How Much Time Should Bodybuilders Spend in the Gym?

Q: I’ve read that you believe that trainers shouldn’t spend more than 4-5 hours in a gym per week. Can you explain why? I love the gym. I love going to the gym. I know that the body needs rest but only 4-5 hours a week? I go to the gym 4 or 5 times a week spending about 2hrs in there each time (although a good 1/2hr is devoted to abs). Every 8-10 weeks of training I take a a good 7-10 days off. This cycle has worked well for me for I have yet hit a plateau (20yrs old, training real seriously for 6 months). Do you think I should cut down?

Lyle McDonald: My main reasoning is based on hormonal fluctuations which happen during training. There is supposedly research (although I’ve never been able to find it) that testosterone levels begin to drop after about an hour of training. This is my reasoning for keeping workouts to below that time period. As well, most people can’t maintain a terribly high intensity of training for more than an hour. My current training partner used to do 3 hour back workouts (or was it 30 sets, I can’t recall). By the end of the workout, he was just going through the motions. Now I have him doing 5 maximum about 8 sets for back and he’s growing again (he’s been training 16 years and is near his genetic limits at this point).

As to no more than 4-5 days per week in the gym, it’s also hormonal. There is ample research that daily high intensity training will lower testosterone levels (bad) and raise cortisol levels (also bad). Endurance athletes, who typically train daily for several hours at a time (sound familiar) typically have very depressed hormonal levels. My general guideline is no more than 2 days training in a row without a day off for a natural lifter.

So, how are you making this type of training work? I would say that most of it is because of your age. At 20, you’ve still got high levels of anabolic hormones in your bloodstream (ah, if I only knew then what I know now) so you can get away with this type of training. As well, the fact that you’re bright enough to take 7-10 days off every so often is helping. Research has also shown a ‘rebound’ effect in hormone levels when training is stopped for a week.

However, this doesn’t mean that you can’t streamline your workouts and get even better results than you are now. First, I would ask why you are wasting 30 minutes per workout on abs. Having cut abs has to do with low bodyfat levels and doing crunches for 30′ doesn’t burn a lot of calories.

I trained a female bodybuilder for a show last year and she never did more than 3 minutes (yes, you read that right, three minutes) of abs at any given workout. Ok, maybe 6 minutes. I had her do heavy weighted crunches over a Swiss ball in one workout and reverse crunches in another. Her abs were as cut and defined as the other girls in her class. So there’s 30′ you can eliminate from your workouts.

My general recommendations when I get questions like yours are this: you have nothing to lose by cutting back your training time in the gym. At worst you spend 8-10 weeks making a little less progress than you were making. At best you make better results (what I put my money on). As well, you learn something valuable about how *you* respond to training.

A couple of stories may help illustrate my point.

My current training partner (who I’m coaching for a show in September) has been training for about 16 years. He’s near his genetic limit but he also has very good recovery ability. He has trained up to 7 days per week twice a day every day. And he actually grew for a while on it. Then he cut back to training every day only once a day. I *finally* got him to cut back to training only three days out of every 5 (he trains 2 on/1 off on a rotating schedule through the week) for about an hour at each workout (very basic push/pull/legs split). He started growing again and he’s the heaviest he’s ever been, about 215 at 5’5″ and I would guess 12% bodyfat or so.

One of my clients has only been training for about 2 years. He was training like you are now, 4-6 days per week for up to 2 hours per workout. Had quit growing. I cut him back to about the same level as my partner above (he trains 3 days out of every 5 on a chest/back, legs/abs, delts/arms split, no workout longer than an hour). He is growing quite nicely now and, better yet, he can have a life outside of the gym.

IFBB pro bodybuilder Gunter Schlierkamp

Photo credit: Muscletime

Originally published: MESO-Rx, July 1998

About Lyle McDonald

Lyle McDonald is the author of the Ketogenic Diet as well as the Rapid Fat Loss Handbook and the Guide to Flexible Dieting. He has been interested in all aspects of human performance physiology since becoming involved in competitive sports as a teenager. Pursuing a degree in Physiological Sciences from UCLA, he has devoted nearly 20 years of his life to studying human physiology and the science, art and practice of human performance, muscle gain, fat loss and body recomposition.

  • lylemcdonald is puny

    damn, i guess guys like sergio oliva, serge nubret, arnold schwarzenegger, vic richards, ronnie coleman were clearly ‘not very smart’. all trained for hours, sometimes 4+ hours daily. no wonder they were so tiny…let me guess, you’re a really smart massive ripped marvel like…ahem…lyle mcdonald.

  • begemot