How Often You Should Lift Weights and How Many Exercises Per Muscle to Perform While Training
May 12th, 2012
You can ask three different trainers how often you should be lifting weights, and how many different lifts to perform on each muscle, and come out with three different answers.
What’s even more confusing is that they could all be right!
The frequency and volume you should implement with your weight training are actually dependent upon one another.
In general, the fewer days you can lift in a week the higher your volume should be.
If you can only lift with a frequency of 3 days a week, your training volume will need to be relatively high. Conversely, if you can hit the weights 6 days every week, you’ll want to tone down the number of sets you’re using to train a given muscle group during each of your training sessions.
Determining the Right Weight Training Frequency for You
The goal should be to train each muscle with
2-3 different lifts, using 4-5 sets per lift, each week. Unless you’re intentionally working on building up a lagging muscle group.
For instance, if you’re following a six day weight training plan, you’d want to train your chest with a different lift every two to three days with a volume of 4-5 sets each day.
If you’re only able to train three days each week, you may only target your chest one day, but you should use two or three different lifts of 4-5 sets during that single chest training day.
As you might have guessed, in order to train 3 days per week, while getting the same results as a 6 day training plan, you’ll need to spend a greater amount of time lifting during each of your 3 weekly training sessions.
This isn’t the ideal situation for natural weight lifters as training for longer than an hour or so has been shown to temporarily inhibit testosterone production and raise cortisol levels.
This combination promotes fat storage and less than optimum muscle gains and is the reason I don’t prescribe training plans that require more than 60-75 minutes of continuous training.
That being said, if you only have 3 days per week to devote to training, go ahead and spend whatever time you need to train each muscle group using 2-3 different lifts for 4-5 sets throughout the week and don’t stress if it takes you a little longer than 75 minutes.
Even though you’ll risk temporarily lowering your testosterone levels and increasing cortisol, the long-term muscle building benefits you’ll receive from sufficiently training each muscle on a weekly basis will outweigh these factors.
Do the most you can do with the time you have available and don’t sweat the details.
Training Frequency and Rest
The reason you need to structure your training as I’ve explained above is that your muscles will require an adequate amount of time to recover from each training session before being trained again.
The more volume you target a muscle group with, the more rest the muscles will require between training sessions. This is why you can train your muscles more frequently when applying lower volume implements.
Remember that training is a time to overload and strain the muscles, but muscle growth (i.e. the addition of muscle tissue) actually takes place during times of rest.
Many lifters make the mistake of training a specific set of muscles 5 days per week only to see little or no benefit week after week. Not allowing for complete recovery before training a muscle leads to reduced muscle gains for the following reasons:
• Your training performance will suffer when your muscles are still in a state of recovery
• You’ll be breaking your muscles down before they’ve achieved maximal myofibrillar hypertrophy
While the first point above is self explanatory, the prevention of maximal hypertrophy deserves a closer look…
Myofibrillar hypertrophy simply refers to the anabolic addition of muscle tissue. When the muscles are broken down and overloaded, as long as the nutrition for producing muscle tissue is present, the body will add additional muscle tissue to the affected muscles while repairing them.
If you aren’t allowing your muscles to fully recover before overloading them again you’ll be preventing your body from having sufficient time to rebuild your muscles and add the most muscle tissue possible to the stimulated region.
This is why the duration of rest you allow between training a specific muscle group needs to be proportional to the training volume applied.
If you train a muscle group with 12-15 sets, it may require several days for full muscle recovery to take place.
On the other hand, muscles trained with a low volume of 4-5 sets will be fully recovered in as little as 24-48 hours.
The Ideal Weight Lifting Frequency
Make no mistake, you can achieve significant muscle building results over time while training with a low frequency of 3 days per week using a high volume of sets, but most of my clients want to know what the ideal training scenario for muscle growth is.
When training 3 days per week, you’ll only be able to train a muscle group 1-2 times per week with high volume (if you’re being intentional about allowing for full muscle recovery). When only training a set of muscles once per week with high volume, the muscles are given sufficient time to fully recover, but then they remain stagnant in terms of their growth until they are trained again.
So, this can lead to days each week in which certain muscle groups are not in an anabolic state, which can add up over time.
The ideal scenario is to train each muscle group with 4-5 sets every two to three days. This specific combination of training volume and frequency enables your muscles to fully recover from each training session, while remaining in a continual anabolic state.
That being said, I understand that training six or seven days per week isn’t conducive to the schedule of the average person. So don’t fret if you can’t accommodate this ideal scenario.
Just make sure you’re training as often as you can, while giving your muscles time to fully recover before overloading them again, and you can rest assured that you’re getting the most out of the time you have available to train each week.
Admittedly, training volume and frequency can be a confusing topic. In fact, most people get these totally wrong and cheat themselves out of getting the results their working so hard to achieve.
As the saying goes, more is not always better. Instead of training harder and longer, many times the right periodization scheme is all your muscles need to jumpstart their growth and get you back on track.
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