How to Make Maximal Gains in Minimal Time | Strength Training Efficiently

How to get the most bang for buck out of your strength training sessions

Want to be stronger?

Who am I kidding…

Everyone wants to be stronger!

Just sometimes finding the time to get stronger can feel like a massive hurdle.

Not only this, trying to find the best exercises/methods for getting stronger can be hard. All over instagram and all through the media (even through your jacked juicy gym bro friend), we see a whole lot of information and opinions on how to best build your strength. Often this includes unrealistically long training sessions and crazy high volumes, with some ridiculous looking exercises thrown in there for good measure (“it helps activate your glutes, bro!”)

Often these are the 1%ers that contribute minimal effect to your journey. First, we need to get the basics right on how to build a safe and effective strength routine to suit your busy diary.

Let’s have a look at what the evidence says, and what to focus on to build strength efficiently.

Getting Strong Efficiently – What You DON’T Need

To first understand what we need to do to prioritise our time to get strong, we first need to understand what isn’t a good use of time to help build a solid routine.

Ditch the complex and time consuming warm ups

For our super efficient exercise program, the first thing we cut out are our long extended warm ups.

The evidence at this stage does not suggest that stretching, activating, rolling, or any other general gym based warm up has a significant effect on your strength training ability or reduces your risk of injury. 

Think of your warm ups as a way to get mentally and physically prepared for your gym routine, by doing a few movements similar or the same to what you’ll be doing. To warm up for squats, do some light squats, to warm up for deadlifts, practise the movement with no/low loads first to get your body moving. 

This warm up period should take no longer than 5 or so minutes for most people.

If you like, keep in certain things that make you feel good and mentally prepare, just know that you can move on from them quickly and can save yourself a bucket load of time without negative consequences. We can use that time to get stronger!

Ditch the complex cool downs and stretching

We’ve warmed up fast, and we can cool down fast too!

Stretching, rolling, cooling down (etc) after exercise is another largely overrated and over emphasised part of the modern strength routine. 

Like a warm up but in reverse, the cool down is to get you back to resting comfortably . For most people this simply means packing up and walking out of the gym. For others, it might mean finishing up with some easy and low intensity exercises to stage your body back to resting. 

Beyond this (again, unless you like it and are willing to put time aside for it), cool downs have minimal effect and chew in to our valuable strength training time.

Isolation exercises

Now hear me out, I’m not suggesting isolation exercises are bad. They have great use and can be very successful when used well.

But for overall efficient strength, and for getting you in and out of the gym quickly, we can instead prioritise more compound exercises where we can.

Compound exercises are multi-joint exercises that use more muscles and need to move more areas of the body.

For example, a leg extension is isolated and a leg press is compound. 

Bicep curls are isolated, seated rows are compound. 

We know more compound exercises have a more efficient muscle building capacity, so let’s start with those before we move on to isolated exercises!

Getting Strong Efficiently – What You DO Need

How Much?

For efficient gains, it seems that overall weekly volume is more important than training frequency.

What this means is that the amount of sets you do per week, is more important than the amount of times per week you do those sets.

Overall, we are aiming for a minimum of 4 sets per muscle group per week, and it does not matter if that all comes in the same session or spread over 2-3+ sessions. Whatever your diary or preference suits best will be fine!

How Hard?

The most important thing for building strength is to feel as though the exercise was hard by the end.

Sounds a bit vague doesn’t it?

But overall, our goal is to fatigue the muscle to a point where it needs to get stronger.

An easy way to think of this is to finish each set with 2-3 reps left in the tank. So you feel like it’s really pushed you, but not quiiiite until you fail.

Mostly, we aim for a repetition range to be between 6 and 15 per set, but it can go higher or lower if you keep the above rule of thumb in. 

If you find your reps falling outside this range and you still have a bit left in the tank (or you’re failing), adjust your weight so it falls roughly in this range for maximal efficiency.

How to rest?

One of the best bang for buck ways to improve your training is to use one muscle group while the other recovers. 

We call this supersetting, and it means doing 1 exercise paired with another unrelated exercise.

For example, it’s pairing a chest exercise with a leg exercise, or a push exercise with a pull exercise and completing them together. 

This in theory means we get double the amount done in the same amount of time! How’s that for efficiency?

Non-negotiables

For our strength training to be efficient, we need to include as many muscles we can with as little exercises as we can. This brings us to 3 non negotiable types of exercises, of which you need 1 of each, minimum:

  • A leg pressing exercise (like a squat or a leg press)
  • An upper body push exercise (like a bench press or a push up)
  • An upper body pull exercise (like a seated row or a lat pull down)

Some other exercises you may want to include for your overall health and general strength include:

  • An overhead exercise (like a shoulder press or military press)
  • A lower body hinge exercise (like a deadlift or hip bridge)
  • A single leg exercise (like a lunge – can be a little more time consuming as you need to train both sides but can have great benefit)

How you get these exercises does not matter – it can be free weight, body weight, machines… whatever suits you best!

In summary

  • Skip the long warm ups and cool downs
  • Prioritise compound/multi joint exercises
  • Aim for a minimum of 4 sets per week per muscle group (over how many days you get this in does not matter)
  • Train in a rough rep range of 6-15, with each exercise having only a few reps left in the tank
  • Superset for the best use of rest time
  • Always include an upper body pull, upper body push and a leg pressing exercise

Want to learn more? Have a look at some of our favourite social media resources for building strength:

Finding your “Goldilocks” zone of how hard to work

When to progress your exercises

The video breakdown of these guidelines 

References: 

This blog was inspired by the following Narrative Review and associated references:

Iversen, V.M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B.J. and Fimland, M.S., 2021. No time to lift? Designing time-efficient training programs for strength and hypertrophy: a narrative review. Sports Medicine, 51(10), pp.2079-2095.

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​It is a pleasure to offer a review about my involvement at Tailored Health, Ashwood. I have been taking part weekly in a remedial exercise clinic much of the time since a knee replacement in 2016. I have extensive osteoarthritis, working to maintain my mobility now and into the future. Ben, Claire and Alex are all university trained, skilled Exercise Physiologists and the exercise programs are expertly put together for each client. It is great to be part of this community and I really value the support they provide. Christine Chappell

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I started working with Ben as my exercise physiologist even before he started Tailored Health. He has always been caring and understanding my problems and has always worked towards increasing my strength. He has a great team and Claire has done enormous job on my body, looking after all my pain and I feel so much better than before. Recently Phil has joined the team and he is great too! Thank you for looking after me and being so kind and professional.

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