This is usually one of the first questions new clients ask me, they want to know how often they have to sweat it out in the gym to see results.
That’s not an unreasonable question, right? Not at all.
There is this general myth that working out and dialing in nutrition in order to see results is incredibly complex and must be approached “correctly”. It doesn’t help that there is a lot of confusing (and often conflicting) fitness and nutrition advice out there, and everyone has an opinion. Now I grant you, that the more advanced the athlete, the more complex the training and nutrition must become in order to continue seeing results. But for the average bear, fitness doesn’t need to be made complicated.
So back to the question at hand, how often does one need to work out to see results?
My answer to this question is “it depends, what are your goals?”.
I know, it’s really annoying to answer a question with another question (looking at you, Socrates), but in this case it’s necessary. I usually recommend someone with a weight loss goal to do some sort of activity most days of the week with active rest days, ideally.
Someone with a goal of increasing lean body mass (LBM) and strength, or improving overall fitness, can get away with exercising fewer days per week. The International Journal of Exercise Science published a study that compared high frequency strength training to lower frequency training. In this study, subjects were split into two groups; the high frequency training (HFT) group that trained three times per week working within 3 sets per exercise, and the low frequency training (LFT) group that trained once per week working within 9 sets per exercise.
The study found that the resulting gains in LBM and strength were nearly identical for both groups (Thomas & Burns). What this means is that as long as the volume and intensity of the workouts are the same, frequency doesn’t really make much of a difference.
This is really good news if you’re super busy and can only make it to the gym once a week. Just fit your total volume of training into one workout and you’re good to go. On the flip side, if you’d really rather not cram everything into one workout and prefer to spread it out over several days during the week, that works too.
Either way, the results should be more or less the same. Like I tell my clients, the best way is the way that will work for you. If it works for you, you’re much more likely to stick with it and see the results you want.
Thomas, M.H. & Burns, S.P.. (2016). Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. International Journal of Exercise Science, 9(2), 159-167.