The typical conversation regarding the question, “how many days a week should I workout?” goes a little something like this:
“You should workout 5 days per week for optimal results.”
“Wrong, 3 days per weeks is best—you don’t want to over-train.”
“You’re both wrong, 6 days per week is best because frequency is king.”
“You’re all a bunch of suckers, 2 high intensity days per week are best if you’re willing to train hard enough.”
“Dream on, 4 days weights training, 2 days cardio, and 1 day overfeeding—gotta keep those fat burning hormones alive.”
The Problem With “Workouts Per Week”
Let’s cut to the chase. The number of days you workout per week are not nearly as important as working out in general. Asking, “How many days should I workout per week to gain muscle?” is assuming that there is a perfect number of days.
For most of us, sticking to the plan is the real challenge—the number of days, much less important.
Let’s present an online case to show that programs of all different frequencies work great.
Program: Stronglifts.com (5×5)
Frequency: 3 days per week
Results: 40lbs of muscle gained
Our take: Awesome program, incredible results. Kudos to Medhi (Stronglifts.com) for helping people all over the world shape their body and improve their lives.
Who: 9 people
Frequency: 6 days per week (3 weights, 3 cardio)
Outcome: Insane results. Thank you Bill Phillips for you contribution to the world of body transformation (you started my journey when I was 15).
Who: Josh Smith of Musclehack
Program: Musclehack.com THT Program (Mark McManus)
Frequency: 3 days some weeks, 5 days other weeks
Outcome: Incredible results and there are loads more before and after successes. One of my favorite programs by a great trainer Mark McManus.
The perfect number of days per week to train are the number of days you ACTUALLY train. Period.
Always remember, a good program that motivates you to work hard 3 days per week will beat an incredible 6 day per week program that you can’t stick to.
Most Guys Have The Perfect Workout Sitting On Their Bookshelf
The truth is that most guys already have access to programs that work.
If you’ve ever purchased a book with a workout plan or downloaded a program on your computer, then you already own what you need to be successful.
The reason I know this is because the best program is the one you aren’t doing. Sitting on my desk right now are five books that will add pounds of muscle to my physique if I do nothing but follow their advice for 6 months.
I’ve heard trainers say for years, “You won’t know if a program works or not if you keep flip flopping between programs.” And it’s true. And, most programs WILL work.
The truth is 99% of programs authored by an educated trainer will get you results if you stick to them and work hard. Don’t be bamboozled by the Facebook ad that promises 30lbs of muscle in 30 days. There is no “easy way”.
Here’s why: the team I cheer for (Chicago Bears) who are awful, yes, have 2 players that are the same height, low body fat, and are 30lbs apart. You aren’t achieving Benny’s body in 30 days if you’re starting at Markus’s.
Okay I get it. Sticking to a Plan is Best. How many days a week should I workout?
You should begin by asking honest questions about your goals and life.
- How many days per week can you REALISTICALLY spend in the gym?
- What are your body goals? Do you intend on doing “cardio” days?
- Do you have kids and lack sleep?
- Is your boss a (insert expletive) and keep you late all the time?
- Do you like training total body or do you like breaking things up (body-part splits)?
- Am I the only father who eats 40% of my kids Halloween candy while they’re sleeping?
These are just some questions that need to be asked for context. Once you’ve given your current life great consideration, it’s time to ask yourself the two golden questions:
The Two Most Important Questions:
1) How many days would I workout in a perfect world?
2) How many days can I workout in my imperfect world?
Whatever you answer is for question (2), that’s your number of days per week. Simple.
And if you’re wondering why you even asked question (1) at all?
Because it’s often the only question people ask themselves and I wanted to remind you that life isn’t perfect even when we plan for perfect success.
You Know Yourself Better than Anybody Else
Don’t rely on some fitness program to tell you how many days you need to exercise. This is where people fail their fitness journey before it even begins.
Program “X” says 5 days are mandatory, yet you have a wife, 3 kids, school finals, 2 over-time shifts, and mild video-game addiction… 5 days probably ain’t happening sir.
Know thy self is your best policy for progress. Look at your schedule, decide how many days you can realistically dedicate to fitness, and then begin your journey.
I promise you this: deciding to work out 3 days per week instead of 5 days per week will not be the difference between looking like an ADONIS and looking like a FRUMP. Remember, the various programs above all gave incredible results with varying frequency of workouts.
The guy who works out 3 days per week for 12 months will always look better than the guy who works out 5 days per week for 2 months.
Key Takeaway: First decide how many days you have to dedicate to fitness, then plan your workouts accordingly. If you’re stressed out by the amount of days you’ve planned to workout, scale it down, and live to see another day.
Adapting Any Workout Plan To Fit Your Life
The majority of fitness programs I have encountered call for 3-6 days of resistance training each week. Hitting the exact prescribed days per week isn’t a major issue if you know how to mentally frame it.
I want to present a new mental framework for you—play the long game.
Specifically, aim to fit all your workouts in for a calendar month instead of hitting the mark exactly week for week.
Maybe your workout plan calls for 4 days each and looks like this when perfect:
18 perfectly scripted workouts. And, this works beautifully if every Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday are always the exact same.
But you aren’t James Bond and life interrupts even the best intentions.
This is why my workout schedule typically looks like this…
18 messy, criss-cross, sideways, up and under workouts. But, 18 it was.
Those 7 rescheduled workouts represent longer than expected traffic, sleepless nights, kids, school, and many of life’s subtle nudges that I’m not passively wealthy with a butler, nanny, and chauffeur.
Some weeks it’s going to be 3 workouts, some 4, and some 5. Looks perfect to me.
Is There A Minimum Number of Days I Should Train?
Yes, and no. Here’s the deal with training. You need to stimulate muscle tension, damage, and stress adequately over time —also known as progressive overload (working out).
Miss a workout day? No big deal. Miss two workout days? Again, no big deal. Miss a week? Two weeks? This is where things get dicey.
A really good case was made over at sci-fit regarding what happens when you stop training. After combing through dozens of studies, they found the following two points:
- To maintain strength, lift at least 1x per week.
- Strength losses occur between weeks 3 and 4 without training (detraining).
- To maintain muscle, lift at least 1x per week.
- Muscle loss begins between weeks 2 and 3 without training (detraining).
Keep in mind this all about maintaining; aka “the minimum”. To steadily see progress, you’ll want to train at least 2x each week and preferably more if your schedule allows. Check our article on High Frequency Training if you are interested in training more often.
Key Takeaway: Find a workout program that fits your schedule and fits your life. On non-vacation weeks, workout at least 1x to maintain muscle and strength. Two or more workouts per week is optimal to see steady progress.
Lift some, play more, love life.