The Efficient Workout

The holidays are over, kids go back to school, New Year’s resolutions have been made, and we feel like now is the time to visit – or revisit – the gym to finally get in shape.

But hang on, maybe there are a few things we need to pack in our gym bag before we head off to do … whatever it is we need to do out our preferred fitness facility. One of those things should be – if not a fully formed – at least a general plan of attack. One of the most common things I hear group fitness participants and personal training clients say when asked about their fitness goal is that they want quick results. In other words, they want their time doing physical activity to be efficient. Cue everybody whipping out their dictionaries to find out what that means. Don’t worry, I got your back. Google ‘efficient’ and it will suggest the following definition: “(especially of a system or machine) achieving maximum productivity with minimum wasted effort or expense.” However, google also offers a slightly revised definition when dealing with people; “(of a person) working in a well-organized and competent way.” Lastly, it offers a general definition, namely that when something is efficient, it prevents the wasteful use of a particular resource.

At the gym, we stride through those inviting double doors with the idea that we want to use minimal time and effort for maximum fitness results. I get it, we all want our cake and eat it too … and be fit. It’s a perfectly natural thought to have, but deep down we also know that wishes aside, there’s a difference between wanting something to be the case, and reality.

That’s partly why each year shortly after New Year’s, we see waves of new people at the gym – the “resolution crew” – bright eyed and bushy tailed, with good intentions of bettering ones fitness! You ask them their goals, and they give you some version of the “efficiency” notion. How long do they keep active? Some stay with it (you go guys!) – most are nowhere to be spotted at the gym by the time spring rolls along. They didn’t get what they wanted. And that’s fine too.

Taking a step back… (because even a step back counts as a step on our FitBits)

Another one of those very common questions I get at the gym as a fitness professional goes something like this: how many times a week should I go to the gym?

The vagueness of the query is apparent. I could rattle off the recommended standards (which I will, but only at the end of this post so you’ll have to read through this first. Hah!) There are a number of pieces of background information that are important in attempting to answer a question like this for yourself. I am going to list three here (I’m not assuming that there are only three important factors here, but hey, everyone knows three is a nice number).

  1.  First things first, who are you, physically? – do you have any physical limitations (injuries etc.), what is your current level of fitness?
  2. Secondly, who are you, mentally? – do you have a clear, manageable, realistic fitness goal? Are you excited and motivated to start incorporating an active lifestyle?
  3. And most importantly of all; what’s up with your life? – listen, we all have stuff to do. Don’t think that your new fitness goal isn’t going to be time consuming, because it is. We can be efficient at it, but it still needs to be crammed into what I’m sure is already a brimming life schedule.

When I speak to those that are part of the resolution crew and I ask them their planned physical fitness schedule, I hear things like “I want a perfect body in 3 weeks, so I’m going to go to the gym 3 hours a day every day”. That’s a plan for sure, but it’s a very bad plan. It’s definitely not an efficient one. After maybe one and half week of that, these gym goers get either injured or disillusioned (or both). And they have nothing to show for it. If they had had an honest conversation with themselves about those three factors above, they would’ve have had a greater chance of reaching their ultimate goal (though, nobody’s goal should ever be to get the perfect body. That’s just nonsense, guys, and you know it.) If your life right now dictates that you can only go to the gym twice a week, guess what, that’s fantabulous. I applaud you. Two is better than zero, and two can be built on if and when you are ready. Physical fitness efficiency lies somewhere in-between results, time, and quality of life. The more vaguely you define those three aspects for yourself, the less likely it is that you will stay on your fitness journey.

Do yourself the favour and start your fitness journey by writing down two things for yourself: a) realistically, for the next 8 weeks, how many times a week would you like to go to the gym (i.e. can you, with your busy life), and; b) realistically, what is the one thing you would hope to see change for the better in those 8 weeks.


Welcome, if you skipped all of the above ranting and wisely jumped to this, final section. (Everyone else, you’re troopers); here’s your promised Cookie Cutter info. Use it wisely and efficiently.

ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine) 2010 guidelines:

Cardiovascular stimulus:


3-5 times/week (combination of moderate to high, see below)


Moderate Intensity – 30 mins (up to 5 times a week – total of 150min/week)


High Intensity 20-25 mins (up to 3 times a week – total of 75min/week)


… a combination of the two

To promote weight loss, it is recommended that you up to double the Moderate Intensity minutes, bringing the week total to 300min.

To improve the cardiovascular system, overload must occur… but we’ll talk about that as well as the parameters of cardiovascular intensity at another time.

Muscular Strength:


2-3 times a week : non-consecutively (never the same target muscle two days in a row)


Two to Four Sets for each major muscle group (same or different exercise) – 8-12 reps per set

It is recommended to do 8-10 different exercises that condition all the major muscle groups to develop whole body strength.

These guidelines are adapted from “Personal Fitness Training: Theory & Practice”. By Mary Yoke, MA; Laura A. Gladwin, MS (Ed.) 2009 Second Edition, (published by) Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

What specific exercises should you go do at the gym now that you have this great new, manageable routine? Well that’s a topic we can discuss later. For now, just go do something active you think might be fun! I’m always here to help, as long as you know that I can only be your walking stick, not your legs.