Fifteen years of hindsight but this should have been the very first article I ever wrote on this blog.

Forget about sets. Forget about reps. Forget about workouts or programs. Forget about all the traditional things you think about or ask questions about when you think about fitness and training.

If you don't get this one thing right, then none of that will matter.

Because the training you actually do will trump your best intentions every ... single ... time ...

Nearly any program that you grab online will give you a predetermined schedule that you may or may not be able to adhere to. And very often, whatever schedule a program tells you to adhere to, is one that you can't adhere to.

Your ability to actually execute any preconceived schedule is called Match Quality.

Some – like 2-3x a week full-body lifting – are pretty easy to adhere to for most and they become almost like standards. Others – like 6x a week training but featuring a different muscle group each day – are incredibly complicated and few of you will stick with it.

More training doesn't always mean better training, it's about finding your sweet spot based on your schedule.

Consistently training is the most important thing you will do.

I honestly don't care if it's once a week or six times a week. One time a week of training is still moving the needle. Establishing consistency is really the key factor the majority of people will struggle with and overlook.

Determine Your Weekly Schedule

You can do fitness training 1-6x times a week. I know there are 7 days in a week but I'd encourage everyone to take at least a day off planned training every week.

Play with your kids, go to the park, toy around on a jungle gym, go for a walk with a friend or a hike with your family just don't plan anything one day a week and let your child-like self-take over the party.

Assuming you heed my advice, here are all the possible training schedules you can do. Once you see it laid out you're going to realize why scheduling is so important and surprisingly difficult to manage.

It's a doozy list!

Once a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
1 x
1 x
1 x
1 x
1 x
1 x
1 x

This one is by far the easiest one to schedule. Very often the most approachable schedule for you to start lifting with.

Twice a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
2 x x
2 x x
2 x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
2 x x
2 x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
2 x x

21 different combos! All I did was add a day and suddenly you have to deal with a great deal of complexity. 2x a week is still very approachable for a lot of people and it's how frequently I tend to lift – with at least a day off in between, usually two – Β when life gets busy.

Three Times a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x
3 x x x
3 x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
3 x x x

26 different ways to distribute 3x a week training. Obviously some will feel less practical than others but our running total currently stands at 54 options and we're not even halfway. This is still very approachable for a lot of folks but you're starting to drift into territory where it's easy to get ahead of yourself.

Four Times a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x x
4 x x x x
4 x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
4 x x x x

Did I even do that right? It's basically the mirror image of 3x a week so 26 more options seems like it should be right.

Five Times a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
5 x x x x x
5 x x x x x
--- ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
5 x x x x x

Effectively the opposite of 2x a week in most respects for another 21 choices.

Six Times a Week

# Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x
6 x x x x x x

Basically the inverse of 1x a week, so only another 7 options.

In total 7 + 7 + 21 + 21 + 26 + 26 = 108

108 different potential weekly schedules!

Okay that was tedious, even for me, but I did it manually to show you how many options there are and why scheduling feels so overwhelming to most of you.

This speaks nothing to training distribution or training frequency. Two important considerations I'll break down later in this article.

Under Commit β†’ Overachieve

The biggest mistake people make with scheduling training is overcommitting.

Yes you.

This falls into the more is better mentality. More is not always better.

Most things are doing just enough, but not too much. Hence the story of Goldilocks.

You don't have to train 6x a week to get a good result. You don't. I've helped plenty of people achieve awesome physique's in 2-4x a week.

If you assume that the average person needs 48-72 hours of recovery from intense forms of cardiovascular exercise (HIIT for example) and resistance training for the same muscle groups.

Then it should become obvious why programming 6x a week of exercise gets complicated and complication tends to overwhelm most people – especially non-athlete populations.

And don't even start asking me about twice a day training, you're not there yet. I'm positive of that.

Most people can sustain 6x a week training for a few weeks before the inspiration wears off and they fall off the horse to zero times per week. If you plan 6x a week but end up only making 3x a week anyway, why not just try 3x/week to start?

