What is the most effective training frequency?
One of the oldest and most asked fitness questions is how often should someone be working out. Unfortunately, the answer isn’t as straightforward as a simple prescription that will work for every trainee. Like anything, it all depends on the individual person — their experience or fitness level, their lifestyle and their work ethic.
At a basic level, there are general guidelines to follow when deciding how often to work out. A 2016 study found that major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximise muscle growth.
In addition, a 2019 study also found that training frequency doesn’t matter all that much in terms of muscle gain as long as the volume of work you do is equivalent.
That is, it’s less about training frequency and more about how much you can do within any given workout session. So, if you can fit in the same volume of work in two sessions of 60 minutes as you could do in three sessions of 40 minutes, your results would be the same.
However, that’s not to say that only going to the gym once a week and working out for hours on end would be the best advice either. One benefit of frequent workouts, both cardio and weight training, is that the more often you go to the gym, the more you will get all-around conditioning benefits. Less frequent weights sessions mean you need to make up that cardio or NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis) when you’re not at the gym.
In addition, if your lifestyle means that the only real exercise you can do is when you’re in the gym, you’re better off with more frequency.
With all that in mind, here are some of the factors to take into account when trying to design an effective workout frequency schedule:
One of first things to consider is how much your body can handle. If you’re a beginner just starting out at the gym for a first time in a while (or even ever), working out twice a week I plenty. By the same token, if you’re an experienced trainee with a good base level of fitness, you can probably handle much more frequency, in the three-to-five days a week range. The key is just to make sure you’re giving yourself enough time between workouts to recover.
Your fitness goals are ultimately going to determine the types of workouts you will be doing. This ultimately is going to have an impact on frequency of your sessions. For example, if you’re on a standard bodybuilding or strength training split, where most or all of your workouts are resistance-based, you will want a different program to someone training for a marathon. Similarly, if you’re trying to build cardiovascular endurance, three sessions a week might not be enough.
The best exercise routine is the one you can stick to. There’s no point starting a routine that has you at the gym five days a week if your other commitments (work, family etc.) mean that you can only realistically make it two-to-three times. What’s more important is to focus on what you can commit to, whether that’s five days a week or only two. Especially at the start of a new year, we can get over-excited and try to do too much before quickly burning out. So be smart and decide ahead of time what your lifestyle and commitments can handle — and then stick to it.
Don’t overdo it
Something important to bear in mind is that you need time between workouts to recover. As the old saying goes, you don’t grow in the gym, you grow when you’re resting. No matter what kind of training you do, your routine needs to take into account days off for your body to rest and recover. Even if your body and lifestyle can handle training six or seven days a week, at a certain point, something has to give.
We all have the same 24 hours in a day, it’s just how much time we can devote to training that varies. If you have the luxury of time, you can decide on your training frequency methodically: divide your your fitness goals up into exercise sessions and work out how many days you need to get all those workouts done.
For the rest of us, it’s probably a case of deciding how many days we can train consistently. And then picking workouts that we can do within those two, three or four sessions.
In the end, the best workout routine is the one that you can stick to.
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