What’s the best workout when I’m short on time? | Ask a personal trainer

I get asked a lot of questions about exercise and nutrition.

Questions from my clients, group fitness participants, blog readers and social media followers. Sometimes these questions are of a personal nature and I reply privately. Other times, they’re queries that many of you may also be interested in hearing the answers to.


Introducing a new, occasional feature on the blog: “Ask a Personal Trainer”.

(** And note, that names have been changed to protect those who don’t want to be ‘outed’ publicly 😉 )

What’s the best workout when I’m short on time? Ask a Personal Trainer
Dear Fitknitchick,
Let me start by saying that I love the free workouts you share on Facebook, YouTube and your blog. I think I’ve tried most of them by now and appreciate the work you’ve done in making them challenging, interesting and not too complicated (I’m not very coordinated…). My absolute favourite is your Whole Body Bosu Circuit Workout. Thanks!

However, sometimes I don’t have time to do the entire workout. My life is super hectic right now with a husband who travels for work, a part-time job of my own, a sick mother who needs my attention and two school age children whose activities take up much of our weekday evenings.

My question to you: if I only have time to do part of a workout, should I cut back on sets and repetitions or only do half of the exercises? Which one is better for my goal of reducing body fat and getting toned muscles? I should add that I can find fifteen minutes of time for exercise almost every day, but realistically can only fit a one hour workout in on Saturday (when my girls are at dance for the entire morning).

Thanks for taking the time to respond (and please keep those workouts coming!),



Dear Anna**,

And thank you for taking the time to ask a fantastic question! You’re certainly not alone in having limited time to exercise. Major kudos for being consistent with your ‘daily 15’; it’s precisely that consistency that will help you reach your fat loss-muscle building goals!

The most important thing you can do when your workout time is limited is prioritize your exercises. Ensure that the exercises you’re doing are the ones most likely to help you reach your goals.

In your case, I’d suggest choosing compound movements over single joint isolation exercises. That is, make sure you’re getting your squats, dead lifts, pushups and rows done before you consider adding a bicep curl or tricep extension to your workout. Not only will the big movements work more muscle groups, they’ll also burn more calories than the isolation exercises will. Plus, biceps and triceps will get a workout anyways; they help with rows and pushups, respectively!

Since you work out almost every day, I’d consider splitting your workouts up by body part. Concentrate on chest and back on day one (think pushups, chin ups, pull ups and rows), legs and glutes on day two (squat, lunge, dead lift and hip thrust) and arms and core on the third day of your workout week (shoulder press, planks and core rotation).

Then repeat the three workout days so that you’re getting two workouts per body part split each week. You should see good growth with this type of training program, particularly if you’re lifting to near fatigue and progressing your workouts from week to week by increasing the difficulty of the exercise or upping the load you’re lifting.

If you find you’re super pressed for time, choose two or three exercises per workout and aim to perform 2 to 3 sets of 8-10 good form reps of each. Super- or tri-setting them (performing one set of each exercise, back to back, before repeating the mini circuit) will save you the traditional minute between sets, getting you through your workout even faster.

And don’t forget to save a few minutes for stretching at the end. Often, when we’re short of exercise time, stretching is the first thing we drop from our routine. Even 3-4 minutes of post-working stretching is enough to help flush out lactic acid and reduce delayed onset muscle soreness.

Let me know if this helps!




  1. Absolutely agree with the focus on compound movements! They are so good for the body! Stretching is also key and I definitely neglect that way too much. Stretching at the end also will help regulate your body temperature so you aren’t shocked when you step out into the cold winter air!

  2. Sometimes, I feel that the best exercise to do when short on time is “anything”– every little bit counts, and it never hurts to squeeze in a handful of squats etc. when tight on time. Great primer!

    • So true! Something is always better than nothing. But if you have 15 or 20 minutes, it’s always a good idea to have a plan! Thanks for stopping and commenting Brian.

  3. Love your thoughts on this – thanks for sharing!

    One of the things I love to do (which is made SO MUCH EASIER since I started working from home) is to take mini breaks throughout the day to do strength training. It’s amazing how many exercises you can get done in a day when you just focus on one muscle group and one exercise at a time – AND it energizes you to keep going with your workday. Win-win!

  4. Always great stuff. I don’t do it myself BUT I recommend to people to try a short spurt of cardio – anything you prefer – work at it – followed by round of resistance exercises and go back in forth if say you only have 20 or 30 minutes – especially crazy holiday times. 🙂
    Jody – Fit at 56 recently posted…Gratitude Monday in PicturesMy Profile

  5. Just what I needed to read today! Thanks.
    Gloris recently posted…We ARE What We Eat.My Profile

  6. I’m on the go so much this season, and not finding the time to exercise as much as I’d like. Thanks again. Oh, and thanks for mentioning stretching. I think many people take it for granted. The older I get, it seems I’m more prone to injury. Stretching is a good preventative measure, plus it’s so relaxing.
    Gloris recently posted…We ARE What We Eat.My Profile

    • You’re very welcome Gloris. I’m like you. Didn’t need to stretch (or didn’t think I needed to stretch…) so much when I was younger. But boy, oh boy, do I ever notice when I cut my stretch time short now!

  7. Go for a run…fast.

  8. Save time at the gym with this 10-minute cardio/sculpt session: Hop on a treadmill holding a three- to five-pound dumbbell in each hand, and set the speed to a brisk walk. Do a one-minute set each of shoulder presses, biceps curls, triceps extensions, side laterals, front laterals and standing triceps kickbacks one after another as you walk. I’s an amazing upper-body challenge that also gets your heart pumping. Do this series two or three times each week. As you improve, work up to doing four-minute sets.”
    John recently posted…What Is SvchostMy Profile

  9. Great article and great tips! I like to use the stairs when going to work, picking up kids from school or just going to the doctor’s office instead of an elevator when possible. I also park at the end of the store or any other parking lot just so I would walk more.
    And yes, stretching is needed after a workout.
    Kat recently posted…21 Powerful Remedies For Sore ThroatMy Profile

    • Kat, I need soooo much more stretching time now than when I was in my 30’s. Those muscles like to tighten up and shorten almost immediately after a workout! I love the extra movement you’re getting in your day. Keep it up!


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