Fit in a Flash

By Megan McMorris |

Your tough week at work just got worse: You’re juggling multiple deadlines, it’s your turn for the kids’ afternoon carpool, and now the boss has scheduled an early-morning meeting for the one time slot where you thought you might still fit in a solid workout.

Time to scratch exercise off your to-do list this week? Not quite. Whether you’re committed to building muscle or cardio endurance, focused on burning fat, or just taking care of your health, you can still make meaningful progress toward that promise in 45 minutes or less.

We can promise you this, too: You’ll feel a lot better than if you’d bagged your workout altogether. And the rest of your busy day is likely to go a whole lot better as a result. All you have to do is show up – and keep your eye on the clock.

Poetry in Motion

When you’re pressed for time at the gym, you’ve got three priorities: Keep moving, keep focused and keep your intensity up.

Whether your cardio objective is endurance or fat burning, try some interval training. For resistance training, stay on the go with supersets and combo lifts.

Why intervals? While you may be used to burning fat with the slower-and-steadier cardio approach, ratcheting up your cardio intensity for intermittent bursts will help you burn more calories in a short period of time. It also boosts your metabolism longer after the workout. Over time, such workouts will also improve your body’s cardiovascular and muscular fitness, making your workouts feel easier and revving up your body’s metabolism in ways that make you more likely to burn more calories even while at rest.

Renowned heart-rate training expert Sally Edwards, author of The Heart Rate Monitor Guidebook to Heart Zones Training (Heart Zones Co., 1999) and founder of Heart Zones (, offers another reason that interval training is in the busy person’s best interest: “When your body becomes accustomed to repeating the same activity at the same intensity, it learns to conserve energy by working on a kind of ‘autopilot,’” she says. But when you vary the intensity of your workout, she notes, “you keep your body responding and adapting.” It also teaches your body to be more efficient at higher intensities, resulting in better physical conditioning. That creates a level of challenge that makes an abridged workout worthwhile.

Why supersets and combo lifts? With super-setting, you complete a full set of one lift and then move immediately to the next lift – no pauses until you’re done with the pair. The best way to do supersetting is to alternate between the upper and lower body, alternate using the front and back of the body, or alternate opposing muscle groups. “Supersetting saves time because you don’t rest as often,” says exercise physiologist and American College of Sports Medicine–certified trainer Tom Holland, MS, CSCS, author of The 12-Week Triathlete (Fair Winds Press, 2005).

Combo lifts work two body parts at once – either by using both your lower and upper body simultaneously or by moving smoothly from one body part to another. You may not be able to lift quite as much weight as usual during a biceps curl if you’re doing a lunge at the same time, but the total work you perform is greater than if you had only done a set of curls by themselves. “And because you’re working multiple muscle groups simultaneously, you drastically reduce the time needed to complete your workout,” says Holland. Many combo lifts also engage your core and proprioceptive (balancing) muscles, making for an even more efficient use of your time and energy.

Under-an-Hour Workouts

Ready to go? Set the alarm on your stopwatch, and jump-start your sweat glands with one of these under-an-hour workouts. Regardless of your goals, remember that it’s a good idea to include strength, cardio and flexibility work into your weekly workouts. The quickie workout you choose on any given day will depend on which area you’re most needing to shore up at the moment.

Muscle Up in 40 minutes with this superset routine:

0:00 – 0:05 Warm up with a slow walk, bike or run. (Warming up is extra important for short workouts because you’ll be ramping up your intensity quickly.)

0:05 – 0:35 Three to four supersets of the lifts below; 10 to 20 reps of each exercise. Between each superset, spend 30 to 60 seconds doing stretches or ab exercises (see “Abs, Simplified” in the November 2005 archives at

  1. Lat pulldowns to triceps extensions. : At a lat pulldown machine, grasp the lat bar from the high pulley with hands a little farther than shoulder-width apart. Ease into sitting position with arms extended overhead. Pull bar straight down (without swinging or leaning back) until it is even with your upper chest. Return slowly to starting position. Immediately after you complete the set, stand : Stand holding the end of one dumbbell overhead with both hands, elbows close together and bent to 90 degrees so the dumbbell is directly behind your head. Lift the dumbbell by straightening your arms; slowly return to starting position.

