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Fitness & Health

27th Aug 2019

How long should your workout last? A top strength coach explains

We all know the importance of exercise, but how long does a workout need to last? We spoke to a top strength coach who has won world titles in two sports

Alex Roberts

We all know the importance of exercise, but how long do you actually need to spend in the gym?

To get a handle on workout duration, JOE spoke to Mike McGurn, a top strength coach who has won world titles in two different sports. He counts Ireland Rugby, the All Blacks and a host of rugby league and Premier League teams amongst his clients.

McGurn says: “Some gym goers who I speak to tell me their gym session lasts 90-120 minutes! But I programme my sessions to last 40 to 50 minutes. My reasoning for this is the body physiologically can only develop for this length of time.”

Why your workout shouldn’t exceed an hour

McGurn quotes the late Charles Poliquin, a world-renowned strength coach, to reinforce his point. “Poliquin famously quoted in his own inimitable humorous style, ‘if your workout takes longer than an hour you are making friends, not building size and strength’.”

Powerlifter Bodybuilding Muscle Mass

It’s all down to the intensity of your workout, McGurn says.

“Consider the rest time in between sets that Poliquin also advocated. He advocated 45 – 60 seconds when training for hypertrophy (muscle gain) and three – five minutes when training for strength.

“With this, you can then accurately assess the number of exercises you can fit into that one hour time slot to optimise your training intensity. If you need to train longer than an hour, personally I would say that you are not training hard enough or you need to split the workout into two sessions throughout the day allowing sufficient time in between for recovery.”

Why you need to separate strength training and cardio

McGurn says: “It is unrealistic to try and maintain a high intensity for more than 50 – 60 minutes. I also feel it is not conducive mixing strength and cardio training in the same session as the body starts questioning what the objectives and outcomes of the training session are.”

With resistance training, the objective is clearly to build strength and muscle size. For cardio, the onus is more on calorie burning and fat loss. These are two distinct goals that ideally need to be separated into specific workouts.

To make the most out of an hour in the gym lifting weights, McGurn recommends implementing a tried-and-tested method that all the pros call on.

He says: “A great way to squeeze more out of your 50-60 minute window in the gym is to incorporate Time Under Tension (TUT) training.

“To execute this correctly, perform a concentric (lowering) contraction of two seconds, pause for one second in the fully contracted position, then perform the eccentric (explosive) phase of each rep in four seconds for a total repetition time of seven seconds.”

Time under tension in practice

Take the bench press as an example:

  • Lower the bar to your chest for a two count at the beginning
  • Pause for one second at the bottom of the lift, with the bar on your chest
  • Take four seconds to ‘press’ the weight on each rep

This isn’t the only way of adding TUT into your training, though. McGurn says: “Another training strategy which can be used is the method of 3:3.”

  • Three seconds concentric
  • Three seconds eccentric
  • No pause

You’ll know when to stop – either you’ll hit failure, or you won’t be able to maintain the 3:3 speed.


For a hour-long workout, McGurn says this method works perfectly.

“It requires approximately 60 – 75 seconds per set, with 60 seconds rest in between sets. It can be used with five sets of an exercise in approximately ten minutes, so perfectly placed to get four or five exercises done inside an hour.”

Pairing exercises back-to-back is another way to make the most out of an hour pumping iron.

McGurn says: “A third methodology of of adding volume and intensity into your 50 – 60 minute workouts is supersets, two exercises done back-to-back before you take a rest period.

“Classically this is executed with a push-pull prescription. Personally, I like to involve a lot of legs in my super set prescription due to the massive growth hormone release training the lower body gives us.”

Sample superset session

This is a superset gym session McGurn uses with athletes. Rest for 45 seconds in between each exercise.

  • 5-10 minute warm up and mobility
  • A) Front Squats: 5 x 5 / Wide Grip Pull Ups: 5 x 12
  • B) Barbell Step Ups: 4 x 8 / Dumbbell Incline Bench Press: 4 x 10
  • C) Romanian Deadlifts: 4 x 6 / Barbell Row: 4 x 8
  • D) Dumbbell Curl to Front Squats to Overhead Press: 3 x 8 / Renegade Row: 3 x 8 (each side)

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