What comes to mind when you hear the phrase, "gym rat?" The term connotes, to most people, the kind of guy or gal who just happens to be at the gym no matter what time you get there.
Just as in the hit sitcom Cheers, where you knew certain dependable patrons like Norm and Cliff would always be seated at the bar, some people always seem to be at the gym. They somehow seem to take hours to train a single bodypart, spanning different shifts of front-desk workers and dragging sessions out with endless talking, coffee and bathroom breaks, and a hundred other ways to stretch out their workout. It's almost as if they don't want to leave. Now step back and try to be objective for a moment. Is this you?
I never considered myself a "gym rat" until I analyzed my own marathon workouts and realized how much time I was wasting. Besides avoiding the negative stigma attached to being a so-called gym rat, there are three excellent reasons to getting workouts done faster and more efficiently.
First, growth hormone and testosterone levels peak about 40 minutes into a training session and decline after an hour. At that point, cortisol secretion intensifies. This means the muscle-building hormones shut down and the muscle-eating hormones kick in. Thus, workouts lasting 90 minutes to two hours are a classic example of 'two steps forward, one step back.'
Second, anyone's enthusiasm has to be negatively impacted by such extensive exposure to the gym environment. Even if you truly love training, it doesn't feel refreshing to workout when you spend a good chunk of your precious free time in the same place every day. Third and last, don't you have other things you want to do, or things you need to get done in your life?
Imagine if your workouts only took half as much time as they did now. How much time would that free up for you to pursue career goals, spend time with your friends and loved ones, educate yourself, or even just get out and do something different? I came to the conclusion that my workouts were much longer than they needed to be, and came up with 12 ideas on how we can all get in and out of the gym faster.
Not only will you experience better gains, you'll have more of a life outside the confines of the iron Palace of Pain we call the gym!
1. Cut The Chit-Chat
Yes, that was a great movie you saw last night and you want to tell your gym buddies all about it. Yes, that Spinning instructor has been kind of giving you little looks here and there and you want to try talking to her. And yes, it's always a ripe time to debate who the greatest Mr. Olympia of all time is. But why are you in the gym?
If you truly have no other social outlet in your life other than the gym, then perhaps it's a place you don't mind whiling away most of your free time. But if you have other, more productive things you'd rather be doing than spend unnecessary hours in a noisy gym, it's time to zip your lip and train. It's hard when you're used to being Joe Garrulous.
Everyone expects you to sit at the juice bar, the modern equivalent of the porch of the old General Store, and hold court with hours of idle gossip and trivia. Your pals will still want to yap it up. One way to shut them off without seeming rude is to wear a pair of headphones every time you train.
Most people won't ask you to take them off to speak unless they have something important to say. In the gym, it's rare that any of the conversations are life or death matters. Do not hang around the juice bar, or the front desk, or anywhere else you may tend to get caught up in conversations.
If you have a training partner who prefers jaw-jacking over actual training, get rid of the louse. You may come off as rude or arrogant all of a sudden, but it's a decision you'll have to make and follow through on if you wish to start making your gym time more efficient.
2. Have A Plan Of Attack
"Hmm. Leg day today. Let's see, I haven't squatted in a few weeks, maybe I'll do that. Let me try a couple sets. Nah. I'm not feeling them right. Maybe I should do leg presses? But wait, all that plate loading ..." Is this you? Do you wait until you get to the gym and then start deciding how you'll train that day?
If so, you're wasting a good deal of time on something that should already be fleshed out before you arrived. Have a good idea of exactly what you're going to do before you walk through that gym door. Nothing is worse than finishing your first exercise, then wasting precious minutes as you survey the gym floor and look for inspiration on what to do next.
Your pump is rapidly diminishing, and the clock, as always, is ticking away. Either the night before, that day, or at least on the ride over to the gym formulate your workout, deciding which exercises you'll do and in what order. Of course, someone might be using the equipment you wanted, but that's why we remain flexible.
There's an old saying that goes, "If you fail to plan, then you plan to fail." Put a bit of preparation into your training and you will instead have successful, productive workouts.
3. Cut Breaks Down
How many times do you head to the bathroom during your workout? If it's more than once or twice, either you have a bladder the size of a gerbil's or you're subconsciously employing a stall tactic.
While you do need to keep hydrated, a dozen trips to the water fountain all add up to time wasted. Carry a water bottle instead.
4. Cut Rest Time Between Sets
Many of us, and I guiltily include myself, have borrowed a tenet from the world of powerlifting concerning resting between sets. Powerlifters will rest 3-to-5 minutes, sometimes longer, between sets to fully recover from the all-out effort of near-maximum lifts.
Many bodybuilders have mistakenly adopted the same method, theorizing that it will allow them to lift heavier as well. What we seem to have forgotten is that there is a huge difference between strength training and bodybuilding. If getting stronger is your No. 1 goal, then by all means long rest periods will serve you well.
If instead, as the case is for most of us, an impressive physique with huge muscles is your goal, then you should be doing more reps with less weight and resting less. It should take no more than 90 seconds for your breathing to return to normal and the lactic acid to clear from the muscle group after an intense set of 8-to-12 reps. (The rep range just about every scientific study has determined optimal for producing growth)
Anything beyond two minutes and you're just wasting time. Move on the next set or the next exercise as soon as you are able!
5. Use Supersets & Drop Sets
If you really want to whack a muscle mercilessly in the shortest time possible, start employing supersets and drop sets. You can try the incredible pre-exhaust method developed by Bob Kennedy and Arthur Jones, supersetting an isolation movement for a bodypart with a compound movement, (ex. leg extensions with leg press) or sets for antagonistic muscle groups, like biceps and triceps, or chest and back. Drop sets are a further way to extend the set and take your muscle fibers into a deeper state of annihilation. Best of all, both techniques will do the same job as a standard workout of straight sets, yet in a fraction of the time.
