How Frequently Should You Exercise?


Mike Lipowski
Frequency is defined as the rate of occurrence of exercise sessions. In other words it is how often you exercise. There are two ways of looking at frequency. The first relates to how often you train a muscle group. The second is how often any workout occurs. The frequency of your training depends on your goals, training demands, your muscle type (endurance vs. power, large vs. small) and recovery ability.

Those who have more endurance type muscles—referred to as Slow-Twitch (ST)—can tolerate a high volume and frequent bouts of exercise. Those whose muscles are larger and of the power type—referred to as Fast-Twitch (FT)—cannot tolerate as much volume or frequency.

The difference between these two muscle types is best observed by comparing a marathoner versus a sprinter. The marathoner is purely ST whereas the sprinter is purely FT. The marathoner could never achieve the strength and power of the sprinter. Likewise, the sprinter could never match the endurance of the marathoner.

Muscles need time to FULLY recover otherwise they will not develop, Function or perform up to their best.

The old adage: muscles don’t grow in the gym is absolutely true. Your workout serves as the stimulus for muscle and strength development but it is during the recovery process that you reap the rewards of your hard work. As a result of your workout you experience two types of stress: muscular and systemic. Recovery from muscular stress occurs relatively quickly. Even a heavily trained muscle will typically recover within 24-72 hours.
‘Systemic stress however is a bit tricky. This is the overall stress experienced by the other bodily systems such as the nervous system, endocrine and lymphatic systems. Not only are these systems impacted by your workout but by all the other stressors in your life as well as your nutrition and sleep patterns. If your body is rundown systemically it will negatively affect muscular recovery. And if your muscles are fully recovered but systemic stress is high it will affect in-gym performance just as the same as if they were not recovered.

Whether or not the systemic stress you incur is enough to obstruct recovery depends on a few factors.

They include workout intensity, volume, and frequency, and the stress of work, family, and daily living. For example, if you worked out five times a week but only two of those workouts are extremely demanding and the other three are very light then full recovery may be possible before encountering another bout of heavy demands. But if the intensity and/or volume of all five workouts is high then it may be too much to recover from in a short period (1-2 days) and your progress will suffer.

Adjusting Frequency

A common error people make is they increase frequency when their results plateau. Reasoning that more workouts (or higher volume) are necessary. They train for more hours and more often. Unfortunately they employ this tactic with little success.
When faced with this scenario of hitting a plateau you should DECREASE your training frequency. The reason why...

To allow more recovery time!

Training plateaus typically result from three situation: 1) you’ve reached the limit of your genetic potential, 2) your nutrition really really sucks, or 3) your body is overstressed and needs some uninterrupted or extended rest time.

Number one is rarely the case. Number two is often the case. But number three is almost always the case (and can be influenced by number two).

Reducing frequency is not necessarily a permanent solution but one that will give your body the extra recovery time it needs to get back on track and in a position to make gains again.

Tuning into the right Frequency

Just as there needs to be a certain amount of intensity and volume to stimulate muscle and strength development there needs to be a certain amount of frequency for optimal results. Two to four workouts per week is a sufficient and safe range to work within for the majority of people.

Occasionally increasing frequency beyond four workouts can be an effective method for increasing training demands on an interim basis (i.e. 1-3 weeks) but is not ideal over the long-run for all the reasons we covered related to stress. When utilized, these periods must be followed by 1-2 weeks of lower training demands to balance stress and recovery.