The 20 Minute Strength Training Workout

Just in case you haven’t noticed, a certain pandemic problem has just wiped out every single road race and running event for the rest of the year, possibly also a good chunk of next year.

I’m not going to run any races anytime soon. Virtual races are a waste of my time.

This situation is also a gift. This is possibly the one time in our history where every event/race/etc is basically stopped, and we now have a long period of available space and time to work on improving ourselves. If and when life returns to some sort of normal in 2021 or beyond… we may never get this opportunity again.

Some are wasting it, in many cases waiting for normal to return… not realizing that “normal” isn’t going to come back for a long while, and they might want to get comfortable with the uncertain yet perpetual stasis of the present because this reality is going to stay for another while longer… months, not days or weeks.

I certainly have not wasted it. Never mind I’m among the few who kept their job through the lockdown, AND had to work my butt off for that job pretty much the entire time. Medical personnel and law enforcement can tell you way more about that than I can, but I’ve had less free time than everyone else.

And yet I’ve put it to productive use however much I could. Even though I put a forebearance on my running, I’m now focusing on something I’ve wanted to for a while: Strength training.

The only thing that’s kept me from hardcore, 3-6 days a week in the gym, lift as heavy as you can strength training is the demands of high volume endurance running. You can’t do both without damaging your health and compromising your progress on both ends.

Well, now, I have no practical reason to run more than a couple days a week for fitness. There are no races to train for. It’s also really hot in Las Vegas. Running even in the morning is fairly difficult because it’s already 80-90 degrees Fahrenheit (roughly 25-30 Celsius). I’m now in a phase of time where I have no desire to run at all, at least until the fall comes and the oven is turned off.

This is the perfect time for me to focus on hardcore, 3-6 days a week in the gym, lift as heavy as you can strength training. I’ve always done some sort of continuous strength training, lifting, calisthenic work at least a couple days a week.

I’ve previously strength trained every day of the week, in past lives. It’s not such a foreign concept that I need to fear novice overtraining or injury. I not only know how to do these exercises but know how much weight I can safely train with.

Plus, as long as my diet is clean and protein rich, I also don’t need to consume nearly as many calories to maintain fitness for future workouts. Running required a constant high-calorie stream of nutrition to keep pace, a typical day requiring 2800-3000 calories. However, I can consistently strength train on 1800-2000 calories a day. It’s probably the most effective exercise/diet approach to losing fat. Burnout risk on a lighter diet is far lower with 20-30 minute strength workouts than with regular 45+ minute distance runs, speedwork sessions, 2+ hour long runs, etc.

Now, more than ever, is the best time for me to build muscle and get swole.

These days, when I strength train at the gym, I don’t mess around. I get in, walk around a bit to warm up if needed, but then start the watch and get right to it.

My swolework sessions are always exactly 20 minutes long. At 20:00, or as soon as I’m aware if I go over, I stop the watch and the session is over.

There’s no long rest breaks or staring at my phone or nonsense chit-chat while sitting on a bench or machine.

This approach may help you with your strength training, so I’m going to describe how I do it.

Why 20 minutes and not 30-45? Or an hour?

First, I’ve got things to do before and after going to the gym. There’s not a lot of days and times where I can spend an hour at the gym. This approach came about partially out of necessity and what the circumstances required. I’m often fitting in workouts before work, or during a brief window of suitable time in the evening.

I also found from experience, when focused, that I can finish a full group of swolework exercises in 20 minutes, including suitable rest breaks. If the workout needed to be 30 minutes, it could have been. But I’ve consistently gotten the job done in 20, so I eventually settled upon 20 minutes as the time.

Thirdly, timeboxing my workout to 20 minutes requires that I be efficient, focus and execute. Exercising that mindset is just as important as the muscles you’re exercising in the gym. This also provides intent to lifting and pulling weight, which better refines your practice in doing so.

Isn’t the gym crowded? What happens when the weights/machines you need are taken?

My local Planet Fitness is fairly popular, though I’m well aware of time periods when it’s not. Those are my ideal times to go. I recognize of course that many don’t have a choice and have to go when it’s busy. So they could use some advice on how to handle busy periods. I certainly had to handle it while refining this method.

Every exercise group has primary exercises I’m looking to execute. But I also have in mind secondary exercises just in case, say, every single bench is taken on my incline bench day. Maybe I pivot to the chest press machines. Maybe those are taken. Maybe I kneel with a heavy kettlebell and do single arm incline kettlebell chest presses. Maybe I just find space and do pushups.

If I know pushing weight with the chest is the goal, I quickly find a solution. I don’t stop the watch. I walk the gym, and exercise my decision making and action-taking abilities to figure out a suitable solution for the workout.

