How Often Should You Lift Weights to Build Muscle?
by Evelyn Valdez·
Despite contrary belief, you don't need to train 6+ times a week to drive results. In fact, it might even drive poorer results because rest days are important are essential for recovery! Not getting enough rest can lead to constant muscle soreness thus reducing your exercise performance. So, when it comes to lifting weights and working out in general – more isn't always better. This doesn't necessarily mean that having a higher frequency training is wrong, it just depends on how you approach it.
So, what is the sweet spot... How many days should you work out to build muscle?
It depends on a few factors, like your schedule! Some see results by working out only three days a week, while others prefer a higher training frequency to keep them on track. Don't worry, we're going to help you find your magic number, so, stick with us as we guide you through how often you should be strength training for optimal results.
HOW MANY TIMES A WEEK SHOULD YOU BE LIFTING?
Most lifters' strength train up to 6x a week due to training using a workout split in their workout program. Workout splits typically entail training one muscle group at a time, for example, working on your legs on Monday, back and biceps on Tuesday, and so on. Many like this approach over full-body workouts because it allows you to extensively work a muscle group for better growth... But a majority of the research has found that the total amount of work completed on a muscle in one training week is more important than how you do the work. Meaning, you may not need a workout split that forces you to work out 6x a week.
Let's take a look at a study conducted in 2016... The International Journal of Exercise Science compared subjects doing a body-part split to a group that followed a full-body training split. The group following a training split did nine sets per muscle group once a week, the full-body group training each muscle three times a week with three sets each. They had the same training volume, the main difference being that one group worked a muscle once a week, and the other three times. After the eight-week period, the two groups made roughly equivalent progress in muscle and strength. Another review in Sports Medicine shows the same conclusion. A group of scientists analyzed 10 studies that compared groups of people who training once, twice, or three times per week over a period of a few months. They found that training a muscle twice or three times a week results in better growth than training it once a week.
What do we learn from this?
That you don't need to extensively work on a muscle with a long workout in order to promote better muscle growth. This means that it doesn't necessarily matter how many times a week you lift, instead what matters is the total amount of work you're putting in each week for each muscle. So, you don't need to work out every day or 5-6 times a week to gain the best results! Ideally, to build muscle, you should aim to work out at least three times a week.
WHY A HIGH TRAINING FREQUENCY IS IDEAL
Having one to two weight training sessions a week isn't going to be effective for muscle gain. The key is to train at a higher frequency and focusing on the total amount of work for each muscle per week. But, why is this the most effective way to gain serious lean muscle mass? The answer is simple... Lifting heavy weights triggers muscle hypertrophy or growth for a window of up to 48 hours. Once that window is up, the growth stops, that is unless you train that muscle again to promote growth for another 48 hours. Over time, that muscle gain accumulates. Hitting a muscle group once or twice a week isn't going to put your body into an optimal muscle-building state.
Here are three other reasons why high-frequency training is beneficial:
- Reduce your risk of injury – The more you train, the more you'll see improvement. Just like the saying, "practice makes perfect"! For example, when you're barely starting out with push-ups your form might be a bit sloppy and shaky. But after a few weeks of consistently doing them, you'll notice your form and technique slowly improving. Consistently lifting weights and practicing key compound exercises will improve your form, balance, and stability which in turn helps to reduce your risk of an injury.
- It'll help you train smarter – Training a lift, like a barbell back squat, once a week will put a lot of pressure on you to go as hard as you can. You push yourself to top your last PR because you're only training that exercise once a week, even if you're not feeling up to it. This is not training smart. If you're pushing yourself to exceed a certain number of sets and reps even though your body isn't feeling it you'll increase your risk of overtraining. But if you know you're going to train your legs and do squats or the leg press in two days then you'll train within your limits. It essentially promotes better-balanced training!
- Help establish a good habit – Resistance training, or doing any form of physical activity, three or more times a week will help you establish a habit of working out. After a few weeks of training, it'll just become another part of your day! This will also help you build better self-discipline which will lead to you accomplishing any fitness goals you may have.
