How Long Should a Workout Be?
Today’s article is about how long a workout should be. I wanted to write about this because there are a lot of “rules” about how long a workout needs to be and, well, none of them are right.
The ideal length of your workouts depends on your goals, training phase, how advanced you are as a lifter, and also how much time you have to devote to training. Very few people have the luxury of organizing their lives around their training. For the rest of us, it makes sense to try to keep your workouts efficient, while devoting enough time to training to get the benefits and adaptations we want.
Here is my Youtube video on the same subject if you would rather watch than read:
Let’s start by quickly running through the continuum, starting off with the minimum effective dose: what’s the absolute minimum amount of exercise you can do and still get benefit? Then we’ll get into more standard workouts that a typical gym goer would do.
What’s the Minimum Length for a Workout?
This is an interesting question to consider because if we’re talking about the minimum, then what we’re really doing is comparing a given workout length to nothing. The thing about no exercise is that not only does it provide no health benefits, it’s actively, and significantly, harmful. If you’re only able to do five seconds of activity, and the alternative is no activity, then you are better off doing that five second workout.
The measurable benefits of shorter workouts are mostly in the clinical realm, things like lowering blood pressure, improving insulin sensitivity…that sort of thing. Research has shown that two minutes of cycling intervals can significantly improve VO2 max, the best single measure of aerobic fitness.
What’s important to note is that although the duration was quite short, that the intensity in this scenario is quite high. Variables like workout length, or weekly training volume, or any parameter like that, can’t be measured in isolation. More intense activities provide more benefit in less time.
There are other examples where relatively small amounts of activity provide real benefits. When we look at the physical activity guidelines, something that’s been researched about as well as anything else, the guidelines recommend 150 minutes per week, accumulated in bouts of ten minutes or more. This covers ANY activity, most notably walking.
Brutal Ten Minute Workout Example
Ten minutes doesn’t sound like much, but consider the following scenario (Side note: I don’t actually recommend this workout. It would be brutal). Do one set of pushups to absolute failure. Maybe that’s ten pushups, but even if it’s 100, that’s only going to take about two minutes. Take a minute to catch your breath, get up, and start running. Not a full sprint, but close to it, about the pace you would use for an 800 m run. Do this until you absolutely can’t maintain that pace. That will take maybe 5 minutes. You will be gassed after this.
If you did this exact workout a few times per week, you could expect some tangible benefits: Upper body hypertrophy from the pushups, increased aerobic power and lactate clearance from the running, in addition to new capillaries and mitochondria. All kinds of good things would happen, and again, this is just in 10 minutes. My point is that there’s no rule about the minimum amount of time for an exercise bout. Short workouts can pay big dividends.
Next let’s look at typical workouts, when you actually go to the gym and have a decent chunk of time to devote to your workouts. How long should you spend on those workouts?
How Long Should a Typical Gym Workout Be?
Before we get into specifics, I want to emphasize that an important consideration is how much time you have. We’ve already established that two minutes can provide real benefits. Obviously, longer workouts can provide more benefits, but if two minutes can do something, then of course 20 or 30 minutes can do something. The point is that “rules” about how long a workout needs to be are arbitrary, and not based on anything. If you only have 20 minutes, that’s fine. And as we covered in the earlier example about push-ups and hard running, that you can actually really tire yourself out and – more importantly – achieve meaningful physical adaptation in minimal time.
When you really look at the time involved in a typical gym workout, and how a person fits it into their day, most people do end up having an hour or so to devote to their training. If you’re going to the gym, that involves having packed your gym bag, making a conscious decision to block off time to go to the gym, and usually a commute. Then you’ve got to change, and maybe shower afterwards. The whole process can take a good portion of your day. Adding or subtracting 10-15 minutes to the actual exercise time may not actually make a meaningful difference to the amount of time and energy needed to complete the work out.
Most people work out for an hour. One hour is my reference point because it’s the industry standard, but there’s nothing magical about one hour, and there are good reasons why your workout might be 30 minutes or 90 minutes. Let’s look at the various components of a workout and consider how long each of them might be.
Warm-up: 5-15 minutes
Whenever I work out in a commercial gym, I’m amazed at how few people actually do a proper warm-up. There are a lot of different and perfectly fine ways to warm-up, but you have to do it. I know, I know, you’re excited to get to the workout, and maybe things like “injury prevention” aren’t exciting to you.
