Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

I often get asked, “How long do you work out for?” Many people assume that spending more time exercising is better, but it’s actually the right combination of intensity and time together that makes the magic. What if you had a recipe for creating a workout to fit whatever time you have?

In many ways, our society creates the flawed, more-is-better time perspective. At many jobs, you’ve got to “put your time in.” You can work efficiently or not, but you still need to be at work for the required number of hours in the workday. You can’t get promoted to higher levels until you’ve been there a certain number of years, when instead it should be the quality of the work that is the dominant factor.

We even sell personal-training sessions and fitness classes based on time. Admittedly time is important for planning our schedules, and we must know the hard stop times of meetings, sessions and most calendar events.

However, when it comes to the general idea of exercise, even the U.S. government’s physical activity guidelines confuse people by recommending 150 weekly minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 weekly minutes of high-intensity activity. No one—not even most health and fitness professionals—tracks this or knows how this works in a practical way.

All of this points to one thing: An overemphasis on how long a workout is and a bias toward more time being better. Sometimes we bail on a workout because we don’t have enough time to do what we planned. Life can be relentlessly demanding of both our time and energy and leave us with less time than we’d like for many things. Yes, this even happens to me from time to time. It happens to all of us.

What is the fix? With a few simple ingredients you can make a workout fit the time you have instead of feeling frustrated trying to fit a 60-minute workout into a 20-minute window.

The Ingredients

  1. Movement-based Training: Starting with the ACE IFT model as a foundation, consider the five major categories of movement:
    1. Bend and lift (squat or deadlift-type movement)
    2. Single-leg/lunge
    3. Push
    4. Pull
    5. Rotate
  2. Movement Speed: Normal, fast and slow (relative to your “normal” speed, which is the speed you move when you aren’t paying attention to your speed of movement)
  3. Total-body Movement: Provides more of a “lung challenge” than a muscle challenge
  4. Shift or Asymmetry (Optional): Using a shift in the center of gravity or moving an external load asymmetrically to provide a more dynamic experience (e.g., alternating dumbbell overhead press)

The Recipe

Start with these five movements, use a speed of movement that is appropriate for you and mix in some total-body movements somewhere. Add body shifts or asymmetry to your taste, preferences and goals. Combine all the ingredients for the available time you have and you’ll wind up with a complete, “fully cooked” workout.

The 20-Minute (No-bake) Workout

20-Minute Workout

Movement Samples


Squat – any variation

Deadlift *

Kettlebell Swing

Single-leg Squat/Lunge

Side Lunge *

Step-back Lunge

TRX Single-leg Squat


Push-up – any variation

Shoulder Press *

Chest Press


Dumbbell Row *


Close-grip Pull-down


TRX Side-plank Rotation

Latera Rolling Plank *

Torso Offset Crunch

Total-body Movements

Funky Jumping Jacks *


Kettlebell Get-up

*Displayed in infographic

How to Do It

It is best to use time-based sets because our goal is to ensure we are staying within our 20-minute parameter. However, if you are unable or disinclined to use time-based sets, use the rep-based method shown and simply stop when you hit 20 minutes of workout time. If using equipment, get it out and get it ready because there’s not much stopping once you start.

For Each of the 5 Primary Movements:
Fast: 10 seconds (or 10 reps)

Slow: 15 seconds (or 5 reps)

Follow for all moves, allowing 5 seconds to transition between each move = 2.5 minutes

Finish with 1 total-body move – perform for 60 seconds

Rest for 30 seconds

Total time for one circuit = 4 minutes

Repeat 4 more times (with option to switch to other movements for successive circuits)

If you only have 10 minutes to work out, perform two circuits plus the first 4 moves of a third circuit to hit the 10-minute mark and then stop.

Why This Works

This workout is complete from a movement-based training perspective, so whatever time you have available will provide a benefit. From a time perspective, no matter where you are when you stop, you’ve hit all the moves at various speeds and will have experienced a workout that both feels challenging and provides a benefit to your entire muscular and cardiovascular systems.

Choose Your Busy

I often say that life is a choice between “busy and unfit,” and “busy and fit.” Everyone is busy. Removing the barrier of “enough” total workout time allows everyone to choose “busy and fit!”