When it comes to getting the most out of every workout, there’s nothing quite like strength training. Besides burning major calories in the gym, resistance training builds muscle, strengthens bones, boosts metabolism and might even fight belly fat better than doing cardio alone.
But should you sprint straight to the squat rack every damn day? Not so fast.
How Much Is Too Much Strength Training?
Strength training and its benefits are all about balancing stress and recovery. Every time you perform a strength exercise, you create microscopic tears in the muscles you’ve worked. So when you take some time off from working that muscle, its fibers are able to repair themselves and come back stronger than they were before, explains Tennessee-based personal trainer and strength coach Hannah Davis, C.S.C.S. On the flip side, if you tax the same muscles every day, you aren’t them the time they need to actually become stronger, she says. Instead, you’ll risk overtraining and lackluster results.
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So how often should you strength train? It depends on exactly what you’re doing to build strength. Let us break it down for you a bit.
If You’re Lifting Weights…
As a general rule of thumb, you should shoot for hitting the weight room three days per week, says Gavin McHale, a Winnipeg-based kinesiologist and certified exercise physiologist. And, during each visit, you should hit most (if not all) of your major muscle groups, performing one “big” lift, like a squat, bench press, along with various “smaller” ones like shoulder presses, leg abductions, lat pull-downs, curls and lunges.
By performing total-body strength workouts like this, you stress each muscle group enough to build strength, but not so much that you have to take multiple days off between each strength workout, he says. Plus, you’ll have time to enjoy other activities (softball, yoga, walking, you name it) on a more recreational basis, he says. Those active recovery or cross-training days will actually help you get more from each pound of iron lifted. Not only will they get the blood flowing, they “can provide more oxygen and nutrients to those sore, torn muscles and speed up recovery time,” Davis says.
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Now, if you really wanted to lift weights five-plus days a week, you could do it. You would just have to work different body parts on different days to prevent overtraining. But that’s both complicated and requires spending more time in the gym than most of us have, McHale says.
The best rule of thumb: Listen to your body, and remember that your lifting schedule can evolve over time. For instance, if you feel very sore for more than a couple of days, if you notice your workout performance declining, or overall, you just feel fatigued all of the time, you may need to space your weightlifting sessions out a bit more, Davis says. Or, if you want to stick with a three-per-week schedule, perform a couple fewer exercises per workout. That is, until you start to get stronger and feel like you can take on more work without feeling spent. And trust us, you will get stronger.
If You’re Doing Mostly Bodyweight Exercises…
Bodyweight exercises are ideal for strength training newbies. That’s because, not only do they allow you to focus on the movements without worrying about dumbbells and barbells, they are generally less difficult than their weighted versions. (Less weight = less difficulty.)
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The fact that they are easier, though, also means that you can perform them more often without risking overtraining, McHale says. In theory, most people, even newbs, can safely perform bodyweight exercises five to seven days per week (hello, Daily Burn 365!).
How often you choose to get in a bodyweight workout should depend on exactly what you’re doing during each no-equipment workout, Davis says. For instance, pull-ups and box jumps are going to tax your body way more than tricep dips will. As will high-intensity circuits. As a general rule, plan to hit your bodyweight workouts anywhere from six to three days per week, remembering that the more intense your workouts, the more recovery you’ll need to work in. Listening to your body is critical in finding that balance, Davis says.
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Also remember that with bodyweight workouts, as you get stronger, you’ll likely have to perform more reps to get the same muscle-building effect, McHale says. After all, unless you are using TRX straps for your bodyweight work, you can’t really adjust an exercise’s difficulty without performing more reps. When you get to the point that you’re performing more than 20 reps or so per set, consider adding weight. That way, you can perform fewer reps of each exercise, helping to both save you time as well as excess stress on your joints.
If You’re Doing Core Work…
Whether it’s with weights or bodyweight moves, you generally don’t want to work the exact same muscle two days in a row or you’ll risk overtraining. “The core is an exception to the rules,” Davis says. “The core is not easily over trained and can be trained back-to-back, even seven days per week.”
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That said, for the sake of having a life outside of your core workouts, it’s best to simply integrate a few core exercises into each of your workouts, strength training or otherwise, McHale says. Bonus: A lot of great core exercises, like planks, can double as back, leg, and even shoulder strengthening moves.
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