If you want to build muscle quickly, you need to work out often enough to keep your muscles growing all week long. There are two key questions we need to answer:
- How often should you train your muscles?
- How many days per week should you work out?
If you do a full-body workout 3 times per week, you train each muscle 3 times per week. However, if you use a 6-day workout split, dividing your body up into 6 different areas, you may only be training each muscle once per week. That means it’s possible to work out more often while training your muscles less often, or vice versa.
First, we need to determine how often you should train each muscle. Then we can talk about the best way to schedule your workout routine so that you’re working each muscle hard enough, often enough.
- How Often Should You Train Your Muscles?
- How Often Should You Train Different Muscles?
- How Many Days Per Week Should You Work Out?
- Doing Both Cardio & Weight Training
How Often Should You Train Your Muscles?
How Long Do You Build Muscle After Lifting Weights?
If you want to build muscle as fast as possible, you should keep your muscles growing steadily all week long. That means you should stimulate muscle growth, let the muscle recover and grow, and then stimulate a new wave of muscle growth.
In a study done on intermediate lifters, doing a single exercise for 3 sets stimulated at least a day of muscle growth (study). In a second study, doing an exercise for 6 sets stimulated at least 2 days of muscle growth (study). In a third study, a rigorous workout stimulated 3 days of muscle growth (study). This pattern holds true for both beginner and intermediate lifters (systematic review).
Overall, the research shows that we can recover quickly from easy workouts, allowing us to train almost every day. On the other hand, if our workouts are harder, a single workout can stimulate several days of muscle growth, allowing us to maximize our rate of muscle growth with as few as 2–3 workouts per week.
Note: just to clear up any potential confusion, we’re talking specifically about muscle growth, so we’re talking specifically about myofibrillar protein synthesis—building muscle fibres.
That can get confusing because some research, such as this study, shows that mixed muscle-protein synthesis abates after about 24 hours in intermediate lifters. Studies like that are often used to show that our workouts only stimulate a single day of growth.
Recovery & The Repeated Bout Effect
We also need to consider how long it takes to recover from our workouts, and that doesn’t always line up with muscle growth. Maybe a workout stimulates 2–3 days of muscle growth, but it takes us 4–5 days for the soreness to abate and our performance to return.
People who aren’t in the habit of lifting weights are especially vulnerable and can get sore for a full week after lifting weights. Even with habitual lifters, starting a new training routine can cause quite a lot of muscle damage.
That’s where the repeated bout effect comes in. Over time, as we acclimatize to a workout program, we grow tougher, our workouts cause less muscle damage, and we start being able to recover much more quickly, allowing us to train more often.
For example, in this study, it took people four days to recover from their first workout but only a single day to recover from their second workout.
For another example, in this study, doing 3 sets per exercise caused 3 days of muscle damage, preventing the participants from outlifting themselves 2 days later. In this case, it would have been better to start with 2 sets per exercise or wait 3 days between workouts.
Training Your Muscles Once Per Week
Okay, so we know that working out stimulates muscle growth for 2–3 days, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us how often we should be working out. To know for sure, we should look at how much actual, bonafide muscle growth people get from different training frequencies.
A recent study by Schoenfeld did just that. He had one group training their muscles once per week using a push/pull/legs split, and the other half training their muscles 3 times per week using full-body workouts. Both groups did 3 workouts per week, and both did the same number of exercises and sets, giving them the same overall training volume. The only difference was how often they were training their muscles.
All of the muscles we investigated showed greater growth from a higher training frequency.Brad Schoenfeld, PhD
The group doing full-body workouts saw greater muscle growth in every area that reached statistical significance (such as biceps growth). In fact, even in the metrics that didn’t reach statistical significance, such as strength gains and overall muscle growth, the full-body group still did better.
Training your muscles once per week is enough to stimulate muscle growth, but we can build muscle even faster by training our muscles at least twice per week.
