Beginning a Training Program under Time Constraints

“I don’t have enough time” is one of the most common reasons people have for not engaging in healthy lifestyle choices. When the idea of “lack of time” is put under inspection, it rarely holds merit. Changing your behavior is inherently challenging, whether you want to eat better, go to the gym, or take quiet time for yourself. Often the fear of change/challenge elicits a knee-jerk reaction of “I don’t have time!”, and then no further thought is given to the idea.

There are three primary cases of “lack of time”:

  1. A legitimate lack of time
  2. A perceived lack of time, due to preconceived notions of how much time a training program requires
  3. A “lack of time” excuse, due to fear of change/challenge

Whatever the case is, the following information can be beneficial.

For this article, I will focus primarily on how a beginner can stick to an exercise program while under time constraints (or in some cases, perceived time constraints). Beginning (and maintaining) a general fitness program is more attainable and manageable than you may think. When a simple, effective, and time-efficient plan is laid out in front of you, it makes the idea of beginning an exercise program much less daunting. The key is to have a detailed plan, and that is what this article intends to help you with. 

Before I go into specifics, let go of the idea that an exercise program requires that you go to the gym for an hour every day of the week. Training every day is not necessary, and there is such a thing as too much training. If you are new to fitness, it is actually important to limit how much training you do.

Stress and Response

The body needs to experience stress in order to have a positive response. Here are some examples of positive stresses, and their responses:

The “Goldilocks” Concept of Stress & Response

► Not enough stress = no response

► Too much stress = significant positive response at first à then stagnation (no response) à then regression (negative response) à then eventual injury (REALLY negative response)

► Appropriate level of stress = A gradual and consistent positive response

► The appropriate level of stress is different for all individuals; it is based on training history, medical history, genetics, lifestyle, and age

► The appropriate stress level is achieved by properly managing training parameters

Here is a graph that illustrates the general concept of how the body responds to different levels of stress:

Achieving the correct level of training-stress is like achieving the best ‘miles per gallon’ efficiency in a car. If you drive too slowly or too quickly, you don’t achieve efficiency. If you travel at just the right speed, you get the best bang for your gas-buck. Training-stress is no different. If you train too intensely, your body will run out of its reserves quickly, leading to regression and/or injury. If your training is too light, you are not making effective use of your body’s reserves (i.e. you aren’t stressing the system enough to elicit a positive response) and you would benefit from training harder.

Tying this back to time-management, you can achieve the appropriate stress level with short training sessions. You do not need to spend an exorbitant amount of time in the gym to achieve great results.

The gym is an environment to challenge your body and build up your physical abilities, not tear you down to a state of chronic fatigue. Train with the mindset of improvement, not depletion; this mindset lends itself to short, efficient, and effective training sessions as opposed to long, draining ones.

If you are getting results (e.g. increased strength, more muscle, fat loss), and training minimally, what is there to worry about? Don’t let the amount of time spent in the gym concern you, let the results (or lack thereof) be your focus.

Some Practical Examples and Realistic Numbers

Here is an outline of an effective beginner’s training program that elicits positive results while efficiently managing time:

► Train 3 sessions per week

► Choose what days are most convenient for you, while breaking up sessions with at least 1 day of recovery in between

► Train for 60 minutes per session

► Choose the most convenient time of day for you to do this

► In each session, the entire body is trained

► Beginners often don’t have the work capacity* to focus entire training sessions in an upper/lower or body-part training scheme

► *work capacity = the amount of work that the body can perform and recover from

Breaking down 60 Minutes

There it is, a general training program outline for a beginner. Start to finish the sessions take 60 minutes each. This leads to a total training time of 3 hours per week, which is the number to be reckoned with. Perhaps a much less daunting number than most people imagine when thinking about beginning a training program. Keep in mind that the program outlined above involves many aspects of fitness (i.e. movement, strength, endurance, and relaxation); it is a stimulating combination of exercise that will have you more mentally engaged than when you are chugging along on an elliptical for an hour.

The real key behind the 3 hours of training per week is consistency. Consistency makes or breaks any program. You need to stick to the program every week for results to occur. It is much better to do a moderate-effort program continually for 1 year than an intense-effort program for 2 months a few times a year. Consistency breeds results.

Here are the three big reasons why condensed training programs are better for beginners:

1.) Beginners typically do not have the physical reserve/work capacity to tolerate much training stress

1a.) Their bodies simply aren’t yet adapted for a high volume of training stress

2.) Beginners, first and foremost, need to learn to build a habit (i.e. consistency)

2a.) The development of a strong habit is much more likely to occur when goals are more attainable (e.g. 3 hours of training per week compared to 6 hours per week)

3.) Beginners must first learn to move effectively, efficiently, and safely before focusing intensely on strength, endurance, or any other physical quality

3a.) In the benefit of longevity and injury prevention, beginners must establish proper movement patterns, and there’s only so much training a beginner can do before this occurs

Specific Time-Management Strategies (beyond Condensed Training)

Choosing the Correct Gym Location

► Don’t take a separate driving trip to go to the gym

► If possible, coordinate your training sessions with a trip that you already planned to take

► For example, before or after work

► In tandem with the last point, choose a gym that is on, or near, the route you normally travel

► If your workplace facility includes a gym, take advantage of it

Do your Cardiovascular Training Separately

► You don’t necessarily have to do your cardio work at the gym

► You can take a 15-30 minute walk during a work break, during down time at home, or whenever you can easily fit it in

► This way (according to the outline I laid out previously) you can spend just 40 minutes per training session in the gym

►Cardiovascular training is very flexible because it is non-specific. As long as you are doing an activity where your body is constantly moving and you are maintaining an elevated heart rate, you are doing cardio.

