When to Do Short vs. Long Workouts to Reach Specific Fitness Goals

It doesn’t matter how fit you are; the debate about short versus long workouts will always be tricky to resolve. Is it better to jump into a short and sharp session, ramping up the HIIT and getting an efficient sweat on? Or should we be blocking out longer periods for marathon training runs or cardio workouts? Or, is there a sweet spot in between the two where your fitness plan should reside?

Asking a handful of experts, it’s clear there is no single answer for everyone. Here’s the lowdown on short versus long workouts and how they stack up for your fitness.

What constitutes a “short” or “long” workout?

“Short workouts typically last between 20 to 30 minutes, focusing on high-intensity exercises to maximize calorie burn and muscle engagement in a shorter timeframe,” says Farren Morgan, military fitness coach and founder of The Tactical Athlete. “Long workouts, on the other hand, extend beyond 45 minutes to an hour or more, allowing for greater volume and endurance-focused training.”

Eloise Skinner, author and London-based fitness instructor, notes that while every individual will have a different perspective depending on their fitness levels and motivations, a helpful timeframe to start a short workout with 15 to 20-minute sessions. “One reference point might be a study which suggested that short exercise bursts could be considered to be around 10 minutes,” says Skinner. “A long workout might be considered to be 60 or 90 minutes (especially for a studio or group class), perhaps longer for distance running or other low-impact training like swimming, or for a mixed gym workout, where cardio is combined with stretching and weights.”

Pros and cons of going short and sharp

“The best thing about short workouts? They’re so efficient,” says Alanna Kate Derrick, personal trainer and senior contributor at Gold BJJ. “If you’re totally out of time, a 20-minute HIIT session or 15 minutes of bodyweight exercises can be a lifesaver. They increase your heart rate, blast through calories, and help your overall fitness. Plus, they help you stay on track even when life’s crazy.”

“Busy professionals, entrepreneurs, or parents with limited time can benefit from short, intense workouts to maintain fitness levels and manage stress,” adds Morgan. “High-intensity interval training (HIIT), circuit training, or quick bodyweight workouts are efficient choices for maximizing results in minimal time.”

Fitting in a short workout isn’t just a timesaver, as shorter, more intense exercise has its own benefits, from boosting your metabolism to burning extra calories. “The pro of shorter workouts is that you have more time to recover in between [sessions], and you minimize the chance of injury,” says trainer and five-time UFC champion Tyron Woodley. “If you are an anaerobic athlete, like me, you want to do exercises in short and sharp bursts, then fast recovery and repeat.”

While shorter workouts are handy and offer a lot of positives, there are certain drawbacks to not taking the time to get a proper sweat on. “[Short workouts] are highly convenient and minimize the risk of burnout. Since these workouts involve high-intensity exercises, they are efficient for muscle engagement and calorie burning,” says Sergii Putsov, head of sports science at Torokhtiy Weightlifting. “However, due to time constraints, they lack variety in muscle groups targeted. There is also an increased risk of injury [during a session] because they are mainly high-intensity exercises. The minimum amount of time available for warm-up and cool-down increases the risk of injury further.”

Pros and cons of a longer workout

The benefits of a long workout somewhat depend on the results you’re aiming for. A long run, for instance, targets different fitness elements than an extended session in the weights room. Regardless, a longer workout gives your body more chance to benefit from a wider range of exercises and enables you to pace yourself. “Long workouts allow for comprehensive training sessions, targeting multiple muscle groups and energy systems,” says Morgan. “They are effective for building endurance, strength, and stamina, making them suitable for individuals pursuing specific fitness milestones or athletic achievements.”

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