Training Your Muscles 2–4 Times Per Week
After the Schoenfeld study, a new wave of research crashed in. All of the studies came to the same conclusion: doing just a few sets per muscle group is enough to stimulate muscle growth, but we should be training our muscles every 2–4 days (meta-analysis).
In fact, every single study found a benefit to training our muscles at least 2–4 times per week. The effect was quite large, too, showing 48% faster muscle growth.
This extra muscle growth can be explained by two things:
- Frequency: if we train our muscles every 2–4 days, we can keep our muscles growing all week long, building muscle faster.
- Pacing: if we spread each muscle’s work over multiple workouts, fatigue is less of an issue, allowing us to lift more weight and eke out more reps, stimulating more muscle growth.
Training our muscles once per week isn’t enough to maximize our rate of muscle growth. If we train our muscles 2–4 times per week instead, we can build muscle around 48% faster.
Training Your Muscles Every Day
So, we know that workout out our muscles 2–4 times per week builds more muscle than working them out just once per week. Great. But what about if we train our muscles every day? Would that help us build muscle even faster?
That’s where high-frequency training comes in. High-frequency training is based on the idea that you can build muscle even faster by training your muscles 4–6 times per week. That means doing shorter, easier workouts. Instead of doing 3–8 sets per muscle group per workout, you might only do 1–3 sets. And instead of lifting close to failure, you might stop a good few reps shy. That way you aren’t causing as much muscle damage each workout, allowing you to work out more often.
Even so, there are some things to watch out for. Just because our target muscles are recovering, that doesn’t mean our tendons and joints are. And what about the muscle we use every workout, like those in our hands, forearms, upper traps, and spine? That’s why hypertrophy researcher James Krieger, MS, notes that high-frequency training can cause wear and tear on our joints. That’s why he had to stop his experiment of working out every day, reverting back to a more conventional approach. He also noted that working out every day wasn’t giving him faster muscle growth or strength gains. The only noticeable difference was more joint pain.
Plus, there doesn’t seem to be a benefit to training your muscles every day. If you work your muscles hard enough, you can stimulate 2–4 days of muscle growth with a single workout, so there’s little benefit to training more often than that. It could be that some people benefit from working out more frequently, and some people certainly prefer it, but for the majority of people, it doesn’t seem to help. We’re already gaining muscle at full speed.
To be fair, there’s some research showing that high-frequency training can help us build muscle faster. But that research compares training our muscles every day against training them just once per week. If we look at studies like this one, and this one, we see that training our muscles 3 times per week is just as good as training them 6 times per week. Both groups gained the same amount of muscle mass and strength. The same is true when we compare 5-day full-body routines against 5-day split routines. Both produce the same amount of muscle growth (study).
High-frequency training is a new style of training without much research looking into it. At the moment, there’s no evidence that training a muscle every day causes more muscle growth than training it twice per week.
How Often Should You Train Different Muscles?
We’ve covered why training our muscles 2–4 times per week is ideal for building muscle. But that’s a range. Should you stimulate your muscles 2, 3, or 4 times per week? It depends on a few different factors, and one of those factors is which muscle group we’re talking about.
Beginners are sensitive to muscle damage, so it helps to ease in slowly, starting with just a couple of sets per exercise. However, they’re also able to train quite frequently, given that their muscles aren’t very big yet, and they aren’t strong enough to cause much disruption. At this point, training your muscles 3 times per week is ideal, and full-body workout routines are a great way to do that.
As you build more muscle, you’ll learn to push yourself, your bigger muscles will work harder, and your tendons and bones will be under more pressure. At that point, it’s harder to stimulate growth, the workouts become more tiring, and extra recovery days become more valuable. This is where workout splits can come in.
As a general rule of thumb, you should do enough reps to get a pump, do enough sets to fatigue your muscles, and work your muscles hard enough to cause at least some soreness. Then, when that soreness abates, you’re ready to train those muscles again.
