Functional Health Services for Your Well Being

Getting the most out of precious workout time

by Alex Boersma

Let’s face it.  None of us has a lot of time to work out.  I own a gym.  I work in another gym.  When I’m not in either of those  gyms, I am working at my fire hall, which has a gym in it.  You’d think I’d have all the time in the world to do whatever kind of “gym” stuff I ever wanted to do.

Guess what?

I often dream of a time when I will actually be able to work out as much as I want and never feel pressured for time!  I know, that’s kind of a sick thing to be dreaming of…I guess I should seek professional help!

Still, it’s not like I’m asking for much.  An hour and a half, four times a week.  There’s my version of heaven.  Maybe two hours and then I can have a sauna after…the executive workout…since I’m in heaven and all!

Until heaven comes, or at least until I retire (whichever comes first), I guess I’ll have to make do with my one hour, three to four times a week.



You just have to be efficient.  You just have to make sure you’re not wasting your time on things like resting or breathing.  You just have to make sure you don’t spend precious energy on things like cardio.

You think I’m kidding, don’t you?  I am, but only a little bit!

Seriously, people waste so much time in the gym, it makes me want to buy them all a stopwatch!  “Here you go, set it for one minute intervals.  Every time it beeps, start lifting  something heavy.  Keep lifting until you can’t lift it anymore.  Rest until the timer beeps again.  Repeat for 40 minutes.”

But there’s a lot more to efficiency than just time management.  If you want to make the most of your hour in the gym, you have to know what you’re doing.  You have to choose the right exercises to meet your goals.  You have to balance your workouts.   You have to figure out how to jam a warm-up, some strength training, some muscle building, some fat burning, some cardio and some mobilization all into 60 fun filled minutes.  And, while you’re at it, you have to figure out how to brush off that guy who keeps asking you what you’re training for and then proceeds to tell you the full story on what he’s training for.

I think he likes you.


You know how, at home, you can talk on the phone, make your kid’s breakfast, drink a cup of coffee and vacuum the living room floor all at the same time?  No?  Me neither, but I’m a guy and apparently we’re not very good at multi-tasking.  Either that or we’re just lazy, which, apparently, we are very good at.  I digress.

In the gym, I am an excellent multi-tasker.  I am actually capable of fitting 4 workouts into a single 1 hour session.  I do a mobility workout, a muscle strengthening workout, a muscular endurance workout and a cardiovascular conditioning workout.  It helps, of course, that I have spent the last 12 years of my life figuring out the most effective means for accomplishing all this.

But its not rocket science!


***Just so you know, I will be doing in depth articles on each of the topics below in the near future***


A good warm-up is important.  It loosens your muscles so they don’t snap.  It lubricates your joints so they don’t crack. It  wakes up your nervous and  cardiovascular systems so your heart doesn’t pop.   Always  do your warm-up if you want to avoid the snap, crackle and pop!  But don’t waste 10 minutes walking on a treadmill or coasting on a bike.  Don’t tangle yourself into the stretching rack for 20 minutes and then complain that you aren’t getting any results from your workout. Athletes generally take about 10 minutes to do a very efficient warm up.  In that time they:

Do some dynamic mobility drills (things like shoulder circles, stride jumps, leg swings, inch worms)

Do some fascial work with a foam roller, a “stick” , a theracane, or any other implement they can find to torture themselves with. (I use a bowling ball)

Do a minimal amount of stretching on a few targeted muscles

Do some muscle activation work on targeted muscles (things like glute bridges or band walks for the glutes, face pulls or wall slides for the thoracic spine)


Traditional styles of cardiovascular training are quite simply not an efficient use of limited exercise time.  If you’ve got all the time in the world, then by all means, go ahead and do the hamster on the wheel thing.  Or, of course, if you are planning to participate in some kind of endurance competition, then endurance training will have to be a part of your preparation.  But if you are in the gym for the same reason as most people…looking better, feeling better, improving your health and getting stronger… then spending more than a few minutes at a time on a cardiovascular training machine is literally a waste of your workout time.

You could be doing so much more with your time!

Conventional wisdom says that you need to do steady state cardiovascular exercise at least 3 times per week for 20 to 30 minutes to improve your cardiovascular system and prevent heart disease.  Conventional wisdom says that working in the “fat burning heart rate zone” (usually about 60 to 70% of your maximum heart rate) is the most effective way of burning fat and losing weight.   Conventional wisdom says that “long slow cardio”  is the best tool for optimizing your Max V02 (a measurement of your body’s capacity to deliver and use oxygen when exercising).

Conventional wisdom should read some of the research done since the 70’s!

