How Long Should Your Training Session Last?
Training session duration can be an overlooked aspect of program design. A typical session duration seems to be one-hour, because that works well with your schedule or your trainer’s booking sheet. This tends to be a good training duration for most beginner to intermediate level trainees provided wit a well-planned session.
Many people spend too long in the gym relative to their needs and training frequency. I'm sure everyone - myself included - has put in a few two-hour gym sessions at some stage. I have even declined a one-hour training session, because I thought it was too short to get a full session in. In reality, I was completing more reps on Instagram than squats during those long and inefficient sessions!
Overtraining is not the concern with excessively long training sessions, instead the problems lie with training inefficiency. Beginner to intermediate level trainees with body composition goals simply do not require a two-hour session to elicit the outcomes they are seeking, meaning they complete more work than what was required for their needs.
If it takes two hours to complete your workouts, you are creating a barrier to exercise. It can seem pointless training for less than that time, because you won't be able to 'get your full session in' as I outlined above.
Two primary reasons for excessive training duration is too many sets and not monitoring rest periods. When these two factors are considered in a well-planned training program, duration should not be an issue. Let's break them down a little more.
Problem One: Too Many Sets
Too many sets can be the result of a poorly-design training program, a lack of training intensity or both.
People doing too many sets are often following a session outlined in an article they read in a magazine or online, that was not designed for them. This can result in them copying Jay Cutler's Quad Session, which involves 36 work sets targeting the quadriceps with various movements. This program is designed for an advanced lifter who needs a high volume of training to facilitate muscular overload, not a beginner looking develop a base level of strength.
A new trainee who is getting started does not need to complete this volume for the full body, let alone one muscle group (the quads) in isolation. A full body or lower body workout (depending on training frequency) with 12-15 sets would have been sufficient and better-suited to their goals and needs.
The idea should always be to get the maximum result from the least amount of work. This allows us greater scope to manipulate variables later in your program. It's a bit like taking bullets in a gunfight - don't use any more than you need to, because you won't have them later! We want to be as efficient as possible and get the most we can from each alteration to your training program.
Once you progress and require a greater stimulus to induce overload, then sets can be increased. If you started training with sets too high, the body would have adapted to this stimulus, without making progress beyond what could have been achieve with less. You will now need to complete more sets to induce overload.
Integrated Fitness & Nutrition clients will typically start with 3-4 exercises allocated to 2-4 sets of 6-12 reps. As they begin to adapt, we would increase the number of exercises and sets. The alteration of sets can also include supersets, giant sets or other advanced training methods.
Problem Two: Not Monitoring Intra-set Rest
Not monitoring rest is the biggest mistake people make in the gym. Rest intervals are an important component of the type of training and results you are looking to attain.
As you rest between sets, the muscle can clear fatigue-inducing metabolic by-products and re-synthesise adenosine tri-phosphate (energy). A longer rest duration allows increased performance during the next set.
This begins to explain why strength training requires longer rests to help maintain a high level of performance during each set. The contrast is bodybuilders, whom benefit from the muscle building stimulus of metabolic stress and train with high repetitions, as this induced anabolic processes leading to muscle growth.
Rest intervals should always be prescribed in a training program, and doing so is the responsibility of the program designer. Once allocated, it becomes the responsibility of the trainee and/or supervising trainer to ensure these intervals are adhered to. Use a stopwatch and avoid workout distractions such as your phone and other gym members.
Rest intervals will impact your performance. A strength series such as 6x3 @ 90% max will require a full 5-7 minute recovery between sets. Without this recovery, the next set will likely be impaired due to fatigue.
On the other hand, if you take 5-7 minutes rest between bodybuilding series such as a set of 3x12 @ 45% max, there will be insufficient fatigue. A shorter rest duration would have been more suited to induce the accumulation of metabolic by-products.
Strength training is focusing on performance during each set, where each set is a stand-alone performance. Bodybuilding training focuses on fatigue over all sets. You can include combination of each in a single training session, but keep in mind the goal (and subsequent loading/rest) for the different methodologies.
Excessive workout duration is needless and can lead to decreased adherence in the long run.
The suitability of exercise, sets, reps and rest to your goals, experience an lifestyle. Avoid copying someone else’s training program, as it can come back to bite you in the longer-term. Similarly, if your trainer gives an excessively-loaded program to begin with, they have probably copied someone else’s or are giving you their current session.
Train hard and train smart - anything else is waste of time!