If you don’t know how often you should work out to gain muscle and strength, lose fat, and get healthy, then you want to read this article.
Like most things health and fitness, a simple question like “how often should I work out?” can lead you down a long, winding rabbit hole.
Should you be in the gym 6 or 7 days per week, like many of the bodybuilding magazines recommend?
Are the catchpenny “fitness gurus” and YouTube hucksters onto something with a minimalist approach of just one to two workouts per week?
Or is there simply no one-size-fits-all answer to this question because of various factors ranging from goals to genetics, training history, and more?
Well, you’re going to find out in this article, and here’s the long story short.
If you’re looking to gain muscle and strength as quickly as possible, how often you work out is important, but not as much as other factors like exercise choice, intensity (how much weight you lift in terms of percentage of one-rep max), and volume (how many reps you do).
The bottom line is three well-designed workouts per week can be more effective in terms of muscle building than six poorly designed ones…but six well-designed workouts per week is going to beat three.
And if you’re looking to lose fat (and not muscle) as quickly as possible, then the more exercise you can do, the better, and especially resistance training.
Let’s find out why…
Before we dive into the specifics on how training frequency affects muscle building, let’s brush up on the fundamentals of muscle growth.
This refers to increasing tension levels in the muscle fibers over time, and the most effective way to do it is progressively increasing the amount of weight that you’re lifting.
In other words, if you’re not gradually adding weight to the bar over time, you’re missing out on most of what progressive overload has to offer.
Another driver of muscle growth is muscle damage, which refers to just that: the physical damage caused to muscle fibers by high levels of tension.
This damage must be repaired, of course, and if you eat right and give your body sufficient rest, then the damaged fibers can become bigger and stronger to better deal with future training bouts (tension).
A third factor is metabolic stress, which refers to working muscle fibers to their metabolic limits through the repetition of actions to muscular failure.
You can think of these as muscle growth “pathways,” and they can be emphasized or de-emphasized or lessened by how you train.
For example, heavy weightlifting emphasizes progressive tension overload and muscle damage. Working with lighter weights and higher rep ranges, however, emphasizes metabolic stress (and especially when the rest times in between sets are relatively short).
Now, if your body had superhuman recovery capabilities and you could never feel the drag of overtraining, then gaining muscle and strength would simply be a matter of working harder and harder in the gym.
Unfortunately, though, you’re probably a mere mortal like the rest of us, which means that your body can only take so much abuse before needing a break. That applies to individual workouts as well as entire workout routines.
In other words, you can only do so much in one workout and train so many times per week before it becomes counterproductive, and you can only go for so long without needing to deload or rest outright to prevent the wheels from falling off.
Now, how does training frequency fit into this picture?
Well, if you train too frequently and intensely, your body will fall behind in recovery and fail to adapt as desired. Similarly, if you train too infrequently, you’ll miss out on potential growth.
The idea, then, is to train every major muscle group as often and vigorously as it takes to keep your body’s muscle building-machinery humming along effectively and efficiently.
There aren’t any studies that give a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer as to how hard and how much you can train to maximize your results, and there may never be.
That said, there is enough clinical and anecdotal evidence available to derive some sensible guidelines.
Let’s first look at a large and extensive review of weightlifting studies conducted by scientists at Goteborg University.
Their research found that, when using weights in the range of 60 to 85% of one-rep max, optimal volume appears to be in the range of 30 to 60 reps per major muscle group per workout when 2 to 3 workouts were performed each week.
Thus, a total weekly volume of somewhere between 60 and 180 reps per major muscle group.
As you can guess, the heavier the training, the fewer reps you can and should do every week.
If you were training exclusively in the 80 to 85% of 1RM range, like you do on my Bigger Leaner Stronger program, you’d want to be around 60 to 80 total reps per major muscle group per week.
If you were doing a low-weight, high-volume type of program, however, you’d want your weekly volume for each major muscle group to be closer to 180 reps.
And if you were doing something in between, like with my Thinner Leaner Stronger program for women, your total weekly reps would be somewhere in between as well.
These findings also agree with another large review conducted by researchers at Arizona State University.
When lighter weights are used, more sets per week is optimal. As the weights get heavier, however, total sets must come down.
So, the key takeaway is this:
When it comes to building muscle, how often you train muscle groups isn’t as important as intensity and total volume.
Now, if you want to know how to turn all of that KNAWLEDGE into an effective workout routine, check out this article.
If you want to reduce your body fat percentage, then you need to consume less energy than you expend.
This is in accordance with the principles of energy balance and is, at this point, an irrefutable fact.
You can create that deficit by doing two things:
- Eating less.
- Moving more.
It’s easier to just cut calories than exercise, so many people choose to crash diet to get weight off. This works, of course, but it comes at a price: muscle loss.
If you restrict your calories too heavily and don’t train your muscles, a fair amount of the weight that you lose is going to come from muscle, which is, ultimately, what creates the dreaded “skinny fat” look.
You can prevent this, though, and not just lose weight but improve your body composition (big difference!), by focusing on moderate caloric restriction and high-protein intake on the diet side of things, and heavy resistance training instead of cardio on the exercise side.
This is why I highly recommend that everyone looking to lose fat incorporate heavy strength training into their regimen if at all possible and go easy on the cardio. This inevitably leads to the best results.
That said, there is a caveat: when in a caloric deficit, your body’s ability to recover from workouts is impaired.
This means that you can’t push it as hard as you can when your energy intake more or less matches or exceeds your expenditure, or you’ll run into problems associated with overtraining.
That’s why I recommend the following:
Don’t do more than 4 to 5 hours of weightlifting and 1 to 2 hours of cardio per week when cutting.
Furthermore, I recommend that you take at least one day per week where you do no exercise whatsoever, which gives your body extra time to catch up with recovery.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there on how often you should exercise and why.
The “hardcore” crowd generally think more is always better and agitate for hitting the gym 6 or even 7 days per week and long, grueling workouts.
Well, when you take an objective look at the scientific and anecdotal evidence of strength and muscle building, it becomes clear that you probably shouldn’t train as often as the most “dedicated” bodybuilders or as infrequently as the extreme minimalists.
Instead, you should probably be doing 3 to 5 weightlifting workouts per week that focus on heavy, compound lifts and hit every major muscle group with a moderate amount of volume, and just as much cardio as you need to achieve your goals and not more.
If you just follow that basic approach to your fitness, you’ll quickly pull ahead of most everyone else in your gym and have no trouble getting bigger, leaner, and stronger.