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The High Intensity Workout: Get Lean In Under An Hour

By James Parker

For most of us, time is a valuable commodity—and it seems like we have less of it every day. How do you fit your workouts into your life? In past articles on cardiovascular and functional strength training, I’ve taken inspiration from the world of mixed martial arts. Now, I’d like to add some body-building concepts into the mix. Often, a change of pace in how we train can achieve greater results than going all out continuously. So, from mixed martial arts, this routine will have high intensity and a rapid but controlled pace. To this we’ll then add some bodybuilding concepts: supersetting, drop-setting, and partial repetitions. The result: a high-intensity, fast-paced workout that you can do in well under an hour.

Opposite Muscle Optimization
For this routine, to maximize time and effort, you need to combine muscle groups. One day you work chest/back, another legs, and a third you train shoulders/arms. This allows for different regions of the body to get stimulated in a more aggressive fashion, while also allowing for more days of recovery before being targeted again. This is where the concept of supersetting comes in. In supersetting, one exercise is performed directly after another with minimal rest time. You can thus have a very intense workout in a short time-frame. In this routine, you superset by following each initial exercise with a movement for the opposite muscle or body-part, maximizing the efforts of both the push and pull load-bearing muscles. As an example, for your chest/back day, you could perform a pull-up for a set followed by a set of push-ups. Superset a shoulder exercise with another shoulder exercise and a bicep with triceps. Try to pick exercises that closely mimic each other in function but are for the opposite muscle group (as with push-ups versus pull-ups).

At the end of each day’s routine, the concepts of drop-setting and partial repetitions come into play. Drop-setting is an exercise performed near failure with a particular weight. The weight is then made lighter and the exercise is performed once more to failure. On the last few reps of the last set for an exercise, you’ll perform partial repetitions, but only if you have a spotter or an exercise from which you can safely eject if the weight falls. To make these concepts simple to implement I’ll be giving you a set routine to get you started. Here's a handy table to follow—leave minimal to zero rest in between each opposite exercise and 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets. As with any high intensity concepts like supersetting, set amounts can add up fast, so two sets are fine to start with. You can always add more once you’ve grown accustomed to this routine.

Day 1: Chest/Back
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Repetitions
Superset Pull-ups with Push-ups Chest/Back 3 sets of each (1st set is warm-up) 8-10
Superset Bench Press with Reverse Dumbbell Flys Chest/Back 2 sets of each 6-8
Decline Dumbbell Chest Press Chest 2 set drop-set Aim to drop out at 8 reps on first set, and with 5 partials to finish on the last set.
Seated Cable Rows Back 2 set drop-set Aim to drop out at 8 reps on first set, and with 5 partials to finish on the last set.
Day 2: Legs
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Repetitions
Walking Lunges Quads/Hamstrings/Calves 3 sets (1st set is warm-up) 8-10
Barbell Russian Dead-Lifts Quads/Hamstrings 2 sets 8-10
Leg Machine Extensions Quads 2 set drop-set Aim to drop out at 20 reps on first set and 10 on the second, with 5 partials to finish on the last set.
Lying Leg Curls Hamstrings 2 set drop-set Aim to drop out at 20 reps on first set and 10 on the second, with 5 partials to finish on the last set.
Day 3: Shoulders/Arms
Exercise Muscles Worked Sets Repetitions
Superset Seated Arnold Press with Seated Reverse Flys Shoulders 3 sets of each 8-10
Superset Dumbbell Skull Crushers with Preacher Curls Triceps/Biceps 3 sets of each 8-10
Dumbbell Lateral Raise Rack Run Shoulders Multiple drop set: Start with a weight you can do 8 repetitions with but perform only 5 reps. Then drop the weight and perform 5 reps with the next lighter dumbbell, continuing until you run out of dumbbells on the rack (and I mean every one, even the 3 pounders). As many as necessary.
Superset Cable Triceps Bar Press-Downs with Standing Cable Curls Triceps/Biceps 1 drop-set of each exercise Aim to drop out at 8 reps, with 5 partials to finish out.

How Much, How Often
This routine is designed for people without a lot of time, but who can get into the gym several days per week. Ideally, you would do this workout for five days a week, using a half hour at best, and an hour at worst. However, the workout can be adapted from five to four, or even three days per week if other activities need your time. For the purists, a five day split is my recommendation. That would mean repeating the first day's workout to make day four of resistance training, and adding a cardiovascular training day somewhere in the middle. So, weight train Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday (with Friday repeating Monday), and do cardio on Wednesday. The following week, you would make the Monday workout whatever body parts you trained on Tuesday of the previous week, to keep an even rotation.

This split doesn’t leave too many options for other types of intense activity, as it is designed primarily for lean muscle growth. To be able to maintain other activities outside the weight room, opt for a four or three day split. A four day split simply means leaving out the cardio day on Wednesday. A three day split means doing the exercise routines on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (Chest/Back, Legs, and Shoulders/Arms respectively), leaving Tuesday and Thursday open for whatever non resistance training activity you want. Weekends are reserved for active, but light recovery or light training. Don’t make the mistake of adding too much more to this routine, either of exercises, sets, or reps. Even on the super-intense five day split, the idea is recovery between short but dense workouts. If this isn’t working you hard enough, you need to evaluate whether or not you’re pushing yourself as hard as you can.

After a month of this routine, change it up by ether performing a lesser day split, or by changing the style of routine entirely. As always, be sure to be safe and leave your ego at the door. Never perform an exercise you don't know how to do—instead replace it with one you know. Have fun and focus only on your honest determination to eventually achieve your goals. Remember, as all good fighters know, sometimes the mental aspects can beat you before the exercises or your opponents get their chance.

About James Parker: James Parker is a certified personal trainer, mixed martial artist, mixed martial arts conditioning coach, and freelance writer in Los Angeles, California.