Fitness, Strength

Training frequency: How often should I workout to build muscle?

Is there an ideal number of times to train to maximise your muscle growth?
Dec 2020 monthly calendar

The number of times you hit the gym each week can have a big impact on the muscle building results you’ll see in the mirror.

But perhaps not for the reason you think.

More certainly isn’t always better. And your training frequency may be better dictated by other training metrics, such as your volume goals, fatigue and general availability and enthusiasm to hit the gym.

Below we dive into what we mean by training frequency and the impact it can have on your training results. 

We also look to help you weigh up what your optimal training frequency should be.

This article is part of our muscle building fundamentals series. The series looks to cover all the key concepts you need to understand to maximise your muscle building journey.

What do we mean by training frequency?

Training frequency is a measure of the number of days you hit the gym over a given time frame or a measure of how often you work a particular muscle.

Your overall training frequency will often differ from individual muscle training frequency. 

That is, you may hit the gym multiple times in a week but only hit particular muscles once or twice.

For example, a 3-day full body program sees you hit the gym 3 times per week. And, in most cases with full body training, you’ll hit each major muscle group every session too. In this instance, both your overall training frequency and individual muscle training frequency are the same.

However, more advanced programs that see you hit the gym 4,5 or 6 days per week will usually differ.

A 4 day upper lower split, for example, sees you hitting the gym 4 times in a week but you only hit each muscle group twice (2 upper sessions and 2 lower). In this instance, your overall training frequency is different to your individual muscle training frequency.

Similarly with the infamous bro split that sees you hitting the gym 5 or 6 days per week but with a specific muscle focus for each day. Meaning you only hit an individual muscle once a week (or zero times per week in the case of most gymbros legs!).

When it comes to training articles and discussion you’ll find that the term training frequency is used interchangeably. 

It can mean your overall weekly training frequency or that of specific muscles/muscle groups.

As you advance in your training the frequency that you train individual muscle groups arguably becomes more of a consideration.

And this in turn is what shapes the overall number of times you hit the gym in a given week or training cycle.

It’s also worth pointing out that your training programs do not have to strictly follow a 7-day cycle.

You could have a set-up that sees you hitting each muscle twice over 8 days. For example, a push, pull, legs routine where you follow a 3 days on, 2 days off regime.

That said, as with most things in life, convenience sees most of us adopt 7-day cycles so we can track weekly volume and measure progress from week to week.

Does training frequency matter and, if so, how often should you train?

We’ll drop the bombshell right out the gate, but it seems that increases in your weekly training frequency have a limited impact on muscle hypertrophy. 

That is, bench pressing once per week may be no better or worse than benching 2 or 3 times per week.

This position was supported in a 2019 paper by Schoenfeld, Grgic & Krieger who undertook a systematic review and meta-analysis of 25 studies designed to investigate the effects of weekly training frequency on hypertrophic adaptations. 

There is an important caveat, however. 

That being that the above statement assumes that overall weekly training volume remains the same, regardless of training frequency. 

Put another way, completing six sets of bench press once per week will likely net a similar result as benching three sets twice per week.

However, benching six sets on both Monday and Thursday would likely yield better results as you are doubling your overall chest training volume.

This chimes with an earlier study by the same author that suggested there may an advantage to greater weekly frequency, assuming volume was also increased. Where volume remained the same the study also showed limited variation between frequencies.

It is argued that this may be related to the bodies natural muscle protein synthesis window, which seems to be elevated for up to 36 hours post exercises.

During this window, your body’s capacity to repair and grow muscle seems to be greater, provided sufficient training stimulus, nutrition and recovery.

So, by training more often you are creating more opportunities for muscle protein synthesis, which in turn provides more opportunities to grow new muscle tissue. 

However, while the research seemed to indicate greater gains could be made by training twice per week, there was no evidence that training more than this (3 or 4+) provided any greater benefit.

Again, this chimes with the aforementioned MPS window timeframes and it may be that there is little more to gain from additional training once your body has entered an MPS phase and you can rest for the next day or two before training the same muscle again. 

So, we have a slight contradiction with one study saying frequency doesn’t impact hypertrophy and another suggesting that training 2-3 times per week is best for maximal gains.

But what both these studies seem to add weight to is the hypothesis that training volume (the total you lift each week) and training intensity (how hard you work each session) are greater contributors to your muscle growth.

So, can you forget about training frequency and nail all your workouts on Monday and kick back for the rest of the week? 

Well, maybe in theory, yes.

But in reality, there are other considerations and far better ways of doing things to maximise muscle growth.

Why training frequency does matter - more gym sessions, more time for volume

We cover training volume in more detail here. But, as alluded to above, training volume is a key contributor to your overall muscle and strength gains. This becomes more so as your lifting experience increases.

In summary, most research points to a training volume sweet spot anywhere from 10 – 20 working sets per muscle per week.

As a lifting novice, you will see results at the lower end of this range, if not even lower. As your experience grows, however, you will likely benefit from increasing your training volume for certain muscles.

