Workouts must be an hour long
Ask anyone at the gym how long their weight workout is and more than two thirds of them will say “an hour”. If you ask them why their workouts are an hour they will look at you like you are a moron. Workouts are an hour because they are SUPPOSED to be an hour, duh!
Why is that? Most people would answer that an hour is the optimal time for strength and mass gain because it lets you workout hard but not so hard that you are overtraining. Really? References please. Doesn’t it strike you as suspicious that the optimal workout time is precisely 1/24 the time it takes our earth to rotate about its axis? Doesn’t it seem a bit odd that the optimal time to workout for strength gain and muscle gain is more closely related to astrology than science? What is so magical about one hour?
Lets look at the people who are preaching this “one hour” thing, its those in the fitness industry. Its the magazine articles and books written by people who are, or were, personal trainers. Everyone is taught that workouts should be an hour long and this “wisdom” is passed down from one generation to the next. Trainers have clients and they need to schedule them and it just so happens that hour long appointments are very, very convenient. Imagine if 73 minutes were scientifically proven to be the optimal workout time (just an example), can you imagine what a scheduling nightmare that would be for trainers?? OK Bob, lets set you up for 6:39pm on Monday and 7:52pm on Thursdays – ya right. Hmmmm. An hour is the optimal time to workout because it is most convenient for trainers – got it.
Well now that we have established that 60 minutes is only the optimal workout time for personal trainers wanting to maximize their income, lets look at what is the optimal workout time for YOU! How long should YOU workout if you want to maximize your strength and mass gains? First, separate out cardio, cardio is a separate activity. In my opinion, you need to do 20-40 minutes strenuous cardio every day but I wont preach about that again. Back to weights, how long is your optimal weight workout? It depends on a zillion things! An optimal weight workout could be as short as 15 minutes or as long as 3 hours, it depends! With weight training, more is better … up till you get injured or enter into the overtraining zone. How long is that? It depends! Very helpful Scooby, really.
Beginners: Lets give some specific guidance for beginners here. By “beginner” I mean someone who has been working out consistently for less than a year. If you are a beginner, then the optimal workout time is the amount of time it takes you to complete a good basic workout plan with the specified exercises, sets, and inter-set rest period. It might be Starting Strength, Candito’s workouts, Lee Haywards 12 week workout plan, or one of my home workouts. Do not alter it, do not add exercises to “make it better”, do not do more sets to “make it better” – do it exactly as prescribed. So how long should you workout? As long as it takes to do the workout plan as it is specified! If you are someone easily distracted then set an alarm to keep the time between sets as specified.
Before we talk about how long intermediate and advanced people should train, lets look at what might be involved in determining ‘optimal’. Here are some possibilities of things that determine what is optimal:
1) total elapsed time
2) time under tension
3) total reps
4) total pounds lifted
5) total work done (weight x distance moved)
6) tfw … (That Feeling When)
The optimal time to workout is a complicated combination of all of the above but unfortunately its nothing that can be put into a formula which spits out an optimal number of minutes. Its going to vary incredibly based on what kind of workout you are doing, your age, your recovery time, the amount of sleep you get, and how good your nutrition is. For the same person, a high rep bodyweight workout is going to be of a different length than a low rep squat/deadlift/bench/OHP workout.
Number 6 needs the closest examination, tfw (That Feeling When) because it is the most important of all in my opinion. After you have been lifting seriously for 2 or 3 years you get to know your body and how it reacts to workouts. You know the progression of how your muscles feel at the beginning of the workout, in the middle, and when you are done. Its different for everyone and its different for different muscles within the body. You just know when your body has been punished the optimal amount of time. Its that feeling. Again, very helpful Scooby – Not! Ok, here is some very specific advice on how to develop “that feel” so you know what is optimal workout time for you.
Listen to your body. Pay attention to how you feel as the workout progresses. Write down a one word note on how the muscle feels during each set. Take fastidious notes about exercises, #sets, #reps, and rest times. Equally important, write down how much sleep you got, how your nutrition was, and anything else you think might have an effect on your workout. Please use an old fashioned paper notebook otherwise you waste all your time futzing with software. If you have a really good workout where your strength has risen more than normal, look and see what your last workout was, how you felt during it, and anything else that might have made it so awesome. Was anything out of the ordinary in your last workout? Did you do more/less exercises/sets/reps? Did you get way more sleep than normal? Any out of the ordinary feelings during the workout? Learn from that last workout because that was an awesome workout and you want to do more like that one! Conversely, if you have a really bad workout where you backslide in strength, again look in your logbook at your last workout. Did you do anything different or notice any feelings during the workout that could explain it? DONT DO THAT ANY MORE! That is your feedback and its how you learn what is best for you!
For example, for me, I know that biceps start out with my elbows hurting as I warm up, in the middle of the workout, I get an incredible arm pump, and I can tell when I am done when the pump seems to disappear. I know that if I do any more reps for biceps after the pump disappears I am risking injury because the next thing that will happen is that I will get very sore and not a good sore like DOMS, a bad “I hurt something” sore. As I say, for each muscle with me its different but I have learned when to stop, its when I get “tfw” :)
I have had amazing workouts as short as 20 minutes and as long as 2.5 hours.