Are you confused about how often to go to the gym? Judging by the volume of Google searches for this question, it seems that many people are.
The answer is quite simple:
You should go to the gym as often as your ability to recover allows. The better your body is at recovering, the more frequently you can go to the gym. The more frequently you work out, the more muscle you build.
There is no magic number that works for everyone. There are, however, guidelines to follow.
- If you prefer full-body workouts — that is, you train all of your muscles multiple times a week — allow 36–48 hours between workouts. That means you should do about 2–3 full-body workouts a week and take at least 3 days off.
- If you prefer split routines, train large muscle groups (chest, back, shoulders, and legs) every 5–7 days and small muscle groups (biceps, triceps, and calves) every 2–4 days. In total, you should go to the gym 4–6 times a week if following a split routine.
However, like I said, these are guidelines that depend largely on one’s ability to recover. Some people may require a lot more (or less) time to recover.
Here are the 7 factors that affect recovery time.
- Age: As you get older, your ability to recover slowly decreases up until the age of ~40 (at which point it will decrease more dramatically). This effect is strongly correlated with testosterone levels in men. Aside from taking exogenous testosterone, there isn’t much you can do here.
- Nutrition: In order to recover from a workout, you must feed your body the right nutrients in the right amount. Unlike age, this is a limiting factor that is completely under your control.
- Intensity: The more micro-trauma that results from a workout, the longer your body needs to repair the damage. No surprise here, right?
- Job: Your occupation can have a big impact on how fast you recover. The more physically exhausting your job is, the longer you will need to recover. A construction worker, for instance, will require more time than an office clerk.
- Stress: The dangers of stress go far beyond a decreased ability to recover. Too much stress can result in high blood pressure, diabetes, depression, anxiety, and heart complications (11). If you suffer from heavy stress, consider a meditative practice such as mindfulness meditation or Tai Chi.
- Rest: In order to recovery from a workout, you must get at least 6–8 hours of uninterrupted, high-quality sleep.
- Special Methods: These are methods that claim to improve recovery time. I have tried many of them and found only two that work reasonably well — taking cold showers and foam rolling after a workout. Both methods work by stimulating blood flow to the muscles.
As you can see, there are many ways to improve recovery time, and the faster you can recover, the more frequently you can hit the gym.
How is this beneficial? Does hitting the gym more frequently equate to more gains? Of course, it does!
Most fitness professionals would disagree and argue that working out too often results in overtraining. But what does overtraining even mean?
Overtraining happens when you exceed your body’s ability to recover from strenuous exercise. As long as you recover fully from a workout, no damage will be done from training. Overtraining doesn’t only occur from excessive exercise. For instance, if working out every two days while getting enough sleep does not result in overtraining, working out every two days with minimal sleep most definitely would.
To really benefit from going to the gym, you must focus on optimizing recovery.
If you think about it, this is fundamentally what bodybuilding is about — optimizing recovery so that you can build the most muscle in the least time.
This explains why anabolic steroids are so rampant in bodybuilding. Steroids, such as testosterone, increase the rate of muscle protein synthesis (MPS) which is the biological mechanism whereby protein is built to repair damage caused by intense workouts.
Because bodybuilders are able to recover so well, they can train multiple times a day, every day of the week. This is how they are able to pack on muscle so quickly.
How many times should you work out each week?
I believe the optimal number of days to hit the gym is five times per week, but doing so requires a relativity strong ability to recover from a workout.
Before we discuss how recovery can be improved, we need to establish a solid starting point, a method of progression, and a way to gauge our progress.
I recommend you begin by working out three times a week. Cool?
Now, let’s define our metric for success.
The most important thing you need to know is that muscle is built through the application of one simple concept— progressive tension overload. Forget what anyone else has told you. Forget about the drop sets, burn-out sets, and all that other hokum. That stuff looks fancy, but it is not backed by any science.
So, what is progressive tension overload? It’s based on the idea that a muscle is built by forcing it to adapt to a tension that it hasn’t previously experienced.
In other words, to build muscle you must try your absolute best to periodically lift heavier and heavier weights. Thus, as long as you are lifting more and more weight each week, you are succeeding in your goal of building muscle. Our metric for success will therefore be the amount of weight we lift.
As long as you follow this golden rule, you will make progress.
To visualize your progression better, I highly recommend tracking how much you lift (and for how many reps) with a good fitness planner. This is the one I use.
If you don’t want to buy a planner, I have created a cool Excel template that you can use to keep track of everything. It comes with many built-in functions that rate your progress and warn you if you are overtraining. Submit your email below to receive a free copy.
After a few weeks, you should increase your workout frequency to four times a week. Train at this frequency for another few weeks and keep track of your progress (more specifically, keep track of how much weight you’re lifting and for how many reps).
If you see a decline, go back to training three times a week.
