How Much Should I Be "Doing" In My Workouts?

I'd like to clear the record: I'm not a "hater."

Now, that may seem hypocritical given what I've said in the past about running, yoga, and Tracy Anderson.  And, except for Tracy, I'd like to clear up my point of view.

I don't hate running or yoga, as each have their place. Heck, I've even taken Zumba with my Mom where we shook it like a Polaroid picture (that's still an applicable and common reference, right?)

So, when I say that I "get" how strength training isn't everyone's bag of chips, I do understand.  While I may favor particular forms of exercise, anything that gets people moving and feeling better is a-OK with me.

Having said that, know my heart is in the right place when I say the following: when someone does choose to strength train, my biggest pet peeve is hopping from exercise to exercise without taking the appropriate (or any) rest.  In fact, going immediately from a set of squats into planks, then trying to bang out as many push ups as you can is what I like to call, "Fantastic Fitness Fun," where you simply move around for an hour.  To me, it's a lot like this:

Rest is an important part of the equation, but many people tend to see it as a weakness.  In fact, if you're doing your exercises correctly with mastery and grace, you should NEED it.  But, how does it relate to the title of this post, how much you should be doing in your workouts?  I'm gettin' there.

The following factors typically guide how much actual "work" someone can do when they're in the gym: goals, time, how many selfies you tend to take of yourself at the gym (so, you know, you can prove you were there on Instagram), and where on the "beginner-advanced" spectrum you fall.  For the sake of brevity, we'll say that you keep your phone nowhere near you during your workouts, that you're training because you want to get stronger and maybe lose some weight, and that you have an hour or so to dedicate to the gym every couple of days.

So, how much work should you do in the gym?  The answer is probably much, much less than you think.

There's the perception that the more advanced someone is with their training, the more they're going to accomplish in a training session.  In reality, it's pretty much the opposite.  The MORE advanced someone is, the LESS work we actually do....but their effort and focus generally needs to be at 100%.   We still train hard, but we train smart.

To capture what I mean, below are programs from two different training sessions.  The one on the left is more of a "beginner," while the one on the right is more "advanced."

A sample program for a "beginner." Not much rest is needed when you're still learning movements.

A sample program for a "beginner." Not much rest is needed when you're still learning movements.

The program for someone more "advanced." Sumo deadlifts with complete rest, followed by KB Presses with complete rest.

The program for someone more "advanced." Sumo deadlifts with complete rest, followed by KB Presses with complete rest.

Nobody needs 10 exercises each time they go to the gym in order to be working hard.  I'm a big believer in the Pareto principle, where 20% of your efforts are responsible for 80% of your results.  Warm up, get in some quality work, then go home.  Yes, it's really that simple....and your body is going thank you for it.

For example, my usual Saturday (deadlift day, as it's known to Lindsay and I) consists of the following:

  • Warm up (usually breathing and foam rolling)
  • Movement prep (usually a few single leg deadlifts, light core work and some kettlebell swings)
  • Deadlifts (PARTY TIME!!!!!!!!!!!1!!1!1)
  • Cool down (more breathing)
  • Eating a gluttonous amount of vegetables

Overall time for this workout?  Usually 2 hours.  And to tell the truth, I don't think I could handle anything else.

For these reasons, one of my favorite programs of all time is the 40 day Program by Dan John and Pavel.  You pick 5 exercises, do only two sets of each, and come nowhere close to missing a rep.  It's insanely easy, and after 40 workouts, you'll see gains you'd have thought were impossible with such little effort.

Don't go hard when you're in the gym.  Go smart.  After all, it's the silence between the notes that creates the music.