If it’s the worst day ever to use the gym and no weights are available, screw it. I’ll get on a rowing machine or ARC Trainer or elliptical, select one of the “strength” workouts, and get some sort of work in. I can do some pushups and dips later when I have time.

If it’s like that every day, no matter when you go, it’s time to find a new gym. Or maybe adopt a bodyweight training program (whose options I can talk about someday, though there’s a ton of resources out there if you’re interested).

But, in general, there are approaches to working around a gym’s busy periods, which I discussed here.

I have 2 or more dedicated groups of workouts.

Most would rotate between ‘upper body, lower body’ for something like this. I prescribe to the Alexander Cortes mindset of ‘push and pull’ workouts for upper body, while doing core exercises each day and leg exercises some days.

To do all upper body muscle groups takes a while, and again I’m keeping it to 20 minutes. Cortes himself has various finer-point programs with a more granular breakdown (which I think are useful for many), but for myself I keep it simple.

Group 1: Push exercises. Chest. Shoulders. Triceps.

  • Incline Bench Press: Cortes swears by this version of the bench press, and I can see why. It’s more biomechanically friendly than the conventional flat bench press, and better engages all the chest muscle groups. I typically do these with dumbbells, though I can do them on the Smith rack or even holding weight plates or kettlebells.
  • Shoulder Press: Pushing weight overhead (either dumbbells or on a machine) works the deltoids and associated shoulder muscle groups. To best isolate the deltoids, I never lower my arms beyond the point where my upper arms are parallel to my shoulders.
  • Push Press: Though it seems a bit counterintuitive to put a more total-body compound exercise behind a more isolated compound exercise like the shoulder press, I find it better engages the supporting muscles to do the push press with the deltoids fatigued from the shoulder press. I also of course use a lower weight to compensate for the relative fatigue.
  • Tricep Press(-down): If on the Smith rack, I’ll take the weight down further and do a barbell tricep press, basically a push-up motion with the arms tucked in and all the weight being pushed-up by the now-tired triceps. Otherwise, I’ll find a cable set or a machine and do simple tricep press-downs, though I’ll probably use more weight on those since those better isolate the triceps and that increases leverage.

Group 2: Pull exercises. Upper/lower back/shoulder muscles. Biceps.

  • Lat Pulldown: You grab the bars and keep the arms tucked at your sides as you pull down, making sure to isolate the work to those back muscles. I do these on a machine, or if necessary on a cable-weight system. I’ve admittedly never been able to do multiple pullups, and developing the strength to make those possible is a goal of mine right now. There are ‘negative’ assisted-pullup machines, but right now it’s more effective in my opinion to build the strength in isolated muscle groups. I can pulldown a bit less than half my weight (which explains a lot on why pullups are difficult), and my obvious goal is to eventually pulldown my full weight, at which point I should obviously have the strength to pull myself up.
  • Seated Rows: Much like a rowing machine, except with heavy weight, you pull the weight towards you. I am able to do this with a similar weight to the lat pulldown. This helps more with improving posture muscles than with facilitating the pullup goal, but it will have some pullup benefit.
  • Face Pulls: This is another Cortes recommendation, and 100% about improving posture muscles. Sitting at a desk all day like many people, I find it valuable to do a weighted exercise that aggressively reverses that physicality. If the cable-weight machines weren’t so popular and I wasn’t risking overtrain injury in doing so, I’d probably do them every day.
  • Bicep Curls: The one exercise where the goal is largely ‘for show’. The biceps can provide some strength benefit, but working them out is also about growing them.

Here’s how the workout goes once I get to the gym:

  • If I have the time and feel I need to do some sort of warmup, or the weights area is crowded and I think waiting or surveying the situation from a cardio machine will help… I will warm up. Typical warmups are a 10 minute treadmill run, 20 minutes on the rowing machine, or 12-20 minutes of HIIT on the spin bike. Usually, space permitting, I just get right to it.
  • Sometimes crowding requires I pivot the workout, either changing some or all of the blocks, or switching the workout entirely. I’ll talk about this in a bit. But this is done as quickly as I reasonably can before the workout starts.
  • I get to the first machine and set the needed weight, or get needed weights to the needed bench… get set, and start the watch. I use a Garmin that’s set to lap-stop for rest breaks, so I hit the lap button before and after subsequent sets.
  • For each exercise block, I do 4 sets. Each set is typically 6 reps.
  • After each set in a block, I rest exactly 30 seconds, whether I need all of them or not. But I will not rest a second longer than 30 seconds. At 0:30 I start the next set.
  • However, after the last set of an exercise block, I take however long I need to in order to clean up the equipment used, get to the next needed equipment, and set up. This can take anywhere from 1-4 minutes, typically 1-2. I don’t waste time or any motion when doing this. I move with purpose between exercise blocks.
  • Again, I do all four exercises from the group I’m doing that day, then if 20:00 hasn’t expired, I do a block of leg exercises and a single set of core exercises (which I will describe later).
  • The amount of time left after the last set of the last exercise block of the group determines how much of that leg/core work I do. If I only have 1-2 minutes, I’ll only do a set of core exercises. If it’s more like 3-4 minutes, I’ll do a 4 set or superset block of leg exercises.
  • At exactly 20:00 (and I am watching the clock at the end), I stop the watch and the workout is over, no matter where I am at.
  • I static-stretch, usually using the available stretch equipment at the gym, I wash my hands, and then I leave.
  • Along with my watch tracking the reps, I go online later and update by adding the actual exercises done. My watch thankfully has a feature that allows me to update the number of reps and the weight used on a completed set, which I am very efficient at updating when I start those 30 second breaks.

