KEEP IT SIMPLE. If you are short on time, effort or focus, the one constant you can plan on is inconsistency. Usually a frustrating feature of a life crammed to the brim with obligations and distractions, inconsistency usually leads people to live in ‘reactive’ mode, where they write down their best laid plans and wait for things to go wrong. Something as simple as following a workout schedule feels like juggling fine china.
Just know that inconsistency can be your friend if you know how to accommodate it.
The fact of inconsistency, whether in your ability to rally through workouts or get to them in the first place, will eliminate potential benefits from any forms of training that bring extra complexity to the table. Percentage based work, high frequency approaches, undulating or alternating splits or those that rely on proper execution of many different lifts…. all of those options for training go out the window and, in turn, greatly increase the ease of your decision making.
These routines are going to K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid!) by finding which lifts give the biggest return and sticking to those. We are then going to apply the minimum amount of work for growth (it’s less than you think) and progress it forward using a simple strategy of progressive overload.
Full time work while fulfilling your duties as a standout spouse, parent, neighbor and role model…. and still managing to grow like a weed? EASY PEASY.
Short on Time
Time is in limited supply and training takes a back seat to your job, family and hobbies. Important that training time doesn’t dig into job and hobby time….
And family, I guess…
Assumption is you don’t have long to train and there might be days where you are more short on time than others. Plan on some exercises occasionally getting skipped.
You want to avoid having a plan that risks main movements getting put on the chopping block, so plan on attacking one lift per workout and put less important accessories and variations as lower priority movements to drill when you have more time. As long as you follow the progression for each main lift, you should still see growth and you can avoid panic attacks by knowing that having to cut a workout short won’t hinder progress.
I also prefer a more simplistic A/B split that will guarantee more touches throughout the week. If you shorten your sights to just squatting and benching (or deadlifting and overhead pressing), it will insulate you against the setbacks that come from chaotic weeks where you can’t get in the gym. (More on that in the video)
Low-Medium Frequency: 1 lift focus per session, A/B Split
Also assume you won’t have the luxury of 2 hour marathons. Planning for shorter workouts as the norm will make it more likely that you get most of the work in that you need. Longer workouts are valuable for driving volume up and that can be a useful tool for triggering growth, but it isn’t necessary. Trust me when I say that you can still grow from shorter sessions as long as you plan them correctly and adhere to the pattern of progression.
In the vein of time efficiency, eliminate wasteful transition time that comes from changing tasks (key lesson of the assembly line) and stick to a few exercises that give the most return. Pareto told us that 80 percent of returns tend to come from 20 percent of investments and I’ve found that rule to be blindingly present in lifting. The power of a few compound movements is one of the most well documented and repeated observations in lifting culture; leverage it.
Short Sessions w/ Few Exercises: 2 to 3 exercises/circuits, Workouts Arranged from High Priority to Low; 30 minutes to 1 hour
Assuming that time is the limiting factor and not effort or focus, we can get the most bang for the buck by using high intensity practices. Intensity can refer to ‘more weight’ but I’m talking about effort here. These can be top sets, amraps, density sets, circuits or anything else that jacks the effort up by doing more work in less time. Top sets and amraps are appropriate for the main lift, where secondary work can be scheduled with density work or done in circuit style to get more volume in less time.
If you experience fatigue and lethargy after a full day of work, high intensity workouts are going to be hit and miss; jump to the next part on effort.
High Intensity Progressions: Amraps, Top Sets, Density Work and Circuits
Squat – Work up to a Top 5, then drop 15% for an amrap
Romanian DL- 65% of your estimated best RDL for 5×5, every minute on the minute
Giant Set of Lunges, Situps and Back Extensions: 3×12
Bench Press – Work up to a Top 5, then drop 15% for an amrap
Military Press -65% of your estimated best press for 5×5, every minute on the minute
Giant Set of Dips, Bent Rows and Tricep Extensions: 3×12
Progress these in 3 week waves so that your programming is put on autopilot. The main lift can go Top 5/Top 3/Top 1, repeat and the secondary movement can progress from 65% to 70% to 75% for the EMOM, resetting with 5-10 more lbs. The accessories can progress based on feel, either by adding weight, sets (if you have time) or changing the movement each 3 week block.
