Fitness is an investment, no matter how we look at it. It’s an investment in our health, our ability to provide for our families, and ourselves, an investment in the goals we have to improve how we look and the confidence we hold, and even an investment in accolades we achieve for those of us that are physique competitors.
The thing is, our fitness goals aren’t the only investments we have to make if we want a well-balanced, healthy lifestyle. We have responsibilities to our families, friends, and employers too. As we all know, time constraints are one of the single largest hindrances to fitness goals. When stuff hits the fan, fitness and health are typically one of the first priorities to go out the window.
This is a shame considering there are so many things we can do to better manage our fitness pursuits with ‘real’ life, that aren’t taken advantage of by most. Below is an outline of how I personally, as well as encourage my online clients, to approach diet & training programming to best adapt when schedules go haywire and time is at an all-time premium.
#1 Training Tweaks
Crap happens, but a flat tire isn’t fixed by slashing the remaining three. I rarely see clients as relieved and happy as when they hit an extremely demanding, busy time in their lives and then hear that we can still make a lot of progress even if it means reducing training frequency. After expecting they’re doomed if they aren’t hitting the gym 5+ times every week, the elation they experience when hearing this never gets old for me as a coach.
It’s pretty common for people (and sadly many trainers and coaches) to see progress as contingent to training frequency. ‘Newbies’ should start at 3 times per week, but absolutely have to work up to training 5-6 days per week if they want to keep making progress. Reducing frequency as an experienced athlete is blasphemy! Well, not so fast.
Sure, as a training career progresses, total training volume (total sets x reps x weight) is important for continued development in strength and size/shape . We need to focus on getting stronger, and performing more total work as we progress. At some point, having more total training sessions during the week more easily allows us to accomplish that training volume.
But on the other side of the coin, if training volume is viewed as (total sets x total reps x total weight) performed, then adding more sets (and generally extending the duration and frequency of workouts) isn’t the only way to progress. If you’re pinched for time while completing grad school or balancing that high-pressure job while starting a family, it’s also possible to continue gradually adding training volume by progressively lifting more weight.
Less is (Sometimes) More
When clients are facing an overwhelming schedule, one of the absolute best moves I make as a coach is simply evaluating their schedule, and considering lowering the total amount of training sessions they’re completing at the gym each week. Reducing exercise variety, total training sessions, and focusing training volume on foundational, effective movements like squat, hinge, lunge, press and pull variations helps us still very effectively stimulate all major muscle groups, continue progressive overload, while vastly reducing the logistical stress they have to bear through the week.
More deload weeks or training blocks with less fatiguing movements may need to be sprinkled in over the course of the coming months so they aren’t constantly beat up from tons of squats and deads. However, the progress they’re able to make during that stressful stretch far outweighs the regression they would otherwise see by simply quitting all together under the false assumption fewer workouts can’t still be beneficial.
Since there are a ton of ways to consider reducing training frequency while still focusing on progressive overload and gradual volume increases, it may be helpful to simply offer a working example of how a 5 day training split could be consolidated into a 3 day split for someone facing a three month stretch of scheduling hell.
Let’s say your current 5-day split looks like the below outline. A well-balanced split allowing each major muscle group to be stimulated well twice per week, spread evenly to maximize recovery and MPS stimulation between sessions.
Original 5-Day Split
Mon: Upper Body
Tues: Legs & Core
Wed: Chest & Shoulders
Thur: Legs & Core
Fri: Back & Arms
Now, after realizing your schedule was about to be haywire for the next 3 months following news of a new work project being assigned to your team, or finishing up that college thesis, you just logistically can’t manage more than 3 days in the weight room for that time period. Rather than quitting all together and regressing with your physique, a very viable 3-day split could look like the below outline, with the top 2-3 exercises (based on your goals and prioritized weak areas) from the original 5-day split, consolidated into the new 3-day split, with more total sets allocated to those movements.
Interim 3-Day Split
Mon: higher volume Legs, lower volume Arms & Core
Wed: high volume Upper Body (minus direct arm work)
Fri: lower volume Legs, higher volume Arms & Core
As you can see, hitting those top exercises for each muscle group, then balancing some workouts with higher/lower volumes among muscle groups can help ensure each muscle group receives sufficient total stimulation each week, while allowing you to manage fatigue, and just as importantly, manage 3 very quality sessions with an especially busy schedule.
Then, once your schedule clears out a bit, you can run a transition block to once again enter a consistent 5-day split with greater exercise variation and training volume spread more evenly across the week. The common strategy, no matter how many days you need to consolidate to, is choosing the most-needed exercises for your personal goals. Once selected, reduce total training days & exercises, accommodate through higher total sets in those top exercises; while focusing on getting stronger in those movements in the time you have available.
