I know I don’t have all day to spend in the gym, and I'm guessing you don't either. Optimizing your workouts so they're efficient and effective is a must. So that begs the question, how long should a workout actually be?
Here’s the sitch: Workout durations should be less about specific time frames and more about your fitness goals, says Natalya Vasquez, CPT, a health coach and founder of Bridal Bootcamp San Diego. “Since your goals, skill level, and schedule will be unique to you, your ideal workout time may look quite different from someone else’s,” she explains. “Instead of looking at the total time spent exercising, you should focus on what you’re doing and ask yourself if you’re working toward your goals.” (Quality vs. quantity folks.)
Most studio workout classes are about an hour, but “workout snacks” (AKA a short workout between 10- to 15-minutes) are trending. And for good reason: “Just because you don’t have time for a longer workout, doesn’t mean that you can’t do a shorter workout to stay on track with your goals and feel better,” says Vasquez.
A few other factors—the type of workout, your skill level, and your mindset—can help you decide how long your workout should be, too. “For example, the duration of a strength training workout for putting on muscle mass and losing body fat will be different from a workout for improving running times and building endurance,” says Vasquez.
Now, keep scrolling for exactly how to decide how long your workouts should be based on the type of exercise and your goals, according to a trainer.
How long should any workout last?
If you're hoping for a general rule to guide how long to sweat, I'm sorry but that simply doesn't exist. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to workouts or how long they need to be, says Vasquez. “You should always consider your goals and any time constraints when you're deciding how long to work out,” she explains. “More exercise isn’t always better.”
So while it may be ideal to do a 30- or 60-minute workout to reach your target heart rate or efficiently work a muscle group, it’s not realistic to give one general rule for every workout. Why? The timing depends on your ability, any injuries, time constraints, and goals, says Vasquez.
“There may be periods in your life when you’re able to get long workouts in, and then with a career change or becoming a parent, you may realize that you no longer have the luxury to work out for long durations,” she explains. It’s not just about timing. Short workouts also can be extremely effective when programmed well, she adds.
Your current fitness level can help you decide how long a workout needs to be, too. “If you’re new to exercise, you may want to stick to shorter workouts that range from 20 to 30 minutes," says Vasquez. "As your conditioning and skills improve, you can steadily increase your workout time to 30 to 60 minutes if your schedule allows for it.”
Oh, and it’s so important you listen to your body *and* mind, says Vasquez. “If you’re forcing yourself to do an hour-long workout and you’ve mentally checked out to the point that your form is compromised and you can’t remember what exercise you’re doing, then a longer workout is not any more beneficial,” she explains. In this case, a 30-minute focused workout is likely a better option.
Another key sign that your sweat sesh should be shorter: “Dreading a workout because of its duration is an indication that your workout is too long," says Vasquez. "If you get excited by the prospect of a shorter workout, then maybe it’s time to change your programming.”
How long should a weightlifting workout last?
Generally speaking, a weightlifting workout should be long enough for you to train the target muscles, says Vasquez. “If you’re working out several muscles, your workout could be as long as one hour, however, if you’re focusing on one specific muscle group, then you can still get an efficient workout in 30 minutes,” she explains.
With that in mind, one of the key components of weightlifting is total volume (reps x sets x weight), rather than time, says Vasquez. “If you work out five days per week, then you may be able to get shorter workouts in and target various muscle groups, but if you only have the time to work out three days per week, then you may naturally have longer workouts where you target multiple muscle groups in fewer sessions.”
In other words, there is no specific amount of time necessary for weightlifting workouts, but the Department of Health and Human Resources suggests strength training at least two days a week and aiming for 2 to 3 sets of 8 to 12 reps per exercise.
How long should a cardio workout last?
Ideally hit a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of high-intensity cardio per week, according to the American Heart Association. This may include running, swimming, dancing, biking, or brisk walking, and ideally you incorporate cardio workouts throughout the week, adds Vasquez.
That said, your goals should dictate your cardio workout length. “If your goal is general heart health, then 30 minutes of moderate intensity exercise several times per week would suffice,” says Vasquez. If your goal is to run a marathon, you’d want to follow a training program that progressively increases your running time to improve stamina and endurance, and you’d likely be doing more than the baseline recommendation, she adds.
If you’re on a weight loss journey, your cardio workout time should be dictated by the approximate number of calories burned, says Vasquez. At its core, weight loss is based on total calorie deficit, or calories in from food and drink, compared to calories out from your bodies’ basic functions and additional activity, so find what works for you and your schedule. For example, a HIIT workout that’s 20 minutes long can burn the same amount of calories as an hour-long moderate intensity cardio workout, adds Vasquez.
How long should a bodyweight workout last?
Like a strength sessions with equipment, a bodyweight workout should be long enough for you to challenge your targeted muscles. The workout duration will also be dictated by your goals, schedule limitations, and exercise programming, says Vasquez. “Since bodyweight workouts rely on your entire mass, a really effective and challenging workout can be completed in as little as 20 minutes.”
How long should a yoga or Pilates workout last?
Yoga and Pilates workouts can last from 20 to 60 minutes depending on the type, says Vasquez. (You can even find a 90 minute sesh for some yoga modalities.) “Many restorative, power, and hot yoga classes are designed to last a full hour, however if the goal is stress relief, you can see benefits with yoga in as little as 20 minutes per day.”
Doing 60 minutes of yoga twice a week improved muscular strength, endurance, body composition, and flexibility, one Preventive Cardiology study found. As little as 12 minutes of yoga a day reversed bone loss associated with osteoporosis and osteopenia, another Top Geriatric Rehabilitation study found.
But wait… there’s more! Doing 30 to 60 minutes of Pilates one to three times a week can improve flexibility, stability, and chronic lower back pain, research in Plos One also shows.
How long should I rest between workouts?
Like your exercise session, your rest day timing is also unique to you. The amount of rest between workouts is primarily based on the type of exercise you’re doing and the muscle groups worked, says Vasquez.
If you’re exercising with moderate- to high-intensity every time: You should take at least one rest day a week, so your muscles have time to properly recover, she explains. However, depending on the level of activity and the intensity of your training, you may need more rest between each workout, she adds.
If you’re new to fitness: Start with more rest days as your body adjusts to movement and added resistance, Vasquez recommends. As a benchmark, the US Department of Health recommends 75 to 300 minutes of exercise per week and at least two days of resistance training.
If your goal is to build muscle: You want to give the same muscles one to two days of rest between workouts so they have time to properly recover and rebuild, says Vasquez. For example, you don't want to work your glutes multiple days in a row without adequate recovery in between, she explains. But, the recovery could include an upper body workout because there is no overlap in the muscle groups worked.
Remember that rest is variable, and you need to consider other factors like your mental health, ability, exercise intensity, goals, and time constraints, says Vasquez. “While exercise can give you energy, doing too much without proper rest periods can also deplete you of it," she explains. "It’s important to pay attention to your body’s signals and your mental health. If you’re consistently sore or dreading workouts, it’s time to take a rest day.”
Longer Workouts Aren't Necessarily Better
There’s a misconception that in order to get results, you have to do more exercise, but this isn’t necessarily true, says Vasquez. A moderate approach is often more realistic for your lifestyle and lasting results. “With exercise, you’re playing the long game," Vasquez says. "More isn’t always better and going slow and doing less may sometimes be of more utility than trying to reach your goal faster.”
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