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Only 20 Minutes to Train? Think Black Friday!

Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Nate VanKouwenberg, MA, CFSC, USAW

Nate VanKouwenberg, MA, CFSC, USAW

Owner, Head Strength Coach

Next Level Strength & Conditioning


With Thanksgiving right around the corner, it’s time to prepare for Black Friday. As we all know, this is a day that people from all walks of life make it their mission to find doorbuster deals on whatever random products they can get their hands on. Instead of watching football and sleeping on the couch, many Americans are now spending their Thanksgiving evenings mapping out their plan of attack and taping foil on their knuckles. Ever wonder why they call it Black Friday? Check out this insane video for your answer:

So why are people spending their day off throwing elbows instead of relaxing with family and friends? It’s all about getting the best bang for your buck!

What does Black Friday have to do with training? Just like money doesn’t grow on trees, there are only so many minutes in the day. Most of us wear several different hats in life. Between family, job(s), work around the house, reading, social life and the Walking Dead (I'm late to the party, so I’ve binged hard on this lately as my guilty pleasure mental outlet), how in the world are you supposed to practice what you preach and TRAIN?!?

When people use the excuse that they don’t have enough time to train, I tell them to schedule their workouts each week around family obligations and work, then schedule everything else around their workouts. Even if it means getting up at 5am, or training when the kids go to bed, just figure it out! I clearly started giving this advice before I had two kids, a wife that also needs to train 4-5 days/ week, a business, coaching, teaching, a house, the Walking Dead and everything else on my plate. Because I hate hypocrites, I practice what I preach and still schedule my workouts at the beginning of each week. I block off four, sixty minute time slots that are reserved for ME to get after it! Just like the elderly woman that got one punched trying to grab the last $75 32” LED TV at Wally World, things don’t always workout the way that we plan. On most days, my sixty minute workout complete with a full warm-up, jump or MB training, strength and some form of conditioning at the end, usually turns into a 20-30 minute abbreviated version of what I had mapped out.

Now, I know I’m not alone here. One of the highest hurdles people face when getting started on a fitness program and sticking to it is time! So, you only have 20 minutes to train? Think Black Friday! Ask yourself, “What can I do that will give me the best bang for my buck in the short time frame available?!”

Let’s start by immediately eliminating a few things… Turn around and step away from the Elliptical!! I get it. Some people like to jump on a Treadmill, Elliptical or Bike and just break a sweat. Trust me, that’s better than just skipping it all together and riding your couch, but in the world of a few 20-30 minute workouts per week, this is the polar opposite of a Black Friday mentality! I know there are folks out there that love to run, bike and swim long distances, which is awesome! I give endurance athletes a ton of credit for their physical and mental dedication. My goal isn’t to knock our aerobically gifted friends, but to point out that if the average Joe/ Jane has limited time to put in work, they’ll get way more bang for their buck by lifting something heavy over moderate level aerobic exercise every time!

So, what is the Black Friday version of a 20 minute workout? Lift heavy through all movement patterns and multiple planes of motion! Boom (Mic drops)! That’s it folks. It’s not rocket science. No bells and whistles or trendy 20 minute workout, just lift heavy and often. Before I lose those of you that would never pick lifting heavy over jumping on a treadmill if given the option, trust me on this and keep reading. I’m talking to you too!

The legendary Dan John, Mike Boyle and many others have written extensively about minimalism training and how less is usually more, especially when your time is limited! Despite the well documented benefits of strength training for the masses, we still see endless herds of people wasting their time on machines at the local Globo Gym, or even worse, just opting out altogether.


There are countless misconceptions surrounding strength training out there that will cause people to slam on the breaks and start walking back to that Elliptical. This simple, but genius approach applies to everyone, from the housewife to the silver fox, to the former college athlete that has the song Glory Days playing on repeat in their head.