It’s not hard to imagine just how much more your physique will improve over the months & years of your training career by simply shifting your workouts to fit your schedule and allow for continued adherence, compared to simply throwing up your hands and blaming the lifting Gods for poor circumstances, then quitting altogether every time you hit a busy stretch.
#2 Macro Management
Just as consolidating your training split into a few sessions, focused on the most important exercises and training principles as they align with your goals, a similar mindset can be extremely helpful in reducing stress on the nutritional side of things. Namely, not being afraid to compress your meal frequency down to bigger, less frequent meals that are significantly easier to get into throughout the day- whether you’re running around campus all day, or the last to leave the office.
Luckily, the false idea that multiple, smaller meals ‘stoke our metabolism’ has continued to be debunked by credible research in recent years. More research identifying how much more important total energy balance across the week is than meal frequency should, in theory, take a lot of pressure of people by realizing they have flexibility in how their meals are laid out as long as their total calorie/macro needs are consistently met.
Unfortunately, there’s still a lot of misunderstandings revolving around meal frequency and timing, that unfortunately leads to a lot of unnecessary frustration among dieters. For the sake of once again spreading the word and helping relieve the stress from any nervous readers, there’s continued to be no significant difference found in body composition changes or total weight change through higher or lower meal frequency .
This is one of the single most exciting pieces of research-supported news a busy athlete can hear. It means instead of driving yourself nuts trying to get 5-6 meals in every day, simply compressing your total calories/macros into 3-4 meals, or even a couple ‘real’ meals complemented with 1-2 quick protein shakes or smoothies, will help you progress just as effectively, while saving considerable prep and eating time, time you can instead use in completing other important tasks.
The one timing/frequency principle that does seem to have significant benefits in body composition would be the spread of protein intakes across the day. How you allocate your calories from carbs and fats during the day is likely to have a relatively trivial effect on your long term progress (aside from peri-workout nutrition considerations). Benefits from protein on the other hand, could be better optimized by spreading your protein as evenly as you reasonably can among 3-4 ‘meals’ during the day. I use quotations because as mentioned above, a ‘protein meal’ could be as easy as a quick protein shake knocked back while at your office desk or between classes when a full meal isn’t practical.
Whether you’re supplementing with protein shakes, or able to consume 3-4 whole meals, the idea is that spreading your protein out to at least 3 meals can help maximize its use in the body, while much more than 5 protein-containing meals is unlikely to add additional benefits (in terms of frequency) due to the post-meal latency MPS undergoes for the hours immediately following protein consumption . In other words, protein synthesis needs time to ‘recharge’ before it can spike again following a meal, so eating really often not only is unlikely to benefit fat loss or muscle growth, it could possibly hinder the effectiveness of your protein consumption.
In short, there isn’t any need to force yourself to fit in 5-6+ meals every day. Opting for 3-5 meals, with the lower end of that range being absolutely fine, can open up a lot of time in your schedule for other tasks and reduce stress for you and those around you as you continue pursuiing your fitness goals.
#3 Rise of the Machines
First, look into taking more control of your diet and one of the first pieces of advice you’ll hear is to meal prep. That can make the workweek exponentially easier to navigate. However, the problem is most people view meal prepping as standing over a stove cooking meat and preparing vegetables, which requires hours of active prep time. Ultimately, this discourages people from even attempting it.
This is where embracing modern technology can make your life a whole lot easier. If your schedule is packed to the brim, or you just want to cut down on wasted time in general, invest in and try to find times during the week you can make use of your oven, quality air fryer, and rice cooker.
Bake, Steam & Roast
One of the easiest ways to knock out a lot of meal prep at once is to season a large pan full of meat and let it bake in the oven for the required time (often 30-40 minutes, depending). Then, steam or roast vegetables inside a microwave or air fryer; while also preparing a large batch of quinoa, rice, pasta or similar grain in a rice cooker. Within an hour, you can have enough of a vegetable, grain and protein source to make a couple meals for each day of the coming week, that can then be easily portioned out in containers you can throw in your bag on the way to work.
Something like this takes care of easily half your meals for the day, which you can then complement with quick things like protein shakes, fruit and seeds/nuts that provide quality nutrients easy to pack or stash at your desk. Then, as your schedule allows, take time to prepare ‘real’ meals for breakfast or dinner when you’re back home and have the chance while making sure you hit the rest of your calorie/macro targets for the day.
