From the very start I will be honest, the question how long does a workout need to be doesn’t really have a straight answer. This is because it depends of 4 main things:
2. Type of exercise
All 4 of these factors combined pretty much give you the answer to the question ‘how long does a workout need to be’. So let’s have a little look at each one individually:
I’ll give a very visual example for this one; if 2 people go into the gym and person 1 wanders around does a few sets, chats to a few people, does another set checks their phone for 10 minutes, walks around a bit, does a few more, this person could easily be in the gym 2,3 even 4 hours BUT it needs to be made very clear they haven’t worked out for 4 hours. The other person may have come in done an intense couple of rounds of full body weighted circuits with minimal rest and after 35 minutes they are completely exhausted! So the first point to take into consideration is intensity is far more important than time spent in the gym. If you are training at a high intensity then by default how much time you can spend working out will be reduced.
Type of exercise:
The type of exercise has a huge impact on the duration of the workout. From a gym perspective big compound lifts such as squats and deadlifts you will only be able to perform these for a much shorter time than you would smaller machine based exercises, this is just because it is overall more taxing on your body.
Cardio workout durations are often dictated by heart rate zones, aerobic base work, such as a long run or bike ride are specifically designed for you to be able to keep going for longer durations. Whereas anaerobic work even a minute can be incredibly tough (just ask any 400 metre runner). So this type of workout will often be a lot shorter. However the length of the anaerobic sessions may be longer than expected because the rest periods you need to allow will need to be longer. Since despite the work being shorter it is more taxing on the body.
When it comes to gaining muscle overall volume across the week is incredibly important. This doesn’t mean you can just do all of the weekly volume on one day, because a huge part of the workout wouldn’t end up being at a level high enough to appropriately stimulate the muscles. However, frequency does have a place in determining workout duration, for example if you workout 3 days a week you may need your workouts to be 1 hour 20 minutes to fit in all of the necessary volume to maximise progress on all of your muscles, while if you workout 5 days per week you may only need 50 minutes to still hit the same weekly volume.
If you are looking to increase general fitness or you are looking to compete in a sport at national level will mean that the duration, intensity and frequency of your workouts will vary enormously. This is why before planning any training it is important to decide clearly what your goals are, then from here define what you need to do to achieve this and then work backwards from this, to workout how long it will take you to fit all of the different components together.
For example some triathletes where they have to train to a high level across three disciplines may spend almost 30 hours a week working out (almost 4 and a half hours every day! It is important to note that; a) most of these people are professional athletes so it is literally their job to train so they have a lot more time to fit this in b)these athletes have regular massages and invest heavily into recovery, this volume of training is incredibly taxing on the body and if you aren’t 100% on top of your recovery at this level in terms of sleep, nutrition and additional treatments such as massage or physio then you will quickly start to get injured)
A 5th important factor which I want to add is; individuality. Every person is different and when it comes to training this fact still remains true. I have known people who can endlessly do exercise after exercise and smash their body to pieces for 2-3 hours then walk back in the next day as though nothing has happened (unfortunately for these people often the ‘bubble’ surrounding this training method usually bursts around their mid-twenties and aches, pains and injuries all catch up with them).
It is so important to know your body, the more you train the more you will realise different parts of your body have different tolerances and different levels of volume which they respond to, my hamstrings could do 3 sets per week, be in absolute pieces and make the most amazing progress, whereas my back I could do 40 sets per week and it would still recover within 24-36 hours. This is just something you need to identify within yourself and then use it to your advantage. Don’t spend hours on end over doing it on muscles which only need minimal volume to see progress. A good rule to workout by is; the shortest effective time you can get the workout done is the best time. This is because if you can get a good workout done in 45 minutes or 1 hour, then on a busy day or a day where you aren’t really feeling it, you will find it a lot easier to push through and make yourself go to the gym and workout if you know you only need to be there an hour instead of 3 hours!
To conclude; the duration of a workout highly depends on the type of exercise, the intensity, your training frequency and your goals. Then on top of this it is so important to take note of the effect of individuality and learn which parts of your body or which areas of your training you need to invest more time and effort into. This will be by far the most effective way to train. Additionally, when trying to workout how long a session will be, never forget to include the time it will take to warm up and cool down (I know when you are in a rush these seem super inconvenient and are the first thing to miss out, but trust me doing this will very quickly lead to injuries which can be painful, frustrating and expensive to repair.
I hope that this post has been helpful, it is impossible to specify on specific training durations when there is such a diverse range of training styles and types out there each with their own formats, approaches and durations. If anyone has any questions or wants any help structuring their training, just drop me a message.
Next week’s topic – What makes the ‘Perfect’ leg day?