See the mindset shift I'm proposing?

I've seen this happen a lot. New clients sign-up with me, gung-ho and the first thing they want is a program they can do every day.

"Are you sure?" I ask. "Are you 100% sure?" 🀨

Of course I give them what they want because I think it's a teachable moment for our next conversation a month from now. And I can tell people things until I'm blue in the face, sometimes they listen – trust is occasionally established early – but very often they don't – it's early, trust needs to be built.

The Best Teacher is Experience

After they've experienced how hard it is to keep a 6x/week program one of two things happens:

  1. They get a reality check and it opens the door for a deeper conversation about their programming and building something more approachable.
  2. That or they stop training and give up entirely assuming it's just bad timing. I've seen that happen too. Although I generally try to screen my clients for that fixed mindset (the 'All-or-Nothing-Mentality').

There is never really a good time for most people living in the modern world to train 6x a week unless they have the power of a very strong goal and the intrinsic motivation required to achieve it.

Believe me, this is the wrong expectation for most of you to have. I'm not saying it can't be done but more often than not, you'll end up dialing it back to a more realistic 2-4x a week to build some momentum – what I like to call exercise inertia.

This has happened nearly every single time I take on a new client. I kid you not.

My hope is to get you off this rollercoaster of exercising hard for a bit, stopping completely, exercising hard for a bit, stopping completely ... until the end of days ...

I'm not saying you should settle for mediocrity. And if you can manage 6x a week, go for it. Some people thrive on short, well-planned daily exercise.

I'm saying you should meet yourself where you're at and I've seen far more people plan for 6x a week and fail than I have seen people plan for 6x a week and succeed.

At least at first. Once you've got some experience and some training skills under your belt it's a lot easier to make work.

Build some inertia with an approachable program and if you get to a point where you have a hyper-specific goal and training 6x a week is what you need to achieve that goal. Then I'll still be here to help you with that program once you've build a baseline or foundation of skill on 2-4x a week first.

But honestly, 2-4x a week of planned exercise is usually enough for most people. You can fill in the gaps with plenty of unplanned exercise on your days off like walking, some mobility work fun-time or playing with your kids.

What About the Exercise Habit?

I just want to touch on this because I can't help but wonder if a generation of people have been brainwashed into thinking that they can form a habit in 21 days – you can't, research has debunked this.

And that in order to make something a habit, you need to do it every single day. Again, you don't, that research linked above has debunked this. Missing a day has no meaningful impact on habit formation.

Suggesting at least in theory that training every other day is perfectly fine if forming an exercise habit is your goal.

This thing is, you don't need to make exercise a habit. It can masquerade as a habit, but habits run on autopilot in the background, and you want mindfulness during exercise. A focus of attention.

A habit has a cue or trigger, that triggers an automatic routine or response that then yields some kind of reward. The key to a habit existing is that it is performed unconsciously (or subconsciously). That is not what you want when you're exercising, you want to be consciously focused on what you're doing during exercise.

If your exercise routine is automatic, then you're likely just doing the same routine over and over again. If you do what you've always done you get what you've always got. For exercise to be effective, you need progressive overload, not a mindless routine.

If it's not creating a habit, what is it? Scheduling!!!

Not everything has to become a habit for it to become a successful weekly routine.

Pick a Time that Works For You

Like most things a consistent time or routine generally works best for people. If you looked at this schedule what would you glean.

This is simply an easy example (minus a few of my calendars, different colours are different calendars or events)

I generally sit people down and have them show me their work and personal schedules. And we swipe through the weeks in a given month to look for trends.

Based on this schedule what do you see? I see:

  • I could train 5x a week at 9:00 and still make that Thurs morning meeting easily. Or I could take Thursday off or something even.
  • And 4:30, 5 or 5:30 pm (16:30, Β 17:00, 17:30 if you prefer military time)
  • Mon, Tues, Thur, Fri at 12:30 will work pretty well too giving me a buffer
  • Mon/Thur, Tues/Thur if I'm shooting for 2x a week is probably a great starting point for most beginners with fairly relaxed goals and all I want to do is lift.

