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…
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:
- The quantity of tissue that exists.
- 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.”
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.