There are a hundred variations on this question. Usually it’s prefaced with ‘I do cardio 3 times a week’ or ‘I do intense martial arts training’ or ‘I’m just getting started…so how often should I train?’
The greatest single pitfall that bodybuilders and other athletes fall into is accepting a flat, cookie cutter answer to this question. And I can hear that awful standard no-brainer answer now…”You should train three times a week.” Bull. If you want to distinguish yourself as a thinker amid a herd of obedient sheep, read on.
The frequency that you, and everybody else, should train with is variable. Not fixed. When you lift weights as a means to develop more muscle the intensity of your workouts has to progress upward. If it remains at the same intensity there is no reason for new muscle to grow. Show me a guy who has been lifting three days a week for a year and I‘ll show you a guy who hasn’t changed his physique whatsoever for ten months.
If you want to train efficiently and effectively you have to understand the relationship between the ever-increasing intensity of your workouts and the ever-decreasing frequency of those workouts. As an example, when a person is just starting out, he could, indeed, train three times per week performing bench presses and leg press of, say, 150 pounds and 350 pounds. But he should only lift those weights during one workout. On his second workout he might be hoisting 165 and 375 on those two lifts. On his third workout they should increase again. (Or, if he just can’t get more weight off the pins, he should be increasing the number of reps he performs. Something must increase.)
But soon a Monday will arrive where he either doesn’t feel like going to the gym (a sign of overtraining) or he’ll discover that he can’t even lift the weights he did last time. He’s gotten weaker! When this happens to most bodybuilders they decide to ‘try harder’ in the form of more frequent workouts, or switching to a new ‘system’ or they head to the supplement store to buy something that promises new muscle from a can. But all they really need to do is adjust the frequency of their training…allow more time for full recovery by training twice per week for a few weeks. When the problem shows up again they need to train once per week or once every ten days…and so on.
Maybe your proverbial Monday arrived a long time ago and you haven’t seen changes in your strength or physique ever since. If so, do this: Take two weeks off of all weight lifting. (No, you won’t wither up. I work with advanced trainees who train once every eight weeks without losing a scrap of muscle.) When you return to the gym make sure to increase the weight on every lift you perform. Then cut your training frequency in half and try to get increases every trip to the gym. So if you’ve been training once every three days, change it to once every six days. As soon as your intensity goes up you’ll feel that new muscle growing and soon see the changes you’ve been wanting.
Watch your numbers. As soon as you get very little or no increase in weight it’s time to add more time off between workouts. It’s an easy concept to understand and practice yet 98% of the people in your gym don’t do it. But I’m not cursing the darkness, I’m lighting a candle. I hope you will too.