People tend to get fixated on even hours for training but you can start at 4:10 if it works for you. Try not to get too fixed on even hour training.

Then we talk about ideal times:

  • What time of day on average is easiest for you to make consistently?
  • How are weekends for you? Do you prefer exclusively weekdays? (many people do)
  • Mornings before work? Lunch Break? After work? Can you get away from work at some part of the day?
  • What times do you feel at your best?

There are no wrong answers. It's your schedule. I don't feel at my best for early morning training, so I generally don't train before 9 am.

But I also wouldn't be able to fall asleep if I trained within about 3 hours of bedtime so I don't do that either.

Accept yourself for who you are, rather than who you'd like to be. If you're not a morning person, I wouldn't plan morning workouts (unless you have someone to hold you accountable). If you are a morning person, don't wait until after work to train.

If you can only free up "less-than-ideal" times, then get some help making those sessions by recruiting friends (even distant friends) so you can develop a buddy system, join a good group class (so a group can hold you accountable) or hire a trainer.

Schedule It Like It's Work

Basically every single working professional I've ever worked with keeps a daily planner of some kind. If you're like me, it's in the cloud, but paper works just fine too if that's you.

You schedule all your meetings and your appointments. Treat exercise EXACTLY THE SAME WAY.

Seriously, if it's in your calendar you won't book other stuff over it.

If it's in your calendar, you've set aside the time for it.

If it's in your calendar, you'll be less tempted to skip it or miss it. If other people are waiting on you, you'll be even less tempted to skip or miss it.

You don't miss your doctor's or dentist's appointments and you won't miss your workouts either.

Start putting them in your schedule like other things if at all possible. It helps.

How to Distribute Training

Assuming you have picked one of the above schedules. Now what?

Ahhh geez, that's a loaded question ...

One I might some day get around to answering completely. There are lot of good ways to sequence the 108 scheduling options above.

I'm not going to go through every option this time. I'm tedious, I'm not that tedious. I'm going to to give you a decent set of guidelines instead.

Guideline #1

Keep the goal the goal. A lot of people try to do a little bit of everything and they end up not really getting much, if any, result.

  • If you want to build muscle β†’ prioritize lifting
  • If you want to lose fat β†’ prioritize lifting (to preserve lean tissue)
  • If you want to improve high intensity (i.e. power or mixed sport) conditioning β†’ prioritize high intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprint interval training (SIT) but I'd still lift and get a decent strength base prior to this if the activity is impact-related (i.e. running).
  • If you want to improve aerobic conditioning β†’ do mostly cardiovascular endurance training (run, row, cycle, swim, etc ...) but try to lift once or twice a week (if possible), again ideally build up a strength base prior to taking something like that on.
  • If you want to be generally fit and ready for anything β†’ prioritize lifting followed by some aerobic cardiovascular work and some high intensity conditioning schedule permitting.

There is a little more to it than that but you get the idea. The things that will take you closer to your goals need to be prioritized. There are lots of ways to effectively distribute priorities.

If you want to build muscle and you can only train twice a week, then try to make all of those days lifting. If you want to build endurance and can only train twice a week, then do the endurance training. If you have more time in your schedule, you can mix things a little bit more.

If you're training once a week, I'd just lift. If you're training twice a week and they aren't back-to-back days, I'd still just lift. If they are back to back days, I'd follow guideline #5 if I cared more about lifting, or I'd just do cardiovascular conditioning one day and lift the other.

You don't see a lot of recommended deviation from this pattern until you can train at least 3x a week. Then you have a lot more options.

Guideline #2

I honestly believe that most people should lift for a couple of months before they get into any impact forms of conditioning with any degree of seriousness.

In other words, get fit so you can run, don't run to get fit. Resistance training goes a very long way and has more carry over to everything else you'd ever possibly want to do than specific endurance sport participation does. Yes, that stuff is good for your heart, but so is lifting, it's just not as good.

