For as long as exercising has been a popular practice, there’s been an ongoing debate surrounding how many times a week you should workout. From hitting the gym every day, to merely going once a week, there are all sorts of different recommendations out there when it comes to how frequently you should be exercising. 

But this seemingly simple question is actually multi-faceted. If you are training for a specific sport, you will have different goals than someone just looking to remain fit. And then there’s fat loss – that’s a whole different beast altogether. 

But no matter what your goals are, there should definitely be a method to the madness when it comes to your workout plan. in this article, we’ll be weighing in on the age-old debate surrounding exercise frequency in order to give you a clearer picture of just how many times a week you should be working out.  

Why Is There A Debate At All?

Before we dive into specifics though, we should first cover why there’s even a debate to begin with.  Why isn’t there simply a one-size-fits-all answer, like drinking 8 glasses of water per day? 

Well, primarily because there isn’t one simple approach to exercise that’s going to work for everyone. For example, say you broke your foot – recommending cardio five times per week, wouldn’t really be possible. The same goes for those suffering from debilitating diseases and conditions. 

And then we also have to consider variations in things like age, size, and aptitude – what may be tolerable for a 250-pound male who regularly weight lifts, may not be all that appropriate for a 90-pound female who mostly does cardio. 

With that being said, there are some generally agreed-upon provisions.  Most experts recommend that healthy adults train with weights three times per week, and perform some kind of cardio (even walking counts) five times a week. 

However, this is a very broad recommendation; you may find yourself needing to take it easy, or on the flipside, craving some kind of activity more often. Also, be sure to consult with your physician before beginning or changing an exercise routine, especially if you have a known medical condition.

How Many Times a Week Should You Workout for Weight Loss?

When it comes to weight loss, there are a number of important details to get right when it comes to designing an exercise program — many of those considerations are dependent on your age, weight, gender and experience level. 

That’s because all of these factors impact your metabolic rate, which in turn determines just how many calories you need to take in, per day. For weight loss, you want there to always be a slight caloric deficit (200-500 calories) so that your body has to dip into your fat reserves for energy. 

on top of your diet, both cardio and weight lifting can help you to burn more calories, which in turn helps improve your ability to lose weight. While cardio is typically associated with weight loss, lifting weights can also be an effective method for burning extra calories.

 You also get more of an ‘afterburn’ effect after you lift weights, meaning you’ll burn calories at a higher rate, for longer in comparison to cardio.  Weight loss studies show that exercising 5-6 days per week, on average, leads to the best weight loss outcomes. Here are some general recommendations.    

Cardio

  • 3-5 times a week, with lower-intensity steady-state cardio.
  • 2-3 times a week, with high-intensity interval training (HIIT).

Weight Lifting

  • 2-3 times per week, hitting all your major muscle groups.
Photo by Ryan De Hamer

How Many Times a Week Should You Work Out to Build Muscle?

Muscle building, however, is a totally different ballgame. Instead of removing mass like with weight loss, you want to be adding additional mass to your frame. This means a number of things.

For starters, you need to be eating a caloric surplus, every day — ideally, that’s about 500 extra calories per day. It should also be noted that your protein intake need to be high – you can’t build muscle without an adequate supply of protein. 

 It’s also probably a good idea to have a protein shake either before or after your weight training session, as some research shows that it may provide a small but substantial advantage when it comes to maximizing your muscle-building potential.

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You should still abide by the principles of good nutrition when you’re eating in a calorie surplus – that means lots of vegetables, high-quality foods, and little to no processed junk.  Just because you’re consuming excess calories, doesn’t mean you should let your diet slide.

You’ll likely just gain fat (not muscle) this way, and you’ll increase your chances of experiencing several adverse health outcomes such as abnormal cholesterol, high blood sugar, and hypertension if you just eat whatever you want.  

When it comes to gaining muscle, a proper (and intense) weight lifting routine is vital to success. How frequently you should lift, however, largely depends on your level of experience. 

If you are just starting out, you’re likely to see significant results with as little as two to three days of lifting per week. This beginner’s effect doesn’t last forever though, as you will need to start pushing your body harder and harder to see the same kind of results further down the road.

As far as cardio is concerned, there are a number of schools of thought when it comes to building muscle. However, most are in agreeance that including some form of cardio in your weekly workout routine is likely a good idea.  Especially something like High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT), which in addition to engaging both your aerobic and anaerobic systems, also helps to maintain your explosiveness. 

Progressive Overload and Building Muscle

When it comes to gaining muscle mass, there is a very simple way to understand the concept. To achieve your goal, you simply need to increase the volume and/or intensity of your workout over time.  

So what exactly does this mean in practice? Well, if you lifted 80 pounds on the bicep curl last month, this month you’d be aiming for 85.  If you are not increasing the weight, you could instead try increasing the number of reps, or the number of times you workout your biceps during the week. 

In simpler terms, during each exercise session, you want to be sure you’re pushing yourself a little further than you did the last time. Traditionally, bodybuilders have done this by making steady but modest improvements on major compound movements like the bench press, squat and row over the course of a training program. 

Making improvements in the number of sets/reps your able to do or how much weight you’re able to lift on these types of exercise is a pretty good indicator that you’re gaining muscle mass.  

Weight Lifting

  • Beginners: 2-3 times per week.
  • Intermediate: 3-4 times per week.
  • Advanced: 5 days per week.

Cardio

  • 2-3 times per week.
Photo by Jelmer Assink

Split Up Cardio and Weight Lifting

A somewhat debated and advanced topic, but important nonetheless, you may want to experiment with splitting up your cardio and resistance training.  Some research suggests that doing cardio and weight lifting in short succession of one another may impinge on the ability of your muscles to react and adapt to your training — researchers refer to this as the interference effect.  

This means, for example, if you lift weights on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, you should ideally try to do your cardio on Tuesday and Thursday.  If you are going to do them on the same day, you’ll want to do them at different times if you can and avoid engaging the same muscle group(s) with both forms of exercise.  

The Importance of Rest Days

Overtraining is a very real phenomenon that can occur when you’re pushing yourself too hard and not giving your body enough time to recover. However, your body is usually good at sending you at least a few signals — soreness being the key one — before you over train.  You absolutely want to avoid overtraining as you can suffer debilitating injuries and end up being out of the gym for months.

No matter whether you’re a serious athlete or casual gym-goer, rest days are critical to your success.  First off, your body won’t be able to repair itself if you don’t rest enough, which drastically increases your risk of becoming injured. 

Secondly, you won’t be able to reach your peak performance levels without adequate rest, which makes it much more difficult to achieve steady, gradual progress.  Lastly, if you’re a bodybuilder, muscle gains occur during the resting phase! So you’ll be shooting your own progress in the foot if you don’t rest frequently enough.

Wrap Up

In closing, with many people in today’s day and age now leading mostly sedentary lives, it’s hard to recommend enough exercise. With that being said, there is no one exercise routine that is going to be right for everybody.  

New lifters looking to build muscle may see significant results from lifting weights as little as 2 – 3 times per week, while you’ll likely need to exercise a lot more frequently — we’re talking 5 to 6 times a week — in order to see gradual and consistent improvements if you’ve been working out for years.  

As far as weight loss is concerned, cardio is simply a tool for burning more calories.  The more cardio you’re able to do per week, the more calories you’ll potentially burn. However, you’ll certainly need to give your body adequate time to recover in between training sessions.  For most people, somewhere between 3 – 5 cardio sessions per week seems to be the sweet spot.