#4 Sleep On It
I won’t spend a lot of time on this tip because we’ve all grown up with parents nagging us to go to bed on time already. However, considering sufficient, consistent sleep is one of the single most effective recovery aiding, hunger regulating, focus improving actions we can take as athletes, yet also the most often neglected, it never hurts to include a reminder just how important it is to prioritize sleep.
When we get busy, sleep is one of the first things that’s cut out in place of other things. Ironically, we usually end up getting less work done, and performing less effectively, than if we kept sleep a priority and resultantly performed better in the time we had remaining. As counter-intuitive as it seems to many, and as popular and cool as the ‘sleep when I’m dead’ mantra can be to perpetuate, time and again I’ve seen both personally and as a coach- just how much better physique progress, proficiency at work, and overall wellbeing can be just from getting enough sleep.
When faced with a particularly stressful, busy schedule, opting to cut down on things like TV to instead better guarantee a solid 7+ hours of sleep can go a long way in helping us better perform cognitively, in our job performance, and even our general mood and outlook on the day .
In other words, odds are pretty high that you’ll be much more productive and make better decisions during the day by prioritizing enough sleep and freeing up time in other areas, than any temporary increases in total work gained by sacrificing it on a consistent basis.
#5 At-Home Cardio
Building off my investment spill at the introduction, I’ve come to be as confident as ever in just how wise of an investment a piece of cardio equipment is to purchase for our homes. Creating an entire home gym undoubtedly carries no small price tag. For most, a gym membership is going to be more economical considering the vast array of strength training equipment & machine upkeep a gym offers in comparison to buying all those pieces for our homes.
Cardio equipment on the other hand, can be an invaluable investment for our homes. Whereas furnishing an entire home gym could be quite costly, a $500-1,500 investment for a piece of cardio equipment you really enjoy could pay huge dividends over the years.
Time is Money
This matters because one of the largest reasons dieting phases and contest preps fail are time constraints. Making time for 45-90 minute strength training sessions is pretty doable for most people, but when getting deeper into a dieting phase, additional hours of cardio can be a schedule buster. Relying on your gym’s operating hours, and planning out a block of 2+ hours to both strength train and complete cardio in one visit can be extremely difficult for many working professionals, especially those with families.
Now consider that stress, quantify it by what you feel the hourly worth of your time is during the week, then compare that against a piece of cardio equipment in that $500 – 1,500 price range. Spread out over months or years, that’s an incredible return on investment for the time it can save you each week, whether cardio is part of your long-term training, or you’re simply looking to maximize your time management during your prep & reverse diet where cardio is more prominent.
Run the Numbers
Let’s say you buy a $1,000 stationary bike- a good form of cardio in terms of recovery (less eccentric muscle damage than running), easy to maintain, and relatively quiet equipment to operate if someone in the house is asleep or enjoying a movie in a nearby room.
Aside from a few odds and ends maintenance you may need to perform, let’s give it a 5-year lifespan before needing to be replaced, for sake of this example. You’re essentially investing $16.50/month during that time in order to have cardio available to knock out at any given time during the week.
Now consider the time you save going to your local gym to knock out those cardio sessions as contest prep progresses or your pre-vacation mini cut continues. Not to mention to risk you take having to wait on cardio equipment at the gym when it’s busy. Easily a few hours per week saved just commuting and waiting to knock out your cardio, for less than ~$20.
This, compounded with the ability to instead chip away at your cardio at home while your meal prep is cooking, catching up with family members more easily after work, or knocking some out briefly before heading to work in the mornings- that’s a lot of added opportunity to multi-task and better balance your schedule.
As a homeowner, the decision is even more clear considering you’ll be living there for the foreseeable future and have a bit more room to work with in storing the cardio machine itself. But even if in an apartment, if there’s a corner guest room or similar area you can fit a sleek spin bike, then simply sell it prior to moving to avoid lugging it to your next living space- the time saved and added ability to make the most of the other areas of your life each week can make it a very good ‘schedule hack’ for those extremely hectic schedules we all inevitably face at one point or another.
Everyone is different. We all have different fitness-related goals, training needs, cardio requirements, and schedule obligations. The golden advice for one person may be worthless to another in different circumstances. The common thread is, we can all evaluate general strategies that can help a lot of situations, then adapt to our circumstances with a little planning.
Thinking about your current schedule, then considering how you can consolidate your strength training programming, maximize time management when planning and preparing your diet strategies, and how to best maximize your time performing complementary tasks like cardio can offer huge payoff compared to the time taken to create a plan unique to your situation.
If failing to plan is planning to fail, the time you take by yourself or with your coach to mold your approach to your specific lifestyle will set you up for virtually endless success throughout your entire fitness career.
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