When people start lifting, they usually overdo it. You want muscle fast so you train five, six, or even seven days a week, thinking that the more you do, the faster you’ll see results. But it doesn’t take long before you learn the hard way about the importance of recovery. You’re sore all the time and your progress grinds to a halt, forcing you to scale your workouts back so you only hit a muscle once or twice a week, and this is the frequency most of us then stay with indefinitely.
The thing is though, our impulse to use a higher training frequency isn’t wrong. It’s the way we went about it that was. In fact, you can train the same muscle groups—and train them hard—three, five, or up to seven days a week if you want to. And doing so can bring the best muscle and strength gains of your life.
How many times per week should I lift weights?
Most people weight train according to some kind of body-part split routine. Chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, legs Wednesday, etc. There’s nothing blatantly wrong with this approach, and it’s always been the preferred schedule among bodybuilders. Still, for most genetically-average, drug-free lifters, there’s no clear advantage to it over full-body training.
The majority of research has found that the total amount of work you do for a muscle over the course of a training week matters more than how you do the work. A 2016 study in the International Journal of Exercise Science compared subjects doing a body-part split (chest, shoulders, and triceps one day, back and biceps the next, then legs) to a group that followed full-body workouts. The body-part guys did nine sets per muscle group once per week while the full-body team trained each area three times per week with three sets each—so the total training volume was the same. After eight weeks, the muscle and strength gains the two groups made were roughly equivalent.
But the big take-home here isn’t that your training split doesn’t matter. It’s that you don’t need to crush a muscle with a long, grueling workout to make it grow. If doing three sets, three times per week yields the same gains as bombing a body part one time per week, doesn’t it make more sense to use the minimum effective dose?
It’s a matter of efficiency. If you train your whole body each workout, you don’t need multiple workouts to make sure you cover everything at least once in a week. Total-body training is especially useful if you have a tough schedule that forces you to miss workouts from time to time. If you’re on a body-part split and you miss a day, you could end up going a week or more without training a muscle group, and that can cost you progress. Whereas if you do a little training for your chest Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, for example, missing a day only costs you a few sets off your total volume for the week. And so what? You will have just worked chest two days earlier and you already know you’re going to hit it again the next session.
Full-body training also tends to allow you to train heavier. On a leg day, after you’re done squatting, you may have little left in the tank to do Romanian deadlifts or lunges with intensity. You’re more likely to coast with lighter weights. But in a total-body workout, you’re relatively fresh for each exercise. Heavy squatting won’t do much to impair your pressing, so you can give each muscle group a full stimulus.
While you may be able to lift more weight, at the same time, you won’t get as sore doing total-body workouts as you would if you wailed on one body part or muscle area for a whole workout. This is preferable if you play sports or do other activities that you want to be energized for. Full-body workouts won’t leave you nearly as tender and stiff the next day.
A good middle-ground between body-part training and full-body training is upper-lower splits. They give you a chance to train the same muscles at least twice a week. For instance, you could base your first upper-body day around bench presses and rows, do squats on your lower-body day, and then do shoulder work and chinups in your second upper-body session followed by deadlifts in your second leg day. However,
There are several aspects of training your whole body three or more days per week that can make full-body workouts an even wiser choice.
Benefits of Higher-Frequency Training
You’ll train smarter
When you only work a muscle group or train a lift once a week, there’s a lot of inherent pressure to go as hard as you can. “You know you have one day to set a PR, or at least top your last performance,” says Jason Ferruggia, a strength coach, author, and host of the Renegade Radio podcast (jasonferruggia.com), so you’re liable to go to failure or go heavier than you may be feeling up to. You want to make the most of the workout, so “it’s hard to be mentally OK with backing off or doing fewer reps on days when you really need to.”
But if you know you’re going to train shoulders, for example, two more times that week, it’s easier to be responsible and train within your limits. Full-body workouts also control your volume automatically, reducing your risk of overtraining. You simply won’t have the time or energy to get carried away with bench pressing when you know you have to work back, legs, core, etc. in the same session. You pretty much ensure balanced training as well. If you did three sets for chest, you’ll probably realize that you ought to do three sets for back before you leave the gym—you won’t favor one body part over another anymore.
You’ll get stronger
Increasing the frequency that you train a lift is probably the simplest way to see improvement on it. Each workout feels like a practice session, helping your muscles to memorize good technique. A squat that feels a little wonky in Week 1 will feel smooth and fast within a week or two of regular rehearsals—provided you’re doing it properly. “If your form is bad,” says Ferruggia, “then you’re practicing hurting yourself much more often,” which could be disastrous. “But if that’s the case, you shouldn’t be doing that exercise anyway.” Choose the lifts you want to bring up wisely, making sure they’re ones you can do with maximum proficiency, or at least troubleshoot by yourself.
Repeating a lift almost daily works especially well for mastering high-skill exercises such as those that legendary strongmen like Arthur Saxon and Eugen Sandow made famous. If you want to do a bent press with a barbell or a one-legged (pistol) squat, you’re better off training them multiple times per week. It’s the same as if you wanted to learn to play the piano or make three-point shots in basketball: you’ll get better, faster, practicing several days per week than you would dedicating just one day to it weekly.