How Often Should You Train Your Chest?
Your chest is one of your bigger and stronger muscle groups, and it’s possible to train your chest quite hard, stimulating a ton of muscle growth and also causing quite a lot of muscle damage. Once you’re good at the bench press, training your chest twice per week is often enough.
If we look at the bench press, it’s a lift that challenges your chest in a deep stretch, stimulating a ton of muscle growth and also causing quite a lot of disruption. For example, this study found that it took 4 days to fully recover from doing 8 sets of the bench press.
To be fair, 8 sets of bench presses are quite a lot, and in this study, where the participants did just 3 sets of 10 repetitions on the bench press, it only took 2–3 days for their chests to recover. So if you do fewer sets, you can train your chest more often. And if you do more sets, you might need longer to recover. Both approaches seem to produce a comparable amount of muscle growth. It’s up to you.
To stimulate a maximal amount of muscle growth, focus on lifts that challenge your chest in a deep stretch, such as dips, the barbell bench press, dumbbell bench press, close-grip bench press, deficit push-up, and dumbbell fly. Doing 6–20 reps per set will stimulate the most muscle growth, and doing 3–8 sets per workout tends to be ideal.
How Often Should You Train Your Back?
Most people can get away with working out their backs quite frequently, training it 3–4 times per week without running into any issues. And that’s good because our backs are involved in almost every lift we do!
When we squat and deadlift, our spinal erectors need to stabilize our spines. When we hold weights in our hands, our upper traps engage. And our biceps are often active, both in the gym and in our day-to-day lives. Our backs get a lot of work, and they tend to handle it well.
With lifts that don’t work our spinal erectors, such as the chin-up, pull-up, lat pulldown, and t-bar row, you can probably benefit from training them at least 3 times per week without much risk of it interfering with your other lifts.
With the lifts that hit your spinal erectors hard, such as barbell rows and deadlifts, you might want to be more conservative, doing them just once a week, especially if they leave your back feeling sore for several days. That way, you aren’t being limited by your back strength when doing squats, curls, and so on.
How Often Should You Train Your Legs?
The muscles in our legs are the biggest muscles in our bodies, and so they can often get quite sore for quite a long time. It’s common for people to only train their legs twice per week, especially if they’re strong and especially if those workouts are challenging.
Our quads and glutes are the two biggest muscles in our bodies, and like our chests, it’s possible to challenge them in a deep stretch, stimulating a ton of muscle growth and causing quite a lot of disruption. For example, in this study, it took 4 days to fully recover from doing 5 sets of 12 repetitions on the leg press. As a result, you may only want to train your legs 2–3 times per week, especially as you get stronger.
When we do a deep front squat, high-bar squat, leg press, or leg extension, we’re working our quads through a full range of motion, and it’s the bottom of that range of motion that tends to be the hardest, which is amazing for stimulating muscle growth. Then, because our quads are so massive, it can take quite a while for them to recover. Plus, the big leg exercises tend to be so heavy that they cause quite a lot of overall fatigue. If we’re training our legs more often, it can leave less energy for our other lifts. That’s why people often find it hard to bulk up their upper bodies when doing programs like StrongLifts 5×5 and, to a lesser extent, Starting Strength.
Now, to be clear, we’re talking about building muscle here. If you’re training for strength, there are a number of popular programs that recommend squatting every day, and that’s fine. But those workouts aren’t designed to stimulate muscle growth. When you’re working out to build muscle, it’s better to train your legs a bit harder but less frequently. Doing 4–9 sets for each leg muscle twice per week will probably be enough to maximize your rate of muscle growth.
How Often Should You Train Your Shoulders?
Our shoulders are a fairly big muscle group, but similar to our backs, most shoulder exercises have a fairly poor strength curve, so it’s hard to stimulate much growth or cause much muscle damage. Many people benefit from training their shoulders as often as 3–4 times per week.
