Last updated on December 28th, 2022 at 12:55 pm
Do you really have to kill yourself at the gym with long drawn-out workouts?
I mean, you’ve probably heard of all these great athletes who typically spend 2-4 hours in the gym to hone the perfect physique.
So, is it really possible to build muscle from 30-minute workouts?
30-minute workouts are ideal to build muscle. You should perform compound movements, while aiming to hit each major muscle group twice a week. Keep your intensity high during each workout, and look to train with more frequency, e.g. 5-6 days per week. Working out for too long will see your testosterone levels drop and your cortisol levels increase.
Table of Contents
Doing Something is Better Than Nothing
I don’t know the specific reason that you are looking into 30 minute workouts.
But, at a guess, it’s most likely that you have certain time constraints.
Essentially, you have 30 minutes free time to hit the gym, a few times a week.
In fact, let’s say that you have 5 days a week available to you, but you must restrict those workouts to just 30 minutes.
Okay, now let’s say that for each individual 30-minute workout you just perform one exercise.
And for argument’s sake, I’m going to say that you’re going to perform:
- Bench Press
- Bent-Over Rows
- Overhead Press
So, on Monday you decide that you wish to perform 10 sets in total of squats.
Therefore, you need to determine the weight lifted, the number of reps, as well as your rest periods.
And clearly each set (inclusive of rest) can only last for 3 minutes (so you can fit in 10 sets).
You do the same for deadlifts on Tuesday, for bench press on Wednesday, bent-over rows on Thursday, and overhead press on Friday.
Now, let me throw a slightly sarcastic, yet cheeky, and wholly rhetorical question back at you.
Do you think that you’d build more muscle by doing these 5 x 30-minute workouts a week or by doing absolutely nothing?
We both know the correct answer, don’t we?
So, my first piece of advice is to stop overthinking this.
Just pick the best exercises available to you (typically the big compound movements as above) and make sure you get that 30-minute workout in.
I can guarantee that you’ll build far more muscle this way than sitting on your butt, watching TV, and eating pizza.
Remember Frequency, Intensity & Volume
Funnily enough, this was a topic I covered when discussing whether you should do the Crossfit Murph workout multiple times a week.
Basically, you can look at training in 3 distinct forms, namely frequency, intensity, and volume.
Now, in order to get stronger and build more muscle you could hit all three of these factors very hard.
However, the likelihood is that you’ll end up fatigued, missing workouts, or even injured.
Realistically, the goal of your weekly workouts should be to hit two of these areas hard, while taking it easier on the third.
So looking at 30-minute workouts to build muscle, you could immediately say that your daily volume of exercise will be fairly low.
What I mean is that you’re basically in and out of the gym in 30 minutes flat.
Therefore, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be performing a high-volume workout of say 30 sets.
You simply don’t have the time available to you.
So, this means that you have the opportunity to go hard on the other two factors.
For frequency this should be fairly obvious, but at 30 minutes per workout you can hit the gym 5-6 times per week.
Obviously, this depends on your current levels of strength, fitness, and abilities of recovery.
Next, as you’re keeping volume low, you should be hitting intensity extremely hard too.
So, this could mean that during your 30-minute workout you’re working up to hitting a PR.
Then again, you could also significantly reduce your rest times between sets,
Finally, you could even perform supersets, tri-sets, circuits, or EMOM (every minute on the minute) to really get your heart pumping.
Exercise Selection For Muscle Growth
If you’ve only got 30 minutes to workout each day then you’ll want to hit as many muscle groups as possible.
Plus, there is research which shows that working the major muscle groups twice a week is the ideal way to elicit hypertrophy.
So, going back to the example I used above, it makes a lot of sense to focus on the compound lifts.
Therefore, performing isolation lifts, such as bicep curls, lateral raises, leg extensions, etc. won’t give you as much bang for your buck.
Okay, I know what you’re thinking, it’s the isolation exercises that generally provide that “pump” and make your muscles look swole.
Granted, there is some truth to this, and the ideal way to train would be to hit your compound movements first in your workout, and then finish off with some isolation movements.
This is all well-and-good unless time is of the essence.
So, with limited time available, I would always suggest you perform compound movements.
Realistically, you could create a fantastic muscle-building workout from just a handful of exercises, but as long as they are the RIGHT exercises.
If time is a factor, my personal exercise selection would come from the following:
Of course, you won’t have enough time during the week to perform ALL these exercises.