Finer points:

  • I use a heavy enough weight that 6 reps is demanding, but not incredibly difficult to complete. If 6 reps is rather easy, I will push through and do 8-12 reps. If the last rep is stupid-easy and I have more sets to do, I will increase the weight by 5-10 lbs for the next set.
  • If for some reason I’m struggling to finish a set, I’ll continue until I’m certain the next rep cannot be completed, and then stop to rest.
  • I won’t reduce the weight on an exercise unless it’s the 1st/2nd set and I had originally attempted a higher weight. Even if I don’t think I can finish 6 reps the next set, I will do as many as I reasonably can.
  • Again, however, I will increase the weight in that workout 5-10 lbs if the original weight was deemed too easy. Sometimes I’ll decide to ‘stair-step’ a workout block, aka do a weight, do 5 lbs more the next set, 5 lbs more the next, then the last set 5 lbs heavier.
  • My Garmin watch has an annoying but telling feature: It auto-recognize reps and will auto-stop the set if the necessary arm motion ceases for more than a moment. This is usually the bat signal on challenging sets that it’s too tough to continue and you need to rest… since if you’re struggling with a rep you will stop moving and the watch detects that.
  • I do each rep as efficiently as I reasonably can. I don’t worry about cadence like some do. The weight goes up, without rushing I bring the weight back, I repeat.
  • Whether or not to increase the weight from the last workout is a judgment call based on memory and feel. I don’t worry much about this: The answer is always obvious to me. If in doubt or I have no opinion otherwise, I just do the same weight as before.

As I mentioned: Usually, after either block, there’s about 2-4 minutes left, so I do a block of leg exercises and a set of core exercises. If it’s more like 2 minutes, then I only do a set of core exercises… and sometimes I’m racing against the clock to get 12 reps in before the clock hits 20:00.

Because I typically walk or run a lot, I don’t necessarily want to bomb my legs in a long, muscle-busting leg workout the way I do with the upper body, muscles that can almost fully rest for days between workouts. It’s unlikely I’ll need to lift anything heavy if/when my upper body is sore. But it’s very likely I’m going to need to walk a lot. I can’t afford for my legs to be ruined after 16 sets of heavy lifting the way someone more privileged can.

So, like core exercises, I may do one 4-set block of legs at the tail end of a push or pull workout before doing a core set or block to finish.

Workouts I like to do for that single block of legs:

  • Machine Leg Press: This is an exercise you want to be careful about doing as it can cause long term residual damage to your hip flexor complex if overdone. But one set at about half my weight is a productive effort for my glutes and quads, which will help my running once I have the practical reason to train again.
  • Lunges: Super obvious beneficial runner exercise. Depending on available space, I may do standing lunges (1 superset of forward, lateral, back), or walking lunges. However, this is a bodyweight exercise you can do anywhere, and I prefer at the gym to do exercises I can’t do elsewhere. Still, sometimes, this is the best option, and sometimes the floor space makes the walking lunges more do-able there than elsewhere.
  • Hamstring Leg Curls: Like most, my hamstrings are overextended and should get stronger. The only reason I don’t do them everyday is of course I injured one last year and I want to proceed with caution on training them. I try to do a challenging but manageable set once a week.
  • Squats: I can and often do these any time, anywhere in general. Like lunges, I do them if I have time for leg-work, and other options aren’t as available or useful.

My calves have always been strong and big. So I don’t really do any calf raises. Genetics? Possibly. But mine have always been durable and strong.

Again, leg work is a function of time. If I’m only 14-16 minutes in, a block of leg work is do-able and done. The leg press machine is almost always available and that’s usually what I’ll do. Sometimes it’s not, but the hamstring curl machines are almost always available. I typically do one or the other unless it’s a super busy day at the gym, in which case I just find floor space and do lunges/squats.

This is a quick decision on the fly with the clock running. I don’t debate or weigh options for long. There’s a clear choice, I make it, and do it.

What do I do for core exercises?

