Why You Should Spread Your Workouts Throughout the Day

By on March 6, 2020

I think a lot of people have at some point wondered whether it’s possible to spread their workouts throughout the day. The “default” way to train it seems is all in one batch. Most of us will have a 3-6 workouts per week, each one lasting for 1-2 hours.

Spread your workoust throughout the day

But fitting those blocks of training into a busy schedule can be difficult. And when you’re low on energy and motivation, convincing yourself to train for over an hour can be even more challenging. Many of us therefore feel intuitively that we might benefit from training more frequently. What if instead of 60 minutes once a day, we trained for 20 minutes three times a day? Or 10 minutes six times a day?

I’ve searched for what happens when you spread your workouts throughout the day and been disappointed with the quality of the answers I’ve received. Mostly, the answers are either speculative (“it should be fine I guess… I don’t know really… who are you?”) or they focus purely on general health and weight loss. The latter arguments focus on studies like the one conducted by the Journal of the American Medical Association that found just 10 minutes of exercise a day was enough to improve the breathing and peak oxygen consumption levels of previously inactive postmenopausal women.

Training frequency

That’s all good and well, but it’s not what I’m asking! What I want to know, is whether spacing out microworkouts can be as effective for performance and gains. Can I build as much strength by spreading my workouts throughout the day? Might there even be advantages?

In lieu of any useful information, I decided I’d examine this question myself: first by drawing on my own knowledge of physiology, and then by actually testing it. And the results have been awesome.

You Can Still Get Gains

The reason many of us might feel a little resistant to the idea of spreading out our workouts, is that we worry 10 or 20 minutes won’t be enough to trigger adaptation. What I’ve found is that this simply isn’t true.

Let’s start with my personal experience: I’ve been doing this for the last couple of months and in that time I have very visibly seen my physique improve. People have asked what I’ve changed on Instagram: this is it.

With the exception of training for steady state cardio, I think that nearly every aspect of strength and performance can be trained well enough with just 10-20 minutes of training. The key is to target intensity, which means:

  • Heavy loads
  • Rapid force production
  • Minimal rest times

For instance, performing 3 x 3 sets of your 1 rep maximum on the bench press is certainly sufficient to trigger adaptation. This takes about 10-15 minutes if you include a warm-up (some foam rolling and a warm up set or two), and 2-minute rest times. You can then do squats later in the day if you like, and you’ll be able to come at those with more energy and enthusiasm than you would have done thanks to the long break!

Likewise, using the tabata protocol with a kettlebell at about 30-50% of your bodyweight is going to be more than sufficient as a means to build ballistic strength, develop your jumping ability, and significantly torch fat.

Running the rack with dumbbells going to failure repeatedly and repeating three times will be more than enough stimulation to encourage muscle growth.

One concern that you may have with dividing up your training, is that it could reduce the anabolic response. It is common knowledge that training more muscle groups in a single workout will result in a bigger spike in testosterone and growth-hormone. Well guess what? Studies show that anabolic hormones produced by lifting do not influence muscle protein synthesis (report). This makes sense: after all, having sex will spike testosterone! Unfortunately, you can’t build massive muscle just by having lots of sex.

Anabolic hormones produced by lifting do not influence muscle protein synthesis

And practicing balancing on your hands for 5 sets of 20 seconds will be enough to grease the groove, build neural pathways, and thereby improve your proprioception and balance

The only type of training I can think that might suffer from working out this way, is steady state cardio. You can emulate many of the benefits of LISS: by using a training mask for instance, or by using HIIT with longer rest times (while your heart rate gradually returns to normal, it will spend some time at around 80-60% MHR, which will be an appropriate stimulus for

The Big Advantages

But training multiple times per day is not just “as good” as training in one big chunk. In fact, it’s actually better in a lot of ways!

For instance, if weight loss is your objective, then using HIIT multiple times throughout the day will mean you’re continuously spiking your metabolism, using up blood sugar, and benefiting from the “afterburn effect.” This describes the period following high-intensity training during which the body burns more calories in a bid to “replenish” depleted stores.

Kettlebell Swings

Moreover, any form of high intensity training leaves you gasping for breath due to excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). During this time, you burn a lot more calories as your body tries to get enough oxygen around the body. Do this multiple times, and your calorie burn will be higher for more of the day!

Studies disagree over how long the afterburn effect lasts, but one published in 2013 used a metabolic chamber to more accurately measure metabolic rate, and found that the most profound effects lasted for around 2-4 hours (study). By using HIIT workouts spread throughout the day, you could thereby multiply this effect for far greater Total Daily Energy Expenditure (TDEE).

