning of each minute and the set (4 reps of one exercise) must be completed before the minute ends. If at one point you can't do the 4 reps unbroken, you can rest 10-15 seconds and finish it... it just gives you less rest before the next minute starts! Each minute you do a different exercise.

  • Minute 1 = 4 front squats
  • Minute 2 = 4 bench presses
  • Minute 3 = 4 deadlifts

Repeat until the 21 minutes is up. Why 21? Because then each exercise has 7 sets.

If you prefer to focus more on the upper body you can replace the deadlifts with pull-ups. You could even do a power clean instead of the deadlift if you'd rather work on explosiveness (I would recommend 70% instead of 75% for cleans).

You WILL need a day off after this one! – Christian Thibaudeau

Prowler

Michael Warren – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

My go-to would be something incorporating the pushing sled or Prowler.

Few pieces of equipment offer the ability to train power, strength, hypertrophy, strength-endurance, and endurance as well.

It also has a fast recovery time with low risk of injury. Since the exercise is primarily concentric in nature, you can do sled or Prowler workouts more frequently, and can go at a higher intensity without paying the price of muscle and joint soreness. And it's easy to use, no detailed techniques involved.

From a coaching perspective, another great benefit is that it's very easy to change weight on the a sled or Prowler, so it's great for partner or group sessions, and it's easy to incorporate with other exercise for easy transitions.

Here's an example. Feel free to adjust it for your needs. Go all-out on each working phase. It'll test your mental toughness.

  • 30 Seconds Prowler
  • 30 Seconds Rest
  • 30 Seconds Assault Bike (a stationary bike with moving handles)
  • 30 Seconds Rest

  • 20 Seconds Prowler
  • 20 Seconds Rest
  • 20 Seconds Assault Bike
  • 20 Seconds Rest

  • 10 Seconds Prowler
  • 10 Seconds Rest
  • 10 Seconds Assault Bike
  • 10 Seconds Rest

  • 20 Seconds Prowler
  • 20 Seconds Rest
  • 20 Seconds Assault Bike
  • 20 Seconds Rest

  • 30 Seconds Prowler
  • 30 Seconds Rest
  • 30 Seconds Assault Bike

Rest 90 seconds. Complete two rounds. Go for three if you're an athlete. – Michael Warren

Andrew Heming – Strength Coach and Professor

If you want to build maximum muscle in minimum time, follow these rules.

  1. You can go long or you can go hard. Since you only have 20 minutes, make them the worst 20 minutes of your life.
  2. Don't get cute. You don't have time. Know your best exercise for each body part. Choose exercises that allow you to lift a lot of weight and really feel the target muscle(s) working. These exercises should be easy to progress and they should leave your joints happy.
  3. Consider set-up and clean up time. Avoid loading and unloading plates when you're pressed for time. Dumbbells and body weight (with added load) are your best bet so you can grab and go.
  4. Don't use popular pieces of equipment at a public gym. For example, if you try doing alternating sets of bench press and seated cable rows in a busy gym, you'll lose your bench while doing your rows. Pick hard exercises that the average person doesn't want to do. Hint: I've never seen a line at the pull-up bar.
  5. Pair antagonist movements/muscle groups. This will allow you to get more work done in your 20 minutes while forcing you to rest long enough that you maintain a decent volume load. Here are some great examples for upper body:
    • Close-grip chins and dips (works great if you have a combined chin/dip station)
    • Prone dumbbell rows and low-incline dumbbell bench press (same bench and bench angle for both)
    • Neutral-grip pull-ups and standing dumbbell press (bring dumbbells over to the pull-up bar)
    • Seated dumbbell curls and lying dumbbell pullover/triceps extensions (both on a flat bench)
  6. Use CAT (compensatory acceleration training). While maintaining proper form and focus on the target muscles, attempt to accelerate the weight up as fast as you can. Put as much force as you can into every rep so every rep counts!
  7. Keep all but the last set heavy and short. Heavy weights produce a lot of growth-inducing muscle tension. Short sets that last less than 10 seconds allow you to avoid producing lactic acid. Once you start building up a bunch of lactic acid, you're done. Short sets allow you recover faster so you can get in more quality sets.
  8. Think of a mass-building workout as a 400 meter sprint. Go hard, but pace yourself. If you go too hard too soon, you'll run out of gas before you get enough volume. Start with a weight you do for 5-7 reps with 2 reps left in the tank.
  9. Don't fear rest – even when you're time-crunched. Strategic rest allows you to get more volume load and thus grow more muscle. The stronger you are, the more rest you'll need.
  10. Finish with one final, all-out set for each exercise to induce as much metabolic stress as you can. If you're doing a body weight exercise (like weighted chin-ups), do the last set with just your body weight. If you're doing a dumbbell exercise, drop the weight by about 20-30%. Do as many reps as you can with proper form. Then extend the set with an intensity technique such as forced reps, partials, static holds, slow eccentrics, or rest-pause.
Pull-Up

