Fitness: Be wise with your time at the gym

Time is precious. Don’t waste it.

I was at the gym the other day and overheard an interesting conversation.

It was between a woman and a man (I assumed either they were married or at least dating), with the woman looking over a training log the two were sharing.

I’d just seen her doing some sort of ab routine, and he was working some of the machines. Two things I noticed: 1) She looked like she was finished; 2) She was getting tired of waiting on him.

Then she said what was on her mind.

“I think we have to rework this. There’s no way I can be at the gym for three hours a day.”

Oh how right you are.

Some might question her commitment compared to his. Others marvel at movie stars and “Biggest Loser” contestants who spend 3, 4, or even 6 hours a day working out. And surely professional athletes are putting in that kind of time at their workout pad of choice.

I’ve got news for you, folks. If that’s the kind of time you’re putting in, I can wrap it up in a one-word summary.


There are exceptions, and I’ll get to that. But for the average person who is looking to lose weight, or gain mass, or just get in shape/maintain conditioning, there is no reason to spend more than 90 minutes on any given day working out.


And I mean that for people who strength train and do cardio in one session.

Most of my strength training workouts don’t last more than 45 minutes. In that time, I can cram in 18 sets, usually working two major muscle groups in the process. My splits are chest/back, legs, shoulders and biceps/triceps. Only on shoulders day do I perform less than 18 sets (15 in this case).

The key is simple. Have a plan, get to work, get out. What it means is minimizing rest time between sets to a reasonable time, avoiding chit-chat and staying busy. If the gym is not too busy, I’ll go back and forth between muscle groups (do a set of incline presses, then jump on a pull-up bar; repeat). This will help you get done quicker and adds a slight cardio benefit as well. This system works for me, and with a few tweaks here and there, I’ve seen gains in strength and positive results in terms of weight loss/maintenance and overall work accomplished.

Now let’s talk cardio. First, I’d advise doing cardio AFTER you lift. If you’re looking for the fat-burning variety, all you really need is a decently rigorous high-intensity interval training session that doesn’t need to last more than 20 minutes.

So assuming you get through your lifts in 45 minutes and then bust out 20 minutes of HIIT, you just got in a good session in slightly over an hour. I usually run for 30 to 40 minutes after a lifting session (except on leg day), so my overall session is slightly longer. But it’s nowhere close to two hours, and really won’t even hit 90 minutes unless I feel the need to run more than originally planned.

Take this into consideration: The wildly popular Crossfit workouts (Workout of the Day, or WODs) typically are finished in about 20 minutes or so. I’m not endorsing Crossfit, but I can tell you that the people who do it leave the gym fatigued from the perspectives of both strength training and cardiovascular conditioning. Crossfit may come under fire from its critics, but its designers got one thing right: get in the gym, do your work, get out.

You can do a lot of good in the gym to build a better body. But don’t let the gym become a time suck. Get in, get to work, and get out.


There are some endeavors that will require more time. Athletes on sport-specific training regimens will frequently endure workouts that last 90 minutes to three hours (or more), but much of that time is spent coaching technique as well as doing conditioning and strength training. Team sports athletes, boxers/MMA fighters, and track athletes (among many others) fit into this realm.

Then there are the endurance athletes. You know who you are. Marathon runners, ultra-marathon runners, cyclists and triathletes must put in more time for training. My longer runs are taking me up to two hours right now, but the point in that case is getting my body accustomed to working that hard for that long; others will be running for three to four hours, depending on the distance.

But if you’re like most people in the gym — you just want to get in shape, lose weight, get ripped, get strong — don’t fool yourself into thinking you have to put together some marathon session of two to three hours at the gym per workout. You’ll burn out. Or worse yet, you’ll get injured. Either way, you’ll end up sidelining yourself and short-circuiting your fitness ambitions.

Instead, be better at gym time-management. Get it done quickly. Then you’ll have all that extra time to use your rapidly improving physique to do cool stuff outside the gym walls, and your workout buddy or your girlfriend/boyfriend/spouse won’t poop out on you.

Bob Doucette

On Twitter @RMHigh7088


8 thoughts on “Fitness: Be wise with your time at the gym

    • Totally agree on doing a post-workout stretch. Very important. Two hours is a pretty long session, but if it’s working for you keep doing what you are doing. But don’t be afraid of taking an inventory of your training to see where it can be more efficient. If you have the time, though, it’s nice to be able to take that time to get some good training in.

  1. I generally like to do my HIIT intervals before I lift. I’ll do a short cardio warm up, do the HIIT, then go down to the weight room and get my lifts in. I’ve never tried doing HIIT after lifting, but I suspect that it would be harder for me (mentally) to muster the requisite intensity after I’ve already lifted.

    • Here’s why I lift before cardio: I can see doing a quick warmup before lifting, but in order to get the most work done, you want to be as fresh as possible. That way, your muscles are totally primed, can do more work, and thus give you a greater benefit from the exercises than they would if you were already somewhat tired, weaker and unable to lift as hard or use as much weight.

      Doing HIIT afterward will be a mental challenge, but that’s where the struggle really lies: You can still get a tremendous cardio benefit, even though you’re having to gut it out, whereas if you lift after HIIT, your body won’t be able to do as much work as it could if you were fresh.

      Give it a shot for a few weeks, lift hard, then tell me what you think.

  2. Yes! I agree with you. When I first started my plan and was getting a feel for the layout of the gym, I was there for 2 hours, because I didn’t know where anything was…Now, for strength training and cardio, I’m in and out in 90 min TOPS. Gym time is not social time–I keep the music blasting and a look on my face that says “Don’t talk to me, I’m training” lol

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