Let’s start by debunking a few of the most common misconceptions we hear on a regular basis:

  • NOOOOOO! Heavy strength training WILL NOT turn the petite mother of three into a muscle bound beast! Performing functional compound movements will produce long, lean looking muscle mass. Based on the guidelines below, we’ll keep intensity high and volume relatively low. Guys will see more of an increase in muscle mass than the ladies if they’re religious about it and eat well due to testosterone levels, but hypertrophy would result from a prescription of higher volume, extended time under tension and/ or isolated movements.

  • But what about my cardio?? The term “cardio” should be taken out back and put out of it’s misery. High intensity strength training with regulated rest periods will improve aerobic capacity and elevate your heart rate. To keep things simple, the recruitment of multiple muscle groups simultaneously will require additional blood flow to deliver oxygen to working muscles. This will clearly result in cardiovascular benefits and metabolic/ hormonal responses.

  • But I’ve been counting my calories. What about energy balance? First off, if you're not eating well most of the time (see our recommended resources on nutrition), none of this matters. Back to lifting heavy: Excessive aerobic exercise without a strength component will cause atrophy. People are so worried about burning calories during their workout that they don't look at the big picture. Increased muscle mass increases Basal Metabolic Rate (energy used at rest). The ultimate goal is looking and feeling better, right? As Dan John would say, “Keep the goal the goal!” If you're worried about breaking a sweat, you're in luck. Give the guidelines below a shot for one day and let me know if it wasn't “hard” enough for you. If you didn't break a sweat, you need to get heavier weights. Pretty simple.

  • So you’re telling me people into their Golden Ages should be lifting heavy as well? Yes! The definition of Heavy is different based on the strength and physical ability of each individual. I would consider a 28 Kg Kettlebell Press for 3-5 heavy for me. A 8 Kg KB Press would be equally challenging for my Mother. Intensity is relative to each person. Weight bearing, ground based exercise also increases bone density, which combats Osteoporosis. Now clearly, If there’s pain and/or dysfunction due to limiting conditions or previous injuries, I would suggest modified movements, lower intensity and a plan to target the functional issues present.


If you’re looking for a long term structured program with prescribed exercises, volume and intensity, I've got some great options for you! If you have the means to work with a qualified Strength Coach, find someone with a similar philosophy that cares about the quality of movement more than how cool it looks. At Next Level, our Roots Adult Functional Fitness program (getting back to the roots of functional fitness without all the crap), we stick to this simple approach and our clients rave about the results they experience!

If your schedule or pocket book doesn't allow for a qualified Strength Coach to help you achieve your goals, that's OK too. When friends and family ask me to design a program for them, I immediately direct them to the two Dan John workouts below (unless they still play competitive sports or they have specific performance based goals and timelines). Again, these workouts are so simple they're genius. My wife and I have both completed these workouts multiple times and have never seen such silly results. For the record, although I wouldn't mess with my wife on some days, she still has a neck.

Simple Strength: 40 Day Workout:

18 Week Protocol:

For those of you that would rather not commit to a structured program, here are your basic “Black Friday” workout guidelines:

  • Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat and Carry EVERYDAY. If you have enough time to mix in foam roll, mobility, activation, power, anti-extension/ anti-rotational core and/or additional conditioning, awesome! If not, just Push, Pull, Hinge, Squat and Carry!

  • Here are some examples of each:

    • Push: Landmine variations, ½ Kneel Press, Standing Press, Push-up variations, Bench variations

    • Pull: TRX Row, 1 Arm Row, Chin-up/ Pull-up progressions

    • Hinge: Hip Lift variations, KB Deadlift, Hex bar Deadlift, 1 Leg SLDL progressions

    • Squat: Goblet Squat, Split Squat progressions, RFESS

    • Loaded Carry: Farmer, Suitcase, Front Rack, Overhead

    • Mobility: Joint by Joint

    • Activation: We love primal movements like crawls, rolls and get-ups, amongst many others

    • Power: KB SWINGS, Jump progressions, MB progressions, KB SWINGS!!

