Help! How Often Should I Train?

Camp Taji obstacle course
In continuing with my ‘Help!’ series (1,2,3), one other frequently fielded question I get is ‘how often should I train’ or ‘when in the week should I train?’

Most people want me to write them out a detailed weekly calendar, explaining exactly what to do on each day.

In my experience though, this is the equivalent of catching a fish for someone, rather than teaching them how to fish.

Sure it ties into the human need for certainty, even if you never fully plan to do what I tell you, and I honestly hate telling people what to do, I’d rather help you figure it out for yourself.

I’m much more inclined now to work through the process I’m about to describe with clientele, and coach them through figuring out a schedule that works for them.

First I have to mention the two basic types of training sessions you’ll find in my recommendations:

  1. Neuromuscular System Development (NMSD – Resistance Training/Strength Training/Weight Training/Plyometrics/Shock Training/Mobility Work, etc…)
  2. Energy System Development (ESD – Training of the 3 energy systems – ATP-CP, Glycolytic, Aerobic; many people may refer to this as ‘cardio’ or ‘conditioning’)

I would also like the mention Mobility Development (MD) as something I encourage people to do before (sometimes during) and after workouts — static or quasi-isometric work 3 hours after is best, but not always practical.

A fourth one in the athletic world would be ‘Technical Training,’ but from a strength and conditioning or weight loss point of view, it is essentially these two types of training, the technical training is the NMSD or the ESD itself.

The Minimums

Before I go any further…“Anything is Better Than Nothing.”

You can quote me on that, in fact tweet it right now.

Will you see a ton of physical change by terms of weight loss heading to the gym once a week and sitting on the couch the other 6?

Probably not, but it’s better than sitting on the couch 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it often leads to good vibrations ala Marky Mark.

It’s been my experience that the process of long-term weight loss is almost always a snowball effect, in that the changes might seem small at first, but eventually you have this big freakin’ ball of snow at the end.

Start small and add time as you free it up, prioritize and drop a few less important commitments.

This 2011 cohort study, showed that as little as 92 minutes of moderate-exercise (what’s moderate right? haha) yielded 3 more years in lifespan on average, and there were small increments of improvement in every 15 minutes you add further — though no upper limit is discussed…

150 Minutes per week is a common minimum recommendation — roughly 2.5 hours, or to me 3 training sessions.

Keep in mind, most ‘minimum exercise’ research seems to be applied to longevity, health markers, and disease rehabilitation, NOT (unfortunately) weight loss scenarios. 

Though I’m hopeful that the work of Dr. Steven Boutcher will shed some more light on this…

What Experience Tells Me

If you want to see noticeable results in weight loss, there is a direct relationship to the number of hours you are willing to dedicate to the process, and the results you will see.

Six times a week of training won’t be six times as effective as one times a week, mind you, but it will still be a magnitude greater in terms of speeding up the process.

According this study, one day a week of training with the same amount of total work done, was 62% as effective as the same amount of work spread out over 3 days.

That compared three sets of training on one day, to one set of training every other day for three times a week. It seems that a higher frequency is important, if you can muster it.

i.e. you might even be significantly better off doing short workouts 3x a week, than one long workout only once a week.

Can’t get to the gym for an hour, do 10-20 minutes instead.

In my own experience I would determine that an upper limit for healthful weight loss exercise is 6 days a week (which I hope you find surprising), or about 6 hours of training for non-competitive athletes, and about 12 if you’re training for something semi-serious, but still want to have a life.

Athletes will be closer to 20 hours, depending on the sport, and financial stability to train. Not including time spent studying things like tape or working with massage therapists…

Proportionately for the average person, this is only about 3.5-7% of the time available to you in the week, and I’ve seen people get great results with 1.75% of their time per week.

Seems reasonable right?

However, time dedicated, does not always translate to results.

The method matters.

How long is the absolute minimum amount of time you can spend training and still see great results?

The jury is still out on it, but in my experience it depends first on the quality of the program.

A high quality program delivered to somebody with a high level consistency — shorter training sessions done in regular intervals — and a high level of ability — i.e. someone who can squat, lunge, deadlift, press, pull, stabilize, and carry with good form, which leads to greater demands on the system, and thus greater adaptation — can probably account for as little as 2 hours a week of total work effort.

If you’re not in that ballpark I try to encourage 3-4 hours per week, to accelerate those results, think 5-6.

The more experience you have, the closer you are to maintenance phase you are, the less you can probably escape with while maintaining your body weight.

The less experience you have, the faster you will gain experience if you can train more frequently, but never take on more than you can handle.

