How Often Should I Workout? | Fitness Tips

[ 15 ] March 24, 2008 |



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.Picture of Man Working Out with Dumbbells

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.

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Workout Intensity

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.

Your Schedule

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
  • Insomnia
  • 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.

The Takeaway

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.  

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Comments (15)

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  1. Best ways to prevent acne (1 comments) says:

    This is one of the better fitness articles that I have read. Many people I know don’t understand that it’s essential that you let your body rest.

    These are the same guys that usually stick to working out only one or two muscle groups every time they workout.

    I just began using the P90X. It’s a killer. One of the best workouts I’ve ever gotten. Even this program spreads out the workouts for you so you don’t end up working out an un-recovered muscle.

    Anyway, I would leave a longer comment, but I have to get to bed. Great post. Keep it up.

  2. Muskelaufbau Bodybuilding (1 comments) says:

    Very nice workout tipps, congratulation.

    I´m a german mountainbiker who do a lot of fitness training in the Gym during winter time, cause even as a endurance athlete it´s good if you do some kind of musclebuilding for your legs and upper body.

    If you want to have a good progress in your training, enough rest is realy essential. A lot of my buddys are going into the gym every day for a hard bodybuilding workout and are wondering why they come to a point when they don´t make any further gains.
    So Overtraining is a phenomen you should be careful about.
    Sorry for my english.
    Mark

  3. Kevin (6 comments) says:

    Good article. I had a question on recovery time and the type of routine…

    The only time I have to work out is on my lunch break from work M-F. There is a gym 1 min down the road so I get about 40 mins of actual workout time with driving showering ect.. Its not enough time to get the full body routine in, Ive tried. Maybe if there was noone else in the gym so I could superset without delay, but I just cant.  There is always a few exercises left out.

    Please take a look at this workout and let me know if you think it is “overtraining”.  It is 5 days a week, but I try to separate similar groups by 48 hrs.  I shoot for lighter weight and about 3 sets of 15 reps. I superset (if thats the right term) as much as possible, (ie for chest/back days: flat dumbell bench alternating every other set with bent over one arm dumbell row or barbell bench alternating with pull-ups).

    My routine is:
    Monday: Chest and Back
    Tuesday: Legs and Abs
    Wednesday: Shoulders and Arms (bis/tris)
    Thursday: Legs and Abs
    Friday: Chest and Back

    The Leg Days are usually variatuions of squats, leg curls, leg extensions, and variations of calf raises…so I assume pretty isolated from the upper body.  I am not doing power  lifts that use the upper body as well, like snatchs or cleans.

    I get some basic cardio at home a few nights a week, as that is easier to adjust to my schedule. (just jogging or jumpping rope, a good workout but nothing too intense or too taxing).

    I realize it would be better to do full body M,W,F and rest Tues, Thurs, but right now this is what my schedule allows.

    I know overtraing depends on my level of intensity and other personal factors as mentioned above, but assuming I meter that appropriatly, do you think this is a safe schedule??

    Any advise is appreciated. Thanks for the help!

  4. slimona (1 comments) says:

    Hi Matt, great post! :)
    I like to work out based on when my muscles “feel rested”. If today when I pinch my biceps, I feel a sligth soreness from last workout, I do not train it tomorrow. So I wait for the day it feels 100% recovered, then I train it the next day. But this gives me about 4-5 resting days until the same muscle is trained again. What’s your opinion on this, would I benefit from training it a bit sooner? (I’m borderline mesomorph/ectomorph bodytype)

  5. Charles Lloyd (6 comments) says:

    Good tips….again you got some seriouly long articles, I generally tell people between 3 to 5 days, really it just depends on your body. Keep up the good work

  6. Alan (4 comments) says:

    Hey Matt, My name is Alan, I just discovered your site, but I’ve been wondering for your full body workout exercise when you say you let the body rest and recover for 48 hours do you mean like day 1 is the workout then after the next day I workout again? Or Im guessing it is workout, then rest for the next two days and after that workout again.
    For example:
    Monday day 1 : Workout
    Tuesday day 2: Rest
    Wednesday day 3: Workout
    Thursday day 4: Rest
    Friday: Workout

    Or:
    Monday day 1: workout
    Tuesday day 2: Rest
    Wednesday day 3: Rest
    Thursday day 4: workout
    Friday day 5: Rest
    Saturday day 6: Rest
    Sunday day 7: workout

    Thanks and I appreciate your feedback and response.

  7. SuSu (1 comments) says:

    I enjoyed reading the article so much.I’m an athlete(I also used to do ballet for almost 10 years).Now I only exercise in the gym.I always wondered if I’m over training or pushing myself too hard.I attend aerobics classes 3-4 times a week, a spinning class once a week and a body sculpting one once a week.Can anyone tell me if this is too much or what(you see the whole recovery period/over exercise thing here is confusing me)
    Thanks in advance

  8. Wayne Lord (1 comments) says:

    Hi, thanks very much for the infomation I found it very useful.
    I am a 50 yr old male with beer belly not willing to give up beer but trying to get back into body building. I have been walking morning and night with some  light weights thrown in. Not sure if its working but I am feeling great. Good luck all!

  9. christy (1 comments) says:

    i am not trying to lose weight anymore but i am trying to at least maitain.  I work out 4 to 5 times a week.  60 minuted kickbox cardio or rowing machine for 60 minutes.  I also do surges for about 30 minutes but it is very high intensity.  Am  I overtraining?  I have been doing this about two years and i have always looked foward to my workouts but now i am starting to dread them.  I feel tired and sluggish. I want to still work out because i like the size i am and do not want to gain my weight back. How many times a week should i work out to just maintain my weight and stay fit and healthy and still enjoy my workout time?  Also i was running 5 miles 4 to 5 times a week but i messed my knee up that is why i bought a rowing machine.

  10. mmadiettips (1 comments) says:

    If i did wrong, Please Correct me.
    My workout Routine is:
    Mon: Back,Bis,Bicyle Abs, leg raise
    tue:Bicycle abs, V abs, Plank ,Cycling(cardio)
    Wed:Chest, Tricep, Leg raise, Bic abs
    Thur:same as tue
    Friday:Shoulder, bic abs, leg raise
    sat:rest
    sun: Chocolate and candy time :) )

  11. raptor (1 comments) says:

    i am a beginner….&  I have been working out since a month ????????

    I am working out daily , Chest , Shoulders, wings, back, Biceps ,Forceps.

    Is it OK ….or should I change my schedule

  12. personal trainer nj (1 comments) says:

    I think time of workout is depends on our goal and our capacity. I usually do workout for 2 hours, which include half an hour cardio but if you want be a professional bodybuilder then it is not sufficient. Although you can keep yourself fit by doing one hour workout daily but you have to give 4 to 5 hours to be a professional bodybuilder.

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