March 26, 2021 11 min read
You want to get stronger. You want your muscles to grow, and you want your body to run as efficiently as possible. You can’t just push yourself to your limits day in and day out without rest. Your body isn’t built to run at full blast nonstop. You also can’t get by without putting in the work. Your muscles need a constant source of challenge, so the trick is to figure out a healthy balance. You need to take the time to build a sustainable routine that leaves you with the time to rest effectively and actually build the muscles you’re working towards.
Your body is a machine that takes inputs from the world around you and adjusts accordingly. You can attribute nearly every single aspect of your health to something in the world around you. Something as seemingly inconsequential as the paint in your house to more obvious factors like your diet and exercise will come back to your body and it’ll respond either positively or negatively to that input.
So when we’re looking at our workout routines we need to take a few things into consideration. What does your workout look like? Are you challenging yourself? Is it consistent? Are you doing your exercises right? How much rest have you worked into your schedule?
All of these are factors that might have had some effect on the progress (or the lack of progress) you’re making. To keep ourselves from getting too bogged down, we’re going to look specifically at how often you should work out your muscle groups, and how you can work your way up to an ideal schedule.
We should establish a good starting point before moving on. If you’re just starting out, or you really can’t find the time, then a pair of decent workouts each week is enough to at least get a little bit of progress on the board and start to see some results. You can see the results of working out twice a week in small, but tangible ways.
Research has shown that higher training volumes are associated with greater hypertrophy. However, there is a point of diminishing returns, where increasing volume further doesn't yield significant improvements in muscle growth.
That's great news if you're pressed for time but want to maximize your hypertrophy efforts in the gym, because according to research, the sweet spot for hypertrophy seems to be around 10 sets per muscle group per week.
This number provides an adequate stimulus for muscle growth without causing excessive fatigue, allowing for optimal recovery and progress. It also allows you to program the muscle groups according to your schedule.
It's important to note that individual differences exist, and the ideal number of sets may vary depending on factors such as training experience, genetics, and recovery capacity.
For some individuals, 10 sets per muscle per week might be too much, while others might benefit from higher volumes. Nonetheless, using 10 sets as a baseline provides a practical starting point that can be adjusted according to individual needs and responses.
If you keep track of your sessions each time, you’ll see how far you’ve come along. You’ll be able to bang out more push-ups week after week, and that’s proof of the growing functionality of your muscles. Your body doesn’t just settle for “good enough” when you put your nose to the grindstone and push yourself past your limits. Every single time you put in the effort, your body pays you back by rebuilding yourself stronger than before, and you’ll be able to see this happening.
The benefit of setting a small, but manageable goal of 2 weekly workouts is the incremental progress. You’ll see how much you’re benefiting from something so simple and immediately start craving more. When you start with an achievable goal, your brain wants to achieve more goals, and this is how you begin on the road to progress.
Your body could benefit from a little bit of physical activity every day. Nobody is saying that you can’t get up out of your seat and move around when you feel like it, but if you’re trying to maximize the results of your workouts, then you’re going to need to add some structure to the way you’re doing things.
Working out every single day is going to put you on the fast track for a lot of things that suck. In fact, working out all of your muscles as hard as you can every day is going to have the opposite effect. Just take a second to really think about what’s happening to your body when you hit the gym. You’re not just exercising for the sake of it, you’re applying an external effect to your body, and your body is responding the only way it knows how.
Exercise is all about breaking your body down and building it back up, literally. Your muscle fibers are being pushed by the work you’re doing to the point of breaking. The tears you make in your muscles aren’t supposed to be there for long, they make it hard to use your muscles to their full potential, and your body doesn’t like that.
Your body will set out to fix any tears in your muscles, and it usually will aim to overshoot its repairs so that’s less likely to happen in the future. This is part of a process called hypertrophy. Your body will build your muscles bigger and better than ever. It’s not just raw muscle mass that’s added, either. Your body wants your muscles to be as efficient as possible, so it increases their storage potential as well. All of this together makes you bigger and better every single time you allow your body to do the repairs it's trying for.
That means you have to give yourself some breathing room. If you work out every single day, you’re compounding the damage to your muscles, you’ll start losing progress and you’ll start working out in ineffective ways. When you go into your workouts worn out all sorts of things start going wrong.
Your brain will be tired, so your endurance, decision-making, and your pain thresholds are going to be depleted. You’ll be planning your workouts poorly, you’ll start cutting corners, and you’ll start tapping out earlier than you would if you had gotten the rest you needed.
Your muscles will be weaker. Building muscle is a constant push and pull against yourself. If you don’t take a few rest days throughout the week and you keep picking on the same muscles, you’ll be coming into the gym with a severe handicap. Your muscles will be all torn up, and that means you’re literally working with less muscle mass. It’s a bad way to workout, and your body won’t have had the chance to rise to the occasion.
You’ll also just be stifling your growth. Imagine your muscles are a brick wall. Every time you give a muscle group the chance to rest, you’re adding to the top row of your wall. If you never give yourself the chance to rest, you’re never adding a row to the wall. Your body needs the opportunity to lay those bricks, and if you keep wearing down the wall, you eventually start losing rows of progress. That’s why we load up on protein and work on different muscle groups throughout the week. Without the building blocks and the time to go to work, we’re not making any progress.
