In the 1970s and 80s, ‘Volume Training’ was the established method of working out and building muscle. People would enter the gym at 5pm, and not leave until gone 7pm, before downing a pint of milk with 2 raw eggs. More was allegedly better, back in bodybuilding’s aesthetic heyday when the likes of Arnold and Lou Ferrigno were at their peak.

The ‘Heavy Duty’ System

In the 1980s, Bodybuilding pioneer Mike Mentzer promoted a much shorter-duration training protocol with his ‘Heavy Duty’ system. Mentzer advocated that each workout should consist of 5-9 sets of exercises, and should be performed on a three-day-week schedule – as an absolute maximum. This particular form of training was later adopted by Dorian Yates, who went on to become one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time. This new high intensity & short volume approach, initially appeared to split the bodybuilding community in two, half still steadfastly adhering to the volume-training of 20+ sets per workout, and the other half adopting the methods advocated by Mentzer and Yates.

So, What IS Optimum?

There is still much debate regarding the optimum training duration for workouts, however recent scientific studies would appear to support high-intensity workouts for periods of less than 1 hour as optimal for both weight loss, and muscle hypertrophy. According to Jason Ferruggia, blood testosterone levels increase during weight training, peaking at 30 minutes into a session. After 1 hour, the body starts to produce less testosterone, and more cortisol – a marker of stress, which is associated with a loss of muscle mass, and an increase in body fat. This information is reinforced by a study conducted by Tremblay et al (2005), who observed that testosterone levels increased during the first hour of exercise, then showed a steady decline from that point onwards.

High intensity exercise that lasts for 90 minutes (or more) is also associated with a negative impact on immune-function. This decrease in immune function in turn increases the risk of infections (such as coughs and colds) and may impair a person’s ability to recover between exercise sessions. Rather than ‘more is better’; when it comes to building muscle mass it appears that one should do just enough to force the muscles to ‘break down’, adapt and grow, then get out of the gym, and start the recovery process for the next session.

Some coaches and strength and conditioning experts have even advocated single-set training protocols, with gym/strength sessions lasting around 20 minutes – but the research on this is somewhat conflicting. Kraemer et al (2000) examined the effect of single-set versus multiple-set training programmes on female tennis players, and concluded that a multiple-set protocol was superior in terms of specific strength and power enhancement, when compared with single set training. However, a study performed by Starkey et al, concluded that one set of resistance-training exercise was as effective as three sets for increasing knee extension and knee flexion strength over a 14 week training protocol, performed three times a week.

Results from all the available studies tend to suggest that single-set training may be just as effective as multiple set training for beginners, but not for people who have weight-trained for a number of years. Keep in mind, however, that even the multiple set training programmes generally took 1 hour or less to complete. The research therefore indicates that for experienced weightlifters 3 sets may be superior to 1, but there is little research looking at the old-school ‘Volume Training’ of 25+ sets, and any potential benefits or drawbacks. So the effect of the 2-hour workouts that were advocated back in the 1970s and 80s, still remains unclear. Volume training, and similar protocols such as ‘German Volume Training’ were also very popular before 1990; the year anabolic steroids were banned in the USA. Recovery rates, testosterone levels, and other markers of stress related to overtraining were substantially altered, and greater training loads could then be tolerated and prove beneficial when testosterone levels are artificially enhanced. This is something that arguably catalysed muscle gains experienced by bodybuilders before the 90s; regardless of workout duration.

In Essence: Do What You Can, When You Can

The fact that single-set training sessions lasting 20 minutes or less do have a beneficial effect on muscle mass and strength is encouraging, and demonstrates that even if someone can only spare this amount of time once or twice a week, exercising even for these short durations is still significantly beneficial in terms of health and gains in strength and muscle mass. If you can only commit a limited time to weightlifting or resistance training then there are several ways to increase intensity and enhance gains in muscle mass (hypertrophy) in a short amount of time. The Heavy Duty system for example, encouraged ‘forced negatives‘ or eccentric lifting exercises.

Eccentric repetitions – are the contractions that occur when a muscle is lengthening. Training with eccentric-contraction resistance exercises, has been repeatedly shown to elicit greater increases in muscle size than ‘normal’ repetitions. Eccentric repetitions refer to the ‘lowering’ portion of an exercise. For example, lowering the bar back down to your chest during a bench press exercise is the eccentric portion of the lift, and controlling the bar back up during a lat. pull down is the eccentric movement in this particular example. These eccentric exercises should be carried out with extreme caution and under supervision when possible, as injury can occur with poor technique.

In 2008, Roig et al reviewed 20 studies, comparing eccentric training to ‘normal’ training. Eccentric training was proven to be more effective in increasing muscle mass, and some forms of specific strength. It was theorised that eccentric training produces greater increases in muscle mass, because higher training loads/weights can be used when just the eccentric portion of the lifts are performed; thus eliciting greater micro-trauma within muscle tissue, causing greater adaptation and muscle growth to occur.

