By Amanda L. Dale

We’ve all been there: standing in the middle of our fully stocked condo gym, surrounded by the latest in fitness equipment, headphones on, shoes tied, ready to roll. The only thing missing? A darn clue about what to actually do in that gym.

On a good day, we might walk or jog a bit on the treadmill, haphazardly pull at a few cables or pick up a couple of dumbbells and tack on a few crunches at the end for good measure. On a bad one, we might get so frustrated with not knowing what to do that we end up doing nothing much at all – making the gym trip a total waste of time.

Two of the main reasons people come to me as a personal trainer is to get ideas for what to do in the gym and learn about what movements are most important for an effective exercise program. The bulk of my client base is busy parents and harried executives, neither of whom have time to dillydally in the gym wondering what to do next. What we devise is a program that moves seamlessly from one functional component to the next to maximize results and minimize time spent actually working out.

One common myth – and, truth be told, one that is perpetuated by the fact that most exercise classes and personal training sessions are billed by the hour – is that exercise must last at least 60 minutes to be worth doing. However, studies show that just 10 minutes of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) can produce the same cardiometabolic benefits as 50 minutes of steady-state endurance training, such as jogging. Furthermore, exercise broken up into short bouts – for example, doing three stints of 10 minutes apiece rather than one 30-minute effort – can actually be more beneficial for heart health.

Various studies on obesity do point to the fact that adults looking to lose weight need longer bouts of exercise (270-300 total minutes per week), which includes everyday exercise, such as walking or doing household chores, not necessarily heart-racing HIIT or heavy weight training. The message here is clear: some exercise is better than none, but more isn’t necessarily better.

So, how do you structure a weekly exercise program that is both time-efficient and physically effective?

When I ask clients to think about their weekly workout schedules, I recommend they use the FITT principle, considering frequency, intensity, time and type. Aim to get movement on more days of the week than not, meaning at least 4 days per week. Try to log at least 150 total minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, or cycling or at least 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity exercise, such as HIIT, running, or circuit training, plus at least two 30-minute sessions per week of resistance (strength) training.

It’s worth noting here that a truly ideal exercise program, especially for adults over 40, should also have a dedicated flexibility component. Whether it’s a yoga class per week, a few minutes of stretching each day, or simply making time for an assisted stretching session or physiotherapy work, keeping your body mobile and injury-free is just as important as cardiovascular and strength training.

Within the recommended 30-minute strength training efforts, the means (whether you choose resistance bands, dumbbells, barbells, or weight machines) is secondary to the movement. Your weekly workouts should always include the five fundamental movement patterns of squat, hip hinge, push, pull and rotate.

If you have two strength training days per week, you should try to perform a full body workout on each day, but if you have more days available, you can break it down into ‘splits’ (for example, push/pull exercises on one day, squat/hinge moves on another and rotational/core focus on the third day). This allows you to focus on both fundamental and accessory movements with adequate rest time in between.

When it comes to the exercises you choose, fundamental movements can be worked in isolation – for example, a barbell squat – or as part of a compound exercise, such as a barbell thruster (squat + push). Compound movements can be more efficient but also more challenging, which is why I recommend employing a personal trainer to help you design a workout, refine your alignment and check your form before putting a program together on your own. Also consider joining group or semi-private weightlifting classes, such as CrossFit or Les Mills Body Pump, to further develop basic skills.

If you’re a veteran exerciser with some weight training experience, you can maximize your gym time using supersets – a term that refers to multiple exercises performed back-to back without rest. Focus on opposing muscle groups when designing your supersets, such as pairing lunges (a squat movement) with single-leg deadlifts (a hip hinge movement). Aim to complete 6-12 different exercises with three sets of 8-10 reps each for a complete functional workout.

When it comes to exercise, there is no one path that works for everyone – some are better suited to short, high-intensity bouts that get them in and out of the gym more quickly while others find solace in slower-paced, longer efforts with heavier weights. What is crucial is that you make time for your workout, even if it’s only 10-20 minutes per day. Go into it with a predetermined plan and execute it in the safest way possible for your ability, body type and goals.