The reverse however is not true, most cardiovascular activities (while superior for cardiovascular health) have very little transfer to neuromuscular structural health.

Lifting will better prepare your body to tolerate the abuse of large endurance training volumes.

  1. I'd prioritize resistance training (at least at first)
  2. Followed by higher intensity forms of cardiovascular exercise (schedule permitting, see other guidelines below, this does not mix well with resistance training so you need to be selective)
  3. Followed by aerobic cardiovascular training

The nice thing about aerobic cardiovascular training is that it can fill in any gaps that you need to adhere to guideline #3. If you can't split the resistance training in a way that makes sense but you have the time for more training, then doing some aerobic cardiovascular conditioning is the easy solution. Fill that day with aerobic work, which will obviously train the cardiovascular system better, but will also aid in recovery and help maintain fat oxidation pathways (if that's important to you).

I typically restrict HIIT or SIT a maximum of twice a week, though there are exceptions for athletes. I'd either do it instead of full body (or lower body) lifting or I'd do it before if it's an impact activity or has high technical demands. If it has lower technical demands and no impact (like stationary biking, ski erg, elliptical or rowing) then you can lift after you do it on the same day. *I lower lifting volume if you're also doing HIIT/SIT on the same day.

Guideline #3

Don't do resistance training or any kind of high intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprint interval training (SIT) for the same actions or muscle groups on back-to-back days. These types of training typically require 48-72 hours of recovery.

  • If you do full-body lifting, don't do HIIT, SIT or full-body lifting the next day. Wait a day at least.
  • If you split your training up into muscle groups, understand the muscles that get taxed with the exercises you've selected and don't tax those muscles (or movements) the following day. Wait a day at least, maybe even two. Don't do any SIT or HIIT that will work similar muscle groups either.
  • If you doing running sprints, do not sprint again tomorrow. Don't even lift for anything that would tax the same muscle groups. I wouldn't even do them the following day, I'd do them on the third day.

You may have read online about the hardcore Bulgarians or Romanians applying daily training to Olympic lifting. Maybe you've heard of a program called 'Squat Every day.'

Yes, there are high frequency training programs that exist, and no I don't recommend beginners or intermediate trainees follow them. Don't let the internet convince you this is a good idea.

Just don't.

Unless you're a pretty advanced trainee who understands a whole bunch of training complexity – like how to cycle intensity and control volume for high-frequency training – programs with a higher frequency of high-intensity training are not going to work well for you. Lifting and/or SIT r0r HIT

Your body needs to recover from these things and the minimum rough time frame for that recovery is 48 hours, but at higher intensities (and greater skill) you could even bump that number up to 72 hours. i.e. training the same muscles or movements every 3rd day at the highest frequency.

Using a few 3x a week training examples and assuming lifting is the priority:

Ex # Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
1 FBRT SSCT FBRT
2 FBRT SSCT FBRT
3 FBRT SSCT FBRT
4 FBRT SSCT FBRT
5 SSCT FBRT FBRT
------ ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
6 FBRT FBRT SSCT
7 FBRT FBRT FBRT
8 FBRT FBRT FBRT
9 FBRT FBRT SSCT
------ ----- ------ ----- ------ ----- ----- -----
10 FBRT FBRT SSCT
11 FBRT FBRT FBRT
12 FBRT FBRT SSCT
  • FBRT = Full-Body Resistance Training
  • SSCT = Steady State Cardiovascular Training

You could eliminate one FBRT for a HIIT or SIT if you wanted but at 2x a week lifting frequency I probably wouldn't.

In examples #1-4 β†’ because I'm prioritizing lifting, but training on back-to-back days (Mon-Tues) I have to sandwich the cardiovascular training between two lifting days. In example #5, I invert the training because Sun-Mon are the back to back days and this permits me to lift twice a week still. I don't need to do that in example #9 to get two lifting days.

Can you see what's going on here?

Basically if training is on back to back days, I have to make one of those days "Cardio" or aerobic training because it won't impede recovery from the full-body resistance training.

