Build Muscle, Get In Shape With Limited Time

Dustin Elliott
Written By: Dustin Elliott
November 12th, 2010
Updated: June 13th, 2020
Categories: Articles Training
13.9K Reads
Can't find the time to eat right, build muscle and get in shape? Dustin Elliott provides some eating and training tips to help you hit your goals.

Can't find time to exercise?When many Americans fall out of shape, it’s not always because of laziness, overeating or a lack of motivation. Sometimes injuries or a lack of time are major reasons for missteps in a healthy lifestyle. For many who are motivated, the only reason they aren’t lean and in great shape all the time is because they don’t have the time to dedicate to the countless hours of weight training and cardio that a great physique entails. Once work, school and family come in to play, it can seem like there isn’t much time to do anything. And even if you finally got time, you don’t feel like squandering it away by spending it in a gym.

A lack of time is also what keeps many people who want to continue to compete away from the contest stage. It’s no secret that it takes lots of time and money to compete in bodybuilding: the expensive healthy food, the supplements, tanning, paying for travel, waking up early to do cardio, lifting and doing cardio for more than 90 minutes later on that same day, etc. It is very difficult to say the least to get into shape with limited time, but if you can get into to shape, staying in shape is much easier. In this article I will provide you with the tools to accomplish both.

It can easily be argued that +50% of achieving a great physique is all diet, and the rest is proper training and allowing for time for adequate recovery (when genetics aren’t taken into account). So the proper diet is what we’ll start with; the first issue with those who are busy or crunched for time is being able to eat every 3 hours or so. Many bodybuilders take time out on Sunday and cook enough for the week which they separate into Tupperware’s to carry in a cooler lunch bag for the week. This will also help cut down on the cost of going out to eat for lunch every day.

The one thing to keep in mind about going out to eat if you are trying to stay fit is that even a healthy selection of foods may be 100-200 calories more than it would be if you prepared it yourself at home. The reason for this is that many restaurants will still use fatty oils on meats, or butter in rice to improve the taste. If you are serious about eating healthy, then you should look into preparing much of your food yourself. However, for those of us who aren’t cooks (myself included), there are convenient alternatives.

The only downside to convenient ready made foods is the sodium content. The sodium is mostly responsible for increasing the shelf life of these products but it is also leads to water retention. However, for those who lead an active lifestyle and can work up a sweat during exercise. Higher sodium levels, while not ideal, are not as harmful for those who work up a good sweat at the gym.

But in your local grocery store you can find bags of chicken or pre-sliced turkey that will make your protein intake more convenient. Also having protein shakes in between meals will help you to reach your protein needs while minimizing fat and sodium. A convenient source for carbohydrates can be anything as simple as whole grain cereals, whole wheat bread, or bagels. And last, but not least, there is fat, and unsalted nuts are a very convenient snack to keep with you in between meals.

I currently work 40 plus hours a week in an office, still weight train on a regular basis, and even lose time by having to fly out of town to work shows, but I manage to stay in shape. Here is what my daily “busy man’s” (who is hardly a cook) daily diet looks like (I am 6’1” and 220lbs, 10% bodyfat):

  • Breakfast: 3 slices of whole wheat toast with 2 tbsp vegetable oil spread, 4 egg whites, 10oz skim milk.
  • Snack: 1 oz almonds unsalted, 2 scoops Big Blend protein.
  • Lunch: 6 oz of bagged pre-made chicken, 1 whole wheat bagel, 1 cup of pre-packaged mixed vegetables.
  • Pre-workout meal: 4 slices of whole wheat bread, 8 oz of fat free pre-sliced turkey, 2 tbsp miracle whip (to make 2 sandwiches), 1 apple.
  • Post-workout meal: 1 scoop Big Blend protein. Followed by dinner - 2 cups brown rice, 6 oz of chicken, 1 cup mixed vegetables, 1 tbsp oil and vinegar.
  • Pre-bedtime snack: 1 scoop Big Blend protein.

allow you to burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time

Now it’s on to the hardest part of getting in shape for individuals who are short on time, and that’s the actual act of finding time to train to begin with. The key here will be to limit the actual number of times you go to the gym each week, and make the most of your time in the gym. Even the little things come into play as far as helping you to burn calories and stay fit…go for a walk with your family, play with your kids, take the stairs instead of the elevator, do more work around the house etc.

As far as actual training frequency, look to hit the gym 3 times a week. When it comes to cardio, go ahead and do it around your house the other 2 days of the week. You will need to do cardio at least 3 times a week however, so this means that one of your cardio sessions. The next issue to tackle is the time spent in the gym, or doing cardio while still achieving maximum results.

First let's tackle the issue of cardio, the initials that you may have seen before in regards to this are HIIT. This stands for High Intensity Interval Training; it will allow you to burn more calories in a much shorter amount of time than steady state running. It’s also responsible for releasing the same hormones during high intensity weight training that increase fat use during and post-exercise.