Unilateral training – isolating and training one arm or leg at a time, can also produce superior gains in strength compared with training both arms at the same time throughout a workout. For example, if you are training at home, you could perform assisted one-arm chin-ups for your final set of chin-ups. Be very careful not to overload your muscles and incur an injury when attempting one arm sets for the first time. This is another great way to make a short, intense workout highly productive and can also help to prevent imbalances in strength that may otherwise occur. Unilateral training will prevent your dominant or stronger side from taking more of the load during other bilateral exercises and masking any strength imbalances. A study in 2009 showed the unilateral training increased strength in individual muscles more than bilateral training.

Workout Psychology

Another reason to keep workouts short and intense is the influence of mental focus and fatigue. For someone who has recently adopted a fitness and bodybuilding routine, workouts lasting hours may not be an issue, whilst motivation is high and training is prioritised above all else. However, this enthusiasm will normally reduce to some extent, and longer workouts may also become less practical as other commitments have to take priority.

In addition to motivation and focus, in general it is better from an adherence perspective to keep workouts short. This is because the greatest barrier, and the greatest objection, that people cite when asked why they do not exercise is the factor of time, or being too busy. With this in mind, shorter duration exercise regimes are much more practical. This is also a great reason as to why training at home may be the best option for busy people. Some simple equipment can make training at home, as effective as training at the gym.


 

Example Program

The following routine is an effective programme that will take 20-30 minutes, 3 times per week. Each workout should be preceded with 5 minutes of steady state cardiovascular exercise as a warm up.

Day 1

Pull Up Mate Body row exercise – 2 sets of 6-10 repetitions
Pull Up Mate one arm Body row – 2 sets of 6-8 repetitions
Pull Up Mate eccentric one arm body row – 1 set of 8 repetitions
Strength band bicep curl 2 sets of 6-12 repetitions

 

Day 3

Strength band military press 2 sets of 6-10 repetitions
Seated Strength band shoulder press 2 sets of 6-10 reps
Pull Up Mate alternating press ups 2 sets of 10 total repetitions
*Spiderman press ups 2 sets of 10 repetitions
Pull Up Mate Dips 2 sets of 12 repetitions

*Use a weighted vest, and/or press ups bars to increase resistance

Day 5

Bodyweight squats / Kettlebell goblet squats – maximum reps in 1 minute
Lunges 2 sets of 12 repetitions
Bulgarian Split Squats 2 sets of 10 repetitions

Pull Up Mate Leg raises 2 sets of 12 repetitions
Dorsal raises 2 sets of 12 repetitions

These exercises can also be mixed together to provide a ‘whole body’ workout, rather than splitting the workouts to target separate muscle groups.


 

It’s Not Just About Duration

With research demonstrating an increase in cortisol levels and a decrease in testosterone and immune functioning when exercising with high intensity for over one hour, it would appear optimal for an individual to adopt training protocols utilising training sessions lasting no more than one hour. Even with this duration established as optimal, there are still huge variables to be considered. For example, a workout consisting of 10 sets of bicep curls will exert less stress on the endocrine system and nervous system than 10 sets of deadlifts to failure. This outlines how difficult it is to determine an overall duration of exercise that suits everyone and every training goal, and why there is still much debate over the matter of workout and training duration.

It may be both reassuring and motivational to know, however, that even short workouts lasting less than 30 minutes have substantial benefits for health and in terms of gaining strength and muscle mass. In fact, research has recently demonstrated that workouts lasting just 4 minutes elicit many favourable changes within the body in regards to general wellbeing, health and fitness. Don’t let time be an issue, or an excuse when contemplating a workout regime, 20-30 minutes, 2 or 3 times per week can procure substantial results in terms of fitness and physique.


 

References

Frontiers in Bioscience, Volume 14, pp. 4444-4456.
Acute and chronic effects of exercise on markers of mucosal immunity.
Bishop, N. and Gleeson, M. (2009)

American Journal of Sports Medicine. Volume28 Issue 5 pp 626-33.
Influence of resistance training volume and periodization on physiological and performance adaptations in collegiate women tennis players.
Kraemer WJ, Ratamess N, Fry AC, Triplett-McBride T, Koziris LP, Bauer JA, Lynch JM, Fleck SJ (2000.)

European Journal of Applied Physiology Volume 94, Issue 5-6, pp 505-513
Influence of exercise duration on post-exercise steroid hormone responses in trained males
Mark S. Tremblay, Jennifer L. Copeland, Walter Van Helder (2005)

Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise:
March 2009 – Volume 41 – Issue 3 – pp 687-708
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Drew Griffiths MSc is a self-confessed fitness fanatic. He has a 1st Class Degree in Sport Science from Loughborough University, a masters in Exercise & Nutrition from the University of Liverpool and a diploma in Digital Marketing from the Oxford College of Marketing. It’s safe to say, he knows what he’s taking about. If you have any questions, you can contact him via his blog, Twitter or Google+.