The long and short of things lies in being honest with yourself. You and your neighbor aren’t going to have the same body, the same levels of health, or the same goals. That means you need to figure out what’s right for you. This might mean a little bit of trial and error, it may mean keeping a log of how your workouts have gone, or it might mean plotting out a plan beforehand and working your way up there. Whatever works for you is going to get the best results. You should look for a handful of things in your workout and build a sustainable plan around them:
Time: When someone is asking “how often should I workout?” They’re really asking “how much time do I have to spend?” You’re going to have to look at your weekly schedule and find places to make time for your workouts. If you only have a few days in the week that will accommodate a workout, then you’re going to have to fit your workouts into those slots. If you have several short windows available, then you can build a routine that focuses on a single muscle group each time.
Your Body’s Signals: If your joints are burning and your muscles are aching all the way to the bone, then you’re going to have to listen. Your body sends out signals all the time, and it’s your job to listen to them. Your workout should be frequent enough to challenge your body, but not so intense that it leaves you broken and battered afterward. You should have the energy to maintain good form all the way through your workouts. You’re pushing yourself past your limits, but that doesn’t mean you’re going so far beyond them that you’re literally breaking your body. Injuries are only going to set you back, in some cases permanently.
Sustainability: When you build a workout routine, you need to find something that’s sustainable. If you’re off of work one week and you decide you’re going to work out every single day in the middle of the afternoon, but you don’t have that kind of time when you’re back at work, then that’s not a sustainable schedule. If you’ve built a workout that requires working out your three major muscle groups every day until you hit failure and you wake up in unimaginable pain every morning, that’s probably not a sustainable workout routine.
Create a workout schedule that focuses on one muscle group a day, make one that will fit into your normal schedule, and pick one that is manageable. You can be sore the next day, but your workouts should never be debilitating.
Progression: When your body has the opportunity to rebuild damage sustained from your workouts, it overshoots with the intent to overcome the challenge that tore those fibers in the first place. That means that you’re going to have to keep moving forward each time you revisit those muscle groups. Your workout should include exercises you can vary in one way or another. That can be as simple as throwing on more weight week after week or adding a few more reps into the routine. Whatever you can do to prove to yourself that you’ve gotten stronger will push your muscles to the breaking point, which is what you should be aiming for to get in a good workout every week.
Clear Goals:Having clear goals will allow you to check your progress every week. If you’re setting out to beat a new personal record then you’ll be able to see how much you were able to lift relative to your previous attempts. If you’re trying to lose weight, then you can adjust your diet and aim for exercise that burns a lot of energy in a short amount of time like HIIT exercises or heavy weight lifting.
All of the previously mentioned aspects together will give you the framework for a good workout routine. Now that you know what you’re looking for in your specific workout routine, we can look at some recommendations and pick a good starting place.
The CDC recommends either 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or two days with equal amounts of moderate and vigorous-intensity aerobic activity along with muscle-strengthening activities twice a week that targets your major muscle groups.
That’s a lot of jargon, we can break it down a lot easier by saying that you can either go for a series of brisk walks throughout the week, that averages out to 30 minutes of moderate activity a day, or you can push yourself a little harder about 3 days a week for a much shorter amount of time. This ends up being about 20 minutes of moderate cardio three times a week with resistance training targeting your major muscle groups paired with each of those days.
You can use this CDC framework to build out your workouts from there using a similar structure.
Light Exercise: You can basically modulate from there. If you’re sticking to light exercise, you should do a little bit every single day. With light exercise, you’re not putting the kind of strain on your muscles that would require extended rest periods. This means that you can keep up the exercise every day and still expect to make some kind of progress.
Your progress using a light routine isn’t going to be as drastic or noticeable as more vigorous routines, but you’ll be able to enjoy the endorphins and sense of pride that comes from improving your health every day. Aim for about thirty minutes of activity each day. It doesn’t all need to be done in a single block, it doesn’t need to be the same every day, but it’s a good way to get your blood pumping. If you’re working a desk job, this is a good way to counteract the detrimental effects of being forced to stick to a single spot all day.
Moderate Exercise: This is where we start to see more fat burning and weight loss. You’ll also see more noticeable growth in your muscles and your capacity to do strenuous exercise.
If you’re looking for how often you should workout your muscles while maintaining a moderate level of activity, this is probably one of the more simple schedules. Workout three times a week, targeting one muscle group each day. This is an easy routine to keep up with, you don’t have to plan it out too hard, you don’t have to switch things up every other session, and you don’t have to spend an insane amount of time in the gym. The more vigorous your workout is, the less time you’re going to have to spend on your workout each day
Intense Exercise: If you want to work out five or six times a week, you’re going to have to be a little bit smarter about how you plot out your days. If you’re working out a lot every day, and you’re wanting to hit your key muscle groups more than once a week, then you’re going to have to hop around a little bit in your routine.
Try alternating between heavy and light days with your routine and alternate which part of your body you’re doing a heavy day with, and take your rest days seriously, because they’ll be the only day that you’re going to truly be able to add a row of bricks to your wall of progress.
For example, a five-day workout could look something like this:
You can see from this example workout, you’re never targeting the same muscle group with a heavy workout two days in a row, and you’re still giving yourself rest days. This sort of workout will give you the opportunity to keep all of your muscles in rotation, conditioning them and challenging them throughout the week without overexerting yourself. This is a workout you’d take on if you’re a seasoned lifter looking for drastic results.
A good workout challenges your body without overstepping the limits of reason. You’re going to want to keep your body active no matter what your goals are, as you can see. When you’re asking yourself how often you should work out each muscle group, you have to step back and make a list of your goals and take the time to address the reality of your levels of fitness. After a short time looking inwards you’ll be ready to apply that knowledge to an effective and manageable routine.