Troubleshooting Progress: When Your Workouts Take Too Long

Many lifters believe that this is an “either/or” decision, that you will either have to commit to two-hour workout sessions or sacrifice your strength training. It’s not. By planning ahead, learning how to make minimum effective dose changes, and opening up to the possibility of a four-day split, you can keep your workout times manageable and continue to make progress.

They say he give them but two words. “More weight,” he says. And died…

—Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953)

Troubleshooting Progress: When Training Takes too Long

Training does not happen on paper. On paper, you write out your training program and track your PRs (personal records). You calculate the tonnage of your work sets. And, on paper, you will make small adjustments to gradually increase your PRs and tonnage over time. We prefer Minimum Effective Dose programming for constant and prolonged progress, for novice lifters and through the advanced stages of training.

If you are unfamiliar with MED Programming, start here.

On paper, adding stress to your training, either by increasing the weight on the bar or adding tonnage, is little more than basic math. In practice, however, each lifter comes with their own training history, equipment, and limitations that will affect how they can make progress. One important factor that is often forgotten about until it is too late is time. If you are always adding more to your training, you will, eventually, run into a temporal ceiling in which your workouts are too long and you have started to plateau.

Factors like training time separate the theory of training from practice, as your on-paper plan takes a backseat to the realities of only having 24 hours in a day. As coaches, we cannot limit our considerations to the traditional training variables—lifts, weight, sets, and reps. We also have to consider economy and the efficient use of our client’s time.

Why is Time a Problem?

A basic, full-body lifting session will usually include three barbell lifts and somewhere between nine and twelve work sets. The lifter intersperses work sets with rest intervals—the time between sets that allow your heart rate to come down and your muscles to recover. Rest intervals allow you to repeat hard efforts and accumulate fatigue. They should, therefore, be long enough to allow you to complete all your reps, but no so long that you fully recover from the previous set.

Brand new novice lifters will start with rest intervals of two to three minutes between work sets, bringing a basic novice linear progression workout in under one hour from shoes on to plates re-racked.

That is just a starting place, however. The point of training is to continually add stress to your workouts so that your body adapts to more work by getting stronger. More work usually means heavier sets and longer rest intervals. Eventually, you as a lifter will face a choice, rest longer between sets and complete your workout as written, or keep your training session within your allotted training time. Many lifters believe that this is an “either/or” decision, that you will either have to commit to two-hour workout sessions or sacrifice your strength training. It is not. By planning ahead, learning how to make Minimum Effective Dose changes, and opening up to the possibility of a four-day split, you can keep your workout times manageable and continue to make progress.

Set a Timer and Be Efficient

Training takes time. The goal is not to find ways to spend less time in the gym. The goal is to match the value and the resources you can commit to training with your on-paper program so that you are not constantly feeling the pressure to go beyond your available time or constantly feeling like you are failing if your program calls for more work than you can fit into a training session.

If you are not yet feeling strained to fit your workouts into your day, now is the perfect time to start establishing some basic finite limits to your training program. First, create some pressure by setting a timer for the maximum amount of time you can spend training. This may be an hour, 75 minutes, or 90 minutes. It doesn’t really matter. Even if your workouts come in well below your training limit, the added time pressure will force some pieces of your training into the organization, and the running clock will keep help you focus and stay efficient with your time.

With a set limit on your training days, start to measure your rest intervals. When you rest three minutes between squat work sets, how long does your workout take? How about five minutes? How about ten? At what point do you have to suck it up and go for the next set even if you don’t feel ready for it?

Setting a limit should not be arbitrary or permanent, but learning how much work you can fit into a definable training session is important as you become more advanced and need to figure out ways to add stress and keep the PRs coming.

Don’t overcomplicate your warmups. Start with the empty bar. Add some weight. Add a little more weight (and try to make about the same increase in weight from the previous warmup). Add a little more weight again. Shoot for five to six warmup sets. Then, you are ready for your work sets.


