How Long Should A Workout Be? [Why 30 Min is All You Need]

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How long should a workout be?

15 minutes? 30 minutes? 1 hour? More?

I’m like you. I’m super busy and I do not have a lot of time to spend at the gym.

In today’s post, you are going to learn how long your workout should last.

Let’s dive right in.

how-long-should-a-workout-be

This is one of the pillar posts in our series on How To Exercises Effectively and Efficiently.

How Long Should Your Workout Last?

So how long should you workout a day?

You should work out for an average of 30 minutes a day.

That’s the short answer.

30 minutes is plenty of time to help you accomplish almost any goal you have.  This includes building muscle, losing weight, and getting fit.

Keep in mind that 30 minutes is an average, and some workouts can be shorter, while others can be longer.

Also, this is an ideal situation.

30-minute workouts are perfect in an ideal world for the average individual.

Now let’s talk about what is ideal for you.

The Real Answer To The Question

As a busy professional, you may not have the luxury of working out 30 minutes a day.

That’s okay.

The ideal workout length depends on a lot of factors anyway.

How long you workout depends on:

  • the intensity of the workout,
  • your fitness level,
  • and your training frequency.

The more intense the workout, the shorter it needs to be.

The more experienced you are, the longer your workouts will generally take.

And the more frequently you exercise, the shorter the sessions need to be. (We discuss training frequency in How many days a week should I workout?)

So the real answer to the question is:

Your workout should be as long as you can realistically handle on a weekly basis. The best workout length will always be the one that you will follow.

In fitness, your workout won’t matter if you can’t sustainably do it. 

The AHA Recommendation On How Long You Should Workout Each Week

The American Heart Association recommends that you exercise at least 150 minutes a week.

This boils down to 30-minutes a day, 5 days a week.

But what do they mean when they say exercise?  They define this as moderate aerobic activity. The keyword here is aerobic, aka cardio.

They go on to say that you should add in at least 2 days of strength training.

While this is good advice for the masses, you probably want to exercise for more than just the aerobic benefits.

You want to build muscle, tone up, and get fit right?

Strength training provides a very unique set of benefits that aerobic cardio could never provide.

For busy people like you and me, we need to focus our limited time in a different manner.

So what do I recommend instead?

The WCT Recommendation: How Long Do I Workout Each Day?

I recommend that you focus more time on resistance training and improving your strength.

Instead of doing 5 days a week of 30-minute cardio sessions…

I recommend that you do 34 days a week of 30-minute resistance training sessions.

That is all we do.

how-long-should-i-be-at-the-gym

30-minute sessions help keep us motivated and have given us great results!

If done correctly, these training sessions will also improve your aerobic capacity too (although much less than direct cardio work.)

In addition, you should try to squeeze 1-2 aerobic sessions into your routine as well. This can be

  • a brisk walk
  • indoor cycling
  • a light jog
  • etc

So this is what your typical week may look like:

DayWorkout
Monday 30 Minute Strength Session
Tuesday 30 Minute Strength Session
Wednesday15-30 minute aerobic session
Thursday 30 Minute Strength Session
Friday 30 Minute Strength Session
Saturday 15-30 minute aerobic Session
SundayOff

Now, let’s talk about the factors that determine the length of your workout.

Section Recap:

  • The AHA recommends 150 minutes a week of moderate aerobic activity
  • I recommend that you do 3-4 strength training sessions a week, each lasting 30 minutes, and 1-2 additional aerobic day for 15 minutes
  • The most important factor is that you find a workout length that you can stick to consistently

How Long Should You Spend In The Gym As A beginner?

If you are a beginner, you can get away with shorter workouts. The more advanced you are, the longer your workout will take.

So if you are a beginner, I recommend that you spend no more than 30 minutes per workout.

This is simply due to the fact that you can easily generate a great amount of resistance training fatigue in each session.

Every single workout will represent a new level of workload that your body is not used to, and 30 minutes will be plenty of time to stimulate your body to drive new adaptations.

With that said, those 30 minutes shouldn’t be a walk in the park.

Each set should be sufficiently challenging so that your body can begin to develop results.

Exercise Intensity Will Also Affect Duration

Another thing to keep in mind is that your workout duration will also be affected by how intense your workout is.