Circuit training, interval training and strength training accomplish all of the things listed above.  They do so at least as well and often much more effectively  than traditional cardiovascular training.  They do so without the loss of muscle mass and strength with which traditional cardio is associated.  They do so without the wear and tear on joints typical of traditional cardio.  They do so without the mind-numbing boredom of traditional cardio.   And while they do all this, they also develop power, work capacity, lean body mass and functional strength; four factors related to the degeneration of our ability to function optimally as we age.


I wish I could box jump like that!

Benchmarks, at least for the purpose of this conversation, are standards of strength, power and endurance that you can measure yourself against.  Make a list of 5 physical accomplishments you would like to realistically achieve.  If you want to be truly fit, you will choose 5 things from different realms of physical fitness.  Remember, though, that choosing benchmarks from opposing realms may make them impossible to achieve.  For example, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever run a 2 1/2 hour marathon and bench press 600 lbs on the same day.  Maybe in different lifetimes!

Here’s a hint:

If your goals are mostly about health, functionality and aesthetics, choose benchmarks which include body composition, muscular strength, muscular endurance and power.

Here are mine:

  1. Power: Box jump like the guy in the picture above
  2. Body composition: 15% body fat at 200 lbs body weight
  3. Strength: Dead Lift twice my body weight
  4. Endurance: Row 2000 metres in 6 min. 30 sec.
  5. Functionality: Snatch my body weight

Once you have set your bench marks, they will add focus and motivation to your workouts.  You will be striving for something!  You will have a base around which your workouts can be built.  You will be able to measure the effectiveness of your workouts.  You will be able to jump for joy when you hit one of your benchmarks (unless you’re legs are too tired)!


See what that woman is doing in the picture above?  It’s called a thruster,and it is one of the best ways to drive your heart rate through the roof!  Try doing thrusters for a minute and then we can discuss the conventional wisdom which states that  resistance training doesn’t tax the cardiovascular system.  The thruster is a classic compound movement.  Compound movements use most of the major muscle groups in the body either as agonists (working muscles) or as stabilizers.  In the thruster, for example, the glutes, quads, adductors and hamstrings are doing the squatting movement while the pecs, shoulders and triceps are doing the pushing movement.  The core is fully engaged to prevent you falling flat on either your back or your face.  And the lats, traps and rotator cuff are stabilizing the shoulder girdle so the bar doesn’t drop on your head.

No wonder your heart rate goes through the roof!

Compound movements are very versatile.  They can be used to develop strength and power if you use very heavy weight or very high speed of movement.  They can be used to develop muscle mass if you use a moderate weight with slower speed, moderate repetitions and focus on the eccentrics.  Or they can be used for muscular endurance and cardiovascular conditioning with light weights and very high repetitions.

Regardless of what you use them for, their benefit comes mainly from the large muscle mass working and stabilizing.  If nothing else (and believe me, there is a lot more to the benefits of compound movements) having all these muscles working means you are burning more calories while building more muscle.  If you don’t believe me, try doing three 1 minute bouts of biceps curls with a weight that you can barely curl for the first minute. If you have a heart rate monitor, record your heart rate at the end of each minute.   If you do it right, you’ll be breathing pretty hard at the end, and you will barely be able to lift your arms for a few hours…hope you’re not going to the pub that day.  The next day, and probably the day after, your arms will be pretty sore.

The next week, do the same protocol, but with thrusters.  Find a bench you can squat down to so your thighs are about parallel to the ground at the bottom.  Use a bar with very little weight on it (most men can probably use a 45lb bar…most women a 25lb bar).  Make sure to lock each rep out over your head and try to keep working for each whole minute.  Again, if you have a heart rate monitor, use it and record your heart rate.  Oh yeah, by the way, if you have any blood pressure issues at all…don’t do this workout! Let me know if the thrusters workout felt any different than the biceps curls workout.  But please don’t call me when you are in agony all over your body for the next 2 days!

Compound movements should make up at least 75% of your workout.

They make you strong.

They make you fit.

They make you functional.

There are literally hundreds of compound movements you can use.  Here’s a quick list of the common ones I use for myself and my clients:

Squats     Dead Lifts    Lunges    Thrusters    Push Presses    Burpees    Squat Rows    Swings         Sit and Press    High Pulls    Roll Outs


Even Curves uses circuit training.  Too bad they can’t afford any real weights!

Strength.  Muscular endurance.  Work capacity.  Metabolic conditioning.  Weight loss.  Mobility.

All of these can be efficiently developed through the use of this thing called circuit training.

