Maximizing Time in the Gym

One of the more difficult truths about getting stronger is that you will have to perform more work over time to continue getting stronger. This necessary increase in training volume should be gradual and occur over long periods of time, but rest assured, getting strong takes time. This has implications for both the athlete and the coach. The athlete probably doesn’t have all day and the coach would need to charge exceeding higher coaching rates if he/she had to spend 2-3 hours with an athlete. This is neither practical nor desirable.

Killing Time

In the black-iron gym business, Brentwood Barbell continues to grow slowly but steadily. We are now managing more athletes than ever before and our clients range from 11 to nearly 80 years old. They all perform some type of squat, press, and pull strength work as well as various GPP and conditioning modalities. As a coach and business owner, I’ve had to get smarter over time. This job is a constant evolution and I continue to be challenged and grow every day. An issue we are constantly tackling is: time needed to complete strength training sessions. This issue has both business and client implications so it’s an important one to figure out and manage as best one can. You’ll notice most gyms have aimed to solve this issue by running circuits or boot camp style programs they pass off as “strength training”. It’s not strength training, nor are any of those coaches strong. So, while keeping our time requirements to a minimum is of maximal concern, what is not OK is bastardizing the strength training process itself to the point where no one is actually getting strong.

Let’s get into it …

Strategy #1 (Planning the Work Ahead of Time)

I can’t overstate the importance of knowing what you’re doing BEFORE walking into the gym. At our gym, all novice athletes should know exactly what they are doing … it’s 2.5 to 5 lbs heavier than their previous session. To speed things up even further, I would recommend writing out your planned warm ups and work sets in advance. You can write down the weights for each set in advance and then fill in the actual reps during the workout. This speeds folks up quite a lot and prevents a good deal of “mis-loading” of the bar.

Once a novice athlete has completed his/her linear progression, they will move onto fully auto-regulated strength training. Meaning, they’ll be incorporating RPE into their program and will need to “find” weights for each day. RPE-based training is not an excuse to walk into the gym unprepared. It’s very simple to calculate what you think you will be doing that day and then adjust as you actually complete the session. Let’s walk through an example.

Bill is scheduled to squat on Friday afternoon @ 4:30 pm (that’s the class he regularly attends). To get prepared for his training, Bill looks in his log book to put together his plan. Bill is no longer a novice and is now 3 weeks into a developmental block.

Bill’s Squat Prescription for Friday: 5 reps x 1 set @9, 5 reps x 2 sets (-5%).

What should Bill do? The prescription doesn’t tell him how much weight he will be squatting for the day? It’s quite easy, Bill will look to his log book for the answer. He checks his last Fri squat session (exactly 1 week prior), where he squatted 6 reps x 1 set @9. Bill hit 315 that day for a really hard set of 6.

Let’s calculate Bill’s estimated 1RM (315 / .81) using the RPE and percents chart. You’ll see, based on Bill’s performance a week prior, his estimated 1RM is ~ 388 lbs. This is excellent information to use heading into his session today. Bill guesses he can likely add 2 lbs to his estimated 1RM. Bills thinks his current estimated 1RM is 390 lbs.

Bill is scheduled to hit 5 reps x 1 @9. Using our RPE and percents chart, this equates to 83%. Bill simply takes .83 * 390 = 323. So … Bill’s target weight for the day is 323 x 5 @9. He has a plan. Here is how Bill’s session would likely go:

Squat Prescription: 5 reps x 1 set @9, 5 reps x 2 sets (-5%)

  • Empty Bar x 15 reps
  • 135 x 5
  • 225 x 5
  • 275 x 5
  • 322.5 x 5 reps @9 (ding ding ding, nailed it)
  • 305 x 5 reps @8
  • 305 x 5 reps @9

This work can (and should) be completed in under 30 minutes. This first few times an athlete has to make these calculations they usually complain, but as they get better they begin to see the value in auto-regulation. Ironically, everyone want’s a program “made for their special snowflake needs”, yet they grumble when they have to do some work that actually does customize the program specifically to them, their fatigue, their training readiness, and their current strength levels. Get over it and crunch the numbers in advance. You’ll be kicking more ass in the gym than most of your friends in no time.

Now that Bill knows how to calculate his work AHEAD of TIME, he can use that information along with HOW MUCH TIME he actually has to train.

Strategy #2 (Budgeting Total Training Time)

At Brentwood Barbell, our classes are 90 minute blocks and most sessions consist of 3 movements (squat, press, and pull variation done for 1-4 work sets each). This would equate to about 30 minutes per lift if using the full 90 minutes to train. However, Bill doesn’t have 90 minutes today … he has 75 minutes. Let’s look at Bill’s session for today and see what we can do.

Training 4/12

  • (Primary) Competition Squat: 5 reps x 1 set @9, 5 reps x 2 sets (-5%)
  • (Assistance) Pin Bench Press (@ chest level): 3 reps x 1 set @9, 3 reps x 2 sets (-5%)
  • (Supplemental) Trap Bar Dead Lift: 10 reps @9 x 1 set

Let’s look at it again. You’ll see a Primary, Assistance, and Supplemental Lift. We’ve already taken the time to prioritize the session for you. They run in order of most to least important. Or, said a better way … in order from what you should spend the most time on down to what you should spend the least time on. Using Bill’s 75 minutes, his session now looks like this:

  • Priority Lift (competition squat) will get 30 minutes of work today
  • Assistance Lift (pin bench press @ chest level) will get 20 min of work today
  • Supplemental Lift (trap bar dead lift) will also get 20 min of work today

Sure, Bill would like to spend more time on each lift but it’s not an option. What he’s done is absolutely made the most of his time constraints by developing a plan ahead of time and then budgeting his time accordingly. There’s one final strategy to really get Bill moving along.

Strategy #3 (Warm Up Fast to Work Slow)

At our gym we have blue magnetic timers hanging on our racks, leg presses, sleds, incline benches, and pull down machines. They’re everywhere and aim to serve as a “not so subtle reminder” to move your ass. We’re here to train, get some work done and move on with our day. In addition to (1) planning ahead, and (2) budgeting his time, Bill also needs to move quickly during his session. We’re going to recommend that Bill warm up with very little rest so he can take longer rests between his work sets. How long should you rest? between work sets depends on why the exercise is in your program. For strength work (exercises like squats, presses, pulls, and close barbell variations), we recommend 3-5 minutes of rest. Strength work is about increased force production, not being sweaty and out of breath so we take our time and recover completely between sets. Once again, let’s look at Bill’s squat session for this Friday:

Squat Prescription

  • Empty Bar x 15 reps
  • 135 x 5 (no rest, load bar and go)
  • 225 x 5 (no rest, load bar and go)
  • 275 x 5 (rest 3 min, getting close to target weight)
  • 322.5 x 5 reps @9 (hard set, rest a full 5 min to recover)
  • 305 x 5 reps @8 (easier, rest 4 min before last set)
  • 305 x 5 reps @9 (set timer for 3 min and get equipment set up for next lift of the day)

How long did that take? About 30 minutes total. As you can see, I do not advocate resting much between warm up sets … they’re warm up sets. Your rest is the amount of time it takes to load the bar with the next warm up weight. Bill should, however, start adding in some rest as fatigue starts to accumulate. Somewhere around the the last 1-2 warm ups you’ll start needing a bit of rest (not 5 minutes).

Quite frankly, 75 minutes IS ENOUGH time for Bill to get his session in for the day. By using the 3 strategies we’ve discussed here, his training economy has skyrocketed and he’s no doubt on his way to GainzZzville!

Talk soon,