I probably overstated how complicated this is by saying ‘core exercises’, because usually I just do 12 incline sit-ups as quickly as I reasonably can… engaging my core instead of my lower back, of course.

Sometimes instead, if available, I may go to the Captain’s Chair and do a set of hanging knee raises. But the sit-ups are more straightforward, fully engaging and easier to do.

On rare occasions that both the sit-up benches and the Chair are taken, I either find a spot on the floor and do some Russian Twists or I just grab a mat and do 20 second planks until the clock expires.

I keep it simple and I cannot imagine a scenario where none of those three options would be available to end a workout. I can even just do crunches or sit-ups on the bare floor if it came to that, but it never has.

And again, this is a quick decision on the fly with the clock running. I don’t debate or weigh options for long. There’s a clear choice, I make it, and do it.

I get my swolework done in 20 minutes, get everything done that I’m looking to do, and I get out of there. I’m seeing and feeling results just after a few week, and progress should continue one way or another over the next however-long… depending of course on whether Coronavirus leads to another closure of gyms… always a possibility, and I’ll talk later about my other strength options if that happens.

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25 thoughts on “The 20 Minute Strength Training Workout

  1. […] I wrote about my 20 minute strength training protocol. I hinted in there that sometimes the areas I need to use are crowded and I have to switch and do […]

  2. […] – Towards the end of the day, around 7pm, I go to the gym and get some swolework. Do my 20 minute workout. Head […]

  3. […] is one reason why my 20 minute workout is so much easier and faster for me to do than someone else’s 45-60 minute workout, and one […]

  4. […] This while not exactly tiring does require a subtle bit of arm strength, and is probably beneficial for my arm development and recovery (they do already get quite a bit of more serious work in my 20 minute strength workouts). […]

  5. […] in the gym. But I’ve found even when weary from midday hot weather, I can still get in a full strength workout. And I certainly take my time cooling down (in more ways than […]

  6. […] After I stopped training due to Coronavirus cancelling everything, and since I pivoted towards strength training once I resumed training… I hadn’t been running all that much. Before beginning the badge […]

  7. […] prefer to let Garmin build it for me. I have more schedule flexibility. I’m doing other strength and cross training, and Garmin tends to book shorter workouts. I’m studying for […]

  8. […] also continued strength training with my mostly upper body push/pull 20 minute workouts roughly 3-4 times a week throughout all […]

  9. […] training if you want to experiment with this kind of schedule. Personally, I decided to do all my strength training and cross training on the weekends, when I know I otherwise have entire days off. And with cross […]

  10. […] Before the end of 2020, I took this info and tested this out with a basic home-5lb-dumbbells version of my 20 minute workout. […]

  11. […] 16 minutes strength training (an abbreviated version of the 20 Minute Workout) […]

  12. […] I also have a great 2 day strength training split now that’s worked well. As mentioned, all workouts are only 20 minutes: […]

  13. […] training with more consistency but less volume. When I previously strength trained I would go heavy and make sure to do 4 sets of muscle group exercises. Now that I’m running a […]

  14. […] work into underactives that need the work. As mentioned before my strength workouts are always 20 minutes long, with 30 second breaks unless switching […]

  15. […] I’ve spread out all my strength exercises over a repeatable 5 day sequence, to do more sets of each exercise while only focusing on 2-3 per 20 minute workout. […]

  16. […] sets of 12 reps of seated cable rows, an exercise I do need to focus on. I do up to 4 sets, until I reach 20 minutes. (If for some reason every single cable row machine in the gym is being used, I have other needed […]

  17. […] now do this on machines for all my 20 minute workouts. I still restrict my strength workouts to 20 minutes, and find this way I can do two machine […]

  18. […] later) will be shorter than I’ve previously practiced, about 20-35 minutes. I strength-train 20 minutes each time. Yoga or stretching takes about 20 minutes as well. This gets me to an hour on the […]

  19. […] that said, I’m looking to resume strength training this week with two easy 20 minute sessions in the mornings, and chasing them with the yoga sessions that I’d been getting […]

  20. […] of these workouts are 20 minute strength workouts. No matter what, stop at 20:00. If you don’t have one, I recommend getting and using a […]

  21. […] ramped up strength training this summer, wanting to seriously build strength while still allowing for regular endurance […]

  22. […] + easy: Here in addition to easy runs or cross training, you do strength training, no more than 20-30 minutes. I have two designated 20 minute workouts I can rotate […]

  23. […] ramped up strength training this summer, wanting to seriously build strength while still endurance training regularly. […]

  24. […] room to add more exercises. (I’m currently not concerned about keeping these workouts to 20 minutes. It’s a total body workout rather than a split routine. These can now go 30 minutes if […]

  25. […] could can do a 20 minute strength routine, and rotate between different blocks of workouts. Since you’d strength train every three […]

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