TO BUILD MUSCLE, strength, and general fitness, you’ve got to do two things: Train enough and recover enough. Get that balance wrong, and your goals—whether they’re to lift more weight, shed fat, finish a triathlon, or age more comfortably—will remain out of reach.
“If you don’t train frequently enough, you don’t produce repeated stimulation. You don’t take advantage of the increase of strength and size,” says Shawn Arent, Ph.D., C.S.C.S., chair of the Department of Exercise Science at the University of South Carolina. The flip side, he says, is training too hard, too often: Your body builds muscle and strength when you recover from your workouts, not when you do them. Without adequate nutrition and recovery time, your body can’t make those changes.
But there’s an even more important question that can help guide your training frequency, according to Arent: What’s realistic for you? “You might want to work out five days per week. But the real question is: What will you actually do?” he says. “Consistency matters.”
A program you put together for five days, he says, will look very different than the program you plan for three days. But if you only find that you can only manage three sessions of that five-day program due to your schedule, ability, or motivation, you’ll likely get worse outcomes than if you just stuck to a more well-rounded three-day program. Starting with fewer days per week, Arent says, can help you better stick to your overall plan and goals.
That’s just a hypothetical scenario, so the question remains: How many days per week should you work out? There’s no one-size-fits-all answer. Your ideal training frequency will depend on your goals, your schedule, and your ability to recover.
There are, however, some guidelines that you can follow to determine what the ideal frequency will look like for you. Here, Arent and Men’s Health fitness director Ebenezer Samuel, C.S.C.S., dive into the details depending on what you’re striving to accomplish.
How Often You Need to Work Out for Your Fitness Goals
General Health and Fitness
Your Training Frequency: 3 times per week
Sometimes, you’re not gunning for bigger guns or faster times—you just want to look and feel fit for when you’re not in the gym.
If your goal is general health, fitness, and longevity, don’t worry about splitting your workouts into upper and lower body sessions or doing targeting specific muscle groups during your sessions, Samuel says. Keep it simple: Aim for three full-body workouts per week, resting at least one day between workouts.
“You want to spend two-thirds to 75 percent of that time strength training, and the other 25 percent to one-third on heart rate work,” he says. During the cardio time, he suggests incorporating some slow, steady Zone 2 work.
Your Training Frequency: Be active as often as you can (starting 3 days per week)
Guys often launch themselves into losing weight with a gung-ho attitude: They want to go from zero days of exercise to training every day. That’s hard to stick to—and not meeting your self-selected goals can be discouraging, Samuel says.
“The key when you’re trying to lose weight is getting consistent activity—period,” he says. “Do what’s possible for yourself, and that way you’ll repeat it. Try to do a 25-minute session three days per week. Start from there, and try to be more frequent with it.”
Arent suggests trying to be active in some way every day when you’re trying to lose weight—but not feeling like all of those activities need to be hard workouts. “You’re going to have some lighter activity days—like taking a walk—and you’re going to have heavier exercise days,” he says. “That’s fine. Try to be active every day, but don’t feel like you need to exercise every day.”
Samuel agrees: “Start with bite-sized chunks a few times per week,” he advises. “Then you might find that you want to do four, five, six, and seven bite-sized chunks. And that’s the goal: You’re moving every single day of your life.”
Your three to four weekly sessions can be a mix of cardio and strength training, and can include other modalities you enjoy—metcon training, CrossFit workouts, and more. Challenge yourself and be active as often as you can stick to it, and you’ll increase calorie expenditure to help with your weight loss goal.
Beginner Strength Training
Your Training Frequency: 2 to 3 times per week
When you’re new to the gym, you’ll experience strength and muscle gains at a much faster rate than guys who have been training for years. This first year of strength training, just about any amount of training will trigger gains, Arent says: You could train six times per week if your body can handle it, or as few as two.
“If you’re going to do two, spread them out: Do Monday and Thursday, not Monday and Tuesday,” he says. This will help your body recover, and give you time to deal with the other factor newbies face: Soreness. Just as your muscles are more sensitive to strength training in a positive way when you’re starting out, they’re also more prone to delayed onset muscle soreness, or DOMS.
Over time and as your training experience grows, though, you should experience less DOMS. To speed up this process, Arent says, new lifters can step up to three training sessions per week.
“The best prevention against delayed onset muscle soreness is previous exposure to exercise,” he says. Training for three days per week still builds newbie gains, but may help you progress towards the less DOMS-prone state faster.
Your Training Frequency: 3 to 5 days per week
Once you’re out of the newbie phase, “you can still get a lot out of full-body workouts, and you can still get a lot of gains out of three days of training per week,” Samuel says—so long as you’re eating sufficient protein, getting quality sleep, and progressing your workouts so they stay challenging to your muscles.