Sample Workout:

Time: 0:00-16:30 (minutes)

  • A1. Close-Grip Weighted Chin-Up: 4-6 sets x 5-7 reps per set
  • A2. Weighted Dip: 4-6 sets x 5-7 reps per set
  • Rest 30-45 seconds in between exercises.
  • Notes: Make sure you stop at a time of 16:30 regardless of how many sets you did. Use dumbbells attached to a dip belt instead of plates to load these exercises. This will save you a lot of time between sets compared to trying to feed the chain though a bunch of plates.

Time: 16:30-17:00

  • Rest, take a quick drink, psych-up!

Time: 17:00-18:00

  • Max body-weight chin-ups to failure. When you can't do any more full-range reps, crank out a few more partials at the bottom half. Then, use your feet to get to the top, hold the top position as long as possible and lower under control.

Time: 18:00-19:00

  • Puke, rest, quick drink, psych-up!

Time: 19:00-20:00

  • Max body-weight dips to failure. Then crank out a few more partials at the top. At the very end, lower yourself down to the bottom as slow as possible (catch yourself with your feet so you don't go too deep). – Andrew Heming
Mark Dugdale

Mark Dugdale – IFBB Pro Bodybuilder

If you've only got 20 minutes to work out, focus on opposing muscle groups with sets of ab and calf exercises used in place of rest breaks.

Some might opt for cardio with such a short period of time to train, but you can still achieve a great workout that elicits a hypertrophy response and a massive amount of EPOC (Exercise Post Oxygen Consumption).

For safety and efficiency, don't lift heavy weight for this. It looks almost like a circuit. Here's an upper body example:

Group One

Do three rounds of this:

  • Machine Chest Press: Use a weight sufficient to achieve muscle failure by 20 reps.
  • Any Ab Exercise: Do 12-15 reps.
  • Machine Row: Aim to hit muscle failure by 20 reps.
  • Take only 15 seconds rest and sip some Plazma™ between rounds

Group Two

Do three rounds of this:

  • Steep Incline Dumbbell Press: Use a weight sufficient to achieve muscle failure by 20 reps.
  • Any Calf Exercise: Do 12-15 reps.
  • Lat Pulldown: Hit muscle failure by 20 reps.
  • Take only 15 seconds rest and sip some Plazma™ between rounds.

The key is to take no rest between the three exercises and only 15 seconds between rounds. Working opposing muscle groups and doing an ab or calf exercise between them will afford you some degree of strength recovery between sets.

If you push yourself you'll knock this out in 20 minutes, be rewarded with a killer pump, and the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption will keep you thermic for hours. – Mark Dugdale

Chris Colucci - T Nation Forum Director

Do 20 reps in 20 minutes. When something unexpected comes up and you're forced to pare down training time, you need two things: efficiency and focus.

You can't go wrong using a training method that's literally time-based and operates strictly by-the-clock, especially when the clock is your training partner for the day. A solid EDT workout takes exactly 15 minutes from start to finish, not counting your general warm-up.

Or you might go with an EMOM workout lasting 10, 12, or 15 minutes (again, after a quick general warm-up of just a couple minutes of bodyweight work and you're good to go).

Those are both totally effective plug-and-play methods that let you bang out a good session by working against the clock, or working with the clock if you're a "glass half full" person.

But, instead of a more conditioning-intensive plan where your anaerobic endurance could be a significant and potentially limiting factor, you can get some good strength work done in bare minimum time with the right programming.

Try The 5,4,3,2,1,5 Method

It was used by '70s raw powerlifter and record-setter John Kuc. He was the first lifter to squat 900, first to pull 850, first to total 2,300, and he got there with simple programming.

John Kuc Squat

For our emergency 20-minute session, go through a quick general warm-up first. That's something you can never skimp on, especially when you still want to lift heavy in the session. Three or four minutes is plenty of time to get some blood flowing and hit a mobility drill or two.

Choose one big exercise. Remember, we need efficiency, so any big basic compound exercise will be fine as long as you can safely hit a heavy single. That means rows, chins, dips, and dumbbell work aren't the best ideas.

