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How to Make the Most of a 20-Minute Workout

It’s a myth that you have to be in the gym for at least an hour in order to achieve results. The truth is that a 20-minute workout can be just as effective as an hourlong sweat session. In fact, a study from the University of Stirling in Scotland found that a quick HIIT workout can be even more effective than a longer, less intense one.

“Twenty minutes is absolutely long enough to fit in a great workout and rev up your heart rate and metabolism,” says Lisa Niren, trainer at Cyclebar and City Row in New York City. “However, short workouts are effective only if they are high intensity.”

To help you get the most from a 20-minute workout, we asked expert trainers for tips on maximizing gym time.

1. Up the intensity. 

“High-intensity workouts with strength and cardio elements scorch more calories and burn more fat than just cardio or strength training alone, because of the nature of the quick transition time between the two,” Niren says. “You’re never fully letting your heart rate recover, and you’ll get the excess post-exercise oxygen consumption, or EPOC, which is the afterburn effect that can last 24 to 48 hours post-workout, if you work hard enough.”

make the most of a 20 minute workout - women over 50

2. Make every second count.

“Limit rest times to 30-60 seconds,” suggests Nikki Warren, co-CEO and founder of KaiaFIT. “Use a stopwatch or your phone’s timer to ensure you aren’t wasting any time!”

3. Warm up and cool down properly.

Warm up and cool down regardless of time restraints, so that you lower the risk of injury. “In order to work out efficiently and intensely, it is important to prime your body for your workout and help it recover correctly,” says Niren. “Begin your workout with light stretching: hip openers, walkouts, squats, mountain climbers, jumping jacks, high knees, or jogging. End your workout with several stretches to ensure recovery.”

4. Focus on active recovery between reps or sets.

“Try doing jumping jacks or high knees in place when transitioning from one exercise to the next,” says Warren. This will keep your heart rate up. “If you need a more low-impact recovery or just need to catch your breath, do a quick warrior pose to balance your body and help focus your mind.”

5. Perform compound movements.

“If you are planning on just doing squats or lunges, make the most of your time and perform a thruster (a squat to overhead press) or a sumo squat with an upright row, or do a lunge with a bicep curl,” Niren says. “Compound movements work multiple muscle groups at the same time. Keep in mind you don’t need to use a weight that is very heavy; a moderate weight choice will work.”

make the most of a 20 minute workout - women over 50

6. Don’t eat a lot beforehand. 

If your goal is an effective 20-minute workout, it is extra important that you not bog yourself down with too much food. “If you are starving, have something light and packed with carbohydrates, like a banana, which I like to call nature’s power bar,” says Niren. “It doesn’t weigh you down but will give you energy to workout effectively and safely.” Do not forget to hydrate before and after your workout, too.

7. Get competitive with yourself and set goals before you start.

“For instance, try to reach a certain distance during an outdoor or treadmill run,” Warren says, “or aim to hit a specific set of repetitions within a 30- or 60-second time frame.” Setting an intention will help you keep your eye on the prize.

Want to tone and tighten your arms and more? Download the best exercises for women over 50.

Photos: Ryan J. Lane

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