Seems like everyone’s talking about being on their “everyday grind” but is that the most effective way to get fit?
Your training frequency (or how many times per week you work out) is just one variable on your path to progress. But it can have a big impact.
Generally speaking, training more often is better. As with most things, there comes a tipping point. More sessions means more opportunities to stimulate the muscle. Lifting relatively heavy lets your muscles know, “hey we may be asked to move heavy weights so we’d better get stronger.”
We don’t actually get stronger from that. It’s the recovery phase, in which the muscles utilize nutrients from food to repair and build. So the stimulus and the recovery are equally important to your progress. You could make the case that recovery is more important as it takes much longer to happen. You can do an hour-long workout at still be recovering 48 hours later.
When you’re a beginner more frequent training is beneficial for a few reasons. You’re becoming accustomed to the exercises, so the more you do them the better they become ingrained movement patterns. Plus, you build the habit of actually going to the gym. We know habits are hard to build and even harder to break.
If one person practiced playing the piano an hour a day and another practiced 3.5 hours twice a week, who do you think would improve faster? It’s similar with training. Learning to squat with a barbell on your back is a skill. Doing it more frequently when you’re starting out will help you learn it better. Seems like a good time to say here that it’s much better to learn the right way to do early on, than it is to relearn once you’ve adopted poor movement patterns.
Beginners generally aren’t using a lot of weight in a more objective sense. Doing sets of higher repetitions (e.g. 8-12 per set) helps you internalize the movement and stimulate muscle and strength gains without approaching your 1 rep maximum weight.
I would say wait a long time before testing your 1-rep max but most people don’t listen. I’m included in that group. Testing isn’t training. It doesn’t really make you stronger. Training is training. That makes you stronger, so spend most of your gym time doing that. Besides, when you’re a beginner, your 1 RM isn’t likely to be all that impressive anyway.
A beginner can make great strides doing a full-body workout 3 days per week. A full-body workout will include a compound exercises that work the legs, the upper body push muscles, and the upper body pull muscles. Taking a day off between sessions will allow your body adequate time to recover.
You really could do this for the first several months of your training life.
At some point your training needs will change. This is where you can get creative with your programming. Over time, you’ll need higher weights to stimulate the muscles to keep getting stronger. This greater stimulus also means you’ll need increased recovery time.
It’s now a great time to switch to a split workout. A popular and effective split is to do upper body exercises in one session and lower body exercises in another. One example week looks like: Monday – upper body, Tuesday – lower body, Wednesday – off, Thursday – upper body, Friday – lower body, Saturday and Sunday – both off. There’s nothing magical about those particular days, you fit the days to your schedule. If you’d rather workout Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, that’s cool.
This has you training four days a week in a way that allows you to work hard yet with enough time for recovery. Your Monday and Thursday sessions can be identical or you can slightly alter them. It’s tough to do deadlifts and squats in the same workout, so perhaps it makes sense for you to do one on Monday and the other on Thursday. You can do the same thing with upper body lifts.
If you still prefer training 3 days a week, you can keep that model with only a slight change. One way I like to structure this is an A, B model, where one represents your upper body training and the other is your lower body training.
One week it’ll be Monday – A, Wednesday – B, Friday – A. The following week you reverse it, Monday – B, Wednesday – A, and Friday – B. Alternating the weeks like this will keep you getting stronger and perhaps stave off feeling bored.
The pertinent question is how do you know when it’s time to change? There’s no one size fits all response. When your progress really starts to stall, that’s a good indicator. I don’t mean you hit a plateau for a week or two. Sometimes that just happens. When you first start you can increase the weights sometimes literally each workout. Your rate of improvement is fastest at the beginning and tapers as you get stronger.
One popular workout schedule out there is the “Bro Split”, where you have a designated day for each major body part. The theory is you beat the hell out focus on 1 or 2 body parts per workout. It often looks something like: Monday – chest, Tuesday – back, Wednesday – legs, Thursday – shoulders and calves, Friday – biceps and triceps.
The upside is you can really work on developing body parts you feel are lagging. One of the downsides is you’re only hitting each muscle group once a week. This works for some people but I don’t think it’s optimal for most people. If you’re planning on being on stage, then making sure your calves are as peaked as possible may make sense.
If your training is about you getting stronger overall, and feeling better and healthier for life in general, I don’t think doing a bro split is going to get you the best results. I mention it because it’s an option, and ultimately, you choose your own path.
Most of us just want to be a little healthier, look a little better, and move through life a little easier. There’s no question a three-day routine can help you accomplish that, provided you put in the effort and give it some time.