How long should I be training for each session?
What is the optimum length for a training session? If I spend 2 hours in the gym am I spending too long in there? Is 2 hours in the gym long enough, since I read in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s autobiography that he used to train for at least 3 hours?
If you do a bit of research, you’ll find that the most commonly quoted number is usually 1 hour.
The real answer is that as with anything, how long you’re in the gym doesn’t really mean anything unless you relate it to quality.
To illustrate this point what do we mean by 1 hour of training anyway?
When does the timer start? When you first walk in the door? When you do your warm-up? When you do your first working set?
What about time in between sets? Does that count?
What about time actually spent doing the exercise? If you’re doing more reps and concentrating on keeping each rep slow and controlled, the workout might take longer than an hour than if you were doing lower, faster reps. If the first method means you go over 1 hour, is that bad?
As you can see, the notion of time of your workouts being a factor in how effective they are is really not relevant.
When you go into a gym to workout, remember that ultimately what you are looking for is some sort of progressive overload.
Workout effectiveness is measured by progress over time. It’s the only true marker of whether adapting for the better, alongside taking daily or weekly photographs or weighing yourself and measuring bodyfat regularly.
Can you lift more now for 10 reps than you could 6 months ago? Even if you’re following a cycle of de-loading and building to peak for PR’s (like my Deadlift Challenge), you should still be progressing week-to week through your planned percentages and indirectly building your maximum strength.
It’s a bit like golfers who say that they’ve got new equipment or found a way to hit it longer, but their handicap doesn’t go down. Sure, you can bomb it a long way but if you’re not measurably playing the game better than you were 6 months ago, what is the point?
So really the answer to how long you should be in the gym is: it takes as long as it takes to elicit the effect you want.
If you’re concentrating on building strength, and therefore moving weights in the 80-90% region of your 1 rep max, you’ll need a lot of rest time between sets to recover, even if the reps are necessarily low.
If you’re working more in the 10-12 rep range for size and conditioning then you’ll be taking less rest between sets.
The former will take longer to do effectively, i.e. actually hit your planned numbers, because of the nature of the effect you’re trying to elicit.
The second workout could be wrapped up in 45 minutes, depending on how much intensity (less time between sets) you apply.
To be perfectly honest a lot of ‘time-sensitive’ routines, the ones that tell you your time in and out is crucial, are based on you having access to an empty gym.
In reality, you’ll more often than not turn up to find the equipment you were planning to use is taken, or you have to wait for something to become available between exercises.
There are plenty of factors that could mean you cannot be ‘in and out’ of there in or under the magical 1 hour mark.
It doesn’t matter.
The most important period during your training sessions is the time you are actually doing the exercises: if you’re putting in the effort and intensity into your reps then you’ll be on your way to giving your muscles and body a reason to change and develop.
Equally, if you don’t have time to be in the gym for as long as you want you can tailor your workouts to make them shorter.
For instance, if you’ve got a busy week ahead and think you’ll only be able to do a couple of 30 minute workouts then you can plan to make that 30 minutes as effective as possible. Ensuring you stuck to the compound, multi-muscle movements that provide most ‘value for time’ you could for example do two whole body workouts using the deadlift and the squat or you could do one upper body and one lower body day.
But I heard that if you stay longer than 1 hour, your anabolic window closes and you can actually go backwards!?
The foundation of the 1 hour, or 45 minute workout is actually there to make sure you don’t mess around while you’re at the gym- as a guideline I suppose it’s meant to ensure that those who view the gym as a social club actually get some work done.
Also, if you are ACTUALLY working out with effort and intensity then it’s unlikely that you’ll be able to do so for more than an hour anyway.
However the 60 minute ‘limit’ is just an arbitrary number- if you have to be there longer than that to get your planned session done then great- you won’t be getting ‘catabolic’ or losing muscle.
That’s just another reason made up by the supplement ‘gurus’ who want you to believe that you need to be constantly worrying about losing ‘mass’ along with the convenient idea that if you do want to be in the gym longer than an hour, you’d better drink some ‘during-workout’ anabolic powder to keep you going.
I’ll reiterate: it takes as long as it takes in the gym to achieve progressive overload.
On the other hand, you might also read about other ‘gurus’ or bodybuilders like Arnold who swear by the twice a day, 3 hour session routines. Some even claim that the more often you workout, the faster and bigger you’ll get.
For those of you who follow this blog I hope I don’t have to point out how bullshit this claim is. Assuming these guys even do this (and there’s no proof they actually do), it’s the kind of routine that only works if, you’ve guessed it, are on drugs.
So if you’re natural, then don’t look to these kind of 6 day a week, 2 hours a day training cycles espoused by the pros: they won’t work for you, I guarantee it, because as a regular person you need time to recover.
The main point to take away is that the most important factor for progress in the gym is consistency, along with effort.
The amount of time you’re in there? Don’t stress about it.
Plan your sessions and your goals and work out what you need to hit them, taking into account your time constraints. Aim to be productive and focused in the gym, and don’t worry about the clock.
Personally I never time my workouts, and I rarely look at the clock (unless I have to be done by a certain time). I just know exactly what I’m going to do and keep focused on giving my best effort for each rep and set.
Sometimes it takes an hour, sometimes 70 minutes, sometimes 90. But I can’t honestly tell you the average time for my workouts because I simply don’t know.
That hasn’t had an impact on my results, and it won’t have an impact on yours either.