  • A barbell back squat is much more intense than a casual elliptical run.
  • Sprinting on a treadmill at max speed is much more intense than doing bicep curls with 10 lbs in each hand.
  • Bench pressing is much more intense than walking.

You get the point.

There is an inverse relationship between exercise intensity and workout session length.

If you go all out, your workout won’t need to last very long. While this may sound super-efficient, it has it’s downsides too.

This is what High-Intensity Interval Training aka HIIT does.

More on that later.

Section Recap:

  • The higher the intensity of the workout, the shorter your workout needs to be
  • Beginners should keep the intensity at a moderate to a high level, making 30-minute sessions sufficient

Is Working Out 30 Minutes A Day Enough? [How To Allocate Your Time Efficiently]

I know what you’re thinking. How could you possibly get a great workout in just 30 minutes a day?

That good news is:

30 minutes is plenty of time to build muscle, burn fat, and get fit. It all starts with allocating your time appropriately, to the things that matter most.

** Plus, truncating your workout ensures that you are focusing only on the stuff that matters, and cutting out the fluff. **

In this next section, I will cover the 4 necessary components that your workout needs to include to be effective in 30 minutes.

Keep reading.

1) The Warm-Up Routine

First and foremost, it is absolutely important that you warm up before any physical activity.

There are many ways that you can do this, and the most common method you have probably seen is jogging on a treadmill for 3-5 minutes.

While this is better than nothing, there are several other strategies you can use to optimize your warm-up.

A warm-up is meant to do 3 things.

  1. Elevate your heart rate and body temperature,
  2. Activate the most dormant muscles in your body (namely the core and glutes),
  3. And stimulate the muscles you are about to use for the workout

Jogging on the treadmill will only work on the first part of this equation.

Instead, you can go through a series of exercises or drills that can simultaneously do these three things at once.

Great warm-up exercises include:

A warm-up routine should not take you longer than 5-10 minutes.

*Note: I do not include these 5 minutes into the 30-minute workout, as this is a necessary component.

You may be tempted to skip the warm-up, but I highly encourage you not to do this! Make the 5-minute investment and move on.

Check out our complete guide on how to warm-up properly to learn more.

2) Warm-Up Sets

The second component of your workout should be warm-up sets.

Please do not go to the gym, and load up the barbell with your working weight within 20 seconds of arriving.

This is a recipe for disaster.

Just as a general pre-workout warm-up is necessary, it is also important that you perform some warm-up sets of your main exercise.

This is critical for the first exercise of the day.

The first exercise that you do should be considered the main movement, aka the most difficult exercise you are doing that day.

As a beginner, you may not need many warm-up sets at all.

If for example, you are squatting 135 lbs, you should do two warm-up sets.

  • One with the empty barbell (45 lbs)…
  • and another with 95 lbs.

The stronger you are, the more warm-up sets you will need.

As a beginner, the warm-up sets should not take you more than 5 minutes to complete.

3) The Main Exercise of The Day

After the warm-up sets, you should be at the working weight of your main exercise. Again, this is supposed to be the heaviest/most difficult movement of the day.

Once you reach your working weight, you should have a good idea of how many sets and reps you need to accomplish.

If you do not know how many sets and reps you should do, check out our post on set/rep guidelines.

In addition, you should keep your rest periods strict.

Don’t be that guy/gal on Instagram while you are working out.

As a beginner, the main exercise of the day should not take you more than 10-15 minutes to complete.

4) The Secondary Exercises

The remainder of the time you have left should be devoted to secondary exercises.

These exercises are not as intense as the first exercise and can be done with lighter weights such as dumbbells, or even your own bodyweight.

If you are strict, you can use this time to accomplish a lot of work in a little time.

You can do 2, or maybe even 3 secondary exercises if you are good.

This is where you will also build some aerobic fitness.

As a beginner, your secondary exercises should only take you 10-15 minutes to complete.

We break this all down in our article: How many exercises should you do per workout.

Bonus: The Cool Down

If you happen to have 1 minute left-over, you can also perform a cool-down.

I recommend that you do 30-60 seconds of 1 or 2 static stretches you desire.

