07 Jun How Often Should You Work Out: What You Need to Know
Working out is good for you in so many ways. It protects your cardiovascular system, decreases stress levels, improves sleep, helps maintain muscle, strength, and bone density, and boosts your immune system. Need we go on?
If you’re simply aiming for general health, those benefits might be all you’re after from your weekly workout. Many people have more specific goals though, like losing weight or building muscle mass. Each of those goals requires a slightly different focus in your workout routine. It also changes the answer to the question, “How often should you work out?”
Before we look at how often you should work out for your specific goal, let’s review the different components of your ideal exercise routine.
Types of Exercise
Ideally, you need to include four different types of exercise in your workout program: cardio, strength training, stretching, and core muscle work. Each of these has a different effect on your body, but if you want to lose weight and/or build muscle, strength training and cardio give you the most bang for your buck.
Cardiovascular exercise — or cardio, as it’s fondly known — is aerobic exercise. The goal is to increase your heart rate between 120 and 150 beats per minute. Cardio burns calories, and, not surprisingly, it’s great for your cardiovascular system and your circulation.
There are different kinds of cardio, depending on the level of intensity you want:
- Moderate-intensity cardio might include 30 minutes of brisk walking, biking, swimming, dancing, or even yard work.
- More intense exercise — which burns more calories — could include 25 minutes of running, fast swimming, kickboxing, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT).
- LISS (low impact steady state) exercise, such as walking, cycling, or hiking to round things out.
The key here is to do what you enjoy. Otherwise, it’s unlikely to be sustainable. Before you decide how often you should work out, experiment with different types of exercise to find out what you like.
Also known as resistance training, this works by creating minute tears in your muscles. During your recovery time (and while you sleep), those tears are repaired, and in the process, the muscles grow bigger and stronger — which is known as hypertrophy.
This muscle growth isn’t the only benefit of strength training though. When you increase lean muscle mass, you also increase your metabolism, helping you burn through more calories even while you’re resting.
When it comes to timing, if you’re doing strength training a couple of times a week, aim for between 45 and 60 minutes per strength session.
For strength training, you can use a resistance band or lift weights — such as deadlifts or working the kettlebells — or simply use your own body weight — for example, doing some squats, lunges, pull-ups, or pushups.
When you’re focusing on muscle building, aim to work out all the different muscle groups, although not necessarily all on the same day. Instead, rotate your weight training through your various body parts over the course of a week. For example, you might focus on your upper body one day, working on your chest, abs, biceps, and triceps, and your lower body the next, hitting your legs and glutes.
In fact, the best exercises use several muscle groups at once, giving you a full-body workout that also activates your core and burns calories. You might try a shoulder press as you squat, do chest presses, or spend some time on the rowing machine.
To avoid hitting a plateau, you need to keep challenging your body by periodically changing things up. You could increase the weight you’re lifting or the number of reps or sets. You can also switch to a different set of exercises.
- Unless you’re a seasoned gym-goer who knows exactly what you’re doing, it’s a good idea to consult a certified personal trainer (CPT) for advice before you start. A CPT can help you think through your goals and put together a workout schedule that’s tailored to your needs. They’ll make sure you warm-up and do your exercises correctly to reduce the risk of injury. They can also help you establish exactly how often you should work out.
- If you’re suffering from any kind of medical condition, make sure you get medical advice from a doctor or other professional before you start a new exercise routine.
How Often Should You Work Out? Be Clear on Your Goals
Once you’ve decided on your fitness goal — be it general health, weight loss, or building muscle — and you understand the different types of exercise, it’s time to look at how often should you work out.
Ideally, you’ll be aiming to work out four to five days a week, with at least two rest days to let your body recover (and your muscles repair themselves). Those rest days don’t have to be couch days — although they can be if you like. You could do some stretching, go for a gentle walk, or do a yoga or pilates class.
