Which is a better an hour long workout or a short but intense 15 minute barn burner? While this question has been debated before; I’ve had the fortune to be on both sides of this dilemma as both a participant and a coach. An hour seems to be the universally accepted time-frame in which to complete a workout here in America. I know for most of the past 17 years I’ve been hitting the gym and hour was always my goal. Whether it was cardio or weight-training I tried to be done in 60 minutes, sometimes I’d run over but if I failed to complete at least 60 minutes of work I often felt cheated or like a slacker. Now we have CrossFit and Cross Training and it’s not uncommon to see workouts lasting no more than 5 minutes, 20 at the most. There are a few “hero WOD’s” that can last an hour or more but this is an exception rather than the rule. Are the short workouts enough? I’d have to say yes, but that it depends on what you’re trying to accomplish but looking back I’d have to say that for most people 20 minutes of maximum effort, weight, and intensity would serve them better than an hour of slogging through the gym just trying to survive.
My last coaching job was at a local Cross Training gym here in town. Each day’s routine would usually consist of 2-4 small workouts that in total lasted an hour, anything short of this and the clients were up in arms and crying foul despite the fact that after the first 15 minutes most were dragging ass and running on fumes. In this case these clients were paying for time not effect. If we failed to deliver a full hour of work they felt cheated. The fact that some of those 15 minute workouts entailed more effort, burned more calories, and got more work done then most of them had likely done in a whole week at a traditional gym was irrelevant in their minds.
The problem and the issue many people fail to recognize is that too many of us are equating results to time spent in motion not intensity and effort while in motion. There are also some other side effects of this line of thinking especially when it comes to adding size and muscle. After anything other than a few short minutes of high intensity exercise your body exhausts its stored supply of glycogen and carbs and most people (outside of trained endurance athletes) will switch to aerobic mode and will most likely begin breaking down muscle tissue for energy not fat as coaches have led them to believe. The body actually becomes Catabolic and it becomes all but impossible to add muscle and size.
Here’s what I noticed as a coach during these hour long workouts at my last job. First and foremost the vast majority as in 99.9% of all those I trained were spent after the first 15-20 minutes. They were done, exhausted and broke down, that is if they actually gave that first workout an all out max intensity effort. The smart ones learned quickly how to move at or around 60% speed and intensity to conserve energy regardless of what the coaches were yelling at them or telling them to speed up or go heavier. (Can you blame them? It’s not like these folks were training for a competition most just wanted to burn some fat and grow their chest.) It’s a great strategy but now we’ve turned what’s supposed to be a high intensity power building workout into the equivalent of an hour on the treadmill at a moderate pace. Those that floored it during the first workout now had to spend the next 30-45 minutes stumbling about trying to survive. They rarely listened to instruction at this point and after the first 20 minutes the potential for injury skyrocketed as safety and technique were tossed out the window in the name of just finishing.
Other Coaches would loudly criticize these exhausted people for lack of intensity at this point. I saw it for what it was; physical exhaustion. Remember the athletes at the CrossFit Games and Regionals may complete several workouts each day but there are hours of rest and refueling in between each, it’s very rarely back to back to back. It is in fact all but impossible to operate the human body at maximum effort and intensity for more than a few minutes without rest and refueling. The coaches at my old facility liked to imagine they were building endurance and stamina but they failed to take into account that too many of the clients we trained had piss poor diets and often entered into the workouts with empty stomachs and precious little in the way of stored fuel in their bodies let alone healthy fats and complex carbs to break down for energy during these hour long sessions. What they were doing was encouraging bodies to conserve fat and break down muscle tissue for energy.
I shouldn’t really criticize these coaches too much; they were only doing what they knew and had experienced themselves in their own workouts. They’re great guys, talented coaches, and friendly enough and I have no doubt they’ll go far and make a ton of money in this industry. Unfortunately they forgot one of the golden rules of coaching; you cannot assume your clients eat as well as you do and possess the athletic ability you do. It’s a recipe to injury and failure for your clients.
Obviously by now you’ve picked up that I’m not too keen on the traditional hour long time frame for workouts. Well actually I do encourage an hour for workouts but only if you’re doing traditional body-building workouts which by design incorporate rest periods, or endurance training. Outside of this I’d have to agree with biology and I hate to say it; CrossFit’s programming method. At high Intensity and effort anything longer than 10-15 minutes of continuous activity without adequate rest breaks just becomes pointless and at certain levels even dangerous depending on the clients’ nutritional programming. There are many detractors to this method but I argue that most of these people are speaking from theory and book education not experience and actual practice. I can tell you from experience that 12 minutes of maximum intensity exercise using heavy weights and speed would put down Superman. If you think that’s not enough then you’re obviously not giving it everything you have and I challenge anyone who feels differently to come meet me at a CF box and we’ll do a WOD for time and see what you think at the end of the session.
Now let me take a moment to go back and clear a few things up though. First off I got my start in body-building and traditional weight-lifting. It’s something I still use regularly to achieve a certain build and physical appearance. My workouts often run over an hour and I don’t care. When I lift heavy I might take 3-4 minutes rest between sets and 5 minutes between moves. I’m not in a hurry and I don’t care if it takes me 60-90 minutes to get my workout done. On the flip-side of this are my CrossFit workouts. Most of these are done in 20 minutes or less. My goal for these workouts is speed and power. I want to get as much work done as fast as I can. When the buzzer sounds I put the pedal down and go until I drop or the clock stops. I’m not trying to strategize or win the Games I’m just trying to see what my 35 year old body can still do. Its fun and it’s exhilarating and afterwards I feel invincible. So in the end I believe there’s no wrong or right way to do it. I do think that anyone who says it’s impossible to get in an effective workout in just 20 minutes or less is speaking from a position of ignorance not experience though. I also believe that too many coaches I know are prescribing a generalized one size fits all exercise program without taking into consideration each clients diet, goals, and body composition. But when your goal is to fill classes with bodies instead of help the most people achieve success; it’s bound to happen.