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How often should you work out? Making sure you don't train too little, or too much, for your fitness goals

Dean Merton helps you to find the training load that’s right for you.

Image: Shutterstock/Gabi Moisa

IT’S SEPTEMBER AND naturally enough, a lot of people reading this article may have been drawn in this direction because they’re looking to start or restart their fitness journey and may want a little guidance or direction on what they need to do to get the most bang for their buck.

One of the most common questions I’ve received from new clients over my last few years coaching is “how often should I do this?”

While pretty much every question you can pose to a fitness professional about a personalised training split should be answered with the phrase “it depends”, here are some things I think everyone should keep in mind to ensure they don’t train too little for their goals, or too much.

Keep your goal in mind

Training frequency will vary depending on the desired outcome of the training program. Different goals carry with them different training demands, with some goals being a lot more time-consuming than others, and some goals requiring a much more frequent training program.

Fat Loss

Do you want to lose fat? You can do some form of cardiovascular training or some form of movement every single day. You’re literally doing whatever you can to create a caloric deficit to enable your body to burn adipose tissue for fuel. Are you too spent from weight training to tackle another session? Go for a recovery walk, jog, swim, cycle, do some pilates, take a hike, or simply ensure that your caloric intake doesn’t create too much of a massive surplus after you subtract your NEAT (non exercise activity thermogenesis).

Hypertrophy

Let’s be honest, we live in a very aesthetic age where the majority of people who train in a gym do so to look good naked. Training to pack on slabs of lean muscle is simultaneously both a very simple and a very complicated process.

On the simple side of things you really only have to worry about applying a fatiguing or taxing stimulus to your muscles training them to near failure either with volume or intensity, and then allowing them just enough time recover in an environment that is conducive to repair and growth (adequate nutrition, water, and sleep usually cover this). Lather, rinse, and repeat until utterly massive.

On the more complex side of things, not every muscle is created equal; the level of damage and fatigue that one muscle group can accrue is vastly different to the capabilities of another muscle. For example quads are big strong knee extensor/hip flexor muscles that can do a lot of work, lift a lot of weight, and make you cry when they are fully flushed with lactate or experiencing crippling DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness). This is vastly different to the training experience of the deltoids which sit atop your shoulders, don’t move all that much weight, and generally don’t get that sore even after being blasted repeatedly.

Why is this? It’s good to remember that the human body has developed with function in mind, not aesthetics, so the capabilities of different muscle groups to perform different amounts of work and recover adequately from all of it is rooted in this fact. How useful would a prehistoric man have been if he lay unable to move on the floor after simply engaging his abdominal muscles maximally a couple of times during some hunting or farming activity? Answer: he would be useless, and would have died, and since you’re reading this on a laptop or mobile device, it’s safe to say this was not your ancestor.

So how does that apply to your pursuit of glorious aesthetics in 2017? Knowing that different muscles are capable of different amounts of load, intensity, and volume, knowing that you will need to bring your muscles close to failure in order to elicit a growth response, and knowing that different muscles will recover at different rates, wouldn’t it be helpful to plan your training frequency with this in mind? Using the above example of quads vs delts, would it make sense to train your quads as frequently as your delts, or your delts as infrequently as your quads, as the case may be?

Of course not.

The simple, and incorrect, approach is to assume that every muscle will grow equally as well if trained once every 7 days, but the seven-day week is an invention of the human imagination and so too will be your gains if you stick to this archaic approach to training frequency.

If you will indulge me by following this link, I’ll share with you a table summarising the most up to date research on training frequency for hypertrophy as grouped by body part.

Strength

When training for strength, we use many of the same principles that we apply to hypertrophy training frequency. We want to impose a taxing stimulus on the muscle, at or near to muscular failure to illicit a recovery and adaptation, the difference being that we will generally use much greater loads and much lesser volume. Seeing as volume is a bigger generator of fatigue (and the dreaded DOMS) in the human body, we can safely say that strength training for a particular movement can be done on a more regular basis than hypertrophy training can on a specific muscle. Add in the fact that strength training offers us many more options to gain a training effect such as varying the speed, range of motion, or the loading of a movement, and we have a recipe to avoid stagnation.

When training for strength the question really becomes not of how much training you can do, but how much you can recover from and continue to adapt.

In my experience however, I have noticed a lot of recreational lifters who claim to train for strength but follow the old bodybuilding adage of hitting a movement once or twice per week only.

Make no mistake about it: if you do a movement once a week, you are missing a lot of opportunities to practice the technique and the skill of the lift, and if you ever intend to compete in a strength sport (powerlifting, weightlifting, strongman) then you must know that those movements are a skill unto themselves.

Unlike hypertrophy training, you don’t need to go almost all out almost all the time, but you need to be practicing your skill as often as your body will allow. Check out the link above for more as a lot of the same principles apply.

Which brings us nicely to…

Sport/Skills Training

I briefly mentioned barbell sports above as having a need to practice the skills of the game at hand on a regular basis in order to stay sharp. The tradeoff for barbell sports is the fatiguing nature of the practice, making it a delicate balancing act to train sometimes.

In other sports such as field-based team sports like soccer or GAA, combat sports like jiu-jitsu, boxing, or MMA, or solo pursuits such as golf or tennis, there is a much higher premium placed on skill over strength.

The good thing about this is that practicing skills is not usually an overly taxing process. Believe me, after years of training in soccer, GAA, wrestling, and jiu-jitsu, my weight training sessions beat me up far more than any skills session I’ve completed in any of those sports.

What does this mean for the weekend warrior who’s reading this? If you want to progress in your sport this year, and you are as strong as the people you are competing with, the difference may be in your skills, so get to the pitch/mats/court/green and get the practice hours in as often as you can (without getting divorced in the process).

For someone playing a sport like golf, you can justifiably train every single day to work on your swing. If you manage to do enough prehab work to avoid massive muscular imbalances, the net detrimental effect of frequent golfing is near nil. For a game like soccer or GAA, you may not be able to put in six days of hard running and perform in a match on the seventh, but employing a smart approach and practicing the skills of kicking, hand-passing, or watching tape, can have a huge benefit. For the martial artists reading this, again the act of hard sparring may be tough to recover from, but flow rolling, pad work, and position-specific drills each and every day should be a part of a successful fighter’s game plan.

As a caveat to this, when skill levels are equal generally, the stronger athlete will win, so don’t neglect the stuff outside the game either.

Wrapping Up

I hope this article has given you some food for thought in terms of how often you train to reach your goals. I would implore all of you to deeply assess how much time you have available to you and how you can use it to best achieve what you want to achieve. If you require some advice on the matter, my inbox is always open.

Until next time.

Dean Merton is a Dublin-based strength coach and personal trainer. For more information you can follow him on Facebook and Instagram, or you can send him a direct message here.

You can also see some of his previous articles here. 

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