busy schedule workout plan

Training With Limitations

By: Barbell Logic Team

One training-related problem is the idea that strength training has to be all or nothing: that there is this concise, universal ideal of training known as “Optimal Training,” which is the measure of successful engagement of the strength-training process. There is such a thing as optimal training, but it has much more to do with matching the resources you put into strength training—your time, energy, and effort—with how you value strength training as part of your goals and responsibilities. In many ways you can and should stretch and bend to fit strength training into your daily routine, letting it influence things like your nutrition, your sleep, and how you spend some of your free time. You must balance that, however, with a goal that makes training a life-long activity. Training has to fit into your life, and not everyone has the same amount of resources to dedicate to strength training all the time. Understanding what optimal means for you and how to manage suboptimal situations is part of the long-term balance for consistent, successful training.

Training with Constraints: How to Train with Limited Resources

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Consider the last long-term project you finished. Maybe it was work-related, completing a degree, or perhaps something physical like training for a lifting meet or a race. You probably went through periods where the energy you put into the project ebbed and flowed to fit around your life’s responsibilities (and sanity), and had periods where your life had to bend and stretch to meet the demands of the project. Despite both of those situations, however, you remained consistent, and your consistency paid off. 

We often elevate consistency in strength training as one of the two pillars of long-term progress—the other being proper technique. Whether in lifting or other areas of life, consistency is the result of balance, the recognition of your finite resources and the allocation of those resources to maintain progress, avoid burnout, and keep up with your responsibilities.

So much of navigating adulthood is about managing the push and pull of your aspirations and responsibilities. While people are pretty good at describing a picture of their idealized life, they tend to be less adept at plotting a course to achieve it and directing their efforts year-to-year, month-to-month, and day-to-day. Instead of measured, intentional steps, we pendulum-swing from what was most important yesterday to what is most important today. When we do that, the mundane, workaday tasks that contribute to our goals and responsibilities tend to suffer. New, urgent, important things tend to draw resources away from our efforts of consistency because we operate in a zero-sum existence. Lack of organization of resources undermines your consistency with training, nutrition, or finances while blaming discipline and motivation instead.

One training-related problem is the idea that strength training has to be all or nothing: that there is this concise, universal ideal of training known as “Optimal Training,” which is the measure of successful engagement of the strength-training process. There is such a thing as optimal training, but it has much more to do with matching the resources you put into strength training—your time, energy, and effort—with how you value strength training as part of your goals and responsibilities. In many ways you can and should stretch and bend to fit strength training into your daily routine, letting it influence things like your nutrition, your sleep, and how you spend some of your free time. You must balance that, however, with a goal that makes training a life-long activity. Training has to fit into your life, and not everyone has the same amount of resources to dedicate to strength training all the time. Understanding what optimal means for you and how to manage suboptimal situations is part of the long-term balance for consistent, successful training.

What Does Optimal Really Mean?

Optimal training generally means the “best” allocation of your resources or the cost of training in terms of time, energy, money, and other resources at your disposal. If the actual cost of training exceeds your perceived cost, then you might find yourself struggling to meet your own expectations. This is likely because of a misconception of training. 

Training becomes a habit when you understand the value and costs of surrounding it, and you can match that understanding with actions. Previously, we talked about valuing strength for the process and the certainty of the outcome, as opposed to a gamble based on a hope that you will meet specific weight-on-the-bar goals. If you do this and you take a longer-term perspective on strength, then you built your strength training habit around the idea that you are going to be doing this for a very long time. It would be a mistake to act as if you either get 100% of the value of strength training by training “optimally” or 0% if you train “sub-optimally.” The either-or mentality leads to a false dilemma. Training is available to you, and it requires some part of the 24-hours in your day, of the calories you consume, of your financial resources, and your mental and physical energy. How much depends much more on you and the value that strength training adds to your life. The biggest mistake you can make is to decide that strength training is valuable but that you are going to avoid training because you cannot train “optimally.” 

Optimal means dedicating 100% of your self-determined/self-allocated resources to training. This is optimality in an economics sense: the complete allocation of resources without any waste or leftover. The usual way to think of this is that a given state is optimal if no change could make one outcome better off without making another outcome worse off. This would be different from optimality in an engineering sense, which would be to make the most of your given resources. 

Consider this kind of optimality in terms of training and your typical day. You have twenty-four hours in the day, during which you need to sleep, work, train, eat, spend time with your family, and accomplish the miscellaneous tasks of domesticity. Within that amount of time, you probably have a bunch of daily goals: You want to be good at work, you want to get strong, be a good spouse and parent, keep your house clean, etc. If you are operating “optimally,” then your time resources are full, you can’t dedicate any more time to one of these goals without taking away from another; you are in a zero-sum situation. Most of us are not quite so efficient: There’s downtime, binge-watching, social media, and random non-urgent and unimportant things that tend to occupy some of our time during the day without contributing anything to our daily goals. You can usually find inefficiencies and reduce them, giving you some more time to spend on your goals.

