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The Workaholic's 30-Minute Workout

By L.K. Regan

Feeling your best means eating right and sweating hard—but what do you do when you just don't have the time?

Don't despair. If you can spare 30 minutes a day—a measly half an hour—we can give you a healthy, strong body that looks good to boot. To help come up with this fast and furious workout for guys who barely have time for the gym, we turned to Devin Wicks, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams, to create a workout plan that gives you the most possible benefit in just 30 minutes per day, six days a week.

Getting Started—Rethink Your Muscle Groups
To achieve maximum benefit in just 30 minutes per day, Wicks says you're going to need to rethink what muscles you work, and when. Most guys work their whole body over the course of three to four days spaced through the week. For example, they do a traditional split—back and triceps, chest and biceps, legs and shoulders—with recovery and/or cardio days in between. That's fine, and if you want to stay with that, we've got plenty of articles with tips and exercises in our Workouts section to keep you going. But those programs are also more time-consuming workout regimens, often taking 90 or more minutes per day.

For your 30-minute workout program, Wicks suggests you organize your muscles into two groups, which you will work out three times per week on alternating days. Below are the program basics:

  1. On day one of the program, you'll do quick circuits of chest, biceps, shoulders, and legs.
  2. On day two of the program, you'll do back, triceps, and core.
  3. With very little rest between exercises, your strength-training program will double as a cardio workout, which you'll extend by doing 15 minutes of intense cardio immediately after you lift weights.
  4. You'll alternate days one and two through the week, mixing in different exercises to ensure variation. This will you keep your muscles from acclimating to specific exercises. You'll take the seventh day off entirely.
Multitasking at the Gym
Three sets of three exercises and 15 minutes of cardio may sound like a lot to do in just a half hour. But that's only because many exercise programs are so inefficient. For example, to help build big strong shoulders, you probably do dumbbell presses—who doesn't? But the shoulder press is a single primary muscle exercise—it isolates one muscle group, and works it hard. Why not try a front lunge with shoulder press instead?

"For a more efficient workout," Wicks says, "you want to work more than one muscle group at a time. That means multiple-plane exercises, multiple-joint exercises, and closed kinetic chain exercises."

Multiple-plane exercises make you move in more than one direction at once (for an example, see Alternate Stepback Lunges with Plate Twist). Multiple-joint exercises work more than one joint (or point of muscle attachment) at a time (for example, see Dumbbell Squat and Press). Closed kinetic chain exercises make you use your own body weight as resistance. Examples of these include push-ups, sit-ups, knee tucks, and hyper back extensions.

Below Wicks has provided a sample workout for two alternating days of exercises. You'll do three sets of 10 to 12 repetitions for each exercise, using an amount of weight that makes you reach fatigue at the end of the set. Fatigue is the point at which you could do another repetition, but not while maintaining good form. It will take a different amount of weight to reach this point for each exercise, so you'll have to recalculate your weight for each new exercise.

Vary the Exercises
After your second day, you'll go back to day one and do another day of chest, biceps, shoulders, and legs. Don't do the same exercises you did previously. Search our Strength Training exercises to come up with other multi-plane, multi-joint, and closed kinetic chain exercises. If you’re not sure, just ask yourself this question: Will it work at least two of the muscle groups I need to work today? If the answer is “yes,” consider adding it to your workout.

You should limit your recovery time between sets of each exercise to no more than one minute. Between exercises, you can have a whopping two minutes—just enough time to enable you to move to your next exercise and set up. By keeping your recoveries short, you keep yourself in a continuous aerobic zone, so your weightlifting sets become cardio as well.

Limiting your rest time has additional benefits. "Quick recoveries train your body to cope with the lactic acid you generate during muscle breakdown," says Wicks. "By increasing your tolerance for lactic acid, you train your muscles to buffer against its fatiguing effects." This will, over time, raise the amount of lactic acid required to make you feel fatigued—and thus the amount of weight you can lift in a set. Just by shortening your recovery time (within reason), you contribute to muscle building.

Frequency and Cardio
The program budgets 30 to 40 seconds per set of each exercise, one minute between sets, and two minutes between exercises. This leaves you 15 minutes for intense cardio. Following your weight sets, head straight to cardio, and go intense—sprints and hills on the bike, for example, will train speed and endurance simultaneously. On the days you work your shoulders, you can go for bag boxing work as a supplement; on the back and core days, you might do a series of intervals on the rowing machine. In other words, tailor your cardio to complement the muscles you're working when you strength train.

Exercise Muscles Sets Reps (Goal) Weight (Goal)
Standing Power Cable Chest Press Chest, Core 3 10 -12 Rep Max
Low Cable Bent-Bar Squat and Curl Holding High or Squat Curls Legs, Biceps 3 10 - 12 Rep Max
Barbell Shoulder Press with Lunge Shoulders, Legs 3 10 - 12 Rep Max
15 Minutes Intense Cardio Full body N/A N/A N/A
Overhead Tricep Extension Triceps, Core 3 10 - 12 Rep Max
Standing Barbell Rows Back, Legs, Core 3 10 - 12 Rep Max
Hanging Knee Tucks Core, Shoulders 3 10 - 12 Rep Max
15 Minutes Intense Cardio Full body N/A N/A N/A

