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August 06, 2022
The proper length of a workout is perhaps one of the most trivial aspects of an effective program. When asked the question, we could give the answer, "However long it takes to finish."
And while this is technically accurate, it doesn't answer the underlying question. The truth is, that optimal exercise duration depends on a wide array of things. Therefore, to know how long a workout should be, you first need to dial in these variables. Then you can exercise however long it takes to finish.
There's a lot to go over when it comes to determining workout length. This post covers it all and then some, including:
There is no ideal workout time that is appropriate for everyone. Short workouts and longer workouts are both suitable, depending on several factors. Whether you exercise for a half hour performing a 30 minute steel mace conditioning workout, or go 1 hour and 30 minutes performing an ultimate leg workout, these can both be optimal workouts and duration times.
Keep in mind: The time you spend in the gym doesn't indicate whether the workout program was effective or if you're going to gain muscle. For example, let's say you complete all of your exercises with the correct intensity in 45 minutes. But your buddy told you that you need to train for at least 60 minutes. Does this mean you should find something to do for another 15 minutes? Would you?
We hope you don't.
This is because the time you spent training is just a measurement from when you went into a gym until the time you leave. However, you could have just spent the whole time 60 minutes getting turned down by chicks. Were you there for 60 minutes? Yes. Did you do anything? No.
See where we're going with this?
The length of your workout can only be judged properly if you’re training with the correct intensity. Let's compare two different training sessions, one of which is 6 exercises lasting a total of 75 minutes, and the other is also 6 exercises, lasting 55 minutes.
The same number of exercises were performed, but the second one was done much quicker. By this, we can assume it was completed with a much higher intensity. The point is that the length of your workout is not the only factor when determining if its duration is appropriate. With both of these, you can answer many questions including:
Ask most people why they want longer workouts, and they'll likely tell you it's all for the sake of muscle hypertrophy and gaining muscle. This stems from the belief that "more is better." In reality, it should read "more is sometimes better."
Your body has a threshold when it comes to training amounts, muscle recovery, and exercise benefits. If you stay in the gym and push past your limits, it could mitigate your progress, reverse your progress, harm your lean body mass, or result in injury. It's also important to understand the anabolic vs. catabolic processes, as they play a crucial role in building muscle. For example, if you add two hours of catabolic exercise, like steady-state cardio, on to your workout all for the sake of staying at the gym longer, you could be sabotaging all of your muscle gains.
This threshold for new lifters is quite low. A study examining the effect that compound and single joint movements had on new lifters required one group to perform a program that only used compound movements and another to perform the same workout routine while also adding single-joint movements¹.
At the end of the study, both groups had the same amount of muscle growth. In other words, the group that spent more time received no extra benefit.
While your body's recovery ability wasn't the main focus of the study, it easily illustrates this point. Unless you’re an elite lifter, like the top 12 bodybuilders who have years and years of experience, going to the gym for 2 hours is almost definitely a waste of time.
A workout program can be too long or too short, depending on your individual goals and personal circumstances. Are you a 22-year-old college football star trying to put on muscle mass, or a 40-year-old father and husband with a busy schedule? Let's look at what you should be considering.
Your fitness level plays a significant factor in how long your workout should be. In particular, new lifters need to pay attention to this.
Perhaps it's a right of passage, but new lifters can have a habit of going to the gym with workouts of 2 hours or more. These excessively long workouts are only applicable in a few small circumstances, and your first day of training is not one of them.
As a new lifter, the stimulus required for growth is minimal. This is why it's so easy for this group to increase strength and build muscle when they first begin resistance training.
When you first start weight training, as in the first time you go to the gym, you only need to lift weights for maybe 30 minutes, assuming you're performing some of our favorite main compound lifts.
Different styles of training will require different amounts of time to maximize benefits.
For example, a powerlifting program or strength training routine is notorious for having longer workouts, sometimes obnoxiously long. This occurs mainly for two reasons: they require more warm-up sets as they use heavy weights, and lifters require longer rest periods due to the aforementioned heavy weights.
Bodybuilders' workout sessions are generally shorter. They typically use fewer warm-up sets and have shorter rest periods. However, the total amount of time they spend in the gym per week may be more due to higher frequency.
Of course, this can vary greatly depending on the person and their fitness level. Sixty minutes is sufficient for intermediate lifters, while elite bodybuilders may need 90 or more minutes.
If you're training for general fitness and overall health, anywhere from 30 to 60 minutes is appropriate.
Perhaps the most important factor that dictates how long your workouts should be depends on how you answer, "how much time do you have?"
