The idea of a 20-minute workout is appealing, because most of us don’t want to spend hours in the gym. So a workout you can do in your lunch break with time to spare even after changing, showering, and getting to and from the gym is attractive.
But can you really do all that much good in 20 minutes? That was the first question we posed to Marvin Burton, master trainer who we spoke to through Anytime Fitness (opens in new tab). And the news is good.
Can you really get a good workout in 20 minutes?
Depending on your current level of fitness and ability, 20 minutes can give you a good workout, especially if you have a focus, such as training a specific muscle group, improving your flexibility or mobility, or elevating your heart rate. There is an element of safety to be aware of though – exercising at a high intensity without preparation is potentially dangerous.
Do you need to go hell for leather if you’re only doing a 20-minute workout?
There are lots of benefits to low-intensity exercise. It can help decrease stress, for example, whereas if you are adding high-intensity exercise to an already hectic lifestyle you might be doing more harm than good! Low-intensity exercises also help with body fat and baseline fitness. If every training session you do is high-intensity you will be creating a long-term problem.
Can you stay in shape only doing 20-minute workouts or do you also need to do longer sessions too?
I would encourage doing longer sessions when possible. Twenty-minute sessions are good for maintenance or for absolute beginners. You also have to question the quality if the entire workout is only 20 minutes, because this does not allow for a progressive warm-up, time for your body to adapt and progressively overload, then time to recover and prepare for the next session.
A more important question would be, how much time can you give to exercise? If you simply cannot spend any longer than 20 minutes, then this is what you need to work with. In this case a larger amount of your focus should be spent on additional forms of exercise and lifestyle changes, such as improving your sleep, digestion and exercise that keeps you active as part of your daily routine.
What are the best types of exercise to do in 20 minutes for the popular training goals – aiming to lose weight, build muscle or get fitter?
Lose weight Full-body exercise using as many joints and muscles as possible. This could be through lifting weights, bodyweight exercises or total-body cardiovascular exercise like running, rowing or a weights circuit.
Build muscle Work major muscle groups and and follow functional patterns of exercise, so pushing, pulling, rotational movements, lifting, slamming or throwing-type moves.
Get fitter Do exercises that elevate your heart rate and allow you to sustain higher heart rate levels, which you can build upon and improve. This is often referred to as building your threshold. Cycling is a good way of doing this.
What would you recommend for a 20-minute workout?
This workout hits the whole body, and is good for building muscle and losing fat. It consists of two circuits, one spending ten minutes on the lower body and the other ten minutes on the upper body.
You’ll be working through as many sets of the below circuits of weighted exercises as possible. Before attempting the workout establish your starting weight. To do this, practise each exercise and find a weight that means you cannot complete three sets of ten to 12 reps with a strict 45-second rest between sets. Each rep should take four seconds to complete on a 2020 tempo [two seconds to lower the weight and two to raise it, with no pauses in the move or in between reps]. You should be close to failure towards the end of set two and unable to fully complete set three. This gives you the starting weight for your exercise.
Lower Body Circuit
Work through as many rounds of these three exercise as possible in ten minutes, sticking to that 2020 tempo for each exercise.
1 45° leg press
Sit on the leg press machine with your back flat against the pad and your feet in a high and wide position on the plate. Push the weight up, then bring it back down. Keep the weight moving at a controlled pace and avoid stopping at the top or bottom of the movement.
2 Leg curl
You can do this on a machine, either sitting or lying down, or on a gym ball instead. When using a machine, curl your leg backwards from the knee and avoid any movement in your upper body. If sitting, make sure you keep your back against the backrest and don’t allow your hips to lift from the seat. When using a ball, maintain downward pressure through your heels throughout.
Reps 10 each leg
Take long and deep strides, lifting the leg through and up like you are stepping over a box each time you step forwards. Keep your chest up throughout.
Upper Body Circuit
1 Dumbbell bent-over row or seated row
If doing the bent-over row, lift the weights to the sides of your body and move your elbows upwards rather than to the sides. Make sure your chest is parallel to the floor; no watching yourself in the mirror – look down! If doing a seated row, make sure your arms are fully extended, retract your shoulder blades and move your elbows back each time.
Lower the weights to the bottom of your range of motion to gain a full stretch of the chest muscles. Turn the weights outwards slightly at the bottom to allow for a greater range, then press them up until your arms are straight. Inhale as you lower, exhale as you press, and keep your back flat on the bench throughout.
3 Seated dumbbell overhead press
Sit on the floor with your legs extended. Keep your back straight and your chest lifted as you press the weights overheard from your shoulders, and then bring them down. Focus on keeping your core tight throughout the movement.
More 20-Minute Workouts To Try
Equipment Kettlebell Benefit Cardio fitness
Most cardio workouts will get you jumping around all over the place, which can put unwanted pressure on your joints. This workout uses a kettlebell swing and squat instead, along with decreasing rest periods, to get your heart rate up. See the workout
Equipment Dumbbells Benefit Conditioning
If you’re just after a straightforward maintenance workout, this five-move routine will do the trick nicely. See the workout
You’ll need a well-equipped gym to tackle this monster of a workout, as well as plenty of time either side to set up, warm up and catch your breath afterwards. The three blocks of strength, conditioning and metabolic conditioning add up to just 20 minutes, although it’ll feel like forever. See the workout
Equipment Gym ball Benefit Core
You’ll complete rounds of two tough tri-sets in this circuit: the first hits your upper, lower and side abs, and the second works through three plank variations. See the workout
Equipment Resistance band with handles Benefit Cardio fitness, fat loss
Here you’ll switch between arm and shoulder exercises using the band, and speed skaters. Alternating between upper and lower body moves will maximise your calorie burn. See the workout
Equipment None Benefits Core strength
This six-move circuit works your abs from different angles and is an ideal session for anyone chasing a six-pack. See the workout
Equipment Rowing machine Benefits Cardio fitness, fat loss
Hit the rower for this tough session where the intervals get shorter but the intensity gets higher as the workout progresses. See the workout
Equipment Barbell Benefits Strength, fat loss
Burn fat fast with this six-move session where you move through a series of five barbell exercises without taking any rest, finishing with a plank. See the workout
Equipment Barbell Benefits Strength, fat loss
Another taxing barbell complex in which you perform a series of tough compound lifts back to back to build strength and burn fat. See the workout
Hit the whole upper body with this testing five-move circuit, which proves you don’t need a lot of time or access to a gym to get big and strong. See the workout
This six-move workout is designed so you do pairs of exercises that hit your chest, back and lower body. With no rest in each circuit you’ll be getting stronger and fitter in no time. See the workout
Equipment Pull-up bar, dip station, cable machine, EZ-bar Benefits Strength
This workout consists of three supersets that work the biceps and triceps in tandem to help you build titanic upper arms. See the workout
Equipment Pull-up bar Benefits Core strength
This brutally effective abs workout involves two tri-sets that keep your core muscles under tension for long periods. See the workout
Nick Harris-Fry is a journalist who has been covering health and fitness since 2015. Nick is an avid runner, covering 70-110km a week, which gives him ample opportunity to test a wide range of running shoes and running gear. He is also the chief tester for fitness trackers and running watches, treadmills and exercise bikes, and workout headphones.
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