We all know that you need to work out consistently, regularly and intensely for the best results, but at the same time we also hear a lot about overtraining – most notably how it’s very bad for you – but is this an overblown concern; just how often can you safely work out?
As you probably suspected, it depends. A huge factor is your workout intensity; equally important is how adequate your nutrition is and lastly personal level of fitness and condition of health (we will be talking about a generally healthy individual, but this isn’t medical advice, so check with your doctor first). Then the question can be broken down further: how often per day, per week and per quarter.
So, intensity. Someone who is doing a very light level of exercise – e.g. hardly out of breath during the workout – can exercise every single day. In other words, low-intensity cardio can be done every day.
As soon as you up the intensity, though, things start to get a little more complicated. For example, with resistance training you need to have at least one days’ rest between body-part workouts. In other words, if you worked out biceps today, don’t work them out tomorrow. Nutrition starts to play an even more important role now because your body needs to repair and rebuild torn muscle fibres (that’s how you get more muscle).
Then you also need to ensure that you give your central nervous system a rest, as well as time for your bones, ligaments and tendons to get stronger – muscle increases strength a lot quicker, which means you can develop the capacity to lift weights the rest of your body isn’t yet ready for, thus the recovery time is important.
Of course, this too needs to factor in intensity. There’s a world of difference between slopping out a hundred reps with the pink dumbbells, versus giving it everything to barely hit ten reps with 80% of your maximum weight.
It’s quality that counts. Intensity is what makes a great workout.
Now, on the other hand if you’re using a high-intensity interval training protocol, because it’s more taxing on your CNS, you’re going to need to take more rest days – especially if you are combining it with intense resistance training. In fact, it would be better to combine intense resistance training with low-intensity steady-state (LISS) cardio – if at all.
Similarly, if you’ve been doing regular intense workouts it’s a good idea to take one or two weeks off – completely! – every four to six weeks.
What about working out more than once per day? This should be fine provided you’re not going for intensity with both workouts and your getting your nutritional needs met – which especially means getting enough protein and the other assorted amino acids required for repairing your body. You will also need more time to recover each week, anything from two to four days.
As you can see, there’s actually a lot more to this seemingly simple question than first meets the mind. To sum it up:
Pair high-intensity workouts with low-intensity workouts; e.g. strength training workout with LISS cardio; HIIT with low-intensity resistance training.
If you workout twice a day, make sure you get two to four rest days per week – assuming you are doing an intense resistance training workout as one of your daily workouts.
The more intense your workout the more rest days between working out that body part again. So, if you do an intense back workout, you should rest for one to two days before you work out your back again.
Take a workout break of at least a week, every four to six weeks.
And if you’re doing intense workouts – and you are, because you want to see those results, right? – make sure you remain alert for signs of overtraining (we’ll address these in another article).