Now, consider the singular goal of training. Instead of 24 hours in the day, let’s say you’ve carved out two hours a day, three times a week, and that you’ve decided to budget a certain amount of money for the quality diet you need to eat to support your training. You also have an implicit energy budget that you are going to pay with 8 hours of sleep every night. You’ve done this because you have thought about the value of strength training and made a conscious choice to dedicate these resources to your strength training habit. With these resources, you have defined optimal training precisely by the resources you’ve set aside to accomplish your strength training goals.

Instead of thinking of optimal in terms of outcomes, think of it in terms of the allocation of your resources. The best outcome of strength training is both unknowable and unreachable. Ideally, you would do exactly the right amount of work every day and give the right amount of recovery, resulting in a strength adaptation that was the maximum you possible could incur based on your genetic makeup and individually-varied response to training. But there is no way to know whether that’s what you did, and we can generally assume that all our activities occur at some degree lower than perfect. 

Training exists in degrees of quality based on internal and external constraints that are either a part of your physical makeup (like your age, gender, and genetic predispositions) or are self-determined. Training optimally means considering the extent of your resources and making decisions that allocate the totality of your resources to balance the value of strength training with your other goals and responsibilities. Some people can spend over two hours in the gym, four days a week. Others might only be able to carve out forty-five minutes, three times a week. These individuals have vastly different time resources available, but both can train optimally within their own constraints. For the person who has over two hours to train, they might only need ninety minutes to complete their training session. There is no benefit for them to take longer and stay in the gym beyond what is required to complete their workout. As they progress, however, they might be able to make individual programming decisions that take advantage of the flexibility of their time resource. Someone with limited time will need to maximize the use of their gym time, but shouldn’t diminish the value of their efforts because they can’t give more to training. 

When there is a disconnection between that value and your training efforts, you should consider whether the disconnection comes from the value side of the issue or the resources side.

Perhaps, however, you feel you aren’t meeting your goal, meaning you experience some disconnection between how you perceive the value of strength training and your efforts to dedicate enough resources to matching that value. In that case, the first question you have to ask is whether you are giving the same time, energy, and resources to strength training as you committed to giving. If not, this is a good time to figure out if there are inefficiencies in your training time or whether you need to update your goals, sitting down with a pen and paper or setting up a video chat with a coach is a good step at this time. 

This could be an issue of motivation, in which case you may need to know where you lie on the path toward your goals. How is your progress? What can you do within your current resources to improve progress? If your perceived value has changed, you likely require feedback as to your own progress and how strength training fits into the bigger picture of your goals.

Life Changes

Change will bring new challenges. If you are committing all your self-determined resources to strength training, then you are training optimally within your own constraints. A change from here occurs due to a change in your available resources. Career changes or significant life changes can shift your goals and responsibilities suddenly and rather dramatically. You may need to recalibrate your training and your expectations to avoid frustration. Or, perhaps, you have more free time now, maybe you can increase your results by improving your training time, your recovery, and your programming. If you feel like you aren’t meeting your full potential, then you can choose to allocate more resources to training, shifting your optimal curve upward.

There are a few strategies you can use to periodically “find” more resources, to motivate yourself to allocate more to training that you are accustomed to. Instead of considering your resources in the short term on a daily or weekly basis, take a big-picture look at your yearly or seasonal schedules. Long-term planning often reveals planned periods of lesser activity that you can break up with periods dedicated to training. Summer vacations, births, and job changes all tend to cause losses in training time. When you know these are coming, plan to buckle down for harder training in the short run to make the most of the time you can spend in the gym. Use life occurrences as organizing forces. 

You can artificially create these periods by signing up for a meet. This gives you a defined period for hard training and end date, increasing the risk but minimizing the potential loss.  

Training with Constraints

Having worked through both the value of strength training and the consideration of your resources, your next issue is programming. How do you train optimally within different types of resource constraints such as limited time, limited recovery ability, and an unpredictable schedule?

There’s this idea of a theoretical lifter whose life is based around lifting. He or she is sufficiently young, wealthy, stress-free, and unencumbered to not only train optimally, as we’ve defined it here, but to implement the theoretically ideal programming choices as well. The farther you are removed this theoretical lifter, the more individualized your programming will need to be. The process of Minimum Effective Dose (MED) will lead you toward a program that at any given point in time is uniquely yours because the variables are tuned and calibrated for your present needs and documented responses to training. That said, if you are feeling lost with your own programming, there are a few key principles and a few go-to programs that can help you regain some of your training optimality.