When done on the treadmill at a gym, it will be something along the lines of 30 seconds walking (3mph) and 45-60 seconds of running (8mph) for anywhere from 20-30 min. When done outdoors, you can actually do sprint training: 100 yard sprint (50 yards for beginners) with 30-45 seconds rest in between each sprint for +10 reps followed by a cool down jog of at least 5-10min. Both of these options for cardio will have your heart racing; sweat pouring, hundreds of calories burned in about 20 minutes.

When it comes to the three weightlifting sessions per week, the key principle to keep in mind is the “Superset”. The Super-setting that’s going to be done in these routines is going to be contrasting muscle groups (working different muscle groups back to back). While one muscle group is working, the other is resting, but your body as a whole is always working. After performing 2 movements back to back, rest 15 seconds, then repeat.

Exercising with this kind of intensity will increase testosterone and growth hormone and create an oxygen deficit which will lead to fat utilization even after the workout has been completed. This type of training is also popular with many bodybuilders attempting to lose fat in preparation for a show. This is not a routine that you can jump head first into however, there is a large blood pressure increase which could lead to nausea and fainting for those who have never tried it before.

The best course of action is to begin with a beginner's weightlifting routine (1 exercise per muscle group, 2 sets, 2-3 times a week) and then begin the superset routine with a 1 minute rest period after performing both movements and gradually work your way down to 15 seconds. This routine will take 1 ½ to 2 hours worth of work and condense it to 45 minutes or less in the gym. Here’s an example of what your training split could look like, I would suggest 12 total sets for each muscle group:


An example of a set would look like this:


  • Bench press 1 set 12 reps, rack the weight and immediately begin bent over rows with the same bar 1 set 8 reps. Rest 15 seconds, and repeat 3 more times.

Getting into shape is the hard part, once you’ve done this however, the last thing you want to do is to fall out of shape again, and have to repeat the endless cycle of dieting and losing weight to get back into shape again for a certain time of year. Staying in shape will be considerably easier. You can actually maintain your VO2 max (bodies ability to transport and use oxygen during exercise, it is a marker for aerobic capacity) can be maintained with as little as 2 high intensity aerobic sessions a week. So you will now be able to cut back to two HIIT sessions for the week.

The same goes for maintaining muscle mass, your body requires as little as 2 training sessions (8-10 total sets per week) per week to maintain muscle mass. So you will be able to reduce your training to two whole body exercise routines per week. The only concern with this reduced volume to maintain your physique is the reduced caloric expenditure you will have. Staying in shape at this point will require you to be weary of your total caloric intake.

You can do okay with one cheat meal a week, but if you decide that your going to do more than that; be ready to up the frequency of your cardio. But even if you are prepared to do this, it is still not ideal; unless you are genetically gifted you will almost never be able to exercise enough to mask a bad diet. Even some professional athletes have problems with weight control because of poor eating practices despite the high volume of training they undergo.

The reason for this is because a great cardio session can help you burn anywhere between 300 calories or 500 calories if you are really dedicated and plan on hitting the treadmill for a long time. However, in one meal at a restaurant or at a fast food place, it is not hard to consume 800+ calories in one sitting. So if you begin to increase the frequency of your cheat meals in the hoped that cardio will make up for it; you will quickly get caught up in a race you may very well lose.

For many Americans, staying in shape with our busy schedules and our busy lives can be one of the hardest things to do. Stress, work, family, and school are all things that can get in the way and the sedentary lifestyles we live don’t help matters much either. When it comes to getting into shape and being healthy it must become a lifestyle change and not just a temporary diet. If you approach something as just a diet, you already have it set in your mind that at some point it will be over and you will revert back to the things you were doing before.

The coping mechanisms that Americans have used in response to the growing obesity problem are to either bring it into acceptance or regard it as a disease. The only people who benefit from obesity being a disease are drug companies who profit from selling medication even though supplementation, regular exercise, and most importantly diet can “cure” you of this supposed disease. The person undergoing the weight problem does not benefit from their condition being treated rather than having steps taken to improve health.

The problem with completely accepting obesity is that it will come under fire just like cigarette smoking has. Example: they are both accepted as somewhat normal since many Americans smoke/are obese, they are both looked down upon and both are proven detrimental to health. Metabolic X syndrome correlates with waist circumference and it’s a combination of disorders that result from a large waistline: cardiovascular disease, diabetes etc.

This shows that while many are genetically born to carry more weight (there are those, especially athletes who can be considered “obese” by medical standards but are healthy individuals who are also athletic), most must look into getting into better shape to improve quality of life and their health.

Dustin Elliott is the Head Formulator for Betancourt Nutrition.