Short on Effort
Maybe you actually have time to train but the work day is kicking your ass. Waking up for early commutes makes 4 am training impractical and after-work sessions means training through stiff joints, swollen feet and completely without excitement or aggression.
Instead of sending you David Goggins videos or telling you to pound 400mg of caffeine for a 7pm session, I can give you a few workarounds that ensure the program works for you even when the fuel tank is empty.
Some have cited success with higher frequency work, which allows them to get a few sets of 2-3 different compound movements and call it a day. That can definitely be a viable approach and it will prevent, say, a really bad squat session from blowing your entire work for the week (you can make it up when you squat again a day or two later). However, high frequency comes with it’s own issues. Remember, we want to keep it simple; high frequency programs usually go along with a ‘heavy/light/medium’ or ‘dup’ approach which requires extra layers of complexity and we know that low or unpredictable energy levels makes that tricky.
I recommend low frequency for lifters who struggle with low energy and motivation. Fatigue compounds quickly with each successive ‘main compound movement’, like we see with high frequency approaches and it’s much easier to program on the fly. Compartmentalizing your effort to one lift/muscle group is likely to be a more manageable physical and psychological task.
Low Frequency: 1 lift per session
Similarly to time-crunched workouts, low-energy trainees should plan for shorter sessions. There is nothing wrong with staying later and getting it in on days where you have it, but committing from the start to longer sessions with more exercises, sets and reps will just increase the likelihood of missed workouts. When motivation is low, you should aim to chunk work into smaller, more manageable bits; looking at two exercises on a piece of paper isn’t overwhelming but a 30 set Golden Age-a-thon might be and that will only contribute to the spiral of self-loathing and ‘what-is-the-point’-ness that comes from it.
Use the same hierarchy of importance that we used for the ‘short on time’ workout. Plan to get through your main lift and pace the follow up exercises based on your abilities that day.
Short sessions and few exercises: 30 minutes to an hour
There will be times where you energy is unusually high and you can tear through monumental efforts. There will likely be more times where your eyes and feet feel like they’ve had lead injections. When your ability to muster the aggression to break through old barriers is unreliable, simple linear progression tactics won’t work. We need a strategy for progressing your workouts that molds itself to where you are at on that given day. Enter auto-regulation.
Auto-reg tactics structure the workout on the fly according to how fresh and recovered you are. RPE and Plus sets are my two favorites, I’ll go over both.
RPE aims to get you to a ‘top set’ at a specified level of difficulty; if I tell you to hit a top set of 5 at RPE 7/10, that means something that leaves 3 or so reps in the tank. That might be 85% on your best, freshest day or that might be 75% if you went through the ringer. It doesn’t matter that the weight you use varies from workout to workout; effort is conserved and you can progress forward on whatever timeline your recovery allows for.
Mike Tuscherer started this for competitive powerlifters as an alternative to training approaches that attempted to control for recovery by using complex scheduling. Lifters no longer have to walk a tight rope of recovery, instead they can hit the gas when they have it and back off when they don’t; it all seems to come out in the wash.
I really like the use of ‘plus sets’, where we hit a few token sets at reduced effort and move the last set for an amrap. The build up sets are valuable for getting more volume in and psychologically prepping you for a hard effort. It’s also less daunting then staring at a Top 3 on your first exercise after a hard day of roofing or digging ditches.
Use Autoregulation Progressions: RPE or AMRAP
MAIN – Squat 65% 3×5+ (third set amrap)
VARIATION – Front Squat 65% (F. Sq. max) 3×5+
ACCESSORY – Lunges, Abs, then GTFO
Bench, Close Grip, Triceps and Rows
Deadlift, RDL, Back Extension and Abs
Overhead Press, Dips, Triceps and Rows
You can take a simplified linear approach here, adding 5lbs each workout indefinitely, or you can wave it like the previous example (65/70/75, repeat +5lbs).
There are no shortage of options for working around a difficult work schedule; just pay attention to your limitations and make adjustments accordingly. Reference the video linked above for more options and scenarios.