Four Total Body Workouts When You’re Short on Time

Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor and this is not a substitute for professional medical advice. You know the drill: attempt these workouts at your own risk.

Finding time to work out when you’re working a demanding job is tough. Add a big commute, errands, family responsibilities, and exercise time gets lost to the ether. And yet we know that physical activity is so critical to our physical, mental, emotional, and social performance and quality of life.

No matter how busy you are, skipping exercise is almost always a big mistake. Yes, being active takes time, but you can get a solid workout in a short amount of time if you’re willing to haul ass. Here are four workouts that will give you a great full-body workout in less than 15 minutes, and three of them don’t require any special equipment.

Are you ready to give up your best excuse for not exercising?

On High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)

The idea behind all of these workouts is that they have periods of intense work, and periods of rest. The rest periods are short by design. This type of training has been shown to burn fat efficient, develop aerobic and strength benefits and boost your metabolism for 48-72 hours after the workout.

The rest periods should feel “too short” and you will probably feel out of breath. Make sure to work really hard during the high intensity part of the interval to get the full benefit. Learn more about HIIT at Greatist.

The Seven Minute Circuit (Beginner)


Last summer,  the NYTimes Well Blog wrote a super popular post describing a workout regiment had appeared in the  American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal. The circuit was designed to be full body, be “scalable” to an person’s fitness levels, and doable without special equipment. The article got some flack for appearing to suggest a silver bullet where none existed, but I still think it’s a great workout you can do almost anywhere. It’s also good for beginners and older folks because it’s pretty low impact.

The Workout:
For each of the 12 exercises, go for 30 sec as hard as you can, then rest for 10 sec break.

  1. Jumping Jacks
  2. Wall Sit
  3. Push-Up
  4. Ab Crunch
  5. Step onto Chair
  6. Air Squat
  7. Triceps Dip on Chair
  8. Plank Hold
  9. High Knees in Place
  10. Lunge
  11. Push-Up and Rotation
  12. Side Plank

Total time: 14 mins (2 rounds of 7 mins)

What’s great about this workout is that you won’t get bored because you are constantly switching to a new movement. There are also lots of websites and Android + iOS apps that help you with timing and the list of exercises.

If you are new to working out, give this routine a spin.

The Elliptical Circuit (Intermediate)

The elliptical machine gets a lot of flack as a machine for pansies. There’s some truth to this. It’s often used by people who want cardio, but don’t like running (psst, running is in fact better) and there’s a high correlation between people who use the elliptical and use the phrase “I just want to get toned”. Still, there’s a lot of redeeming qualities to the elliptical. It is actually great for rehab for people who need a low impact workout. And because you can use your arms and legs, it makes a great total body workout – IF you do it right.

The Workout:

Repeat 7 rounds of:

  • 1 minute at an easy pace and a low setting (level 3-5)
  • 1 minute at a fast pace and a high resistance setting (level 10+)

Total time: 14 mins

The key here is that you really try to take it easy on the slow minute, but then you haul ass like crazy on the fast minute. Not only is the resistance setting cranked way up, but you pushing hard, using your arms to pull and push as well as moving your legs.

I like this workout because it’s easily calibrated for your fitness level and you can improve over time by aiming for certain speed settings and resistance levels. Plus you’ll look like a mad man on your fast minutes.

Crazy One-Minute Cardio (Advanced)

I discovered this video from a guy named Mike Chang who runs a fitness YouTube channel. Ignoring the random stuff he sells, he has a bunch of good workout videos and this is pretty solid and very simple. You basically run the routine as many times as you can in one minute, then rest for 15 seconds, and repeat for however many rounds you’d like. In this case, I’ve suggested 10.

The Workout

10 Rounds of:

  • Burpee
  • Tuck jump
  • 5 mountain climbers (you can do 6 if you’re anal about equal sides like me)
  • 5 switching lunges

This workout is more cardio-intensive and will get you out of breath fast and pretty sweaty too. The great thing is that you can do it almost anywhere since it requires no equipment and not even a lot of space. Do it in the hallway, in your kitchen, the alcove at work, out on the side walk, wherever!

Sprint + Burpee Tabata’s (Super Advanced)


The Tabata Protocol is a form of training popularized by a Japanese researcher named Dr. Izumi Tabata while working with the national speed skating. He’s published a number of studies on the effectiveness of high intensity interval training and its ability to “tax both the anaerobic and aerobic energy releasing systems almost maximally”.

My workout involves doing two rounds of tabatas. The first is sprints. That’s just running as hard as you can in a straight line until the time runs out. The second is burpees, which is a push-up, jumping to your feet, and jumping up, as I’ve demonstrated above.

The workout:

  • SPRINT: 8 rounds of 20 sec work / 10 sec rest
  • BREAK: 2-4 mins rest
  • BURPEE: 8  rounds of 20 sec work / 10 sec rest

This work out is killer. I usually try to do 10/10/10/10/9/9/8/10 on the burpees, with a goal of eventually doing 10 on every round. On days when I’m a little tired and yet short on time, I’m dreading this workout. It takes me up to a few minutes to psych myself up for it. And when it’s over, I am sometimes just on my hands and knees panting. If you aren’t extremely athletic, you might want to steer clear of this one. I ran through it once with a girlfriend who was relatively fit and she threw up halfway through.

But if you’re up for a big challenge and looking for something to efficiently work your entire body, and both the skeletal-muscular and cardio systems, this might be exactly what you need.

Photo credit: W_Minshull: Stormtroopers in Gym

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Jason Shen

Jason is a tech entrepreneur and advocate for Asian American men. He's written extensively and spoken all over the world about how individuals and organizations develop their competitive advantage. Follow him at @jasonshen.

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  1. Useful tips Jason! I found that as I got busier, I have ditched the gym membership and shifted entirely to home exercises. Is that something you have observed for yourself or peer group?

  2. I burst out laughing in a cafe at the part where you mention your girlfriend throwing up midway through the last workout. I can imagine mine trying to keep up and probably pushing past what she can do and having the same happen. 

    Actually, I’d probably throw up too if I really sprinted all those rounds without an extra few seconds of rest.

  3. Bin Teo  Well it really depends on how big your home is and how close your gym is! Right now my gym is a 5 min walk away and I prefer to go there, but I’ve also done 6 months of home workouts only (though really I’m still outside and not in my apartment). Whatever works for you!

  4. low setting, ease pace = heart rate ___?
    high setting, fast pace = heart rate ___?

    really need some benchmarks to make this information valuable :)

  5. jasonshen Andrew Dao I did it a few weeks ago. That’s awesome your burpees are at 10 per round after those sprints. Mine are 5-6 and I’m dying haha. Today I tried out the Mike Chang video workout. 11 rounds of that is no joke either — legs were on fire

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