Body Composition Training 101: Duration

Duration = Total training time, length of an exercise session. Does not include warm-up or cool-down period.

Recommendation = 30-60 minutes

How long can you last?…………

We’re talking about exercise here people. Clean it up.

So we’ve established that you are going to be busting ass during a training session to change your body right? But how long should you be busting ass? Is there a minimum amount of time necessary to facilitate noticeable physique changes? Are their upper limits, or is it simply the more the better — which at first glance sounds logical?

8-MINUTE ABS?

“Just twenty minutes, three times a week and the weight fell off”. “Eight minutes a day on the magic ab device and I had a six-pack in no time.” “With this new wonder supplement I didn’t even have to exercise to get my cover model body.” Yeah right! Don’t be a sucker my friends. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember, people get paid, sometimes quite a bit, to endorse products, systems, and miracle cures. These days you need to be an informed consumer in the health and fitness industry so you don’t get scammed. C’mon, do you really think Michael Jordan owes all of his basketball accomplishments to drinking Gatorade and wearing Hanes t-shirts?

Listen, you are going to have to work out hard and practice good nutritional habits if you expect to get in shape. Magnify that consistency, dedication, and sacrifice by ten if you expect to get ripped (low, single-digit body fat percentage). There is no other way around it. I’ve yet to find the magic pill that allows you to do whatever you want and still get in elite shape. Trust me, I’ll be the first to tell you if I find it. When that day comes, we’ll kick back at the pool together, eat fries, sip on margaritas, and toast to our killer beach bods. Until then, however, you are going to have do it the old fashioned way and earn it.

There is a lower limit to exercise duration. You can’t just show up to the gym, warm-up, stretch, balance on a ball, chat about your life, and then call it a day. There are certain volume and intensity levels you must hit if your body is going to experience an adaptive response to training. Not to sound like an old school 80’s bodybuilder or aerobics instructor — and of course when I say not to sound like one I mean exactly to sound like one — you are going to have to sweat, feel the burn, and get the pump going a little bit to get results. Although the old-timers’ programs were not as sophisticated as today’s (and for the most part that probably is a good thing — the basics are the basics for a reason, they are effective), they certainly knew how to put in the work. Admit it, when it comes to health and fitness, the majority of us today are lazy as shit.

So if you are one of those suckers who believe in 8-minute abs, or 7-minute abs, or 1-minute abs, do yourself a favor. Stop wasting your time and just stay on the couch. You’re going to get the same results without missing an episode of American Idol. Trust me, it takes a certain amount of work to force your body to change; if you are not ready to put in that work, and just want to keep doing the latest exercise fads in your search for the (non-existent) magic pill, you are wasting your time, effort, and probably, money. In a “get rich quick” and fast food nation, there is no such thing as fast fitness or “get fit quick”. But as you know, there is no shortage of scam artists perpetuating those myths and selling you what you want to hear. Well, stop listening to what you want to hear and start listening to what you need to hear. Get your booty to the gym and get to work.

GYM RATS AND BUNNIES

Just like with training frequency, however, there is a flip side to the training duration coin. Again, I am probably talking to less than 10% of the population here. When it comes to the length of a training session (minus warm-up and cool down periods), there is a point of diminishing returns, and training past that point becomes counterproductive.

Where are all of my gym rats? Where are all of my fitness bunnies? Are you listening or did you just smash your computer screen and curse my name because I even dared to suggest that a 2+ hour marathon training session may not be the best approach for your physique development goals?

First off, I admire your dedication. There are so many lazy people in our generation that it is very refreshing to come across someone who is willing to work hard towards their goals. I admire your will to do whatever it takes to get the job done. But if you are truly dedicated to changing your body, you should expend the extra effort to learn some of the science behind the physique development process.

Why? It takes more than just dedication to get results. It takes more than just being a “tough guy/girl”, putting your head down, bulldozing ahead, and working out longer and harder than everyone else. That’s part of it, but you must implement your passion and effort within the parameters of proper program design. In other words, it takes more than just a “balls to the wall” or “kick ass” approach to maximize your potential. It takes an intelligent approach based on research AND real world experience. If you try to push your body too far or too quickly in one direction, it will fight back and resist. And to get results, you want your body (meaning your metabolism and hormonal system) working with you, not against you.

THE BIG THREE

The primary reason why there is an upper limit to training duration, and training frequency for that matter, has to do with the hormonal response to our training sessions. Exercise impacts natural hormone production, which within the confines of a properly designed program, is one of its primary benefits. Hormones can send messages to our body to rebuild, reshape, and redesign itself.

The majority of people think solely about calories in vs. calories out when it comes to changing their body. This is only part of the story, and probably the least important part. Of even greater significance is the power we have to use diet and exercise to control and manipulate our metabolic rate and our natural production of physique-altering hormones. In response to exercise, we are primarily concerned with three hormones: testosterone, growth hormone, and cortisol.

  • Testosterone is anabolic, which means it helps us build muscle by signaling protein synthesis. Building muscle boosts the metabolic rate and helps us burn fat.
  • Growth hormone is anabolic. It enhances amino acid uptake and protein synthesis within muscle cells. It is also our most potent fat burning hormone. Growth hormone increases fat cell breakdown and the use of fatty acids as a fuel source.
  • Cortisol is catabolic. First, cortisol inhibits protein synthesis and muscle growth. It can also cause the body to oxidize protein and convert amino acids into glucose to be used as fuel (in other words it can force the body to break down its own muscle tissue). In excessive amounts it can suppress the immune system and lead to fat storage (particularly around the midsection).

For physique development we want to maximize our muscle building, fat burning hormones and minimize our muscle burning, fat storing hormones. This is a severely over-simplified statement, but essentially growth hormone and testosterone are the “good guys”, and cortisol is the “bad guy”.

