How long should a workout be? This is one of the most commonly asked questions among people who are new to the world of physical fitness. With so many quick workouts out there claiming to be the ‘best’ way to get in shape in as little as 30 minutes per day, it’s easy to see why there’s so much confusion. Plus, we’re all busy people. As much as we love the gym, none of us want to be spending more time working out than we have to, when we have so much else going on.
How long a workout ‘should’ be depends on the participant; there is no magic number. However, workouts that are about an hour long tend to be the golden standard.
Depending on what your fitness goals are, your metabolism, your level of physical fitness and how much time you’ve already spent in the gym this week, the length of your workout is going to fluctuate.
That being said, going into the gym with a predetermined amount of time in mind will help you stay focused on what you’re doing and prevent you from wasting time when you’re in there.
For the purpose of this article, we won’t be including stretching or warm-up sets in the total workout time, simply because there is too much variance here. For example, a stronger person who has been working out for many years will take longer to start feeling the effects of their strength training workout than a beginner. Their warm-up sets will take longer than someone who is just starting out.
We also won’t include rest time between sets, but it’s important to remember that rest time should be for as short of a duration as possible. Your heart rate should still be up when you go in for your next set, and working a muscle to exhaustion is the only way to cause the small tears that lead to muscle growth over time.
So, how long should a workout be? Read on to learn more about this.
Recommended Duration of Physical Activity per Week
If your goal is weight loss, the American College of Sports Medicine recommends at least 200 minutes of physical activity per week. You can split this up in whatever increments work best for your busy life, but let’s assume you’re working out 4-5 times per week. So, your workout should be between 40-50 minutes per session.
While you can work out for longer periods less frequently, aiming for at least 4 sessions per week is a good way to start building the habit of going to the gym if you’re just starting out. Consistency is key, and going more often will help you learn how to make workouts fit in your daily life.
Of course, life circumstances such as your diet, sleep, eating schedule, stress levels and menstrual cycle will undoubtedly contribute to your energy levels and, thus, how long your workouts will be, and that’s okay.
When it comes to cardio, the CDC recommends at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise to maintain overall health and reduce your risk of cardiovascular disease. A 30-minute brisk walk 5 times per week or a moderately paced run that lasts around 25 minutes 4 times per week should accomplish this goal.
Duration vs. Heart Rate
Getting your heart rate up while working out is more important than how long your workout should be. Just like with any other muscle in your body, raising your heart rate is a good thing because it strengthens and increases the longevity of your heart. The level of intensity that raises your heart rate is going to vary from person to person, depending on their age and physical fitness. People who are fitter generally have a lower resting heart than people who are less fit. Fit people will also take longer to raise their heart rate than those who don’t exercise regularly. Did you know that just thinking about working out is enough to slightly raise your heart rate?
According to cardiologists at John Hopkins Medicine, your target heart rate while exercising should be between 50-85% of your resting heart rate. Your average resting heart rate should be between 60-100 BPM or beats per minute. Your target heart rate while working out should equal 220 minus your age. You can use a tracking device such as an Apple watch or Fitbit to track your heart rate, and most cardiovascular equipment at the gym can measure your heart rate through your hands via sensors on the handlebars.
So how long should a workout be with an elevated heart rate? For cardiovascular health, once you’ve reached your target heart rate, your training should maintain it for at least 20 minutes.
How Long Should A Workout Be To Build Muscle?
One of the best and most effective ways to lose weight and keep it off is to build muscle. Building muscle will raise your metabolic rate and cause you to burn more calories while at rest, so you’re essentially still ‘losing weight’ even when you’re not in the gym.
Again, how long your workouts are isn’t as important as the intensity of your workouts. The most important thing to focus on is that you’re hitting each muscle group effectively and consistently. Japanese researchers discovered in 2021 that 28-36 reps per muscle group per week was the most effective way to build muscle, spread out in whatever way works best for you.
Of course, a proper warm-up and cool-down period, plus adequate rest between sets, are vital for preventing injury during strength training workouts.
So, how long should a workout be to achieve hypertrophy? Between 45 minutes and 1 hour should be plenty of time for you to do a few warm-up sets, your main workout, which works the muscle group to exhaustion (with rest in between sets) and then perform an adequate cool-down and stretching routine.
Burn Fat with HIIT Workouts
HIIT stands for High-Intensity Interval Training. HIIT workouts are a favorite among busy individuals who want an effective strength training and cardio circuit in a short amount of time, and they can be surprisingly effective if they are done correctly. The key here is high intensity. If you’re just running out the clock without working to exhaustion, a HIIT workout won’t be any more effective than walking around the block a few times and throwing in a few push-ups.
HIIT workouts consist of short, high-intensity movements followed by even shorter periods of low-intensity or rest. Most HIIT circuits are between 15-25 minutes long. They generally require little to no equipment. Rather, the individuals use their own body weight and momentum. Some common exercises include Russian twists, burpees, plyo push-ups (or some other modified push-ups, however, regular push-ups are just fine) mountain climbers and star jumps. In fact, most HIIT workouts do involve explosive jumping movements, so folks with knee, back or hip pain should avoid HIIT workouts until they’ve been cleared by their doctor.
When done effectively, studies have shown that a HIIT workout can burn as much as 12 calories per minute. That’s over 200 calories in a 20-minute workout.
This is why if you only have 20 minutes to spare, your best bet is probably to do a HIIT workout.
However, keep in mind that longer workouts of 45 minutes to 1 hour are typically better for burning fat, because your body might be burning the sugars in its system for the first 20 minutes or so before it starts burning fat (unless you’re already in ketosis).
The Bottom Line
As long as you’re pushing yourself to the point where you’re breaking a sweat, getting your heart rate up and feeling a strain on your muscles, your workout will take as long as it takes. A lot of people use time as an excuse to skip the gym, rationalizing that a 20-minute work won’t make a difference, so they’ll just go when they have more time. Remember that while a 20-minute workout might not be as effective as a 45 or 60-minute one, what’s really important is how you spend those 20 minutes. 20 minutes is better than nothing, and if you’re pushing yourself to exhaustion and working multiple muscle groups at once or incorporating some cardio, like with a HIIT workout, your workout can be more effective than you think.
To help determine the exact type of workout that’s best for your body type, why not consider a DNA analysis from CircleDNA? Your DNA test results can reveal a lot about how your body will respond to different diets and exercise regimens, which can help you make the most of your time in the gym. You’ll learn which type of exercise suits you best, based on your genetic makeup, as well as any genetic strengths and weaknesses you have as it pertains to strength, endurance, sports and fitness.
- American College of Sports Medicine Position Stand. Appropriate physical activity intervention strategies for weight loss and prevention of weight regain for adults
- How much physical activity do adults need?
- Understanding Your Target Heart Rate | Johns Hopkins Medicine
- Caloric Expenditure of Aerobic, Resistance, or Combined High… : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research