No Excuses, No Escape

Oh yes, you do too have time to exercise! And these abbreviated, highly concentrated workouts will prove it.

You worked hard to stay fit all through 2001 and – considering all the office parties and visiting relatives you had to contend with (to say nothing of your hectic shopping schedule) – you even held your own through the holidays. Oh, you could have rested on your well-earned laurels, but no! You went and pledged a New Year’s resolution to redouble your effort and make even more progress during 2002.

Excellent work. Unfortunately, now it’s mid-January, a notoriously dreary time to be renewing (or diving into) a fitness routine. There’s just something innately discouraging about a dark, icy morning that makes getting up early to head to the gym especially brutal. Still, you are determined. You are disciplined. And you are certainly not going to join the national average by tenaciously hoarding a bunch of holiday pounds.

Of course, you’ve also got 12 months ahead of you, so you may need some help hanging on to that steely resolve of yours. Don’t fret, we’ve got your secret weapon right here: A series of no-guilt, no-excuse, all-action fitness shortcut.

These are high-intensity mini-workouts that you design based on the time and equipment you have at hand. From five-minute “exer-snacks” you can squeeze in just about anywhere, to hardcore cross-training interval sessions that will leave you begging for mercy, these are workouts you can do in less time than it takes to justify why you can’t, and that still do you a world of good.

Mix It Up

If you have maintained a hardcore exercise routine (say, jogging six miles four times a week), you aren’t going to find a few minutes on the treadmill very satisfying. So don’t waste your time. Try jumping rope or using the rowing machine instead. You’ll get better results in less time with a brand new, unfamiliar aerobic activity.

You see, no matter how well designed your workout is, your body adapts to it and requires more time and effort to benefit. That’s why the most dramatic improvements always come at the beginning of a new exercise program – when your body has to work hard to adjust to fresh demands. When time is short, challenging yourself with novelty helps you make the most of each precious minute.

Besides keeping you free of winter doldrums, this break in your routine might have a host of other physiological benefits as well. Mixing up your training approach is one of the best ways to achieve solid weight loss and steady, well-rounded fitness gains. By trying new exercises, you engage different muscles and work old muscles in new ways. This makes you stronger and less prone to injury.

Workouts Within Workouts

Much like trying a new routine, the concept of “circuit training” combines the principles of several cross-training workouts into one butt-kicking, calorie-burning session. You probably wouldn’t want this hard-charging workout to last for much more than 20 minutes, even if you did have the time!

The basic idea behind circuit training involves mixing intervals of calisthenics or weights in rapid-fire, aerobic succession. Pick about five complementary exercises and move from one to the other with little or no rest. Complete 15 to 20 repetitions of each exercise, but use only about 60 percent of your usual weight. For example, do a set of 15 dumbbell curls, followed by 15 triceps extensions, and then 15 crunches. Go right back to the curls and repeat the whole circuit three times. Next, get a sip of water and do a set of pull-ups, followed immediately by pushups and crunches. Then, cycle through squats, lunges and step-ups. Follow that with shoulder presses, upright rows and lateral raises.

Use your imagination (or ask a trainer) to come up with combinations tailored to your goals. Just make sure to work opposing muscle groups and cycle through at least three different exercises, adjusting the weight so you can complete each cycle with good form. Remember, you’re only trying to work up a sweat and burn calories while improving your endurance here, so don’t try to set any weightlifting records.

Combining aerobics and calisthenics works great, too. For example, pedal hard on a stationary cycle for three minutes, then hop off and do 25 pushups and 25 bench dips. Without any rest, jump on the treadmill for four minutes of hard running, followed by 40 bicycle crunches and 40 regular crunches. Get back on the stationary cycle and start all over again. Try to complete as many circuits as you can before your time runs out. You may be shocked by how much you can accomplish in just 20 minutes. You may also be horrified by how much of your “regular” workout time you spend just standing around!