    • Anti-extension: Planks, Roll-out variations, Body saw

    • Anti-Rotation: Anti-rotation hold and press out variations, Diagonal chop/ lift variations

    • Additional Conditioning (only if you have extra time or on alternate days):

      • Sprint: Run as fast as you can (jokes)! Mix in hills, sleds and change of direction if you can

      • Slideboard

      • Airdyne

      • Rower

      • Ropes

      • Body weight circuits

  • Lift heavy, but never fail! No need to rip 1RM’s here. The glory days are over for most of us. If you feel tired, go lighter. If you feel fresh, go heavier. Listen to your body. If technique isn't perfect, drop the weight and focus on cleaning up the pattern and any functional issues that may be holding you back.

  • Keep the total volume of your heavy lifts around 10-15 each day. Again, you’ll be doing this several times in a week, so no need to be a hero! Use a variety of schemes, such as 2x5, 3x3, 5-3-2, 3x5, etc. If you’re going more than 4 days/ week, you can mix in a download day of 1x10. Refer to Dan John’s articles above for more info on volume options.

  • If mapping out your program in advance is realistic, you can also choose to alternate primary patterns each day. For example:

    • Day 1 and 3: Heavy Swing, Squat, Upper Body Pull (Hinge and Upper Body Push/ Press in warm-up or activation if possible)

    • Day 2 and 4: Heavy Hinge, Upper Body Push/ Press, Loaded Carry (Squat and Upper Body Pull in warm-up or activation if possible)

  • Mix in unilateral movements and off-set loads if skill level appropriate for additional neuromuscular and core demands. Check out Mike Boyle’s articles on the bilateral deficit and unilateral Olympic lifts if you're still not sold on this concept.

  • There is no right and wrong! Another thing that holds people back is they put way too much emphasis on what exercise variations to pick, what rep schemes to prescribe, etc. K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid) Follow the guidelines above and you'll see results!


There are infinite examples of exercise and rep scheme selections! You can pair exercises, complex several movements together, or just perform one at a time. This should keep things exciting for the person that can't stick with a set plan due to the mental redundancy. I've outlined one of the trillion possible examples of what I would consider a “Black Friday” workout below:

  • PRI Breathing, Foam Roll, Mobility

  • Arm Slides, Cook Hip Lifts

  • Dynamics, Ladder

  • MB Throw with Hinge and Hip Extension 3x5/ paired with banded crawls

  • Strength Complex (The Nuts and Bolts)

    • 6 rounds/ 3 each side alternating

      - Contralateral 1 KB Front Rack RFESS 3x5

      - Standing 1Arm KB Press 3x5

      - 1 Leg SLDL 3x5

      - 1 Arm Row 3x5

      - Suitcase Carry 3x50 yards

    • Do this without letting the KB hit the ground and tell me you need to do more “cardio”

    • Here's a video example of the strength complex:

  • Body Weight Sled Push: 6x15 yards

When all said and done, this would probably take between 35-45 minutes if you hustle. If you only have 20 minutes, do about 5 min of mobility, primal movements, body weight strength and/or dynamics, then get right to your heavy strength (example is in bold above). This workout is like being the first person in line at Target on Black Friday if you're comparing it to a quick jog.

Final Takeaway:

So there you have it. Nothing original or groundbreaking, just reiterating what some of the industry’s best have been preaching for years. Although there’s a time and place for more complex, progressive and goal oriented programming, the objective here is to get people away from the machines and just lift something heavy without worrying too much about the logistics. Hopefully we can continue to break down the misconception that if you don't have time for a full workout, doing "cardio" is the next best alternative. I understand that this isn't common sense for everyone and that's OK. It's not realistic to think that the religious mall walker is going to read this and immediately find the closest Kettlebell and start hammering out Get-ups and Swings. If this is a brand new concept for you, the transition will obviously be a process.

Step 1: Commit to giving it a shot

Step 2: Find a qualified Strength Coach, or someone that has training experience to teach you some skills. Youtube is also a beautiful thing, but unfortunately the internet can't provide feedback if you're doing something wrong.

Step 3: Put on your savage Black Friday game face and go get the best bang for your buck!



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