0:35 – 0:40 Cool down with a few minutes of stretching for the key areas you’ve worked, and a low-intensity stroll back to the locker room.

Burn Fat in 30 minutes with this cardio-focused approach:

0:00 – 0:05 Warm up with low-intensity cycling, jogging or walking.

0:05 – 0:11 Speed up to a moderate intensity and maintain.

0:11 – 0:12 Increase your resistance/cadence for one minute at an intensity just below your anaerobic threshold. (For more on finding your anaerobic threshold, ask a personal trainer or group fitness staff member.) Or, you can try to increase your speed by one or more miles per hour, until your exhales become more rhythmic and pronounced. You should still be able to talk, whistle or even sing, but in bursts, and with labored breathing.

0:12 – 0:18 Return to a moderate intensity and maintain.

0:18 – 0:19 Increase your resistance/cadence for one minute at a level just below your anaerobic threshold.

0:19 – 0:25 Return to a moderate intensity and maintain.

0:25 – 0:28 Cool down with low-intensity cycling, jogging or walking.

0:28 – 0:30 Complete some 30-second stretches for hamstrings, quads, calves and hip flexors.

Uncramp Your Style

Even when you’re cramped for time, you can avoid cramped muscles by taking just a few moments to stretch. If you lift weights or breeze through a cardio routine without stretching afterward, your muscles will tighten up. As a result, you’ll be more likely to feel sore the next day, not to mention more susceptible to injury.

For strength workouts, save time by briefly stretching the muscle you’ve just worked following each weightlifting set. After cardio, take advantage of your still-warm state to loosen up the muscles that got you where you wanted to go.

Reap the Benefits

Next time you’re tempted to scratch your workout, think twice: There is almost always a way to slip an efficient, effective fitness routine into even the busiest of days. A brief exercise session can help you manage your stress, increase your energy and improve your immunity – benefits you’ll feel at home and at work. Keeping to a regular exercise schedule can also improve your mental and emotional outlook, so you’ll leave the gym more focused, more upbeat and better prepared to tackle your to-do list – instead of your boss.

Missed the gym this morning? Brian Waldo, personal training department head at the Life Time Fitness in Eagan, Minn., offers the following tips for building in some extra activity without abandoning the office.Add steps to your day by parking at the far end of the lot at work. Take the stairs instead of the elevator. If you’ve got a minute, throw in a couple of extra flights, or take the steps two at a time (for lunges). Choose a takeout place for lunch that’s a 10-minute walk from your office. Find a coworker to walk with during lunch, or start a walking group in your office. Pace the few steps to a coworker’s desk for a quick chat instead of sending an email.Build in some resistance training by doing calf raises while standing in line at the coffee shop. Work in a few squats while you’re on the phone. Complete a round of triceps dips or pushups against your desk when you have a short work break. Tense and release your ab muscles while at your desk or in meetings. Use a fitness ball as a chair to keep your core muscles engaged all day. Practice isometric movements while you’re talking on the phone or reading emails (a bonus for the cubicle-filled corporate world: These exercises are discreet enough that no one can tell what you’re doing). For triceps, place your hands on your desk and push down, arms bent, resisting your desk. For biceps, place your hands face up underneath your desk and press up, arms bent, resisting your desk. For quads, hover just above your chair and as though you’re about to sit in it. Do each isometric move three times, holding for 15 to 20 seconds.

Since combo lifts work two body parts at once — either by using both your lower and upper body simultaneously or by moving smoothly from one body part to another — they provide a tough, total-body workout. Many combo lifts also necessarily engage your core and proprioceptive (balancing) muscles, making for an even more efficient use of your time and energy. Below is an example of a combo workout you can do in just half an hour. Warm up with a light activity (walking, biking or running slowly). Three to four combo lifts of 10 to 20 reps; stretch or do ab exercises for 30 seconds to one minute between each set.If you’ve deemed it a cardio day, you can burn fat in 30 minutes flat with this approach: Warm up for five minutes with a low-intensity activity. Alternate between one minute at just above your anaerobic threshold and two minutes at a moderate intensity, for 15 minutes total. Cool down; low-intensity activity. Stretch.

During circuit training, you move through a series of five exercises, one after another, without taking a break. Complete one set of each lift before moving on to the next exercise. While you’re working one muscle group, you’re resting the muscle you just worked, so you’re saving time.

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