Exercise frequency has been and will continue to be an oft-debated topic in strength sports. How often you work out or how many times a week you hit your legs — AKA, your exercise frequency — is a very important part of navigating your workout program. The truth is, there’s no single gold standard when you account for other workout parameters like intensity, volume, and the fact that everyone who picks up a barbell is different.
It’s not easy to figure out how often you should train when there are so many different lifts that need attention — and so many recovery demands that training places on your body. Even if you want to work out five or six times a week, trying to do so might make your body feel like crap. But you’re not a bad athlete if you’re not hitting the gym daily. How often you should work out depends on a wide range of factors, none of which are about what you should do.
This article will explore the research behind exercise frequency, factors that can influence frequency, and a few pillars you can assess when finding your ideal frequency.
Defining Exercise Frequency
Exercise frequency refers to the number of training sessions one has in a given period of time (typically a week). It’s influenced by a wide range of things. How much lifting experience do you have? Do you have very intense training sessions? Are you getting sufficient sleep? You may want to work out every day, but should you? Figuring out how often you should train is key to making any program work optimally for your body, your brain, and your goals.
If you want to refine your definition of exercise frequency, even more, think about muscle groups or movements, too. Frequency is not just about how often you work out in general: it’s about what you’re doing during your workout. For example, a full-body split three times a week will have you hitting your legs thrice each week. On the other hand, you might train four or five times a week and have two specific “leg days.” While the second plan has a higher overall training frequency, the full-body split gives your legs a higher training frequency (three times a week versus twice).
Best Exercise Frequency for Beginners
You don’t need to work out all or even most days of the week to experience those sweet newbie gains, according to a 2015 study. (1) Training just once or twice a week is enough to stimulate growth, especially if you’re a newcomer to strength sports.
The study analyzed the differences in muscular strength and size of the elbow flexors (biceps) with training once or twice per week in untrained participants. Researchers had 30 subjects split into two groups who performed the same amount of total volume during their week. One group trained once per week while the other trained twice. The subjects in this study didn’t have a previous resistance training history.
Participants performed the same exercises and volume, including lat pulldowns, seated rows, and barbell bench presses. At the end of 10 weeks, both groups saw an improvement in muscle thickness, arm circumference, and peak torque in the right arm flexor. However, the group that trained twice a week saw slightly more improvements for the three criteria, and improved their peak torque to a greater extent than the single session group.
This suggests that if you’re a beginner, you can improve by training just once a week. But, if you’re able and willing to kick your training frequency up to twice a week, you might see even more improvements in muscle growth.
Best Exercise Frequency for Intermediate Lifters
If you’ve been lifting between one and three years, you likely fall into the category of an intermediate lifter. It’s likely that your body is ready to safely up the ante from your beginner’s workout programs — but how often does that mean you should lift?
A 2018 study split lifters into two groups: one group trained three times per week, while the other trained six times per week. (2) Despite the large difference in how often they trained, participants all performed the same workout volume across the week.
Upon the completion of the study, researchers noted that both groups saw an improvement in their 1-RM back squat, bench press, deadlift, powerlifting total, Wilks score, and changed their body composition similarly. Researchers, therefore, suggested that volume may be more important for improvement when compared to frequency.
What does this mean for an intermediate lifter’s ideal training frequency? If your recovery game is solid, you might benefit from training up to six times a week. But sticking to that same volume over only three to five days can give you the same benefits with less stress on your body.
Best Exercise Frequency for Advanced Athletes
You’ve been lifting for more than three years, and you love nothing more than the feeling of your gym on a slow Sunday morning. It might be tempting to chase new goals by simply training more often. On the surface, it makes sense: upping your training frequency is one obvious way to try and maximize your gains. Plus, when you can do so safely and with good recovery, it can be a lot of fun (and very emotionally satisfying) to train often.
But more frequent doesn’t always mean more effective. A 2019 study followed 23 well-trained cis male participants through two different eight-week protocols. (3) One group trained each major muscle group five times per week, while the other trained each major muscle group only once per week. However, the total volume and intensity were the same across the weeks.
Both groups made essentially the same gains in terms of overall strength and muscle growth. This suggests very strongly that volume and intensity are more important variables for success in the gym than frequency.
