How Often Should You Work Out?

I get this question often. The predictable answer is “it depends”.

There are two major schools of thought in training frequency; High Intensity, and High Frequency. As the names would imply, they have to do with how you distribute the stress you apply to the body during a training cycle. During a given exercise session, you are applying stress to the organism. This is the amount of work you do (volume x intensity) in a workout. You can do a lighter workout more frequently, or you can do a high intensity workout less frequently. For the vast majority of people, there is an inverse relationship between workout intensity and frequency. This simply means that most people can’t train hard every day without consequence. You need to rest and recovery from the workout stress and thereafter adapt by becoming stronger.

Now, that may seem like pretty obvious information, but I am surprised how often people break this rule. What most people fail to realize is that the workout stress to recovery ratio has to do with the entire volume of stress and recovery in their lives, not just the isolated workout. The reality is, the better your recovery abilities, the harder and more often you can work out. To determine the optimal amount of exercise for your body, you must first take stock of your lifestyle. These things affect recovery ability:

  • Adequate sleep
  • Proper nutrition
  • Low levels of emotional stress
  • Genetics

If you are lacking in one or more of these things (as most people are), you need to take this into account when designing your workout plan. Doing more exercise than is necessary to stimulate improvements in fitness is potentially harmful and also, rather pointless. Your time invested in fitness should lead to a net improvement in the enjoyment of the rest of your life, not reduce your quality of life and daily functional ability by either causing injury or excess fatigue.

Take one look at the hardest training individuals on the planet, elite athletes. They often sleep 10-12 hours per day, have great nutrition plans, as well as superior physical genetics. This is why I hate fitness marketing geared at making people train like athletes. It’s nonsense really. Train in the way that is best for YOUR body and don’t worry what other people think. The approach you take depends on what you want out of your training.

As a trainer, if I am training an athlete, I want to give her as much training stress as possible without her breaking down. I want to MAXIMIZE performance. Athletes usually have no life outside of their sport, so any down-time can be dedicated to recovery. If you are not an athlete I want to apply as much stress as necessary to improve your strength and fitness to the degree that it makes the rest of your life enjoyable, not make you so sore you can’t walk down the street without screaming in pain.

Now, let me segue here and say that I am not advocating people avoid training hard or trying to reach their full physical potential. I am merely offering the idea that maybe there is a better way to achieve those goals. Sure it may be a little slower if you listen to your body and be patient, but you will hit your goals without destroying your body in the process and be tired all the time. Train hard, but balance the training with appropriate recovery.

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As to how to train.. Well, take your pick. Every style and programming frequency has pros and cons. Kettlebells, bodyweight, Superslow, powerlifting. Training once a week, once (or twice!) a day. It all works to an extent but there is always a risk/reward and cost to benefit. Have fun and do what you love but be analytical. Be an intelligent fitness consumer, and you will be able to enjoy exercise and movement for a long time while enjoying the good things in life.

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