As a personal trainer I get this asked a lot: “How many times a week should I work out and for how long?” I understand why this is such a common question. After all, we are all busy and want to spend our time as efficiently as possible. So unless you are a gym junkie, or otherwise harbour athletic ambitions, the following may be helpful for you in order to decide on your training plan.
First, how often you need to work out depends on a few variables. For example, your current health, fitness level, diet, genetics and your goals.
Apart from these, what is more important than the frequency of your workouts, is the question of what exercise you do (a well designed workout plan), at what intensity (how heavy do you lift) and what volume (how many reps do you do).
If you want to build muscle, then a well designed program with appropriate rest for each muscle group is important. If you want to lose fat (not muscle), then the more exercise you do, the better.
There is no study that can confirm a one size fits all answer to the above question. But there are studies that give indications of optimum weight and repetitions range.
If you train at 80% to 85% of you 1RM (1RM is the maximum weight you can do for one repetition), then 60 to 80 reps per muscle group per week are ideal.
If you train at a low weight, then 180 reps per week are recommended.
If you train somewhere in between, then your total number of reps would be in between too, i.e. 120 to 140 reps ideally.
Not everyone likes to work out in the gym though and lift weights. And depending on your health, age and current fitness level (see above), workout duration varies. It is best to ask a personal trainer to make a specific programme for you. But, in order to answer the question very generally, here is my advice:
- Find a sport or exercise you like. If you don’t like it, you won’t do it (or at least, not for long). Try different things and see which ones you like: boxing, running, bootcamp, basketball, zumba, ballet, spinning….
- If you have no health issues and are fairly sedentary, I would recommend to get moving every day for at least 30 minutes. I know this sounds like a lot, but 2 or 3 days a week that could mean just going for a long walk or doing a yoga practice.
- Try to do a weight bearing exercise twice a week. If you split train (e.g. work out upper and lower body on different days), then you would have to do more. And if you have specific goals regarding building muscle, you would probably do more as well.
- Try to do a workout that gets your heart rate up twice a week. That could be a run, HIIT training (high intensity interval training, which at the same time is also weight bearing), swimming, cycling, skipping rope (which could be part of a boxing workout?), playing basketball, swimming – do whatever you like best.
- I recommend 30 minutes as the minimum, but that of course also depends on the quality of the workout. Always go for quality over quantity. There is no point in jogging on the treadmill for one hour (unless this is part of a specific training plan) – you can get a more effective and efficient workout in by running 30 minutes incorporating some hills or sprints for example.
- Personally, I find workouts under 15 minutes not very effective. If you include your warmup and cool-down/stretch, your actual workout is less than 10 minutes. I know they say something is better than nothing, and it’s certainly true, but in my opinion, if you have a sedentary lifestyle, your body wants and needs to move more. It’s ok on some days or “easy days” and if you can do one 15 minute workout in the morning and one in the evening then that would be definitely better (but of course, this depends on your goals as well).
As you can see, there is no one-size-fits-all to this question. There are also two other aspects to keep in mind:
- It can sometimes get tempting to overtrain. Once you realize how endorphins (the happy hormones) kick in during and after a workout, you may start craving that high. However, it is important to give your muscles appropriate rest so they can recover and grow. That also includes quality sleep. Now, as with everything, how much rest the muscle you trained needs, depends on various elements: your age, physical ability, quality of sleep, diet and your lifestyle (how active or sedentary it is). Studies don’t agree on a set rest period (mostly because it depends on the above mentioned variables). So the best advice I can give you is to listen to your body. If you feel sore or exhausted, it is better to rest. As long as you don’t use tiredness as a constant excuse to skip that workout….
- A lot has been written about the best strategies to lose weight. And it seems to be one of the most important motivations for people to get into exercise. However, as I have written before, exercise is overrated in my opinion when it comes to losing weight. Don’t get me wrong here – exercise is absolutely necessary to keep healthy, feel good and may help in terms of motivation to lose weight. But as I see it (and know from my own experience of losing nearly 30kg!), weight-loss happens in the kitchen. No amount of exercise can outdo a bad diet. And a lot of people take exercise as an excuse to have that piece of cake or slice of pizza. Exercise is still good for you, but you are not going to lose weight if you don’t eat right.
I would be interested to know how often and for how long you work out and how you feel about it. Also let me know if you have any questions about this, I would love to hear from you!