Don’t worry too much about recovery. We’ll discuss strategies to ensure you don’t overtrain further down, but training big, compound lifts multiple days (even in a row) isn’t as rough as it may seem. Consider that Jim Williams, a powerlifting legend, bench pressed five days per week and was the first man to put up 675 pounds in competition. Finally, there are these words from Arthur Saxon: “If a man seriously proposes to go in for lifting heavy weights, he should make a point of practicing certain lifts every day. This daily practice is absolutely essential to the achievement of any real success.”
You’ll get in the habit
Some people need to specifically budget time into their schedules to work out or they won’t do it at all. For them, training more often is a good solution. Going to the gym more frequently helps them establish regular exercise as a habit. “It becomes just another part of their day,” says Ferruggia. “It’s like punching the clock at their job,” and can help improve adherence to a training program.
Another habit that every frequent gym-goer will establish is mobility work. More workouts means more warmups and will necessitate more dynamic and static flexibility training to keep your joints and soft tissues healthy. If you usually breeze through this kind of “maintenance” work, high-frequency training will make you do it on the reg, and take it seriously.
How To Do High-Frequency Training
The big question when training more often is how much is too much—“how many days can I train and still recover?” For the sake of safety and avoiding burnout, it’s probably best to stop at five or six, although, as Saxon proved, seven days of lifting can be effective if you have your mind set on it. The amount you do depends on your preference and the time you have, and it will determine how much volume and intensity you put into each session.
Training 3 days per week
Three workouts a week is a common go-to for beginners and those looking to get lean, but works great for muscle gains as well as it provides more exposure to a training stimulus than most are used to. In this case, Ferruggia recommends one of two approaches.
The first is to do two sets per movement pattern. If you’re not sure, movement patterns break down as the following: squatting (including lunge variations), hinging (any deadlift variation), pushing (vertical, as in overhead presses, and horizontal, i.e. bench pressing), and pulling (vertical: chinups, horizontal: rows).
“You could go in and do two sets each of incline dumbbell press, flat bench, chinups, rows, front squats, and RDLs,” says Ferruggia. Two days later, go back and change up the exercises. “Or, if you want to get really good at those exercises, keep them for four weeks. But I would change them after that because your joints will start to take a beating. Variety will keep you healthier.”
How you do the two sets is up to you. The first can be heavy, done for low reps, and the second lighter for higher reps. Or, go light first. Or do them both heavy. Experiment to see what works best for you, but understand that “two sets” means work sets and doesn’t include however many sets you need to warm up and build up to the weights you want to use for a particular lift. For instance, if you’re going to squat 300 pounds, you’ll need sets with loads of around 135, 185, 225, and 275 under your belt beforehand to be properly prepared.
And another thing: “leave two reps in the tank on each set,” says Ferruggia. In other words, stop shy of failure. You’re going to train again in two days, and you want to be fresh for it. Maxing out regularly on a high-frequency program will burn you out and bring on injuries fast.
The second approach is even more basic. You narrow down your exercises to a single push, pull, and leg movement (rotating options each session), and play with the volume. “You can do 5 sets of 6 Monday, then 3 sets of 12 Wednesday, and Friday do 4 sets of 8,” says Ferruggia. The extra sets let you pound each muscle a little more so it feels more like a traditional body-part or upper-lower split—if that’s what you prefer—but limiting yourself to three basic movements keeps the volume under control. Ferruggia often does these exercises as a circuit for a greater fat-burning effect. Of course, you can throw a few sets of a loaded carry like farmer’s walks, or core/delts/biceps/triceps work in at the end if you like.
Training four or more days
You can probably see where this is going. If you’re going to train almost daily, you’ll have to be very conservative with each workout. If that’s not your style because you like to train hard and heavy all the time, so be it, but you can get brutally strong and impressively ripped if you learn to hold back a little more.
Choose three big lifts and limit yourself to two to three sets, staying far away from failure. Treat every set like a practice, working up to a weight that feels moderate. “Just do whatever you can do that day,” says Ferruggia, and realize that some days will be better than others. “If a lift is up 10 pounds, great. If it’s down 20 pounds, that’s fine too. You’re going to have another shot at it later in the week.”
Such frequency is great for bringing up lifts like squats and bench presses. “I wouldn’t want to deadlift every day,” says Ferruggia, “but you could do something like bench, front squat, and chinup with 2 sets of 5 each and see fast gains.”
Be cautious about any isolation lifts you want to use with this approach. Even though you’re avoiding failure like the plague, four-plus days of working the same muscles is taxing, especially on your joints, and even something as innocuous as curls could lead to elbow or shoulder pain. “I wouldn’t do any isolation work for the first three or four weeks,” says Ferruggia. “Then you could slowly add in one set of laterals at end of a workout. The next day, one set of curls or one set of pushdowns. Keep these light; 10–15 reps.”