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Elnora Turner

How to Fit in a Real Workout When You Have Only 20 Minutes

When you can't dedicate as much time to training as you might like, here's how to keep your priorities straight—without feeling guilty.
August 19, 2020, 5:50pm
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Hey Casey. Thanks for writing this column, it has helped me get into powerlifting, which in turn has helped change my relationship with exercise. Yay!

I started lifting a couple of years ago and roped my husband into being my gym partner. We did the math and realized it made sense to get a squat rack for our basement rather than paying for two gym memberships.

Now we have a pretty cool newborn, and I was cleared to exercise a few weeks ago. There’s also, you may have heard, a pandemic, so my little family is stuck indoors and trying to do childcare plus work plus staying sane.

We are feeling pretty lucky to be healthy and also to have access to a fancy set-up for lifting. As the main food source, I’ve found it very difficult to string together enough time to get in a full workout. Back in my halcyon gym days I was going three times a week and doing at least three compound lifts (e.g squats, bench, deadlifts), which took at least an hour or more.

So my question is: how do I put together a powerlifting routine every day for 20ish minutes? I like the idea of handing the baby off, banging out some squats, and calling it a day, I am just having trouble figuring out how to do that while still making progress. I imagine some kind of upper/lower body split, but any attempt at googling that leads to VERY intense six day programs and I am not about that life. I just want to figure out how to do enough so that I feel strong and get some endorphins in the process. —Claudia

I love to go through a major life transition, such as starting a new job or going back to school, and treat it as a fresh start for all aspects of my life, to start doing everything perfectly. While this is an impulse I think we all have, it could not be more backwards: If you are trying to make a big change, trying to do everything all at once will only set you up for sort-of failure at everything. Big-change time is when you should feel okay scaling other stuff back, and figure out how to add it in in a sustainable way down the line. This especially applies to working out, as it’s important for our health but doesn’t have a natural fit in most people’s lives or schedules.

I think I would let go of the idea of making big progress, for now. With some patience you might be able to get pretty close to where you were before, which is probably pretty strong.

But don’t put too much pressure on yourself, because you’re busy with a ding-dang baby!!! Or, for others who are reading this who are not busy with babies: You’re busy with school, you’re busy with your new job, you’re busy with your divorce. A time of great stress, whether it’s good stress or bad stress, is not the time to set the expectation that you’re not only going to survive but also set a PR while you’re doing it. I forbid it; let this particular kind of self torture go.

I know this is hard because the idea of letting something as laden with cultural baggage as “a baby” or even “work” govern our lives to the degree that we have to give up things we are passionate about can make us feel trapped. I’ve been known to—how to put this in a way that is gentle to myself—significantly disrupt, undermine, or annihilate more structured elements of my life at very inconvenient times simply because I felt they impinged on my general sense of agency.

I’d do this when I could have instead recognized that feeling for what it was and tried to find a more harmonious solution in the long term, instead of “trying to do everything at once” or “neglecting ‘important’ demands in favor of doing something because I want to do it” or “accepting that the situation I’m in is me experiencing the effects of my choices, and there will be opportunity to make more and different choices in the future.”

This is not to say don’t work out and also blame yourself for your choice to have a baby. You always deserve “me” time and to balance that with everyone else’s demands on you. But I don’t want to confuse that with it being ok to have priorities in the short term that temporarily interfere with your ability to juggle all the plates.

Mark Zuckerberg’s sister takes a slightly more aggressive line here with her “pick three” rule: “Work. Sleep. Family. Friends. Fitness. Pick Three.” But I often see this rule separated from Zuckerberg’s follow-up clarification: “I can pick a different three tomorrow, and a different three the following day. But today, I can only pick three. As long as I wind up picking everything over the long run, then I’m balancing my imbalance.”

Taking 20 minutes to work out every day is enough to keep you in good health. It almost certainly won’t be enough to return to the point of “making strength progress.” And that’s okay!

Do you have a question about working out, eating, health, or why you shouldn't be afraid of lifting heavy weights? Send it to swole.woman@vice.com and follow @swolewoman on Instagram.

An option it doesn’t seem like you’ve considered, but could really work for you given that you’re working out at home, is allowing yourself long breaks during your workout. I don’t think there is incredible established science about “how long” you can sort of interrupt a physical activity section and not experience any negative effects, but I know I’ve been interrupted before for 20 minutes or half an hour during lifting and then gone back to it.

