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How To Build Any Body You Want in 20 Minutes a Day
By Jamie Millar | Jun 7, 2021
Despite what your iCal might suggest, time is not your enemy. The real problem is a lack of strategy. Whatever your fitness goal, you can make quick progress without depleting your downtime. We’ve assembled a squad of leading fitness minds to compile these ultra-efficient, 20-minute plans, fit for any target. Make every second count.
The Goal: Strength Endurance
Hang Tight For Longer
Want a scientific explanation? “Strength endurance is an effort of sub-maximal contraction, limited to a muscle’s ability to continue contracting over time,” says Michael Blevins of fitness think tank NonProphet. In other words, it’s “the ability to hold”. It explains why the muscles that fail first tend to be those involved in gripping, or the lower back.
Bodybuilding falls under strength endurance: the clue is the pump. So does Strongman, where the reps don’t push you to your max but nobody’s exactly doing cardio, either. Grip in climbing, posture in cycling: all strength endurance. When Blevins trains clients, he chooses a muscle group to “exploit”. Reps should be around 25-50 but can be higher. For an example of how it’s done, try Blevins’s workout below.
A1/ Ring push-up
This takes Blevins 20 minutes; scale it down if you need to, but not too much or you’ll lose the strength endurance effect. Rest as required. Sets must be unbroken. Grab the rings and assume a push-up position (A). Lower and push up (B).
A2/ Ring row
Adjust the rings and assume the reverse position (A). Keep your abs and glutes tensed and your shoulder blades retracted throughout. Think about pulling the rings to the sides of your chest and row yourself up (B).
A3/ KB clean and press
Hinge at your hips and grab a pair of kettlebells from the ground. Drive your hips forward and hike up the bells, tucking in your elbows, until the weights are resting at shoulder height (A). Squeeze your glutes and press the bells overhead (B). Drop and hike.
If you have 20 minutes: Bag big gains from grains
Here’s a quick muscle hack that will deliver gains in the long term. Making your own sandbag will more than repay your small investment of time and money, says fitness writer Andrew Tracey.
Get hold of a 20kg builder’s bag, or buy a couple of 10kg kid’s bags to load into any sturdy backpack. If the straps are strong enough, you can clean and press or swing it, while a tough tote – a “sand manbag” – will allow you to work unilaterally. But masking-taped bin liners (doubled up, if necessary), gardening rubble sacks and actual non-workout sandbags will deliver the goods, too.
The Goal: Max Strength
Stronger, Faster, Harder, Better
Strength is “the master quality”, says strength coach Dan John, who broke the US record for the throws pentathlon. Put another way, if other qualities are liquids, strength is the cup.
John focuses on the five foundational movements – push, pull, hinge (the deadlift or swing, for example), squat and loaded carries – with tension, so they’re effectively “moving planks”. Then it’s about progressing – say, from a goblet to an overhead squat – and increasing your load. He favours sets of five. “It works, and I’m not going to mess with it.” Take on this sample workout, resting as needed. With only 20 minutes’ effort, you’ll be “hauling balls”. So to speak.
A/ Military press
(2 sets of 5 reps)
Hold a pair of dumbbells above your shoulders (A), then press them above you (B). Ensure that you don’t flare your ribcage or arch your back. Lower.
(2 sets of 5 reps)
Hang from a bar with an overhand grip (A). Pull your shoulder blades down and drive your elbows behind your back until your chin clears the bar (B).
C/ Trap bar deadlift
(2 sets of 5 reps)
Your shins in line with the weights, hinge at your hips and grab the handles (A). Lift with your legs and squeeze your glutes at the top (B).
D/ Goblet squat
(2 sets of 5 reps)
Hold a dumbbell to your chest with both hands (A). Squat until your elbows brush your knees (B). Keep your upper body upright throughout.
E/ Suitcase carry
Loaded carries have been the biggest game changer in John’s 40 years of coaching. Hold the heaviest bell you can manage (A) and walk for as long as your grip lasts. Switch sides (B).
The Goal: True Mobility
Bends With Benefits
Ryan Hurst, gymnast turned founder of GMB Fitness, advocates longer mobility sessions: “But even 15 minutes is fine”. This will train your spine and trunk to handle dynamic forces.