We're all about training hard and being disciplined. At the same time, unless you're Chris Bumstead, the vast majority of people will never make any money from lifting. This makes it pretty silly to sacrifice life events because of your 6-day split. If you are spending 45 minutes in the gym, but it causes you to miss important events, it's too long.
The minimum exercise requirements needed for total health and quality of life are essential (see below). Everyone needs to get this training somehow.
However, once your training surpasses that requirement, lifting has become a hobby. Realize that if your life only allows you to get to the gym two days a week, you can make that work. Or if you work 7 days a week and only have time on your lunch break, you can make that 30 minutes work too.
All too often we see guys getting caught up in this cycle, stressing over their training split. Allowing themselves to become stressed because they feel they must get their 90-minute workouts in 6 days a week regardless of what sacrifice they must make. Stressing over time spent exercising takes the joy out of working out, and no one wants that.
We know above we said that any length of time can be appropriate under the right circumstance. However, we don't want anyone doing a single push-up variation and calling it a day.
There is a minimum amount of physical activity you need to perform per week to improve your overall health. According to the CDC, your workout routine should include the following cardio and resistance training².
Your weekly cardio can include everything from walking and biking to heart-racing activities like running and HIIT. Pick your favorites, and follow the guidelines below to ensure you're getting enough in each week.
Keep in mind this is per the CDC for the general public. We like the idea of at least 90 minutes of cardio weekly.
For whatever reason, when people speak about the minimum amount of physical activity required, they seem to only mention the aerobic aspect. However, per the CDC, your physical activity also includes 2 or more days of resistance training per week.
Some may think that two days per week is not enough to get an adequate workout. However, most people are used to lifting for bodybuilding or strength training and trying to reach above-average goals.
For basic fitness, a weekly routine with two full-body resistance training workouts is fine. If your diet is on point, you could build a respectable body following a 2 or 3-day split. The point being is we sometimes don't realize something like a 5-day split is quite a bit of training.
Your lifting sessions should include compound movements to ensure you train all major muscle groups. This is also an excellent method to minimize your time in the gym if needed.
We know this is likely not the answer you're looking for, but we don't believe you should be thinking about weight loss when you're lifting weights at the gym. What happens is that people start basing their workouts on this, and next thing you know, they're doing 3 hours of cardio workouts on the elliptical.
True weight loss comes from fixing your diet. If you're drinking beer and eating pizza all day, those 3 hours on the elliptical aren't going to do much. That's not to mention you're likely to become susceptible to overuse injuries when you're trying to extend your workouts to burn more calories. You're better off following a cutting workout & diet plan to see optimal results and ensure you're using your time efficiently.
There are a few major fallacies that occur with using long workouts to lose weight. Chances are that if you're this concerned with weight loss, you're probably also counting calories. We're also going to assume that when you do this, you input a "moderate activity" level or higher.
If you do, your daily caloric needs must increase to accommodate for that extra activity level. Keep in mind that healthy weight loss occurs from being in a 300 to 500 caloric deficit. Anything more than that increases the chance of muscle loss.
Looking at the caloric burn of exercise, it does not take a lot to burn an extra 300 calories, even if you're not trying. This is why lifting weights is so effective with weight loss and body recomposition.
We want to be clear. We're not saying you shouldn't exercise for fat loss; we're saying don't make it your top priority.
If you do want to tweak your exercises to lose weight, instead of embarking on a ridiculous long workout, utilize HIIT exercises instead. A HIIT session toward the end of your workout is a great way to burn a few more calories without increasing the amount of time you spend in the gym.
HIIT sessions could even be added at the end of your shorter workouts.
Let's get to the nitty-gritty now and throw out all the nuance. How long should a typical workout be? The short answer is going to be somewhere between 45 and 90 minutes. On average, bodybuilding or strength sessions last from 60 minutes to 75 minutes.
So, where does this number come from?
As you know, it's not the workout length that determines if it's effective or not but rather what you do during that time. The duration of 60 to 75 minutes is given for the average length for workout plans as it's how long it takes to complete an effectively planned program.
This begs the question, what are these variables?
Wondering how often to train? You should train each muscle group twice per week.
During weight training, our muscles are constantly in a cycle that consists of breaking down and recovering. Hitting a muscle group twice per week can take advantage of this cycle for maximal growth.
If you only train a muscle once per week, it will just sit there for 3 to 4 days out of the week doing nothing, waiting to be trained again. Therefore, what we want to do is train the muscle, give it about 2 to 3 days of recovery, and then hit it again.
In addition, because you're spreading the volume across 2 days, the muscle won't experience as much fatigue. This should allow you to train with more intensity and lift more volume. Now you just need to figure out how long it takes to build muscle.
