In today’s hectic pace of life, it can be difficult to jam a workout in between all the other demands in our lives. Even the best planning can go afoul as ‘life happens,’ leaving us to scramble with what time is left to try to work with the scraps of the day. If you’re the kind of person that always has enough time to workout, then this article won’t be for you. But if you can relate to what has been said in the beginning of this paragraph and find that some days it’s virtually impossible to squeeze a workout into the day, then read on.
Face it – we’re all busy. In fact, I feel it’s a fair argument to say that we get progressively busier each day. The demands on our lives from the requirements of work, family, recreation, and surprise eaters of our time leave little room for the discretionary expenditure of the remaining time. The question then lingers – how in the remaining time left in the day can I squeeze a workout in and still get done what needs to be done? It would be easy to just do less, but that is a path that contradicts the positive development of your body through exercise. As our bodies adapt to the demands we place on them, yesterday’s workout tends not to have as much of a benefit as today’s workout. Were we to do the same workout every time we exercised, the benefit would reduce to almost zero as our body moved from a growth state to a maintenance state, becoming almost completely used to the routine of it all and accepting this as a normal part of life.
If instead, you can stimulate your body to continue to trigger positive adaptive responses even if you are pressed for time, then benefits can still be obtained even if you are faced with the occasional workout that has to be squeezed into a smaller-than-normal space of time. This article will focus on exactly how to do that. Let’s start by understanding a couple of key points in regards to benefits from exercise and then move into specific techniques to apply this information when you find yourself out of time in a day and still needing to exercise.
When time is of the essence, it is critical to know how to apply high-value stimulation to your body so you aren’t wasting whatever time is left. The first high-value rule is to focus activities that maximize your metabolism through a proper intensity of stimulation. In essence, you need to apply an interval training effect into the small amount of time you have to complete your workout. This will require a great amount of psychological determination. Think of it as the bulb that burns twice as bright burning half as long – you need to burn twice as bright, in a manner of speaking, to get finished in half the time. The interval effect of rapidly increasing your heart rate to a point and then letting it settle back down before repeating can be obtained in the following ways.
- Interval Cardio Training
- Multi-Joint Resistance Exercise Sets
With both methods, a brief warm-up period is necessary to get the blood pumping and the body temperature up. Hop on an exercise bike, for example, and ride for three to five minutes at a moderate to high-moderate intensity. You want to get your heart rate elevated and your body warmed to help prevent the shock that may result if you just dive right into high intensity exercise methods. Let’s look at the two methods of obtaining the interval effect.
Interval Cardio Training
For interval cardio training, after your warm up, proceed to your exercise of choice (running, swimming, biking, rowing, jumping rope, etc.). There are several ways to utilize intervals with cardio, among them the distance method, time method, and the heart rate response method.
With the distance method, a specific distance is maintained during the trial; let’s use two telephone poles as an example. Start by running between the two telephone poles and when you get to the destination pole, turn around and walk back to the start. When you get back to the start pole, turn around and run to the other pole. In this fashion, because of the slower pace of the walk, you will experience a short amount of time running (high intensity) and a longer amount of time walking (recovery). Using cardio equipment in a health club, this same effect can be obtained by focusing on the distance traveled. A sample interval on a rowing machine may be 200 meters at a high intensity and then 400 meters at a lower intensity.
The time method utilizes the same kind of ‘telephone pole’ idea but applies it to time instead. In this fashion, a particular amount of high intensity time will be selected along with a particular amount of lower intensity time. For instance, running for thirty seconds and then walking for thirty seconds. Most treadmills along with some other cardio equipment in health clubs will have some sort of timed interval patterns for working out – 1:1, 1:2, etc. (Note: since they can be reversed, it also means that a 1:2 could become a 2:1 if you need that.) You can also use a partner or watch or clock on the wall to do the same. Just be sure that your rest time is adequate or your heart rate won’t be able to drop enough during the recovery part of the interval. A sample outdoor running interval may be thirty seconds of high-speed running followed by 45 seconds of walking.
The heart rate response method is the interval technique I prefer the most. A heart rate monitor will be required for this method and I recommend using a chest strap (like a Polar heart rate monitor) instead of hanging onto ‘handlebars’ on cardio equipment to read your current heart rate. Because the heart rate is really the only true biofeedback method to determine the intensity that the body is working, you can use this to combine the above to interval methods by setting a high heart rate point and a low heart rate point. In general, if you are familiar with heart rate zones (your Polar heart rate monitor should help show you these, if available on your model), then pick your low point to be around the middle of your moderate zone and set a high point to be somewhere around 25-40 beats per minute higher, not to exceed your maximum heart rate. For example, if the middle of your moderate zone is somewhere around 140 bpm, then use a high point somewhere between 165-180 bpm, not to exceed your maximum heart rate. (If you happen to know your anaerobic threshold for the activity you are performing, then use that as your high point.) It is critical that you use your own perceived exertion levels in coordination with your heart rate if you are unaccustomed to experiencing higher heart rates during exercise. If you aren’t feeling good at a lower heart rate than you anticipated, then don’t continue to push here, just enter the recovery stage and come back down.