A1/ Kneeling lunge
(3 x 10 pulses followed by 30-60sec hold)
Stride into a lunge (A). Push your hips and bend into your front knee (B). Move in and out 10 times; hold. Do three, then switch sides.
A2/ Quadruped side bend
(3 x 10 pulses followed by 30-60sec hold)
Kneel with your arms out (A). Bend to one side; feel a stretch (B). Move in and out 10 times, hold. Do three, then switch sides.
B1/ The bear
(1-5 x 1min)
This stretches your hamstrings while building your shoulder and arm strength. On your hands and knees, push your glutes into the air (A). Walk your right hand and left foot forward (B), then the opposite side. Keep your glutes high.
B2/ The monkey
(1-5 x 1min)
Squat with hands down on one side (A). Lean on your arms. Pull your legs to the side; squat. Every two reps, change direction (B).
B3/ The frogger
(1-5 x 1min)
Squat. Place your hands on the floor (A). Lean onto your arms and push down as you pull forward. Finish in a squat (B).
If you have 10 minutes: Rest your Eyelids
There are sound reasons why elite athletes nap. “They do it to catch up on lost sleep from early starts, to prepare for an upcoming late night, or because they enjoy it,” says Luke Gupta, lead sleep scientist at the English Institute of Sport.
Studies show that napping enhances sprinting, jumping and the learning of motor skills, and can temporarily lower stress hormones such as cortisol. The effects of napping for 30-60 minutes last longer, but 10 minutes can boost cognitive function. Your ideal nap duration depends on whether you want to replace lost sleep or ready yourself to perform.
Afternoon is prime nap time: your body temperature dips between 1-4pm.
The Goal: Muscle Growth
Put the “Hyper” Into Hypertrophy
“Hypertrophy” is a fancy word for “building muscle”. It involves “effectively damaging the muscle in order for it to grow back bigger”, says Shaun Stafford, director of City Athletic and former beanpole-turned-WBFF World Fitness Champion.
Stafford’s formula for growth is to lift at 80 per cent or more of your max for 45-70 seconds for each of your three or four sets per exercise. That works out at 8-12 reps, each lasting five seconds. If you want to cram enough metabolic stress to trigger growth into 20 minutes, Stafford recommends targeting a single muscle group. A weekly split might be: chest, back, rest; legs, arms and abs, rest; active recovery. (Leave 48-72 hours before hitting the same group again.)
A/ Bench press
(4 sets of 8 reps, 90sec rest)
With a dumbbell in each hand, retract and depress your shoulder blades and squeeze your glutes. Lower to your chest (A), then press up (B).
B/ Incline DB Press
(3 sets of 10 reps, 60sec rest)
Set up with the bench at an incline (A). Driving your glutes and shoulders into the bench, press the weights above you (B). Lower as far as is comfortable.
C/ Weighted dip
(3 sets of 10 reps, 60sec rest)
Wear a dip belt, or hold a bell between
your feet (A). Leaning forward, flare your elbows and lower yourself (B). Pause at the bottom, then drive up.
D1/ Chest fly
(3 sets of 12 reps)
Lie on a bench with a pair of dumbbells held high above your chest. Lower until you feel a stretch (A), then return (B). Don’t let the weights touch.
(3 sets of AMRAP, 60sec rest)
Drop and give us AMRAP. Get into a high plank, with your shoulder blades retracted. Lower your chest to the ground (A), then push up (B).
The Goal: Cardio
Running (Further) On Fumes
Cardio endurance is your ability to gather and deliver oxygen; stamina is your ability to utilise energy. They’re linked but they’re not the same, says Jason Donaldson, director at WA-based performance training company Shift. This workout will zero in on the former.
You need cardiovascular endurance for stamina because you need oxygen for energy. So, you have to take in sufficient air, use the oxygen in it and deal with the carbon dioxide build-up, says Donaldson. For this, your training should be aerobic, rather than anaerobic: if you can breathe through your nose every five seconds, you’re aerobic training. “When you head into anaerobic threshold territory, your breath rate increases,” Donaldson says.
