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“How Often Should I Work Out to Build Muscle?” The most important question

If there were ever a question to which even the most oft-repeated answer is mired in overly simplistic and bad information, it’d be this one:

“How often should I work out to build muscle?”

I’ve learned through over twenty years of natural bodybuilding, however, that it’s THE most important question for successfully building muscle. That’s right… I’ll assert that every other commonly asked question pales by comparison. You know the relatively extraneous inquiries to which I’m referring:

  • Which protein should I use?
  • Should I eat five times a day or six?
  • Should I eat my post workout meal twenty minutes after my workout or thirty?
  • Should I take creatine after I finish my workout?
  • Should I do eight reps or ten?
  • Should I eat ‘til I’m stuffed?
  • Should I sleep ‘til I have pillow drool?

… On and on…

 

Bench_Presses 
'Bench Pressing': It only feels as if muscles are actually growing during workouts...
 

I’m not saying questions like these aren’t good ones within the optimal scheme of things. And there are “bodybuilding experts” crawling out of the woodwork who are only too willing to answer them for you. But those answers won’t add up to a pile of doggy dung without asking and answering the question “how often should I work out to build muscle” first. It doesn’t matter how much protein you eat, how quickly you get in and out of the gym, how many meals you eat per day, or with what perfect form you perform your exercises; if you don’t work out with the optimal number of rest days between workouts, you won’t make bodybuilding gains.

“How Often Should I Work Out to Build Muscle?” Unproven ‘Wisdom’

The following is what’s considered common wisdom within the worlds of fitness and bodybuilding:

“As a beginner, work out ‘X’ number of days per week. When you gain experience and your body gets more efficient at recuperating, you can work out more often.”

If there’s a single piece of “wisdom” for which relegation to the dog pile of worthless advice got me on the right track and enjoying non-stop muscle growth, this would be it. We don’t even need a laboratory and/or a bunch of double-blind studies to identify its foolishness. Why in the world would recuperation get more efficient as we gain bodybuilding and fitness experience? By what mechanism would this occur? It’s a complete assumption by whoever first came up with the notion – and not even a good assumption at that.

Think about it: Our bodies methodically recuperate from the ‘soft damage’ we inflict on them during workouts. The length of time required to repair the tissue is dependent on two important factors:

  1. The quantity of tissue that exists.
  2. The extent of damage that’s been inflicted on that tissue.

If you’re asking the ‘how often should I work out to build muscle’ question, you need to keep these two issues in the forefront of your mind as you factor in your age and body’s overall health and genetically-dependent recuperative abilities as well.

As we make progress by gaining more strength and muscle tissue, there’s more that needs to be repaired between workouts. This requires MORE time – not less. Our bodies keep systematically carrying out protein synthesis at a methodic pace. There’s no evidence that this pace significantly increases because we have experience with working out.

Moreover, the greater the damage that’s done, the more time that’s needed to repair it so that gains can be made. This means that if you had a “great workout” because you trained like an animal, you could have easily doubled the length of rest time needed between workouts to make progress.

Wait… did I really say “double” the length of rest time needed? Yes, I’ve seen people in the gym who religiously take six day’s rest between the working of each muscle group who could easily increase that to twelve or fourteen days. Their muscles would probably thank them by actually growing. But people have been so conditioned to believe their muscles will atrophy after a week’s worth of rest that they’ll likely never try this.

‘How Often Should I Work Out to Build Muscle?’ Once a week – likely less often

If your muscles atrophy from working them less than once-per-week, you’re not working out hard enough. I say this with unwavering confidence. I’ve discovered that bodybuilding workouts performed with adequate intensity-of-effort require over a week’s worth of recovery. They might require just slightly more than a week and maybe somewhere between ten days and two weeks – but rarely even as short as a week.

A recent insertion in a hard copy of Muscular Development magazine actually acknowledged this (sort of). The article, on page 66 of the July 2011 issue, was titled ‘Are You Resting Enough After Intense Workouts?’ The article’s authors cite a Finnish study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In the study, a small sample of strength trained athletes (eight men) was subjected to a training session consisting of 5 sets of leg presses and 4 sets of squats. Each of the nine sets consisted of 10 repetitions. For two days following the exercise, chemical markers of muscle damage were shown to be increased while both free and total testosterone levels were also elevated. Moreover, strength and subjective perception of physical fitness didn’t recover until six days following this leg “workout.”

