“How long should I work out for?” It’s one of the first questions asked by new gym members. Though, it still comes up by those who have been exercising for years.

Is it better to workout for 75mins 3 times per week or 45mins 5 times per week? Or, as you are working out for the same amount of time, are both scenarios the same?

As with most things in the fitness realm, it would be very easy to jump in with a blanket answer and I believe there is an answer that is correct, but only if you exclude all other factors.

However, life doesn’t work like that.

Life is not a laboratory.

There are always other factors and therefore there is only an answer that is best for you as an individual.

My personal response to this question will always be that more regular training is, in the main, preferable and more beneficial than fewer, but longer, sessions.

The reason for this is easy to understand when it is broken down.

Let’s compare 2 scenarios.

If you take the examples above, consider one workout lasting 75mins – at the beginning you would be able to give 100% of your energy, but as the workout progressed you would begin to fatigue, so by the time you reached the final 15mins, you may still be able to give your all, but your all would now be at a lesser level than when you were fresh.

However, if you were to stop at the 45min mark to recover and refuel, when you return the next 30mins would be at a much more energized and productive level.

In other words, you are always going to be more productive with shorter but more frequent workouts than with longer infrequent ones.

There are other factors to consider!

As a fitness professional, the aim is to give advice that suits the needs of the individual.

As such, we cannot look at exercise approaches in a vacuum.

Other factors must be taken into consideration when deciding on how long you should workout to benefit YOU the most.

Ultimately, the best training methods will be those that allow you to give your all; that you can commit to (without undue additional stress); that fit with your recovery period and that you have fuelled correctly for.

So, you could compare 2 scenarios where the person training 5 times per week has a couple of ‘off days’ due to being tired and the person training 3 times is completely fresh and energized each time.

Clearly the fresh person will get more from their training.

Though you could still argue that the person training 5 times per week has more scope for error in that scenario, as in one off day will do less damage to your level of progress.

More crucially though, you must look at external influences.

If your life beyond your training (work, family or other demands) meant that taking time out of your day 5 times per week would cause an increase in stress levels, then you get into a situation where you are simply piling stress upon stress and your ability to recover and improve becomes heavily compromised.

You may be training for the same accumulative time, but the travel time or the additional required shower time might just be what takes you over the edge. In such a situation, fewer but more taxing, workouts would clearly be the preferable option.

How long should you workout? How well have you fuelled up?

If you don’t have enough fuel in the car, you can’t go on a long journey without stopping for additional fuel.

If your nutrition was at a sub optimal level, the drop off in energy and focus will be more rapid.

Similarly, if the quality of your nutritional intake is not aligned well with your training goals, or is lacking in nutritional value, shorter workouts will be more beneficial as the level of CNS stress and level of recovery from each individual session should be lessened. Thus, a less than optimal nutrition strategy is going to cope with that a lot easier.

On the flip side, if your poor nutrition choices involve ‘cheat meals’ or days or simply days where you lose control, your next workout is likely to be sluggish, as you deal with your ‘food hangover.

In this scenario, having an extra day to re-activate yourself before a full workout or having a longer workout to build into it might just be what you need.

Sleep is also a nutrient

Even if your nutrition is on point, if you are not rested enough, that, in itself, is a stress.

Depending on the level of deprivation, it could even be dangerous to workout as your focus will be poor and there is more likelihood of injury.

If you are Too Tired to Workout it may be worth approaching your training differently altogether (though it is rarely going to be bad enough that it’s an excuse to avoid exercise completely).

As with poor nutrition, your level is likely to drop off faster, compromising the end of your workout, so the shorter, but more frequent option may be more beneficial.

And if your lack of sleep is due to insomnia or restlessness, having more frequent workouts may help you sleep better too.

Whilst on paper, there is probably more benefit to the idea of shorter, more frequent workouts and there are many scenarios that support that approach, it is far from cut and dry.

Varying, individual, circumstances must be considered.

But I would still suggest that, a good rule of thumb would be, more frequent exercise will trump less frequent but longer workouts.

There are many more possible scenarios.

The merits of either approach will have many more arguments favouring one over the other that I could possibly include here.

And clearly these 2 scenarios are not the only options available. They are no more than random illustrations, used to illustrate the effect of different approaches.

Perhaps you can only workout twice per week?

Then again, maybe you can train every day.

You may have a very specific goal in mind that requires a slightly longer workout approach involving larger rest periods. Or perhaps you are working on intensity that could not be sustained for long periods without lowering the effectiveness.

The scenarios outlined here are simply looking at how best to break up your week when considering how frequently to workout and for how long each time. It is not considering the impact of an individual workout session length on specific goals.

Balance is key!

Simply dragging out a workout to make it longer doesn’t make it more beneficial.

By the same token, rushing through exercises because you just want them over and done with, is a false economy as the effectiveness will suffer.

Finding the right balance to your training approach is crucial to making the most of your efforts.

So, the next time you are wondering how long you should workout, consider the effect each option will have on you and how your current life and habits beyond the gym will affect your workouts.

Science and research are useful tools to compare things in an ‘all things being equal’ scenario, but you don’t live in a laboratory and life doesn’t give you such conditions to work with.

You are choosing to exercise for a reason. Whatever you are aiming to achieve, select the schedule and approach that best suits that goal, but only when considered alongside the realities of your day to day life.

How Long Should You Workout?
And How Often? by Mark Tiffney

How does this affect you?

Do you generally prefer one approach over the other?

Are you a ‘train til you drop’ kind of person?

Are you in the ‘go hard or go home’ camp?

Or do you take a more flexible approach?

And, if you have experimented with this, what do you find works best for you?

Let me know in the comments below.

The first step to getting things right is to get your head in the right place. 

As such, I’ve put together a PDF on Emotional & Mental Foundations and how to get them in place, free to download right now.