Remember that training intensity is another key driver for muscle growth. And you want to be taking each working set pretty close to technical failure, around 1-3 reps short.

Now, if you consider that you only have a finite amount of energy for each training session and that this energy pool is depleted with every working set, you may begin to appreciate why training frequency becomes an important consideration.

With the best will in the world, you will struggle to complete 20 working sets at a sufficient intensity for any given muscle in a single training session.

And, even if you could, there is simply no way your 20th set will be at the same intensity as your first few. Thus you are likely heading into the realms of junk volume and/or risking injury pushing through to such high set numbers.

And the problem gets worse the more advanced you become.

When you first start your fitness journey you’ll see huge gains with just the big compound moves. E.g. your squat, rows, bench press, deads etc.

As you progress, however, you will need to start adding in more specific exercises to target more specific muscles.

Instead of just relying on the bench press and/or military press to boost your shoulders, you will need to add in specific moves to target your medial deltoids (e.g. side lateral raises) and your posterior deltoids (row variations, face pulls etc).

Suddenly your shoulder training volume has gone from 6-8 sets per week up to 18 plus. And this is just your shoulders. When you add in your chest, back, legs, arms etc. you can see how frequency becomes a key tool to manage your training volume and recovery.

Put another way, 20 working sets for your chest in one session is insane. 6-8 sets per session, 3 times per week, however, is very achievable and likely more effective as it can be completed at a higher intensity.

This is why smarter training programs see you hit the gym more times in a week. The higher frequency allows you to hit the higher volume levels required to see continued gains, while also maintaining intensity (i.e working hard enough to elicit growth) and managing fatigue.

Practice makes consistent but deliberate practice makes competitive

Training frequency also matters when it comes to perfecting your lifting technique, and especially honing your competitive lifts (should you wish to compete).

This is because getting good at something requires you to practice doing said thing.

And, to really excel, you also want to break down said things into their component parts and master them also.

It is the same with resistance training.

If you want to get really good at squatting, you need to practice squatting and the accessory lifts that support it, i.e. front squats, leg presses, split squats, hip thrusts, good mornings, leg extensions etc.

Someone who dedicates 3-4 days per week to practising their back squat, including different weight/rep protocols and accessory lifts, is likely to see far greater and quicker improvement than someone who squats just once per week.

Lifting isn’t just about brute force. Technique matters too if you want to get really good at lifting and maximise your strength. This is particularly the case with the competitive Olympic and powerlifting moves.

One trillion gymbros can't be wrong

As is often the case, what happens in a controlled lab may not always translate directly to the outside everyday world.

Despite the research indicating that increased training frequency isn’t a major driver of muscle growth. Most observable real world evidence seems to demonstrate otherwise.

Even the most die hard gymbro traditionalists have moved away from the ‘bro split’ and will hit some muscles more than once per week. (Although, as the evidence shows, they perhaps weren’t wrong using the gymbro split in the first place!).

The same is true of most Olympic and powerlifters. If they are trying to improve their squat they will be squatting more than once per week.

And, a look at any of the gazillion online training plans (including our own) or a discussion with any top coach will generally result in a plan that sees you hitting individual muscles more than once per week.

But this isn’t down to the fact that higher frequency automatically equals more gains

It is due to higher volume and intensity resulting in more gains, which in turn require higher frequency to fit in with time constraints and to allow sufficient recovery.

How to programme/think about your training frequency

So, while training frequency may not seem quite as important as training volume and intensity when it comes to maximising your muscle growth, it is still important to consider when planning your training program. 

To this end there are 3 key things to think about:

  • How often can you work out?
  • What is the optimal (or your preferred) frequency that ensures you get in sufficient volume to see the results you want?
  • How much rest do you need between sessions?

For reasons touched on above, the second bullet on our list is the more important consideration if we were focused purely on maximising gains.

But, we start with the first bullet as the ‘best’ frequency for building muscle may not be the ‘best’ for you if it doesn’t fit with your current lifestyle, availability or enthusiasm for training. 

You need to decide how many days you will commit to the gym each week and make sure it is a realistic proposition. 

As with achieving most anything worthwhile in life, building muscle requires repetition and consistency. You must, therefore, set a realistic schedule that fits in with the rest of your life and which allows you to maintain it, week in week out, for months on end. 

Ideally, your training time should be non-negotiable, i.e regardless of what else is happening in your life you always make the time for your gym routine. 

But, unless you’re a professional athlete this is far easier said than done. 

Our other commitments, be it family, friends, work/college or other hobbies, will demand our time and energy too.

So, be honest about what you are prepared to commit to and if in doubt start small and build up.

Training frequency and volume guidelines

For novice/beginner trainees, training 2-3 times per week will deliver results. A full body routine that hits each major muscle group for 10-12 sets over your 2-3 sessions will produce substantial physical changes.

As the training bug grabs you, or you wish to progress from training for general well being into bodybuilding or powerlifting, you will likely benefit from adding in additional training sessions.

