Taking yourself to the gym several times a week can feel like a slog to some people. Others, of course, live for the gym and would spend 24 hours a day there, if they could. Part of the reason for the lack of motivation experienced by some is the belief they have to spend at least one hour working out to see any results. But that might not be the case…
People who are new to the gym may feel they need to spend at least one hour performing a range of workouts in order to gain any noticeable benefit. However, there is no hard and fast rule that says ‘the longer you workout, the stronger or more fit you will become.’ According to Myprotein ambassador and transformation coach Tom Bailey the whole concept of “if you’re not working out for more than an hour, it’s a waste of time,” is a complete myth.
To help determine how long your workout sessions should last, you need to consider your age, fitness level and goals. As Healthline says, “how much time a powerlifter spends exercising is largely different from an ultramarathoner.” For the recreational gym-goer, i.e. those not training for a specific purpose such as to compete in a competition, but someone who just wants to improve their physique and fitness level, there is a minimal amount of time but also a maximal amount of time that should be spent working out.
A 2020 study analysed data from over 2,600 previous studies focusing on a person’s 1RM (one repetition maximum) when performing a squat, bench press and deadlift. The study wanted to determine “what is the minimum one needs to do to increase 1-repetition maximum (1RM) strength?”
After analysing the data, the study found that “performing a single set of 6-12 repetitions with loads ranging from approximately 70-85% 1RM 2-3 times per week with high intensity of effort (reaching volitional or momentary failure) for 8-12 weeks can produce suboptimal, yet significant increases in SQ and BP 1RM strength in resistance-trained men.”
This tells us that if your goal is to increase your 1RM, then you only need to spend the amount of time it takes to complete a single set of a lift to achieve it. Including a warm-up, this would mean you’d only spend around 15-minutes in the gym.
A separate study, meanwhile, examined the effects of the number of sets in relation to strength gain and found that a high number of weekly sets performed was the most effective in causing strength gain. This was particularly prevalent in men who had little experience in the gym, which backs up the phenomenon of the training plateau. This sees people who are new to the gym making huge gains quickly, but eventually find their strength increases start to slow down.
In this instance, with the results of the study saying a high number of weekly sets per workout is required for strength gain, the suggestion is that your workouts will need to last longer. And, with a higher number of sets, you also need to take into account rest periods.
Healthline says the amount of rest you take between sets can vary and will once again be influenced by your training goals. For people looking to increase muscular strength (and therefore likely performing fewer reps of a higher weight) the recommended rest period between sets is 2 to 5 minutes.
On the contrary, those looking to increase muscular size (otherwise known as hypertrophy) the rest periods should be shorter at around 60 – 90 seconds.
When you take these rest periods into account, your workout session duration will naturally increase. For example, if you perform one the big three compound lifts such as a deadlift, but are training for hypertrophy, you will likely perform 4 to 5 sets with 6 to 8 reps per set. Add in a 90-second rest between each set and you’re looking at 5 to 6 minutes spent just deadlifting.
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Add in some other accessory exercises and a couple of other full body or lower body exercises, along with rest periods, and you’ll soon start hitting at least 60 minutes spent in the gym.
As Tom Bailey explains, you also need to consider how much time you can actually dedicate to the gym in the first place. If you have a busy work or social schedule, then finding at least one hour a day to go to the gym may not be possible.
Tom told DMARGE that ultimately, the optimal workout time “is individual based on the training goal and time available.”
“A powerlifter may need a two-hour workout due to extended rest periods; two hours is a requirement due to their preferred sport and they’ll allocate time in their schedule accordingly. Whereas a busy mother simply looking to keep fit with only 30 minutes a day that can commit to 5x per week would do very well.”
That last point is especially true. Working out shouldn’t be something that takes over your life (unless you are training as an athlete or need to dedicate some serious hours for training for a marathon, for example) so if you can only spare 30 minutes a week, that’s totally fine. Spending 30 minutes working out is always going to better than committing no time at all.