How To Build The Perfect 15-Minute Workout

Even if life throws a wrench in your training plans, there's always time to squeeze in a workout. Here's how to make the most out of 15 minutes!

Many trainees believe they need a minimum of 30 minutes for an effective workout. And that's just the minimum! This "more is better" mentality leads many people to spend up to two hours in the gym before they think they've done "enough."

If you have that kind of time, spending it in the gym isn't necessarily a bad thing. However, if something unexpected pops up—sick kid, work emergency, car trouble, or any of life's other frequent curveballs—to interrupt your schedule, it's easy to get discouraged and skip your workout altogether.

When life springs a surprise on you, don't give up on your day's fitness goals. You can actually perform an effective workout with only 15 minutes to spare! But before you start throwing shorter workouts into your schedule with abandon, it's important to learn a few simple rules so you can make the absolute most of your time.

15-Minute Workout Rule 1 Use the Best Exercises

If you're short on time, using the best exercise is non-negotiable; after all, you need to get the most out of your time. Use large, compound exercises such as squats or step-ups instead of isolation moves like leg extensions and leg curls. For your upper body, perform push-ups and inverted rows instead of triceps kick-backs and dumbbell curls.

Use large, compound exercises such as squats or step-ups instead of isolation moves like leg extensions and leg curls.

These compound exercises activate more muscle groups and require more energy to perform than their isolation counterparts, making them the best choice when you're short on time. Heck, even if you're building a full workout, you should generally focus it on compound moves. They simply give you the most bang for your training buck.

15-Minute Workout Rule 2 Work Hard, but Smart

Once you've chosen the right exercises, you need to use the right load and the right effort. Work hard by using a challenging load and putting 100 percent focus and effort into every rep you perform. You don't have time to waste on reps that are too easy or done poorly.

However, it's also important to be smart. Never sacrifice proper exercise form for more weight or more reps. Even though you're only training for 15 minutes, you shouldn't rush your reps. Doing so will only hamper your results and increase your chance of injury. Take your time and stay focused.

15-Minute Workout Rule 3 Work Your Entire Body

To make the most of your short workouts, don't perform the same type of movement over and over. It's also important not to neglect large areas of your body. If you only do air squats and push-ups, for example, you're totally neglecting the back side of your body.

My favorite way to train my body evenly is to do three-exercise circuits that utilize a lower-body exercise, an upper-body pull, and an upper-body push. Try these two templates. Using them will ensure you have an effective, balanced, total-body workout each time you train.

To make the most of your short workouts, don't perform the same type of movement over and over. It's also important not to neglect large areas of your body.

Template 1

  • Exercise A: Quad-dominant exercise (squat, step-up, lunge)
  • Exercise B: Horizontal push (push-up, dumbbell bench press)
  • Exercise C: Horizontal pull (inverted row, single-arm dumbbell row)

Template 2

  • Exercise A: Hip/hamstring exercise (Romanian deadlift with a barbell or dumbbells)
  • Exercise B: Vertical push (barbell shoulder press, single-arm dumbbell push press)
  • Exercise C: Vertical pull (chin-up, cable pull-down)

The exercises you use depend on the equipment you have available, as well as your personal preferences. For example, if you don't have time to make it to the gym, choose bodyweight exercises you can do at home, or wherever you happen to be. If you're in a hotel gym that only has dumbbells, use a combination of dumbbell and bodyweight exercises.

If you can, use both templates equally.

Quick and Dirty Workouts

Now that you know the rules and have two great templates to use for your 15-minute workouts, here are several sample workouts you can perform whenever you're short on time!

Workout 1 The Stopwatch

Choose one of the templates and fill it with whatever exercises you want or have the equipment for. Perform as many circuits of that template as possible in 15 minutes. In other words, perform one exercise after the other, continually, for 15 minutes. Rest only if or when you need to. Once the timer goes off, you're done.

The rep range is up to you. You can choose to use heavier weights and perform sets of 6 reps, which is great for a strength focus, or sets of 12 reps, which is great for building muscle or general physical fitness.

Example Stopwatch Workout
As many rounds as possible for 15 minutes:
1

Dumbbell Lunge

12 reps per leg
Dumbbell Lunges Dumbbell Lunges

Push-up

12 reps
Pushups Pushups
Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row Bent Over Two-Dumbbell Row


Workout 2 Top of the Minute

Select three exercises according to the templates, and set a timer for 15 minutes. At the top of every minute, you'll perform a set of one of those exercises. For example, when the timer starts, you'll do a set of Exercise A. Rest until the top of the next minute rolls around, then do a set of Exercise B. Rest until the top of the next minute, and do a set of Exercise C. Repeat this pattern for a total of 15 minutes.

Once again, you can use any rep range. Perform sets of 5, 10, or even 15 reps.

Example Top-of-the-Minute Workout
1
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift
Barbell Shoulder Press Barbell Shoulder Press

(2:00) Chin-Up

10 reps
Chin-Up Chin-Up
Romanian Deadlift Romanian Deadlift
Barbell Shoulder Press Barbell Shoulder Press

(5:00) Chin-Up

10 reps
Chin-Up Chin-Up


Workout 3 The Combo

Begin with Template 1 and perform as many circuits as possible in six minutes. Yes, only six minutes. Work hard and keep rest to a bare minimum. I suggest using a lower rep range for this first circuit—around 5-8 reps is a good range.

Once you complete as many circuits as possible of Template 1, rest for 1-2 minutes. Then, perform as many circuits as possible in six minutes of Template 2. For this round, I suggest using a higher rep range—10-15 reps is a good target.

You may think six minutes isn't enough time, but if you work hard and keep rest to a minimum, you'll quickly see how much you can really achieve when you focus and work hard!

Example Combo Workout
As many rounds as possible in 6 minutes of:
1

Step-Up

5 reps per leg
Dumbbell Step Ups Dumbbell Step Ups
Dumbbell Bench Press Dumbbell Bench Press
Inverted Row Inverted Row
Note: Rest 2 minutes.

As many rounds as possible in 6 minutes of:
2
Barbell Hip Thrust Barbell Hip Thrust
Push Press Push Press
Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown Wide-Grip Lat Pulldown


No Excuses!

When you're super short on time or you need to change up your current routine, you now have several viable options! From today forward, you never have to miss a workout again because you "only have 15 minutes!"