Fitness Contrarian Principal # 4: Hard Workouts Should Be Short in Duration

I’ve written a number of articles on long and hard workouts and have been telling my personal training clients for years that “when you workout hard it should be short and when you workout long it should be easy”. Yet this is a common sense concept that most fitness enthusiasts can’t accept. One of the biggest mistakes you can make with your exercise program is to have the mind set that more or harder is always better.

The whole purpose of exercise is to build a stronger healthier body. To achieve this, you want to spend your time wisely by building yourself up and not chronically breaking yourself down. You reach a point of diminishing returns very quickly with exercise and when you over do it, it can adversely affect your health. Research will back me up on this.

There are numerous studies that show the benefits of short hard interval workouts for maximally increasing your Vo2max or aerobic capacity. There’s a famous study by Dr. Izumi Tabata and his colleagues at the National Institute of Fitness and Sports in Tokyo. This study shows how 4 minutes of high intensity interval training improved aerobic capacity by 14% and anaerobic capacity by 28%, in six weeks. Research has shown that there is no need to run 60 minutes or more as hard as you can to be in the best possible aerobic condition. You can achieve it just as well with short hard workouts without overly breaking down your body. Keep in mind I’m not talking about someone who wants to run a marathon as fast as possible. That would require long hard workouts to get the body and mind ready to run such a long race. At the same time, they would be breaking their body down; however, and could not maintain that grueling routine for too long without some ill effects. In contrast to a marathon runner, someone who is aerobically training for good health can be just as aerobically fit as a marathoner by doing short hard runs without overtraining the body. Even more and more world-class athletes are working-out less and getting better results. I recommend you keep your hard interval training sessions to 20 minutes or less.

This subject comes back to my first Fitness Contrarian principal: don’t control your weight with exercise. Don’t do long hard workouts to burn calories. Eat properly to control your weight and exercise to improve your fitness level.

Research will back me up when it comes to resistance training, as well. Short hard workouts are the way to go. Most studies have shown that all you need is one hard work set of each exercise for maximum results. Doing more then one hard set does not produce any more strength gains. There is some great research from the Human Performance Laboratory of Adelphi University conducted by professors Carpinelli and Otto which compared single versus multiple set strength training. Evidence suggests that for training durations of 4 to 25 weeks there is no significant difference in the increase in strength or hypertrophy as a result of training with single versus multiple sets. They concluded that single set low volume training is the way to go. I actually took some undergraduate courses with Professor Otto and found him be a very knowledgeable guy.

Even those all natural, full body functional hard workouts should be kept short for maximum results without overtraining. Explosive movement should be kept to a minimal duration, as well. As soon as you start getting overly tired during these athletic movements is when the trouble starts and you can get hurt. I recommend you keep your full body resistance work-out under 45 minutes with warm-up and cool-down. Keep in mind, you can create a response and get a great workout in 10 minutes, if you know what you are doing.

Don’t think if you’re not killing yourself with long hard workouts you’re not getting the job done. As long as you’re eating well, getting enough sleep and fitting in a couple of short hard workouts per week along with a few hours of long easy exercise on top of an active lifestyle, you will achieve an ultimate level of fitness and appearance, without breaking your body down.

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Best – Mike Cola

Demystifying Fitness

About Mike Cola

Mike Cola has well over 50,000 hours of hands-on personal training experience. He started his own personal training studio in1989, Mike Cola Fitness, which is located in New York.Connect with Mike @ Google+

12 Responses to “Fitness Contrarian Principal # 4: Hard Workouts Should Be Short in Duration”

  1. Mike, when you say “short, hard workouts,” how does this translate with strength training? Does this mean using heavier weights so that you go to failure in eight reps or fewer? I’m a middle aged woman trying to stave off muscle loss and tone up. If I can get away with doing one set of low reps at each station to get results, sign me up!

  2. Yes it does translate to strength training. One hard work set ( after a warm-up) is all most people need in the gym to put on muscle and or prevent muscle loss.