6. Avoid Redundant Exercises
Why is it that some people will do flat barbell bench presses, flat dumbbell presses, and then machine flat bench presses, all in the same workout? Either they just love to train chest, or they don't realize that they're doing the same exercise three times in a row. Examine your own routine.
Are you efficient, or do you often do many exercises for the exact same muscle function? Take the time to learn a little bit about anatomy and kinesiology, and you'll get a better grasp on how to structure your workouts more efficiently.
Unlike Mentzer, I don't believe one exercise can work an entire muscle group, but you should only hit a muscle from the same angle once each workout.
7. Train At Off-Peak Hours
This isn't an option for everyone, which is why every gym in the world is jam-packed at 6 p.m. on weekdays, especially on Mondays. It's difficult to get a workout done in an hour when there's a line for every bench and machine, and the music and chatter combine for a chaotic cacophony of confusion.
If you are able, try to train in the early morning, the late morning, afternoon or late in the evening. If you're used to the hassle and headache of the crowd scene, you'll be delighted to find what a different experience it is to have a near-empty gym at your disposal.
With no waiting around, you should be able to shave off a good block of time from your training.
8. Use More Machines
Another way to save time in the gym is to use more machines rather than free weights. Easy, hardcore ironheads, I'm not advocating a machines-only policy. That wouldn't help most people gain much muscle. But face facts: it takes a long time to load plates and bring heavy dumbbells over to benches. It takes just one second to change the pin on a selected weight stack.
If you're anti-machine, give them a chance anyway. It might take you more than 20 minutes to do three sets of barbell rows, what with all the plate loading and unloading, plus securing the plates with collars or clips. Three sets on a seated cable row should take no more than seven minutes.
Besides, machines and cables can give your body and mind a break from the clunky iron once in a while. It's your time. You make the call.
9. Minimize The Use Of Straps & Wraps
Straps and wraps are a habit that many of us fell into without even realizing it. Certainly straps help you hold on to more weight, but isn't that just because they're taking the place of a strong grip and well-developed forearms? Many of us wear straps not only on deadlifts, but chins, curls, side laterals, and other exercises where they have no legitimate place.
Worst of all, think about all the time it takes you to strap in for every single set. It may seem like it's just thirty seconds or so, but add that up over five exercises for 3-or-4 sets each and you can see how it creeps up on you. You'll be amazed at how much your forearms grow in the first month after you stop using straps for everything. Wraps are even worse.
Unless you have an actual knee problem, there is no reason in the world you need to be wrapping your knees for squatting or leg pressing movements. Most people simply use them to be able to use more weight. Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates had the best answer when someone once asked him why he didn't use knee wraps to squat more.
The Shadow replied, "I could put a giant spring under my arse as well, but what good would that do me?" I can honestly say the only time I ever hurt my knee squatting was when I was using wraps. They make you feel invincible and can bait you into using more weight than you can safely handle.
Worst of all, they can take over five minutes of your precious time to wrap for each set. Screw that! Toss the straps away and save any wrapping for Christmas presents.
10. Train On A Near-Empty Stomach
This sounds bizarre, but I'm trying to give you every possible idea to get in and out of the gym faster. Odds are that if you're full of food, you won't have any urgent reason to want to finish your workout faster.
If, however, hunger pangs are starting to chew at your tummy like a rabid pit bull terrier, you'll have an excellent motivation to hurry up and get right to that post-workout shake.
Finishing your last meal two hours before you start training should give you enough energy to train, yet make you want to end your training session in an hour or less.
11. Focus, Focus, Focus
Gyms can be supremely distracting environments. Besides all the tantalizing young women with hot bodies and little clothing, there are the guys to contend with. "Is he bigger than me? How much weight is he using on that? Shit, I use more than that." Stop it! This is part of what's keeping you in the gym so long.
You must strive to focus on your workout and avoid all other distractions. It's hard to battle such seemingly inconquerable forces as your sex drive and pride, but you can do it. You're stronger than you think you are. Just keep moving in the gym. Save the sightseeing for your vacations.
12. Split Up The Body Into More Days
It might seem as if splitting the body up into more days will actually entail spending more time in the gym, not less. But think about what happens when you train two groups like chest and triceps.
Would you agree that by the time you get to triceps, you're so tired that you're almost moving in slow motion? If instead, you did triceps on a separate day, perhaps with biceps or calves, you could knock out your triceps workout in 20 minutes.
Whole body routines, or even routines where you train all of the upper body one day and lower the next, are going to result in most people being stuck at the gym for two hours or more, and leaving feeling totally drained and exhausted.
I have given you 12 ways to make your workouts faster and more productive so that you can have more time to enjoy the world outside the gym. One thing I hope you noticed is that I did not suggest eliminating warm ups. Not only will warming up with 5-to-10 minutes of cardio and starting off with lighter weights help you perform better in your workout, it will potentially save you from ever experiencing a severe training injury, the kind that can take you out of action for months.
If you're lucky enough to have never experienced a severe training injury, take it from me and the thousands of others who have - you don't want to. Few things are worse than being in agonizing pain as the result of an activity you partake in to improve your health and appearance.
Now it's up to you. Will you decide to continue to stretch out your training sessions at the gym beyond what is needed, or will you choose to become more efficient? Once you see what getting in and out of the gym faster can do for your physique and your spare time, you might decide that less is indeed more.