Build a Base

There is a difference between training “suboptimally” as a novice and as a lifter with a solid foundation of training. Strength training involves structural changes that take time and bodily resources to develop. If you take a lifter with ten years of strength training history and put them on a one lift per day program, for example, that lifter is going to respond well because he or she has the physical capacity, mental capacity, and form to garner a lot of training stress out of a relatively low-volume/low-frequency program. A novice lifter lacks all three of these things.

Do not ignore the importance of the novice and early intermediate phases of training. This is where you etch the process of training into your body. It prepares you for the long-term. It teaches you the value of training and the cost. To the best of your ability, the best way to prepare for suboptimal training in the future is to put your head down, march through a Novice Linear Progression (NLP), push yourself, and listen to your coach (if you have one). A wide-base will serve you well.

Assuming you are not a novice lifter, there are different kinds of constraints that you may have to deal with. The most common are time constraints per session, the need for fewer workouts per week, training around other activities, and an unpredictable training schedule. These constraints during your NLP will also result in individualized programming as you use MED principles to address these issues, setting the tone and precedent for your training in the post-novice phases. During your post-novice training, however, it can be helpful to have a few programming options to prevent a loss of progress.

Time Constraints  

Time constraints take two forms: either you can train three days or more per week but not for very long each session, or you have time for full training sessions but only twice per week. Note that there are minimum viable constraints. If you cannot train more than once per week, then revisit the “value” considerations of previous articles and decide whether strength training is worth finding extra time. If you are in a zero-sum situation, then there will be trade-offs. So, let’s call these the minimum viable training time requirements:

You can either—

  •  Train or more times a week for at least 45 minutes. (That’s 45 minutes from the moment you start your first warmup.) Or,
  • You can train at least two times per week for an hour or more.

These are the requirements for long-term training viability, meaning you can make progress for a very long time within these constraints. You can make do with less for short periods during your training career, but for the long term, these are your minimum time requirements.

Programming Short Workouts

4-day Texas Method (estimated time per session: 1 hour)

 

Week

Upper Volume

Lower Volume

Upper Intensity

Lower Intensity

Week 1 (Press focused)

Press

5×5 @ ~90% of upcoming intensity day weight

Bench Press

3×10

Chinups or Pulldowns

3 x AMRAP

Squat

5×5 @ 90% of upcoming intensity day 

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Press

5RM 

Bench Press

3 x 5 

Chinups or Pulldowns

3 x AMRAP

Squat

5RM 

Deadlift

5RM

Week 2 (Bench Press focused)

Bench Press

5×5 @ 90% of upcoming intensity day

Press

3×10 

Chinups or Pulldowns

3xAMRAP

Squat

5×5 @ 90% of upcoming intensity day 

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Bench Press

5RM

Press

3 x 5

 

Chinups or Pulldowns

3 x AMRAP

Squat

5RM 

Deadlift

5RM

 

One Lift Per Day (Estimated time per training session (45 minutes)

 

Squat

Bench

Deadlift

Press

Week 1

5×5

Then, 

Deficit Deadlifts

3 – 5 x 5 – 8

5×5

 

Then, 

Press

3 x 10

5×5 ascending sets 

Then,

Tempo Squat (3-0-3)

5 x 3

5×5

Then,

Floor Press

3 x 5 – 8

Week 2

5×3

Then, 

Deficit Deadlifts

3 – 5 x 5 – 8

5×3

Then, 

Press

3 x 10

5×3

Then,

Tempo Squat (3-0-3)

5 x 3

5×3

Then, 

Floor Press

3 x 5 – 8

Week 3

5×1

Then, 

Deficit Deadlifts

3 – 5 x 5 – 8

5×1

Then, 

Press

3 x 10

5×1

Then,

Tempo Squat (3-0-3)

5 x 3

5×1

Then, 

Floor Press

3 x 5 – 8

 

Fewer Training Sessions Per Week

Whereas the upper body/lower body training splits above help to keep your workouts shorter, if your constraint is that you must work with fewer training days per week, then full-body sessions will help you maximize your lift frequency. The following programs use a Heavy, Light, Medium framework.

One day on, two days off (training every 2 days)

This is not conducive to a standard schedule but can decrease the number of times you have to go to the gym every week. This is an especially good program for masters lifters, as it adds in some additional recovery time during your regular training cycle.

