Timeboxing physical workout

Timeboxing is a concept which is easy to understand, easy to adapt, but that still is amazingly powerful when applied correctly. It helps preserving mental health and fights procrastination at the same time. A while ago, I wrote an article about using timeboxing to study languages (Chinese in this case), but the concept is equally applicable to almost any task you want to complete. Such as physical workout. Still, it took me until now before I combined the two and evaluated the result. In short, it works very well, and in this post I’ll share some thoughts with you. Since I’m lazy, some descriptions are borrowed from the article on Hacking Chinese, with some slight changes.

What is timeboxing?

The first part of the word is easy, but the second part isn’t that obvious. Are we about to engage in a fistfight with time? In a manner of speaking, perhaps, but actually the “boxing” part comes from the word “box” (i.e. a cuboid in which you can put things). It’s about dividing time into chunks and do something valuable with each chunk.

More time means less efficiency

The more time we have to complete a task, the less efficiently we work on it. This is quite obvious when you think about it and I’m sure most people have experienced this in their everyday lives. Didn’t you have homework assignments you didn’t complete until you really had to, because otherwise you’d fail the course? Having lots of time is not a guarantee for finishing anything, in fact, it’s usually an excuse to procrastinate more.

Realising this, timeboxing is about limiting the time you have available and creating for yourself a task you are 100% sure that you will be able to complete and that you will feel satisfied having completed. It means that rather saying that you’re going to clean your apartment before you go to bed, you say that you’re going to work hard on tidying up the kitchen for exactly ten minutes.

Deciding that you’re going to spend ten minutes doing as much as you can in the kitchen is guaranteed to be a success. You almost can’t fail. When you’re done, pat yourself on the back, take a deep breath and decide what you want to do next. If you feel up to it, you can set another ten minutes to get through the rest of the dishes or move on to the next room. If you get tired, spend the next ten minutes on a completely different task.

Making exercising enjoyable and efficient

The problem I have with exercising is that it sometimes becomes horrendously inefficient. I usually practise at home and it can take me hours to finish what I set out to do for that day, simply because I rest a lot or do many other things at the same time. This creates negative feelings related to exercising, and next time I feel less inclined to start.

However, during the last four weeks, I’ve experimented a bit and applied timeboxing to my workout program(s). It has worked out incredibly well, so well that I feel other people really should do this. If you already feel you know how to timebox, you can skip the next bit and start reading again at “Why do all this?”.

Below, I have described a program. Please note that this is a generic study and even if I do three exercises and use three minutes for each cycle, that doesn’t mean you have to do that. This is what I do. First, I start a stopwatch and put it somewhere clearly visible.

  • 00:00 – First set starts
    Exercise A, set 1
    Exercise B, set 1
    Exercise C, set 1
  • 03:00 – Second set starts
    Exercise A, set 2
    Exercise B, set 2
    Exercise C, set 2
  • 06:00 – Third set starts
  • 09:00 – Fourth set starts
  • 12:00 – Fifth set starts
  • 15:00 – Finished

The point is that each new cycle of sets start at a predefined interval, three minutes in this case, which is long enough to allow you to rest. This has several advantages, as we shall see. This could be done using any number of variations, but as long as you understand the basic principle, that will be enough.

Setting up your own timebox

You’ll have to experiment a bit and see what works, but here are some general steps to go through:

  1. Define a number of exercises you want to do
  2. Define how many sets and reps you will do (numbers can change through the session)
  3. Go through the program once with as much rest as you think is necessary
  4. Note how long each set took (or one cycle of sets if you do more than one exercise)
  5. Round that figure up to something nice and round (three minutes in my case)
  6. From now on, you should start a new cycle of sets each time that nice and round number has passed
  7. When you can comfortably survive a session, increase the numbers of reps

This mean that you should never fail a set because of lack of time. If you fail a set because you’re not strong enough, that’s okay. Simply move on to the next set. If you fail too often, you’ve probably made it too difficult for yourself.

An example with sets and reps

This is what I do for pull-ups and handstand push-ups at the moment.

  • First cycle (start 00:00): 9 pull-ups, 8 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Second cycle (start 03:00): 12 chin-ups, 11 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Third cycle (start 06:00): 9 pull-ups, 9 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Fourth cycle (start 09:00): 9 chin-ups, 9 handstand push-ups, rest
  • Fifth cycle (start 12:00): 11 pull-ups, 10 handstand push-ups, rest and stretch

As soon as I finish either the pushing or the pulling part of this program in a comfortable manner, I will increase numbers a little bit and keep going. The numbers you use will be heavily dependent on who you are, how much you rest, the nature of the exercises and so on. Sorry, I can’t help you there, but this guy can.

Why do all this?

There are two reasons why I’m convinced this approach is very, very useful. First, it means that when I start exercising, I know that it will take no more than fifteen minutes. If I do the fifth set for exercises A, B and C quickly, I might be finished before fifteen minutes, but never after. This is of tremendous psychological value. It suddenly becomes easy to schedule workout sessions. It isn’t very daunting at all, because it only takes fifteen minutes. Compare this to the vague concept of just working out a bit or engaging in a routine you’re not sure how long it will take to finish.

Second, this is excellent for benchmarking purposes. If you’re doing something like the 100 push-ups challenge (I’m not, it’s just an example), it’s very easy to cheat yourself into believing that more reps means that you’re making progress. However, you might be manipulating a variable you’re not aware of: time. If you rest longer, of course you will be able to do a few more push-ups. However, if you always start each new cycle after exactly three minutes, you know that if you make more reps, you really have become stronger (I am aware there might be other variables, but let’s ignore them for now).


Try this. Really. I’ve practised some sport or other since I was five. I’ve done various bodyweight strength work for many, many years. I haven’t tried everything, but I have tried a lot. And this works better than anything I’ve tried before. If you try, please share your experience below!

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  1. Magnus Falk’s avatar

    You should really talk about what to do if you’re not strong enough to finish the reps you planned within the timebox. To you reduce the reps then or do you simply do as many as you have time to do?

    Also, are there any pros or cons to using a piece of music of known length to time your boxes?


    1. Olle Linge’s avatar

      Good question! I didn’t mention this because it didn’t occur to me. I do exercises which require much, much, much less than three minutes to finish. If we have three exercises in three minutes, we have one minute for each exercise. You can’t do pull-ups for one minute straight. What I’m saying is that I do one set. If that set is 8 reps and I can only finish 6 because I’m to tired, then I only do 6. Tmie shouldn’t be a limitation in this sense. You do your sets as well as you can, so you’re not allowed to split them or anything. I have around one minutes rest left over at the end of each cyle, for instance. This should of course be calibrated to what exercises you’re doing.

      Using music is a good idea, it haven’t really thought about it. Since usually have my phone with me, using a stopwatch just seems more convenient.


      1. Magnus Falk’s avatar

        I was thinking that if I’m running close to the limit of the timebox it would be inconvenient to have to glance at the timer while doing the exercises. But as you put it there’s always leftover time at the end then I guess that never becomes an issue. But in my scenario then I could just listen for the end of the song instead.

        Anyways, good thing you included an example since I was thinking that you would have a special timebox for recuperation.


        1. Olle Linge’s avatar

          I suppose it’s possible to do this witohut resting at all, but that’s another kind of exercise in that case. However, as you point out, having songs that are three minutes long still lets you know when to start another cycle.