Consider this: The warm-up is one of the most effective performance enhancers you have available to do you. If you take the time to actually get warm, do some activation exercises, stimulate your nervous system with explosive movements, you will perform better in your workouts and lift more weight. If that’s not enough incentive to take some time to get warm, I don’t know what to tell you. One thing you’ll notice as we work through the sections is that some of them might be zero, meaning you may not do them. That’s not the case for the warm-up. You need to warm-up.
Reasons why you might need a longer warm-up are if you’re older, if you’ve been particularly sedentary in your day, if it’s cold outside, or if you’re doing some really heavy lifting. Which brings us to the next part of the workout, ramp-up sets.
Ramp-Up Sets: 5-10 minutes
Ramp-up sets are great, but you might not need to do them if you’re doing a circuit or just generally not going too heavy. But, if you’re main focus of the day is say, heavy squats, then you’re going to need to do ramp up sets. This means if you’re squatting 315 lbs, you do sets with the bar, 135, 185, 225, and so on, building yourself up to your training weight. Think of this as a specific warm-up where the benefits are again injury prevention and performance enhancement. Ramp up sets also provide insight into how you’re doing that day, and whether you would do well to push things or back off a bit.
Main Focus: 20-30 minutes
Depending on the type of training you’re doing this can look like a lot of different things. If you’re focused on strength, this most likely going to be multiple sets of one or two different exercises. When you factor in appropriate rest breaks for this type of training, which can be 2-3 minutes easily, this segment of the workout will take the most time. Similarly, if you’re doing a traditional hypertrophy split, say you’re training chest or another muscle group, then doing three different exercises for that one muscle group is going take up most of your time. The same logic holds if you’re doing a conditioning circuit or following some sort of hybrid approach.
Accessory Work: 0-30 minutes
The amount of time you spend on accessory work is going to depend on how much time and effort you spent on your main focus. If you did eight sets of heavy squats, you might not have much left in the tank for accessory work. You only have so much energy to put into high quality work when you get into the gym so you might not do any accessory work at all.
But if you take a more moderate approach with your squats, and say did 3-4 sets at a lower intensity, you likely have time, energy, and would be well served to do some more accessory exercises like lunges, leg curls, bridges, whatever it may be. I put conditioning in this same category. The same lifter who does lunges and leg curls in a hypertrophy focused phase might do sled pushes or skipping rope in a more conditioning focused phase.
Cool Down: 0-5 Minutes
The reason the cool down might take zero minutes is that you may not need to cool down. The research suggests there’s no injury prevention benefits. The benefits around a cool down are more around accelerating recovery. Deep breathing and positional breathing drills can help calm the body down after a hard workout. This can be particularly helpful if you work out at night. If you notice you’re having a hard time coming down after your workouts, consider extending the cool down. Since you do accessory work after your main focus, you are likely sufficiently removed from peak intensity when the workout ends. If you want to just hit the showers and grab a bite to eat, that will almost certainly be fine.
How Long Should Your Workout Be?
If you review the numbers used above, you’ll see that the range is 30-90 minutes. I’d say that’s about right for the vast majority of people. If you’re going to block off time to hit the gym, it makes sense to invest at least 30 minutes in your workout. And if you have all the time in the world to train, there’s no real reason you can get everything you want to get done, done, in under two hours. If you’re having a tough time keeping workouts under two hours, try timing your rest breaks. Make sure you’re not spending too much time talking to your friends or scrolling on your phone. And if that’s not it, perhaps you’re doing more than you need to.
Elite lifters who have organized their lives around their training may choose to spend longer in the gym. That may be necessary at least at some points in their program. But this doesn’t mean that more is better. If you can get the benefits you want in less time, that’s the better strategy. As wonderful as exercise is, it’s a stressor. Remember that adaptations happen in recovery. You want to train, apply that stressor, and then put energy into recovering. It’s that much harder to efficiently and fully recover from extremely long workouts and may not be worth it.
If you are not currently exercising and you feel like you don’t have time to start, have an honest conversation with yourself about how much time you do have. If that’s two minutes a day, then that’s worth it. Do some two-minute workouts. Research confirms the benefits. Do it.
If you’re committed to training and want to hit the gym hard most days of the week, awesome. 90 minutes is almost certainly enough time for you to do what you need to do. If you have more time and energy, put that into your recovery.
If you aren’t sure about the best way to start with a new training program, then my Healthy Transformation Program could be a great fit. This program is designed to help people get started on the right path with sustainable habits and workouts. Get in touch to reserve your spot today!