In the gym world, everyone has an opinion and their own way of doing things. One person you talk to might have a completely different strategy than the next, and that’s okay. So naturally, the same goes for the big questions, like, how often should you train?
A little disclaimer here: this will be a lot like some of our other articles in that the main takeaway is always: it depends on your goals. Determining what you want to achieve from your workouts is half the battle. There are different training frequencies recommended for different goals – building muscle, building strength or losing fat. Depending who you ask, the answer to this question will range from one extreme to the other, but the real answer is dependent on loads of variables and like most things, the most balanced answer is the right one.
The body is resilient. It will adapt to any level of stress its put through if it’s consistent enough. That’s why elite athletes can train every day, twice a day and still recover properly. It’s the body’s ability to adapt. It would be a huge mistake however, to walk into the gym and assume you can train as often and as hard as a professional athlete. They have worked long and hard to get to where they are, and it’s not without serious dedication and full commitment to their training.
A professional athlete will be completely focused on their training, and often won’t have too many other external factors affecting them outside the gym. As we detailed ages ago in our Parasympathetic Nervous System article, full and proper recovery outside the gym is the much needed yin to the sweaty, breathless yang we get inside the gym. There are two components to training: stressing the central nervous system in a way that achieves a change (bigger muscle, less fat, more strength), and then, the optimum recovery from that stress. As we mentioned in that article, there are numerous other things that can affect our recovery time; including uncontrollable things like our age and hormonal status, and slightly more controllable things like our diet, sleep quality, family stress, money stress, work stress etc. The reason elite athletes can train 2x a day, 6-7 days a week is because generally they organize their lives so that they have little to no external factors stressing them out during important training periods.
There are a few different options when it comes to training frequency, and they all boil down to your specific goals. If you want to build muscle and put on mass, some experts say it’s actually better to train less frequently, around 3 times per week seems to be the optimum. If you have more time and you want to build mass, doing 4+ sessions a week can work, as long as you’re resting properly in between and doing a varied training split that works for you. In professional weight lifter Dan John’s book Mass Made Simple, he suggests training heavy 1 day, take 2 days off, and train heavy again, ultimately training hard 3 times a week and resting for the rest of the time. This can be a very effective way to do things, as long as you really hit it hard in those 3 sessions. Another good rule of thumb, is that if you train heavy 2-3 times per week, do total body sessions. If you’re training 3-4 times a week, split it into upper/lower splits. So, if building size is your goal, you’ll be better off training 2 to 3 times per week and allowing that sweet recovery to settle in and rebuild those muscles.
To build strength, most experts seem to agree that 3-4 sessions per week is the sweet spot. Doing 4 days a week of a good upper/lower body split is a good place to start. If you’re working towards building strength and your schedule only permits 3 workouts per week, you might benefit from making those sessions total body ones instead of splitting them up. But if your schedule permits, most experts agree it’s almost always a better option to split up the days.
However, there are some benefits to total body workouts. First of all: the time thing. Most of us don’t have time to hit the gym 4+ days a week, so it makes sense to work the whole body in the sessions we do get in. This can also allow you to train heavier; you’ll have more energy for each of the exercises, rather than totally wearing yourself out on leg day with squats and then trying to achieve a PB in deadlifts right after. If you do your best squat, followed by your best pull, followed by your best push, you’ll be a bit fresher for each than you would be for your last leg exercise on leg day. Again, it all comes down to what is getting you results; everyone is different. If upper/lower splits 4 times per week works for you, do that! If total body workouts 3 times per week are working, then that’s cool too.
For losing fat, you want to lose as many calories as possible, so training more often will naturally get faster results. Optimum results will come from 4-6 times per week of strength training and high intensity cardio, and doing active recovery exercises like low intensity, longer duration cardio on days off. The most effective way to lose fat is to be in calorie deficit; burning more than you consume. Experts say optimum frequency for fat loss is a minimum of 3 times per week, with best results coming in from 4-6 times per week.
It might be against traditional ‘bro wisdom’, but for strength and size gains, it’s best to do as little as you can to achieve the results you want. Recovery is that important. Make the most out of the workouts you do, and then make the most out of recovering from them. Many weight lifting experts agree that it’s better to undertrain, than overtrain. Overtraining not only leads to injury, but when you’re working your ass off all day every day and not seeing results, it can lead to frustration and discouragement; the last two things you want to be feeling when you walk into the gym. You should be feeling pumped and motivated, not frustrated and discouraged. If you don’t allow your muscles the time to rebuild and repair, you’ll only end up spending more time sedentary on the couch, miserable, later on.
So the main takeaways here:
1. Your goals will determine your answer. For building size, try 2-3 heavy sessions per week with ample recovery time. For building strength, 3-4 sessions per week can do the trick; high frequency sessions with proper recovery pays off for obvious reasons, consistency with anything works wonders. For fat loss, get in as many sessions as possible really, with active recovery days.
2. Recover, recover, recover! The most important thing for longevity and maintenance of a healthy, balanced, results-oriented gym life is pushing yourself to your limits, and then allowing yourself to recover properly. Chill out in between workouts; sit back and let the damage inflicted to your muscles regenerate and rebuild stronger than ever.
3. Switch it up. Variety is the spice of life, after all.