Preferably, it should be related to the muscle groups you trained that day. The couch stretch is a great option for hip flexor stretching, and the chest and lat stretches are great for the upper body.

how-long-should-a-workout-last

By far, the best book on stretching for athletes who do resistance training is Kelly Starrett’s Becoming A Supple Leopard.  

In it, he covers hundreds of amazing stretches you can use anytime anywhere.

If you do not have time at the end of your workout, it is ok to skip this but do your best to incorporate it whenever you can.

So Here’s What Your 30-Minute Session Should Look Like

  1. Your pre-workout warm-up should take no more than 5 minutes (not included in the 30 min)
  2. Your warm-up for the main exercise of the day should take no more than 5 minutes
  3. The main exercise of the day should take you about ~10-15 minutes to perform
  4. Your secondary exercises should take you about ~10-15 minutes to perform
  5. Cool down for ~1 minute

Other Considerations That Will Increase Your Workout Time

I understand that this 30-minute session requires everything to go according to plan.

I.e, you get to the gym and you don’t waste a single minute.  While this is what should ideally happen, there will be situations that will inevitably increase your workout time.

Here’s how to handle the most common scenarios.

Waiting For Equipment

Let’s say you want to squat, but someone is already on the squat rack by the time you finish your general warm-up.

You can approach this one of two ways:

  1. Ask if you could work in, and the both of you use the rack together (ideal)
  2. Begin the session with your secondary exercises (less ideal)

If appropriate, see if the person is willing to let you work in.  This will require you to load and unload your weights after every set, but it is efficient and will allow you to perform your main movement first.

It is ideal to do the main movement before your secondary exercises, as the secondary exercises can fatigue you for the main movement.

If the person is unwilling, or if they are performing a totally different exercise in which it would be too inconvenient to work together, then just do your secondary exercises first.

Something is always better than nothing.

A home gym would solve this problem :).

Doing Unnecessary Exercises

You only have 30 minutes to work out.  Don’t waste your time doing low-yield exercises.

You do not need to do bicep curls every day.

You do not need to train your abs from every possible angle with 4 different exercises.

Focus on the big picture.

Structure your workouts around the most effective compound exercises. There are only 6 of them, and biceps aren’t one of them.

Having Unnecessary Conversations

Look, I get it.

If you see someone you know at the gym, you are very likely to strike up a conversation.  That’s ok, but keep in mind that your time is limited.

You want to go to the gym, do what you need to do, and get out.

Try to keep conversations to a minimum, and don’t be afraid to say, “it was great chatting, but I’m on a time crunch. Let’s talk later.”

Internet Distractions

Lastly, do your best to keep your phone at bay.  Refrain from checking your email and scrolling through Instagram.

how long should i be at the gym

30 minutes. Just for 30 minutes.

That’s all I ask. It’ll all be there for you when you get done.

I’ll link another article, where we outline a few other ways to spend less time in the gym.

Section Recap:

  • A 30-minute training session should consist of a warm-up, the main exercise of the day, followed by secondary exercises
  • If time permits, you can do a brief cool down using static stretches
  • Look for opportunities to save time in your workout session

What If I Am An Intermediate?

Remember when I said that your fitness level will determine if your workouts should be more than 30 minutes?

In general, intermediates will need to spend a little more time working out to keep getting better.

If you are an intermediate trainee, your workouts should last ~45 minutes.

This is because you have accumulated a new baseline level of fitness.

In order to make additional progress, you will have to do more training volume than what was sufficient back in your beginner days.

Can you still workout 30 minutes a day?

Yes.

But in order to accumulate enough volume for further growth,  you may have to train 5 days a week, rather than 4.

The other option is to just increase your daily workout time to 45 minutes, rather than 30.

What If I Am Advanced?

If you are an advanced athlete, your workouts should take ~60 minutes to complete.

At this stage, you will need even more training volume to continue making fitness adaptations.

With that said, you may never reach this stage, and that’s fine. You may or may not care.

Most people who work out to build muscle, lose weight, or improve their fitness are perfectly content with the gains obtained as an intermediate.

That is all you need to reap the major health benefits associated with strength training.

So how do you know if you are an intermediate or advanced athlete?

Check out our article on strength standards to see where you stack up!

How Long Is Too Long To Workout?

Can you exercise too much?

Yes.

