Use “Time Under Load” to Solve the Group Class Time Crunch

Group classes require an instructor be a combination of entertainer, drill sergeant, and life guard. You have to keep people engaged, doing the work, and doing it safely—all at the same time. And if that wasn’t enough, people have schedules. If your class is supposed to go from 8:00pm to 9:00pm, your students rightly expect the class to be done on time so they can get to their family or night shift or whatever.

A challenge for me and my strength coaches at 5 Star Martial Arts has been time management. Specifically, how to consistently run a class comprised of students with various skill levels smoothly and seamlessly and not encounter the all-too-common issue of running out of time. With the number of back-to-back classes we teach, this became a regular nuisance and has likely been an issue for all of you as coaches and instructors at some point, too.

Luckily, problems have solutions. It’s just a matter of finding the solution. With a bit of research, I found a great one that has worked perfectly for us and I’m sure will do the same for you.

Using Time Under Load for Time Management

Beyond Technique Comes the Study of Programming

After spending a number of years working on technique with the kettlebell and barbell, my more recent studies have focused on programming. There is a correct way to move the bell and the bar, and every good instructor needs to know how to impart this essential information. But once the technical execution of a movement is understood, the art of programming comes to the fore. This is also where an instructor’s creativity comes into play.

I have attended the SFG Level I, SFG Level II (twice), SFL, SFB, and Plan Strong. In addition, I have read books on programming in my efforts to improve my knowledge. After deciding to study programming in a one-on-one format, I contacted Geoff Neupert. Geoff is an experienced coach and programmer and after assisting him in Denmark a number of years ago I was confident he could help me tap into new ideas.

Our conversations started off pretty straight forward with focus on work-to-rest ratios, percentage of 1RM, etc. Early on, Geoff mentioned “time under load” as a template for group classes and I knew immediately we’d hit on something my staff and I really needed. All of my previous programming study was invaluable, but none of it addressed the logistical problem we were running into.

Standard vs. Time Under Load Programming

For the purposes of this piece, let’s grossly oversimplify programming into two groups:

  1. Standard
  2. Time Under Load

Standard programming would consist of X number of reps done at X percentage of 1RM with appropriate rest between sets. This is an undeniably powerful way to program. I have used this method with the kettlebell and the barbell, producing impressive results for myself and my students. It’s likely you have, too.

But standard programming has a flaw, and that flaw is time. How long it takes person A to do 5 reps at 80% is often different enough from how long it takes person B that the flow of a group class gets thrown off. It could be due to them taking their time to get the bar off the rack or because their breathing slows them down or speeds them up. Either way, when you’re dealing with a strict sixty-minute class, this approach to programming can easily lead to time issues.

The time under load approach, on the other hand, is still built around the idea of X number of reps at various percentages coupled with appropriate rest between sets, but the time is the guiding principle, not the rep count.

Let’s take the press, for example. If I have my students press a “medium” weight bell (a bell they can press seven or eight times without reaching failure) for ten seconds, the specific number of reps they complete will vary from student to student, but when the work interval is done, it’s done. This approach allows me to know exactly how much time to allot for the training, which makes keeping the initial warm-up, corrective exercise, and technical instruction portions of class to the proper length. Everyone works together, everyone rests together, and class stays on track.

Using Time Under Load for Time Management

How We Use Time Under Load to Program Our Classes

We follow a pull/push/squat format pretty much year round in all our programs (with some variation in application). This is how it looks in the kettlebell program:

  • Pulls are swings, cleans, or snatches with one or two bells, but lately we have also included pull-ups and renegade rows.
  • Pushes are presses (single or double bells), push-ups (on the floor or the rings), and a variety of handstand push-up progressions.
  • Squats are single bell goblet squats, double bell front squats, and sometimes bottoms up front squats for specialized variety.

I generally allow ten minutes per section, or thirty minutes total for the training, so I know when I need to start the session in order to leave enough time for people to work on their mobility.

So the schedule for the class looks like this:

  1. Warm Up: ~5:00
  2. Corrective: ~5:00
  3. Technical instruction: ~20:00
  4. Training: ~30:00

Waving the load is essential in any approach. The percentages we work off are in the neighborhood of 50%, 70%, and 90% for light, medium, and heavy respectively. Some months we do heavy, medium, or light on a specific day of the week. Some months we wave the load throughout the training. So the swings might be heavy, but the presses will be medium and the squats will be light.

