One of the most popular questions for new members is, “how often should I work out?” The question makes sense since most of us work out for the same reason. We want to be the improved version of ourselves so the answer to this question is essential for us to reach that goal.
The answer to this question is the typical answer a coach provides for most questions related to health, "it depends". I've realized this more and more as I've my training age has increased year after year. Based on what I've learned, here are the four factors to think about.
Your Training History
If you’ve just started training then the typical movements in a workout may provide an overwhelming amount of stimulus. This also occurs when you start a new style of training. For these individuals, a couple of days of consecutive high-intensity workouts will be enough of a stimulus to see some results. You can still attend your class of choice on the other days, but dialing down the intensity may be essential for long-term progress. If you have a long history of training at a high intensity, you likely won't see the same results with only a few days of high intensity but the recommendation would largely be the same. With either group, the goal is long-term progress toward your ultimate goal. In other words, whatever plan you choose, stick with it and push yourself harder/faster/stronger in order to continue to see progress.
Each person who comes through the doors has a slightly different goal. One person may have a goal of weight loss and another may have a goal of muscle or performance gain. Either way, a focus on quality workouts over quantity of workouts will be the most efficient path. When the focus is on quality, an athlete will prioritize movement standards and bring a high intensity on the appropriate days. On the recovery days, an athlete will still prioritize movement but proceed with a more sustainable but relaxed effort. An athlete who only focuses on quantity or overall volume will bring intensity with every workout and quickly find themselves frustrated why they haven’t been advancing towards their goals as quickly as the quality-focused athletes. A quality-focused athlete can participate in as many workouts as there are days in the week because every day is an opportunity to hone in on your ultimate goal.
This may be the most overlooked aspect of training. Muscles don’t grow in training, they tear. Muscles grow through adequate recovery and proper nutrition. If you’re staying up late and not getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep which is the required range for 99.99% of people then your environment is holding you back from progressing. If you’re not getting in at least 0.8g of protein per pound of body weight each day, your environment is holding you back from progressing. If you’re not getting in the minimum amount of micro and macronutrients, your environment is holding you back. If you’re not getting enough water to fuel your body…you get the point. The saying is that you can’t out-train a bad diet and I’d add environment in there as well. All of these factor in your ability to give your all to every workout.
Your Ability to Recover
The other key ingredient to muscle growth is recovery. Your overall progress will largely be dependent on your ability to recover. Certain muscle groups can only handle so much intensity each and every week. There’s a point of maximum recoverable volume and although that amount is high, it doesn’t mean everyone should attempt to achieve it every single week. Most major muscle groups can only handle 2-3 high-intensity days per week and still be able to recover for the following week. In addition to muscle recovery, stress levels become impacted by continued intensity. A high-intensity workout is highly effective for muscle growth but takes a toll on your stress levels. Consistent high-intensity workouts keep your cortisol levels high which then will signal to the body to hold onto extra calories in our fat storage. Even the highest level of athletes approach many of their workouts in the 70-80% effort range; only to dial up the intensity a couple of days a week. What makes this approach even more interesting is that these athletes who only exert 70-80% effort see more long-term improvement over maximal intensity athletes. This is due to their ability to increase their base level effort which increases their overall effort at each intensity level. The maximal intensity athlete only improves their effort at maximum intensity but then needs longer recovery times and their effort is at the expense of long-duration activities.
In the end, the goal for all of us is to improve in some way. Knowing what it takes to get there and stay there will lead to the achievements you hope for.