If you’re trying to build muscle, incorporating strength training into your workouts is a must if you want to see results. That said, overworking your muscles can have a negative effect that you want to avoid. Based on your skill level, the amount of days a week you should strength train varies, but four workouts a week are likely to render muscle-building results. In this post, we’ll help you figure out what workout schedule is best for you to reach your goals.
How often should you strength train?
One of the keys to physical fitness (and mental health) is a balance of cardio and strength training. According to the American College of Sports Medicine and the CDC, you should aim to exercise for 150 minutes a week. Depending on your fitness goals, you can allot this time appropriately for cardio and for strength training. For those looking to build muscle, you can refer to these guidelines published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) regarding the recommended frequency of strength training:
- Beginners should train one to three times a week.
- Intermediate should train three to four times a week.
- Advanced people should train four to six times a week.
These guidelines seem easy enough, however, strength training looks different for everyone. Many factors besides frequency affect the efficacy of a strength training session for muscle growth, including the number of reps and sets you do, and how much weight you’re lifting (if you’re using weights).
Strength training for beginners
When you start a strength training program, we recommend that you start small and work your way up to a more intense level the longer you’ve been training for. Starting out with two strength workouts a week will help you build muscle — as you get stronger, in order to continue building muscle you’ll have to increase the intensity and frequency of your workouts.
If you’re a beginner, start with one to two sets of each exercise for the first month. For each set, do 8 to 12 reps. After the first month, increase to 12 to 15 reps for the next four weeks. To determine what weight is appropriate for you, make sure you’re not overworking yourself — the weight should be manageable but heavy enough that the last 2 or 3 reps are very difficult. As you get stronger, consider adding another set or increasing the weight more.
If you decide to do three strength training sessions a week, for example, be sure to do different exercises in each session. However, repeat these three sessions every week to ensure you’re consistently working the same muscles.
Be sure to space out your training sessions so that you have 48 hours for muscle recovery, especially if your session was intense.
The benefits of training more frequently
You may find that the more frequently you strength train, the easier each session is. A 2018 study looked at two groups of 22-year-old men, both of which were doing the same lifting routine per week. Whereas the first group knocked out the whole workout on one day, the second group spread it out over three days.
The three-day-a-week group reported that the shorter, more frequent workouts were easier, whereas the other group found the single workout more challenging. It makes sense, right? A 20-minute workout (albeit, three times a week) seems much less daunting than an hour-long workout, especially if you’re a beginner. Not only that, the three-day-a-week group reported more muscle gain.
The shorter your workout is, the easier it is to increase the weight or the intensity of your workout. With more intensity, you’ll ultimately become stronger and see more muscle growth.
Incorporating strength training into your routine
As discussed earlier, a healthy workout routine involves a combination of cardio and strength training, with more emphasis placed on either depending on your fitness goals. Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist Noam Tamir told Self Magazine that if you’re trying to build muscle mass, aim for two to three strength-training sessions a week. Each strength training session should last about 40 to 60 minutes, plus a short warm-up beforehand. For beginners, even just two thirty-minute sessions per week is a good starting point.
For heart and lung health, and to improve your endurance, do a cardio routine two to three times a week, in addition to strength training.
If you work out five days a week, the other two days are your rest days. Don’t take “rest” too literally, though. Active recovery is perhaps a more accurate way to describe your off days. Without engaging in any intense physical activity or cardio, you can still be active. This can look like a yoga class or a thirty-minute walk around the neighborhood. Active recovery can help reduce muscle soreness and maintain flexibility.
With any type of exercise, you want to make sure the work you’re performing feels good and that you enjoy it. Everybody is different, and some things that work really well for people don’t work as well for others. That applies to strength training, as well. If your strength training routine is causing you pain, it’s a good idea to rethink your program and double back on the intensity. On the other hand, if your strength training routine is too easy, you might not see any results unless you push yourself harder and do a more intense routine.
So how often should you strength train in order to build muscle? The answer differs for everyone, but four-strength workouts should be enough to build muscle in most people. For beginners, four might be pushing it — remember to start small. And remember that it is not only the frequency you’re working out that helps you build muscle, it’s the intensity of each workout. Depending on your skill level, your fitness goals, and your physical strength, the right amount of strength training needed to build muscle varies for every person.