Exercise Overview
Standing Power Cable Chest Press Set both arms on a dual cable machine at chest height or above and stand with your back to the machine. Take one cable handle in each hand with your elbows bent behind you and your palms facing downward. Your hands will be just in front of you at chest level, with your elbows pulled straight back behind you. Stagger your feet, such that one is in front of the other with both knees slightly bent. Next, quickly press both hands forward, straightening your elbows until your fists meet in front of you. Focus on speed and control as you press. As you punch, stabilize through your legs and engage your center so that all of the push comes from your chest and shoulders, not your legs or hips. When you arms are fully extended, swiftly bend your elbows and pull them back to return to the starting position. After doing 10 to 12 reps on one side, switch your leg position, staggering your feet now with the opposite foot forward. Immediately begin the punches again for another 10 to 12 to complete the set.
Low Cable Bent-Bar Squat and Curl Holding High Attach a bent cable curl bar to the low setting on a cable machine (just above the floor). Stand upright facing the machine with the bar held in both hands down at your sides. Your hands should be shoulder-width apart and your palms facing away from you. Keeping your upper arms close to your body, bend your elbows to bring your hands up to just under your chin at the top of a curl. Your palms will now be facing you. Next keep your elbows bent and the bar held steady below your chin as you sit back and down into a squat. Keep your weight in your heels as you press your hips back behind you, making sure your back remains flat and your chest raised. Your shoulders should not come ahead of your knees. From the bottom of your squat, push through your legs and rise back up to standing, keeping your elbows bent and the curl bar close to you. From the standing position, perform a bicep curl, straightening your elbows and lowering your hands in front of you, until your arms extend nearly straight down and the bar is in front of your upper thighs. Reverse the motion and bend your elbows again and curl the bar back up. Keep your elbows and upper arm in at your torso as you do this. As soon as your arms are back at starting position, descend into your next squat. Continue alternating squats with bicep curls for the recommended number of reps.
Squat Curls Stand facing a cable machine with the straight bar attached to the cable at the lowest setting. Grasp the bar underhand, with your palms facing away from you, and your arms extended down, with the bar in front of your pelvis. Step back from the machine to engage the cable and lift the weight plates slightly off the stack. With your feet hip width apart, sit into a deep squat, bending your knees and pressing your hips back behind you as you incline your chest slightly forward. Keep you back flat and your weight in your heels, and do not let your shoulders come further forward than your knees. From the squat, come back to standing as you perform a bicep curl: bend your elbows and keep your upper arms close by your sides as you bring your lower arms all the way up toward your shoulder. Coordinate the timing of your legs and arms, such that you reach the top of your curl as you come fully to standing. Immediately sit into another squat as you lower your arms back to their starting position, extended down in front of you. By curling as you rise out of the squat, you increase the leg work required on the extension phase of the squat.
Barbell Shoulder Press with Lunge Stand with feet about hip width apart and a barbell held in both hands at chest level, with elbows bent and close to your ribcage and palms facing forward. Step forward into a lunge with your right foot, landing with your weight dropping down through your back thigh as you bend your left knee. Do not let your shoulders tilt forward as you lunge, and avoid letting your right knee come ahead of your right toes. As you lunge, press the barbell straight up overhead until your arms are extended. Then, push off with your right foot to bring your legs back together as you bring the barbell straight down, returning it to your chest level. Repeat, lunging with the left foot this time and again performing a shoulder press with the barbell. Continue to alternate for a set of 12 lunges, 6 on each side.
Overhead Tricep Extension Attach a double handle or double rope attachment to a cable on the lowest setting. Grasp one handle or rope in each hand and bring your arms overhead as you turn your back to the machine, such that you wind up facing away from the machine, with your upper arm pointing vertically toward the ceiling and your forearms bent behind your head and neck, reaching down toward the cable. Your palms should face each other. Now, stagger your feet, bringing one in front of the other. Incline your chest forward as you bring your upper arms somewhat forward. Your hands will now be over your head. You should have your upper arm parallel to the floor. Your upper body should as nearly as possible form a line perpendicular to the line of the cable. From this strength position, and keeping your upper arms from moving, bring your hands forward until your arm is extended straight in front of you, parallel to the floor; then bend your elbows to let your hands come back overhead.
Standing Barbell Rows Start in a modified squat position, with your body bent at the knees and hips and your back flat. Your shoulders should be directly over your knees or only slightly in front them, and your upper body should be at an angle slightly less than 45 degrees. Hold a barbell in front of your body using an overhand grip, with your palms facing you and your hands shoulder-width apart. Next, lift the barbell up to your sternum by bringing your elbows back and your shoulder blades together for each rep. Keep your lower back and abs stable and engaged so that you maintain your back's normal arch; make sure your back doesn't become rounded. At the top of your range of motion, your elbows will be behind you and your shoulder blades contracted. From this position, lower the barbell back to the starting position, keeping your back flat throughout.
Hold Single Arm Plank Take up a push-up, or plank, position on the floor: face down with your weight on your hands and toes, hands under your shoulders, and back and hips flat. Stabilize your core and engage your butt muscles to ensure proper form. The closer your feet are together the more difficult the exercise; to make it easier, take your feet wide. Next, take your left hand off the floor and hold it lightly along your side while maintaining the plank position, with your shoulders and hips parallel to the floor. Continue to engage your core, keep your hips square, and do not tilt. Hold this position for 30 seconds. After 30 seconds, bring your left hand back to the floor and switch sides, bringing your right arm up and holding it along your side as you maintain your plank position. Hold for 30 seconds on this side as well, and then return to the starting position.