But, the aim is to perform a select few, do them regularly, and look to progressively overload each exercise.
How I Used Minimal Exercise Selection to Build Muscle
Here’s something for you to potentially try.
Much like yourself, I remember when time was a massive factor for my workouts.
In fact, the only real time I had available was during my lunch hour at work, but I also had to figure in getting to the gym and back, as well as showering.
So, thirty-minute workouts seemed the way forward.
What I did was pick 4 exercises, namely squats, deadlifts, weighted pull ups, weighted dips, and I performed two exercises each day as a superset, and I aimed to get in 6-10 sets.
The number of sets I performed would depend on the weight and the reps I used.
Some days, I would go heavy, and therefore less reps and more rest between sets.
Other days, I would go lighter, so less rest and higher reps.
My preferred method was to superset squats and weighted pull ups and alternate this with a deadlift and weighted dip workout the next day.
I can tell you now that after just 4 weeks of performing this workout 5 times a week I saw some great increases in both strength and muscle mass.
Working Out For Longer Could See You LOSE Muscle
When you workout you typically view how your muscles feel in order to determine whether it was a great workout.
So, if your muscles feel pumped with a slight ache you’ll automatically assume that you’ve had a great workout.
However, there are things that are going on below the surface that could have an impact on muscle growth.
More specifically, I’m taking the production of hormones such as testosterone and cortisol.
Testosterone is generally viewed as the main muscle-building hormone.
But, there is evidence which shows that testosterone hits its peak at around 30 minutes of training.
By the time your workout hits 45 minutes testosterone levels will start to fall.
And your body will stop producing testosterone at around the 60-minute mark.
Now, I will say that your age and your overall levels of fitness will play a role.
As an example, someone in their 20s or 30s will probably be able to push harder and perform longer workouts without having to overly worry about testosterone production.
However, once you hit your 40s, 50s, and above, those longer workouts won’t be doing you as much good.
In fact, there are numerous scientific studies which show that once your body stops producing testosterone during your workout it turns to producing the stress hormone cortisol.
Cortisol will place both mind and the body in a heightened state of stress.
And this cortisol production can actually start to break down muscle tissue and literally eat away at it.
Furthermore, high levels of cortisol are commonly associated with increases in body fat, especially around the midsection.
Essentially, by working out for too long you could get fatter while losing muscle mass.
You’re More Likely to Stick to 30-Minute Workouts
I’ve just spoken about the effects of cortisol on the mind and the body.
And I honestly think your mind plays a huge role in how well you build muscle.
In fact, there is once more much scientific evidence which points to a direct correlation between physical and mental health.
So, performing really long workouts can play tricks with your mind.
How often have you got yourself ready to go to the gym only to be plagued by negative thoughts?
You start thinking about how long your workout is going to take and the potential “pain” you have to go through.
In fact, how many times have you actually talked yourself out of a workout through this spiral of negative thinking?
This usually isn’t the case when it comes to a 30-minute workout.
You know you’re going to get in, do your thing, and then get out.
And you’ll achieve this very quickly without really having to think about it.
So, it is much more likely that you’ll stick to a great workout plan if it doesn’t feel like such a hassle.
Furthermore, once you’ve got into the habit of performing frequent, short, sharp workouts, you’ll start to enjoy your training even more.
The holy grail of working out is definitely wanting to and looking forward to hitting the gym.
- Performing a 30-minute workout will always build more muscle than not working out at all.
- 30-minute workouts will keep your daily volume low, which means you can really push the intensity and frequency of your workouts.
- Focus on the big compound exercises to get the best bang for your buck.
- Change up your workouts and alternate between heavy days with reduced reps and sets and light days with increased reps and sets.
- Avoid isolation exercises as you only have 30 minutes available to train.
- Increase intensity through supersets, tri-sets, circuits, and every minute on the minute training.
- Testosterone levels are at their peak at 30 minutes, whereas cortisol production typically kicks in at the 60-minute mark.
- You’re more likely to stick to quick 30-minute workouts than long drawn out workouts, thus meaning you have the better potential to build muscle.
Hi, I’m Partha, owner and founder of My Bodyweight Exercises. I am a Level 3 Personal Trainer and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist through the Register of Exercise Professionals, United Kingdom. I have been a regular gym-goer since 2000 and coaching clients since 2012. My aim is to help you achieve your body composition goals.