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30-Minute Workouts: How I Fell in Love With Them

30-minute workouts - a man does biceps curls in his living room.

I love quick, effective workouts—and now I love 30-minute workouts.

In fact, I probably haven’t worked out for an hour more than a dozen times in the last 18 months. For the 20 years before that, my workouts took at least an hour. Or more.

So what changed—and am I still getting the results I want from 30-minute workouts?

No Time to Work Out?

I’ve always prioritized health and fitness, so finding an hour or more to train wasn’t a problem. I didn’t see it as a sacrifice—it was enjoyable time well spent.

I rushed from class to get to the weight room at the University of Winnipeg. And I remember walking as fast as I could down the Osborne Bridge in Winnipeg to get to the Assiniboine Athletic Club to lift after working at a radio station on Corydon. For 10 years, I couldn’t wait to spend time at 204 when it was at 483 Berry St. in St. James.

In February 2019, I experienced a job change, and things were different all of a sudden. I moved into a great role with a great company, but my first job switch in a decade brought an adjustment period and a schedule change. And some stress as I worked to find a new routine.

I realized two things:

1. I couldn’t afford an hour, so when I didn’t have an hour, I didn’t work out. “I don’t have time,” I thought. That was half true: I didn’t have 60 minutes, plus travel time.

2. I didn’t have the will power to do as much as I used to. I was never into lots of volume, double days and lengthy workouts. In fact, I hated when the community started doing “monster mashes” in which two or three workouts are linked together. I loved being part of the group, but the reality was that I personally needed just one of those workouts, not three. In my transitional period, I struggled with motivation for the first time in my life.

Struggling to Stay Fit

It took me a while to figure this stuff out. For a few months, I just thought I had fallen out of love with fitness. I just didn’t feel like warming up, doing some challenging work and then cooling down.

I became unhappy and less fit, though I forced myself to push through some workouts two to three times a week. But I wasn’t having fun, and I was struggling to make time for fitness.

Something had to change.

30-minute workouts - a man demonstrates basement pull-ups.

30-Minute Workouts: You Need a Coach

Left on my own, I probably would have continued to plod along, dreading workouts but knowing I should do them.

One day, I was particularly lethargic. I didn’t feel like doing anything, but my lack of motivation made me feel embarrassed. I owned a gym, after all.

Crystal, my wife, gave me a great piece of advice that really helped me stop moping on the couch:

“Go downstairs for 20 minutes and just move. Do anything. It doesn’t matter what.”

So I did that. I set a timer and I just started moving.

“Just Do Something”

I think I did a 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 squats, with 10 calories on the air bike at the end of each round. I started really slowly—warming up—and didn’t push the pace or move with speed my body wasn’t ready for. My goal was just to move for 20 minutes straight.

After about 5 or 6 minutes, I started to feel warmer, so I sped up a little. After another 5 minutes, I started to feel motivated to work harder, so I finish the last 8 minutes with a good amount of intensity. At the end, I was breathing hard, and I came upstairs feeling the sense of accomplishment I’d been missing.

That’s how I learned that sometimes something—anything—is better than nothing when it comes to fitness.

30-Minute Workouts: Some Examples

I continued this plan for a while, getting a bit of momentum and expanding to 30 minutes of work. But I always did the same thing:

I started moving with warm-up exercises and light loads, and I finished with some intensity—either by moving fast or lifting something heavy. My shoulder was bothering me due to too much hunching over at my desk, so I worked around that, and I tried to limit the equipment I used because setting everything up takes more time than I had. I did a ton of workouts with body weight, one dumbbell or a very light barbell.

Other days, I trained strength either by moving slowly with lighter loads or lifting heavy but not maximal loads with limited rest. I didn’t max out my deadlift, for example, but I did lift relatively heavy triples in between 30 jumping jacks or 200-m jogs.

Later, when I did try some heavier lifts, I found that I had maintained my strength. Sure, I wasn’t as strong as when I was spending 60 minutes or more squatting heavy three times a week, but I was still able to lift the loads I wanted to.

I was hooked on 30-minute workouts.

At-home 30-minute workouts: dumbbell rows in the garage.

At-Home Training: Customization and Accountability

Even better, my wife—one of the most experienced fitness coaches around—started giving me personal workouts based on how I was feeling that day.

She said things like this: “You seem a little worn out and down today. I know you love pull-ups and bench presses, so just do 5 super sets of each and finish with some biceps curls for fun.