When you implement the heart rate response method, perform whatever distance/time you need at a higher intensity to get your heart rate at or near the high point. Then back off the intensity level for whatever distance/time it takes to get your heart rate down to the lower point. With your first few intervals, it will generally take longer to get your heart rate up and it will come down somewhat fast. As you perform more intervals sets and your body is progressively taxed, it will take less and less time to hit the high point and more and more time for your heart rate to come down. If your heart rate doesn’t seem to want to come back down to the lower rate, it’s a good sign to call it quits for the day and let your body recover. The heart rate response interval method is a much more intuitive method that relies on specific biofeedback information and it is my personal preferred method when performing intervals.
Multiple-Joint Resistance Exercise Sets
For information about the benefits of multiple-joint exercises along with some brief examples, see my article entitled Multi-Joint Movements. Here we will be looking at specifically how to use multiple-joint resistance exercises to trigger an interval effect heart rate response in your body for maximal benefit in a short amount of time.
Because multiple-joint exercises tend to get the heart rate working very quickly, they are perfect to provide an interval effect stimulus to your body. This means that by using the distance, time, or heart rate response interval methods described above, you can apply these very same methods to resistance training using multiple-joint exercises to provide the same kind of overall response in your body. Take for example a set of power cleans – if you perform the exercise with a moderate amount of resistance, here’s how you could use each of the above-described interval methods for your personal benefit.
- Distance: Perform a specific number of repetitions of power cleans and then rest for an amount of time equal to one to two-times your active workout time. For example, if you choose 12 repetitions for the lift and it takes you 30 seconds to complete this, rest for 30-60 seconds before starting the next interval set.
- Time: Perform as many repetitions of power cleans as you can complete in a given time period (between 15 to 60 seconds, for example) and then rest for a specific period of time before starting again.
- Heart Rate Response: Perform the power cleans until either you cannot lift them any more or your heart rate hits your high point. Then rest until your heart rate hits the low point and start again.
When performing multi-joint exercises in this fashion, it’s a good idea to start with exercises that use the most amount of joints first (always after an active warm-up, mind you) and then move to other exercises that use lower joints later if time permits. To this end, movements like power cleans and squats should come before bench pressing. Some movements may not get your heart rate to respond – if you find this to be the case based on how much you can lift, then use those at the end of your workout. It’s generally a good idea to use a moderate to moderate-high amount of resistance for the movements, although lower resistance levels may work if performed for a longer time or higher amount of reps to trigger the same heart rate response.
Combining the Two Types
Is it possible to combine the two types of interval effect techniques into the same workout? Sure – just start with the multi-joint resistance exercises first and then move to the cardio intervals, which require less overall power and stabilizer interaction. A very short sample workout using these techniques could be something like this after an active warm-up.
Multi-Joint Resistance Exercises
- Squats – moderate weight for 15-20-rep intervals – 3 total sets
- Bench Press – light-moderate weight for up to 60-second intervals – 2 total sets
Interval Cardio Training
- Rowing Machine – four intervals using the heart rate response method
A sample workout like this may take 15-20 total minutes to complete, but gives you great benefit in a limited amount of time. Let’s look at where that benefit stems from.
Sympathetic vs. Parasympathetic Responses – Why Intervals Work
Boiling it down, your nervous system has two stages that we are concerned about in relation to this article: the sympathetic system and the parasympathetic system. The sympathetic system’s actions can be summed up as ‘fight or flight’ while the parasympathetic system’s actions are ‘resting and digesting.’
Intervals provide a greater benefit to the body over steady cardio intensities because of the bounce between the ‘fight or flight’ state of performance and the ‘relaxed’ state of low intensity. As your body experiences these different states and feels the increasing range between those two states, it will operate more in an ‘at rest’ state while you do your normal daily activities and still reserve a great ‘performance’ state when needed. Failure to use interval training will result in a ‘low buffer state’ of your nervous system where the difference between performance (read: stress) and relaxation is very small, causing the body to be in a state of almost consistent stress under even slight demands. Intervals help to spread this out by providing specific demarcations between the dominance of the sympathetic and parasympathetic responses of your nervous system.
Intervals are also very beneficial because of the metabolic boost they provide your body when performed. Brief higher intensity periods trigger hormonal and muscular responses in the body to help it adapt and become more efficient. This method also helps you to burn more calories for a longer period of time because of this response and is the basis for the fundamental fat-burning benefits of resistance training, which is really nothing more than brief higher intensity moments with lower intensity moments in between.
Remember to always consult a physician when altering your exercise habits – interval training is quite intense and your own physical conditioning to intervals should be progressively built up. If you follow the guidelines in this article and let your heart (rate) be your guide, however, you can reap the rewards of supercharging your workouts or just fitting a full workout into less time using these techniques. It’s always important to vary your workouts to prevent adaptive stagnation – use these interval techniques to add some spice to your workouts even if you aren’t pressed for time. Have fun with it , stay safe, and enjoy your hard-earned rewards.