Short Intense Workouts to Build Muscle (Short on Time, Big on Gains)

By Ben Strutt, MSc, PGDip, BSc (Hons)

Increasing working hours, travel, meetings and social commitments mean sometimes fitting in quality time in the gym can be tricky. However, most reading this will find some way to fit in regular fixes of iron time simply because of your passion and drive for lifting. Unfortunately, many may also not have time for long, high volume sessions, believed necessary for optimum muscle hypertrophy.

Short Intense Workout

Firstly, ‘volume training‘ has its place in bodybuilding. Some of the best bodybuilders developed great physiques based on volume training. Arnold’s Encyclopaedia of Modern Bodybuilding details advanced training techniques based on at least six different exercises per body part with four to five sets per exercise. However, this training is highly stressful, requiring lots of recovery time to prevent the body entering a catabolic state (more on this later).

Other world class bodybuilders (e.g. Mike Mentzer, Dorian Yates) adopted different approaches based on shorter sessions, taking fewer sets to failure, yet still built huge, championship-winning physiques. This highlights that muscle can be built even if you are short on time. Maybe there is a happy medium between these two approaches.

While having intensity is great, carrying it for sessions lasting sixty plus minutes, with multiple sets to failure could be robbing you of your best chance of gaining quality muscle. In the absence of jobs and family commitments, you may well have the ability to recover from such training (i.e. eating, sleeping and doing little else!) but for the majority it may be counter-productive.

Research has highlighted shorter training sessions are more beneficial in maintaining sufficient testosterone levels to encourage muscle hypertrophy, whilst limiting excess cortisol (catabolic hormone) production from halting your progress, especially when recovery is compromised due to life commitments (Hakkinen & Parkarinen 1992). Furthermore, Willardson et al (2010) suggest taking sets to failure for too long and too often elicits overtraining symptoms further reducing testosterone levels.

With this in mind, fitting in training sessions before work, during lunch breaks or on your travels does not mean your bodybuilding aspirations should go out the window. Use these shorter periods to maximise your potential. A thirty to forty-five minute intense session will provide you the optimum time to keep your body anabolic and even allow you to grab something nutritious afterwards to maximise gains and get on with life, a win-win situation.

Below are some examples of training methods you could incorporate into your shorter sessions:

Super-set training

Pair muscles which are considered ‘opposing’ groups such as chest and back, biceps and triceps and quads and hamstrings. Research has suggested the opposing muscle will be stronger when worked as a superset (Stoppani 2006).

Example, Chest and Back

  • Pair 1: Barbell bench press, super-setted with bent over dumbbell row – 3 x 8-10 reps
  • Pair 2: Incline dumbbell bench press, super-setted with lat-pulldown – 3 x 10-12 reps
  • Pair 3: Dumbbell/machine pec fly, super-setted with straight arm pulldowns – 3 x 12-15 reps


Three exercises performed back to back with little rest between sets, incorporating the same muscle group.

Example for Quads

  • Exercise 1: Barbell squat – 8 reps
  • Exercise 2: Leg press – 12 reps
  • Exercise 3: Leg extension – 12-15 reps

Perform this tri-set 2-4 times, allow for longer rest periods between each tri-set.

Compound training

Get the most ‘bang for your buck’ by sticking to squats, bench presses, a rowing exercise, deadlifts, barbell curls, close-grip presses and dips to maximise limited training time.

Example Training Day 1

Squats, bench press, parallel dips – 3 sets per exercise, 8-10 reps

Example Training Day 2

Deadlifts, bent over barbell row, pull-ups – 3 sets per exercise, 8-10 reps, (pull-ups as many as possible).

Example Training Day 3

Standing overhead barbell press, barbell curl, close-grip bench press – 3 sets per exercise, 8-10 reps

These are just examples of ways to train with intensity in less time. Be creative with your training plans to prevent your body adapting to one stimulus and reaching a plateau in terms of growth. You will realise that marathon lifting sessions are not necessary to build great physiques.


  • Hakkinen, K. & Parkarinen, A. (1992). Serum hormones in male strength athletes during intensive short term strength training. Euro J Appl Physio & Occ Physio. 64 (2), 106-111.
  • Stoppani, J. (2006). Encyclopaedia of Muscle and Strength. Champaign, Illinois: Human Kinetics.
  • Willardson, J. M., Norton, L. & Wilson, G. (2010). Training to Failure and Beyond in Mainstream Resistance Exercise Programs. Strength & Cond J. 32 (3), 21-29.

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