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What's the Least Amount of Exercise I Need to Do to Look Good?

Most of us don’t know how to get lean without wasting our time.

Nick English

Nick English

Photo: Lukasz Wierbowski

As we pointed out recently, long, steady-state cardio really isn't doing too much for you in the fitness department. The good news is that jacking up your metabolism, burning fat, and increasing lean muscle mass—the trifecta of a beach body, in other words—takes less time than you might think. The slightly-less-good news is that the workouts that'll get you there may crush your soul.

Those are the words of Dan Trink, co-owner of New York's Fortitude Strength Club and the author of High-Intensity 300. Trink has dedicated that book and much of his career to answering the question: What's the least amount of exercise I can do to look hot?

The short answer: ninety minutes per week. But those minutes have to count.

"Shorter workouts need to create a serious amount of metabolic demand," Trink says. "That means you're using a lot of energy and accelerating your heart rate, while also developing strength and muscle mass. These workouts need to hit both ends of the spectrum: You're using weight training to develop some lean muscle tissue while elevating your heart rate and using up a lot of energy to keep your body fat low."

That means using short rest periods and almost exclusively compound exercises, meaning movements that use multiple joints and larger muscle groups. There are two different kinds of workouts you can do:

Option 1: The 3-Day Approach
If you're really short on time, this one's the best: three full-body gym sessions per week, each about 25 to 35 minutes long. Here, you're going to be doing three sets of supersets, which is a pair of exercises that are performed back-to-back and typically use different muscle groups, so that (in this case), your back is resting while you're hitting your legs, so your heart rate stays high and your fat loss continues. Here's a sample. (For all the workouts in this article, start with a three to five minute warm-up; jogging is fine.)

4 supersets of front squats and pull-ups, 8 to 10 reps per exercise, 45-60 seconds rest after each superset. If pull-ups are tough, there's no shame in jumping while you pull yourself upward, or you can try starting at the top of the movement and lowering yourself down as slowly as you can. The lat pull-down machine can also work if things get too tough.

Rest 2 minutes.

3 supersets of step-ups and single-arm dumbbell overhead presses, 10 to 12 reps each per side, 45-60 seconds rest after each superset.

Rest 2 minutes.

3 supersets of push-ups (if that's tough, do them on your knees or with your hands on a wall) and jump squats, 25 reps each, 45-60 seconds rest after each superset.

You'll feel like you've run ten 100-meter sprints while being kicked in the lungs by a steel-capped boot, but the entire session shouldn't last more than 35 minutes. It's important to note the structure, so you can come up with your own workouts: Start with two big compound exercises, and as you fatigue, move to slightly less-demanding unilateral exercises (that's movements that use one arm or leg at a time), and finish with high-volume bodyweight exercises. This way, you're a lot less likely to hurt yourself as your energy drops and in case your form starts to slip.

Option 2: The Six-Day Approach
Three workouts will get the job done, but Trink's favorite approach is six workouts of 10 to 15 minutes apiece. This actually results in less time spent in the gym, but if yours is hard to get to, it may wind up more time-consuming. He thinks it's still worth it.

"In my experience, high-frequency exercise is optimal when it comes to body composition, strength improvements, and movement quality improvements," he says. "You're getting into that fatigued state more often and even if, at the end of the week, your net training time is the same, I almost always see better results with more frequent workouts."

Here's Dan Trink's perfect week. For selecting the weight, err on the lighter side and increase the weight next time you work out.

Day 1: Alternate 10 trap bar deadlifts and 10 push-ups for 10 minutes.

Day 2: 10 minutes of rowing on an ergonomic rower for max distance.

Day 3: Put 50 percent of your bodyweight on a barbell and squat as much as you can for 8 minutes. (Form is important here. If you sense that you're losing integrity, don't be a hero; decrease the weight.)

Day 4: Alternate 50 burpees and 50 calories on an assault bike for 10 minutes.

Day 5: Do 10 pull-ups and 1 dip, then 9 pull-ups and 2 dips, continue until your pull-ups hit zero. (Or try the pull-up substitutions above.)

Day 6: 50-calorie row, 50-calorie bike, 50 calories on the ski machine or elliptical, 500-meter run. Do that for 12 minutes.

Cakewalks they ain't. But if you're a little tired of hearing that an hour per day is the only road to a healthy, strong, and lean body, this plan combines the benefits of the traditional weights-and-cardio plan in a fraction of the time. Why not do more with less?

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