Instead of discussing how little you can get away with to get in decent shape, let’s talk about how many days a week you should work out for maximal muscle growth and fat loss.
Because if you’re reading this site you want to be built like a modern day warrior or Greek God. You’re not the average couch potato looking to just “tighten up a little.”
Everybody wants the easy way out.
Ten minute arms.
Eight minute glutes.
Six minute abs.
Ya know what nobody wants?
That building muscle and transforming your body takes HARD WORK.
How many great athletes or physiques have been built in just a few short, half-assed training sessions per week?
None. That’s how many.
To get in great shape you have to strength train, do some conditioning and practice mobility work each week. We’ll take a closer look at each below.
The rant about hard work above is not meant to say that you have to lift weights every day. You shouldn’t be doing that. That won’t help you make gains any faster.
To build muscle optimally, the average busy guy would be best served by doing three hard strength training workouts per week to start.
Here are a few splits that work great for three times per week:
Option 1 (Beginners)
Monday- Full Body
Wednesday- Full Body
Friday- Full Body
Option 2 (Intermediate)
Monday- Upper Body
Wednesday- Lower Body
Friday- Upper Body
Option 2 (Intermediate- Rotating)
Monday- Upper Body
Wednesday- Lower Body
Friday- Upper Body
Monday- Lower Body
Wednesday- Upper Body
Friday- Lower Body
Option 3 (Advanced)
Some people have been brainwashed into thinking that they constantly need to do more. They think that three days isn’t enough or that if three days is good then six must be better. This simply isn’t the case.
In the golden era of the Iron Game the great legends like Steve Reeves all trained three times per week.
I’ve personally trained hundreds of clients and have worked with thousands of others online. Three days of strength training per week can produce great results.
Adding a Fourth Day
Once you get your training, diet and recovery dialed in and are making great progress you may want to consider adding a fourth day. Personally, I love to train so it’s hard for me to only lift three days per week.
As long as you don’t kill yourself and train like an idiot you should be able to recover just fine from four days.
An upper/lower split works great in this scenario.
Another reason I prefer three and not four strength training sessions is because you also have to make time for conditioning. That means at least one hard hill sprint, sled or bike session per week, at the very least.
Conditioning is essential. You can’t skip it. It helps you get lean and in shape. Being big, strong and out of shape ain’t cool. You want to be all three.
Now, if you do your three strength workouts and one HIIT (high intensity interval training) session, you’ve got four hard workouts per week. If you add another 20-30 minute HIIT session you’ve got five hard workouts per week.
That’s a lot for the average busy dude with a job, family, stress and average genetics. You need your recovery, sleep, stress and nutrition to be on point in order to recover from more than that.
When you’re giving it all you’ve got and putting your balls on the line, less is more. You can look great with three hard workouts and two conditioning sessions.
If it’s totally out of the question for you to squeeze in that extra day for conditioning then you can simply add some sprint, sled or bike intervals to the end of one or two workouts each week. All you need is 10-15 minutes and you’ll be good to go. Kettlebell swings also fit well into the post workout finisher category.
Another option is to do a double session on one of those lifting days if time permits. Maybe you get up 30 minutes early and go outside for some hill sprints, or hop on the Air Assault bike before work, then hit the gym on your way home, later that day. Or you can train in the morning and do HIIT before dinner. There are plenty of ways to get it in.
I’d look at your time management and priorities. There should be time scheduled into every single day for fitness. It’s as important as brushing your teeth. You only get one body.
In addition to strength training and conditioning everyone needs to make time for mobility work. Your mobility generally gets worse as you get older. This is largely due to a sedentary lifestyle and years of bad habits/postures. If you don’t make the time to undue this on a daily basis you will constantly be in more and more pain.
Dedicate at least 15 minutes per day, every single day, to mobility work. This can consist of various movement drills, isometric yoga poses and smashing/flossing your unhealthy tissues with various balls, bands and rollers.
But 15 minutes is the daily minimum. If you can dedicate 30 minutes a few days per week to this you’ll be even better off.
Low Intensity Cardio (Walking)
The other thing to fit into your weekly schedule is low intensity conditioning. By that I mean walking, plain and simple.