There is an alternative to this, I can split the body up to maintain resistance training (discussed in Guideline #5) or I can make sure I choose a schedule that permits a higher frequency of lifting (Guideline #4).

Guideline #4

I'd stick to full-body resistance training – more so for scheduling purposes – whenever possible. On a 3x a week schedule that will end up looking something like this:

Ex # Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
1 FBRT FBRT FBRT
2 FBRT FBRT FBRT
3 FBRT FBRT FBRT
4 FBRT FBRT FBRT
5 FBRT FBRT FBRT

Hopefully you can easily see how 2x a week lifting would work via this example and 1x a week lifting is incredibly easy to schedule and should likely only ever be full-body lifting.

If you want to lift more but have to train back-to-back days? Then see Guideline #5.

Guideline #5

If you want to do more lifting, HIIT or SIT you can vary the part of the body you are taxing.

HIIT or SIT is fairly simple but almost no one will do this. You could do either for the lower body (Stationary Biking probably) one day, and the next day you could do upper body (Ski Erg or Hand Crank probably).

This requires good access to equipment, so not many of you could or would ever do it, but it is an option if you wanted to do HIIT more frequently in a week. I'd say splitting it up like this would yield a max recommendation of 4x a week total training frequency though.

Running is upper and lower body. Rowing is upper and lower body. Swimming is upper and lower body. These types of HIIT won't be good for this strategy as a result.

Lifting on the other hand, well I could write an entire article about how to split up resistance training. The gist of that article is the following:

  • Avoid training the same muscles on back to back days. Especially similar movement actions.
  • Make sure you hit all your major muscle groups/actions.
  • It's easier to stick to 2-day splits. For example: An Upper Lower Split (t-split I like to call it) the X Split, or an Anterior/Posterior Split (H-split I like to call it).
  • If you want to lift more than 4x a week, you can consider a 3-day split β†’ Lower Body - Upper Body Push - Upper Body Pull.

That's generally the maximum split I go to. You can go to a higher split (4-day split or 5-day split), but then you limit your training frequency to 1x a week more-often-than-not. And I like to keep training frequency at 2x a week whenever possible – i.e. if you train 2x a week, I think you want 2 full-body training days and I generally try to progress everyone to 2x a week training.

Let's see some examples of this training distribution:

Ex # Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
1 LBRT UBRT FBRT
2 UBRT LBRT FBRT
3 LBRT UBRT FBRT
4 LBRT UBRT LBRT UBRT
5 LBRT UBRT LBRT UBRT
6 UBRT LBRT UBRT LBRT
  • FBRT = Full-Body Resistance Training
  • LBRT = Lower Body Resistance Training
  • UBRT = Upper Body Resistance Training

Hopefully you get the idea ...

Notice at least a day off between combinations still. You don't have to do that, but I'd recommend it. And notice you can move upper body and lower body work around a bit but I would generally keep the same pattern throughout the week. I'd do first whatever I cared about more. I even mixed in some full-body resistance training here to provide some additional perspective.

The reason I don't go to crazy with splits is practicality. Some of the bodybuilding splits you see in magazines are next to impossible to adhere to consistently for amateur lifters. The above splits are generally more than enough for the average person.

Guideline #6

As briefly mentioned in Guidelines #2, you want to mix HIIT, SIT and lifting I'd do them on the same day. If there are technical weight bearing requirements for the HIIT/SIT (i.e. run sprinting) I'd do it first in that session, followed by lifting. If you're on a bike, or a rower, or something with a lot less of a technical demand, it can go after lifting.

Otherwise treat them largely as one in the same for recovery purposes. You won't be able to recover from lifting on Monday and doing HIIT on Tuesday in the long-run and you'll just burn yourself out.

Scheduling your training intelligently means reducing the chances of burning yourself out. Too much high-intensity training done with any sort of high proximity to failure will warrant a lot of recovery, which means you should limit how much of it you do in a given week.

Fill in any gaps if you want to train more frequently with less intense cardiovascular training or mobility training work.

Hopefully all that helps you set a better training schedule.

Got questions? Leave a comment!