Going to the gym isn’t always as easy as it sounds. If you face a long commute to or from work, have a stressful atmosphere at home, or simply can’t seem to juggle your schedule, it’s all too easy for physical activity to turn into an afterthought.
What, then, comes of your desire to build muscle or get in shape? You might think gaining muscle a fool’s errand if you’ve got less than an hour to hit the iron. Fortunately, this couldn’t be further from the truth.
It may not be strictly optimal, but you can still make progress in the gym (or even at home) in almost no time if you’re smart about it. Give these workouts a shot — they’re all but guaranteed to get you on the gain train in 20 minutes or less, or your money back.
20-Minute Hypertrophy Workouts
Workout 1 — Upper Body at the Gym
Having access to a fully-stocked commercial gym can be both a blessing and a curse if you’re short on time. While there are plenty of tools at your disposal to make the most out of your training, you can also fall prey to paralysis by analysis if you don’t stay focused.
The best way to get a lot done in little time is to streamline your process. You shouldn’t waste any time crossing the gym floor to get to a piece of equipment on the far side if you can help it. Moreover, choosing exercises that feed into each other will shave some downtime as well.
How to Progress
To make more gains, you have to increase your intensity or volume in a way that doesn’t tack on minutes to the workout. Therefore, you should look to improve the density of your training by trimming rest periods when possible — as long as your lifts don’t suffer from your being out of breath.
If you can’t cut your rest time down, conservatively add weight to the first two supersets when possible, but don’t try to tack on extra pounds to both movements in the same pair at the same time.
Workout 2 — Upper Body at the Gym with Dumbbells
You can easily end up in a perilous predicament if you arrive at the gym on the clock to find all the squat racks taken. If this sounds all too familiar to you, don’t be afraid to look towards the dumbbell rack instead. Dumbbells are among the most versatile and convenient pieces of equipment available to you in the gym.
As long as the space isn’t too busy, you can get a solid workout in under 20 minutes just by rotating out the dumbbells you’re working with. You will, however, have to rely on supersets and cluster work to get it done.
Note: Perform all exercises in this cluster with dumbbells and limit your rest between exercises. Perform all movements to technical failure and stop when your form significantly deteriorates.
How to Progress
You should only increase the weight you’re working with when you can do so for both exercises in the superset. If one movement in the pair is too easy at the prescribed repetitions, perform the harder lift first and then add extra reps to the easier subsequent exercise. This will prevent you from having to get up and change out the weights you’re using during the superset.
Workout 3 — Lower Body at the Gym
Getting a good leg day in under 20 minutes is a tall order, but it can be done. Unfortunately, you won’t have the time to wait for a squat rack and then go through your favorite lower body dynamic warm-up. Your leg days are going to have to be quick, dirty, and leave you breathless.
If you stay out of the squat rack, the dumbbells are going to have to come to your rescue once again. Fortunately, it’s easy to transition between lower body exercises with dumbbells. Machines are also a huge asset here.
- Goblet Squat superset B-Stance* Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift: 3×8-12 each
- Dumbbell Walking Lunge: 50 total steps in as few sets as possible
- Leg Extension: 2×15, with two drop sets
- Leg Curl: 2×15, with two drop sets
Note: Your “B-Stance” means putting a majority of your weight into one leg and taking a half step back with your other leg. Leave your non-working leg on the ground behind you, but think of it as a kickstand that helps support your balance rather than lifting the load.
How to Progress
You’ll have to get creative to make progress with complex exercise sequences. On your superset, focus on limiting transition time between moves. During your lunges, gradually try to hit your step count in fewer total sets. When it comes to machine work, go all out with your intensity on each rep and lean into the discomfort of the drop sets.
Workout 4 — Upper Body at Home
At times, a compressed schedule means you can’t get to the gym at all. This will indeed hamper some of your efforts to gain muscle mass, but don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There are ways to make lemonade at home, even if you don’t have a fully-furnished garage gym.
You’ll have to rely on calisthenics at least in part if you want to get some valid hypertrophy training in a short period of time at home. Fortunately, your body only recognizes effort — if you push yourself hard enough, you can have a productive training session without the barbell.