Measuring the total volume placed on a muscle group every week can be cumbersome. Therefore, a more practical method is to track the number of sets you train per week. The ideal number usually is around 10 to 20 sets per muscle group per week. While you can go above this from time to time, it should not be the norm.
Therefore, don't stray too far away from this range and continuously monitor your recovery. Keep in mind that most people are within this range or over. If you find that you're performing more sets than you need, go ahead and decrease the amount.
Your rest time for the majority of your exercises should be between 1 minute, 30 seconds, and 2 minutes per set. There can be some variance on either end, but most people are fine here as a general rule.
One instance when this may not be appropriate is when performing bilateral exercises. Bilateral exercises are exercises that use one limb at a time, like a single-arm dumbbell row.
For these movements, you can use shorter rest periods around 45 seconds to 1 minute per set, per limb. The other time you'll want to decrease your rest period is when performing compound sets or supersets. If you are performing isolation movements to build up volume, you can jump from your first exercise right into the second without long rest periods. Then rest 30 seconds to 1 minute between sets.
If you're using compound exercises to cut down on the length of your workout, you should rest a bit longer. Rest one minute between each exercise to allow sufficient recovery to take place.
You don't want to perform these movements more fatigued than necessary.
Depending on how many days a week you’re training and the time you have available, the number of exercises per session can vary greatly.
The average will be anywhere between 4 to 8 exercises. However, some bodybuilding exercises may even have upwards of 10 to 12. When this is the case, many of the exercises are done in a super set fashion or perhaps have you performing fewer sets.
In the context of time, the number of exercises isn’t as important if you’re performing the right amount of sets.
There is no "best split." We have used just about everything and found they all have pros and cons. That said, some stand out for time restraints.
When comparing full body vs. splits, we like full-body workouts as they allow you to quickly move from one exercise to the next. As you're training every muscle group, you don't need to worry as much about rest. These are also very easy to use things like compound sets to cut time.
Upper lower workout splits work well as they allow you to alternate body parts with your exercises. For example, you could perform an upper body exercise, like an overhead press, with a lower body exercise, such as the back squat. Even if you don't perform compound sets, you can still spend less time recovering between exercises. For those interested in a push-pull split, we have a great one that'll get you results!
Sometimes a training session can go for a longer period than planned. This isn't a huge deal. However, if you continuously train with high intensity for too long, your body will let you know.
Here are the top signs your workout routine is a bit longer than it should be.
When building muscle or training to gain strength, your goal in the gym is to improve performance. With nuance aside, this should happen if you're following an appropriate training program that utilizes progressive overload.
This won't happen every workout but what you shouldn't see is an unexplained significant decrease in performance. If this occurs, it's a signal that your recovery has been insufficient, which could be caused by several reasons.
As you check your program to identify problem areas, pay attention to the length of your workout. Further, make a note of how many exercises you're performing. There's a good chance this could be causing your recovery delay.
Cutting down time in the gym is often found to be a successful method for reversing a drop in progress. Start doing less, and you might be surprised to see an increased ability to build muscle.
One of your top goals when working out is to be able to train tomorrow.
This is one of the best pieces of advice you can get for long-term success in the gym. For this to happen, recovery needs to be a priority.
When you train an appropriate amount, your body will be able to fully recover with no problems, and you'll avoid injury. Problems begin to arise when you start putting too much stress on your muscles.
Placing too much volume on a muscle will bring it to a point where it can not fully recover. As your training continues, excessive stress will begin to build up ending with various overuse injuries. Anyone who's ever suffered from bench press shoulder pain knows what we're talking about.
If you're starting to feel a bit achier than normal, look at your workout schedule to assess the amount of work you're doing. Immediately shorten your workout time if you see your training is too high.
To be clear, this is assuming your time in the gym is directly proportional to the amount of exercise you're doing.
You'll have good workouts and bad workouts at the gym. We all do.
However, the gym shouldn't be a major cause of stress or anxiety. Above we talked about the importance of muscle recovery for the body, but spending too much time in the gym can be brutal for the mind.
If making it to the gym begins to mess with your mood, you are entering a state that could become serious. The gym should never be something you have to do. If it is, you probably need a break.
Next time you have a session, tell yourself you’re just going to do 3 exercises and leave. If you feel like staying after then, cool. If not, go home and know you got in a great workout.
Trust us, shortening your time in the gym does not mean you need to erase it from your weekly routine. It also doesn't mean you won't get an effective workout in. If you're skeptical, try one of these short and sweet assault bike routines, and then let's talk.
If you feel you are spending too much time in the gym but are afraid of decreasing the efficiency of your workouts, try out some of these methods.