Do one or two light warm-up sets for the movement, then get started. The key to this countdown-style approach is in the loading. You gradually work up in weight while dropping reps, and then reduce the weight and bump the reps back up for a final set:

  • Do a set of 5, rest a minute.
  • Do a set of 4, rest a minute.
  • Do a set of 3, rest two minutes.
  • Do a set of 2, rest two minutes.
  • Do a single (which should be very hard but not a true max), rest a minute.
  • Finish with a set of 5 using a weight somewhere between what you used for the first set of 5 and the set of 4.

For example, you might go 185x5, 205x4 225x3, 235x2, 245x1, 195x5. That very last set is key. By dropping the weight, you can focus more on picture perfect form even in a relatively fatigued state.

Plus, you're in the sweet spot of post-activation potentiation, which basically means your brain is saying "Pfft! After that heavy work, this one's a feather." So the set should feel easier than the very first because your CNS is amped up and your muscle recruitment is optimized.

If you decide to adopt this plan for the coming weeks, you'd progress by adding 5-10 pounds to every set. Or just return to your regularly scheduled program and keep this in your back pocket until next time. – Chris Colucci

Dips

Eric Bach – Strength Coach and Performance Expert

If there's one workout that can be done in 20 minutes – for either fat loss or hypertrophy – it's 8x8 training.

Popularized by the great bodybuilder, Vince Gironda, 8x8 is exactly what it sounds like: 8 sets of 8 reps. However, the beauty of 8x8 isn't exclusively in the set/rep scheme itself, but also in the short rest periods – a mere 30 seconds or less.

It's like a "shock and awe" program designed to let you do the maximum amount of work in a given time period. The workouts are fast-paced and intense, with the ultimate goal to lift as much weight as possible while staying within the 8x8, 30-second rest parameters.

This isn't about strength, but rather meant to be about ramping up metabolic pathways and conditioning. Here's how to do it in 20-minutes or less:

Pick one or two exercises for your intended muscle group(s). Here are some great options:

  • Back: Pull-ups, pulldowns, seated rows, T-bar rows, chest-supported rows
  • Chest: Flat/incline barbell bench press, flat/incline dumbbell bench press, seated chest press
  • Legs: Back squats, leg press, leg extension, leg curls
  • Shoulders: Seated dumbbell shoulder press, seated barbell shoulder press, standing dumbbell/barbell shoulder press, push press
  • Arms: Pressdown, close-grip bench press, floor press, barbell curl, dumbbell curl, Zottman curl

If you're going do two exercises in a session, choose two non-competing movements (push/pull, upper/lower, chest/back) to allow you to use the most volume possible. And again, the magic is in the rest periods, so avoid super-setting exercises because while you still may only be resting 30 seconds between exercises, muscle groups are getting a longer break than that, and then it's not true 8x8. Instead, perform all sets of one exercise before moving on to the next.

Also, avoid unilateral exercises since that'll allow for too much rest, and anything that overly stresses the lower back like deadlifts, good mornings, or bent-over rows due to the high level of fatigue.

When starting out, choose a weight that's approximately 60-70% of your 8-rep max, and aim to keep that weight for all 8 sets. Stronger lifters may need to ramp the weight up, doing the first 2-3 sets at 50, 60, then 70%. If you need to drop reps, do it, but that means your starting weight was too heavy. However, never compromise rest periods. That means staying off your phone.

If you stick to this prescription, you won't just be in and out of the gym in 20 minutes, you may need to be carried out. It's a helluva workout. – Eric Bach

TJ Kuster – Strength and Conditioning Coach

When I have a client who's short on time, I have them do a full-body workout that's broken down into these components:

Active Dynamic Warm-Up: 6 Minutes

Never skip your active dynamic warm-up. Failing to do a proper warm-up will lessen the results of your workout and could potentially lead to injury.

Muscle Activation: 2 Minutes

I like to do a few sets of band pull-aparts and some band walks to make sure the back and hips are activated properly to prevent injury to the shoulder and knee. Two sets of 10 reps for each will do the trick.

Rate of Force Development: 2 Minutes

Do medicine ball slams to wake up your nervous system.

Circuit – Back Squat, Push-Ups, Inverted Rows: 10 Minutes

For the actual workout, do a circuit with three movements. These include as many sets as possible of 10 back squats, 10 push-ups, and 10 inverted rows for 10 minutes.

This style of training is great for muscular endurance as well as cardiovascular fitness. It creates balance in the body and will guarantee that you leave the gym feeling accomplished. – T.J. Kuster

Related:  The Most Effective 10 Minute Cardio Workout

Related:  Maximal Mass, Minimal Time