How often should I workout to build muscle?

How many days a week should I workout to build muscle?

For nine years, I lifted three times a week at the local gym. First, I had to get there, get changed, do a long workout, get changed, and walk home. Depending on how many people were there, I might need to wait to use a rack. Not only was the whole process a hassle, but it was draining and time-consuming.

The idea of working out more often, like 4x or 5x a week, was frightening.

At the time, I mistakenly thought training 4x or 5x a week meant adding another one or two days of what I was already doing, which was already exhausting me.

But now that I’ve built a home gym, I lift 6x–7x a week, and I love it. (I also do some walking every day with my family.)

What changed?

I had reached a bit of a plateau and was looking for alternative ways of training. I found the research super persuasive that high-frequency training, working out more often each week, would help me get better results.

Let’s take a look at the research:


Lifting more often makes workouts feel easier and shorter to complete

Do you feel like your workouts are completely draining as I did?

In a 2018 study, researchers took beginners, about 22 years old, and had them lift. Both groups were doing the exact same total work over the week, but one group did all the work on one day, and the other group spread it out over three days. Those who spread out the work found that the workout felt less hard. The technical term is “rate of perceived exertion,” and these guys felt working out more often made it 33% to nearly 50% easier at times.

How hard did the workouts feel?

Plus, by spreading out the amount of work, the three little sessions would be a lot shorter in duration compared to the longer, single-session. For example, one session might take an hour, but across three sessions, you’ve got a twenty-minute workout.

Not only that, but the guy’s training more frequently got stronger.

Both groups of guys got gains—they both put the work in. But by training more frequently, guys got a little bit stronger, and the shorter workouts felt easier.


Lifting more often might help with delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS)

A 2019 study found that training full body (high frequency) more often improved strength/size gains a little bit by working out more often compared to splits (low frequency). Both methods can work as muscle gains mainly come from total volume (the amount of work.) But interestingly, those training more frequently experienced less soreness (DOMS). Menno Henselmans, who did a great breakdown of this study, suspects that this is because bro’s like the feeling of soreness because they see it as a sign that it’s working. So training more often could reduce soreness while reaping some minor gains.


The longer you’ve been lifting, the more often you can train for even better results

In a 2015 study, researchers studied the effects of how long muscle-protein synthesis was elevated in beginners versus “trained.”

Muscle-protein synthesis (MPS) is the physical process of moving protein into the muscle, and building them bigger and stronger (the opposite of muscle protein degradation or the breakdown of muscle.)

Muscle Protein Synthesis and untrained and trained lifters

In this study, you can see that after just ten hours, those who are experienced with training have almost finished the process of building muscle. That means if they want to get back to building muscle again, they’d need to train again. Otherwise, they’re just waiting (and the gains are waiting too.)

For beginners, you can see that their muscle protein synthesis continues to be high even nearly 24 hours later, and they’re still getting decent growth 36 hours later. Let’s say a beginner lifts on Monday at 5:00 pm after work. By Wednesday at 5:00 pm, it will have been 48-hours later, and they’re ready for the next training session. (Don’t forget though, dividing your days up can make your workouts feel easier and cause less soreness, so a beginner could still try working out 4–6 times a week, as long as they spread the work out equally across the week.)


Volume is easier to increase over more days

Volume is one of the biggest drivers of muscle growth. Volume can be defined as a lot of things, and one way to define it could be:

total weekly sets taken to near failure per muscle group

So if let’s say you bench press on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday with 5 sets done within a couple of reps of failure each day. That’s 15 (5+5+5) sets of total volume for your chest.

If you worked out Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday and bench pressed each day, then you’d only need to do 3 sets each day to get the same total volume of 15 sets (3+3+3+3+3).

Let’s say you wanted to really want to push your chest gains and ramp up the volume before doing a deload, and you wanted to get your total chest volume up to a maximum recoverable volume (MRV). Dr Israetel has written he often sees that around 22 sets per week for chest (article). If you are training 3x a week, you’d need to do over 7-8 sets, hitting your chest every single session. Not only would that leave little time for other areas, but you’d be getting some serious soreness (DOMS), and it’d be hard to recover.

If you train five days a week, though, you’d only need to do 4-5 sets, which is much more reasonable. Your workouts would be shorter, it’d feel less painful, and you’d likely be less sore. That’d help you recover better and get even better muscle gains.

Cardio and work capacity

You might need to work out more days if you’ve got bad work capacity

Work capacity is loosely defined as something like how much you can continue to carry/lift for a period of time.

Let’s say you’ve got a stubborn chest, and you don’t have the best work capacity, and you’re trying to improve your bench press. When you lift, with bad work capacity, your reps may look like this with the same weight:

  • Set 1: 12 reps
  • Set 2: 10 reps
  • Set 3: 8 reps
  • Set 4: 6 reps
  • Set 5: 3 reps

Someone with good work capacity might look like:

  • Set 1: 12 reps
  • Set 2: 11 reps
  • Set 3: 11 reps
  • Set 4: 10 reps
  • Set 5: 10 reps

Someone with bad work capacity would be better to split up his workout across more days to get “fresh” reps in with full focus and strength. For example, instead, it could look like:

  • Day 1:
    • Set 1: 12 reps
    • Set 2: 10 reps
    • Set 3: 8 reps
  • Day 2:
    • Set 4: 12 reps
    • Set 5: 10 reps

Now he’s getting in the same total amount of volume (5 sets) but with much fresher and high-quality reps.

(Speaking of which, if you want to improve your work capacity, one quick way is to improve your overall cardiovascular fitness. Strangely, even though lifting is an anaerobic type of exercise with lots of power, a lot of the regeneration comes through the aerobic type (breathing oxygen), so improving your cardio can indirectly improve your lifting. See this excellent article “Avoiding Cardio Could Be Holding You Back” on StrongerByScience.)


