Help! How Often Should I Train?

Training Continuum for Injury Prevention

In continuing with my ‘Help!’ series (1,2,3), one other frequently fielded question I get is ‘how often should I train’ or ‘when in the week should I train?’

Most people want me to write them out a detailed weekly calendar, explaining exactly what to do on each day.

In my experience though, this is the equivalent of catching a fish for someone, rather than teaching them how to fish.

Sure it ties into the human need for certainty, even if you never fully plan to do what I tell you, and I honestly hate telling people what to do, I’d rather help you figure it out for yourself.

You’ll get more out of it that way. Here is the process I take clients through to help them determine the optimal training schedule for them.

Before I get there, I have to mention the two basic types of training sessions you’ll find in my recommendations:

  1. Neuromuscular System Development (NMSD – Resistance Training/Strength Training/Weight Training/Plyometrics/Shock Training/Mobility Work, etc…)
  2. Energy System Development (ESD – Training of the 3 energy systems – ATP-CP, Glycolytic, Aerobic; many people may refer to this as ‘cardio’ or ‘conditioning’)

I would also like the mention Mobility Development (MD) as something I encourage people to do before (sometimes during) and after workouts — static or quasi-isometric work 3 hours after is best, but not always practical.

A fourth one in the athletic world would be ‘Technical Training,’ but from a strength and conditioning or weight loss point of view, it is essentially these two types of training, the technical training is the NMSD or the ESD itself.


The Minimums

Before I go any further…“Anything is Better Than Nothing.”

You can quote me on that, in fact tweet it right now.

Will you see a ton of physical change by terms of weight loss heading to the gym once a week and sitting on the couch the other 6?

Probably not, but it’s better than sitting on the couch 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it often leads to good vibrations ala Marky Mark.

It’s been my experience that the process of long-term weight loss is almost always a snowball effect.

Working out once a week week at first may seem futile, but eventually you have this big freakin’ ball of snow at the end.

Start small and add time as you free it up, prioritize and drop a few less important commitments. Once a week can progress to twice a week, three times a week, etc…etc…

Small changes tend to make the process easier on you as a person, as opposed to trying to do everything right from the get go. A massive overhaul to your lifestyle, is more likely to fail, than small deliberate changes.

This 2011 cohort study, showed that as little as 92 minutes of moderate-exercise (what’s moderate right? haha) a week yielded 3 more years in lifespan on average. There were small increments of improvement in every 15 minutes you add further — though no upper limit is discussed and likely exists…

150 Minutes per week is a common minimum recommendation. Roughly 2.5 hours, or to me ~3 training sessions a week.

Keep in mind, most ‘minimum exercise’ research seems to be applied to longevity, health markers, and disease rehabilitation, NOT (unfortunately) weight loss scenarios.

What Experience Tells Me

No doubt, there is a direct relationship to the number of hours you are willing to dedicate to the process, and the results you will see.

It’s important to keep in mind that training six times a week won’t be six times as effective as once a week. It’s not a linear relationship but it will still speed up the process to a degree.

According this study, one day a week of resistance training only achieved 62% of the results that the same amount of work spread out over 3 days achieved.

i.e. you will be better off doing short workouts 3x a week, than one long workout only once a week.

Indicating that doing the exact same amount of work more frequently, improves your result. However, it was only about 1/3 better overall.

If you can’t free up 3x a week of training, then training well once a week is still a lot better than nothing.

If you can squeeze the same amount of training into one day that you might do spread out of three (within reason) you can still get a pretty good result.

Can’t get to the gym for an hour once a week? Try 20 minutes 3x a week instead.

In my own experience I would determine that an upper limit for healthful weight loss exercise is 6 days a week (which I hope you find surprising), or about 6 hours of training for non-competitive athletes, and about 12 if you’re training for something semi-serious, but still want to have a life.

Athletes will be closer to 20 hours, depending on the sport, and financial stability to train. Not including time spent studying things like tape or working with massage therapists…

Proportionately for the average person, this is only about 3.5-7% of the time available to you in the week, and I’ve seen people get great results with 1.75% of their time per week.

Seems reasonable right?

Time Dedicated ≠ Results

Purely speaking, the amount of time you invest in training, does not always translate to the best results.

The method matters. The approach matters. If you don’t have much time, you have to find ways to optimize your approach with the time you do have.

If you have certain qualities you want to train and improve, you need to consider the ideal minimums for achieving success.

More won’t always equal better, smart training will. More can be better, providing it’s still high quality. There is always an upper limit though.

How long is the absolute minimum amount of time you can spend training and still see great results?