HORMONES AND EXERCISE DURATION

Here’s what happens during an intense training session, and by intense I mean proper exercise selection and execution along with a certain amount of training volume and effort exertion. In other words, no Jane Fonda workouts here please. The hormones that positively alter our physique, growth hormone and testosterone, initially rise in response to the training stimulus. But the hormone that negatively alters our physique, cortisol, rises as well.

On a side note, cortisol is not all bad. There is a certain amount of tissue breakdown that must happen if the body is going to adapt and respond to strength training. Cortisol IS a part of the bigger picture of tissue breakdown, repair, and growth. Our goal is not to completely eliminate cortisol production, as some would have you believe (ie with cortisol blocking supplements or drugs). Our goal is to control it through proper program design and food selection. The problem, when it comes to physique development, is chronically elevated or excessively high cortisol levels. This happens with overdoing the training duration and frequency parameters.

Testosterone levels rise in response to proper training, but there is a period of time after the training session where testosterone levels fall. This is a normal training response. During the recovery phase testosterone levels rebound and rise again IF you allow enough time in between training sessions (revisiting the importance of training frequency recommendations). This sequence of testosterone fluctuations coincides with the muscle adaptation/growth process.

Growth hormone levels rise in response to an intense training session. However, there is a critical point within the training session where growth hormone levels peak, and then begin to fall. Research shows that this occurs anywhere from 25-50 minutes within the workout. If you train too much further beyond this critical point, your workout starts to become counterproductive. Why?

Remember, cortisol also rises in response to an intense training session, but cortisol rises in a linear fashion and does not begin to decline until after the workout stops. In other words, cortisol can continue rising even after growth hormone levels peak and fall. If you extend your workout beyond the upper limits of recommended duration, cortisol levels begin to outpace growth hormone levels. Your hormonal environment and your body’s physiological processes, begin to shift into a catabolic state. At this point, the body begins to break down muscle tissue as a fuel source. Talk about counterproductive!

You are lifting weights to build lean muscle and boost your metabolism. But if you are working out too long (or too frequently), catabolic hormones rise above anabolic levels and you will actually start losing muscle and slowing the metabolism. This defeats the whole point of training in the first place. With proper programming your body experiences a net muscle GAIN and RISE in metabolic rate, and thus looks better, “hotter”, etc. With improper programming, due to the overproduction of cortisol, your body experiences a net muscle LOSS and DECREASE in metabolic rate, and thus looks worse, non-beach ready, etc. It reinforces the idea that exercising for physique development is much more than just calories in vs. calories out. It’s about the hormonal impacts of exercise.

DURATION DISTINCTIONS

Keeping all of the above information in mind, the optimal training session length is anywhere from 30-60 minutes, assuming you are busting butt and training at the right intensity levels. That’s really all you need to remember in “practical application” terms. So don’t worry, you don’t need to run out and get your PhD in Endocrinology to get results from training.

Duration parameters for physique athletes, however, do raise a few questions. So we should address the distinctions we need to make between our training programs and those of other types of athletes.

1. Performance Athletes. Training programs need to mimic the demands of an athlete’s sport. So if in your sport you need to run, jump, hit, climb, crawl, swim, bike, or whatever for 2+ hours, than your training session should be structured accordingly. In other words if you are going to be competing in long duration events, than your training sessions should be longer in duration. That is the only way you are going to increase performance levels.

It may not be the best for your hormones, it may not be the best for your appearance, but it is the best for your sport. In fact many athletes, especially endurance athletes, are known for having clinically low levels of testosterone and clinically high levels of cortisol. Maybe that’s one of the reasons for the apparent widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs in professional sports.

And although performance athletes can perform at a high level, many don’t look that great. Tons of them don’t even look like they exercise. Some are flat-out obese. While they are talented at a sport, many are just as embarrassed to take their clothes off at the pool as those in the average population. Now to be fair, the reverse is also true. Many fitness athletes and models who look like the fittest people in the world would also look “athletically challenged” if you put them on a field, court, or track.

But once again, that’s why I always say that training for performance is different than training for appearance. The physique athlete has no desire or need to perform in a sport for 2+ hours. We just want to look good — 24 hours a day baby! So keeping the hormonal impacts of exercise in mind, there is no reason we should ever be training for more than one hour at a time. If you feel like you need to work out longer, than you are not working out hard enough, and you should focus on increasing training intensity.

2. Enhanced Athletes. All of this talk about maximizing the natural production of anabolic/fat burning hormones and minimizing catabolic/fat storing hormones to induce changes in physical appearance is assuming that I am speaking to the natural athlete. If you are taking performance-enhancing drugs, the training game completely changes. If you have artificially elevated levels of hormones from drug use, there is no need to worry about managing your internal, natural production. It doesn’t matter. It will later on, when you stop taking the drugs, but that is a whole other story I’ll leave for your doctor, therapist, etc.

Again, I am not condemning those who choose to use drugs, making any moral (or other) judgments, or demeaning their athletic or physical accomplishments in any way. I only mention it to draw clear distinctions about who I am advising and setting these training guidelines for — the natural fitness athlete. In all honesty, if you are taking performance-enhancing drugs, you SHOULDN’T be trying to learn from me. There are other experts in the field that can better advise you.

Of course, the flip side is true. If you are a natural athlete, you shouldn’t be trying to learn from someone who has built their physique with the help of chemistry. You shouldn’t be trying to emulate the training programs of enhanced athletes. You have a different training environment with more limited recovery abilities. Many who advise 2+ hour training sessions, 6-7 days a week, twice a day, etc. are not bound by “normal” human physiological principles.

So to sum up: train, train naturally, train hard, train for a minimum amount of time, but don’t train too long.