Aim for Intervals

Even as you try new exercises, you may still want to keep up your main aerobic activity so you’re primed for spring. To maximize your time, consider interval training. Interval training consists of alternating periods of hard effort with periods of “active rest,” in which you keep moving but at a slower pace. Most interval-training routines are designed to require only 20 minutes, so you won’t even be skimping. As you get better, you increase the intensity, not the time.

Interval training provides substantial benefits besides a great calorie burn. It’s one of the best ways to increase your aerobic capacity, so that when you get back on your regular schedule, you may notice that your endurance has markedly increased.

Oh, and regarding those extra holiday pounds, good news: You don’t need loads of time to get rid of them. One of the most misleading exercise myths is that fat calories burn more efficiently at slow speeds. The numbers tell a different story: Stroll along at 40 percent of your maximum effort and you’ll burn 4 to 6 calories per minute. Jog, and the burn jumps up to 8 to 10 calories per minute. Run, and you’ll cook off closer to 20.

So why bother with intervals? By looking at the numbers, it would appear that the best use of your time is a 20-minute sprint. Hey, if you can sustain a 90 percent aerobic effort for 20 non-stop minutes, by all means do it. For the rest of us, interval training provides a more survivable method of increasing productivity while cutting back time. If you work with intensity, you’ll incinerate more calories within 20 minutes of interval training than you’ve gotten used to burning during a moderate 45-minute session of aerobics.

SAMPLE WORKOUT: Hop on a stationary bike or a treadmill and warm up for four minutes. Then push hard for two to four minutes. Switch to an easy jog or spin for two to four minutes, and then hit it hard again. Keep alternating between a 75–90 percent effort and a 50–60 percent effort for 20 minutes, then cool down.

Stay Strong, Think Big

So far, we’ve focused on burning calories and improving endurance. But it’s taken you a lot of work to get your bench-press right where you want it, and you can’t bear to lose an ounce off that hard-earned power. You also know that muscles are the most highly metabolic tissue in the body, so you’d rather keep as much protein-rich lean body mass as possible to help you handle the holiday calorie surplus. To get a quick, optimal burn and to spark your body to produce plenty of strength-enhancing hormones, think big – big weights and big muscle groups. Using big weights (80 percent of your max) and low reps will guarantee you maximum strength gains. They’ll also engage more muscles. The more muscles involved in an exercise, the more calories you burn and the more you stimulate your metabolism to bolster overall strength.

Lower Body

When you’ve only got 20 minutes in the weight room, skip the dumbbells and machines and head for the squat rack. Squats have long been considered the “king” of strength-training exercises, and for good reason. They work big muscle groups – the thighs, hamstrings, buttocks, belly and back. If you work out twice a week, switch to dead lifts on alternate days. They work the same basic muscle groups, but shift the emphasis from quads to hamstrings and provide more training for the lower back. The “holding” muscles in your forearms will get a workout too. Alternating between these two regal power-building exercises should keep you strong enough to take care of your New Year’s resolutions.

Upper Body

For your upper body, head for the bench and do three sets of presses with enough weight so that you can do five reps per set, but not much more. Then grab the chinning bar for three sets of pull-ups; do each set to near-failure, with no more than one-minute breaks in between. (If you can’t lift your own body weight, use the lat pull-down machine.) Polish the session off with ab work: one set of 30 bicycle crunches, one set of 10 reverse trunk twists (lie down on the floor with arms out to your sides, lift your legs to 90 degrees, lower to one side and then the other while maintaining the 90 degree angle) and one set of 30 straight-leg inverse lifts. On alternate days, do incline presses followed by chin-ups and conclude with your abs.

Between these abbreviated lower- and upper-body workouts, you’ll have exercised practically every muscle in your body, outwitted your cramped schedule and proven yourself downright disciplined. While others are just talking about their ambitious New Year’s resolutions, you can go ahead and pat yourself on the back for having an athletic, running start!


A health and fitness writer based in Lincoln, Neb., Fernando Pagés Ruiz stays in shape with yoga, weight training and running.

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