(Sometimes a reader will email me a question that needs a full article to answer properly, and sometimes it’s an answer I think others will benefit from hearing. This is one of those times.)
QUESTION: I was wondering how long my weight training workouts should be? I’ve heard people recommend anywhere from 30 minutes, to 45 minutes, to 60 minutes, to 90 minutes or sometimes more? What amount of time do you recommend?
I’ve also heard some people say that your hormones start to go out of whack after about 1 hour of lifting, so if you’re in the gym longer than that you will end up losing muscle. Is this true?
ANSWER: I must get some version of this question at least once or twice a week. In fact, the exact question you see above is actually a combination of 3 different questions from 3 different people, all of which were asked within the last two days alone.
I don’t know about you, but I take that as a sign that it’s probably time to give it a full and proper answer once and for all. Let’s do this.
First Things First… Just What The Hell Are We Timing Anyway?
This is always the first thing that pops into my head when someone asks me exactly how long their workout should take. What do you mean by “workout?” What exactly are we timing?
I mean sure, we’re only looking at weight training workouts here (not cardio or anything else). But even still, there’s a ton of stuff happening between the second we arrive at the gym and the second we leave it.
So, tell me. What specifically are we talking about here?
- Total time spent inside the gym?
- Time spent doing actual work sets?
- Time spent doing warm-up sets?
- Time spent resting between sets?
- Time spent doing pre workout mobility stuff?
- Time spent foam rolling?
- Time spent spotting the person who asked me for a spot… 3 sets in a row?
- Time spent in an engrossing conversation about the weather with some gym buddy whose name I don’t know?
- Time spent searching my phone for the perfect song before my next set?
- Time spent unloading the weights the a-hole before me left on the bar?
- Time spent waiting for someone to finish using what I need to use?
- Time spent searching for the other dumbbell?
- Time spent trying to figure out if the random towel on the bench I want to use is there because someone is using it and just walked away for a second, or if the owner of that towel left the gym about 6 hours ago?
- Time spent waiting for the cleaning guy to finish squeegeeing the mirror that’s 2 feet in front of me?
- Time spent in the locker room waiting for the old naked guy lingering in front of my locker to put some pants on so I don’t accidentally graze against anything while putting my stuff away?
I hope you get my point, because I can keep going.
Seems Kinda Stupid Now, Doesn’t It?
There’s just a whole lot of stuff going on at the gym, some of which isn’t even fully in our control, but all of which can add up and make a significant difference in terms of how long your workouts end up taking.
I mean, you can send 3 people into 3 different gyms (or even the same gym at 3 different times of the day) with the EXACT same workout program, and I can guarantee you that they’ll all end up being in the gym for different amounts of time.
And this variance will of course be WAY bigger when those workouts aren’t the same, or when the person’s goals aren’t the same, or when the person’s individual needs/preferences aren’t the same. Think about it…
- A basic full body workout for a beginner will be short as hell. It may take just 30 minutes to complete. A full body workout for someone advanced could take twice as long… maybe even three times as long.
- An upper body workout will usually last longer than a lower body workout, just based solely on the fact that there is more stuff to train (chest, back, shoulders, biceps, triceps vs quads, hams, calves).
- An upper body workout will usually also take quite a bit longer than a push or pull workout, because an upper body workout is essentially a combined upper body push and pull workout.
- All of these types of workouts will take much longer than a “chest day” or “back day.” And both of those will take longer than an “arm day.”
- Someone stronger will need more warm-up sets than someone weaker, thus significantly extending the length of their workout in comparison.
- Some people do better with more or less training volume than others, thus significantly reducing or increasing the length of their workouts in comparison.
- Someone with one goal might rest 1 minute (or less) between sets, while someone with another goal might rest 3 minutes (or more) between sets. This would again make a significant difference in terms of how long their workouts are.
- Two people might use the exact same workout, but one might do it with supersets and the other person might not. That first person will finish that same workout quite a bit faster than the second person will.
- [insert dozens of similar examples here]
For all of these reasons and all of the reasons mentioned before (what the hell are we timing?) — many of which are out of our control — it becomes pretty obvious that the concept of there being some universally ideal amount of time everyone’s workouts should take is, well, stupid.
So Why Do People Claim That There IS An “Ideal” Workout Length?
I think there are primarily 3 main reasons that these common, very specific (exactly 30, 45 or 60 minutes usually) workout time length recommendations exist:
- The first is to stop you from doing a ton of unnecessary and/or counterproductive crap you shouldn’t be doing. Too many exercises, too many sets, too much volume, too much everything. Basically, it’s to prevent you from doing a stereotypical bodybuilding workout. You know, 4 sets of bench press, 4 sets of incline press, 4 sets of decline press, 4 sets of dumbbell flyes, 4 sets cable flyes, 4 sets of dumbbell bench presses… and then 20 sets of triceps.
