Does Workout Length Matter?


By Robert Schinetsky


We’re often led to believe that if something is good, a lot more of that something will be that much better. Nowhere is this mindset more prevalent than in the world of fitness, especially when you consider the popularity of the #nodaysoff movement.

For proof of the lengths we will go to, to show how hardcore we are, spend 30-60 seconds scrolling through your instagram feed and see how many posts are talking about “epic” workouts lasting hours on end.

The thing to understand from the get-go is that the length of a workout is not solely indicative of its effectiveness.

In other words, just because a workout lasts 2+ hours does not inherently mean it is superior to a 30 minute workout.

And that brings us to the topic of today’s article -- does workout length matter, and how long should I workout to see results?

How Long Should I Workout?

Unfortunately, the answer to this question isn’t a one-size fits all answer. The simple truth of the matter is that how long you workout, as well as how frequently you train, is going to depend on a number of factors including, but not limited to:

  • Training Experience
  • Goals
  • Age
  • Time alloted for training
  • Workout Structure (e.g. straight sets vs supersets, upper/lower vs bro split)
  • Rest time between sets
  • “Wasted” workout time (how many times you snap selfies, check insta-face, and text during your workout)
  • How crowded the gym is

Basically, there is no such thing as the “perfect”, “right”, or “ideal” amount of time that your workout should last. There’s simply too many factors involved to give a blanket recommendation to everyone that hits the gym. The exact same thing can be said of training programs. Not every program (or even every exercise) is right for every lifter.  

Furthermore, the length of time your workout takes isn’t really indicative of the quality of your workout.

For instance, let’s say two lifters take 2 hours to complete a workout.

Lifter A is an elite powerlifter whose training typically involves heavy triples. As such, he requires long rest periods in order to regain his strength ahead of the next working set. If you’ve ever trained with heavy loads on the deadlift near your 1-rep max, you know full well it can take up to 5-10 minutes to fully recover and feel ready to attempt another heavy triple.

On the other side, is Lifter B. He’s your average joe who hits the gym three to four times per week just to get fit. He also takes 5-10 minute breaks in between sets, talking all the while to his buddies, mindlessly repping out set after set of curls, but not pushing anywhere near his one rep max.

While this example is a tremendous over-exaggeration  it serves to prove a point. Just because you’re in the gym for a long time doesn’t mean you’re training hard, or that you are training effectively, let alone efficiently. 

The truth is, you shouldn’t be so concerned with the length of time your workout takes. What you should be concerned with when training is improving from the last workout. This can be done in the way of adding weight to the bar, increasing the number of repetitions, or decreasing the amount of rest you take between sets, to name a few. 

The instance when you should be concerned about the length of your workout occurs when, you’re training under a severe time crunch. In that case, you need to maximize every second of time you’re in the gym. And at this point, things like supersets, brief rest periods, circuit training, etc. can be used.

So, does this mean I can take as long to workout as I want, provided I have the time available to do so?

Of course not.

Everything has an upper limit, and just because you have 3 hours to train doesn’t mean you should. The main goal when lifting weights is to stimulate (not annihilate) the muscles so they have a reason to adapt and grow bigger and stronger.

That’s it.

Use the rest of your time to recover, relax, work, spend time with family, friends, etc.

What About Cortisol Levels and Long Workouts?

If you’ve ever been told that working out for longer than 60 minutes is detrimental to your results, you’ve been told a lie. Research has shown that short, intense workouts can increase cortisol levels just as much (and potentially higher) than longer workouts.[1,2]

It’s not as if your body suddenly realizes you’ve been training longer than 45 or 60 minutes and magically floods your system with cortisol, eating up all of your precious lean muscle mass. The body simply doesn’t work that way.

OK, so how much should I actually workout then?

Provided that you understand that actual training frequency and duration will be highly variable on your own individual circumstances, training experience, and goals, here’s a few “general pointers” on training:

  • If you’re looking to build muscle and improve body composition, lift heavy weights 3-4 times per week totaling around 5-6 hours.
  • If you’re wanting to burn unwanted body fat, add an additional 1-2 hours of cardio on top of your resistance training. Remember, fat loss and muscle gain is ultimately determined by your nutrition. Calories burned from exercise is just a very small fraction of your total energy output each day.
  • Take at least one complete rest day per week to support recovery and reduce the chances of experiencing “burn out” from the gym.

Takeaway

There’s a good bit of misinformation and bad advice about how long you should workout. On the one hand, you have the “hardcore” lifters out there preaching the mantra of “more is always better”, promote the idea that training 6, or even 7, days per week using extremely high volume routines, workouts is the only way to make gains.

On the other hand, you have the ultra-minimalists who subscribe to the belief that training anymore than three times per week for 45 minutes each session is unnecessary and puts you at risk for catabolism.

As with most things in life, the answer to “how long should I workout” or “how frequently should I workout” will depend on a plethora of facts. While it’s easy to get mired down in the minutiae of programming, and succumb to paralysis by analysis in search of the “most optimal” program for making gains, as long as your hitting the weights 3 to 5 times per week with a focus on heavy, compound lifts, training every muscle group, and employing the rules of progressive overload, you will build muscle and get the body you’ve always wanted.

References

  1. Kraemer WJ, Fleck SJ, Dziados JE, Harman EA, Marchitelli LJ, Gordon SE, Mello R, Frykman PN, Koziris LP, Triplett NT. Changes in hormonal concentrations after different heavy-resistance exercise protocols in women. J Appl Physiol. 1993; 75:594-604.
  2. Kraemer WJ, Dziados JE, Harman EA, Marchitelli LJ, Gordon SE, Mello R, Frykman PN, Koziris LP, Triplett NT. Effects of different heavy-resistance exercise protocols on plasma beta-endorphin concentrations. J Appl Physiol. 1993; 74:450-9.



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