For example, if we look at the most famous shoulder exercise, the overhead press, the strength curve is such that it’s hardest when the barbell is at forehead height, where your front delts are already at fairly short muscle lengths. It works them quite hard, and they’re certainly the limiting factor, but it’s nothing compared to how a bench press works the chest or how a squat works our quads. As a result, our shoulders can often recover fairly quickly. If we train our shoulders with the bench press, close-grip bench press, and incline bench press, we can challenge them at longer muscle lengths, but even then, they often recover quite fast.
Plus, your shoulders have different muscle heads that benefit from different shoulder exercises. Your front delts need pressing exercises, your side delts need lateral raises, and your rear delts need pulling exercises. As a result, many people train the different heads of their shoulders on different workout days.
How Often Should You Train Your Arms?
If you train your arms hard, then training them twice per week is probably enough to maximize their rate of muscle growth. But if you’re only doing a couple of sets of biceps curls or triceps extensions at the ends of your workouts, it can help to train them more often.
The muscles in our arms are fairly small, and it’s common for people to train them 3–4 times per week. Mind you, that’s because most people don’t train their arms with the same rigour as they train the muscles in their torsos. If you choose good arm exercises and you do them early enough in your workout, it’s possible to stimulate at least a few days of muscle growth.
One study found that back muscles need 2 days to recover from doing 8 sets of rows, whereas your biceps recover in just 1 (study). The reason is that rows don’t work your biceps very hard. When the participants did 8 sets of preacher curls, it took their biceps over 4 days to recover.
Then, if we look at the research on isolation lifts, it’s clear that we can grow our arms much faster by including direct arm work (study). So, after doing your compound lifts, you could add in some biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises, and forearm curls. If you do that 2–3 times per week, you can keep your muscles growing all week long.
Another option is to train your arms with compound lifts during some workouts, then have a dedicated Arm Day where you focus purely on your arms.
How Often Should You Train Your Abs?
Our abs recover quite quickly and can handle quite a lot of training volume, meaning that we can train them a few times per week without any issues. And since our abs are active during most of our lifts, we often train them every workout—even if we never do any ab isolation exercises.
Like your arms, your abs will get a little bit of work during most of your workouts. The chin-up, push-up, overhead press, front squat, and a variety of other lifts all train your abs. As a result, it’s common for people to build big abs simply by doing big compound lifts. But if you notice your abs falling behind, doing some crunches or hanging leg raises at the end of your workouts can work wonders.
How Many Days Per Week Should You Work Out?
Okay, now that we’ve talked about how often you should train your muscles, let’s talk about how to organize that into different workout routines. For example, if you want to train your muscles 3 times per week, there’s more than one way to do that:
- 3-Day Full-Body Workout Routine, where you train your entire 3 times per week.
- 6-Day Upper/Lower Workout Split, where you train your upper 3 times per week and your lower body 3 times per week.
In both cases, you’re training your muscles 3 times per week, and so both workout routines can be similarly effective, depending on how you program them.
2-Day Full-Body Workout Routines
To build muscle at full speed, you need to train each muscle at least twice per week. That means you can build muscle quite well with just 2 full-body workouts per week. That seems to be enough to get virtually all of the health benefits of resistance training, too.
You can stimulate 3 days of muscle growth with a full-body workout (study). There’s also research showing that training our muscles twice per week causes just as much muscle growth as training them 3 times per week (study). You should be okay.
The problem with working out just twice per week is that it’s easy for the workouts to become long and draining. It’s hard to do squats, bench presses, deadlifts, overhead presses, and chin-ups all in the same workout. It’s even harder if you stack isolation exercises on top of that.
To build a 2-day workout program, we recommend making 2–3 different full-body workouts and alternating between them. For example, the first workout might have 3–4 sets of front squats, the second might have no squats, and the third might have 2–3 sets of Zercher squats. That gives you a squat frequency of 1.5 times per week and one of the squat workouts is fairly easy. That frees up time and energy for mixing in a wider variety of lifts, allowing you to make your program more balanced and allowing you to keep each workout from becoming overly fatiguing.
