No, this didn’t turn into a sex or relationship advice column, but it is a good piece of advice. For training. And stuff (uh, NSFW for language?).
When you walk out of the gym, do you know how much time has passed? Or do you feel like you’re surfacing from underwater, breathing heavily, and gasping, “What happened, I blacked out?” Knowing how much time is relevant, because you most likely need to decrease that amount of time. I spent about half an hour looking for references on this topic, but I don’t have access to scholarly sources and my textbooks were vague, but Dr. Pascuale’s “Amino Acids and Proteins for the Athlete” provided the following:
Androgens such as testosterone (and trophic hormones such as LH) increase with intense exercise as long as it is not exhausting. Thus, short intense training sessions will give the best results and maximize lean body mass and strength. When exercise duration is too long, the level of testosterone decreases. Thus repetitive and prolonged heavy exercise results in overtraining and in decreased protein synthesis and increased muscle catabolism (pg 340-341).
He continues on how short, intense workouts also benefit growth hormone as well. This, of course, wasn’t the first time I had seen this information, but lately I’ve been experimenting with shorter duration workouts. All of you who have had a two or three hour training session know that towards the end you’re drained and devoid of any life force; the Others have taken you. In contrast, when you get your work down very quickly, you may feel invigorated or feeling that you could have done more. That’s a good feeling! Feeling that you did too little is better than feeling that you did too much, and it results in better progress.
Physiological reasoning for a short duration training session include maximizing the efficacy of anabolic hormones (like testosterone and growth hormone), maximizing the potential for protein synthesis, and fitting in the standard “insulin”, or anabolic, window that is created by having protein and fast digesting carbs pre-workout. Not to mention there’s the psychological benefit from not being drained as well as having completed the session in a timely manner. The physiological and psychological implications could improve or at least limit the negative effects on a trainee’s emotional state. If you have kids, dogs, or work to take care of once you get home, you’ll be in a better frame of mind. Enjoying dinner and watching Bert Macklin is preferable to lying on the floor and wishing you were dead. Trust me, I know.
Good strength programs will include two, maybe three primary lifts with one or two assistance exercises. The average number of lifts or exercises included in a session is three or four; there’s no reason that such a workout can’t be completed in an hour.
Guys using traditional Texas Method templates will be the first to pipe up and say, “But five sets of five takes almost an hour.” You’re right; they do. That’s part of the reason that five sets squats aren’t used in anything I program (and strength increases are much better without that volume — read more here). A good guideline is to try and complete each exercise, including warm-ups, in 15 minutes. More demanding lifts like the squat or deadlift can increase to 20 minutes. This sets a parameter of timeliness in the training session.
I always tell my trainees that they should complete the first three warm-ups of any exercise back-to-back-to-back. For squat or deadlift, that would be hitting 135, 225, and 315 in sequence (bench could be 135, 185, 225 while press could be 135, 155, and 175). Remember to titrate repetitions down as the weight increases to avoid undue fatigue for the work sets. The first three warm-ups should happen within five minutes (and often quicker). Subsequent warm-ups can be off-set by a minute or so can of rest, and then three to five minutes of rest could be used between work sets.
Rest periods will obviously be dependent on the training intensity. If a trainee is working with a tough 3×5 with sets across, they may need five to seven minutes of rest. Most of you will have crept out of a linear progression and can account for this with ascending sets or intelligent programming (a topic for another day) that contains the rest periods. Keep in mind that the rest periods will probably increase between subsequent work sets; resting before the third set will take a bit longer than the amount of rest between the last warm-up and the first set.
In order to keep an eye on your rest periods and total session time, I like to wear watch. Just start the time it once you start warming up with a bar (my time excludes dynamic warm-up and mobility work). When you’re resting, just look at the current time and add three minutes to that. At the three minute mark, gauge how you’re feeling and decide if you can complete the set or if you need more time. If you routinely need more time, it could indicate that you’re using large amounts of weight (which is fine given the context of your program), but it could also indicate a lack of conditioning on your part. When I did 200m sprints last week, my heart rate dropped from 183 to 123 in less than two minutes (I’ll get some numbers on a lifting session; forget to wear the monitor Monday). That capability would indicate that I should have good recovery between sets. This doesn’t mean you need to do sprints, but that GPP work is standard in many powerlifting or strength programs, and you shouldn’t be an exception (unless prepping for a meet).
Another way to shorten the duration of a workout is to complete assistance exercise in a super-set fashion (e.g. pull-ups with GHR). Obviously you should avoid lifts or exercises that would be debilitating to each other, but most assistance work can be combined. The “rest between” sets will merely include you walking back and forth. This works well because it not only completes the rest of your assistance work in a timely manner, but it can provide a wee bit of a conditioning stress. If you haven’t done any GPP work, super setting some assistance will get your heart pumping and make you sweat a little. It’ll be good for you.
You can also complete “finisher” type work in the same way. I’ve also been experimenting with non-lifting finishers in my sessions. One example is super setting heavy farmer’s walks for a 25 meter round trip with side planks (a deceivingly effective exercise for lumbar spine health and rehab — more on this another time). Last week I completed three farmer’s walks and three sets of side planks (30 seconds on each side) in about five minutes. The total training session time (that included bench, squat, BB row, and RDLs) was about 1 hour and 5 minutes. Aesthetic focused exercises, like curls, work well as finishers and they benefit most from short rest periods anyway (i.e. higher rep schemes with short rest intervals favor hypertrophy).
One hour is a good guideline, but you can also work with 1:15 or 1:30. Your mindset going forward should be:
1:30+ — debilitating for recovery
1:15 to 1:30 — decent
1:00 to 1:15 — good
1:00 and under — great
This mentality works exceptionally well in light or medium sessions, especially when coming back from a layoff, injury, or illness. By having an up-tempo emphasis throughout the session, you’ll maximize your ‘anabolic window’, increase your metabolism, and get your shit done in a timely manner. For some of you, trimming the fat off your training session will actually help you. Deleting some unnecessary asssitance will help your body focus it’s recovery efforts into the fundamental lifts (see this article by Dr. Hartman)
Some programs may demand long sessions, and they can sometimes be helpful — some powerlifting meets will last 8 hours! But most of you are general strength trainees who are trying to be strong and look strong. The shorter duration emphasis will have a better effect on both getting stronger and growing musculature. So hit it and quit it; no need to hang around.