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How did you plan to study for an exam? Most students focus on studying the days leading up to the test, but they know that they would do much better if they spread out those hours of study over the months. Many of us have experienced the end result firsthand: if you are lucky, you pass and two days later you don’t remember any of that study marathon. What would have happened if instead of studying 50 hours in the last week we had spread those 50 hours over 50 days, one hour per day? The grade would have been higher, comprehension would have improved considerably and today we would remember much more of that information.
It’s the same with training: we can focus our training volume on fewer days or spread it out over the week. It will largely depend on the goal we are training for, our performance level and our lifestyle. If our work is physically demanding, we get little sleep and our diet can be improved, we will be able to train with quality on fewer days per week. If we work sitting in an office, or our salary comes from sport, we sleep eight hours every day, we eat well and have healthy habits we will be less fatigued to train even seven days a week.
How many days a week do you think we should train to break the Guinness record for the heaviest pull-up in the world? How many days a week do you think Hadi Choopan, the champion of Mr. Olympia 2022, the most important bodybuilding championship in the world, trains? How many days a week do you think Tia-Clair Toomey, the undisputed queen of CrossFit, trains? On the other side of the coin are all the people who are far from the elite, who train to be better athletes and have a good health.
How many days a week should I train to be healthy?
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American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is one of the world’s leading sports health bodies. Since 1975, it has been establishing minimum physical exercise recommendations (Piercy et al., 2018). The World Health Organization (WHO) is another worldwide reference organization that frequently establishes the amount of physical exercise that is appropriate to perform on a weekly basis (Bull et al., 2020). Based on both entities, these are the weekly physical exercise recommendations to be healthy and the days we should train per week.
Weekly aerobic activity to stay healthy
For significant health benefits, adults should engage in between 150 minutes and 300 minutes of moderate-intense activity per week, or between 75 minutes – 150 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week. Preferably these amounts should be spread throughout the week. An example of distribution is 30 minutes five days a week; 20 minutes three times a week; or a mixture of both.
That’s the recommended amount for adults between the ages of 18 and 64. For children, older adults and special populations the guidelines are different. You can see what those minimum physical exercise recommendations are completely in this link for the ACSM, or this one for the WHO.
Strength sessions per week to get healthy
Adults should perform strength training that involves large muscle groups in the body for two or more days a week. To achieve greater benefits, it is advisable to train strength more days per week. Both the ACMS and the WHO have been giving more and more importance to strength training, to the point that the benefits of strength training sessions will soon be put on a par with those of endurance training.
We now know that levels of strength and muscle mass are directly associated with health (Li et al., 2018), so we must give this quality the importance it deserves by increasing the number of days we train it per week. Two or three weekly strength sessions for a minimum of health are fine, but if we want to squeeze more its advantages it is advisable to include a greater number of sessions, especially if we seek to increase our muscle mass.
Physical exercise and health: a dose-dependent association
Additional benefits are obtained if these levels of physical activity are exceeded, since the association between physical exercise and health is dose-dependent. This association does not follow a completely straight line. A little physical exercise brings us great benefits (Gibala, Little, Gibala, Little, & Physiol, 2020), but as we train more those benefits become less for each hour of movement. This gives us two clear conclusions: moving a little is better than not moving at all; moving more is better than moving less (without going to unhealthy extremes).
So how many days a week should I train to be healthy? That question has no answer. If we stick to the general health recommendations, we could answer that between three and five days depending on the intensity and joining strength and endurance training in the same session. But knowing that extra benefits are obtained, we could also answer that question by saying that training seven days a week is fine.
Of course, the more days of training, the more we will spread the volume. In fact, an increasingly used strategy is to incorporate into our daily routine small exercise snacks in which we perform an active rest of a certain intensity to break the sedentary lifestyle (Islam, Gibala, & Little, 2022). Short one-minute episodes, repeated several times a day can also be considered as training, and can be performed on a daily basis.
How many days a week should I train to improve strength and power?
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Imagine that in a few months you want to break the Guinness World Record for the heaviest pull-up in the world. How important would you consider pull-ups in your training and how many days would you do this movement? David Marchante, known as Powerexplosive, lived that scenario and trained pull-ups every day. Training every day doesn’t mean to blow ourselves up every day. One of the basics of training with a high frequency is “stimulate, not damage”.
Thanks to the velocity measuring devices that can be obtained for a much lower price than laboratory equipment, strength training can be programmed much more accurately. There are a large number of strength programs that are considered to be the most effective for gaining strength and power. Some of them are: Strong Lifts 5×5; Wendler 5/3/1; or Boris Sheiko’s various programs. They all have three things in common: they train strength three or four days a week; each day is very demanding; they do not measure fatigue with technology such as velocity measuring devices.
These common characteristics mean that we cannot train more than three or four days a week because it would be counterproductive. On the other side of the coin, we have the example of the Guinness record for the heaviest pull-up in which he trained every day. Along the same lines, we have authors like Perryman who put forward the idea of doing squats every day (Perryman, 2013). Who is right? Everyone. We can improve strength and power by training three days a week and also by doing it seven days a week.
