Maximum Workout Efficiency – Train Smart, Not Hard

By on May 17, 2014

Our understanding of biology and the human body has come a long way in the last couple of decades and yet the way most of us approach workouts has remained largely unchanged since the 1950s.

Now I’m someone who actually enjoys working out, so I don’t mind if I’m not training in the most efficient ways possible. Unfortunately, for the first time in my fitness career I’ve started to struggle though to find the time I need to train. The loss of a big client and the introduction of a big wedding to pay for have meant I’m now not able to take hours out of my working day at will (poor me right?) and my energy levels have taken the toll as well.

Thus I have become very interested in applying a more scientific approach to my training and trying to get the maximum results in the minimum possible time. I’m currently in the process of attempting to devise the world’s ‘most efficient workout’, and here’s what I’ve found so far.

The Colorado Experiment & 4 Hour Body

My eyes were first opened to the possibility of creating a highly efficient workout after reading the 4 Hour Body. This is a great book by Tim Ferriss that discusses (among other things) how to distill your training down to the ‘MED’ or ‘Minimum Effective Dose’. The argument here being that if you train to the point where you create microtears in your muscles and trigger a hormonal response, then you have done enough. Spending hours on your biceps won’t create any more growth than doing one exercise that causes significant micro-traumas.

To illustrate this point Tim describes the ‘Colorado Experiment’ in his ‘Geek to Freak’ chapter which was carried out 1973 to promote Nautilus training equipment.  Here a guy who looked like Mark Wahlberg (he does right?) used a training program that would only involve three gym sessions of 27 minutes each. Each of those gym sessions involved only one repetition of each exercise and only one or two exercises for each bodypart. Each session was a ‘full body’ routine and would target only one or two body parts each. His training program looked like this to be precise:

  • Leg Press 750 for 20 reps
  • Leg Extension 225 for 20 reps
  • Squat 502 for 13 reps 
  • 2 minute rest
  • Leg Curl 175 for 12 reps
  • One legged calf raise w/ 40 lb in one hand 15 reps
  • Pullover 290 for 11 reps
  • Behind the neck Lat Isolation 200 for 10 reps
  • Row machine 200 for 10 reps
  • Behind the neck Lat Pulldown 210 for 10 reps
  • Straight armed lateral raise w/ Dumbbells 40 lbs for 9 reps
  • Behind the neck shoulder press 185 for 10 reps
  • Bicep Curl Plate loaded 110 for 8 reps
  • Chinup Body Weight for 12 reps
  • Tricep Extension 125 for 9 reps
  • Parallel Dip Body Weight for 22 reps

Obviously he was using heavy weights (those figures are in pounds), but as long as you were to use weights you found proportionally as heavy you would be fine.

The trick though was that he slowed down the cadence of his repetitions so that he was using 5-0-5 rhythm. That means it would take him five seconds to perform the positive portion of the movement and another five seconds to perform the negative portion. This would increase his overall time under tension thus meaning he would create more microtears and more hormonal response in his muscles than doing three sets of faster repetitions. This though meant he could perform the same work more quickly, allowing him to train the same areas multiple times in a week while still getting lots of rest necessary for growth.

This is how it turned out in the space of just 22 days:

tim ferrriss workout


Now there are plenty of problems with the experimental methodology of this program. For one, this guy was a professional bodybuilder already which means an element of ‘muscle memory’ may have crept in (we’ll look at what this actually means in more detail in the future). Likewise some people have accused him of using steroids etc. though there’s no evidence of that.

So what did I do? I tried the experiment myself. Only I actually slightly altered it by adding some extra stuff for the pecs and throwing in shrugs for the traps.

In the course of 22 days, here were my results:

coloradoSo not quite as impressive, but definitely some improvement there and impressive when you consider was only doing one repetition for the majority of muscle groups…

Need… More… Efficiency!

But unfortunately the Colorado workout is not for me and it probably isn’t for you either. Why? Because a) it’s horrible. Working out that slowly is really painful and also really not fun. More to the point, that workout – especially with my additions – doesn’t take 27 minutes. It takes more like an hour. In which time I could be doing my old push-pull workouts just fine which were more fun. Finally, there is no way I can figure out to perform this workout at home. As I’ve started training at home again with predominantly dumbbells and bodyweight training, this just isn’t an option now.

I also found that the Colorado workout made my muscles look bigger, perform well, but feel softer.

What the Colorado workout does remind us though, is that the usual ways we train with ‘3 sets of 10’ and those big ‘brosplits’ is really quite arbitrary and may be a waste of time.

So what if you were to take some elements from that kind of training and combine it with a few other elements. For instance how about we introduce some more explosive movements and mix them with the slower repetitions to create what I like to call ‘Time Division’. That way you could target the fast and slow twitch muscle fibres and trigger more of a hormonal response. Perhaps you perform the first 8-or-so repetitions using the 5-0-5 cadence and then increase to a rapid 2-2 cadence to failure? Now we’re talking a much faster and more efficient muscle burn – and something that would even get some burn going using bodyweight exercises.

Another way to make the Colorado workout even faster would be to combine more than one exercise into a single movement. This is something I’ve been toying with for a long time – but why should doing squats and then shoulder press be any different from doing them both at the same time? It’s a more compound movement that way too that will also trigger an even greater hormone response. You can also throw in bicep curls so that your arms are going curl -> shoulder press at the same time that your legs are squatting. Or how about just alternating movements to save time: performing two curls, two tricep kickbacks, two curls etc.

‘Dumbbell Runners’ are an exercise where you curl a dumbbell with one hand and perform a kickback with your other hand to mime the movement of running. You can train your triceps and your biceps in the same time it would normally take to perform a single set of unilateral bicep curls.

As for cardio, we already know that interval training (short bursts of sprinting followed by recovery periods of jogging) are much more efficient for burning fat compared with simply jogging for an hour because they put you in an ‘anaerobic’ state and cause a metabolic spike. Apparently according to one piece of research the very most efficient weighting for these fast and slow periods is eight seconds of fast to twelve seconds of slow. According to that study one hour of this type of training is worth 5-7 hours of jogging. Notice how this is quite similar to using a ‘time division’ approach of fast and slow repetitions when training muscle.

Mini Workouts Throughout the Day

Once you realise that you can use a few exercises to target multiple muscle groups and change up your pace to make your workouts more intensive you might also decide to think about the concept of doing your whole session in one go. Why do a single 30 minute workout when you could do three ten minute workouts throughout the day focusing on different parts of your body and on different goals? 10 minutes is a much less daunting prospect if you struggle to stay committed to your training, and actually this will result in more metabolic spikes and more anabolic hormone releases throughout your day.

The main theme to think about here is just questioning the norm and thinking logically about the ‘rules’ of working out. You don’t have to train 40 minutes four times a week to get great results. There’s no proof that using 3 sets of 10 is any better than using one set of 20. And there’s no golden law saying that split routines are better than full-body routines.

Science is overturning a lot of our assumptions and if you aren’t experimenting with these new techniques then you may just be wasting time and hampering your own progress! Listen to your body, think logically and write yourself a training program that you can complete in 20 minutes three times a week.



About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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