3-Day Full-Body Workout Routines
If we’re working out 3 days per week, that gives us a bit more wiggle room. We only need to train our muscles twice per week, so not every workout needs to train every muscle. That makes things much easier. For instance, we can squat and bench twice per week but train our shoulders and arms three times per week.
The research on full-body workout routines is quite good, too. For example, in this study, putting a rest day between the full-body workouts allowed the participants to fully regain their strength, allowing them to train hard again. This is important because it means that even just that single day of rest is long enough to allow us to outlift ourselves every workout, achieving progressive overload.
Why would you do 3 full-body workouts per week? If you’re a beginner, doing 3 full-body workouts per week will work all of your muscles often enough for you to build muscle as fast as possible, and having a day (or two) of rest between your workouts will give your body a chance to recover. Your hands will get a break, so will your traps, so will your back, and so will your connective tissues.
Even as an intermediate lifter, doing 3 full-body workouts is often enough to allow you to build muscle at full speed overall. But you might have some areas that you can’t invest a lot of energy into. That can mean doing specialization phases, where you spend a few months focusing on just a few muscle groups. That way, you can bulk up your arms, build a bigger bench press, or accomplish whatever it is you’re eager to accomplish.
Personally, I’ve gained 65 pounds by doing 3 full-body workouts per week. Then, when life is busy, I’ll train just twice a week. There are advantages to training more often, and we’ll cover those in a moment, but you can continue getting bigger and stronger with less.
What are the downsides? If you’re an intermediate lifter, you could make an argument that doing more workouts per week gives you more time to train a wider variety of muscles—your neck, forearms, calves, and so on—without needing to shift priority away from the big lifts. By adding more workouts, we give ourselves more time and energy to do more exercises.
To build a 3-day workout program, make 2–3 different full-body workouts and alternate between them. For example, the first workout might have the bench press, the second might have the overhead press, and the third might have weighted dips. You’re training your chest 3 times per week with a nice variety of exercises. (This is the approach we used in the 3-day Outlift workout routine.)
4-Day Split Workout Routines
If you’re working out 4 days per week, that gives us a lot of great options. You only need to train your muscles twice per week, so now we can explore body-part splits, perhaps even using a combination of full-body workouts and body-part splits.
- 3 full-body workouts + an arm day: if you’re enjoying doing 3 full-body workouts per week but you want some extra arm work, these are great. You can do full-body workouts on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, then blast your arms on Saturday.
- An upper/lower split routine: a common way for athletes to bulk up is to alternate between upper-body and lower-body workouts. Monday you start with the bench press and row; Tuesday you start with the squat and Romanian deadlift; Thursday you start with the chin-up and overhead press; and Friday you start with the deadlift and leg press. Marco loves these, and has had great success using them.
- 2 full-body workouts + an upper/lower split: my personal favourite way to train 4 days per week is to do a full-body workout on Monday and Wednesday, a lower-body workout on Friday, and then an upper-body workout on Saturday. It gives every muscle at least a day of rest, and it does a better job of spacing out the big compound lifts, keeping each workout fairly easy. (This is how we built the 4-day Outlift workout routine.)
However, it’s worth noting that when compared to full-body workouts, 4-day workout routines don’t necessarily stimulate more muscle growth overall. For example, in this study, the participants doing a 4-day routine gained the same amount of muscle mass as the group doing 3 full-body workouts per week.
Why would you do 4 workouts per week? As you get stronger, your sets become more draining, requiring longer rest times. On the bigger lifts, it’s common for 2-minute rest periods to become 3 minutes, then 4 minutes, and then 5. As the workout drags on, it’s hard to grind through exercise after exercise. That’s when you could switch to specialization phases or add a fourth workout day.