So, if you want to start efficiently building muscle aim to lift weights three or more days a week! It's best to not exceed 5-6 times a week to avoid overtraining and injuries, but it really depends on your mindset, preferences, and the amount of time you have.
Training three days a week
If your schedule is a bit hectic, you're a beginner, or if your main goal is weight loss and you want to implement some cardio into your workout plan, then consider doing three full-body workouts a week. Total-body training is better than a body-part split for those with tough schedules because just missing one day could cause you a week without training a muscle group, costing you progress! So, it's better to stick to a routine that you can stick to, and if three days is what works for you then make sure to structure your routine accordingly.
If you want to follow a three-day full-body training program, here are two ways to structure your routine:
- Do two sets per movement pattern: There are four movement patterns in total, this includes squatting, hinging, pushing, and pulling. Squatting could be doing any type of squats, leg press, and even lunge variations. Hinging involves deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, hip thrusts, and any movement that involves hinging at the hips. Pushing movements involve pushing a weight vertically, like overhead presses, or horizontally, like chest pressing. Pulling movements involve pulling a weight vertically, like pull-ups, or horizontally, like rows. To be clear, this does not mean only doing two sets of squats, it means doing two work sets that involve squatting exercises with however many sets you need to warm up and build up to the weights you actually want to use.
- Do a single push, pull, and leg movement: If the method above seems overly complicated or you don't have enough time to do that many exercises, then try this method! It involves choosing one pushing exercise (ex: dumbbell chest press), pulling exercise (ex: barbell rows), and one leg exercise (ex: Goblet squats). You can also play around with the volume of your workout. Opposed to sticking to the same number of sets, you can switch things up and do 5 sets of 6 reps one day, and 3 sets of 12 reps another day. You can also choose to rotate the exercises every session, or every week. Limiting yourself to three movements keeps the volume of your workout under control, but of course, you can throw in a few isolated exercises that target your core, biceps, triceps, or delts at the end of your workout!
Training four or more days a week
If you want to train more than three days to create a consistent habit of working out, or simply because you have time to then a good approach would be to follow an upper/lower training split. This will allow you to train the same muscles at least twice a week which is great for muscle hypertrophy. An example of an upper/lower body split would be focusing on rowing and pulling exercises one day, focusing on squatting exercises the next day, doing pushing exercises in your second upper body workout, and followed by hinging leg exercises on your second leg day. Or you can extend it to a 5-day split, like doing a quad-focused leg day, followed by pulling exercises (back and biceps), followed by a hamstring/glute-focused leg day, followed by pushing exercises (shoulder, triceps, and chest), and finishing off with a full-body workout. There are so many ways to approach your workout split, so find the one that works best for your goals! And, for those with specific goals involving growing a certain muscle group, plan your workout split so that you hit that muscle at least three times a week.
To maximize your strength training sessions using an upper/lower body-part split, follow these tips:
- Be conservative with your workouts: You'll be training more frequently, so to avoid overtraining and burning out, try not to train too hard or heavy every session. Training too hard and heavy will only decrease your exercise performance the next day.
- Choose three big compound lifts, but limit it to two or three sets: This will also help ensure that you're not pushing yourself too hard, and remember, you'll be hitting those heavy lifts again. You'll have better days than others, but having a higher frequency training program will allow you to have another shot at it later in the week.
- Don't overdo isolation lifts: Heavy weight lifting four or more days a week is taxing on your muscles and joints as it is, so be cautious about the amount of isolation lifts you want to do. The key is to not overwork your body since it's already training consistently.
In summary, to get better results (be it for weight loss or muscle building) you should train at least three times a week. There is no set number for everyone, instead, it depends on what your preferences are and your personal schedule. If you're only able to fit three workouts a week then focus on full-body training. Those wanting to train for or more times a week should focus on a proper training split that allows them to hit each muscle at least twice a week. Don't forget to follow our tips to help you build a good workout routine that reduces your risk of injury, helps you train smarter, and helps you get stronger 💪
Want to create an even more effective workout plan? Read our article about how many reps and sets you should do for your fitness goals!