How often should you work out is a VERY common question posed by gym newbies as well as being a very hotly debated subject in the fitness industry. In my opinion, there is no one perfect frequency rate. You can’t paint this in black and white like so many people try to do, which I think is where the debate stems from. This is a very gray area!
It all boils down to two main factors that dictate how often you can work out; workload and recovery rate.
What is Your Rate of Recovery?
Before we can really address workout frequency, we really should take a step back and look at recovery rate. How fast we recover has a large influence on our workout frequency. This is one of those annoying occasions where I am going to tell you that we are all different in our own special way. Now before I lose all credibility by leaving it at that, let’s look at some of the factors that go into why recovery rates are different from person to person.
- Chronological Age
- Training Maturity
- Hormone levels
So as you can see there really are quite a few variables that go into your recovery rate. Before you are tempted to blow off the importance of recovery, it is important to remember that those priceless gains we are all after will occur during a period of recovery! Work Load
If you are paying attention, you are probably thinking in your head, “Shouldn’t ‘Workload’ be included as an aspect of recovery rate?” The harder I work, the longer it takes me to recover, right? It certainly does affect recovery rate. Think of ‘Workload’ as the yin to recovery rate’s yang.
The workload is broken down into a couple of key components: volume and intensity. Intensity is simple to define. It all comes down to how much iron is loaded on the bar. Most people will divide volume into two parts: reps and sets. I personally would include muscle groups worked or number of exercises in the makeup of volume as well. Frequency Extremes
This whole topic came up recently during an online conversation with a good friend of mine, who happens to be in the fitness industry. She was describing a leg workout that a personal trainer in her gym regularly puts his clients through that takes two weeks to recover from. It’s not uncommon to hear someone in the gym or fitness industry talk about how hard a workout, class, or program may be, like it is a badge of honor. I am guessing the guy she was referring to is cut from that cloth.
Let’s use common sense here for a second. A leg workout that takes two weeks to recover from?!?!? That is all kinds of wrong! I would be willing to bet I could make the same if not better progress in those two weeks by pulling back on the reins a bit and putting a client through a leg workout that only took 2-3 days to recover from which would allow for 3-4 leg day workouts in the same two week period. Plus, I wouldn’t be turning my client into an invalid for at least a week. If the intensity and volume of that workout is so high that it takes two weeks to recover, it is obvious the trainer in question has absolutely no sense of progression and pushing their client too hard too fast, at the very least.
Keep in mind that when we work out we are applying a load to the human body that it wouldn’t normally experience in a typical day. We are actually breaking down muscle tissue on the microscopic level by overloading it with some form of work or stimulus. If you supply your body with what it needs to repair itself, i.e. time to rest and good nutrition after this stimulation period, then you will see gains; faster, stronger, etc. I am pretty sure if the leg workout was tough enough that your legs need two weeks to bounce back, then you are doing more than just damage to the muscle on the microscopic level. Two weeks = a muscle strain. Keep that up and I am guessing it wouldn’t be long before you will have much worse on your hands, like a full-blown tear. Factor in Goals
Two of the most common goals I am usually approached with from clients are increased mass/strength or weight loss. Programming for these goals varies and one of the main elements of client programming is… you guessed it, workout frequency! Mass/Strength
Most fitness professionals seem to agree that training a muscle group 2-3 times per week is optimal for increasing size and strength. In my personal experience, hitting a muscle group 2 times per week isn’t too hard to do on a consistent basis, but 3 times per week will take good planning and a creative split routine. Three times per week could be a challenge for some, given the hectic pace of life most of us lead. Weight Loss
I have seen the greatest success with weight loss clients when they are working out 5-6 days a week. I try to schedule my weight loss clients so that they work with me at least two times a week, three would be ideal. When they are working out with me, strength training combined with some form of higher intensity cardio is on the docket. The other two to three days would be on their own, doing some sort of steady state/lower intensity cardio session of their choice, which of course will burn extra calories as well as serve the purpose of an active recovery day. Conclusions
I know some of you are sitting on the edge of your seat right now just waiting for me to give you the magic number of days you can workout per week. Sorry to disappoint you, but this is something that you need to figure out on your own. I can’t tell you what your golden number is because I haven’t worked with you and don’t know what factors may be affecting your recovery rate, much less what your goals are. Hopefully, the general guideline above can help you figure out what works best for your body. Tim Clark