As little as 250 hours of quality work done over time can turn you into a very competent trainee.

To give you some perspective, that’s five hours of work each week for a year, or three hours a week for 20 months.

Yes you can do White Belt Fitness and Skill Based 2+2 for that long if need be and you cycle the training appropriately.

Personally I like to first get the weight loss clientele people that I work with up to at least 3 hours per week of quality training, and I’ve seen moderate to good results at that level.

However, start small and work up.

Great results lurk closer to the 5 hour mark per week, but again that depends on ability, and ability is something I can teach, and you can learn.

Next question!

How Much Time Do You Honestly Have?

Most people love an all-or-nothing-approach. They would love for me to tell them that they need to work out 5 times a week to see results, end-of-story.
Meaning, they want to put their head down and mow through the obstacles you put in front of them, at least for a a little while, or until reality kicks in.
Is it really effective for me to tell you, you need to work out 5 times a week to see great results, if you feel you can only reasonably free up 2 or 3?
NO!
I know you’re excited about getting fit, everyone starts out that way, but take a minute to have an honest conversation with yourself.
How much time can you legitimately free up right now between the half dozen committees you sit on, your 50-hr work-week job, your loving wife or husband, hanging with your friends and looking after the ankle biters?
Ya six times a week at the gym doesn’t look so appealing now, does it?
I still bet you can free up 2-3 hours though. Especially if that is spread out over several 20 minute sessions during the week.

My Recommendations

If you’re new to fitness start with two NMSD training sessions per week, focus on quality.

Research indicates that of the two forms of exercise you have time for, resistance training is the most ideal for weight and health changes, when combined with dietary changes.

When done appropriately it yields better weight loss results, but it also cascades into the aerobic energy system, better than vice versa.

You’ll need at least a day’s active rest and recovery between bouts of NMSD training, but if you’re only doing two per week, you can probably take up to 3 days off in between.

So a schedule might look like Monday and Thursday at this point.

From there, I would typically add another NMSD session for simplicity sake, but it depends on when you can train.

This might end up looking like Monday, Thursday and Saturday, or Monday/Wednesday/Friday even.

The Rationale?

ESD can easily be added at the end of NMSD sessions depending on the amount of time you have, without a significant drop off in quality, sadly the reverse is not as true.

You can always shorten a NMSD day, and add ESD work for 10-20 minutes near the end of a NMSD day.

You can make considerable cardiovascular improvements in this amount of time, and burn a considerable amount of calories if you employ an interval training protocol.

Alternatively add some ESD in day 3, even if it’s 20-30 minutes of intense walking or aerobic biking, to address heart and cardiorespiratory health.

I feel this is useful if your resting heart rate isn’t at least close to 60 BPM upon waking.

That’s kind of my general health marker for the need to improve or maintain cardiovascular fitness.

Intervals are also useful for energy system development but might not develop elasticity in the heart and blood vessels the same way, so much as they improve other markers of cardiovascular fitness — things like VO2max and Heart Rate Recovery (heart rate should drop 19 or more BPM a minute after you stop exercise).

Want More?

Separate NMSD from ESD and do them on alternate days.

For instance if you’re up to 4 times a week, it may be beneficial to do the following:

NMSD – Monday and Thursday

ESD – Tuesday and Friday

OR Five Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Saturday

OR Six Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday

Just make sure you take a day off for a light swim, walk the dog, or a leisurely bike ride.

Resistance Training Specializing

I’m a big fan of full body training more often than not, because you can get the highest frequency of training with it 3-4 times a week for the same movements/muscles.

Just make sure you you take a day off, or alternate days.

I’m also a big fan of limiting really high intensity training to 2 days a week, so if you’re going to lift under 6 reps with loads above 85%, you might want to keep it to less than 2 days a week.

Unless you plan on only doing a very short concentrated bout (1-4 weeks) of high intensity training but that’s getting complicated for most beginners/intermediates.

There is a lot of grey area in terms of what people can handle but generally I like full body training in the following sequences:

Want to Improve Strength (but probably not powerlifting strength…) Weekly Schedule:

Day 1 – Strength: 1-5 reps, compound moves done with high loads

Day 2 – Hypertrophy/Moderate Training: 6-12 reps, can be done with speed but typically just moderate load

OR Day 2 – Endurance/Light Training: 10-12+ reps, done with light weight and speed, or light weight to almost failure

Day 3 – Power: 1-6 reps, done with speed and/or high load

OR Day 3 – Strength: 1-5 reps, compound moves done with high loads

 

You probably want to double up on higher intensity strength oriented lifting, like pure strength training, or pure power training. With this approach and full body training, give yourself that moderate or light day at some point in the week.

