Think that all weight training sessions should last for hours? Think again. Here’s how long you should really be spending on your training depending on your goal.
When it comes to getting the most out of your workouts, it isn’t only about what you are doing but how you are doing it. That means how many sets and reps, how good your form is, how consistent you are and how long you spend putting those muscles through the training.
With that in mind, you might be under the impression that the longer the workout, the better the results. That’s not true: you should be training smart in order to get the biggest return for your effort.
When we lift, there are three main types of training available to us: endurance, hypertrophy and strength, and in order to get stronger and fitter, we really need to be able to work across all three. By mixing up the length of time your muscles spend under tension and changing your weights, you work on both your aerobic and anaerobic fitness. That means that you’re prepping your body to use its own energy supply more efficiently (aerobic respiration converts large amounts of glucose into energy while anaerobic respiration transfers glucose into muscles very quickly).
The main difference between the three main types of weight training is the time spent under tension.
To work on muscular endurance, you could be lifting for up to 45 reps in a single set – fatiguing the muscles and teaching them how to stand prolonged periods of work (useful if you’re moving house and you’re going to spend the day moving furniture around). Strength training, however, could be as short as four reps (good for lifting something very heavy for a few seconds).
“Training across all three involves a progression in intensity. That’s the safest way to progress train – especially if you’re new to weightlifting,” Tom Little, founder of ColourFit, tells Stylist.
“Each lays foundations that allow for better adaptations to the next form of training. Endurance produces joint changes so you can better handle higher forces involved in hypertrophy. Hypertrophy produces more muscle tissue, which is one main determinate of strength.
“We get diminishing returns as the body finds a certain type of training less stressful, so by varying training we produce greater overall adaptations.”
In other words, your body likes to be kept guessing and the best way to keep making gains in the gym is to make sure that you’re not doing the same old routine for the same amount of time, using the same weights again and again.
The early 20th-century Estonian strongman, George Hackenschmidt, is famous for saying “about thirty minutes are fully sufficient to the acquisition and preservation of strength and endurance,” and many weight training plans today work on the premise of sandwiching up to 45 minutes of lifting between mobility and stretch work.
Endurance isn’t exclusive to cardio workouts like running or cycling. Endurance strength training is all about high reps, lower weights that require around 50% of your overall maximum effort. Sounds easy right? It might not require brutish strength but you often end up drenched in sweat within minutes of endurance training.
The point is to stretch how much work your muscles can take before reaching their lactic threshold. Our muscles produce lactic acid when they’re under pressure and eventually, they produce so much that they reach total fatigue. Endurance helps to increase how much lactate they can bear. Performing more reps at lower weights can also improve capillarisation.
Your capillaries are the smallest blood vessels in the body, bleeding through the muscle to form a network in the organs and tissues for exchanging oxygen, supplying nutrients and removing waste products. Endurance work increases the density of that capillary network - increasing the supply of nutrients and oxygen and making your waste disposal system more effective.
The more strength endurance you do, the more you’ll reap the benefits in everyday life – from climbing the stairs to carrying heavy loads.
Aim for rounds of 20 reps with a two-minute break in between.
Hypertrophy is great if you want to change your body composition by increasing the amount of lean muscle mass you have. It’s also great for rebalancing muscles so that you don’t end up one side stronger than the other.
Hypertrophy happens when you increase the size of an organ or tissue by increasing the size of cells. Think of it as a thickening of muscle fibres; it only happens when the body is stressed enough to create larger, stronger muscles to bear a new heavy load. When you weight train, you kick off a stimulation and repair response; the immune system creates inflammation under stress which repairs muscles on a cellular level while our bodies release growth factor, cortisol and testosterone – three hormones that help to regulate cell activity.
A good way of working out your hypertrophy range is to determine your one-rep max. What’s the heaviest you can safely lift? Use that as your 100% effort level and then bring it down a little. Unlike endurance, this is a slightly higher-powered mode of training, using 50-75% of your maximum effort.
Go for six sets of 8-20 reps. Rest in between each set for about a minute.
Strength training does what it says on the tin: it focuses on increasing strength and power. For bigger muscles, you need to work on hypertrophy; to get stronger muscles, you need strength.
The shortest regime of the three, you reduce the number of reps per set and increase the weight so that you’re lifting the heaviest weights you can. Because of the increased load, you get to rest longer (three to five minutes) in between the sets. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you to perform each rep, but you want to be working at above 85% of your overall maximum throughout.
Aim for six sets of 4-6 reps. Think: short and sweet but intense.
In other words, there’s no one correct amount of time that you should be weight training for – it all depends on your goals and how you feel on the day. The best regimes include a bit of everything; some days, you might feel stronger than others. The key is not to rigidly stick to a routine out of habit. Keep changing things up so that you’re constantly challenging your body – and mind – to adapt.
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Miranda Larbi is a freelance fitness and wellness journalist, and qualified personal trainer. When she’s not finding new vegan places to eat, she can be found training for the next marathon or cycling across London on a Tokyo bike.