The jury is still out on that but here are some of my thoughts:

  • Circuit Training (i.e. the Eight Minute Workout) can help you lose some weight in <10 minutes bouts, but you likely won’t build much strength
  • Moderate Cardiovascular Training – To improve the aerobic system using moderate intensities you need >20 minute bouts
  • Vigorous Cardiovascular Training – Can provide substantial improvements <10 minutes of interval training bouts (i.e. the McMaster Protocol or even Tabata’s)
  • Weight Training is complicated and will depend on what you want to achieve and how you break up the training.
  • Weight Training for Muscle Growth? 2-3x a week per muscle group, (3x a week for novices, 2x a week for more advanced), 40-70 reps per muscle group, or about 4-8 sets at 70-85% 1RM. 8-18 sets per week per muscle group seems about right.
  • Weight Training for Strength? 2-3x a week per major lift trained (same rules as above for experience), <15 reps per lift, or 2-8 sets at >85% 1RM per training session, or 4-16 sets per lift a week. Give or take…
  • Bone Health/Density and Explosive Training = 15-25 impacts, 2x a week at most

These are just optimal minimums I’m considering off the top of my head.

If you intelligently broke up 10 minutes of 1-2 lifts a week, 6x a week, you’d likely get a similar training effect to 20 minutes of 2-4 lifts 3x a week.

There are a lot of ways to manipulate these numbers and they only represent ‘ideals.’ They ignore the more important consideration I discuss below: The time you have available to you.

A high quality program delivered to somebody with a high level consistency can probably account for an excellent result with as little as 2 hours a week of total work effort.

If you’re not in that ballpark anything you can do is still better.

Once we get you to 2 hours, we keep trying to bump it up.

The more experience you have, the closer you are to maintenance phase you are, the less you can probably escape with while maintaining your body weight.

The less experience you have, the faster you will gain experience if you can train more frequently, but never take on more than you can handle.

As little as 250 hours of quality training practice can turn you into a very competent trainee.

To give you some perspective, that’s five hours of work each week for a year, or three hours a week for 20 months.

Yes you can do White Belt Fitness and Skill Based 2+2 for that long if need be and you cycle the training appropriately.

Personally I like to progress my weight loss clients up to at least 3 hours per week of quality training, and I’ve seen moderate to good results at that level.

Again, I’ll keep repeating myself, start small and work up.

Great results lurk closer to the 5 hour mark per week, but again that depends on ability, and ability is something I can teach, and you can learn.

Next question!

How Much Time Do You Honestly Have?

This is actually the most important consideration. People get locked up on ‘optimal’ numbers far too much, without first considering practical numbers.

Yes, it may be optimal to lift weights 3x a week as a beginner, but if you have kids, a husband, a busy job and you don’t know yet know how to free up 3 hours a week.

Where does this leave you?

That’s right, on the outside looking in. Struggling to train three times a week, often to a point where you just skip training entirely.

Some training will always be better than no training, so if you can’t commit to three times a week, commit to once a week for a while.

Most people love an all-or-nothing-approach. They would love for me to tell them that they need to work out 5 times a week to see results, end-of-story.

Most all-or-nothing approaches fail. Or they can only succeed in the short-term. No one can be perfect, despite their attempts.

Is it really effective for me to tell you, you need to work out 5 times a week to see great results, if you feel you can only reasonably free up 2 or 3?   NO!

I know you’re excited about getting fit, everyone starts out that way, but take a minute to have an honest conversation with yourself.  

How much time can you legitimately free up right now between the half dozen committees you sit on, your 50-hr work-week job, your loving wife or husband, hanging with your friends and looking after the ankle biters?  

Ya six times a week at the gym doesn’t look so appealing now, does it?  

I still bet you can free up 2-3 hours though. Especially if that is spread out over several 20 minute sessions during the week.

Take a good hard look at your schedule. Pencil in a realistic time commitment first and foremost.

My Recommendations

After you’ve determined how much time you can commit, commit to it.

You should have a clear picture of your Primary Goal, but you can always tweak the program as you go.

You will likely have to experiment via trial and error to figure out what actually works for you and your lifestyle. Track, learn, tweak the program.

Small frequent training sessions have appeal to some. Longer less frequent training sessions appeal to others. However, even when something seems ideal, it may not end up being when you try to put it into practice.

Let’s say you determine you can commit to <10 minutes a day at a high frequency of about five/six days a week and you want to lose fat primarily.

Try something like the Eight Minute Workout approach.

After your first month you don’t do many of the planned 5-6x a week ten minute sessions and you get a pretty lackluster result.

What do you do?

Re-evaluate your approach. That means your time commitment but also the method.

How many sessions per week did you actually do? Start there.

Small frequent training may not be the right approach for you. If you did 2-3x a week, maybe longer sessions of 2-3x a week would work better for you.

The 2×2 training framework can easily be catered to 20-40 minutes 2-3x a week.

If you only made once a week training; Try a 60 minute session once a week. 10 minutes of mobility work, followed by 30 minutes of resistance training with 2×2 and finish with 20 minutes of some ESD work.