On an AirBike or stationary bike, ride as far as you can in 20 minutes. Breathe once through your nose every five seconds; this will ensure you remain aerobic. Get into the rhythm – in for two, out for three – by watching the clock at first, then check periodically. Stop and breathe normally if necessary: Shift’s CrossFit Games athletes say this is one of the hardest workouts they’ve ever done.
If you have 20 minutes: Add Weight to Your Plate
Meal prep doesn’t have to be time-consuming to be effective. Dishing up 35g of protein, 8g of fibre and anti-inflammatory spices, this post-workout meal ticks every box
(Makes 5 portions)
• canned chickpeas, 250g
• Cumin, A pinch
• Harissa paste, 1tsp
• TAhini, 1tsp
• Lemon, ½, juiced
• Garlic cloves, 2
• Chicken breasts, 4, in chunks
• Cherry tomatoes, 200g
• Paprika, A pinch
• Wholemeal pitta bread, 5
• Pine nuts, A handful
• feta, a block, crumbled
0-5min: Purée the chickpeas, a teaspoon of olive oil, cumin, harissa, tahini, lemon juice and garlic to make hummus. (Buy pre-made to reduce to 15 mins.)
5-10min: Mix the chicken with the tomatoes and paprika, adding a dash of oil. Alternate chunks of chicken with tomatoes on skewers.
10-15min: Grill your skewers for four to five minutes each side, until cooked through.
15-20min: Ready to eat? Spread hummus in a pitta. Assemble along with pine nuts and feta.
If you have 5 minutes: Suffer The Humane Way
A go-to for John when he’s short on time, the “humane burpee” was devised by powerlifter and former firefighter Dan Martin.
It’s “humane” because the reps decrease, so you can go hard from start to finish, and no actual burpees are involved, rather the kettlebell movements mimic the component parts of a traditional burpee. Perform 15 swings, five goblet squats and five push-ups. On each of the four remaining rounds, reduce the goblet squats and push-ups by one. Complete all five rounds and 105 reps in four minutes or under, with perfect form and minimal – or no – rest.
The Goal: peak power
Warning: Explosive Material
In physics, power is work done divided by time taken. “But in non-geek speak, power can be defined as ‘lifting things quickly’,” says strength and conditioning coach Tony Gentilcore, who trains baseball players and others to change direction and strike an object – or person – with velocity. Sport moves fast. You should too.
Power requires strength and speed. Most people find it easiest to get stronger, says Gentilcore. Another component of developing power is plyometric training, which employs the “stretch-shortening cycle”: think pulling and releasing an elastic band. He also advocates ballistic training, which just means throwing, say, a medicine ball really far or hard.
A/ High-knee skip
(3 sets of 20 metres, 60sec rest)
This will prime your nervous system and increase your power. Skip with your knees high (A) and your arms tight, with your elbows bent at 90° (B), as if you’re sprinting. Minimise your ground contact time.
B/ Skater jump
(3 sets of 5 reps (per leg), 60sec rest)
Stand on your right foot and sink into that hip, bending your other leg (A). Launch as far and as high as you can to the left.
Land on your left foot and sink into that
hip (B). Repeat.
C1/ Front squat
(5 sets of 3-5 reps, 20sec rest)
A powerful posture corrector. Spin your elbows under a bar so it rests on your shoulders (A). Set your feet and sit back, pushing your knees out (B). Drive back up and finish with the glutes.
C2/ Med ball throw
(5 sets of 3-5 reps, 90-120sec rest)
Holding a med ball, squat (A). Explode up off the ground while you throw the ball at a target (B). If you don’t have a ball, or somewhere safe to throw it, perform a box jump instead.
However long you have: Record, Repeat, Beat
If you’re not tracking your progress, you’re not really training – and you’re probably not progressing, either. For a solid idea of where you are, Tracey likes “density blocks”. Perform as many reps of one or two movements as you can in a given time, then try to beat that at a later date. Cleared it by a healthy margin? Then increase the difficulty. You won’t just see improvements on paper: “The version of you that can do 50 burpee pull-ups in five minutes will look quite different to the version that takes 15 minutes”.
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