The same thing may be true for muscle building. Workouts will increase the build-up of metabolites in the target muscle areas, they will increase bloodflow and the supply of nutrients to those muscles, and they will spike protein synthesis (study). The spike in protein synthesis appears to be shorter for those in the trained state (lasting about 12 hours) and again will naturally trail off. Two workouts spaced 8-12 hours apart targeting the same muscle group could therefore be useful in accelerating muscle growth and strength gains (theoretically).

Skill training

But it’s the skill training that REALLY stands to benefit. That means practicing handstands, planche, punch technique, or golf swings multiple times throughout the day. I’ve talked about this recently: as long as you aren’t training intensely enough to cause significant muscle damage or nervous system fatigue, there’s no reason you can’t repeat something like a handstand multiple times throughout the day. And every time you do, you’ll be strengthening the relevant neural networks and becoming more efficient in that movement. This works BETTER if you space the practice out, versus doing it all in one go. Check out that post here.

How to do it Safely and Effectively

In order for short 10-20 minute workouts to be effective, it is very important that you maintain enough intensity. You need to quickly provide enough stimulus in order to trigger some kind of response, or to reinforce an existing pattern. The aim is to look for the “MED” or “Minimum Effective Dose.”

Training from home

You may be concerned that training this way could lead to over-training and a higher rate of injury. In fact though, I am not recommending you necessarily train any more than you do currently. Rather, I’m suggesting that you should simply spread what you already do throughout the day, and find ways to make each short bout really count. You don’t necessarily need to train the same body part in each workout, or even train the same modality or trait. You could do a quick pec routine in the morning and then do a quick 30 minute threshold run later in the day. Or you might train pecs in the morning, abs in the afternoon, and legs in the evening. Doing this will actually create a lower risk of injury as compared with doing those same things all in one go: because you’ll have a much longer rest period leading up to the next exertion.

The only exception where training frequency could increase injury risk, is when using it to repeat the same movement and grease the groove. This could potentially lead to overuse injuries and other problems if you don’t keep intensity very low. I also advise that you introduce this kind of training frequency gently, rather than suddenly increasing it to large extent.

Sitting for long periods has actually been shown to increase mortality rates

Moving regularly can improve your general health in all kinds of other ways. We know that sitting for long periods causes all kinds of muscle imbalances, poor posture, and weak heart health. Sitting for long periods has actually been shown to increase mortality rates across the board (this study looks at older women, but it’s true for everyone). Exercising frequently around that could prove to be the perfect antidote.

Practically, there are some considerations to keep in mind when spreading workouts throughout the day. For instance: showering. The good news is that if you train for 15 minutes, you will get less sweaty than if you train for 60. Splashing yourself quickly can help though – especially if you’re working out on a lunch break and heading back to an office.

Or just do what I do and work from home! That makes it far easier to spread workouts throughout the day. Yet another great reason to escape the rat race…

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

4 Comments

  1. Lawrence says:

    Thanks for taking the time to write this, very informative and encouraging. I’m never able to fit in specific workouts but 10-20minutes multiple times a day is doable. I’m excited to train more, thanks!

  2. George Gentry says:

    This is interesting. Thank you. I’ve considered this approach but never tried it. I’m old school, full body every other day. I typically on do 3 lifts (Clean & overhead variations, KB Swings, Carries, pull-ups, squat variations, or get-ups) every workout.

    Do you have an example of how you would break this down? My plan is to hit two of the above lifts daily (one morning, one afternoon) and train 6 days a week. My reps will be reasonable and kept very crisp for the most part. Something like 3 x 8, 5 x 5, 8 x 3 on the grinds and 75-100 swings. Carries will be just by feel. I think this will help with CNS recovery and better sleep. I just can’t help worry that a minimum threshold isn’t met with this style.

    But, let’s say I’ve got great form, I’m strong on these lifts and I’ve got a great mind muscle connection. As in, I can really make 5 x 5 KB Clean & Press work in the morning and then 3 x 8 2KB FS in the afternoon. Would I benefit more from a complete day of rest after that or getting at some swings and Carries in the next day? I’m sure it all depends and the only way to figure it out is to try. That’s the part causing me hesitancy.

    Any example of how you made this work would be great. Thanks!

  3. Stephen says:

    I just finished reading your book “Functional Training” – the idea of spreading out my workouts throughout the day was one of my favorite takeaways. I did some more Googling on the topic, and sure enough, this article was the only good source I could find!

    Going to give this a try this week.

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