There is such a thing called overtraining, which is when your exercise training volume exceeds your ability to recover from the workouts.

While it is rare to actually accomplish this for the vast majority of people, you are more likely to experience total fatigue instead.

As a busy individual, you have a lot of other life stressors.

A lack of sleep, coupled with a high-stress job, and poor diet are considerable factors that can affect your ability to tolerate a high volume workout.

Intense workouts will only add to your stress.

That is why I highly recommend the 30-minute training session outlined above. They are relatively easy to do and relatively easy to recover from.

Don’t worry about these things you hear about your testosterone decreasing after a certain time, or your cortisol increasing.

Just stick to the guidelines above and you’ll be fine.

Section Recap:

  • The more advanced you are, the longer your workouts should be as trained athletes require more volume
  • With that said, there is hardly ever any reason for your workout to exceed 60 minutes

What If I Only Have 10 or 15 Minutes To Exercise?

The first thing I will say is, you have more than 10 minutes. How much time do you spend on social media per day, watching Game of Thrones, or texting with friends?

Look for opportunities to make time for the gym, rather than finding the time.

Ok, that’s beside the point.

What should you do if you only have 10-15 minutes to exercise?

My recommendation is to alternate between a

  • 15-minute strength training session and
  • 15 minutes of High-Intensity Interval Training, aka HIIT

Is this ideal? No, but something is always better than nothing.

How To Do A 15 Minute Strength Session

In order to do a 15-minute strength training session, you will only perform one exercise per day, which of course will be the main movement.

It is important to still take 5 minutes to warm up before doing the main exercise (so it’ll actually be 20 minutes total).

For the main movement, choose one of these major exercises:

  • Squat Variation (Back Squat, Front Squat, Box Squat, Pause Squat)
  • Bench Press Variation (Bench Press, Close Grip Bench, Paused Bench, Incline Bench)
  • Overhead Press Variation
  • Deadlift Variation (Conventional Deadlift, Sumo, Trap Bar, Romanian DL)

You can find tutorials for all of these exercises here.

If done correctly, you should be able to warm up and do approximately 3 sets of your chosen exercise.

That’s it.

3 sets of squats on one day, 3 sets of bench press on another, followed by 3 sets of overhead press and 3 sets of deadlifts.

Each time you do the exercises, add one repetition to each set. Once you can no longer add a repetition, add 5 lbs to the bar and start over.

Stick with it over the long haul and I promise that you will begin to enjoy the process.

Now let’s talk about HIIT.

How Long Should A HIIT Session Last?

High-intensity interval training is exactly what it sounds like.

You do an exercise (or exercises) in a fast-paced, high-intensity manner for a specific amount of time. Depending on the exercise you choose, each bout can last as little as 20-30 seconds, and up to 5 minutes at a time.

As a beginner, you can get away with 10-15 minute HIIT sessions.

Common HIIT exercises include:

  • Sprinting
  • Burpees
  • Thrusters
  • Kettle Bell Swings
  • Rowing
  • Battle Ropes, as shown below

Advantageous of HIIT

  • You can do a lot of work, in very little time.
  • Can help build muscle, burn fat, and improve aerobic capacity simultaneously

Disadvantages of HIIT

  • It is really really hard
  • May not be suitable for beginners, as it carries a higher rate of injury
  • Can be difficult to recover from

So how do you overcome these three disadvantages?

Let’s go over them one by one.

HIIT is really hard:

In order to reap the benefits of HIIT training, you must really push yourself. You often have to push yourself to the point where your heart rate is pounding and you are gasping for air.

The easiest way to begin implementing this into your training is to use short duration intervals. Something like 20 seconds.  If 20 seconds is too hard, try 15.  Slowly work your way up as you become stronger and fitter.

For example, you can do a

  • 20-second sprint followed by 40 seconds of rest,
  • Then 20 seconds of thrusters, followed by 40 seconds of rest
  • Repeat this couplet for a total of 5 rounds

Mix and match the two exercises in the couplet as needed.

As your fitness begins to improve, slowly increase the duration of each interval, and decrease the rest time.

HIIT may not be suitable for beginners:

Because HIIT requires you to move fast, it is easy to lose sight of proper technique.  In order to overcome this, start off with exercises that do not require a high degree of technicality.