That said, you also need to consider your fitness level. If you push yourself too hard too soon, you’re setting yourself up for failure. Extreme fatigue and muscle soreness are guaranteed to affect your level of motivation and your physical ability to keep going. If you’re a beginner, start slowly, perhaps with two or three days a week, and work up to the recommended training frequency. The way you structure your workout time will vary, depending on your goal.
How Often Should You Work Out for General Health?
If you want to maintain a basic, healthy level of fitness, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends 150 minutes of moderate physical activity or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. You could split that up over four or five days, and ideally, two of those days should be strength exercise to build and maintain muscle.
The mix of cardio versus strength training isn’t so important here. Perhaps start with about half each of cardio and strength training:
- 2 days of cardio
- 2 days of strength training
You can then add some extra conscious movement during the day. For example, get up and stretch every hour or so, go get a glass of water in the kitchen, or step outside for a breath of fresh air.
How Often Should You Work Out to Build Muscle?
To build muscle, you need a combination of strength training and good nutrition, specifically protein. While you might think that you simply need to work out intensively, be sure to avoid overtraining.
If you’re restricting your calories — which provide you with energy — and you do a lot of cardio during your training sessions, you use up too much energy that way. Your body then goes looking for more, and it starts breaking down your muscles to access the glycogen stored there. That’s counterproductive to your muscle-building goals.
You do need to do some cardio but keep it lower intensity (or if you must do high intensity, then keep it shorter) to spare that energy for your muscles.
- Either 2 days of moderate cardio or 1 day of intense cardio
- 3–4 days of strength training, alternating between your upper and lower body
How Often Should You Work Out for Weight Loss?
Weight loss is largely the result of improving your eating habits and getting plenty of exercise. This combination helps you use up more calories than you take in. According to the CDC, a healthy weight loss would be 1 to 2 pounds a week.
You can support this process further by exercising to lose body fat and build lean muscle mass, which as we discussed earlier, speeds up your metabolism. While some high-intensity cardio is excellent, don’t neglect your resistance exercise.
An effective workout schedule should include:
- 2 days of vigorous cardio
- 3 days of strength training, especially full-body workouts
Also, add extra movement to your day whenever you can. For example, take a meeting standing up or walking, take the stairs instead of the elevator, or enjoy a gentle walk after work.
The Role of Nutrition
Regardless of which of these fitness goals you’re focusing on or how often you should work out, make sure you give your body all the nutrients it needs. Your body needs protein, carbohydrates, and healthy fats, as well as plenty of fresh fruit and vegetables.
That said, the real nutritional star for all these fitness goals may well be protein. When you consume protein, your body breaks it down into amino acids. Those amino acids are used to build that lean muscle you’re after, as well as your bones, organs, and other parts of your body. It also boosts your immune system and helps to give you energy.
Even if your goal is simply health and well-being, getting enough protein is critical. If you’re building muscle, you need even more protein to support that process. And if you’re losing weight (and hopefully building muscle too), protein keeps you feeling full for longer, reducing the urge to snack when you shouldn’t.
Bear in mind that the body doesn’t store protein, so you need to get it from what you consume daily:
- If you’re moderately active, you need around 0.8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight every day.
- If you’re exercising more intensely and want to build muscle, you need closer to 2 grams of protein (or more) per kilogram of body weight per day.
That’s quite a bit of protein and you may struggle to get it all from the food you eat, no matter how many steaks, chicken dinners, or bean patties you wolf down. Luckily, it’s easy to get extra protein from supplements. Protein powder can be added to many different things, from smoothies or shakes to oats, soups, stews, and even chocolate brownies.
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How Often Should You Work Out? It Depends on You
How often you should work out depends on your fitness goals and your fitness levels. Whether your goal is general fitness, building muscle, or losing weight, your fitness routine should include both cardio and strength training. The number of days you spend on each type of exercise will vary based on your goal.
Another important component of your workout program is nutrition. Make sure you get all the nutrients you need — especially protein, which supports your goals in multiple ways. If you can’t get all your protein from food, use a high-quality protein supplement to fill the gaps. It’s nutritious, can be delicious, and will get you to your goal that much faster.