Workout frequency is highly individual. Learn how to find your perfect schedule and avoid over training.
How often you should work out is really a matter of your current fitness level, the types of exercises you are performing, the intensity of your workouts, and how much time you actually have available to spend in the gym.
Current Fitness Level
Your current fitness level is one of the primary factors used to determine workout frequency.
Beginners will typically need more recovery time between workouts than more advanced trainees, bodybuilders or well-conditioned athletes or runners. Nearly everyone has experienced one of those workouts where you “over did” it and couldn’t move for three days. While this can happen at all levels of fitness, it’s more common among beginners who are still gauging their strength, stamina and recovery ability.
The body also makes certain adaptations with training over time that may shorten the required recovery time. So while some people can go heavy in the gym every day, others may need to take a break every-other-day.
As a general rule of thumb, a good training frequency for someone who is new to the gym, or returning after a lengthy break, is three resistance workouts a week lasting between 45 and 60 minutes. This will allow you to work each major muscle group with at least one exercise and give yourself 48 hours for recovery between workouts.
This full-body workout is ideal because it helps build a solid foundation for later, more advanced training; encourages overall core development; discourages the development of muscle imbalances that can accompany “split routines”; and may burn more calories after training.
And by the way, this is actually also an excellent workout for an advanced trainee. The difference is they will work with heavier weights and may do more total sets for each exercise than a person who is less-experienced in the gym.
The Types of Exercises You Are Performing
The types of exercises you are performing as part of your workout also play a critical role in determining workout frequency.
If you are primarily performing cardio, you may be able to get away with working out every day. Cardio is not as taxing on the central nervous system as weight or resistance training is. And because people are, in general, much more sedentary than their bodies are designed to be, risks for overtraining with cardio are much lower than with weight training.
On the other hand, let’s say that your workout is a combination of cardio and weight training. Trying to perform 30-40 minutes of cardio on the same day as your resistance training not only means you’ll be spending a longer amount of time in the gym at one time, but you may also put yourself at risk for injury due to fatigue. You’ll also likely find that you are just too tired to workout with the intensity you want after all of that running.
In those scenarios, it’s best to split your cardio and weight training up into different days. On your non-weight-training days, you can perform the cardio. With this approach, you’ll likely find that your intensity, overall energy, performance, and eventually — progress – is enhanced versus trying to “do it all” in one workout.
But what about giving yourself 48 hours between workouts for recovery? Actually, the key here is to give the muscles involved in the workout 48 hours of recovery before working them again with resistance training. So performing cardio on in-between days shouldn’t hamper recovery. In fact, some people find that it reduces delayed onset muscle soreness and stiffness.
Also, you may see more advanced, well-conditioned trainees and bodybuilders perform weight training every day.
What’s up with that? What about that 48 hour recovery period I was talking about?
It still applies.
Most trainees who perform weight training daily are using what’s called a “split routine.” With a split routine you generally only work two to three muscle groups in a single workout, and the next day train two to three different muscles before repeating. So with a split routine you typically will have at least 48 hours (often more) of recovery time before working that same muscle group.
Intensity is how hard you work during your workout. Intensity applies to both cardio and weight training. In the case of cardio, intensity is usually measured by your current heart rate as a percentage of your maximum heart rate (MHR.) So the higher the intensity of your cardio, the higher your heart rate will be. You can typically impact intensity during cardio by increasing resistance, speed or incline (in the case of treadmills.)
In terms of resistance training, intensity is a measure of the amount of weight used, the percentage of a person’s one rep maximum (the maximum amount of weight you can lift one time) and the perceived effort the person is making. The amount of rest between sets can also influence intensity. Shorter rest periods generally make for high-intensity workouts.
The higher the intensity of your workout — whether it is cardio or resistance training — the more recovery time you’ll need between workouts. In the case of cardio, performing high-intensity wind sprints every day can lead to overtraining and possible injury. However, if you are performing lower-intensity, longer-duration cardio, your recovery requirements are lessened.
The amount of time that you are able to dedicate to working out each week is what will ultimately decide how often you should workout.
Each person’s schedule and non-fitness obligations will determine not only the frequency of your exercise, but even what days or times of the day you can perform that exercise.
For example, let’s say you only have three hours a week to work with, due to family and career obligations. There are a couple of different approaches that you could take. One would be to design three, one-hour workouts that combine 30 minutes of high-intensity cardio with 30 minutes of high-intensity resistance training performed on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Another approach would be to perform 60 minutes of high intensity weight training (full-body) twice a week and 30-45 minutes of cardio on the in-between day. Or, if increasing your cardio performance is your goal, you could flip the workout around and perform two days of cardio and one day of weight training.
In any of these cases, you’ll notice that you the workout frequency and schedule is dictated by what your goals are. If adding muscle is a primary goal, you’ll preference the weight training. If cardiovascular development is more important, you can preference the cardio.
A Few Words on Overtraining
“Overtraining” is a term that you’ll hear thrown around a lot in gyms, by trainers and also in fitness and health magazines. Overtraining is a direct product of working out too frequently without enough recovering time. Overtraining can effect a person of any training level or experience, from beginners to competitive body builders or fitness models.
It’s important to understand that overtraining is not an absolute state. It’s relative to the conditioning of the person and can be impacted by all kinds of factors that have nothing to do with your intensity in the gym — things like stress, how much sleep you are getting, your diet and even specific health conditions you might have.
Your overtraining may be my usual day in the gym. The body adapts over time and the more stronger and more experienced you are in the gym, the harder it is for you to increase your intensity to levels that outpace the body’s ability to recover. So while I might perform 30 sets in a single workout without risk of overtraining, a beginner might experience acute overtraining at 15 total sets.
So how do you know if you are overtraining? There are a number of signs to watch out for:
- Tiredness and fatigue
- Increased resting heart rate
- Increased resting blood pressure
- Decreased performance during exercise
- Slower recovery after exercise
- Weight loss
- Decreased appetite
- Decreased desire to exercise
- Decreased libido or disinterest in sex
- Increased irritability and depression
- Increased incidence of injury
- Increased incidence of infection
If you think you may be chronically overtrained, decrease your workout frequency by 30% for 14 days and see if you experience an improvement.
Determining how often you should workout is a bit science, a bit art and a lot of experimentation. Each individual is different and each person’s ability to recover may vary considerably from another’s, even if their experience level or intensity seems identical.
The best approach to determining the right training frequency is to ease into your workout schedule slowly and take note of the mind-body changes that you experience. The 7th Healthy Habit of Highly Fit People is that they record their progress in notebook or exercise log or program. You should be doing the same, and when you do, make notes about your perceived intensity and whether you were sore the next day. This will help you determine the right workout frequency for you.