How Long Should My Training Session Be?
There’s a prevalent misconception amongst many lifters I see that seems to be spreading through gyms like the latest brand of delicious tasting, shitty quality protein powder.
The school of thought seems to be that the more time you spend in the gym, the better. Regardless of what you actually accomplish while you’re there. The longer your session, the more muscle you’ll build. The shorter your session? Why’d you bother showing up?
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Time and time again I’ve entered the gym, moved through my warm up, the entirety of my session, practiced posing, and been out the door while the dude in joggers and a tank, who already looked two shakers deep into his session when I got there, is still hammering away at what must be his 14th set of “swinging” dumbbell curls.
Which inevitably raises the question:
“What’s the best training session length?”
While I have respect and empathy for people who spend hours upon hours in the gym, it also pains me to see such an inefficient approach to bodybuilding.
I mean, I fucking love training, but that love is the fuel which requires me to push the envelope while I’m there.
Pushing the envelope for the entirety of your session, and spending 2.5 hours guarding your dumbbells do not go hand in hand.
I know you know who the offending lifters are at your gym. Next time you train, look a little bit closer and pay attention to what they do between sets. Chances are they’ll:
- Take at least 5 minutes between sets.
- Talk with anyone who strays too close.
- Complain (brag) loudly about how they’re always at the gym.
- Rarely, if ever, break a sweat.
While this isn’t inherently wrong, I mean, I don’t know the intimate details of Mr. Joggers’ goals and training plan. That said, I do have a pretty good idea of what constitutes an effective, productive training session.
…and none of the qualities listed above make the cut.
Let’s dig into how you can make different training session lengths optimal for your goal.
Training Session Length: 30 minutes or less
There is absolutely nothing wrong with quick, dirty, and aggressively sweaty training sessions where you’re in and out in 30 minutes or less.
If we’re being perfectly honest, these quick sessions are often more effective in terms of fat loss due to the high levels of metabolic stress created. While I largely subscribe to the “build muscle in the gym, burn fat via nutrition” mentality, I do recognize that there’re a time and place for both.
For any lifter who’s placing a heavy focus on fat loss and conditioning, these quick sessions are extremely effective. I have a few one-on-one clients whose main concern is exactly that — fat loss and conditioning. Their goal in conjunction with the rest of their life has led me to build their entire program around these quick sweat sessions.
Best of all? It fucking works. Not to mention they love getting results while only spending 30 minutes or so at the gym.
My favourite — current — method of programming these sessions is to lay out 4–6 exercises in a row, set a timer for 25 minutes and just “go” until the timer rings. If you do this right and abide by the rest guidelines (as needed or when your form fails), you will be floored after 25 minutes.
Here’s a sample kettlebell based metabolic session, similar to what a few of my clients are doing right now.
Aggressively Sweaty Kettlebell Session
Set a timer for 25 minutes. Take no rest between exercises. Wait until you’ve caught your breath after each round before starting the next. Rest as needed when your from breaks down.
Kettlebells are a wicked, effective, underrated tool in bodybuilding.
- A1. Kettlebell Lateral Raises w/ the “bell” in line with your hand — 12–15 Reps
- A2. Kettlebell Rows (either uni, or bilateral) — 8–10/Arm
- A3. Kettlebell Swings — 15–20 Reps
- A4. Kettlebell Walking Lunges — 20 Steps/Leg
While this session is not going to be optimized for building muscle, it will make strides towards improving your conditioning and aiding fat loss.
Training Session Length: 40–75 minutes
In the grand scheme of your day, 40–75 minutes is not a ton of time and allows you to get in enough volume meshed with a proper training intensity to stimulate muscle growth. Any less and you’re likely selling yourself short in terms of volume. Any longer and your intensity will probably dip too low to yield tangible benefit. At that point, you’re better off heading home to feed, and begin fuelling recovery.
This is for the dudes and girls who want to get jacked, lean, and build a picturesque, MASSthetic physique.
The options for executing a training program in this time span stretch beyond the scope of this article due to the sheer number of options. Instead of turning this article into a 5 part essay, I’ve provided you with a sample Chest & Back, Milos Sarcev-inspired giant set that will have you in and out of the gym an hour…with effectively stimulated muscles.
Here’s a quick, muscle building targeted giant set for chest and back that I tested last week. The session took about 65 minutes and was extremely fast paced. Needless to say, I was feeling this one in all the right ways the next day.
Chest & Back Giant Set Session
Yes, on paper this looks like a lot, but the nature of this session keeps you moving the entire time.
- A1. Incline Barbell Bench Press, 8–12 reps
- A2. Dips, AMAP, (as many as possible)
- A3. Low Incline Dumbbell Flyes, 8 reps
- A4. Low Incline Dumbbell Presses, (same weight as the flyes above), 8 reps
- A5. Flat Bench “Around The World” Flyes, 15 reps
- A6. Machine Chest Press, pump out 25–35 reps
Milos Sarcev: The man who inspired these giant sets. Image courtesy of: flexonline.com
- A1. Wide Grip Lat Pulldowns, 8–10 reps
- A2. Behind-The- Neck Lat Pulldowns, 8–10 reps
- A3. Dumbbell Pullovers, 8–10 reps
- A4. One Arm Dumbbell Rows, 8–10 reps per arm
- A5. Straight Arm Rope Pulldowns, 8–10 reps
- A6. Incline Bench Dumbbell Rows, 8–10 reps
- A7. Snatch Grip Deadlifts, rep until form failure.
- You’re going to perform 3 rounds of this giant set. The first time through, I want you to execute the first set at 80% effort intensity. The second at 95%, and the final round…leave everything you’ve got on the floor.
- Rest as little as possible between exercises.
- Rest for 90–120s between rounds.
- I want you to focus on “squeezing” the weight through each rep as opposed to lifting. Our goal here is maximum muscle fiber recruitment.
Training Session Length: 75 Minutes and beyond
If your sessions stretch much beyond 75 minutes, it’s reasonably safe to assume one of two things.
1. You’re a born and bred powerlifter. By nature of your extended rest times, and having strength be your primary focus, this will draw out your training session. There’s nothing wrong with this as it’s what you need to do in order to keep pushing towards a larger lifting total. Just be aware (as I’m sure you are) that it’s not optimal for muscle growth.
2. Your trying to build muscle or burn fat, but are woefully misguided and subscribe to the “time in the gym dictates results” mentality. Plain and simple, this is selling you and your results short by a mile. To generate enough stimulus to trigger an adaptation, you have to throw more work at your body in a shorter time frame than it’s capable of (putting it very, very simply).
Unless you are in fact a powerlifter, you’re going to want to try the following:
Basically, work harder, with greater intensity. Yeah, you’ll be doing something that actually challenges and pushed you, but you’ll also get far better results.
Don’t be a lazy sod. Get in, put in work, and leave.
Again, if you aren’t solely focused on powerlifting and building a big total across your deadlift, squat, and bench press, get out of this time frame. Shorten your rest times, superset exercises where it makes sense, improve the density of your session and get real, fucking results.
I’m not going to show you a powerlifting template (not my forte), or some 15-minute ab quick-fix. Instead, I’m going to show you how you can take what might be a 90-minute chest and should session, and condense into a session that will generate results much more effectively.
The Final Reps:
There’s no hard and fast answer to how long your session should be. The only tangible answer you should abide by, is what will allow you to be consistent day after day, and keep moving forward?
That’s the beauty of training, bodybuilding, or what have you. There are ways to make your sessions work in your favour, regardless of your goals, lifestyle, or time allowance.
Creativity and ingenuity are required from time to time, but the results are worth the effort.