The term “workout frequency” refers to the number of resistance training sessions performed in a weekly period.

One of the first things beginners ask is

“how often do I need to be in the gym?”

The answer is variant among weight trainees, with some people opting for a high workout frequency of 6-7 times per week and others preferring a more moderate 2-4 times per week frequency.

Workout frequency is an area that depends highly on the experience level of the trainee. Experienced lifters may need to accommodate more time and effort in order to progress, as improvements are harder to obtain as time goes on. For beginners, a lower frequency of training is ideal as muscular adaptations are in a significantly heightened stage and therefore one can achieve the stimulus needed to maximally progress with only a ~3x per week frequency.

It is no coincidence that the most proven, scientifically backed beginner workout programs such as Starting Strength and StrongLifts also use a 3x per week frequency. A low to moderate frequency also allows individuals to recover optimally from session to session, due to the adequate rest time, and therefore progress at an increased rate.

dumbells weights

It is also important to note that muscle protein synthesis is increased from 50-150% for 36-48 hours after weight training before returning to baseline levels [1][2]. This evidence fits in with the mentality of training every 48 hours (~3-4 times/week), as it allows you to maintain a constant state of high protein synthesis levels to maximise muscle growth. However, it is common among beginners to have the mindset of “more is better” and feel the need to live in the gym. This is largely counterintuitive.

There is a finite limit for the rate of progression

Exceeding this limit does not warrant additional strength or hypertrophy (muscle growth). A study showed that 10 bodybuilders who trained 4 times per week yielded the same increase in strength and hypertrophy compared to training 6 times per week, provided training volume was identical [3].

An amazing quote by Lee Haney which still holds immense value is

“stimulate don’t annihilate”

Reaching the greatest possible stimulus needed to gain muscle and strength, whilst maintaining a high level of recovery before you start your next session should be the goal of all beginner trainees. It is nonsensical to be hammering your body every day when research shows a 3x per week frequency is just as effective [4]. The likely outcome is that you will quickly hit a wall to where your nervous system won’t be able to adapt to the stimulus you are constantly inducing, and inevitably progression will halt and may even decline in some circumstances.

The “law of diminishing returns” fits this scenario perfectly, stating

“the level of benefits gained is less than the amount of energy invested”.

dont be the same be better

This is one of the reasons why 43.7% of gym members fail to attend the gym just once per week on average after 6 months from signup [5].

Overkill is a real phenomenon.

Smart training will always be superior in the long-term compared to the typical hardcore style where people won’t leave the gym until they throw up. Everyone wants overnight results, but this mentality is more harmful than helpful in many cases. You should only increase your training frequency when you have a good reason to do so.

Summary – Aim to workout ~3 times per week.


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References

1) MacDougall JD, Gibala MJ, Tarnopolsky MA, MacDonald JR, Interisano SA, Yarasheski KE. 1995. The time course for elevated muscle protein synthesis following heavy resistance exercise. Can J Appl Physiol. 20(4):480-6.
2) Aragon AA, Schoenfeld BJ. 2013. Nutrient timing revisited: is there a post-exercise anabolic window?. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition
3) Ribeiro AS, Schoenfeld BJ, Silva DR, Pina FL, Guariglia DA, Porto M, Maestá N, Burini RC, Cyrino ES. 2015. Effect of Two- Versus Three-Way Split Resistance Training Routines on Body Composition and Muscular Strength in Bodybuilders: A Pilot Study. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab. Dec;25(6):559-65
4) Schoenfeld BJ, Ogborn D, Krieger JW. 2016. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 46(11):1689-1697.
5) Fitness Industry Association. 2001. Winning the retention battle