Sink, Swim, or Make a Change

If you limit your workout time, you will eventually come to the place where you feel like you either have to extend your rest intervals or fail your workout. Changes to training are warranted when you can no longer complete your prescribed workout. If you instead decide to continually make your workouts longer. You will prevent or delay the need to make changes to your programming. However, you may also run into a problem down the road.

Eventually, workouts must become shorter once again. Very few lifters who have jobs, families, and a life outside of training or sports can commit to two-hour training sessions forever. If you put yourself in a position of going from long, knock-down, drag-out training sessions to short, manageable ones, often you will have to cut out a significant amount of stress from each workout, or the weight on the bar will have to come down so much as to potentially cause a setback in training. It is much better to make steady progress within your known time constraints that break those constraints and have a setback later.

Stick to Your Schedule by Organizing Your Training

Working within a three-day full-body program with time constraints can be tricky. The most common intermediate form of this type of program is a Heavy, Light, Medium (HLM) program. Take the basic HLM program below as an example:


Heavy, Light, Medium is a common-sense framework for training for intermediate level lifters. It works well as a transition from novice programming and organizes training to vary the stress throughout the week. There is a heavy (or “high stress”) day, a light (low stress) day, and a medium day. For more on HLM training, start here:


This is an effective way to train. It puts a big dose of volume at the beginning of the week, allows for some dissipation of fatigue throughout the week, then ends with another significant dose of volume to finish the week out. The problem for a time-stressed lifter is that Monday is a long workout, and the work throughout the week is unevenly distributed.

Once you start paying attention to your training time and rest intervals, you will develop a sense of the total number of work sets you can fit within a workout. Most people will come in at seven to nine work sets for a 75-minute training session.

Even with short rest intervals, high volume squats will take up more than half or a workout. It is a good idea to mix and match the heavy light and medium days to even out your workout length throughout the week. High volume squats on Monday, followed by presses, and a light pull or a top set for deadlifts; light squats on Wednesday, followed by high volume bench press day, and your medium stress pull; Friday is medium stress squats, bench press supplemental (mid volume) and volume pulling. Here, where the work sets exceed nine total sets, the lifts should be light enough to allow for decreased rest intervals and an overall manageable workout.

If you allow yourself to mix and match the different volume loads during the week, you can spread your training time out a little more evenly.

The Best Fix for Time Constraints

Three-day, full-body training sessions are like big, oddly shaped chunks that you are trying to stuff into your weekly schedule. Cutting those chunks down into pieces that you can put back-to-back and that will fit into smaller blocks of time will, for most people, make them much easier to manage. Split workouts are smaller, sleeker, and tend to fit schedules much more neatly. The split workout trains one portion of the body per training session. The most common form is the “Upper/Lower Split,” meaning that each training session is either for the upper body or the lower body. Squats and deadlifts will make up most of your lower-body days, and the overhead press and bench press will fill most of the upper body ones.

Where a heavy, full-body training session requires a full day of rest before and after it, split workouts can be placed back-to-back, allowing four training sessions per week instead of three.

For the practical approach to programming, the 4-day split offers many more options. We will not go into all the options here, but you can learn more about the four-day split in the following places:

Four-Day Split Programming & MED Principles

Podcast Episode #269: The MED Masterclass #3—Freedom & The Four-Day Split

Note the relatively short workouts in the following training sessions:

In this basic, format even the fatiguing lower-body days are relatively short, allowing for future additions of volume through. Shifting from a three-day training program to a four-day split is one of the few ways to decrease your training time per workout while allowing you to increase the stress of your training as appropriate for continued progress. This change gives you more options.

So, plan your training according to your limitations and consider switching to the four-day split if you haven’t already. And for more programming advice check out the sources below:

Don’t forget that if you are trying to shift through this information and troubleshoot on your one. We have a free consultation service that can help you with your programming and lifting needs. Contact, and one of our coaches will be happy to help you manage your workouts better for whatever training constraints you may have.




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