Exercise Efficiency

Exercise Efficiency

You have dedicated a lot of time and effort to achieving your goals in physical therapy. As you near the end of your plan of care, it’s important to consider future health and fitness goals. Sustaining regular exercise can be challenging. It’s challenging to alter your schedule and dedicate weeks or months to recover from pain. It’s often harder to commit to regular exercise with no endpoint.

Our previous blogs have covered various strategies for designing an exercise plan. We reviewed exercise volume, frequency, intensity, movements, and equipment. We have yet to address one of the biggest barriers to regular exercise.


What follows are four strategies to help you reduce the amount of time you need to dedicate to exercise. These will lean more towards the 75 minutes of vigorous exercise rather than the 150 minutes of moderate exercise you find in the physical activity guidelines. The guidelines don’t specify the total time of resistance training, however, only suggest two days a week.

Your total volume needs will largely depend on your goals but there are ways to be more efficient with your time.

Strategy #1: Train Less Often

More isn’t always better. One of the easiest ways to reduce gym time is to go less frequently. Remember, most people see great results with only 12–20 sets per muscle group per week. This can be done in a couple of total body sessions using compound movements. A shoulder press counts for triceps and shoulders while a squat counts for gluteals and quadriceps.

Some research suggests you can build muscle with one large training session a week, saving you preparation and travel time (if you drive to a commercial gym). Understand, that you will eventually plateau at any given volume. If you want to keep improving your fitness, you will eventually need to up the volume.

Another strategy is using microdoses of brief, vigorous exercise or exercise snacks to improve strength. Briefly, vigorous exercise is a continuous bout of vigorous-intensity exercise lasting less min. If you use high-intensity interval training, the total exercise time (excluding rest) is less than 5 minutes. Exercise snacks are multiple short bouts (10–20 seconds) of vigorous exercise that are incorporated into the day with several hours of rest between sets.

The key for both is intensity. If you perform the exercises to failure (or very close to failure), then you can see benefits in strength, endurance, and potentially muscle mass, depending on the total volume.

Strategy #2: Minimize Warm-Up Time

Warm-ups are often over-complicated and drawn out. You don’t need to stretch, foam roll, or perform mobility exercises. If they feel good and you enjoy stretching, go for it, but know it is not needed to prepare for exercise or reduce injury risk.

The goal of a warm-up is to increase your muscle temperature and metabolic activity to prepare you for exercise. The best way to do that is to gradually build up the intensity of the exercise you intend to perform.

For example, if you are warming up for a squatting session, begin with a set of 10 air squats followed by a set of 8–10 with a really light weight. From there, gradually add weight and decrease the reps until you reach your working sets. Take a similar approach to endurance exercise. Walk and lightly jog before an intense run.

Strategy #3: Prioritize Compound Exercises

Multi-joint exercises (also known as compound lifts) should be prioritized. They involve more muscle groups, produce greater amounts of mechanical tension, and induce a greater metabolic stimulus than single-joint exercises. Those factors contribute to great muscle and strength gains.

If you aren’t limited on time, single-joint exercises (e.g., biceps curls and knee extensions) are great exercises for adding volume. The caveat to compound lifts is they are fatiguing and require more recovery. You can generally perform more single-joint exercises than compound lifts in a single session and across a week.

Strategy #4: Shorten your rest breaks

These are three strategies for manipulating sets and reps to reduce time in the gym. Studies show they lead to equivalent or better outcomes than traditional rep schemes.


Performing two or more exercises in succession with limited or no rest between them. You can couple alternating types of exercises, such as pushups and pull-ups, allowing you to rest one set of muscles while working another. Or, you can couple similar types of exercises, such as a bench press and triceps pull-down.

Drop sets

Perform a traditional set, reduce the load (often by 20–25%), then immediately perform another 1–3 sets. Each drop set is performed to failure.

Rest-pause sets

Instead of completing a full rest break, which is typically 1–2 minutes for hypertrophy and 4–7 minutes for strength, rest-pause is the practice of using mini-rest periods within a set. For example, a traditional approach would involve completing 3 sets of 6 repetitions with 80% of 1 rep max with 2–3 minutes of rest between sets. The rest-pause approach involves completing one set to failure (also 80% of 1 rep max load) with 20 seconds of interset rest interval until a total of 18 repetitions was performed. There is no limit on the number of rest breaks you take. You simply need to hit the desired number of reps.

High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

For cardiovascular improvements, HIIT is very effective and efficient. A common type of HIIT workout is called a Tabata. The original protocol was on a stationary bike, peddling at max effort for 20 seconds then resting for 10 seconds. This was repeated 8 times over 4 minutes. It’s exhausting. The Tabata protocol has been applied to many forms of exercise, such as running, rowing, and jump rope. To be effective, it should be very tiring, causing you to struggle to maintain the same level of performance throughout the four minutes.

CrossFit-style workouts and circuit training with minimal rest are forms of HIIT. You will see various types of exercise program designs such as EMOM (perform a set Every Minute On the Minute) and AMRAP (As Many Round As Possible in a given amount of time). All are great ways to effectively and efficiently train your cardiovascular system.

Which strategies you implement largely depends on your goals, resources, and enjoyment.

If you want to build strength and don’t care as much about muscle mass, then drop sets with max velocity or rest-pause may be preferred to supersets. If you want bigger quads, you may limit all regions except the quads to compound lifts and add knee extensions to the end of your leg days. If you hate the feeling of supersets, don’t do them. You have other options at your disposal. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach to exercise, no matter what your goal is. 

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