To illustrate, I’ll use an example from our Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday kettlebell classes. In the program outlined below, Tuesday was the light day (@50%), Thursday was heavy (@90%) and Saturday was medium (@70%). We used the swing (one- or two-handed) for the “pull,” the press for the “push,” and the goblet squat or double bell front squat for the “squat.”

My shorthand below should be read as follows:

  • “3x” is the number of rounds
  • (:30/2:30) is work/rest interval for each round
  • (1:5) is the work:rest ratio

I don’t write that last one up on the board, but I like to have a snapshot in my head of the rest ratios for the day. Unless we’re in a dedicated Simple & Sinister or Program Minimum month, the light ratios will typically be 1:3 or 1:4, the medium will be 1:5, 6, or 7 and heavy will be 1:8, 9, or 10. I tend to favor longer rest to ensure better quality movement during the work interval, but will sometimes switch it up as you will see below.

Using Time Under Load for Time Management

In the end, the weight of the bell dictates the quality and amount of work. As with any lift, poor execution is not allowed. If a student is getting too tired to do the movement properly, they rest longer or go down in weight. It’s always better to have a student leave a session knowing they could have lifted more than having hurt themselves doing too much.

Tuesday (Light):

  • Swing: 3x (:30/2:30) (1:5)
  • Press: 3x (:20 press Right + :20 press Left / 2:00) (1:3)
  • Goblet Squat: 4x (:30/2:00) (1:4)

Thursday (Heavy):

  • Swing: (one-handed swing) 4x (:15/1:00 Right + :15/1:00 Left) (1:4)
  • Press: (double bell press) 10x (:05/:50) (1:10)
  • Squat: (double bell front squat) 4x (:15/2:30) (1:10)

Saturday (Medium):

  • Swing: 5x (:30/1:30) (1:3)
  • Press: 4x (:10 press Right + :10 press Left / 2:00 rest) (1:6)
  • Squat: 10x (:15/:45) (1:3)

Time Under Load Has Solved Our Time Crunch

Following this time under load programming method has been incredibly easy to implement. It has solved our time management issues and continued to deliver incredible results. Plus, our students love the consistency of the training and the schedule. I’m certain if you give it a shot you will be blown away as well. Try it out!

John Spezzano
StrongFirst Certified Senior Instructor at Source 1 Martial Arts and Fitness
Located in Los Angeles, CA, StrongFirst Certified Senior and Elite Instructor, John Spezzano, has over thirty-five years of martial arts training and has been an instructor in six different systems since 1995: Filipino Martial Arts, Jun Fan Gung Fu / JKD Concepts, and Maphilindo Silat all under Guro Dan Inosanto, Muay Thai under Ajarn Chai Sirisute, Wing Chun under Sifu Francis Fong, and Savate under Nicolas Saignac. John is also a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu under Prof. Shawn Williams.

John’s thirst for knowledge is unquenchable and he is constantly searching for more ways to improve his training and that of his students.

11 thoughts on “Use “Time Under Load” to Solve the Group Class Time Crunch

  • Great idea and article, thanx a lot.
    I´d like to ask you about some recommendation of books, authors or another resources of programming topic/ideas. Do you have any favorite? Thank you…

  • Hi John,
    Thanks for the article! Are the percentages 50, 70 and 90% based on the 1RM or perceived effort?

  • Great article, John! I have a question regarding Getups – Do you change the structure to incorporate them in training or are you throwing them in as warm-up/correctives? Technically you could throw them in under the “press” section, no? Really good stuff man, thank you!

  • I like the approach. Not leading group classes but a garage warrior with a schedule to keep. Time is always a factor.

  • Good Article, I like the format. What do you have the clients perform during the rest??


  • I really like these articles on group classes and how to better program. It would be nice to see an article on how to program with various ability/skill levels and incorperating new members to the group. Or even help on how to create a culture on proper movement and strength instead of “give me a killer heart pumping workout I can mindlessly perform, that wont give long term results”

    • Hi Daniel,

      I think the subject of my article above will handle the various “ability/skill level” issue pretty well. In terms of incorporating new members I have played with having a specific “intro class” that they take for a month or two to teach them the essentials. This is a great idea if your schedule has enough space in it to accommodate this. What I do now is separate the new folks from the experienced ones. I still keep an eye on everyone, but this allows me to teach new folks the dead lift or swing while the rest of the students who are capable do more challenging material on the curriculum.

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