How to train faster Less time, maximum return

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Building muscle mass is something you should take the time to do, no matter how busy your life is. But that doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the gym every day. In fact, by training smart(er) you can significantly shorten your training time, even without compromising the result. We discuss various methods to make fast gains. You can combine several methods.


Compound or multi-joint exercises are exercises that involve two or more joints. In other words, exercises where you train multiple muscle groups at the same time. They offer all kinds of benefits.

If you mainly do compounds, this saves a lot of time in the first place. For example, if you do the barbell bench press, you train your chest, shoulders and triceps in one go. If you also train with loose weights (ie with a barbell or dumbbell), you will also use your stabilizing muscles more. In addition, (heavy) compounds disrupt homeostasis more than isolation exercises, which may result in more muscle growth. Finally, you can perform heavy compound exercises, so you only need to do 5 to 10 repetitions per set, which saves time compared to training with light weights.

Either way, make sure you base your training program on compound exercises. These can be free weight exercises (require more technique), but machine exercises are also okay. After all, the scientific literature has shown that machine exercises for muscle growth are just as effective as training with free weights.

Do at least one upper body pressing exercise (e.g. leg press or squats), one upper body pulling exercise (e.g. pull-ups), and one upper body pushing exercise (e.g. bench press).


Research shows that for optimal muscle growth, an average natural bodybuilder should do 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week, spread over two to three workouts per week. In doing so, you train each set to near muscle failure, but not quite (you keep one to three reps in the ‘tank’, or 1-3 RIR). Preferably you do your sets in the range of 6 to 15 repetitions. We call those 10 to 20 sets the training volume.

But what about your training volume if you have little time to train? According to a scientific review by, among others, muscle growth expert Brad Schoenfield,  four (!) sets per muscle group per week are enough to grow. This means that you can train your entire body for muscle growth with roughly three half-hour sessions a week. According to coach and author Greg Nuckols, an hour of training per week can be enough to achieve perhaps 70% of maximum muscle growth.


The low training volume means that you can handle a high training intensity. Assuming roughly four sets per muscle group per week, you can train each set to complete muscle failure. So you don’t have to use RIR, although you will have to keep a few reps in the tank with large compounds such as squats and deadlifts.

This style of training – low volume, high intensity – is also known as High Intensity Training (HIT, not to be confused with HIIT). HIT means that you train your most sets to complete muscle failure, but do much fewer sets than normal.

In a HIT program, you train your entire body three or even just twice a week – for example on Monday, possibly Wednesday and Friday. So it is a full body routine. By training your body intensively in two or three short training sessions, it receives a maximum growth stimulus and sufficient time to recover.


Below is an example of a training program for which you only need one hour per week. You train twice a week for about half an hour.

squat: 3 sets, 1 RIR
overhead press: 3 sets, 0-1 RIR*
rows of pull-ups 3-4 sets, 0-1 RIR*

deadlift: 3 sets, 1 RIR
bench press: 3 sets, 0-1 RIR*
rows of pull-ups 3-4 sets, 0-1 RIR*

* first two sets 1 RIR, last set 0 RIR


Contrary to what many people think, you can also build muscle mass with little training volume. It just goes a bit slower and over time you end up at a ceiling, which means you have to add sets and possibly increase your training frequency.


There are several training techniques that allow you to create many effective repetitions in a short time . We discuss the most important. If desired, you can use different techniques together in one training.


With a superset you do two different exercises immediately or almost immediately after each other, so without rest. For example:

barbell bench press
barbell row
2 minuten rust
barbell bench press
barbell row
2 minuten rust
barbell bench press
barbell row

The fact that you save time with this is obvious: you essentially get half of your normal rest times from your training. But do you also build muscle mass just as quickly with super sets as with regular sets? It depends.

In the example you do two exercises for two opposing muscle groups (chest and back). Opposing supersets (also called agonist-antagonist supersets) work the flexor and extensor or the pushing and pulling muscle group. According to coach Eric Helms, a superset of two opposing muscle groups can increase training performance in the second set. This is suggested by several studies, although it is unclear exactly what mechanism underlies this. According to that research, there is no question of a reduced performance in that second set of the superset anyway, so you grab the time advantage anyway, says Helms.

If you do supersets of two of the same muscle groups in succession, for example bench press followed by chest flyes, then this will be at the expense of the quality (read: the mechanical tension) of that second set. It is true that you build up more metabolic stress, but that training mechanism is subordinate to mechanical tension for muscle growth. So if muscle growth is your main goal, it’s better to only use agonist-antagonist supersets, or supersets for two muscle groups that have nothing to do with each other, for example chest and calves.


