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Workouts For The Time Poor

By Krista Scott-Dixon

Feminist joke about unpaid domestic labour:

A man takes his wife to see a marriage counselor. “She’s just not interested in sex,” he explains to the counselor. “She always says that she’s tired.”

“Well,” responds the counselor, “why don’t you try taking on some of the housework?” The husband agrees to do this, and off the couple goes.

A month later the wife brings the husband back to the counselor’s office, and says, “He’s just not interested in sex. He always says that he’s tired.”

*cymbal crash*

What can I say? Feminists aren’t known for their humour. Here is the only other feminist joke I know:

Q. How many feminists does it take to change a light bulb?
A. That’s not funny.

And I have a PhD in Women’s Studies. Lawyers and golfers in the crowd, if you have any spare jokes you’re not using, send them our way because we desperately need them.

Anyway, the point is that if you’re a woman, and if you’re reading this site then you probably are, there’s a darn good chance that you’re doing a whole lot of things that are keeping you busy. Although more women are in the paid labour force than ever, and although men are taking on more responsibilities in the home, women are still the primary domestic labourers for their families – which means that they often do, on average, between 20 to 30 hours per week of unpaid housework and caregiving (2001 Canadian Census data). This is like taking on another job! This situation is particularly dire for women who are employed full-time and between ages 25 and 44, which are the prime child-bearing and -rearing years for North American women. Interestingly, as women’s hours of paid labour increase, their hours of unpaid labour don’t decrease significantly. It all just keeps adding up.

It’s become a bit of cliché now to talk about how time stressed and busy one is. Partly this is because in North America and the UK, full-time workers are working longer hours than a generation ago (and in laissez-faire continental Europe, long a fan of two-hour lunches and six-week vacations, work hours are on the rise again too). Partly this is because many of our lives revolve around working in geographically idiotic patterns requiring driving long distances to our jobs. Maybe you have kids, although like Wendy in the photo to the right, you can lift them too. Maybe, like me, you need nine hours of sleep a night to feel human. Whatever your reasons for time stress, the fact remains that you need to figure out how to make exercise a priority.

Although I’m not a medical resident nor a parent of young children, I still think I can speak with some authority on the issue of time pressure. My commute to work takes 45 to 60 minutes. During the summer months, I can cycle that distance in just over an hour, which makes that time spent more pleasantly efficient. I work full-time in a job that often demands more than a 9 to 5 commitment. I am often expected to work early mornings, weekends, and evenings. On top of this, I teach undergraduate courses. I see training clients. I am trying to finish another book and the obligatory articles that are part of the conditions for keeping my job. If I don’t allocate time to take care of myself, I am going to be in some deep trouble healthwise.

One thing I’ve found over the years from surveying students and clients is that most people use time inefficiently. Students who complain about workload might actually spend only 20 hours a week doing schoolwork. An effective tool to discover where time is spent is a time diary. Try keeping one for a week to find out how you spend your time. It might be something like: wake up 7 am, get ready for work 7 to 8 am, commuting 8-8:30, etc. What you will very likely find is that there are several hours a week that are being used wastefully.

After all, there are 7 days in a week. That means 168 total hours. Let’s subtract sleeping 8 hours per day, and working full-time (40 hours) plus an assumed 1.5 hours per day for commuting, 3 hours per day for making and eating meals, and 1 hour for bathing and dressing. By my calculation, there are still 33.5 hours left in that week. Surely, somewhere in there, we can all find 3 hours to get some activity, especially if we do it in 30 min chunks, 6 days per week.

Now, I’m not opposed to constructive time wasting. We all need time to do nothing. But if I had to guess, I’d say that most folks could find a lot of productive time if they cut down on TV and/or the internet. Surfing websites of slash fiction and chimp porn, or sucking in endless braying commercials in between brief bouts of vacuous laugh tracks isn’t making you smarter anyway. Once you have your weekly time diary, look at it honestly and critically. Where do you absolutely have to put in time, and what time is negotiable? We always manage to find time for things that we think are priorities. Often, finding time for exercise means that you re-evaluate what you think are priorities.

In my case, I drew the following conclusions.

1. Early morning is the only time that I can really control. Evenings are much harder to plan, as I may be called on to work late, or the bus may be slow because of the snow, or I may need to pick up groceries for dinner, or whatever. Sometimes I’m so tired when I get home that all I want to do is drool on myself while eating a reheated salmon puck over the sink.