If you’re going to continue challenging yourself over time to move your focus from general fitness to muscle building, he says, your workouts may start to get longer. If that’s the case, adding a fourth day—and splitting your training sessions into upper body and lower body-focused days—can keep you on track for success.
“When you’re doing full-body workouts three days per week, you might do one pull motion and one push motion in each session,” Samuel says. “But if you split your body into upper- and lower-body sessions, you can do two push motions and two pull motions in each upper body day. And on your lower body days, you can do three or four leg movements instead of one or two. You get more volume, and you can hit each move harder.”
With an upper-lower split, it’s easier to reach these numbers, Samuel says. If you try it out, make sure there’s at least one day of rest after every two sessions. So you might do upper body on Monday, and lower body on Tuesday. Rest on Wednesday, then do upper body again on Thursday, and lower body on Friday.
If you do four weekly sessions with this structure and your workouts begin to stretch, step it up to five days if your schedule allows. In this case, Samuel says, consider a “push, pull, legs” split. Alternate through the three days in order—day one of push, day two of pull, and day three of legs—resting after each cycle.
This type of split will allow more time and effort level for isolation exercises, Samuel says: On your push days, for example, you’ll have energy not just two or three chest motions and a vertical press, but also for a triceps-focused motion like a pushdown.
Your Training: It depends on your workload
If you’re a competitive team sport athlete, a pickup soccer or basketball weekend warrior, or a triathlete training for a big race, the question of how often you should mix in strength training has an annoying answer, says Arent: It depends.
“As time spent in the sport and in practice goes up, the time spent in the weight room is going to have to come down for your overall training load,” says Arent. If you’re a once- or twice-per-week pickup hoops player, you probably don’t need to adjust your training schedule. Without formal practices to deal with, it’s likely you can still do three full-body strength sessions per week and still perform on the court.
For athletes who have structured practices, like South Carolina’s soccer teams that Arent works with, there’s more to consider. Collegiate soccer athletes play two or three matches per week in addition to practice, compared to just a single game for football players. To stay fresh for game days, the soccer players can’t lift as often or as hard.
That doesn’t mean they skip strength training, though, and neither should you: Maintaining and building strength can help enhance performance on the field, or in the case of endurance sports athletes like amateur triathletes and runners, on the race course.
If you’re trying to juggle strength and sports-specific practice, Arent says, try these four strategies:
- Do “snack-sized” lifts before practices: Instead of thinking of strength training sessions as long workouts, break up your weekly sessions into smaller chunks that can be done before practices. So if you’re doing triathlon training sessions five times per week, do a 15-minute strength session before three of those. These “snack-sized” workouts are showing promising results in emerging research, he says.
- Choose exercises that support your sport-specific goals: If you’ve got limited time to lift, make sure every movement is serving your goals, Arent says. So if you want to be more explosive, choose explosive movements that will help you build and maintain muscular power. Translation: Skip the curls.
- Notice if parts of your practice “count” as strength training: If you’re doing plyometric drills in practice, Arent says, that’s great: You’re likely taking care of some of the explosive leg work you’d do in a gym session. Choose moves that you aren’t already covering in practice that support your goals.
- Take an offseason: Arent notes that an offseason from competition lets you flip the scale between practice and strength training, which can result in huge gains when you start back on the race course or court. Take some periods each year where you emphasize three to four strength sessions per week and dial back the sports-specific practice. You could improve your power, endurance, and absolute strength in a huge way that translates back to the sport.
Staying Fit When Life Gets Busy
Your Training Frequency: As many short workouts as you can fit
There’s always more to life than the gym. But sometimes, there’s a lot more, from professional demands to family responsibilities. Fitness can fall by the wayside. This isn’t ideal—you’ll have less energy and vitality to do the things you need to do, and the lack of activity can even impact your mental energy to get them done, Arent says.
The solution, both experts say: Snack-sized workouts. Just as with athletes trying to fit in strength training activity around their practices and other training, short workouts can allow you to maintain some fitness when life gets hairy.
Samuel suggests starting with something really short, like this 7-minute full body session.
“The goal is to make seven minutes every single day,” he says. If you have a day where you can do 15 minutes, great—do two seven-minute sessions, either back to back, or spaced out throughout the day.
If you’d rather stick to your normal lifting routine, consider chopping it in half, Samuel says: Do half as many sets, half as many reps, or half as many exercises. You may not make any new gains, but you won’t lose as much progress, muscle, or fitness. Find a way to keep moving, and you’ll be ready to jump back in the weight room at full blast when everything outside the gym calms down.
Greg Presto is a fitness and sports reporter and videographer in Washington, DC.