    Focus on time under load as opposed to reps.Try lifting moderately heavy weights that you can safely control. Use a slow rep-speed; three second up then pause for a second and five seconds down. That would but a nine second rep. Keep your time under load anywhere from 45 to 60 seconds. If you can go to failure great but be careful. You want to be in control of the weight at all times. Coming close to failure will still produce good results and will be a little safer.

    Thanks for making a comment.

    Best – Mike

  3. Mike you are so right. As a boxer our purpose was not to build muscle but to build stamina before a fight. Our trainer over 30 years ago discovered that when we worked in short burst of rounds in bag punching, jumping rope and sparring we often times performed better in actual fights than those that did long hours in the gym. This has translated into a life long lesson that I teach to parents today that want to help their own children out with workouts to lose weight.
    Sports scientist are now discovering that short workouts with burst of energy and power are better than long workouts.
    Thanks again for your article.

  4. Hey Terry,

    I have always felt that boxers are the most well conditioned athletes in the world.

    Thanks for checking out my site.

    Best – Mike

  5. Mike,
    Great article! So many people make the mistake of overtraining. I keep my strength training workouts to 20-30 minutes and cardio to 30-45 minutes (a combination of HIIT and steady state). Aside from saving time, my body stays fresh during the week.

  6. Hey David,

    Sounds like we are on a very similar training program.

    Thanks for visiting my site.

    Best – Mike

  7. Very nice site, I am a big fan of shorter but more intense workouts 🙂

  8. Hi Katie,

    Thanks for the comment.

    Best – Mike

  9. I have begun working out in a group exercise program with a trainer who seems solid and has a degree. We do rotations of three activities (like bicep curls, squats and side kicks) 3 times.

    I’m a 55 year old female who walks briskly, does vigorous yoga and pilates, and stairsteps. These weekly hour long weight workouts leave me very sore, which the trainer feels is a good thing. Reading your column makes me wonder if the triple reps are designed to make filling the time more manageable, rather than providing the best workout. What do you think?

  10. If you’re getting sore every time you workout it’s too much.

    Looking at your whole fitness program as you described in your comment, I think you are doing way too much vigorous exercise. If you like to workout hard you have to keep it short and limited to only a couple of workouts per week. You can’t work vigorously in Pilates, yoga, stair stepping and a group exercise class all in the same week. Workout hard in only one or two activities and take it easy during the rest.

    I’m not sure what your goals are but if you are working out so hard and often to lose weight it is the wrong approach. You have to control your weight with your diet and exercise to create the response you want like a strong heart, a muscular body with good flexibility without over training. You reach a point of diminishing returns very quickly with exercise and if you over do it and wind up chronically sore you are doing more harm then good.

    If you have any more questions let me know.

    Best – Mike

  11. Hey.
    Great blog.
    I’m 18 and I’ve been expericing some problems due to overtraining and very bad way to exercise the last 9 months.
    I lost a big amount of weight very quickly, lost muscle mass, and then began to lift weights but was underweight.

    I’m now 5’11”, 139 lbs at 8% bodyfat (calipers), but I have many problems with my adrenal glands, I’m recovering slowly from overtraining since late August.

    I can’t perform my usual split routine, so I’ve been doing only 2 sets per muscle group 2 times a week and now I’ve been upping that to one complete exercise (5 sets) per muscle group 2x a week or every 4 days. (I’m performing DB Bench Press, DB Curls, DB Lateral Raises, Chin Ups, One-Arm DB Rows, DB Lying Triceps Extensions, and Hanging Knee Raises)

    I was hoping it would be enough to maintain my strength levels, but it actually went up a bit ?!

    Is it possible ?

  12. @ Daydreamer,

    Yes it is definitely possible. You will get stronger by training less. You always have to keep in mind, the main goal of resistance training is to build yourself up and not overly break yourself down.

    I made the mistake of over training for years when I was your age. I got much stronger as soon as I cut back on the amount of days I worked out and the amount of sets I did.