If you see an improvement — or, at the very least, similar results to when you were training three times a week — increase the frequency to five times a week.
All along this process, you should be working on improving your ability to recover. Let’s jump into that.
How to speed up muscle recovery
The faster you recover from a workout, the more often you can go to the gym.
The more often you go to the gym, the more muscle you will build.
To see how to speed up muscle recovery, let’s revisit some of the factors we looked at before.
As I mentioned above, there aren’t many ways to counter the declining ability to recover that comes with age. However, if you are a male over 35 and have noticed a dramatic drop in athletic performance, you should speak with your doctor about checking your testosterone levels.
If you happen to suffer from low testosterone (also known as hypogonadism or low-T), your doctor may recommend testosterone replacement therapy (1).
Testosterone level is so vital to a man’s well-being that I urge all men to have it checked. If you suffer from low-T, treating it will be life-changing (2, 8, 9).
If, for whatever reason, you can’t get your levels tested through your doctor, there are many at home saliva test kits available. I have never used one, but I know a few guys that have gone down this path for confidentiality and cost-related reasons.
If you discover that your levels are below average — or you would like to increase them a little — supplements known as testosterone boosters can help.
The issue is that the majority are dangerous or downright illegal. However, there is one exception— a product by The Genius Brand, called Genius Test. I’ve done quite a lot of research on testosterone boosters and found this product to be one of few that is effective and safe. It caught my attention a few months ago, after noticing that it received very high ratings on Amazon, and I decided to give it a try.
While it wasn’t as effective as the (now illegal) boosters I have tried in the past, I had zero side effects and, most importantly, it did not result in an estrogen rebound when I stopped taking it.
The most notable ingredients it contains are boron (a trace element that is vital for the production of testosterone) (3), natural herbs such as ashwagandha and longjack (both safe and extremely effective at boosting testosterone levels) (4, 5), and an ancient plant extract called shilajit, which has been proven to increase testosterone and improve cognition (6, 7). Check the “references” section below to learn more about these ingredients.
The first thing I tell all beginners is that muscle is built in the kitchen. Diet is the single most important factor in your fitness journey, especially if you are a beginner.
For beginners (and intermediate lifters who still eat incorrectly), improvements in diet will yield the greatest results. If you want to understand bodybuilding nutrition, I highly recommend Bigger Leaner Stronger by Michael Matthews.
Once you have mastered nutrition, you can start looking at supplements. Proper supplementation is important as it improves the body’s ability to build proteins through muscle protein synthesis (MPS). This process is vital to the repair and maintenance of skeletal muscle.
Many fitness experts claim that taking branch-chained amino acids (BCAAs) immediately following a workout will improve protein synthesis because, well, amino acids are the building blocks of proteins.
For the most part, BCAAs will not help build muscle (unless your diet is severely lacking) as your body cannot store excess dietary amino acids. With that being said, many people swear by them and report positive results. They are fairly safe to consume, so don’t hesitate to give them a try if you can afford to do so.
Consuming whey protein (post-workout), on the other hand, has been proven countless times to improve muscle protein synthesis. A study conducted at Birmingham University tested the effects of whey protein on MPS in adult males (1). It was discovered that consuming 10 grams (post-workout) had no effect, while consuming 20-40 grams improved MPS by over 50%!
In my opinion, the only supplement you really need is proper whey protein powder, and I can’t recommend OPTIMUM NUTRITION Gold Standard 100% Whey highly enough. It has been my go-to for over 10 years.
One of the best ways to alleviate stress is to meditate. I like to meditate for 15 mins before I have breakfast, after a workout, and before bed. I’ve been doing this for about two years and have noticed a dramatic improvement in the areas of stress, anxiety, sleep, and muscle recovery. Check out the mobile app Insight Timer for a nice library of guided meditation recordings.
The amount and quality of sleep you get is a huge limiting factor in building muscle. According to HealthLine.com, sleep deprivation can result in decreased production of growth hormone — a naturally occurring peptide that stimulates muscle growth and cell repair.
Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep each night. More importantly, aim for as much uninterrupted sleep as possible.
This can be quite difficult if you are a light sleeper like me. If you do have trouble falling and staying asleep, I highly recommend the LectroFan High Fidelity white noise machine (arguably one of the best investments I have ever made). This machine has been running non-stop in my home for the past two years and shows no sign of wearing down. At night, it helps me sleep well, and during the evening, it helps me focus on my work by blocking out background noise.
Taking a cold shower after a workout improves muscle recovery by reducing the inflammation caused by a workout. This alleviates DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness) and, according to Healthline.com, can boost weight loss.
Another method for speeding muscle recovery is foam rolling. According to research, foam rolling after a workout reduces muscle soreness effectively and, furthermore, speeds up muscle recovery (10).
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