If you’re an advanced lifter, you can train your full body nearly every day and experience significant gains. However, you can also train once a week and make a lot of progress. Or, you can train nearly every day, but only focus on one major muscle group each day — and, yes, still experience big improvements. In other words, when you have enough training experience, the gym is your oyster. As long as you maintain a volume of about 10 sets per muscle each week, your frequency can largely depend on your preferences.
Does Training Once a Week Make a Difference?
So you’re an intermediate or advanced lifter and your schedule has been completely out of whack. You’re only able to grab some gym time once a week or so, and you can’t help but wonder… does it even matter?
Rest assured: your muscles will not wither away immediately, and keeping up with once-weekly training can make a big difference. Even athletes with a fair amount of lifting experience under their belt can benefit from training once a week, according to a 2000 study. (4)
For this study, researchers sought out to find differences between one-rep max strength pre-and post- 12-week exercise intervention in resistance-trained cis men. Participants were split into two groups, which either trained once a week or three times a week. The one day a week group performed an exercise for three sets to failure, while the three days a week group performed one exercise for one set to failure each workout. In other words, the total weekly volume was the same across the groups.
Over the course of the 12-week exercise protocol, both groups saw improvements in their 1RM strength, but the three days a week group saw slightly more improvements. Additionally, researchers noted that increases in lean mass slightly favored the higher frequency group. The key here is “slight” — there weren’t huge differences in one versus three days per week when the volume was the same.
So don’t throw in the proverbial towel if you’re only able to train once a week. This study found that, even in experienced recreational lifters, training once a week still increased lifters’ strength. As long as you keep your volume up, it’s worth it to get after it once a week.
How to Manage Exercise Frequency
You’ll draw up your ideal exercise frequency based on your goals. But your actual exercise frequency will depend on where you are currently. You might want to work out every day, but life happens. Not to mention, not everyone’s body recovers quickly between sessions, so you might find that your personal optimal frequency is lower than where you’d like it to be right now. Don’t let that discourage you: all things being equal, as with everything else in training, your frequency can change gradually.
There’s no clean-cut method to find your perfect exercise frequency, but there are multiple factors you can look at to try and dial in on what could be best for you. Below are a few categories and subcategories that could influence how many times you should work out each week.
Depending on your strength sport, there will be some variance in how often you need to train to progress. Everyone’s training history and preferences are different, but there are some consistent factors to consider.
Type of Sport
Powerlifting, Strongman, Olympic weightlifting, CrossFit, and bodybuilding will all have different demands when it comes to how often you need to train. For example, weightlifting may need a higher frequency as it’s more technical, while powerlifting may need less due to a higher fatigue factor. Regardless of your specific sport, make sure you’re prioritizing your recovery.
Time of Season
Are you in prep for a meet or in the off-season? The timeline of your sport’s season will play a big role in frequency. This is something your coach could assess and program accordingly for your needs, as fatigue accumulation will be highly present in some of these scenarios.
How long have you been in your sport? Some athletes who are further along their career may need increased frequency to match a stimulus they require to grow. On the other hand, they could also need less, as their sessions are more physically demanding. This is another consideration a coach could assess.
It can be hard to accept, but it’s also impossible to ignore: your lifestyle can play a major role when finding your ideal exercise frequency. For example, if you’re continually stressed and working long hours, but you want to train all of the time, yet you also continually feel run down, then you may need to train less often in order to progress. Below are a few lifestyle components to keep in mind for exercise frequency.
In some respects, stress is good in strength training — it’s how your muscles grow. But too much stress can decrease adrenal stores and deplete energy stores like glycogen, which negatively impacts your training.
So when you feel that stress is affecting your energy and performance, you may want to prioritize addressing that rather than tacking on additional training sessions. Remember, you don’t have to work out multiple times a week to maintain effectiveness.
Be honest with yourself and how much time you have to train. If you’re always pressed for time, and can’t get full, programmed workouts in without rushing, then you may need to reassess how frequently you can work out.
Sleep should be taken into consideration when finding your ideal exercise frequency. You recover the most while sleeping, and if you’re cutting your slumber short, then you may want to train less. Research backs this up: a 2014 study concluded that athletes who slept less than eight hours per night got injured 1.7 times more often. (5)
Nutrition impacts you in and out of the gym, and therefore it impacts how often you work out. Simply put: if you’re training more often, you’ll need to consume more food (AKA, energy) to match your output.