Circuit training is quite simple, actually.  Decide on a bunch of exercises.  Decide on either a number of reps for each exercise (eg. 10 reps per exercise), or a time frame for each exercise (eg. perform each exercise for 30 seconds).  Decide if you want a rest period between exercises and, if so, decide on how long that rest period will be.  Decide on how many rounds you want to do, or perhaps decide on a length of time you want to continue doing the exercises for.  Finally, decide if you really want to do this after all!

Just so you’re clear what we’re talking about, here is one of my favourite circuits:

  • Lunge Jump
  • Squat Row
  • Burpee
  • Swing
  • Push Press

1 minute of each exercise with 20 seconds rest between exercises

Repeat for 3 rounds with 1 minute rest between rounds

Flexibility, variety, efficiency.  Those are the reasons I use circuit training.  If you look at the circuit above, there are an infinite number of possibilities.  I can load the exercises up with heavy resistance such that I can only get about 6 repetitions in a minute.  This would work on strength.  I can load them up with moderate resistance and get about 8 to 12 reps for muscle building.  Or I can load them up with light resistance and get about 20 to 30 reps for muscular endurance.  Regardless of which option I choose, I get a balanced full body workout.  I get a cardiovascular workout.  I get work capacity.  I get weight loss.

And I get all that in less than 20 minutes!


Here’s the thing about strength.  There are basically 2 factors in developing it.  You can get stronger by growing bigger muscles (this is called hypertrophy).  Or you can get stronger by making your muscles work more efficiently (this is called neuromuscular strength).  Body building styles of workouts tend to focus on making your muscles bigger (3 sets of 8 to 10 reps with a moderate weight, 60 seconds rest between sets, 3 or 4 exercises per body part).  Your muscles get bigger, and consequently you get stronger.  Strength and power training (4 to 8 sets of 1 to 6 reps, 2  to 3 minutes rest between sets, 2 or 3 exercises per workout) tend to make your brain more capable of recruiting the right muscle fibres at the right time so you can lift more weight or lift moderate weights more quickly.  Your muscles get stronger, which then allows them to get bigger.

Although this quick physiology lesson makes it sound like the 2 styles work independently of one another, this is far from the truth.  When you do resistance training of any type, you work both systems.  Its just the emphasis that’s different.  In fact, the two different training styles are intricately entwined.  The stronger you are, the more resistance you can use, the bigger your muscles will get.  The bigger your muscles get, the higher your potential for neuromuscular growth, the stronger you get.

Here’s the other thing about strength.  The stronger you are relative to your weight, the more work you can do in a workout, the more energy you can burn in a workout.  Look at it this way.  If, at 200 lbs body weight, I can lift 100 pounds off the ground and over my head (that’s about 8 feet) 10 times in a minute, then the power produced can be measured as:

Power = Force x Distance divided by Time

Power = 100 lbs x 8 ft divided by 1 min

Power = 800 foot pounds per minute  (somebody smarter than me can probably figure that out in watts)

Now, if I lose 10 lbs of fat and gain 10 lbs of muscle, I still weigh 200 lbs.  But since I’ve got bigger muscles and I have been building my neuromuscular strength, I can now lift 200 lbs off the ground and over my head 10 times in a minute.

Power = 200lbs x 8ft divided by 1 min

Power = 1600 foot pounds per minute

As you see, I’ve doubled the amount of work I can do in a minute.  Now, if I can maintain that rate of work for the entire workout, I have doubled my work capacity and, even better, doubled the amount of energy I can burn in the same workout.  Granted, unless I have really been training my metabolic system hard, I won’t be able to keep this rate up for a full workout.  But let’s say I can keep it up for half the workout.  Now I’ve used up the same amount of energy in half the time.  That’s called effeiciency.

See where I’m going with this?

The stronger you are, the more efficient your workouts will be!


Train like a sprinter, look like a sprinter!

Sprinters have by far the best body composition of any athletes.  Lots of lean body mass, hardly any fat.  Granted, there is probably a fair bit of genetic predisposition involved.  But still….it might be useful to know how they train:

  • Run as fast as you can for 5 to 10 seconds
  • Rest about 5 minutes
  • Run as fast as you can for 5 to 10 seconds
  • Rest about 5 minutes
  • Repeat about 10 more times
  • Go do some heavy lifting

That’s called interval training.

You don’t have to be a runner to get the benefits of interval training.  Just get on your favourite piece of cardio equipment.  Go as hard as you can for anywhere from 30 seconds to 2 minutes.  Rest anywhere from 1 to 2 minutes.  Repeat for about 15 to 20 minutes.  You have yourself an interval workout.

