A common misconception in life is that if a little of something is good, more of that same thing should be that much better.
Be it training volume, intensity, or stimulant intake, there’s something innate in human physiology that always seeks to push the envelope, find the line, and then jump across it.
This same concept also applies to how long we train each day.
We know that there is a minimum effective dose of training, below which we don’t derive much benefit, but the research community as a whole is still trying to identify what the “max” dose of exercise is that still provides benefit without hindering recovery and subsequent performance.
For example, research has shown that between 10-20 “hard sets” per week is the recommended training volume that best supports hypertrophy (muscle growth). However, there are individuals who may require higher volumes 20-30 sets per week to get a muscle to grow, while others experience better results training with lower volume.
Not only does the total amount of weekly volume matter, but so too does the length of your workout.
As we mentioned at the outset, we tend to think that more is better, so if working out for 30 minutes is good, 60 minutes must be great, and 90 or 120 minutes must be phenomenal...right?
As is the case with most things, there’s a delicate balance in all things.
So, today we’ll take a deeper look at does the length of your workout matter?
And, if so, what is the “optimal” amount of time to work out?
Without further adieu…
How Long Should Your Workout Be?
Truth be told, there is no one set answer for every individual in all scenarios.
The “optimal” length of your workout depends on a number of factors, including:
- Injury history
- Training history
- Style of training (powerbuilding, bodybuilding, powerlifting, GPP, etc.)
- How much time you waste during your workout (talking, checking email, instagram, texting, etc.)
- How much time do you have to devote to working out on a given day
- How crowded the gym is (meaning do you have to wait a long time to use certain machines or equipment)
As you can see, there are a multitude of factors that can affect the length of your workout. So, it would be disingenuous to give a blanket recommendation given that workouts, like exercises and comprehensive training programs, need to be tailored to the individual.
For example, you might have an individual who spends two hours in the gym five days per week. But the majority of those two hours is spent scrolling through social media, responding to emails, and chatting it up with other gym members. Their sets are low effort and low intensity.
While this example individual had a long workout, they didn’t necessarily have an effective one.
Juxtapose that with a busy executive who only has 45 minutes to warm up, train, cool down and get back to their job. The moment they enter the gym they are fully locked into their workout, adhering to strict rest times, and pushing their muscles close to failure on each and every set.
This second example “worked out” over less than half the time as the first example, but we’d all agree they had a more effective and time-efficient training session.
Does Workout Length Really Matter?
The simple truth of the matter is that the length of your workout isn’t something you need to make your primary concern.
Your main concern should be maximizing the time you do have in the gym. Keeping a close eye on your rest times, avoiding distractions, making the most of every set, and trying to improve upon your last workout’s performance.
Improving from one workout to the next (i.e. progressive overload) can mean many things, including:
- Adding weight to the bar
- Increasing the number of repetitions
- Adding sets
- Reducing rest
- Increasing range of motion
- Increasing time under tension
The only time you really need to be concerned about the length of your workout is when you are limited on how much time you have available to train.
In this instance, you need to focus on maximizing the time available to you.
You can do this any number of ways, including:
- Circuit training
- Paired sets
- Escalating density training
- Reducing the number of body parts trained per session
But, what if you have lots of time to train during the day.
Does that mean you have free license to dilly dally in between sets and take as long as you want.
You could, but it would be an incredibly inefficient use of your time. Not to mention, the return wouldn’t be that much greater than if you stuck to normal rest periods between working sets.
Remember, just because you may have all the time in the world to train doesn’t mean you should use all that time. Your body can only handle so much stress from training at a given time. Once you’ve successfully stimulated the muscles, it’s time to focus on recovering, repairing, and growing stronger.
Should I Be Concerned with Cortisol When Training Over 1 Hour?
There’s been a long held belief that training any longer than 50-60 minutes leads to significant elevations in cortisol, and thus could impair your results.
While it’s true that long duration physical activity (endurance exercise) can lead to protein breakdown, there are a number of factors at play here.
Additionally, research also shows that brief, high intensity workouts (like HIIT) can increase cortisol levels similar to long workouts.[1,2]
Remember, the body is not as fragile and frail as some in the fitness and diet community would lead you to believe. It’s not like there is a magical timer in your body that signals a flood of cortisol the second you’ve been in the gym longer than 45 or 50 minutes. Human physiology isn’t that simplistic -- and we should be very glad it isn’t.
At the end of the day, you don’t need to be as concerned with the length of your workout as you do with the quality and intensity of your workout. If you’re pressed for time, then yes, you do need to structure your workout such that it can fit in the time you have allotted.
But, most people would be far better served by focusing on putting in quality work each time they set foot in the gym and not how long they’re in the gym.
In closing, here are some important tips to keep in mind when trying to maximize your results:
- To improve body composition and build muscle, perform resistance training 5-6 times per week
- If you want to accelerate fat loss, you can perform 2-3 hours of cardio in addition to your resistance training. However, keep in mind that nutrition will ultimately dictate your fat loss. The number of calories burned from cardio is but a drop in the bucket compared to how much you can remove from your diet by cleaning up your diet.
- Take at least one day off from the gym each week to enhance recovery, promote growth and reduce the likelihood of experiencing burnout
- Kraemer, W. J., Fleck, S. J, Dziados, J. E., Harman, E. A., Marchitelli, L. J., Gordon, S. E., Mello, R., Frykman, P. N., Koziris, L. P., & Triplett, N. T. (1993). Changes in hormonal concentrations after different heavy-resistance exercise protocols in women. Journal of Applied Physiology, 75, 594-604.
- Kraemer, W. J, Dziados, J. E., Harman, E. A., Marchitelli, L. J., Gordon, S. E., Mello, R., Frykman, P. N., Koziris, L. P., & Triplett, N. T. (1993). Effects of different heavy-resistance exercise protocols on plasma beta-endorphin concentrations. Journal of Applied Physiology, 74, 450-9.