Is Twenty Plenty? The Trick To The 20-Minute Workout

    Woman doing squats in the park
    Published: 23 November 2020. Written by: Laura Williams, fitness expert at

    Short on time and can’t really face a gruellingly long workout? We’re right there with you. All hail the 20-minute sweat sesh…

    Movement mojo MIA? Motivation can be an issue for even the most dedicated of gym bunnies. And with indoor training taking the fore, postponed races and the pressure cooker of work becoming home, and vice versa, taking their toll, you’d be forgiven for throwing the sweat towel in completely. What’s a few weeks or so of skipping training, right? 

    When you’re pushed for time and not feeling the workout vibe, there’s a good case for streamlining your exercise routine into a 20-minute session, for everything from weight management to improving fitness. And longevity features, too: a recent Norwegian study published in the BMJ found that higher intensity plays a role in preventing premature death.

    So whether you’re a runner, resistance fan, or just a real all-rounder, we’ve taken four types of training and sourced expert insight into how to get the turbo outcome from your 20-minute workout.

    Man running with dog in park

    For the runner and cardio-lover

    Whether you clock up 50-miles runs on the reg or you’re a Peloton addict, a short, 20-minute sesh can be worth its weight in gold, for both physical and mental health.

    ‘If you’re a regular runner, with a good level of running conditioning, spend those 20 minutes combining 30 seconds of 90 per cent maximum effort running with 1-minute walking intervals. Structure your session so that those faster reps are your final ones. But don’t forget that warm up!’ says Joel Wiles, personal trainer and running coach.

    ‘The mechanics behind those improvements you’ll notice are: an increase in VO2 – the maximum amount of oxygen you can utilise during exercise; improved running economy – the energy/oxygen needed to run at a  specific pace; and a higher lactate threshold – your body’s efficiency to tolerate, and dispose of, lactic acid. 

    Any additional benefits? ‘Training this way CAN help you to remain strong when you’re fatigued. Like in the latter stages of any race.’ 

    And what about cross-training? ‘After witnessing the success of British athletes Beth Potter and Alex Yee in international competition, the message is clear: don’t underestimate the power of cross-training. Whether that’s tackling the tarmac or cycling indoors on an interactive platform like Peloton, 20 minutes of varying intensities in any cardio setting is always time well spent.’

    Woman doing pushups on steps

    For the resistance fan

    AMRAP, MetCon, WOD… this year has been all about the exercise acronym. Essentially, these speedy resistance workouts – done with weights, bands, or body weight – help to improve fitness and muscle strength. 

    So where should you start in a 20-minute strength workout? Anthony Mayatt, personal trainer at Breathe Fitness, has these three tips – remember, maintaining good technique is essential for injury prevention: 

    1. Go for compound moves (exercises that recruit multiple muscle groups). You’ll be hitting more muscles over multiple joints and, as with any short workout, you want to hit as many muscles as you can for best results. 
    2. Body weight is king. No weights? You can still work muscles hard by refining certain exercises. Make a push-up plyometric (bend elbows and lower body as usual; when you push up, do so with force, so hands leave the floor) or position your feet on a raised surface (the sofa will do) to perform an elevated push-up. Ramp up lunges by climbing stairs three at a time (depending on stair height!) and do interval planks. Try 10 seconds on and 3 seconds’ rest – this keeps the muscles under tension while incorporating a rest period, too.
    3. Grab a weight. When it comes to weights, consider two-in-one exercises: think clean and press, renegade rows, lunge and press, so you’re combining two moves and getting more from your session.

    Woman sitting doing yoga

    For HIIT heroes

    ‘Traditionally, HIIT is seen as a cardio response, but we know strength exercises can get us here effectively, too. So if a move sufficiently overloads, it can push you into an anaerobic state (working anaerobically helps to build muscle strength, burn fat and strengthen bones),’ says industry expert and Pilates guru Jane Wake. ‘To make the most of your 20 minutes, intersperse total body moves that have a large ROM (range of motion) with “active rest” so that you can recover and repeat. So, you could do Pilates/yoga-style press ups to planks combined with child’s pose as your recovery.’

    She adds, ‘You need to plan your session properly, so that it’s balanced from a muscle point of view. And whether you get a true HIIT from these movements will depend on your fitness level and technique. 

    ‘And lastly, I would advise anyone to ensure they’re proficient in the movements first before putting them into an intense workout.’

    Man boxing by TV

    For the all-rounder

    Sometimes-runner, sometimes class-goer? Perhaps your fitness levels and the type of exercise you want to do fluctuate. Sound familiar? 

    Dena Read runs fitness sessions for women of all ages and abilities, and suggests applying these strategies to a 20-minute routine:

    1. Channel your competitive streak. ‘I use bingo cards with short workouts and exercise ideas. Workout routines end up being more varied, while seeing who can complete the most boxes or lines on the card works wonders for getting the tough stuff done.’
    2. Create your own goals. Struggling for motivation? Create a goal for each session and review at the end. Whether it’s to shave 10 seconds off a go-to route or prolong that plank, multiple intensity gauges can help you make the most of your time.

    Find out more tricks to keeping your fitness on track, even when you’d rather stay in bed, here.

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