Want to Keep Your Fitness Resolution? Train Three Times Per Week.
If this is the year you commit to going to the gym and you’re really serious about sticking to it , the best thing you can do to set yourself up for success is committing to go three times per week. Not six, and definitely not seven. Three.
The main issue with aspiring to train every single day is that when you inevitably miss a day, you’ve “failed” in your goal, and for many, that means giving up. And of course you’re going to miss a day. Things happen! You’ll get a nasty cold, or tweak your elbow, or you’ll just be way too damn sore from having gone to the gym 8 days in a row after having not trained all of last year.
Another issue is that this “train every day” mentality represents too short term a view. When it comes to training and fitness, even a whole year is just a blip in time. We’ve been sold so many “6 week challenges” and “30 day bootcamps” that we’ve been convinced that these are relevant time frames when it comes to achieving fitness goals.
However, the only time frame that matters is the rest of your life.
I’m serious. And really, this shouldn’t be controversial at all. It’s just at odds with the crap peddled by most of the fitness industry.
Let’s think about this for a minute. Say someone decides that they are going to get serious about their training, and they are going to train 6 days per week for 6 months. Assuming they’re following a decent program and taking care of themselves outside of the gym, they are going to get some results. They’ll add some muscle, burn some fat, look and feel better, have more energy, all that good stuff.
So then 6 months is up. And then what? Do they just…stop?
Let’s say they do. And then let’s look 5 years ahead and assume that they didn’t do much of anything during that time.
How much better off is that person than someone who never put in that hard 6 months? Maybe a bit? I would argue that they would have lost most if not all of the physical adaptation that occurred in that initial 6-month period, and the only things that would stand the test of time are perhaps some of the skills they learned around how to move and execute lifts properly, but even that knowledge is of limited value if it’s not being put to good use.
Now, let’s say at the same time that this person is starting their 6-month journey, someone else decides to start one too, but commits to a much more manageable 3 days per week training schedule. At that 6-month mark, the 6x/week person will no doubt be ahead of the 3x/week person. But the 3x/week person will be less prone to injury and burnout and has flexibility in their schedule to accommodate things that happen in their life while still staying completely committed to their goal.
Training 3 days per week is not sexy. But given that 80% of North American adults don’t meet minimum physical activity guidelines, my view is that all of our commonly held beliefs about training and fitness need to be challenged and scrutinized, because they clearly aren’t working.
For someone starting out, training 3x/week isn’t just better because it’s more realistic and sustainable, it is better from a physical adaptation standpoint too. Here’s why:
The Case for Training 3x/week
It is More Than it Sounds Like
It’s tempting to want to train every single day. You feel committed. Locked in. You want to achieve your goals NOW. I get it. And 7 workouts per week sounds like a lot more than 3 per week. But let’s zoom out a bit.
Working out 3x per week consistently is 156 workouts over the course of a year.
How many times did you go to the gym last year?
For many people that number might be 10, 20, or maybe even zero. Let’s say last year you went ten times. If you went 156 times this year that is more than a 1500% increase from the year prior. How could that possibly not be good enough?
I know it’s tempting to want to train every day, but here’s the thing. STUFF HAPPENS. You will miss a day. Everyone does at some point, even world class athletes. When we talk about goal setting, we always look to choose SMART goals: Specific, Measurable, Actionable, realistic, and having a time component. We know that SMART goals are more effective than goals not structured in this way. Here, the realistic component is showcased. The effect of missing a workout for someone aiming to train 7x/week vs. 3x week is very different:
Mr. 7 Day Per week: “I can’t believe I didn’t get to the gym today. I already missed my goal. I can’t do this. Forget it.”
Mr. 3 Days Per Week: “I’m pretty bummed that I missed my workout today, but I can fit it in tomorrow and stay on track.”
See the difference?
Giving yourself some flexibility is essential for avoiding negative self-talk and staying on track.
Exercise on its Own Won’t Get You What You Want.
The main reason why people want to train more than three times per week is that they want results. I get that. But, if you are someone who has historically not exercised regularly, training three times per week is definitely enough to notice changes in your appearance and physical abilities if your sleep and nutrition are on point too.. Good sleep and healthy nutrition are utterly essential for anyone to get anything out of a gym routine, and if these aren’t habits that you have established already, it’s going to take additional mental energy, planning, and TIME to work on those things. If you are really serious about getting the results you want, you’re thinking training 7x/week is the way to do it, allow me to propose a different approach. What if instead you trained 3x/week and invested those extra 4-6 hours per week that you would have otherwise spent at the gym on shopping, cooking, and sleeping?
If that sounds like a lot to take on at once, well, you’re right, it is. That’s one of the reasons why so few people are able to stick to a healthy lifestyle transformation for the long term. Even though it’s good for you, working out is a stressor, and for the body to adapt and you not to be injured, the body needs to recover. Eating healthy food and getting plenty of sleep need to be part of what you’re doing, and that takes time and energy too.
Training Frequency Isn’t the Only Thing That Matters
Of course, 7 is more than 3. But here we’re only talking about training frequency, or the number of workouts per week. This is not the only variable that matters when we’re making a training plan. Frequency is the F in something called the FITT principle – the way in which training loads are measured. The rest of FITT is Intensity, Type, and Time. The most interesting of the remaining variables is intensity. One person’s “hour in the gym” can be very different than someone else’s.
Someone who does moderate intensity steady state cardio on the elliptical and some stretching is not working nearly as hard as someone who is loading up a barbell and doing multiple heavy sets. The latter obviously requires more time and energy to recover from. For the average person, three well designed moderately intense training days are more than enough. And the higher intensity work is going to drive more physical adaptation, skill acquisition and fulfillment than simply going through the motions every day. Additionally, most people can’t recover from training hard every day. World class athletes train daily, but they will be doing a mix of higher and lower intensity throughout the week, and also throughout the year. The average person doesn’t need a complicated training plan. The required work can be done in three sessions, leaving more time for recovery which is when the physical adaptations you’re after really take place.
You Can Always Add More Later
Some people train 4, 5, or 6 times per week, right? Of course. But they are not beginners. For these folks, the habit of training has been long engrained. It is part of their lifestyle and their identity. Their training is a priority. They feel antsy if they miss a day. They may even completely organize their life around their training. Do you want to become someone like this? Awesome. Start today. Start going to the gym 3 times per week. Start eating healthier, drinking more water, walking more, and going to bed earlier. You will start to get stronger. You will lose some body fat. You will feel better and you will want to train. And if in a year you are still here, putting in work, and on the path? Well then next year, you go ahead and add a 4th training day if you want it. But you might find you don’t need to.
If you want to get the most out of your three weekly workouts, getting personalized programming and coaching will help you reach your goals in less time, while also helping you avoid injury. Click here to see if my online coaching is right for you