High intensity work is great but it can be nearly as stressful to the body as strength training (depending on the method used). So it can be a bit hard to recover from.
Medium intensity cardio is what you see everyone at the gym doing. They go at a fairly hard pace, that’s above a walk but nowhere near a sprint, for 30-60 minutes. Ever notice how their bodies never change?
That’s because that form of cardio is useless. Actually, it’s worse than useless. It’s detrimental. It can cause muscle loss and actually cause you to get fatter. When doing medium intensity cardio your body produces too much cortisol so you end up eating away at your hard earned muscle. Excessive cortisol production can also lead to increased bodyfat storage in the abdominal region.
The body is very adaptive and wants to use the least energy possible for any task. When you do too much standard aerobic training your body will start to store fat locally in the hips, glutes and legs because doing so will make the exercise more efficient. This is why females sometimes get chunkier from too much traditional cardio.
So my advice is to stay the hell away from medium intensity cardio at all costs if you want to have a lean, muscular physique. Either sprint or walk.
Low intensity work like walking enhances your recovery between hard training sessions. My general recommendation for low intensity cardio is to simply walk more. Get a tracker or use an app on your phone and accumulate 10,000 steps per day, every day.
If you can make some extra time 2-3 days per week to go for a long hike, walk, bike ride, etc. for 30 minutes that would be great.
I prefer to do this first thing in the morning. The added benefit is that you get exposure to sunlight.
It’s been shown that the sooner you expose yourself to natural light, after waking, the better you will sleep. So early morning, low intensity cardio has two major benefits.
The third is that if you do it fasted, before you eat anything, it will aid in fat loss. That effect can be enhanced by drinking black coffee before you do it. Now, there are plenty of people who will argue that fasted cardio is no more effective than doing it later in the day. On the other side of the coin you have the fact that every ripped bodybuilder in history has done it that way.
You have to take the science, weigh it versus real world evidence, and decide for yourself. I believe it’s easier to do it first thing a great habit to form because of the added benefit of the early exposure to sunlight. I’ve also seen it help with fat loss both with myself and in countless other clients over the last twenty plus years.
In addition to planned training sessions everyone should play.
It’s incredibly beneficial both physically and mentally to get out and actually play like we did as kids. Join a flag football league, play beach volleyball on the weekends with friends, go hiking, surfing, skiing, or take a martial art.
You need to get out and move and have some fun. If you do this not only will your fitness improve but so will your stress levels and your overall enjoyment of life.
So plan to be active and hitting it hard six days per week if you want to get in great shape.
Everyone who is in great shape does just that.
Success always leaves clues.
Putting it All Together
Here’s what you should be doing each week:
- 3-4 strength training workouts of 30-45 minutes
- 1-3 hard conditioning workouts of 15-30 minutes
- 2-3 low intensity cardio sessions of 30 minutes
- 5-7 mobility/soft tissue/yoga sessions of 15-30 minutes
- Play whenever you want
That may look like a lot but it’s actually quite doable and pretty easy to fit in.
Remember, you have to prioritize your health and fitness. Nothing else is more important.
What if I Can Only Exercise 2-3 Days Per Week?
Again, you’ve gotta get your priorities and time management straight. If something is important to you then you make the time.
And if fitness isn’t important to you we have zero in common and I can’t relate.
That being said…
If you can only squeeze in just 2-3 workout sessions a week due to an insane schedule it’s not the end of the world. You can still make progress. Just know that it will never be optimal.
Don’t delude yourself or fall for some marketing bullshit.
Getting in shape takes time and effort. Most people won’t make the time nor put in the effort. Don’t be one of the 95%. Be one of the 5%.
One thing to remember is that a workout doesn’t have to last an hour for it to be worthwhile. Often times when I’m incredibly busy I train at home and my workouts don’t last longer than thirty minutes. So there’s always that option.
All you need at home is a pair of rings. Throw in a kettlebell or two with that and you’re set.
Two can work, but obviously, doing something active 5-6 days will be much, much better if you’re looking to make a dramatic physical transformation.
The human body is built to move; not sit around on the couch.
Remember what Jack LaLanne said- to rest is to rust.