Interval training has been proven to be an extremely effective tool in the achievement of body composition goals.  It develops lean body mass, it promotes fat burning and it builds power.


Excessive range of motion will do you more harm than good!

At the end of your workout, stretch only the muscles that are tight.  Stretching is very important.  But beware of becoming a gumby!  Every muscle has an optimal length.  Muscles at optimal length provide optimal strength and stability.  Muscles which are too long are just as bad, if not worse, than muscles which are too short.  Overly stretched muscles contribute significantly to unstable joint mechanics.

For example, hamstring flexibility is ideal if you can lift the leg straight up to 90% without compensating by rounding the back or bending the knee.  Many people can’t do this, which means that if they try to squat or lunge or flex at the hip, the hamstring will tighten excessively and pull the pelvis around, curving their lumbar spine and making them susceptible to back injury.  On the other hand, people who practice excessive flexibility (yoga enthusiasts, dancers, and some people who are just plain hypermobile) can often bring their leg up to shoulder height without compensating (just so you know, the guy in the picture above is compensating significantly).  These people tend to have unstable hip joints and their hamstring laxity can be detrimental to keeping the hip joint stable when performing powerful movement.

The point is, don’t waste time stretching muscles that don’t need to be stretched.  If you are doing resistance training through a full range of motion with good form, then you are already getting lots of flexibility and mobility training.  The most important thing to watch out for is imbalances.  A person who has one tight hamstring and one loose hamstring, for example, is much more likely to get injured than a person who has two tight hamstrings.  So focus on inbalances first.  Then find out if you have any tight muscles which are interfering with your mobility and forcing you to compensate.  Focus on these muscles and only these muscles.

Mobility is good.

Being a Gumby is not good…don’t go there!


All that in how many minutes?

I know, I know.  There’s a lot to digest in here.  And no, I would not necessarily put all of the above in one workout.  Here’s how you put it together

  • Warm-up (every workout)
  • Strength and Power (2 or 3 workouts a week)
  • Circuit Training (2 to 3 workouts a week)
  • Interval Training (2 to 3 workouts a week)
  • Stretch (every workout)

Here’s a typical workout

  • Dynamic Warm-Up (10 minutes)
    • Stride Jumps, Shoulder Circles, Hip Rotations, Leg Swings, Inch Worms (3 minutes)
    • Fascial Release on adductors, hamstrings and hip flexors (3 minutes)
    • Glute bridges, reverse crunches and wall slides for activation (3 minutes)
  • Strength and Power (15 minutes)
    • Dead Lift (7 sets, working up to last 3 sets at max weight for 3 reps each)
      • pair this with:
    • Push Press (7 sets, working up to last 3 sets at max weight for 3 reps each)
  • Circuit Training (15 minutes) (strength and hypertrophy focus)
    • Lunge Jump for 8 reps per side with barbell on back
    • Squat Row for 8 reps
    • Burpee for 8 reps with Dumbbells
    • Swing for 8 reps with heavy kettlebell
    • Push Press for 8 reps
      • Perform 8 reps of each exercise back to back.  Rest 1 minute and repeat.  Rest 1 minute and repeat again.
  • Prehab and Mobilization (10 minutes)
    • Face Pull for 15 reps (thoracic mobility)
    • Static Side Lunge for 12 reps per side (hip mobility)
    • Reverse Crunch Leg Lowering for 12 reps (core stability)
      • Perform each exercise back to back for 3 sets with 1 minute rest between sets
  • Stretch (10 minutes)
    • hamstrings, calves, glutes, quads and hip flexors
    • thoracic spine stretch on foam roller

Not much time for resting…just enough time for breathing

Certainly no time for talking…not that you are going to want to!


Find a training partner or hire a personal trainer

I know that sounds a little self serving, but the truth is that you work out harder when you work out with somebody else.  A workout partner or trainer gets you out of bed and into the gym.  Once there, they give you help, motivation, competative drive and somebody to share your pain.  Well OK, trainers doen’t exactly share the pain, but at least they give you somebody to complain to (not that it will do you much good)!

It doesn’t have to be all the time.

Very few people have training partners faithful enough to come to the gym with them 4 times a week.  And even fewer can afford to hire a trainer 4 times per week.  And, in my opinion, there is good value in doing some of your workouts by yourself.  Much easier to focus, and you don’t end up compromising your goals with someone else’s goals.  But when it comes time to doing timed circuits or intervals, I can guarantee that you will get a few extra reps if you work out with someone else.  And those few extra reps are usually the ones that count the most!

So if you don’t have a trainer, find somebody to work out with, and share your toughest workouts with them.

One day, they may thank you.

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