Break up your Cardiovascular Training

► If you don’t have a continuous 20-30 minute period you can devote to cardio work, you can break it up into intervals

► For example, a 10 minute walk in the morning, a 10 minute walk after lunch, and a 10 minute walk in the evening

► Using this method, you simply accumulate your cardio work

Train at Home

Home-training is one of the best time-management strategies (but it does require some purchasing).

The benefits of home-training in terms of time-management:

  • You never have to deal with traveling to the gym
  • While training, you never have to wait for equipment
  • You don’t need to be concerned with preparing your appearance (or hygiene!)

Other benefits:

► Beginners need to focus on learning fundamental movement patterns and building baseline levels of strength and endurance.

►The beginner’s training is non-specific and does not require much equipment, so the cost of a home-gym will be low.  

► Training at home may increase adherence to a training program, because the training environment is right within your home.

► It’s hard to make excuses to not train when you just have to walk to the next room.

► If you invest in some basic equipment, you save money in the long-run.

► Gym memberships continually require payments, but your own equipment does not.

► Beginners are often fearful of starting a training program in a public setting. Training at home allows beginners to be in a controlled and private setting.

► The privacy of a home-gym allows beginners to feel comfortable when they challenge themselves. Experimenting and failing are necessary components in learning new movements, and in the development of self-confidence. 

Beginners can train effectively with the following equipment:

• A pair of adjustable dumb bells
• A TRX kit
• A few resistance bands of varying tension
• A stretching mat
• A street to walk/jog/run on
      ○ Notice that this equipment doesn’t require much space
      ○This equipment can often be purchased “used” on sites like craigslist.org

Something is Better than Nothing

This strategy is simple enough: if unforeseen time-eating circumstances arise, then abbreviate your training session for the day. If you plan to do 3 sets of each exercise, do only 1 or 2 sets. Perhaps you could cut your cardio work in half. Doing something is better than nothing. Sure, you won’t optimally challenge your body, but you will challenge it sufficiently, and you will build the habit of going to the gym. Having said all of that, most sessions (9 out of 10) will need to be of normal length to ensure results. Remember, consistency is important.

I want to repeat the concept of “building the habit”. Even if you have to dramatically cut down your training session from 60 minutes to 15 minutes, I still suggest going to the gym. You won’t be training your body much, but you will be training your mind and power of will. Showing up to the gym is often the hardest part of exercising, and it is a skill that should be trained in itself.

Use your Weekend/Days off

In relation to the 3 days per week outline that was laid out earlier in this article, it is convenient to include one of your training sessions on a weekend day, as people typically have more free time on Saturday and Sunday. This means that you only need to fit in the remaining two training sessions during the week. Of course, this strategy applies best if you work a traditional job during the weekdays. The main point here is to take advantage of your free time when you have it, so you aren’t straining to fit in your training sessions when time is tight.

Unfortunately, it is best to not train on both Saturday and Sunday, as your body needs at least a day in between sessions to sufficiently recover (especially beginners doing a total body program).

Be Creative

If you can think of an original way to be more efficient with your time so that you can fit in your training session, do it! Only you know your specific life circumstances, so ultimately you will be able to come up with the best possible plan that fits your lifestyle. Don’t be afraid to try new things to see if they work for you. If it works, it works.

If You don’t have a Continuous 60 Minutes to Spare

Some people may have the free time to train, but it isn’t in a continuous 60 minute block. What if instead someone has a couple hours of free time during the day, but they only have it in 35 minute blocks? In this case, an upper/lower split program can be applied. This means that each training session is dedicated to either the upper body or the lower body. The upper/lower style of training is often performed with 4 sessions per week.

In this case, you can train 35 minutes per session (instead of 60), and 4 times per week (instead of 3). Every training component shortens (i.e. warm up/mobility/activation, strength, endurance, and cool-down/stretching/breathing). It is okay to do less overall volume per session because you will be training more frequently every week.

Note that the “three big reasons why condensed training programs are better for beginners” I stated previously in this article are not contradicted by the upper/lower program.

1.) The body’s physical reserve is not depleted because training sessions are shorter and focus on only half of the body per session.

2.) The “building the habit” component is not too intense because while you will visit the gym more often every week, it is for a much shorter period per session (i.e. training 35 minutes per session 4x per week is more psychologically attainable than training 60 minutes per session 4x per week).

3.) Again, the 35 minutes per session nature of this training model integrates necessary speed bumps into the movement-pattern learning process. While you train more often per week, each session is significantly shorter.

Here is the outline for the 35 minutes per session program:

Make the Time, your Health is Important

If time-management strategies simply don’t free up enough time, then make the time. What is more important than your health and longevity? Really, what is? Think about it. This isn’t meant to be a rhetorical question.

1.) Prioritize your health

2.) For a week, focus on becoming aware of your daily habits

3.) During that week, write down your daily habits/behaviors, and then place each into one of three categories
      a.) Healthy          
      b.) Neutral (neither healthy nor unhealthy)
      c.) Unhealthy

4.) Begin limiting or eliminating unhealthy behaviors to make time during your week

5.) Free up enough time so that you can begin and maintain a training program

This “make the time” strategy falls under the “if all else fails” category. It’s blunt, but it works.

Bottom line: Health should be a priority. Lack of time (real or perceived) is one of the biggest challenges people face when starting/maintaining an exercise program. Fortunately, there are several simple time-management strategies that can be used to successfully incorporate exercise into your lifestyle.