2. Early morning is also a better time to work out than evening, since as I said, I need nine hours of sleep and working out in the evenings just gears me up too much. Plus I can chug coffee before a morning workout. This plan also requires me to be smart about getting to bed early enough. Most of the time I’m not doing anything particularly brilliant at 10 pm anyway, so I might as well be snoring.

3. I have more time on weekends than on weekdays. That means I deliberately allocate the most time-heavy workouts for the two weekend days.

To solve the time crunch, I resolved to work out more, rather than less, frequently! This may sound crazy but bear with me. Going to the gym for a long workout might take 2 hours. Doing a few well-chosen exercises at home with dumbbells would take much less time. Working out less frequently would mean that each workout was less negotiable; if I missed a long workout due to last-minute commitments then my schedule would be really messed up. More frequent but shorter workouts seemed to be the perfect solution.

Emerging research is suggesting that the old style of bodybuilding workouts-the pump til you puke, blast a bodypart then let it rest for a week-is less effective for both strength and mass gains, as well as overall fitness, than more frequent workouts where intensity is cycled. So working out more frequently, using shorter workouts, was actually a better idea anyway.

I came up with the following workout ideas. I should mention that I have a very minimal setup for my home gym. I have only a pair of adjustable dumbbells (handles, collars, and a handful of weight plates), a jump rope, a few square feet of floor space in the living room (I have to push the couch out of the way to jump rope), and an egg timer (for timing intervals). Later, as I mention, I added a bar and a sledgehammer. This setup nevertheless allowed me to do a wide range of movements. I have only listed a few ideas below, but you can use your imagination. You do not need a fancy setup to get a good home workout. Ideas for bodyweight exercises and low-tech dumbbell exercises can be found herehere, and here.

I trained daily, sometimes twice daily if I felt energetic and had the time. Sometimes I’d break one workout into two parts, doing 10 or 15 min in the morning and 10 or 15 min in the evenings. Sometimes I’d combine an A workout in the morning with a C workout in the evening. I usually take one or two days off per week, but rarely feel like I need those rest days (which is good). On rest days, I’ll do some moderate “recovery” cardio such as walking.

Workout Ideas

Workouts are divided into A, B, and C workouts. An A workout is the heaviest workout, often done at the gym if I’m using the power cage. A workouts use heavier weight and shorter sets. Good exercises for A workouts are squats, weighted pullups, deadlifts, presses, and rows. If you can do Olympic lifts or their assistance lifts, those work well too.

B workouts are strength-endurance, conditioning-type workouts. These can be done with bodyweight-only exercises such as pushups and jumps, high-rep weighted ballistic exercises such as kettlebell / dumbbell / sledgehammer swings, sandbag carries, and hybrid exercises such as squat + press combos. Again, if you know your Olympic and OL assistance lifts (as well as their dumbbell variations), feel free to use them here as well with lighter weight.

A C workout is an interval cardio-type workout, or even just a moderate cardio “recovery” workout. Here I might run sprints or up hills/stairs, jump rope, shadow box or hit a heavy bag, etc.

Don’t get too focused on carefully sorting your exercises or being perfect with categorization. Do what you can with what you have available and be creative. These are just ideas — use your imagination. Depending on how you organize it, an A workout can easily have a B component to it, etc.

Each workout takes no more than 30 minutes, and B or C workouts are usually about 20 minutes. It doesn’t matter if each workout isn’t a maximal effort; indeed, more frequent workouts are necessarily sub-maximal because they are so frequent. At no time do I attempt to work to failure. Indeed, I deliberately try to leave a couple of reps “in the tank” on every set. This improves recovery, which is key for more frequent workouts.

Sample A Workout

Squat 3 to 5 sets x 5 reps (2 warmup sets, 3 working sets)
Pullups (weighted if possible) 3 x 5
Standing barbell overhead press 3 x 5
Weighted ab or low back exercise of choice exercise 2 x 8-10

Sample A Workout 2

Sumo deadlift 3 to 5 sets x 5 reps (2 warmup sets, 3 working sets)
Unsupported dumbbell row (rather than using a bench, squat down a little bit and place the nonlifting hand or forearm on your knee): 3 x 5
One-hand side press 3 x 5
Weighted ab or low back exercise of choice 2 x 8-10

Sample A Workout 3: “I Can’t Believe It’s A Workout!”