What are the downsides? There are no major downsides to training 4 days per week other than the extra time investment, especially if you need to commute to a gym. Our connective tissues still get plenty of rest, and most people can recover from them fairly well.
5-Day Workout Routines
If you’re working out 5 days per week, you’ll probably be doing a 5-Day Bro Split. We have a variation of that called the 5-Day Outlift Split. Both of those routines can work quite well, but they aren’t necessarily better than training 3–4 days per week.
- Monday: Chest Day
- Tuesday: Back Day
- Wednesday: Shoulder Day
- Thursday: Leg Day
- Friday: Arm Day
- Saturday: Rest
- Sunday: Rest
Why would you do 5 workouts per week? As you get stronger, your workouts get heavier and harder. By working out more days per week, you can spread the exercises out over more days, keeping your workouts short. Those shorter workouts are easier to manage, especially if you enjoy going to the gym or enjoy training at home. It becomes part of your daily routine.
You also have the option of doing longer workouts, filling them with obscure isolation exercises, bulking up every neglected muscle all at once. You can train all the big muscles and still have room left for your calves, forearms, neck, gluteus minimus, and rectus femoris.
What are the downsides? When you’re lifting weights 5 days per week, that means doing a lot of back-to-back workouts. Even if you use an elaborate body-part split that keeps you from training your muscles two days in a row, you still need to watch out for fatigue, especially in the areas being worked every day, such as your grip and spinal erectors.
6-Day Split Workout Routines
The most popular 6-day workout program is the 6-day Push/Pull/Legs Workout Split. It’s an intense but effective workout routine that trains every muscle at least twice per week.
- Monday: Push Day
- Tuesday: Pull Day
- Wednesday: Leg Day
- Thursday: Push Day
- Friday: Pull Day
- Saturday: Leg Day
- Sunday: Rest
Why would you do 6 workouts per week? Some people don’t like doing long, gruelling workouts, and so they enjoy spreading the workload out over as many days as possible, and that’s great. Other people enjoy going to the gym or find it easy to dip into short home workouts. If you want to lift weights more often, this is a good way to do it.
What are the downsides? When you’re lifting 6 days per week, that means lifting 6 days in a row, and without ever taking getting 2 days of rest in a row. That’s a lot, and so it becomes important to manage fatigue. The workouts tend to be short, and you may need to intentionally use smaller lifts to avoid fatiguing your stabilizer muscles: seated shoulder pressing instead of standing, exercise machines instead of free weights, t-bar rows instead of barbell rows, and so on. That’s not a problem, but it can make your training less efficient.
Doing Both Cardio & Weight Training
I won’t go too deep into this here, given that we have a full article on combining weight training with cardio, but if you’re lifting weights more than 3 days per week, it’s something to consider. If the reason you’re working out more often is to improve your health, it may be best to combine different types of exercise to get a wider variety of benefits.
For a quick example, if you wanted to train 5 days per week, there’s always the option to do something like this:
- Monday: full-body workout
- Tuesday: a long, brisk walk outside
- Wednesday: full-body workout
- Thursday: stationary biking for 30–60 minutes
- Friday: full-body workout
Training your muscles 2–4 times per week is ideal for building muscle. Working out more often than that is good, but it won’t always speed up muscle growth, and you’ll need to watch out for fatigue.
Many different workout routines can keep your muscles growing all week long, ranging from 2-day full-body routines all the way to 6-day workout splits. As a default, we recommend 3-day full-body routines for beginners and early intermediate lifters. Then, once those workouts start getting too long and hard, or if you start running up against a plateau, consider adding a fourth or even fifth day.
If you want a customizable workout program (and full guide) that builds in these principles, check out our Outlift Intermediate Bulking Program, which includes both 3-day and 4-day workout routines. We also have our Bony to Beastly (men’s) program and Bony to Bombshell (women’s) program for skinny and skinny-fat beginners. Both use 3-day full-body workout routines.