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20 Minutes To Muscle

If you are a coach or gym rat (or both like me!), you need about as much encouragement to train as asking a dog if it’s ready to go for walkies. They’re always down for that, and playing fetch, and food, and treats. Definitely some parallels there right? But I digress.

In an ideal world we would all have 60-90 minutes, 5 days a week to make those weights cry for mercy. So what if you don’t have that much time? What if you only have 20 minutes a day to get the meat of your workout in?

Apart from every personal trainer hating your guts right now, it is absolutely possible to get an effective hypertrophy focused workout in 20 minutes. What I am not saying is that it’s the most optimal approach.

Frankly, It’s common sense that you will be able to achieve greater output with more available time. You can achieve more volume, optimise rest periods to maximise output and have a greater spread in your exercise selection.

You know what though? If all you have is 20 minutes… you sure as hell need to make it count!

To get the most out of these shorter sessions, there are some key training variables to account for:

  • Rest periods will need to be kept to a minimum.
  • Intensity (%1RM) can’t be too high if we are to maximise volume.
  • Exercise selection has to be minimalistic as possible, meaning big bang for buck movements (you could have 1-2 accessory workouts depending on how many days you have to train).
  • Exercises ideally need to be non-competing (e.g. push vs pull, upper vs lower, anterior vs posterior).

What we are really playing with here is maximising “density” by doing a lot of work in a short time frame. This is where density methods such as “Every Minute On The Minute” (EMOM) and As Many Reps As Possible (AMRAP) become useful.

CrossFit certainly helped to popularise these methods. The CrossFit “WOD” places the most emphasis on getting as much output done in as short a time as possible. You have to move fast to get the work done, that’s simply the nature of the beast.

For the workouts I share with you today, tempo, tension and control are hugely important. With a hypertrophy focus we want to minimise momentum and global efficiency.

Now that we understand each other, let’s dive into the workouts.

The Workout Format

  • For the main combos, were are going to use the EMOM approach.
  • The workouts are 20 minutes long, so 10 sets of each exercise.
  • Choose a weight for each exercise you can for sure perform a challenging 10 reps.
  • You perform 6-8 reps of Movement A, then rest the remainder of the minute before completing the same number of reps for Movement B.
  • I am prescribing a rep range rather than set reps.
  • You will start at the bottom of the rep range with 6 reps on Week 1, 7 reps on week 2, 8 on week 3.
  • On week 4 you will slightly increase the weight and start again.
  • The weight won’t feel heavy at first but you will accumulate fatigue quickly.
  • Creating optimal tension and quality reps are key!
  • You can 100% scale an exercise back if it is too difficult. For example substituting Pull Ups for Body Rows or Lat Pulldowns is 100% ok. As long as the movement pattern is not completely different.

Upper & Lower Combos

  1. Deadlift Variation & Bench Press
  2. Squat & Pull Ups
  3. BB Hip Thrusters & Military Press

Upper Body Combos

4) Military Press & Pull Ups

5) DB Bench Press & Seated Rows

Lower Body Combos

6) Goblet Squats & Deadlifts

7) BB Hip Thrusters & DB Lunges


  • For these combos you will utilize an AMRAP style approach.
  • You achieve as many total reps as possible by completing as many rounds as possible within 20 minutes.
  • Choose a weight that would be challenging for 15 reps.
  • 10-12 reps of each exercise (same weekly progression as above).

Full Body – Landmine Squat, Landmine RDL, Landmine Press, Landmine Row

Lower Body 

DB Goblet Squat, DB RDL’s, DB Front Foot Elevated Split Squats, Single Leg Hip Thruster

Upper Body 

Tempo Push Ups, Cable Lateral Raises, Cable Bicep Curls, Straight Arm Cable Pulldown, Cable Tricep Extensions. 

Programming Recommendations

How you will utilise the above workouts depends on 1) How many days you have to train, 2) What your training priorities are right now and 3) the equipment you have access to amongst other factors. The above workouts are based on the assumption that you are a healthy and fully capable individual.

The more days you have to play with, the more you can split things up. If you have only 3 days to train, I would recommend the 3 Upper & Lower Combos.

However, rather than me making arbitrary recommendations, let’s get some dialogue going in the comments below about how you can put the above together for you own specific needs.

If you work hard and follow the progression structure above, not only will you see some sizeable muscular changes over time, you’ll have a sick level of conditioning from adapting to minimal rest periods. That’s right, you cover cardio and weights in an uber efficient 20 minutes like a boss. Now go get after it!

About the Author

Ross Gilmour is a specialist in applying broad movement principles and methods to specific clients and contexts. The precision of execution is an absolute non-negotiable! Programming in order to build strength, add muscle or improve athletic performance is a real passion of his. Ross also gets an immense sense of reward from helping active populations recover from injury, bridging the gap between rehab and performance.