Alternate these two exercises for the allotted time, or 5 “rounds”, whichever you prefer:

  1. Rotating one-hand dumbbell deadlift: grab a heavyish dumbbell. Place it on the floor beside you, on your right hand side. Squat down and grab it with your right hand. Stand up (using good deadlift form of course!). Squat down and place it in front of you, between your feet. Switch hands to grab the dumbbell with your left hand. Stand up. Squat down and place the dumbbell on your left side. Keep hanging on to it with your left hand. Stand up. Squat down and place it between your feet again. Switch to the right hand. Stand up. Squat down and replace the dumbbell on the right side. That’s one cycle. Go for 2 to 5 cycles per “set”.
  2. One-hand side windmill press. With dumbbell, kettlebell or barbell at your shoulder, press to the side as you descend into the “windmill” position. Keeping arm straight, stand up. Lower your body again, still keeping arm straight. Stand up again. Lower the weight to your shoulder. That’s one rep. Do 2 to 5 per set.

Sample B Workout 1

Circuit: go through in order for the allotted time or number of sets:

  • 5 to 10 horizontal pullups (you can do these using the underside of a sturdy table if you don’t mind your family wondering what the hell you’re doing in the dining room; just lie under the table with head underneath and legs sticking out, and grab the table’s edge with an underhand grip)
  • 5 to 10 pushups
  • 10 to 15 unweighted squats, pistols, or squat jumps, whichever you fancy

Sample B Workout 2, aka “Gone in 30 seconds”

  1. Pick a complex lift. I use cleans. Another good option if you don’t know how to clean a barbell would be a dumbbell deadlift + squat + press. To do this one, use two dumbbells. Set them on the floor on each side of you. Squat down with good form and grab the dumbbells. Stand up. Your palms should be facing your body. Hitch the dumbbells up to your shoulders (try not to curl them, but if you do a little that’s cool). Squat down again, with the dumbbells at your shoulders. Stand up. Press the dumbbells overhead. That’s one rep. Between reps, put the dumbbells back down on the floor. As you progress, you might need to add a little leg drive to get those dumbbells off your shoulders. That’s OK.
  2. Start a timer.
  3. Do one rep every 30 seconds for the allotted time — 15-20 min is good.

Sample B Workout 3, aka “Sultan of Swing”

Alternate 25 swings (dumbbell, kettlebell, or weight plate) with 25 squat + press combos. Rest 30-45 sec between sets. Go for 5 cycles total or your choice of allotted time.

Sample C Workout 1

Circuit: done in order 2 to 3 times

  • Jump rope 30 to 60 seconds
  • Pushups as many reps as possible
  • Jump rope 30 to 60 seconds
  • Dumbbell or kettlebell swing 15-20 reps
  • Jump rope 30 to 60 seconds
  • Boxing practice: “sets”

Sample C Workout 2

Alternate 100 m sprints (walk back) with 20 sledgehammer swings per side for 15-20 minutes. For extra fun find a hill or long set of stairs and put the sledgehammer at the top. Run up, do your swings, walk down, repeat.

The Lifestyle Component

I also try to get lots of daily life activity, mostly walking. This isn’t too hard, as my university campus is like a small city (60,000 people or so). As many evenings as possible, I take the long way home from the subway, which gives me a nice twenty minute walk – great for unwinding at the end of the workday. I also like to do a form of cardio called “I’m late”. I’m not really late, but I scurry as if I were. Once the subway gets to my stop, I bolt up several flights of stairs to the bus. This has side benefits: it means that I do get where I’m going more quickly, and it means I can get the seat I want as I leave the crowd in my dust. This adds no real additional time commitment to my day. In the summer, as I mentioned, I try to commute to work by bike as often as possible. With the added time and energy load of bike commuting, I’ll cut down the weights a little, and probably eliminate C workouts.

So far I’ve been doing this for many months, and it’s going pretty well. I have lots of energy and feel good. Getting up in the morning and doing these workouts is kind of challenging some days, but I don’t think “Oh, I have to get up and work out.” I think, “All I have to do is make it to the coffeemaker.” I don’t worry about what comes after the coffee. I just take baby steps. And thank god for a coffeemaker with a timer! I get added motivation from recording my favourite TV shows and watching them as I work out. If I work out, I get to spend 20 min with the CSI crew or watching the guys beat each other up on Ultimate Fighter. Once I work out, fortified by java and Gil Grissom, I always feel great. Better yet, I don’t spend my workday worrying about when I’ll be able to get away and work out. I also don’t have to exercise the kind of willpower that is necessary when it’s 6 pm, I’m tired and sitting on the subway, and the temptation to just go home is overwhelming. All I have to do is make it to the gym one day a week, and I’m set.

Oh yeah, by the way, I wrote this by doing another trick: combining activities. I wrote this while watching TV!

For more info on Krista Scott-Dixon, visit her website at:


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