Here’s Exactly What to Do When You Only Have Time for a 20-Minute Workout

On those really busy days when you have almost no time to exercise, you might wonder if a 20-minute workout is even worth it. But we’re here to let you know that, if that’s the time you have, you actually can get in an effective workout. Truth is, there’s a lot you can achieve in a short exercise session—and some pretty compelling reasons to slot a quick workout into your schedule. For starters, short workouts can be a great way to fit movement into a busy day, Ava Fagin, CSCS, assistant director of sports performance at Cleveland State University and strength coach with Team Wilpers, tells SELF. And even a 20-minute workout can bring mental and physical benefits. 

According to the latest Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, exercise sessions of any length can contribute to positive health benefits, including decreased blood pressure, improved insulin sensitivity, reduced feelings of anxiety and depression, and better sleep. Quick sessions can also push you to maximize every minute and help you really dial into your movement: When you have very little time to waste, your attention is laser-focused and you make every rep count. With a 20-minute workout, “it’s straight to the point and you maximize your time,” certified personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist Keith Hodges, founder of Mind in Muscle in Los Angeles, tells SELF.

The catch with all this is: If you want to make the most of a 20-minute workout, it’s important to be really intentional about what you want and to work hard during the limited time you have. That means your best 20-minute workout will probably look a little different than a shortened version of your regular routine. Ideally, you should be clear on your goals, be strategic about the structure, and put in a strong effort. With that, we tapped training experts for advice on how to create a stellar 20-minute workout for four major exercise goals: boosting your cardio, getting a full-body pump, building muscle, and lifting heavy.

1. Set your intentions up front. 

When your workout is strapped for time, “you have to go in with a plan,” Fagin says. Without one, you may find yourself aimlessly roaming the gym (or your living room), unsure of what to do and wasting valuable exercise time. 

A good plan starts with setting an intention or goal. What’s the number one thing you want to hone in on during your workout? Since a 20-minute workout is pretty quick, you realistically won’t have the time to fit in everything, which is why you’ll want to narrow your focus.

Once you’ve set your intention it’s easier to build a specific workout that supports it. All workouts should include three main parts: a warm-up, a main set of work that’s specific to your goal, and a cooldown. With a 20-minute workout, though, each part has to be super targeted to what you want to get out of it. Here’s an intended focus for your workout for those four common intentions.


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