It doesn’t have to be day 2…

Want to Increase Muscle Size (but probably not bodybuilding size…) Weekly Schedule:

Day 1 – Hypertrophy/Moderate Training: 6-12 reps, can be done with speed but typically just moderate load and a focus on eccentric/lowering phase of movement

Day 2 -Strength: 1-5 reps, compound moves done with high loads

OR Day 2 – Endurance/Light Training: 10-12+ reps, done with light weight and speed, or light weight to almost failure

OR Day 2 – Power: 1-6 reps, done with speed and/or high load 

Day 3 -Hypertrophy/Moderate Training: 6-12 reps, can be done with speed but typically just moderate load and a focus on eccentric/lowering phase of movement

You could of course do more hypertrophy oriented training on all three days, but chances are good changing the third day around (in this example Day 2) will help you shore up a weakness.

See more often than not a trainee in this circumstance will lack muscular endurance, power, or strength, and improving those will improve the hypertrophy training the other two days.

Pick a 3rd day that compliments the skill you probably need to improve in order to improve the weight you use on the moderate training days

Again, it doesn’t have to be day 2…

Want Fat Loss and/or General Health and Wellness Weekly Schedule:

Day 1 – Strength: 1-5 reps, compound moves done with high loads

Day 2 – Hypertrophy/Moderate Training: 6-12 reps, can be done with speed but typically just moderate load

Day 3 – Endurance/Light Training: 10-12+ reps, done with light weight and speed, or light weight to almost failure

Optional Day 4 – Power Training 1-6 reps, done with speed and/or high load 

Much more balanced, with low volume strength/power work and more often more hypertrophy work overall, and more total volume of training overall for fat loss typically.

I’d probably throw power training between Day 2 and 3 above, rather than the training session before strength to balance a 4 day cycle, but that’s just me.

You might also add more ESD work on off days for fat loss purposes, especially interval work.

Want to do more resistance training or train back-to-back days?:

You’re more likely to find split routines in sports like powerlifting or occasionally off-season work for power sports, or if you can’t take a day off training.

This allows you to train consecutive days without interfering too much with the previous days work.

As resistance training is generally best served by about 48 hours of recovery between the same muscle/movement groups, the only way you could do resistance training six days a week without burning out very quickly is to utilize a split approach.

For instance, maybe you want to train Monday, Thursday/Friday. Well doing a full body routine won’t work for the Thursday/Friday more often than not (I have some advanced ideas about how you could, but I’ll leave those for another post).

So to double up on Resistance Training you have to employ a split routine.

I recommend keeping this simple with one of these options:

  • Upper Body/Lower Body Split (self explanatory…)
  • X Split (Upper Body Push with Lower Body Pull one day, and Upper Body Pull with Lower Body Push Day 2)

Endurance Training Specializing

For all my marathon clients or endurance cyclists clients and other endurance athlete weekend warriors. You’re not off the hook for resistance training.

Typically you’re going to have a very well thought out endurance progression plan for 3-5 days a week of training, depending on how seriously you take it.

If you’re just a weekend warrior, let’s assume you do 3 endurance training sessions:

Day 1 – Tempo or Interval Training

Day 2 – Hill or Speed Work

Day 3 – Distance Work (probably on the weekend…)

Something loosely like that…

If you’re in-season:

Day 1: Low Volume Strength and Hypertrophy Day

Day 2: Low Volume Power and/or Hypertrophy Day

Endurance athletes actually contrary to popular belief seem to derive more benefits from strength specific training (low reps, low volume) for strength maintenance purposes.

See strength assists you with nervous system signalling and muscle preservation to a certain extent, while other forms of training will have more of an interference effect on training (like muscular endurance training or a lot of hypertrophy training).

The Norwegian Nordic team has popularized a 4×4 approach to a handful of compound movements for in-season strength maintenance.

You could also use 2×5, or 3×5, 3×3, basically you’re looking for an approach that keeps you under about 16 total high intensity reps per lift, possibly even 10 for 2-4 compound movements and then follow that up with some corrective work in a more traditional 6-12 rep range.

Preserve strength, as opposed to really gaining it. This aids performance.

If you’re not in season:

Gear your program towards strength like you see above, more resistance training to get as strong as you can before you resume a deliberate endurance training program.

However, you can now use more variety, work to improve areas of weakness by focusing attention on muscular qualities that might be a struggle but will aid your performance — with a focus on strength and power.

If you have questions, email me, hit me up on twitter, or sign up for our coaching app Fitnack.