Getting to the gym is half the battle, but once you’ve arrived just how long should your workout last? Unfortunately there is no simple, one size fits all, quantitative answer to this question. To figure out the most optimal duration for a workout, we need to look at several things, but first and foremost you need to define what kind of a workout you PLAN on doing at the gym. Feel free to re-read that last sentence, because I did in fact just say you need to have a plan before you stroll through the doors of your local fitness center. Decide whether your workout for the day will be strength training based, targeting the major muscle groups or cardiovascular based, testing the endurance of your heart and lungs. Since a lot of my readers despise cardio, let’s save that topic for another day and assume your workout will be centered on weight training. Here are some things to consider.
First, if your goal is to build muscle and/or get stronger, please be sure that you have an appropriate amount of food in your system as well as enough rest/sleep going into the workout. If these two variables are not on point, your workout quality is going to suffer and muscle/strength building most likely will not occur. Going further, be mindful of how close your pre-workout meal is to the start time of your workout. I suggest a minimum of 60 minutes for a medium sized meal and ideally closer to 90 minutes to ensure proper food digestion. Messing this up will shunt the pumping of blood into the muscles for contractions and instead the body will innately push the blood into the stomach for digestion.
Provided that food intake and rest is where it needs to be, a moderate to high intensity strength training workout in my opinion should not exceed 1 hour and 15 minutes and could possibly extend out to 90 minutes on a leg day. The rationale for this is the body seems to reach the law of diminishing returns near this point and there is very little to be gained from going any longer. Muscle eating hormones such as cortisol really start to sky rocket and too much tissue damage can be a bad thing. For instance, often times in crossfit circles rhabdomyolysis, the breakdown of muscle fibers that leads to the release of muscle fiber contents into the blood, can occur. This is an extreme state but just be forewarned that it can cause serious kidney damage and even cause you to die. If you feel like you are able to lift weights longer than this period of time, don't fool yourself into thinking you're superhuman or some kind of mutation. Most likely, the reality is your intensity is not high enough and you need to step it up a notch. Some quick tips to increase your intensity can be decreasing your rest time between sets, increasing the load on exercises that you have mastered proper technique, and focus more on the mind to muscle connection by emphasizing the stretch and squeeze of every repetition.
My experience as a professional trainer has shown me that the mentality of a novice exerciser is usually of the thought "more is better." Please be advised that over-exercising is the wrong approach to take and not only can it stall your progress in the gym, but more seriously it could lead to a muscular injury. An injury will in turn prevent you from exercising and before you know it you're backsliding instead of progressing.
So do yourself a favor and keep the intensity appropriately high in strength training workouts and if you do, your workout should last no longer than 1 hour and 30 minutes. (large muscles like back and legs) and probably closer to 1 hour for smaller muscles like chest and arms. Check back in next week as I’ll dive into some of the questions I typically field in regards to cardio.
About the Author
Gym Owner and Personal Trainer, Keith Diedrich has a B.A. in Exercise Science and has been professionally involved in health and fitness in various capacities since 2005.
"My initial thought about Keith was that he seemed very casual and not as frenetic as other professionals. I quickly learned that he was gauging my stamina, movements, and technique. He wasn't after a fast burnout, but he wanted to exhaust every muscle every time. He said we were working on a "mind to body connection." With this connection I'd be able to gauge whether a set was 15 reps or 20 reps regardless of the initial "goal of 15!" I believe much of my gains came from Keith always seeing my potential even when I couldn't." ~ Saul "Mr. Biceps"