 

Muscular_Development 
... but muscle tissue only recuperates and grows during rest between workouts.

 

The reason I’ve put the word ‘workout’ in quotation marks is quite relevant to the question “how often should I work out to build muscle.” Since we don’t know with what intensity-of-effort these strength trainees were subjected in the test, there’s no way we can even know if these nine sets constituted a typical bodybuilding workout – one in which a bodybuilder is striving for greater volume loads during the session. We can assume it was a respectable amount of work, but nine total sets are definitely within the parameters of a short workout.

My point: If the test subjects were likewise not subjected to a lot of intensity-of-effort within the session, the fact that it resulted in relatively prolonged biomarkers of damage is evidence to back my theory – that most of us need over a week of recuperation to adequately recover and build compensatory tissue following a demanding bodybuilding workout.

‘How Often Should I Work Out to Build Muscle’: Other Considerations

One of the most limiting beliefs I constantly observe in bodybuilding is the notion that muscle growth is unobtainable past a certain age. I won’t deny that there’s some threshold age beyond which a quest for anabolism is futile, but I personally think that this point exists at a greater age than most people believe. It’s probably at a level so far above the mid-centennial point that most people reaching such an epoch wouldn’t have the desire to further build muscle anyway.

The reason I’ve mentioned this is because it ties right in with the question ‘how often should I work out to build muscle.’ I’ve observed that many aspiring bodybuilders past the age of forty fail to acquire the muscle gains they want because they train too often for their age. We continually get bombarded with advice to change everything that doesn’t need changing in order to “shock” our muscles:

  • Change exercises (i.e.… 'muscle confusion')
  • Change exercise sequence
  • Change movement tempo
  • Change rest between sets and workout pace… blah blah blah… on and on…

Amid all this, hardly anyone advises augmenting the one thing that will matter most: The number of rest days between workouts. As we get older, our pace of recuperation slows down a bit. So what? Who cares? Let’s just keep gaining muscle by adjusting for it. Use it to your advantage by spending fewer days per month at the gym than the young guys while eventually gaining more muscle than most of them.

So here’s the bottom line on ‘how often should I work out to build muscle’: Adjust your number of inter-workout rest days to feedback derived from workout performance. Add more rest days if gains aren’t forthcoming. The ultimate number of rest days you’ll need at any given time will be determined by workout intensity/duration as well as your current age, muscular development, eating/sleeping habits, health, and genetic make-up.

In other words: Workout frequency needs to be a more ‘dynamic’ factor than many bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts realize.

Comments

Muscle Building workout

Besides being inorganic, a major difference in minerals as compared to vitamins lies in the way they function as nutrients. Whereas vitamins are catalyzers of bodily chemical reactions without becoming byproducts of those reactions, some minerals get more “intimately involved”; they become part of the body’s chemicals and structure. Minerals also interact with vitamins, each affecting how the other is absorbed. And since they’re of similar molecular weight, some minerals compete with other minerals for bodily absorption. These are things to consider when looking at minerals as important maintainers of health and as vital ‘nutrients to build muscle.’
Muscle Building Workout

Scott Abbett

Hello Collin,

Thank you for taking time to visit my blog and share your thoughts.

First off, you've made a rather broad reference in bringing up the example of Olympic athletes. There are, of course, many different Olympics sporting events and each respective sport requires a different intensity of training and, thus, a different schedule of training and recuperative rest. Should we assume you're referring to Olympic weight lifters when you bring this up for comparison?

Also, Olympic athletes are typically in their prime when training for these events. And in the final weeks before competing, it's unlikely they're contending with the energy expenditure demanded by a "day job"; they live and breathe to train and recuperate.

In addition, if you believe these athletes are somehow above using drugs to enhance their performances and inter-workout recuperation, then you're a bit naive.