Let's be honest, a lot of guys play on their phones way too much at the gym. Hell, even we're guilty from time to time. But the problem isn't necessarily being on your phone. If you were able to get on your phone and go back to training right at 2 minutes, or however long your rest periods are, this wouldn't be an issue.
Unfortunately, it's way too easy to get caught up and lose track of time. Maybe you're chatting it up with your new fling or find you can't stop clicking on stupid videos (thanks, social media), and before you know it, a 2-minute rest quickly becomes 5.
Next time you go to the gym, make it a goal to not send one single message or watch any videos. Maybe even turn all your apps off except for your music. Whatever it is you need to do, do it. We promise lifting will be a brand new experience and your time lifting will be more efficient.
Remember the study we discussed above that examined adding single joint exercises onto a workout? Its findings showed that you probably don't need all of the exercises on your workout plan. Obviously, this is highly dependent on your program so consider this when examining your workout plan.
Other than minimalist training plans, even the most well-written workouts will have a hierarchy of exercises. The first exercise will be the most important, while the last exercise will be the “least” important.
This doesn't mean the last exercise isn't effective; it just means the benefit gained from smaller isolation exercises, like barbell curls, is much smaller than the first few exercises in your workout, like bent-over rows.
For example, the bench press may start a push-day workout. You may then go through a few other compound exercises until you get to the end of the workout. There you see skull crushers and triceps kickback programmed, but you are short on time.
So what do you do?
We love triceps kickback. But if we were in a bind, we would cut it from our program as skull crushers can load the triceps significantly more.
Let's use the same example from above, except instead of the triceps kickback, you have a triceps pushdown. Choosing between the pushdown and skull crushers is a much harder choice.
Therefore, instead of skipping one of them, you could just cut out 1 or 2 sets. Instead of running both with a 3 by 12 rep scheme, just run 2 by 12 for each.
A trick we like to do in this situation just is to do one massive set of 15 plus reps until failure. Again, this can cut minutes off your workout time with no real loss of benefits.
By high intensity, we don't necessarily mean increasing your heart rate or load (both physiological indications). We are referring to your general attitude when you walk into the gym.
Similar to not playing on your phone, go to the gym to work out. When you finish an exercise, go to the next.
Now we are talking about the physiological definition. High intensity interval training (HIIT) is a form of exercise that uses short periods of maximal intensity with minimal time for recovery in between.
Generally speaking, HIIT training is used with cardio-based exercise to improve performance or lose weight. However, you can implement this style of training into your weight lifting.
For example, the use of EMOMs allows you to get a massive amount of volume on your muscle in a very short period. These are even used heavily in strength training sessions as well as bodybuilding.
A bonus is that these methods can be used for muscle growth and strength but can all be applied to your aerobic fitness goals. These are great to use on days that you don't have a lot of time or can be planned in your program.
If you feel you don't have enough time in the gym or your current workouts are too long, you should be prioritizing compound exercises.
Compound exercises train multiple muscles at the same time, which can instantly decrease the amount of time you need. And yes, you can still build muscle with these. A great example of a workout utilizing compound movements is our upper body dumbbell workout, which uses exercises that hit multiple muscles simultaneously.
We too often see guys go to the gym and perform chest flys, triceps push down, and front raises (maybe not exactly, but you get the idea). You could knock all these out by just performing dips.
Another way to decrease your workout time is to use compound sets and super sets. These are special sets that have you perform two exercises at the same time. Doing so will greatly reduce the time of your workouts.
The differences between the two are that a super set will have you perform two exercises in the exact same workout that train different body parts. For example, pairing the hammer curl or bicep curl with a triceps extension.
A compound set has you pair two exercises that train the same muscle. For example, on your upper body pulling day, you might combine pull-ups with seated back rows.
This does not work as well for strength building as it does for building muscle. Remember that strength training requires adequate rest periods to perform clean sets. On the contrary, muscle building is done by placing a lot of volume on the muscle.
You can choose to do this with just a couple of exercises at the end of your workout to shorten your workout by a few minutes. Or, if you're short on time, you could do it for the full workout.
The amount of time your workouts take is highly personalized to your needs. From our experience, problems with workouts that are longer than necessary generally fall into two categories: lack of workout intensity, and too many superfluous exercises.
Cut the fluff out and start training with higher intensity. If you're training properly, there's no reason to be in there any longer than an hour and a half, including a dynamic warm up and cool down exercises.
At the same time, don't think you must train for at least 60 minutes. Hit all your muscle groups with the appropriate amount of sets and call it a day.
And remember, intensity is way more important than time when determining how long a workout should be. Going to the gym focused and hitting just four exercises hard and with intent will always outnumber doing 12 exercises at a low intensity.
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