Start off with basic exercises such as bodyweight squats, mountain climbers, and up and down planks.  As you begin to feel more comfortable, start increasing the difficulty of the exercises.

HIIT can be difficult to recover from:

This one is easy. All you have to do is take off at least 48 hours in between HIIT sessions. You can do this by following my recommendation above.

Just alternate each HITT session with a strength training session.  In addition, you should choose exercises that won’t interfere with each other. For example, don’t choose a squat exercise as your strength training movement and then another squatting exercise for your HIIT session the following day.

Instead, alternate between an upper-body focused strength training session, and a lower-body focused HITT session and vice versa.

Check out our post on Upper/Lower training splits to learn more.

Next, let’s talk about specific goals.

Section Recap:

  • Very short exercises (10-15 minutes) can also be effective
  • Focus on the big major compound exercises and use HIIT to accomplish a lot of work in a little time

How Long Should A Workout Be…

…To Lose Weight

So how long should you spend at the gym if your goal is weight loss?

Well, believe it or not, you will burn calories working out 15, 30, 45, and 60 minutes a day.

It all depends on the type of exercise and intensity.

Keep these 3 principles in mind.

  1. The longer you workout, the more calories you burn.
  2. The less time you sit around resting during the workout, the more calories you burn. 
  3. The more intense the workout is, the more calories you will burn.

So if you want to lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume.

Working out will help you burn calories, but the bigger more important factor is calorie consumption.

You will never out-exercise excessive calorie intake.

…To Build Muscle?

You can follow the same principles laid out before.

If you are a beginner, you should workout for ~30 minutes a day for muscle gain.

If you are an intermediate, you should workout for ~45 minutes a day, and if you are advanced, you should workout for ~60 minutes a day.

A Simple 30 Minute Workout For Beginners You Can Start Today

So now that you know how long your workout should last, it is time to start designing your workout program.

This may take you several hours after you program the exercises, the sets and reps, the weight selection, and the progressive overload.

But why waste all the time when we did all the work for you?

The WCT Workout Template is a 15-week exercise program tells you exactly what you need to do, and how to do it.

And yes, it is designed to have 30-minute workout sessions.

Check it out below.

Final Thoughts On How Long You Should Be At The Gym

So to recap

  • Beginners should workout 30 minutes a day, at least 4x per week
  • Eliminate distractors and plan your workouts beforehand
  • Focus on one primary exercise per workout session
  • The primary exercise should be one of the big compound exercises
  • Incorporate 1-2 HIIT sessions into your routine

So where should you go from here?

Related Posts On Workout Duration:

Now I want to hear from you.

What are you going to implement first from this article?

Did we miss anything?

Comment below and let us know!

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Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex Robles, MD, CPT / Brittany Robles, MD, MPH, CPT

Alex & Brittany Robles are physicians, NASM CPTs, health & fitness experts, and founders of The White Coat Trainer: a site dedicated to improving the health and fitness of busy professionals. Their advice has been featured on KevinMD, The Doctor Weighs In, My Fitness Pal, Reader's Digest, Livestrong, and The Active Times. Learn more about them here.

Learn More About Them Here

4 thoughts on “How Long Should A Workout Be? [Why 30 Min is All You Need]”

  1. You guys are incredible. Your training articles are some of the best I’ve read and I really appreciate the organized stepwise approach you take to present this important information. It is teaching and coaching at its best. New insights and guidelines to keep my exercise regimen
    efficient and productive. Thanks!

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      Thank you for the kind words Marc. What other topics would you like to see covered?

  2. Do you have any baseline level of aerobic health that you think everyone should aim for? 15 minutes seems like enough time if you are just kind of looking to maintain an aerobic fitness level but not enough to really improve it much. Something kind of like the article you did on strength standards.

    1. thewhitecoattrainer

      That would be a good article. I think 15 minutes of direct aerobic work (moderate to high intensity) in addition to forcing yourself to do secondary exercises quickly (with an elevated heart rate and low rest periods) would improve aerobic fitness in beginners or those who are starting from a low baseline. It probably wouldn’t be enough to increase the aerobic capacity in someone who is already fit. But I think many of us only need just enough aerobic fitness to gain health benefits, and any more would be just for competitive sake. I will look into definitely look into standards.

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