Secondly, I agree that both the muscles and brain have a “use it or lose it” quality. However, the similarity ends right there. Even though many people love to make this analogy, it’s really not an accurate one. Muscle cells and the neurons of the brain differ immensely in the way they function and build “strength.” The muscles are relatively simple contractile cells that are built through tear-down and subsequent compensatory tissue growth. The brain is mostly strengthened by increased synaptic connections between neurons through learning and continued cognitive challenges.

Obviously, we could “train” our brains every single day and notice gains as long as we get adequate nutrition and enough sleep. But if we train our triceps every day, we’ll hit a plateau rather quickly.

Regardless, it might still be said that the brain experiences its own form of “overtraining.” Is that not what happens when we fail an academic test because we attempted to prepare for it by pulling a last minute “all-nighter?”

BTW… it’s not ridiculous to rest the muscles more than 14 days if they’ve been worked with enough intensity. I’ve been doing just that and my latest photos are right here on this Facebook page:

http://www.facebook.com/#!/hardbodysuccess

Compare those with the pics I posted previously on the page at the following link:

http://www.hardbodysuccess.com/book

If your “ridiculous” assertion were correct – I wouldn't be making progress.

Scott

Collin Daniel

The intensity that you go to the gym with is hugely important. When you break down more muscle, more is created and made stronger. Although muscle does need time to recover, 14 days is ridiculous. Olympic athletes work out within 9 days of their competition. It's like saying going to school is more beneficial if you only attend once every two weeks. The Bri
And muscle works in similar ways. You don't use it, you lose it.

Tim

This is a great analysis of something that I have not given enough consideration to.

I have gone for some reasonable combination of natural protein+fat+carbs after a workout til I quit feeling hungry afterwards.

2 ounces of roasted almonds--protein+good fat.
12-15 ounces vegetable juice--fiber+juice to help the liver & GI system keep moving wastes along.
4-5 Dried fruits--high complex carbs+fiber.
Water--lot's of it--helps get the good stuff in and the bad stuff out.
Whole grain crackers--low complexity carbs for rapid energy replacement. Poor choice--but can't resist.

Tim

ab swing

I absolutely agree with a "changing" tactic. When a body gets accustomed to a regular routine, it stops burning fat and grow lean muscles so effectively as it used to do in the beginning. And from my personal experience it's also good to switch back and forth between mat exercises and exercises with special equipment (machines, toners etc.).

Scott

Hey Fred,

Thank you for taking time to read my entry and posting a question.

I know the claims that are made about high GI carbs being important immediately after workouts. Although I don't discourage bodybuilders from following this practice if they want to, I also advise them not to expect miracles from doing it or disaster from not doing it.

I've been bodybuilding for a long time. I've followed workouts with immediate downings of high GI carbs. I've followed workouts with low glycemic carbs. I've also followed workouts with missing a meal for an hour and a half 'coz I had a half dozen errands to run. I've noticed little (if any) difference in recovery time among these different post-workout practices.

For whatever it's worth, that's my annecdotal feedback.

My guess is that the well-known bodybuilder to whom you're referring was being paid to endorse the "tub of supplement?" Just a guess; I need more details :-)

Hope your training's going well.

Scott

Fred S

Heh heh concerning the extraneous inquiries which could contribute to the optimal scheme of things, I'd like to know your opinion on the 3rd point. Do you believe in post workout nutrition? As in deliberately consuming high GI carbs to spike the insulin levels in the body. Is this insulin spike really necessary? The reason behind the need for the spike is that a person's blood glucose levels become low after a workout. But does it become so low that I have to do something right away?

I heard that its unnecessary and that your blood sugar only goes too low when you're somewhat starving. On the other hand I've heard of a well known bodybuilder pay for a supplement with a price that matches a tub of protein powder. Not sure what brand it was but he called it a "high tech sugar" LOL.

Bali

What about training with minimal intensity to shorten recuperation time? I've heard of a concept that training with just one working set to failure or near failure is sufficient for hypertrophy, with the rationale that you've already sufficiently stimulated the growth process and that subsequent sets would only prolong recovery time.

One set may be a bit too extreme, but for example if one were to do 3 working sets instead of 6 with the same rest in between sets, would he be able to trim off some recuperation time? Instead of doing 6 sets of flyes with 40 pound dumbbells I might do 3 sets of 50 pound dumbbells and progress from there the next workout.

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