How much are you supposed to train to get in shape?
Is there a magic amount of workout time that will quickly give us the toned arms, slim thighs and flat bellies we crave?
Is it 4 times a week for an hour, 2 times a week for 2 hours, every day for half an hour?
Also what exercises should we do? Weights, bodyweight, cardio, high intensity intervals, home celeb DVD workouts, Spin, Zumba?
This feeling that there is a One True Answer to this whole exercise thing is what scuppers most of our attempts at getting in shape. Once the going gets tough, or results aren’t what we hoped for or expected, that niggling feeling comes along – “I don’t think I’m doing this right, this way isn’t the answer…”.
I’m going to give you a template to work to, in order to get as fit and strong as you want to be. But, Spoiler Alert, there is no One True Answer because it all depends on your goals, current fitness level and weekly schedule.
Getting Fitness and Anti-Fatness mixed up
Many people fall into the trap of seeing fitness training as the answer to losing a significant amount of body fat, when actually it’s a pretty ineffective way to lose weight. Jog for an hour a day, while eating at your body’s maintenance level of calories, and you will lose a whole 1lb of body fat. For 7 hours of pavement pounding.
When clients start training with me they will often say their goals are to get fit, strong/’toned’ and lose some weight. And I need to make sure that they understand that our workouts can deliver the first two goals, but what and how they eat outside of the sessions will be the main driver of fat loss.
So having realistic expectations of the outcomes of your fitness training is important. Training will certainly improve your strength, stamina, body shape, heart health, bone health, and guard against all sorts of conditions later in life. But it’s really not going to burn the number of calories you want it to to lose body fat.
Having clarified that, hopefully you still see the point of exercising! When it comes to looking after your physical and mental health long term, fitness training is a fantastic thing to include in your life. Yes, the aesthetic outcomes of changing your body shape and losing weight through your diet are also excellent, but seeing fitness as a way of just ‘looking after myself’ should be the main driver.
The Main Issue for Busy People
Let’s get down to the nitty-gritty then. The issue for busy people with jobs, homes, families and hobbies taking up most of their time is finding the time to train. Just as the best diet is the one you can stick to, the best training programme is the one that you can slot into your life and stick with.
There is no point trying to stick with a daily training plan if you can realistically only train twice per week. Similarly if you’ve no 2-hour windows of spare time each week, you will not be able to stick with a programme that requires a couple of long workouts every week.
Progress happens through consistently turning up and training every week, every month, every year. Some weeks I train 4-5 times per week, others only twice as things are hectic. But for the last 20 years I have turned up and trained at least twice per week every week.
This is much better than starting some gung-ho 6 Week Fat Blaster programme, making great progress, then doing nothing for a few months as that 6 Week programme melted my head and demanded too much time and energy, and I end up back where I started beforehand. Slow and steady wins the race.
The simplest way therefore to get in shape for the long term, is to have a minimum total amount of training each week that we stick to no matter what. An amount of time that we can manage even during hectic weeks, and that we can adapt around our weekly schedules. And for most people I believe around 100 Minutes is the best and most realistic amount of time.
How to fit in your 100 Minutes
In practice this can mean *gets out calculator* (2 x 30 Minutes) + (1 x 40 Minutes) OR (7 x 14 Minutes) OR (2 x 50 Minutes), etc.
This allows you the flexibility to roll with the punches each week. If you’ve a couple of quiet evenings one week then you can train twice that week for 50 Minutes. If your week is hectic then you can do 14 Minutes every morning or evening. When you look at each week in advance you will find all the gaps you need to fit in 100 Minutes. And by ticking off those 100 Minutes week in week out, that is where progress will be made, slowly but surely.
“But I am SO busy, 100 Minutes isn’t possible!”
I’m fairly sure if we sat down and looked at the amount of time you read random stuff on your phone and watch TV that we will find 100 Minutes that you could have exercised. I’m not saying we need to become fitness obsessives, using every free minute to exercise. But if you’ve an hour free to lounge on sofa on Facebook, then it’s easy to see that you could use 30 minutes of that hour to do a home workout, then get back on the sofa for the other 30 minutes, right?
Ok, but what do we do for those 100 Minutes?
I recommend 60-75% of your training time should be based on resistance training (weights, bodyweight, kettlebells), and the remaining 25-40% on short bursts of cardio (either on machines if you’re at a gym, or on a mat at home). This split will tick a lot more boxes in terms of improved body shape, strength, lung capacity and heart health, than devoting your 100 minutes to just steady-state cardio (cycling/running/swimming at steady pace).
The number of exercises we do, and total number of sets etc will depend on how long we have for that workout. Let’s look at workout examples for three timeframe possibilities – 15 minutes, 30 minutes and 50 minutes
30/30/30 Split – 30 seconds of resistance training/30 seconds of cardio/30 seconds of rest x 10 circuits.
For example 30 seconds of press ups, 30 seconds of speed squats, 30 seconds of rest. You would have 3-4 different workout options consisting of 2 exercises each time to make sure you hit every body part each week and obviously don’t get bored.
20 Minutes strength circuit (3 exercises of 10 reps each in a circuit, then rest for 1 minute, then go again): 10 Minutes Cardio finisher (30 secs effort : 30 secs rest for 10 rounds).
For example a home workout with no equipment would be Lunges/Chair Dips/Press Ups for 20 Minutes. A gym workout could be Squats/Bench Press/Bentover Rows for 20 Minutes. Then the Cardio Finisher is squat thrusts, burpees etc at home or jump on a cardio machine in the gym for a fast 30 secs blast then down to a walking pace for 30 seconds, and repeat.
35 Minutes strength training – 6 exercises, 4 sets of 8-12 reps each, 30 seconds rest between sets.
15 Minutes Cardio/Ab Finisher – either 20 secs fast/40 secs slow x 15 on a gym cardio machine, or a circuit of 3 cardio & abdominal exercises at home.
For example Squats, Straight Leg Deadlift, Bench Press, Bentover Rows, Overhead Press, Isolated Arm Exercise, then if at home a Cardio Finisher of squat thrusts for 30 secs, squat jumps for 30 secs, and plank for 30 seconds x 10 rounds, or jump on the treadmill/cross trainer/whatever if you’re at the gym.
So as you can see, whatever gaps you find in your weekly schedule there is a workout to fill it! With the longer workouts you will need to either join a gym or get some kettlebells or a cheap dumbbell set from Argos/Decathlon/Tesco/Amazon in order to open up the possibility of a more varied workout.
Many of the exercises I’ve mentioned above may be unknown to you. Rest assured these are exercises which have been around for decades and a quick Youtube search will turn up thousands of instructional videos showing you how to do them. Or by all means email me if anything is unclear!
Simplicity is the key to staying the course
Hopefully I’ve clarified things a bit for you now – the magical Ideal Amount and Type of Training to do is the amount you can nail every single week using whatever equipment you have access to. I’ve used 100 Minutes, split between strength and short bursts of cardio, because that is a realistic amount of training in order to make progress without feeling you’re having to devote your life to exercise.
And that split between strength and cardio will get you the main benefits you’re looking for from training (stronger, fitter, improved body shape, stronger heart, bones & lungs).
Simplicity is the key to sticking with something when you already have multiple other plates to keep spinning at home and work. I’ve also written a similar guide about a simple diet to help you lose weight, so check that out too if fat loss is a goal.