With paired sets you make a small circuit of two or more exercises, with just enough rest between those exercises to perform optimally. In contrast to supersets, you do build in rest breaks. Nevertheless, you still save time. For example:

barbell bench press
1 minute rest
barbell row
1 minute rest
barbell bench press
1 minute rest
barbell bench press
1 minute rest
barbell bench press
1 minute rest
barbell bench press

Research shows that agonist-antagonist paired sets (like our example) even have a beneficial effect on performance. That is extra profit in addition to the time gain, as we already saw with agonist-antagonist supersets.


With drop sets you also say goodbye to your traditional rest periods and continue training for a while after reaching (near) muscle failure. The method works as follows:

1. You do a regular set, in which you train until or near muscle failure.
2. You reduce the weight by 20-25%.
3. You immediately do the next set (so no rest), in which you continue training until or near muscle failure.
4. You repeat 2 and 3 until you have achieved the desired number of sets, for example five.

Studies from 2017 and 2018 and a meta-analysis from 2022 show that drop sets are just as effective as regular sets, at an equal training volume. However, individuals using drop sets completed each training session in less than a third of the time as the traditional training group!

Drop sets are especially suitable for machine exercises, where you only have to put a pin to lower the weight.

Do not train every set of your drop set series to complete muscle failure, but only the last, for example. At the other, handle 1-2 RIR.


Rest-pause training means that you train to or near muscle failure, pause for about ten seconds and then do a few more repetitions with the same weight, again to or near muscle failure.

The ‘secret’ of rest-pause training lies in phosphocreatine. This is a chemical compound that can be produced by the muscle very quickly, within seconds. This phosphate in the muscle immediately provides energy for contraction and at the same time removes lactic acid, the waste product that a few seconds ago prevented you from continuing to train at the same intensity (ie with the same weight). Of course the muscle is still tired and soon there will be so much lactic acid again that you can’t go any further. But then you have been able to squeeze out a few extra (effective) reps!

You can apply rest-pause training in different ways, but the principle is always the same:

1. You do an ‘activation set’, in which you train until or near muscle failure.
2. You rest very briefly, five to fifteen seconds at the most. Do not rest too long (> 15 seconds), because then it quickly becomes a ‘normal’ rest break.
3. You do a ‘mini set’, of as many repetitions as possible until (almost) muscle failure again. You will usually be able to do two to four additional reps.
4. You repeat 2 and 3, until you can no longer complete the ‘mini set’ from 3, or until you have done a desired number of repetitions.

The big advantage of rest-pause sets is that you create many effective repetitions in a short time, because you skip the ineffective or less effective repetitions. On balance, you may have done as many effective reps with one rest-pause series as with three normal sets. Rest-pause sets are a time-saving exercise method and research (1, 2) suggests that it is just as effective as doing traditional sets (though not more effective).

The disadvantage of rest-pause sets is that you cannot apply them very well to (large) compound exercises with free weights, such as the barbell squat, deadlift and bench press. After all, these exercises require a good set-up. Rest-pause is therefore best suited for isolation exercises, such as biceps curls, and machine exercises, such as machine chest presses and machine rows.

Rest-pause training is especially useful if you are more advanced, especially if you need more volume for certain muscle groups but don’t have the time or desire to do many extra sets. Keep in mind that training to complete muscle failure causes a lot of extra fatigue. If you do a lot of rest-pause sets, do them with 1-2 RIR.


The 3/7 method was popularized by a 2019 study. The training protocol of the 3/7 study group was as follows:

set 1: 3 reps, 15 seconds rest
set 2: 4 reps, 15 seconds rest
set 3: 5 reps, 15 seconds rest
set 4: 6 reps, 15 seconds rest
set 5: 7 reps to complete set

Then rest for two and a half minutes and do the series again.

The traditional research group trained with 8 sets of 6 repetitions with 2.5 minutes of rest between sets (8×6).

What turned out? The 3/7 group achieved almost twice as much muscle growth as the 8×6 group. In addition, the 3/7 group completed all their training sessions in less than half the time compared to the traditional group. So win-win. It must be said that this is only one study, which does not alter the fact that it is a promising method.

The 3/7 method probably results in more metabolic stress, the researchers explain, while the mechanical tension is about the same in both protocols.

With the 3/7 method, you do all sets with the same load. That is about 70 percent of the weight with which you can just make one rep. Usually that is the weight with which you can do 12 reps if you train a set to muscle failure. The first few sets should be very easy. But by the time you get to the sets of 6 and 7 reps, it should be really hard. And you should fail by the end – or at least come very close to it.

The 3/7 method is also best used for insulating and/or mechanical exercises.


In this article we discussed ways to significantly reduce your training time, while still achieving muscle growth. The nice thing is that you can also combine methods with each other.

If you have all the time to train, it is better to train traditionally, because that simply produces the most muscle growth. Also remember that with traditional training it is easier to keep track of your progress and thus apply progressive overload.

Originally published September 11, 2021, revised December 20, 2022.

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