This isn’t because the higher frequency is better (as the research shows), but because additional sessions allow you to more easily increase your training volume, target more individual muscles, and work harder while managing your fatigue.

As you progress you may find that certain muscles require higher training volume to see continued growth, anything up to 20-24 sets per week. By splitting your training across more sessions, so increasing both your total and individual muscle frequency, you can hit these higher volume targets in a more time efficient and sustainable way.

Again. completing 20 working sets for the chest in one session is mad, completing 6-8 sets 2-3 times per week is far more sensible.

You’ll likely find that different muscles react better/worse to different volume levels and not all muscles will be the same. That said, if training at an appropriate intensity, you shouldn’t need to take any muscles much above this upper threshold.

If you do, you are likely entering the realms of diminishing returns and would be better served by switching up your other training variables (i.e. intensity) and working at a slightly lower volume level.

Recovery between sessions

Provided you’ve worked hard enough in the gym and are fueling your workouts sufficiently, your muscles do the actual growing stronger and bigger part while recovering after/between sessions.

This is why it’s important to schedule sufficient recovery time between gym sessions. 

As touched on above, studies suggest there is a post workout muscle growth window that lasts around 36 hours. After this time muscles growth stops and a new stimulus (another training session) is needed to start another growth window. 

If you are following a full body programme, this then provides you with an obvious guide as to how to programme your weekly gym sessions, spread them out at least 36 hours apart. 

The easy way to do this is to follow a day on/day off principle until you hit your weekly volume target. 

For more experienced lifters, it is thought this post training ‘muscle building window’ shrinks. This means that they may benefit from, and be able to tolerate, higher volume and frequency training.

All that said, your ability to recover will be somewhat unique to you and depend on your training intensity. 

Some trainees can happily work out back to back for days with little ill effect, others may require multiple days of recovery between sessions. This is also true of individual muscles, with some able to recover far quicker than others. 

Again, this can be very individual, but generally the larger the muscle the longer it will take to recover. Smaller muscles (biceps, calves etc.) on the other hand, recover very quickly and thus can cope with back to back training days and/or higher weekly frequency.

In summary, as a novice lifter, it is sensible to allow 36-48 hours between each gym session, particularly if your sessions are full body focused. So, if you are working out on a Monday, take Tuesday off and return all guns blazing on Wednesday. 

A 3 day per week, full body programme working out Monday, Wednesday and Friday obviously fit into this schedule well. 

As a more experienced lifter who may have plateaued with 3 workouts per week and who is looking to increase their volume, scaling to 4,5 or 6 days per week would be beneficial. 

However, if you are working out more often and doing back to back days in the gym, avoid working the same muscles on consecutive days. 

E.g. Monday may be an upper focused day (as per the popular upper/lower split) and Tuesday would then focus on your legs. Wednesday can then be a rest day, or you can complete another upper focused day. 

Regardless of the final training frequency you employ it’s best to always allow at least one full day out of the gym per week to support recovery.

Final thoughts

So, when all is said and done is there an ideal training frequency to maximise your gains?

The short answer? probably not. And as much of the research shows you can ultimately train at a frequency that works best for you, at a specific point in your fitness journey. 

You can absolutely make gains training a muscle just once per week. But our experience and gut make us contradict some of the research slightly, as we would generally always recommend training a muscle more than this to maximise progress and results.

We say this not because training a muscle more often is unequivocally better. But because a greater training frequency allows you to more easily increase your training volume and maintain high a training intensity. Both of which are important to build muscle. 

So, the tried and true 2-3 day per week full body programme is a great way to start your muscle building adventures. 

As you progress, adding in additional gym sessions is a great way to continue your progress or specialise. 

Moving to a 4,5 or even 6-day split allows you to hit more individual muscles for more working sets while keeping individual gym sessions to a reasonable time limit and managing your fatigue.

It’s worth stating, however, that there is no absolute right way to train and what works well for one person may not be so great for you.

So, be your own lab rat and scientist, try out different training frequencies and see what works best for you and ultimately what you enjoy the most. 

When trying to build a regular lifting habit (which you should aim to do) one of the most important elements is consistency. 

So, whether you lift just once per week or hit the gym 4 plus times, just make sure you do it consistently. 

And don’t forget to fuel your workouts and muscle growth and ensure you are allowing sufficient recovery time to reap the benefits of your hard work.

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Size Guide

Measure around the fullest part of your chest – keep the tape measure close under the arms

Size

Chest – Inches

Chest – CM

Small

31 – 34

78.7 – 86.4

Medium

35 – 38

88.9 – 96.5

Large

39 – 41

99.1 – 104.1

X-Large

42 – 45

106.7 – 114.3

2X-Large

46-48

116.8 – 121.9

Size

Chest – Inches

Small

31 – 34

Medium

35 – 38

Large

39 – 41

X-Large

42 – 45

2X-Large

46-48

Point Blank