The Resistance Training Consideration

Unless your primary goal is to improve cardiovascular fitness (i.e. you’re an amateur endurance athlete), I encourage people to layer/dedicate more time to resistance training initially.

Research indicates that of the two main forms of exercise you have time for, resistance training is the most ideal for weight, strength, muscle development and health changes — when combined with dietary changes.

When resistance training is done appropriately it yields better results across the board, but it also cascades significantly more into ESD development. ESD work, doesn’t translate as well in the other direction.

Obviously you can’t gain the right kind of lean muscle mass without it either. Nor could you build much strength or explosive power.

Resistance training can be tweaked to any objective and has the biggest impact on almost all of your physical goals — the lone exception being endurance athletic performance, but even here 1-2x a week lifting will be very supportive.

If you’re starting out with only once a week of training, spend it lifting.

If you’ve only training twice a week, spend it lifting.

Get to at least 2x (maybe even 3x) a week of lifting before you start dedicating significant time to other things.

When it comes to resistance training you’re generally going to be looking towards longer but less frequent training sessions. You want a day off between training the same muscles anyway.

With a good warm up, you’re likely looking at a minimum 25-60 minute time committment per resistance training session.

You’ll need at least a day’s active rest and recovery between bouts of NMSD training for the same muscle groups. If you’re only doing two per week, you can certainly take more.

So a schedule might look like Monday and Thursday at this point.

From there, I would typically add another NMSD session for simplicity sake, but it depends on when you can train.

This might end up looking like Monday, Thursday and Saturday, or Monday/Wednesday/Friday even.

The Rationale?

ESD can easily be added at the end of NMSD sessions depending on the amount of time you have, without a significant drop off in quality, sadly the reverse is not as true.

You likely don’t need 60 minutes of lifting. If you’re efficient with your time (like 2×2 training) you can likely get a solid training session in under 40 minutes. Easily leaving 10-20 minutes for ESD after your NMSD training.

You can make considerable cardiovascular improvements in that amount of time as I indicate above. So 3x a week of lifting for 30-40 minutes, followed by 20-30 minutes of cardiovascular work is an excellent routine overall.

Cardiovascular Considerations

Cardiovascular conditioning is most useful and I’m more likely to encourage you to add it if your resting heart rate isn’t at least close to 60 BPM upon waking.

That’s kind of my general health marker for the need to improve or maintain cardiovascular fitness. If you’re not close, you will benefit from more cardiovascular work, especially aerobic work.

Aerobic work is lost faster but also developed faster than strength or resistance training qualities. Meaning you have to mix in short concentrated bouts of it to balance that 60BPM resting heart rate consideration.

Whereas I feel resistance training should be more of a constant in your routine.

If you’re short on time to commit to aerobic work intervals may be more useful for energy system development but be careful with too much High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) in the mix.

In short HIIT might not develop elasticity in the heart and blood vessels the same way, so much as they improve other markers of cardiovascular fitness — things like VO2max and Heart Rate Recovery (heart rate should drop 19 or more BPM a minute after you stop exercise).

Want More?

At this point if you want to commit to more days/time, you can separate NMSD from ESD and do them on alternate days.

For instance if you’re up to 4 times a week, it may be beneficial to do the following:

NMSD – Monday and Thursday

ESD – Tuesday and Friday

OR Five Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Saturday

OR Six Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday

Just make sure you take a day off for a light swim, walk the dog, or a leisurely bike ride.

Summary

Rather than ask how much training you should do, figure out how much time you can commit to it.

Then work backwards from there.

Use a series of self-experiments to figure out what approach works for you over time. It might take you a month to figure out the ideal schedule for you, it could take 6, maybe even a year.

You have to balance what life throws at you along the way, so your routine will likely have to change at some point anyway.

Your goals will likely change at some point anyway.

If you can commit a short amount of time really frequently see how it fits.

If you can commit a large amount of time really frequently, awesome! See how it fits.

If it turns out you can’t do as much as you think, track what you actually end up doing. Make that your new frequency approach.

If you were doing short training sessions really frequently and you transition to less, you will likely have to add some time to each individual training session.

If you were doing really long training sessions at high frequency but couldn’t get through your workouts, then you likely have to shave some time off each individual training session.

Conversely, you could start out just committing to once a week. Maybe it’s longer, maybe it’s not that long.

If you’re doing one short session a week, that’s better than nothing, but your approach should be to add time to that session. Once you’re up to 40-60 minutes, you may want to consider increases frequency.

Is this optimal in terms of results?

Of course not, but it’s a far more practical approach than sweeping claims about optimal training frequency/time committed.

It doesn’t matter what the optimal approach is if you can’t stick with it. Adherence to your program is the thing that matters most, so choose a schedule that works best for you.

If you need some help, join the Skill Based Fitness Facebook Group and ask for it.


Also published on Medium.