 

Week 1

Monday 

(Heavy Squat, Heavy press, Medium Pull)

Thursday

(Light squat, light press, heavy pull)

Sunday

(Medium squat, Medium pres, light pull)

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Squat

3 x 5 (80% of Monday)

Press

4 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Squat

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Bench Press

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Chins/Pull-Ups

3 x AMRAP

Week 2

Tuesday

(Heavy Squat, Heavy press, Medium Pull)

Friday

(Light squat, light press, heavy pull)

Monday

(Medium squat, Medium pres, light pull)

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Squat

3 x 5 (80% of Monday)

Press

4 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Squat

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Bench Press

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Chins/Pull-Ups

3 x AMRAP

 

Heavy/Light (2 days per week training)

Alternatively, if your schedule calls for two set days per week of training, you can modify the Heavy-Light-Medium framework to exclude some of the light day work.

 

Week 1

Monday 

Thursday

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Chins/ Pull-ups

3 x AMRAP

Squat

3 – 5 x 5 (~85% of Monday)

Press

4 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Chins/Pull-ups

3xAMRAP

 

Training Around Other Activities

Sports and other physical hobbies require a little more pre-planning and a more rigorous schedule. But strength complements every other physical activity. Being smart and setting a workable plan will help you build your strength and practice your sport.

Exactly, how to do this will vary with the sport and your schedule. For demanding sports, once the athlete has transitioned out of novice programming, a 2-day per week strength training program usually works well to allow for progress, practice, and competition.

A two-day per week program would put the heaviest training day the day after Game Day, usually on the weekend. And it would schedule the second training day two days before Game Day. The example below comes from Practical Programming for Strength Training by Mark Rippetoe and Andy Baker. It is for a football player who has games on Friday, hard practice on Monday and Tuesday, and lighter practice on Wednesday and Thursday. For this schedule, the athlete would have his heaviest workout on Saturday and the lighter workout on Wednesday, allowing for recovery before the next Game Day.

 

Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday (game day)

Saturday

Sunday

Practice
Practice
Lighter Training day
Squat

5RM, 3RM, or 1RM

Bench/Press

5RM, 3RM,

1RM

Deadlift

5RM

Recovery/Light practice
Competition or performance day
Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press/Press

4 x 5

Power Clean

5 x 3

Chins/ Pull-ups

3 x AMRAP

Rest

 

Unpredictable Training Schedule

Sometimes even the idea of regularly scheduled training can cause problems. There are so many occupations that require emergency and unplanned deviations from the daily normal that scheduling has to stay flexible. For these lifters, it’s helpful to make a plan, but make that plan flexible for the expected unexpected. We suggest planning for three times per week, full-body training with a structure that allows for on the fly modifications. 

Weekly modifications have to be principle-based. If you have an unpredictable schedule, then your training and results will also be unpredictable, but you can remain efficient with your work by sticking to a few principles. Using an HLM structure, try to stick to these basic principles:

  • Prioritize the basics: Squat, Press, Deadlift, and Bench Press every week.
  • Protect your high-stress training days: As much as you can, plan to give yourself the best chance to complete the “Heavy” work in your HLM schedule.
  • Gradually trade-off Volume for Intensity with your Heavy work. The 5 x 5 volume day should continuously increase weight. Eventually, this will mean it will become a 5 x 3 day. And, finally, a 5 x 1 intensity day. When you can no longer add weight to the 5 x 1 day, use MED changes to bring the program back to the original format, but at a place that is much farther along than where you started the first time through.

Plan HLM

 

Week 1

Monday 

(Heavy Squat, Heavy press, Medium Pull)

Wednesday

(Light squat, light press, heavy pull)

Friday

(Medium squat, Medium pres, light pull)

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4-5 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Squat

3 x 5 (80% of Monday)

Press

5 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Squat

3-5 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Close Grip Bench Press

3-5 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Chins/Pull-Ups

3 x AMRAP

 

Possible Modification

You missed the Wednesday workout, but are ready to train again on Thursday. Then you won’t be able to train again until Monday.

Week 1

Monday 

(Heavy Squat, Heavy press, Medium Pull)

Thursday

(Light squat, light press, heavy pull)

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4-5 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Squat

3-5 x 5 (90% of Monday)

Press

5 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Week 2 (reset the plan)

Monday 

Wednesday

Friday

Squat 

5 x 5

Bench Press

4-5 x 5

Barbell Row

3 x 8

Squat

3 x 5 (90% of Monday)

Press

4 x 5

Deadlift

1 x 5

Squat

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Bench Press

3 x 5 @ 90% of Monday

Chins/Pull-Ups

3 x AMRAP

 

We hope it is clear that these options are not “plug-n-play.” They are ideas based on programming concepts. The most important points to take away are that optimal training depends on you and can look very different from person to person. Just thinking about things and making logical, reasonable plans to help strength training become a part of your life puts you ahead of the game. So, keep lifting, keep training, and let us know if you have any other creative solutions to difficult training constraints.

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