How Long Should I Workout?

Worried that you're training too long and your hormones are suffering? Research reveals the truth about workout duration.
“Don’t lift longer than 45 minutes, androgen levels plummet and you’ll lose your gains,” said every bro ever as he finished his 23rd set of biceps and then slugged down a protein shake.

You ever wonder if there’s any truth to these fear mongering rants or is he just spitting useless broscience because his brain is wildin’ out on more caffeine than a 6 pack of red bull stacked with a triple shot of espresso?

Either way, it’s time to examine the facts and let you decide for yourself…

Ditch the Duration and Double Your Gains?
Most keyboard warriors have been parroting the “optimal” workout duration as 45-60 minutes; anything beyond that will destroy your adrenals, wreck your hormones, and cause you to lose your bro card.

Alright so maybe you won’t have to resign from the league of extraordinary manliness but shouldn’t we be worried about hormones since though play a role in the muscle building process?

This idea was originally propagated by the Bulgarian weight lifting team and their legendary coach Ivan Abadjiev who produced 12 Olympic champions, 57 world champions, and 64 European champions.

However, we should add some context to this situation: his lifters were training up to 4 times PER DAY with loads all over 90% of their 1-RM in every session. So, it’s quite easy to see why he would recommend 30-45 minute sessions given his athlete’s daily training frequency was greater than most average trainee’s weekly frequency.

What Does the Research Say?
We know that prolonged moderate intensity aerobic exercise (running in the case of this study) can generate a transient reduction in your immune system function.[1] Research has also shown that high intensity exercise protocols improve insulin sensitivity, generate large increases in cortisol, testosterone, and both the magnitude and duration of EPOC (excessive post-oxygen consumption).[2,3,4]

However, be careful when interpreting research that seems rather cut and dry. You have to remember that hormone elevations following training are not always physiologically relevant and there is an experiential component that determines an individual’s response.[8]

In other words, more experienced trainees usually generate larger hormonal fluctuations, perhaps due to higher levels of intensity, volume, or density which play a large role in hypertrophic adaptations.[9]

Not only that, we must keep in mind that there is an extremely large genetic component to weight lifting which may influence an individual’s hormonal variance following a weight training session and up to half of their athletic performance abilities.[7,10]

Duration is somewhat of a double edged sword – longer sessions allow for lengthier rest periods which promote re-synthesis of certain metabolites that influence muscular endurance and power production.[5]

But, at the same time, there is some research demonstrating a connection between excessive training duration (upwards of 2+ hours in this case) and injury prevalence in certain populations.[6]

Let’s get back to our original question though: “Are any of these increases even physiologically relevant?”

We know from the literature that there seems to be a reasonable level of evidence showing a connection between acute elevations in systemic hormones and their influence on muscle growth via satellite cell activation.[7] However, a 2011 cohort study from West and Phillips proposed that the upper limit for these hormonal swings is likely only 8% at most.[11]

In other words, these small elevations that have been reported in the literature and worried about by bros for decades likely have very little influence on your results from all those curls in the squat rack.

Determining Durational Dogma
When someone says, “How long should I work out?” What are they actually referring to? Does the clock start ticking as soon as you walk through the door? Maybe it’s once you actually get under the bar? But what if you like to foam roll and warm up, does that count?

It’s kind of tough to decide when the body actually ramps up these sympathetic pathways, especially considering they can become active due to environmental or psychological correlations.

For example, have you ever noticed how your heart starts racing on the way to the gym when you’re listening to your pre-game-party-pump playlist? Don’t lie, you have a pre-game-party-pump playlist, everyone does.

Your central nervous system is very good at adapting to specific patterns and situations in order to prepare for the stimulus the next time it is encountered.

So, in essence, your workout likely starts as you’re sipping that neon colored pre-workout supplement which doubles as a glow stick and contains 37 ingredients you can’t even pronounce.

Not to mention, workout duration is going to be influenced by a number of factors:

Training Split. Some full body workouts can take up to 2 hours while an arm day for a body part split might take 40 minutes. Neither is bad, just different styles of training for different goals.
Warmup. We already know warming up has tremendous benefits but an extra 10 or 15 minutes might bump you over an hour, should you be concerned or drop it entirely? In short, no.
Level of Experience. Obviously more advanced trainees will require more warm up sets before hitting their actual work sets, thus lengthening the duration of their session.

Supersets. If you choose to superset the majority of your exercise choices or at least your accessory work, you’ll finish sooner even though you may do the same amount of work as someone else who didn’t superset.

Maximum Recoverable Volume. This is a term coined by Dr. Mike Israetel describing the amount of training one should undertake in order to maximize adaptation but prevent chronic short term overreaching. Basically, MRV is dependent upon the individual – some can handle more volume than others which may require longer sessions.

Frequency. If you’re training with a high frequency (e.g. 6-10 times per week), then you’re going to have to limit the duration of each session as hopefully you realize that intensity and duration are inversely correlated.

Conditioning. If you choose to condition after your training session as opposed to other days when you’re not lifting, that’s another variable that will extend the duration of the session.

Intra-Workout Nutrition. Lately I’ve been experimenting with some intra-workout carbohydrates and protein. I don’t particularly have any specific research to back up my observations but anecdotally speaking, I find that I can train harder and longer with this carb and protein mixture as opposed to a placebo beverage.

Preference. Last but not least, let us not forget the most important variable of all: enjoyment. If you enjoy 2 hour long training sessions on lazy Saturday afternoons or crushing legs every Friday night rather than laying on the couch, then more power to you.

Remember, enjoyment and sustainability determine long term success, don’t let studies detract you from doing what you love if you’re getting the results you want.

Keep Calm and Lift On
At the end of the day, the answer to the ever-elusive question, “How long should I work out?” will vary. There is no perfect 59-minute-testosterone-saving workout that’ll prevent you from going catabolic and turn you into Lou Ferrigno overnight.

People want something new to worry about and as such, rather than gripe about how deep squats are bad for your knees (news flash: they’re not), they’ve now turned to hormones as the “quick fix for why they’re not ripped.” Here’s a hint, maybe it’s because you need to work harder or longer. Don’t know, just a thought…

Keep calm and lift on my fellow swolemates.


References:
1. Exercise Intensity and Duration Effects on In Vivo Immunity
2. Effect of Exercise Intensity and Duration on Post-Exercise Energy Expenditure
3. Extremely Short Duration High Intensity Interval Training Substantially Improves Insulin Action In Young Healthy Males
4. Hormonal Responses to High- and Moderate-Intensity Strength Exercise
5. Rest Interval Between Resistance Exercise Sets: Length Affects Volume but not Creatine Kinase Activity or Muscle Soreness
6. Exercise, Training, and Injuries
7. Post-Exercise Hypertrophic Adaptations: A Reexamination of the Hormone Hypothesis and its Applicability to Resistance Training Program Design
8. Effect of Training Status and Exercise Mode on Endogenous Steroid Hormones in Men
9. Acute Hormonal Responses in Elite Junior Weightlifters
10. Two Emerging Concepts for Elite Athletes: The Short-Term Effects of Testosterone and Cortisol on the Neuromuscular System and the Dose-Response Training Role of these Endogenous Hormones
11. Associations of Exercise-Induced Hormone Profiles and Gains in Strength and Hypertrophy in a Large Cohort After Weight Training[/SUP]