Like most topics, there’s an annoyingly long answer to this question, and then there’s the short one that applies to 99% of us. The 99% who want to look and feel great, but aren’t professional athletes or the type of gym rats that would prefer to spend more time at the gym than at home – even if they could get better results in a fraction of the time.
The long answer starts off something like this: Every person is different, so there are lots of variables to consider to determine how long or how frequently you will need to exercise. Yes, we are all different. Obviously, if you want to run a marathon, you will have additional training needs. If you actually have goals like this, you don’t need me to be Captain Obvious and break the news that you’ll have to spend a fair amount of extra time running.
But, when it comes to the amount of time it takes to create the more universal types of results that just about every client I meet is looking for – to be stronger, leaner, healthier, and feel better – the answer doesn’t have to be so complicated.
The Short Answers
We’ll cover why this is true in the next section, but here’s the general prescription that is ideal for just about everyone I work with (aside from extra curricular goals like marathons, triathlons, sport-specific performance, etc.):
1. How Long?
For optimal results and efficiency, I recommend fast-paced, 30-minute workouts that incorporate functional strength training, conditioning / cardiovascular training, and targeted stretching.
2. How Often?
– Twice per week for gradual progress and a moderate ceiling (stronger, fitter, and healthier, but not exactly a walking fitness specimen).
– Three times per week for consistent, steady progress and the potential for a body that will not only feel fantastic, but highly impress your friends and family.
– Four times per week for dramatic, fast results with virtually no ceiling to your progress.
3. How Much Cardio?
Doing extra cardiovascular training (walking, running, hiking, biking, etc.) will definitely help speed up your weight loss goals, but a significant base level of cardio is already included as a crucial component of the strength workouts. As such, extra cardio isn’t an absolutely necessity, even if weight loss is your primary goal.
4. What About Nutrition?
The above recommendations will absolutely help you get stronger, fitter, and healthier, all while feeling better as well. They will also create the potential for significant weight loss (and/or muscle gain, to the extent of your personal goals). To realize that full potential, and to achieve optimal health, you will of course benefit greatly from adopting healthy eating habits. Nutrition, however, is not the primary topic of this post. Just keep in mind that extra cardio does NOT counteract poor / excessive eating. One bad meal practically always does more harm than a good cardio session can rectify – both in terms of health and weight.
Is 30 Minutes Really Enough for an Effective Workout?
Most of us are conditioned to think that anything less than an hour in the gym is not enough. I have to admit, I long felt this way too. Over time, though, I’ve found that not only do shorter workouts save time, but they can actually produce BETTER results! Why? Because when you condense an hour of work into 30 minutes, you get additional benefits that you simply don’t get from a longer workout.
These extra benefits come from pushing the type of pace that would likely lead to overtraining if done for an hour. Not to mention, it’s mentally hard to maintain such a fast pace for beyond 20-30 minutes, so a longer workout will produce sloppier training and less of the maximal effort that is so vital to optimal results. Higher intensity and a format that merges maximal strength and endurance training into one system is the best way to build superior conditioning / cardio, strength, endurance, and aesthetic results in a fraction of the time that most people spend in the gym.
Chipping away at each individual element on its own costs you far more of your valuable time and prevents you from achieving the level of intensity necessary to maximize ANY of these elements. In other words, the most effective approach to training also happens to be the most efficient.
A Word of Caution
When you engage in the type of fast-paced training that I advocate, it’s absolutely imperative that you keep a few things in mind. CrossFit is a great example of a high octane approach to training that yields tremendous strength & conditioning results with short workouts. However, there is a reason that CrossFitters have such outrageously high injury rates (and even those who don’t get injured often feel perpetually beat up rather than loose, light, and invigorated). Utilizing intensity to fit a high quantity of work in a short time is vitally important, but not at the expense of the quality of that work.
This is not to pick on CrossFit or say that the CrossFit community doesn’t advocate or teach quality and technique – they absolutely do. The problem is, the environment they create is one of ego and competition. No matter how much you preach quality and technique, you are encouraging the abandonment of these ideals when you focus too much on producing gaudy workout numbers and finishing faster than the person next to you.
Tuning into what you feel and the optimal speed / weight for you, rather than how much weight you can possibly move and the fastest you are capable of moving it, is the best recipe for long-term success. As I’ve said in plenty of other blogs, “no pain, no gain” is NOT a healthy philosophy. Pushing through fatigue is necessary, but pushing through pain or seeking misery in your workouts is a quick way to dread the gym and end up hurt.
Work hard. Work fast. But also, work smart and listen to your body.