Or this: “You look rested and ready. Why not add some intensity today? Do 5 rounds of 15 thrusters at 95 lb. and 400-m runs.”

Or this: “Shoulder sore today? Let’s do dumbbell presses just on the one side for 5 sets of 8, then spend the rest of the time doing these specific stretching and strengthening exercises.”

No Enough Time to Train?

Even before we launched our 30-minute online fitness program, I had been thinking about ways to get busy people in and out of the gym faster.

After 10 years of coaching, we knew that some people left the gym simply because they didn’t have enough time to travel and work out. So they trained less, didn’t get any results and eventually stopped training altogether.

I wanted to solve that problem. I even tested out some programming streams with timed stations—implements and cardio equipment spaced out for circuits.

And, to be honest, I’ve never subscribed to the “more is better” and “hard for the sake of being hard” mentality. As the Games and other competitions gained attention, people gravitated toward more and more volume. I’ve just never believed lots of volume is needed for general fitness. You absolutely need it for endurance and specialized competition, but you don’t need a lot of it for general fitness.

You just need the minimum effective dose—which is less than a lot of people think.

Why Short Workouts Work

Without getting into the physiology of exercise, let’s just use this example: Usain Bolt runs the 100 m in under 10 seconds. If you had him run 400 m, he would run quickly but at a slower pace. Over a mile, his pace would be slower still. And so on. As the distance increases, intensity of effort decreases.

And that’s what I saw happening with functional training—especially the “monster mashes” created by Pat Sherwood. Instead of hitting one challenging workout hard at high intensity—running 100 m, so to speak—people started to gravitate to long workouts in which they paced themselves.  

Again, pacing is fine if you’re training for volume. But in fitness, intensity brings results. Example: Do 100 biceps curls holding a pencil. Then do 2 sets of 8 reps at a load that forces you to work hard to get the 8th rep. The intensity of the second prescription will affect the muscles in a dramatic way—and in a short amount of time.

More work simply takes more time. And even though it’s fun and challenging, it’s not necessarily needed. Anyone who’s done a very tough five-minute workout will know that it’s not how long you work out but how hard you work out.

And all alone in my basement with limited gear, I proved that to myself again.

And research backs it up: “Kicking it up a notch with high-intensity interval training—or short, intense bouts of exercise—is undeniably superior for improving fitness.”

To read more about the benefits of intensity, read “For the Best Health, Does the Intensity of Your Workout Matter?”

Covid 19: Fitness Moves to the Home

Then, when covid-19 forced us to close our space on Berry St., we watched a host of clients improve their fitness at home with limited gear.

And a number of people told us they were actually training more often because of the convenience of doing it at home.

So we made a plan to offer online coaching, gear rental and short but very effective workouts.

We even tested these 30-minutes sessions out in our online group classes. Guess what happened: People pushed harder for shorter amounts of time, increasing their intensity. That’s exactly what we wanted all along, because intensity produces amazing physical changes.

A man performs dumbbell lateral lunges as part of a an at-home 30-minute workout program.

30-Minute Workouts: Our New Program

On July 1, we’ll be starting our 30-minute fitness program, as well as a personalized stream that involves longer workouts for people who have more time or different goals.

The goal of our 30-minute program: help people work out more often and get fitter in a short amount of time.

We know covid has disrupted schedules and added stress to busy lives. And it’s summer: people are traveling and watching their kids.

So our program runs seven days a week and can be done anywhere. A coach will find out where you want to train and what equipment you have. Then you’ll receive customized workouts that will produce results in a short amount of time. You can do them at home, at the lake, in a hotel gym—anywhere. And you’ll get fitter.

Fit in 30 Minutes

Here’s the secret to our 30-minute workout program:

This isn’t a one-size-fits-all DVD program or programming stream. It’s customized and delivered through an app. And a coach will be checking in and reviewing your results. That convenience and accountability ensure you stay on track. Someone is checking in, someone will answer your questions, and someone will customize the workout to you and your space.

I know the plan works because I tested it, and we’re thrilled to see what happens when busy people work out more often.

Remember this: If you ever say, “I don’t have time to work out,” we have a solution. You might not have time to drive somewhere and spend 60 minutes training. But do you have 30 minutes?

If so, we can help.

For more info on our 30-minute workout program, click here.

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