How do you know if you’re doing too much in the gym, or not enough? We’ve talked about how to manage the intensity of your exercise, but what about the actual time you clock during a workout? The optimal length of an exercise session depends on your goals, and on what, exactly, you’re doing.
If you really don’t have time
If you’re asking this question because you don’t know when you’re going to be able to find, say, an hour to exercise, I have good news for you: Any workout is better than no workout.
The exercise guidelines for Americans used to include a rule that exercise only counts if you do it for 10 minutes or more. They dropped that rule in 2018, so even the shorter stuff counts.
Need some ideas? Besides a quick walk around the block, you can also try partaking in “fitness snacks” like one of these 5-minute ideas. Or work on a goal move, like pull-ups, by “greasing the groove” and spreading your reps out throughout the day.
If you want to improve your cardio fitness
Let’s talk about what you can do if you do have the time for a more traditional type of exercise. How much should you budget, for example, to improve your aerobic fitness and reap all of those heart-healthy benefits?
For steady-state exercise like jogging or cycling, consider 20 minutes the minimum for a focused exercise session. Thirty minutes is probably the sweet spot for something you plan to do multiple times a week — three sessions of 30 minutes means 90 minutes total, which falls into the US recommendation for 75 to 150 minutes of weekly cardio exercise. Five sessions of 30 minutes also gives you a nice weekday routine.
But you don’t have to limit yourself to 30 minutes. Many fitness classes last 45 or 60 minutes, and that’s great too. Anywhere between 30 and 60 minutes is a solid cardio workout that most of us can find or make time for.
Want to go even longer? A low intensity cardio workout (like hiking or easy running) of 90 minutes or more will build even more cardio fitness. Workouts of this length are typically a once-a-week affair. For example, a running program may have you doing 30-minute runs a few times a week, and then a 90-minute long run on Saturdays.
What if you’d rather get your cardio in as little time as possible? High intensity interval training (HIIT) can do the job, as long as it’s real HIIT and not just a YouTube video labelled as such. The pukeworthy Tabata protocol only takes four minutes; other HIIT protocols tend to clock in at 10 minutes or less. Once you add a five-minute warmup and cooldown, you’re looking at 15 to 20 minutes for the whole thing.
If you’re lifting weights
Lifting workouts vary in length depending on your goals and how your program is constructed.
If you’re a beginner, a 30-minute workout three times a week is probably enough for you to start seeing results. If you’re more experienced, you may still prefer to break up your workout into daily 30-minute chunks, rather than doing longer workouts a few times a week.
If you’re lifting heavy and aiming for the greatest gains in strength, your workouts will tend to take more time per exercise. You have to do warm-up sets to ramp your way up to the day’s working weight, and you need 3–5 minutes of rest between sets for big compound exercises like squats and deadlifts. Add all that up, and a day’s squats may well take half an hour all by themselves. These types of lifting workouts, then, can last anywhere between one to two hours.
So we have a range of 30 minutes to two hours for lifting workouts, depending on what you’re doing. If you’d like to spend less time in the gym, look into super-setting two exercises together, and work on reducing the rest times between sets.
Besides being good for your heart, cardio can improve your body’s ability to recharge between sets more quickly. Don’t expect to be able to deadlifts back-to-back with two minutes’ rest, but improving your conditioning might help you reduce rest times from eight minutes to five, or allow you to do isolation exercises like curls with just one minute’s rest instead of two or three.
How to save time without shortchanging your workout
We also have some tips on how to save time in the gym, if you’re finding your workouts are dragging on longer than they need to.
Don’t forget that you can combine lifting and cardio — even on the same day — to get in a bit more of each. If you can set aside an hour to exercise, you can squeeze in a 30-minute lifting session and 30 minutes on the treadmill.
It may also be worth looking at all the other things you do during your workout time to figure out whether you’re using your time appropriately. If you have a long drive to the gym, you take forever to shower afterward, and you spend your between-sets time chatting with your gym buddies, you might need three hours to do what’s really only a 90-minute workout.
Be honest with yourself about your schedule, but recognise that there’s no need to be ruthlessly efficient if you’re not under a strict time pressure. Maybe chatting with your gym buddies is the best part of your day. Maybe you could make more progress if you’d allow yourself a full hour in the gym instead of trying to squeeze everything into 45 minutes.