Want to know how often you should exercise to lose fat and build muscle? Our expert guide to training frequency tells you what you need to know
How often you train, otherwise known as training frequency, is one of the key exercise variables that will have a significant impact on your results. Selecting the right volume of workouts per week depends on a few factors, such as your experience, your goals and your schedule.
To help you choose the ideal number for you and your goals we’ve answered some key questions and identified everything you need to know about different training frequencies.
What’s the minimum number of gym sessions you need to do each week?
There are two ways of looking at this. The optimistic one is to say that anything is better than nothing. Doing one session a week will be better for your health than not doing anything. And that one session could be a stepping stone towards two or three sessions a week. But, being realistic, you’re going to need to train more frequently than that if you want to see significant changes.
Is more always better?
Not necessarily. The rule of thumb is that you can do as many sessions as you can recover from, because it is during the post-session recovery process that your body repairs, re-grows and adapts to become bigger, leaner and stronger. If you don’t let that process take its course you may not realise the full benefits of the sessions you’ve done. The big signs that you’re under-recovering and training too often are constant fatigue and a drop in performance.
What else should I think about?
What’s good in theory and what’s good in real life aren’t always the same thing. If you have a demanding and stressful job, a busy family life and a full social life, you may struggle to do five or six sessions a week. So think about what you can sustain over time. You’ll probably never feel like you have lots of spare time to train, so you will have to go out of your way to make the sessions happen but you need to be realistic about what your lifestyle will allow.
Key training frequencies
Here’s what you need to know about different weekly training frequencies
One gym session a week
How much can you do with one session a week? Not a lot, basically. Yes it is better than sitting on the sofa and not doing anything but that’s about the only thing a solo session has going for it.
Two gym sessions a week
This is probably the absolute minimum that you could do and still make a difference to your health and fitness. If you’re only doing two sessions a week you’d want them to be substantial (at least 40 minutes) and it would make sense for them to be full-body workouts. If you ate well and did two high quality sessions a week, you could lose body fat but you’d be unlikely to add muscle and you’d only make modest strength gains.
Three gym sessions a week
Now we’re getting interesting. Three sessions a week is the minimum number that doesn’t come with a ‘but…’ attached it it. It’s not necessarily ideal or optimal but there’s no doubt that you can do a lot in three workouts a week. It’s maybe best for periods where maintenance is your goal. You could also use it for particularly busy periods of your life. If you usually do four sessions a week, dropping down to three is infinitely more preferable than dropping out altogether. A sensible workout selection would either be three full-body workouts for fat loss or maybe one full body, one upper body and one lower body session. Or one full body, one push session and one pull session. And make sure that the bulk of your exercises are compound (multi-joint) moves rather than isolation (single-joint) ones because they give you more bang for your training buck.
Four gym sessions a week
For a lot of people, this is going to be the ideal number. There’s a good reason that the vast majority of New Body Plan training plans are four days a week routines. It’s the perfect balance between giving you enough volume to achieve any training aim while being a manageable number of sessions to accommodate within your schedule. Four sessions a week is also a versatile number from a training split point of view. You could alternate between upper and lower body sessions or between push and pull workouts. You can also pair muscle groups, such as doing chest and back or chest and triceps. If strength gains are your goal, you could structure each session around the ‘big four’ moves of the squat, deadlift, bench press and shoulder press.
Five gym sessions a week
Adding a fifth session will allow you to move your training into bodybuilding split territory, by basing each session around one major muscle group. You could do chest, back, legs, shoulders and arms, for example. Another good way of adding a fifth session, if fat loss is your goal, is to do the workouts from a four day a week plan and then add in a high-intensity interval training session, which is designed to burn lots of calories in a short space of time. You just need to make sure that adding the extra workout doesn’t put extra stress on you from a time demand point of view and undermine your flow. After all, missed sessions can be demoralising and can crush your momentum.
Six gym sessions a week
This is really only for people who are experienced and absolutely committed to training. There’s no need for the average guy to train six times a week. And, in fact, it could even be counter productive if you’re struggling to recover. It’s likely that you’ll start your sessions feeling tired and, if that’s the case, you’re better off doing four excellent sessions than five or six average ones.
Seven gym sessions a week
This means no rest days, and that’s probably a bad thing. If you don’t give your body enough time to recover you won’t be able to train hard and you’re also more likely to get injured. That could mean your seven sessions a week could turn into no sessions a week, and that’s not going to do much for your progress. Unless you’re an elite athlete whose entire life is devoted to training and recovery, this isn’t a good option.
Two gym sessions a day
This one is slightly different, in that it involves doing more than one workout on the same day, but not necessarily every day. So, for example you could train five or six days a week and do double sessions (one in the. Morning and one in the afternoon) on two or three of those days. This is a tactic that’s generally favoured by bodybuilders who are fortified with substances that the authorities don’t look too kindly on. So, again, if you’re an average guy looking to get back into shape, this isn’t the option for you. The only exceptions might be where you’re struggling for time to train and you only have 30 minutes in the morning. In that case, you could maybe do a chest and back or a legs and shoulders session in the morning and then maybe a short session in the afternoon that might involve some arms or abs exercises and some cardio work such as a stationery bike sprint.
How to select the right training frequency for you
The simple way of doing this is to match your goals with the effects described above. If you’re happy where you are and you just want to tick over without too much of a time demand, do three sessions a week. If you’re a busy guy who wants to make a big difference in as short a time as possible, go for four days a week. The latter option would be our default starting point and you can either dial things up or down from there, depending on how you get on.