Especially since research supports the idea that volume and intensity are more important than frequency for gains, personal preference plays a big role here. Maintaining a consistent lifting routine is taxing on your mind and emotions, even as it’s incredibly rewarding. So don’t underestimate the power of enjoying something. If you enjoy lifting only on weekends, twice a week may be your ideal frequency. On the other hand, if training six times a week is both enjoyable and sustainable for you, then that’s probably your ideal frequency.
This might be a no-brainer, but a lot of athletes don’t ask themselves this question: what are your goals? When finding your ideal exercise frequency, your goals can play a major role in helping you decide where to start. Below are a few goals and how you might structure your frequency around them.
Strength and Power
If your main goal is strength and power, look at your training history and how your body tends to manage fatigue. You’ll be lifting heavier when chasing these goals, so your sessions will be more intense. Consider keeping a training log where you’re honest with yourself about how each workout feels. That way, you can notice if — for example — deadlifting wipes you out for days while you recover pretty well from squatting. If you’re programming your own workouts, try taking a two-week test: if you feel completely wiped the whole workout for every workout, then you may need to dial it back.
If you’re working to improve your cardiovascular fitness, then you can most likely get away with working at higher frequencies, depending on the total volume in your program. Often with this goal you’ll be using lighter weights, so you can train more often without feeling drained or sacrificing form due to decrease in neural capacity.
From the research above, both higher and lower frequencies can be beneficial for hypertrophy, but higher may be slightly better. If building muscle is your main goal, then make it a point to look at volume and realistic time allotments. You need a certain volume you need to build muscle. But do you have time and willingness to complete that weekly volume in one or two weekly sessions? Or would you rather split it into four or five sessions? It’s up to you.
What’s the Best Exercise Frequency for You?
If you’re a recreational lifter, organizations like the National Strength and Conditioning Association have some frequency recommendations for you. Check out their suggestions here:
- Novice: 2-3x/Week
- Intermediate: 3x/Week for total body training, 4x/Week for split-routines
- Advanced: 4-6x/Week
What about strength athletes in particular? Their demands will most likely be different than the recreational lifter. This being said, the table below has a few exercise frequency suggestions. They’re based on your strength sport and how long you’ve been training in that sport. Is the chart above perfect? Of course not. Use all the guidelines above — lifestyle factors, etc. — to craft your very own ideal exercise frequency. But if you like having a starting point set out in a chart, then this table is here for you.
Frequency, like every other variable in a workout, will be subject to the athlete at hand. So is there a truly singular ideal exercise frequency for everyone? Yes and no. Perfect is impossible, but there are ways to learn what’s best for you — just remember it will always be individual.
- Gentil P, Fischer B, Martorelli AS, Lima RM, Bottaro M. (2015) Effects of equal-volume resistance training performed one or two times a week in upper body muscle size and strength of untrained young men. The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness. 2015 Mar;55(3):144-9.
- Colquhoun RJ, Gai CM, Aguilar D, Bove D, Dolan J, Vargas A, Couvillion K, Jenkins NDM, Campbell BI. (2018) Training Volume, Not Frequency, Indicative of Maximal Strength Adaptations to Resistance Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 2018 May;32(5):1207-1213.
- Gomes GK, Franco CM, Nunes PRP, Orsatti FL. (2019) High-Frequency Resistance Training Is Not More Effective Than Low-Frequency Resistance Training in Increasing Muscle Mass and Strength in Well-Trained Men. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2019 Jul;33 Suppl 1:S130-S139.
- McLester John R. JR.1; Bishop, E1; Guilliams, M. E. (2000) Comparison of 1 Day and 3 Days Per Week of Equal-Volume Resistance Training in Experienced Subjects. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2000 Aug;14(3):273-281.
- Milewski MD, Skaggs DL, Bishop GA, Pace JL, Ibrahim DA, Wren TA, Barzdukas A. (2014) Chronic lack of sleep is associated with increased sports injuries in adolescent athletes. Journal of Pediatric Orthopedics. 2014 Mar;34(2):129-33.
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