Time, energy, we’ve only got so much of it each day, so we need to spend it wisely. Time is especially precious, as it’s something we can’t get back.
This gives rise to the question “how often should I be working out?”, which has a couple of different answer attached to it.
You see, it’s not a question about training volume, as much as it’s a question of balance.
I’m a great believer in balance and symmetry - for every hour you spend on one thing is an hour sacrificed for something else. If you get something quickly, there’s a good chance you’ll lose it quickly too. Hard choices can make for an easy life, easy choices can make for a hard one.
This is something that hits home for many people looking back on a fitness/health journey - it was hard at first, but now it’s easier and life is better for it. In order to get good at something, they’ve had to sacrifice other things (maybe bad or destructive habits, so a good sacrifice).
There comes a point where it becomes more than sacrificing bad habits - junk food, Netflix binges, excess alcohol - and you need to start sacrificing good ones - time spent with friends/family, other projects or endeavours, proper rest - to make time for your new habit.
This is the real point that we need to ask ourselves “how often do I need to train?”. If you’re wanting to be the best in the world, it’s going to take an obsession and the answer is likely “as much as you can recover from”. If you’re just doing it for fun, then remember that - and ask yourself if it’s really worth sacrificing everything else for what is basically a hobby.
If you’re wanting to be the best in the world, or at least the best you can possible be, then you need to be able to justify it to yourself. You need to realise what you’re sacrificing and why you’re doing it. You need to bear in mind that while it’s your actions and your life, you still have responsibilities and your actions can impact other people. While I understand the drive and the WHY behind people looking to achieve, this is a call to ask yourself if it’s really worth putting all your eggs in one basket. Yes, it’s somewhat cool and metal dedicating your life to a single pursuit, but what happens if one day the basket breaks? What if one day your health suddenly changes or your circumstances? What have you got then?
This has been well documented by top level athletes who have retired or been forced to retire by things outside of their control - they don’t know what to do with themselves. They’ve put years, sometimes decades, into this one thing, and now they can’t do it anymore. Many become lost in destructive and unhealthy habits, losing all sense of balance in their lives. While this might not be the case for many of us, I think it is something to keep in mind when making the decision to sacrifice good things, like friends and family, just for fitness. Yes, sometimes it will be necessary to forward your performance, but that doesn’t mean it has to be your default each and every time for the rest of your life.
On the other end of the spectrum, if you eliminate fitness entirely from your life, there are a few negative effects that you can suffer - almost all stemming from your body becoming weaker in some way, as it has no stimulus pushing it to grow or get stronger. It could be your immune system, your bones, your heart health, it all benefits from a little exercise every now and then.
Once again it comes down to balance, doing something is better than nothing, but if we want to hit a certain goal or achieve a specific outcome, we’re going to need to put in a little more effort. Sometimes this is just a tougher session, sometimes this is adding more sessions to your schedule, either way here a few guidelines on where to start.
FOR THOSE WITH A LIFE OUTSIDE FITNESS (LIFE CENTRES AROUND LIFE)
Once a week minimum. The goal here is to be challenging yourself, but that doesn’t mean jotting down every single objective measurement you can. The goal is to do more than you used to, so if you go from working out 0 times a week to 1 time a week, that’s an improvement. Yeah it would be great to jump in the deep end and be working out 4 times a week, but if it’s too big a jump then it’s going to be 10x harder to stick to. We’re better off starting small, doing a little more than we did before, and building on it by making a little progress each week.
If you’re working hard, and doing something enjoyable, then you’re winning. If you can do more, or have fun and want to do more that’s perfectly fine, as long as everything is in a good balance.
FOR THOSE CHASING A GOAL (LIFE AND FITNESS IN BALANCE)
2-3 times a week working on your chosen goal, or moving towards your intended direction. While once a week is enough to get the blood flowing and our bodies moving, if we’re looking to hit a certain goal we’ll need to work on it more than once a week to give our bodies good stimulation and make meaningful progress. This doesn’t necessarily mean training the same movement 2-3 times a week, it just means working on it 2-3 times a week. This could be: hitting the movement, hitting a variety of the movement, using accessory or complimentary exercises to work on weak points and different aspects, working certain muscle groups, working on technique, working on endurance, working on speed, etc etc.
If you have more than one goal, or are working on several things at once to improve, that could mean extra training sessions. I’d still recommend you work an aspect of each goal at least twice a week, but how you arrange this is up to you. You could spread them out, hit them both in the same session, or work on different things at different times of the day. Bear in mind that some exercises could carry over to several goals (things like lunges for improving squats, leg muscles, and running; weighted carries, like farmers walk, for improving grip, traps, core stability and calves) and can save you some time in the gym.
FOR THE ATHLETE (LIFE CENTRES AROUND FITNESS)
Minimum of 3-4 times a week, depending on your sport/training style. Remember, it’s how much you can recover from - there’s no point going 7 days a week if we’re just doing more damage and getting weaker each training session. Get in, put in work, get out, recover, and come back for more. There is something to be said for pushing through when your tired or your muscles are sore, but this is more willpower training than anything else. For our bodies, working them at a high level is more beneficial than working them at low levels more often.
In general, it takes 2-3 days for a muscle group to recover and be ready to work at a high capacity again - this is for a general training day though, so if you’re blasting your muscle with greater than average volume or moving an ungodly amount of weight this could be a little longer, as joints may need extra time to recover (they have poor blood flow compared to the muscles, so takes longer for nutrients to get in them). Once again it boils down to the individual - 2-3 days recovery is a good starting point, but make sure to adapt this to your own situation, approaching it smart with solid warm up sets and assessing how your body feels before jumping into the high level sets.
There have been studies to show that light exercise can help the recovery process, so we could also benefit coming in extra days and practicing the movements with light weight to hone our technique and mobility. While beneficial, this choice is up to you - if you’ve got the time it can certainly help, but we’ll survive if we spend the time elsewhere.
MIXING IT UP
These categories are by no means absolutes - you could make great progress as an athlete working in a specific way once a week, or you could be someone who has a billion things going on outside of fitness and work out 5 times a week to maintain a level of health. These are just general starting points, it’ll be up to you to find what works best for you and your life.
It could mean working out 4 times a week for a month, then dropping to once a week, then up to twice depending on your schedule. That’s cool, we’re still moving and there’s nothing to stop us getting back into it when our lives are less hectic.
What’s more important is that we’re conscious of what we’re doing - are we sacrificing exercise for something meaningful, or for a bit of extra comfort? Do we really want to achieve this goal, knowing how much work it takes, or do we just want to do a little better each time and have a life outside the gym? We don’t need to justify it to anyone else, sure there’ll be trolls and plenty people to tut and shake their heads, but in the end we just need to be able to justify it to ourselves - by being honest and thinking hard about what we want to do with our time.
We only have so much of it, so how do you want to spend your time?