Q. What should be the minimum actual training time per workout session? - Hakan Çelik, Facebook
A: The general rule in weight training is that if you are in the gym for more than an hour, you are making friends, not gains. We say this because beyond the hour mark your cortisol raises such that you reach a point of diminishing returns for muscle and strength gains, along with compromising your immune system.
The late Ivan Abadjiev, a Bulgarian weightlifting coach who helped his country become a dominant force in the sport for over two decades, recognized the problems associated with long workouts. Abadjiev believed that after about 45 minutes, testosterone levels would drop significantly and compromise the quality of the workout.
Because Abadjiev also believed a high volume of training was necessary to achieve the highest possible results, he would have his elite athletes train as much as five times a day, six times a week! It was especially difficult for older lifters to handle such a volume of training, so Abadjiev focused on coaching teenagers and getting them to the elite level as quickly as possible. Most elite lifters today will train more than once a day, but Abadjiev’s system is not practical and presents a high risk of injury and burnout.
On the other side of the workout spectrum, there are the Nautilus and “Heavy Duty” protocols that prescribe only one set per exercise and workouts as brief as 25 minutes. Individuals who are overtrained often can make exceptional progress on this type of minimalist training, but only for a brief period. Eventually progress will slow down and often stagnate. Further, it would be dangerous for exceptional strong individuals to use such a program because they need more sets to be physically and mentally prepared for maximum effort. Someone who deadlifts 700 pounds cannot walk into a gym and pull 600 pounds to failure without a warm-up.
Finally, when looking at workout time, consider all the loading parameters of training, especially rest time between sets. Let’s say you want to use a set/rep protocol of 5x5 per exercise. If you rest 4 minutes between sets, you may only be able to perform three exercises in a single training session. Rest 3 minutes, and you can add another exercise.
Rather than reducing rest time, which in turn will reduce the amount of weight you can use per exercise, you can perform supersets where you pair opposing muscle groups (agonist and antagonist muscles). For example, you can alternate between triceps rope pressdowns and barbell biceps curls and reduce the rest time significantly between sets without compromising your strength (because while one muscle group is working, the other is resting).
Iron Game athletes often cite the motto, “Train hard, heavy, and fast!” Good advice, so keep your workouts to about an hour and enjoy the benefits of quality training.