Exercise Selection for Busy People

If you’ve ever attempted to develop a workout plan on your own, you know how challenging it can be. One of the most difficult parts is determining the right types of exercises to do. Most people don’t have the knowledge or time to figure this out, so they opt for ready-made exercise programs. A major problem with many ready-made programs is that they’re not specifically designed to minimize friction (the inefficient use of time and energy), yet lack of time and energy is a primary reason most busy people don’t exercise consistently.

To pick the right exercises that will fit into your busy life, you should consider only those that provide the maximum amount of benefit in the least amount of time. In other words, you need to choose the most efficient exercises. Taking this approach results in short and effective workouts that minimize friction.

Any workout plan should include both strength-training and cardio exercises.

Strength-Training Exercises

The most efficient strength exercises are those that engage the highest number of important muscles all in one movement. These are called compound exercises. When you pick compound exercises, you’ll work more muscles with fewer exercises in less time.

Here are the six most essential compound movements that should be part of a complete exercise program, along with common examples of each:

  • Horizontal push (or press)—bench presses, dumbbell presses, machine presses, and push-ups
  • Horizontal pull—barbell rows, T-bar rows, dumbbell rows, seated cable rows, and machine rows
  • Vertical push—standing military presses, dumbbell presses, single-arm presses, seated shoulder presses, and high-incline bench presses
  • Vertical pull—chin-ups (which are biceps dominant), pull-ups (which are triceps dominant), and lateral pull-downs (which can be biceps or triceps dominant)
  • Hip-dominant pull—dead lifts and various types of hip extensions
  • Quad-dominant push—squats, lunges, barbell hack squats, leg presses (machine), and Smith machine squats

These six types of motion offer the best balance of effectiveness, simplicity, and safety for your workouts.

Cardio Exercises

Effective cardio exercise should get your heart beating at about 60 percent (or more) of your maximal heart rate (MHR). Your MHR is the highest level of cardio intensity you should reach while exercising: pushing yourself beyond this intensity level can be unsafe.

To determine your MHR, use this formula: MHR = 208 – (0.7 × age). To calculate 60 percent of your MHR, multiply your MHR by 0.6. For example,

  • MHR for a 40-year-old: 208 – (0.7 × 40) = 180 beats per minute
  • 60 percent of MHR: 180 × 0.6 = 108 beats per minute

Any cardio exercise that raises your heart rate to at least 60 percent of your MHR and sustains it is technically effective—for example, jogging, biking, jumping jacks, and jumping rope. Note that many substances, over-the-counter medications, and prescription medications (e.g., caffeine, nicotine, antihistamines, and beta blockers) can affect your heart rate and ability to perform and respond to exercise. So using one’s MHR to set exercise heart rate targets won’t be the best approach for some people.

For the lowest-friction exercise plan, choose only those cardio options that can be done in the same physical space as where you do strength training (ideally a home gym). Cardio exercises that must be done in a separate location should be immediately disqualified because they’ll limit your ability to quickly alternate back and forth between cardio and strength training. For instance, if you’re out on a ten-mile bike ride, it would be impossible to quickly stop and execute a set of pull-ups or weighted lunges. This is a problem because the ability to quickly switch between cardio and strength exercises can reduce the total amount of cardio exercise that’s necessary.

Here are some great cardio options that can typically be done where you do strength training:

  • Running in place
  • Jumping jacks
  • Jumping rope

Choosing Your Exercises

Now you’re ready to start selecting the strength-training and cardio exercises that will be the basis of your workout plan. As you make your decisions, keep the following factors in mind: efficiency, safety, your personal capabilities, your available gym space, and equipment requirements. Select one exercise for each category:

  1. Horizontal push
  2. Horizontal pull
  3. Vertical push
  4. Vertical pull (triceps dominant)
  5. Vertical pull (biceps dominant)
  6. Hip-dominant pull
  7. Quad-dominant push
  8. Core exercise (e.g., ab crunches)
  9. Cardio exercise

In future articles, we will explore how to group the exercises you’ve selected into different individual workouts that you can cycle through over the course of each week.