I think one reason we don’t automatically think of this is that we have a lot of superstition related to working out in general about maintaining a certain heart rate (sometimes in order to stay in a mythical “fat-burning zone”), but frankly, this is not worth worrying about when it comes to lifting. If you were doing steady-state cardio, things might be different, but lifting is already filled with breaks anyway in the form of rests between sets.

Usually I think we try to keep these rests as short as possible, but that’s mainly for expedience and maybe a little for not getting too cold and stiff. But if you’re moving around doing something else because something came up when you finished your last set that you had to take care of, that is less of an issue.

I wouldn’t recommend this if you’re going for a max attempt on a deadlift. But if you’re just taking a break between your squat sets and your bench sets, I think you’d be more than fine; maybe just quickly warm up again if you feel like you’ve cooled off.

This may amount to really making an evening of a gym session, and maybe you just can’t afford to dedicate all the time even if it’s broken up. But if the specific issue you’re having is “continuous time,” I think it’s worth giving non-continuous time a try, if all you need is substantial breaks here and there to take care things.

If you really, truly can’t get more than 20 minutes at a time and can ONLY get 20 minutes, that can happen sometimes when your life is undergoing a lot of changes, and it might be a while until your routine settles down to the point you feel like you can get working out back into the mix. This can happen with any big change, These are not the times to be super hard on yourself about hitting all the marks of peak health optimization; while working out should, on average, be a part of your life, it’s not going to kill you to not do it for a few months while you get more important things in order.

Now for more brass tacks: The way you phrase your question makes me think of Jim Wendler’s “I’m Not Doing Jack Shit” version of his 5/3/1 program (he affiliates with Nazis sometimes, but made a good program). To quote from his book:

“This is my favorite. I don’t recommend it, but it’s useful for non-beginners who have limited time to train. The I’m Not Doing Jack Shit program entails walking into the weight room, doing the big lift for the day (bench, squat, military or deadlift), and then walking out… I’ve made this deal with myself many times before I’ve trained: If I do X weight for X amount of reps, I’m leaving.”

The idea here is that when life gets in the way, mentally, physically, emotionally, you can strip down a heavy-lifting program to the bare bones and still get to do the big compound lifts, get in your reps and kind of stay where you’re at, progress-wise, but also not feel tied to an involved program that can stretch out for hours. This could be done whether you have heavy weights at home or not. Wendler goes on to say that this is not any kind of permanent solution, but if it’s to your preference and fits your limitations, it’s an option:

“The disadvantages here are obviously the lack of both volume and balance, but it can work for a while. If I had very little time to train, I’d do this. Sometimes, when you’re struggling to find time to train, you think you can’t make progress. With this type of training, you will.”

Really, what you’re doing here is “cutting all accessories.” I will say when I’ve done this, it’s an option I personally really like, because I like the feeling of heavy lifting. In the same amount of time, I could instead do, let’s say, sets of 12 body-weight step-ups per leg for 3 sets (72 reps, for those keeping track) in an at-home workout, no heavy weights necessary. That’s an option for everyone who has 20 minutes and only 20 minutes. But I have discovered in recent months that that format of working out makes me very annoyed and angry. If you did one big lift each daysquat one day, bench one day, deadlift one day, pull-ups another day, overhead press another dayyou could probably get that in in 20 minutes.

The next option is one of the six-day-a-week programs you mention, which are usually formatted as “push-pull-legs” (pushing exercises like squatting or benching one day; pulling exercises like deadlifts or rows the next day; “leg” exercises like Romanian deadlifts the next day; repeat for 4-6 days per week). You are right that these programs are usually a lot of volume, or a lot of sets and reps. I think in the scenario you’re presenting, I would try cutting one of these programs down to a couple of the main compound movements (squat, bench, deadlift, rows, pull-ups, overhead press) each day, so like, squat/bench on push day, pull-ups/rows on pull day, deadlift/squat accessory on leg day.

A nice thing about only having 20 minutes is it’s almost impossible for you to overcomplicate this. Keep in mind that lifting programs are deliberately designed to help balance the development of your overall fitness (well, the good ones, at least), so I wouldn’t fuck around too long with going off the beaten path of that structure. But a few months should be more than fine, and allow you to start trying to bend toward carving out more time for this part of your life.

The other option is to just do whatever high-volume stuff you feel like; sets of 6-15 reps, as many as you can reasonably squeeze in without hurting yourself, whether you want to bench and then just do some curls, or deadlift and then do some glute bridges. I take no responsibility for the results of this approach, good or bad, but it could also be a nice time to let go of really aggressive structure and follow your heart, heavy-lifting-wise, and let your me time really be me time.

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Emailswole.woman@vice.com.