More fatigue per day, fewer days a week; less fatigue per day, more days a week
To gain strength it is not necessary to reach muscle failure, or even come close (Grgic, Schoenfeld, Orazem, & Sabol, 2022; A. F. Vieira et al., 2021). Muscle failure creates considerable fatigue at the neuromuscular level that will lengthen the time we need to recover (J. G. Vieira et al., 2022). If we unify both concepts, we discover that by avoiding muscle failure we will obtain improvements in strength and power, while the time needed to recover will be much less because we will accumulate less fatigue. This is the way that explains why it is viable to train seven days a week.
Fatigue regulation can be done in two ways, one more precise and the other somewhat less, but also very effective. The precise way to control the fatigue of a workout is to control the loss of velocity (González-Badillo, Yañez-García, Mora-Custodio, & Rodríguez-Rosell, 2017). Continuing with the example of the pull-ups, we can know precisely the velocity at which we perform it with our body weight or with ballast. Imagine that your 1RM is a pull-up with 80kg of ballast. That indicates that performing a pull-up with 50kg of ballast will be “easy” for you. In the warm-up you can check if the velocity at which you do your pull-up with 50kg is the speed you usually do or if you do it slower.
If the speed is your usual velocity, it indicates that you are recovered and can train. If the velocity has decreased with respect to your normal value, you should consider not training that day because you are still fatigued. In addition, within the same series we also lose velocity as we execute repetitions. If we control that loss of velocity with a velocity measuring device we can accurately control the fatigue that it generates (González-Badillo et al., 2017). We already know that more fatigue means more recovery time, and more recovery time means fewer training days per week.
The other way to measure fatigue is through sensations and the number of repetitions that we leave undone or in the chamber. If we choose a weight that allows us to do six reps, but we do only three, we say that we have left three reps undone or in the chamber. In other words, we have performed half of the repetitions we could have performed (we have done three out of a possible six). Doing half of the achievable repetitions improves our strength and power in the same way as going closer to failure, but without the fatigue that comes with approaching muscle failure (Duchateau, Stragier, Baudry, & Carpentier, 2021).
Therefore, and once again, there is no answer to the question how many days a week should I train to improve strength and power? Is it possible to improve it with three or four more intense days, or can we finesse it and train with more quality every day and train even seven days a week.
How many days a week should I train to increase muscle mass?
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Volume is the main variable on which muscle hypertrophy depends: the greater the volume (within limits), the greater the increase in muscle mass (Brad J. Schoenfeld, Ogborn, & Krieger, 2017). Training frequency is the variable that allows for adding more weekly volume, or splitting the same volume over more days for higher quality workouts (Heaselgrave, Blacker, Smeuninx, McKendry, & Breen, 2019). History repeats itself: there is no answer to how many days per week to train to increase muscle mass, but if we introduce higher volume and frequency, we can get better results.
Typical strength training programs for gaining muscle mass range from three days to six or seven days a week. The level of training will be a major factor in this regard because when we are novices a single set of push-ups can leave our pecs sore for days. However, a person with an advanced level of strength will need a much greater stimulus to get results. The novice person may have more than enough training three days a week to achieve muscle hypertrophy, while the advanced will require many more hours per week.
More training days per week allow for higher volume and higher quality of training
Even today, many people continue to perform intense sessions of one muscle group per day. Come Monday and we do four or five chest exercises that result in about 16 – 18 sets. How do we get the energy to the last exercise and the last set? If we give it a frequency two, we train two days chest, we will distribute eight sets for each day. Sounds much better, doesn’t it? What if we give it a frequency of three? We’ll be able to add a few extra sets and perform 20 – 22 chest sets, instead of the 16 – 18 we’ve been doing (Brad Jon Schoenfeld, Grgic, & Krieger, 2019).
The problem comes when we have to fit in the back, arm, and leg muscle groups as well. If we want to give them all frequency, and a certain volume, we need more days to avoid excessively long sessions. Therefore, six days of training a week can be an interesting number to gain muscle mass in people with a certain level of strength. In people who are starting with about four days will be more than enough, although they can divide the volume in more days.
How many days a week should I train to maintain my strength and muscle mass?
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There are certain periods in which we are forced to reduce the time dedicated to training, either in a programmed way or suddenly. If we stop training completely, we will notice in just a few days how the adaptations gained in strength and muscle mass are lost. The good news is that with a very low dose of training we can maintain those hard-earned gains. A large review of the scientific literature shows us what is the minimum dose of exercise needed to maintain strength and muscle mass over time (Spiering, Mujika, Sharp, & Foulis, 2021):
- A single strength training session per week, performing a single set for each muscle group is the minimum dose that protects strength and muscle mass in beginners.
- If the person is advanced it is necessary to increase the volume to two or three sets for each muscle group, and perform the training two days per week.
- The most important thing of all is that the intensity is high, mobilizing high loads and reaching muscle failure or staying very close to it.
Such a low dose can maintain our strength and muscle mass even for several months. At the elite level it is not common to have many weeks without training, but at the non-professional level there are always times when our time is very limited. We can go to the gym a couple of days a week, perform two or three sets of one exercise for each muscle group and thus avoid losing what has taken us a long time to gain.
Joaquin Vico Plaza
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