- The second is to make sure you’re in the gym to train and not excessively screw around talking to your pals, flirting/stalking, texting or whatever other time-wasting stuff you commonly see taking place in your gym (gotta love the guy sitting on a bench reading an actual newspaper between sets). You know, the stuff that distracts and prevents people from actually training hard and making progress.
- The third is to prevent “bad things” from happening with cortisol and testosterone levels.
Let’s ignore #3 for a second, because it’s horseshit. More on that below.
But preventing #1 and #2? That’s perfectly fine by me. #1 IS terrible and SHOULD be prevented. And #2 is a problem for many people as well.
But as long as you’re not doing either of those things, is there any other legitimate reason for why your workouts MUST last exactly 30 minutes or 45 minutes or 1 hour and not a second longer?
No, there isn’t. Not even a little.
Unless of course your schedule will only allow for you to be in the gym for some specific amount of time. That’s pretty much the only case where your workouts truly NEED to last a certain amount of time. But this has nothing to do with an amount of time that’s magically best for results and effectiveness. It’s about an amount of time being best for your schedule.
But beyond that, it really doesn’t matter at all if you’re in the gym for 30, 45, 60, 75 or even 90 minutes or anywhere in between. And no, being in the gym for 91 minutes won’t matter, either.
But I Heard Bad Things Will Happen If I’m In The Gym Too Long!!!
Yeah, I know. I heard about those “bad things” too.
In fact, I gave a very realistic, not-sarcastic-at-all example of them in a previous article when discussing what supposedly happens to ectomorphs/hardgainers if they’re in the gym longer than 45 minutes:
At 46 minutes exactly, the cortisol fairy will supposedly show up, drink your testosterone, make your muscles fall off instantly, and add 1 pound of fat to your body for every additional minute you’re still inside the gym.
Or some crazy shit like that? I honestly can’t even keep track anymore. But whatever the claimed reason is, it’s nothing you actually need to care about.
So you know all of those claims you’ve heard for why everyone MUST workout for EXACTLY a certain length of time and NEVER exceed it under ANY circumstance EVER because your hormone levels will break and cortisol will increase and testosterone will decrease and muscle will be lost and fat will be gained and all sorts of other terrible things will happen to your body?
That’s all meaningless nonsense you can ignore.
So Then How Long Should My Workouts Be?
The very best answer I can possibly give you to this question is actually another question. And that question is: who cares?
The amount of time your workouts take is something that just doesn’t matter at all, and it’s not something you need to be paying much (if any) attention to.
Because the one and only thing that matters is that your overall workout program and each individual workout within that program is designed correctly and intelligently for your specific goals and needs.
As long as that has been done, your workouts will take exactly as long as they should be taking.
So the people who first figure out the magical amount of time they should supposedly be in the gym for during each workout (30 minutes? 45 minutes? 60 minutes? 90 minutes? 2 hours?) and then think “alright, now I just need to fill in that amount of time with stuff and I’ll be guaranteed to get awesome results!!” are wrong and stupid.
The same goes for the people who finish their workout, look at their watch and think “hmmm, looks like I should have been in the gym for another 15 minutes… let me do some extra stuff” or the reverse version of that… “dammit! I’ve gone over the 45 minutes Dr. Fitness Guru PHD said I must NEVER exceed… I better take some stuff out of my workouts to make sure this never happens again!”
Wrong and stupid. And completely ass-backwards.
The only thing you need to do is find/design the intelligent workout program you need to get the results you want (or just use any of the proven workouts I’ve included in The Best Workout Routines), and then make sure you’re in the gym for whatever amount of time is needed for those workouts to be completed properly.
Whatever amount of time that takes… THAT’S exactly as long as it should have taken.
How Long Will A Typical Workout Typically Take?
I’d say, on average, somewhere between 30-120 minutes depending on the specifics (goals, rep ranges, rest periods, type of training split, total volume, overall training approach, 100 other factors, etc. etc. etc.). Narrowing that down even further, you’ll probably be looking at something like 45-90 minutes most of the time, especially with workouts aimed at common goals (such as building muscle).
You can expect most of the workouts I’ve designed for you in The Best Workout Routines to fall into this range as well.
But again, I’m only telling you this because I know certain people won’t be happy with this article unless they see some kind of specific guideline. So, there it is. It’s not a recommendation or a suggestion or the amount of time that I think is “best.”
It’s just a typical estimate for how long, on average, a typical workout for a typical goal might take a typical person in a typical gym.
Yeah, that’s right… I just set the world record for most ‘typicals’ used in a single sentence. Someone alert Guinness.
But seriously, the amount of time your workout takes just doesn’t matter. There is nothing better about 60 minutes than 90 minutes, or 90 minutes than 60 minutes, or 45 minutes than 75 minutes, and on and on and on.
Basically, there really is no such thing as an optimal workout length. There is only optimal program design.
As long as your program is designed correctly, that’s all that truly matters. Whether the workouts in that program take exactly 1 hour instead of 1 hour and 15 minutes or whatever else is something that just doesn’t matter at all.