Lifting more often may increase your testosterone and improve the testosterone to cortisol ratio (stress and breakdown)

In a 2007 study, researchers looked at ten competitive weightlifters who were about 20 years old. All of them were training daily, but they made one group spread the training out into two sessions in the day versus just one session.

The group that was training twice a day had:

  • increased levels of testosterone
  • a better ratio of T:C (testosterone to cortisol)
Working out at home has a lot of benefits

Lifting more often during the week ought to improve nutrient partitioning

Nutrient partitioning is what happens to the food you eat. For example, does the energy you eat get stored as fat for later use or used for energy right now? Does the protein you eat get added to your muscle, or does the surplus get burned off as heat?

I haven’t seen any direct research on this, but we know that the timing of food before and after your workout can reap you some extra gains. For example, having protein before you work out can make sure that there are amino acids in the blood as the muscle is working hard. This limits muscle-protein breakdown, allowing for slightly better gains, as you can skip the step of the repair.

And with carbs, we know that carbs can help us get the best workout possible. They help in a few ways:

  • Carbs increase testosterone and lower cortisol (study)
  • Carbs can be stored as glycogen in muscles, meaning those calories would be less likely stored as fat (study)
  • Carbs can increase our workout performance, allowing us to cause better adaptations to build muscle (study, study)
  • Carbs can improve our immune system while exercising, allowing us to stay healthy and avoid catching a cold while training (study)
  • Carbs stop the breakdown of protein in your muscles during exercise and help your muscles recover (study)
  • Overeating carbs are less likely to be stored as fat compared to overeating fats, so there’s a little bit more wiggle room if you are overshooting calories to bulk (study)

The problem is that a lot of guys worry about eating a lot of carbs on a “rest day.” Especially if they’re eating low-quality carbs (highly processed with little to no fibre), they can easily spike their blood sugars if they’re too inactive and sedentary (like working a desk job.)

So working out more often, say six times a week, would give your body some exercise every single day. Theoretically, that’d help to use the nutrients you eat more effectively for building muscle. (Walking and moving more, in general, would also help you avoid getting fatter as you build muscle.)


There are other factors to consider like time and lifestyle

Now, I’m not trying to say that higher frequency is the end-all way to train. There is a lot more to it, such as genetics, personality, lifestyle factors, if you have a home gym, etc.

Sometimes optimal progress isn’t the goal—consistency is (and training less often can help someone stick with it.)

For example, if you’re heading to a public gym and you’re already finding it a big hassle to get there and get changed, it may suit you better just to do a longer, harder workout, but do it less frequently.

And in terms of lifestyle, not everybody wants to work out every single day. When you’re only working out 3x a week, that means over half of your week is spent resting and not working out in the gym. That’s pretty nice!


How I made the switch from 3 days to 6 days a week

I first seriously experimented with high-frequency training when I moved out of the city with my growing family. The four of us used to live in a cramped 650 square foot condo, where my gym was literally just a few doors down.)

With the big house, I finally had enough space for a home gym, and I didn’t want to drive 10–15 minutes to the local gym to work out.

What I found is that by having a home gym, it suddenly became easy to work out more often. I didn’t need to drive, park, sign in, get changed, etc. Instead, I could just head down to the basement and get to work. This made it incredibly easy and fun to work out. (Plus, sometimes my kids and wife will join me in a workout, and we get to have fun together that way.)

I find there are other advantages to a home-gym as well, such as:

  • It’s clean
  • It plays all my favourite music
  • It has all my favourite equipment in a style I like (got a black nickel-plated powerbar from Rogue, etc.)
  • It takes me 15 seconds to get there, so I can work out more often
  • No weirdos

Now, I love training about 6x a week, sometimes 7x a week, depending on how I’m feeling. (Obviously, there are some benefits to training at a public gym depending on your personality. Social support, friendly competition, etc.)


Summary

According to a study in 2019, even lifting just one day a week can radically improve your health. So if it comes down to consistency, even one day a week is better than nothing. But if you’re looking to build a substantial amount of muscle, you’ll need to work out more often to get in enough volume.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recommends that beginners train 1-3 times a week. Intermediates should train 3-4 times a week. And advanced lifters should train 4-6 times a week.

As we saw earlier, though, beginners could also train more often, as long as they divide up the same amount of work. One of the main mistakes I made when considering working out more often, as a beginner, was not considering the total volume. I was doing an intense program 3x a week. I (mistakenly) thought that meant adding another full day—or adding 33% of the volume. I didn’t understand that training more days every week meant keeping the same volume by spreading out the exercises over more days.

Muscle growth mainly comes down to volume (total sets per week), so you don’t need to train more often. But you may want to try it and see how it works out. You might surprise yourself.

  • Shorter and easier workouts
  • Might help to reduce DOMS/muscle soreness
  • It’s easier to play with increasing volume when you’re already working out more often
  • Working out more often can help someone get better results if they have bad work capacity
  • Working out more often may increase your testosterone and improve your T:C ratio (testosterone/cortisol)
  • Working out more often might improve nutrient partitioning (helping you get even stronger and leaner)

In our True Gains lifting and nutrition program, we include both a 3-day and 5-day lifting program. Even if you’re going to a public gym 3x a week, and you want to experiment with some of the benefits of lifting more often, we work in ways for you to do some extra bodyweight exercises at home on your “rest” days for even better gains. You can learn more about it here.

So what did you think? Have you tried working out more often? Leave any questions or comments below.

True Gains Program

2 thoughts on “How many days a week should I workout to build muscle?”

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  2. Pingback: Average cost to build a home gym in 2020—5 examples — Outlive

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