- Resistance Band Push-Up: 4 sets at RPE7*, then one set to failure
- Pull-Up: 4 sets at RPE7, then one set to failure
- Chair Dip: 50 total reps in as few sets as possible
- Resistance Band Curl: 50 total reps in as few sets as possible
Note: RPE refers to your Rate of Perceived Exertion. An RPE value of seven means that you’ve left roughly three more reps in the tank on that set before hitting failure.
How to Progress
Making progress with bodyweight exercises is all about rep count and pain tolerance. Since you’ve got limited external loading, you need to force growth from your muscles by taking them to their limit on execution.
As you build up your muscular endurance, focus on more intense contractions and higher total rep counts on each set. If you can do 50 total reps on the final two movements in two sets, increase your target rep count to 60, 70, or even 80.
Workout 5 — Lower Body at Home
There’s no getting around it — growing your legs at home with limited equipment is a tough nut to crack. Your quads, hamstrings, and glutes are all large and very powerful muscles. You might find it difficult to adequately stimulate them unless you’re a rank beginner. Still, there are options available.
If you want to make leg gains at home, you’d better get comfortable on one foot. Single-leg movements do take more time (since you can only work one leg at a time, of course), but they effectively double the resistance you have available — even if it’s just your own body.
How to Progress
Do your best to load up the split squats and Romanian deadlifts with any kind of external resistance. A band can work well, but you can also use a heavy book or stuff some bulky clothing into the suitcase.
On the final two exercises, your only priority should be leaning into your effort and making sure you’re actually training to failure. With no external load present, you can safely push your limits.
Can You Build Muscle in 20 Minutes?
Short answer? Yes. Long answer? Also, yes. However, there’s definitely some nuance. Gaining muscle is a complex task that you can’t accomplish just by virtue of showing up to train, but there’s no magical number of minutes that enables hypertrophy. Here are the details.
Get Your Order Right
This holds true at the drive-through and the weight room. Reducing your transition time, the seconds or minutes you spend setting up for or moving to your next exercise, can drastically improve the efficiency of your workout.
Making sure that your exercise order reduces downtime as much as possible can help make your training more timely and improve your enjoyment simultaneously. (1)
The Magic of the Minimum
Your body adheres very tightly to a dose-response relationship with physical training. This is as true for gaining strength as it is for putting on muscle. As such, it logically follows that there’s a minimum effective dosage for eliciting hypertrophy or building more strength.
Research indicates that even low doses of resistance training volume — think as low as a single set or two — can be efficacious for muscle growth, even in trained individuals. (2) This holds up pretty well, as long as you work hard and approach failure on every set.
Higher volume with lower relative effort is what you’ll find in most standard hypertrophy programs, and it works quite well, but the opposite can do the trick in a pinch too.
Straight sets with dedicated rest intervals are all well and good, but not when you’re on the clock. Fortunately, you can use intensity techniques to increase the density of your workouts and turn a 45-minute session into a 15-minute weight room brawl.
This isn’t “broscience,” either. Research analyses of program design corroborate the idea that advanced training techniques are especially useful for individuals with limited time to train — and those people can make gains just fine along the way. (3)
Time Is of the Essence
You can’t build a ten-year physique if you’re a five-minute athlete. If you aspire to the bodybuilding stage one day, you’ll have to make your resistance training a priority. This means carving out adequate time to train, recover, and get your nutrition right to boot.
However, life always comes first. And it often brings with it periods of unforeseen inconvenience. If you’re trying to build your body, changing your training style can keep you on the right path when you don’t have hours to spare.
If you just want to get in (or stay) a bit better shape, short workouts can do wonders. All you need to do is shut the world out for 20 minutes and focus on the work at hand.
1. Simão, R., de Salles, B. F., Figueiredo, T., Dias, I., & Willardson, J. M. (2012). Exercise order in resistance training. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 42(3), 251–265.
2. Androulakis-Korakakis, P., Fisher, J. P., & Steele, J. (2020). The Minimum Effective Training Dose Required to Increase 1RM Strength in Resistance-Trained Men: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 50(4), 751–765.
3. Iversen, V. M., Norum, M., Schoenfeld, B. J., & Fimland, M. S. (2021). No Time to Lift? Designing Time-Efficient Training Programs for Strength and Hypertrophy: A Narrative Review. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 51(10), 2079–2095.
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