How Many Workouts Per Week to Build Muscle

Looking at the title of this article, you might expect a short article with a simple answer. After all, at first glance it’s not a hard question, right? Well, that’s where you’re wrong!

But fear not, because this article will explain why and provide the answer.

Before I go any further, and those that know my articles know this – let me say that I am a huge advocate of recovery. I don’t believe people want to admit the true importance of recovery – they simply want to train and they think the more they train, the more they gain.

Here’s the deal and if there ever was a “secret”, this is it…

You don’t grow when you’re in the gym. Training causes muscle protein breakdown (catabolic) and yes you can now use an intra-workout drink and go a long way to limiting this but ultimately, you leave the gym in a far more depleted state than when you came in.

So when do you grow if not in the gym?

You grow when you allow yourself to recover – outside the gym.

Read that last line about 10 times until it sinks in.

If you don’t recover, you won’t grow – unless of course you have “help” which pretty much changes everything – but even then, recovery still equals growth.

However, I’m natural and I write with the natural guy in mind. I have nothing against steroids, more power to those who use them. The truth is, however, that the rules are different if you’re a natural.

Recovery is the key to growth – for everybody. That’s huge because I see a lot of guys brag about never taking a rest day, or not believing in over-training or whatever – bullshit.

You grow when you recover, period. If you take nothing else away from this article, take that point.

arnold using barbell

Workout Frequency

Back when I first started training, we’re talking 1980 – there were primarily two main camps when it came to training frequency – Arnold’s idea of 6 days a week, each body part trained twice per week, and the Heavy Duty H.I.T (High Intensity Training) concepts of Mike Mentzer – who advocated a lower training frequency of working each body part just once a week over 3 days.

arnold workout
Arnold Schwarzenegger Advocated High Volume and Frequency Training

As you’ll see, there are bodybuilders out there training anywhere from 3 – 6 days per week, all of whom are massively muscled.

But in my opinion – for most genetically average drug free trainees – 3 workouts per week would be an absolute minimum, 4 – 5 being optimal to gain the most amount of muscle each year.

You always had those that were more moderate in their approach, with some even combining the two extremes. The HIT concepts have survived and today you actually have a lot of belief systems when it comes to how often you train – the trend I’ve noticed is that hitting each muscle group twice per week is becoming more common – again because the advocates think the more you train the more you grow.

Mike-Mentzer training
Mike Mentzer Was a Proponent of High-Intensity Training

Push / Pull / Legs Training Split

I’ve always advocated training each muscle group once per week on a split routine – such as a 3 day push/pull/legs split. I see this as a good split because it works well with the lives of most people. However, the push / pull / leg routine, hitting each muscle group every 5 days is more optimal for growth and the best option if you have the freedom to workout on different days each week.

Remember, the goal is to get as many growth stimulating workouts in each week while being able to adequately recover, this workout routine / structure ticks that box!

Here’s how such a workout split would look hitting each muscle group every 5th day.

Click Here to See Workout
Day / Week Workout
Week 1
Sunday OFF
Monday PUSH
Tuesday LEGS
Wednesday OFF
Thursday PULL
Friday OFF
Saturday PUSH
Week 2
Sunday LEGS
Monday OFF
Tuesday PULL
Wednesday OFF
Thursday PUSH
Friday LEGS
Saturday OFF
 Week 3
Sunday PULL
Monday OFF
Tuesday PUSH
Wednesday LEGS
Thursday OFF
Friday PULL
Saturday OFF

… and so on, performing the same workout every 5th day.

Using this push / pull / legs structure would mean you’re doing 4 workouts per week and hitting each muscle group every 5 days.

The thing is, for many of us, it’s more a question of getting into the gym than anything else and this is based on the simple fact that many of us lead a very busy and active lifestyle. I always have led an extremely active lifestyle and even though I have a home gym, for many years I had to be willing to be creative in my approach to training.

So, to get the most from recovery and training, I believe a push-pull –legs split is an ideal approach, with each workout done once / twice per week – to clarify, under ideal conditions, you should be fully recovered and able to train the grouping of muscles based on the split again by the 5th day – so if you do pushing exercise (chest, shoulders, triceps) on Monday, for example, by Friday or Saturday those muscle groups should be fully recovered and ready to train again.

Remember with recovery, it’s not only the muscles you just trained that have to recover; it’s your entire system.

Two points to be made about this split:

It’s adjustable – you should take 1 day off between workouts but many people train 2 days in a row then take a day of before hitting workout number 3. This is fine, so for example you may train on Monday and Tuesday but wait until Thursday or Friday to hit it again, this works because it allows good recovery time.

You can hit the somewhat standard 3 days a week approach – M-W-F which does promote good recovery time when using a split routine. The point is, based on such factors as age, your recovery ability and your lifestyle; you can adjust this split to fit.

By doing the Monday / Wednesday / Friday workout routine it provides a stable routine to follow each week. However, this would mean you’re training each muscle once every 7 days – effective but not as good as every 5 days.

Working Out 3 Vs. 4 Days a Week

Following the recommended 4 days per week workout structure above would mean that you’re training on a different day every week, which is not suitable for everyone. I understand people have family and work commitments and absolutely need certain days of the week free. If you’re in that situation then run with the 3 days per week, Monday / Wednesday / Friday structure. You just need to make sure every workout counts and you’re training balls to the wall.

If you have time available then go with the 4 days per week routine as this would be more optimal for growth and allows you to squeeze in more overall growth stimulating training sessions over a year.

arnold training

So how does each push / pull / legs workout look?

Legs

  • Squats
  • Lying Leg Curls
  • Standing Calf Raises
  • Ab work.

I’m not listing set totals or rep goals as that’s not the purpose of this article, although I typically advocate 8-10 sets for big muscles, 6-8 for smaller ones like deltoids and 5-6 for arm work, with reps in the 6-10 range – but this is all dependent on your goals.

You may notice I have Squats listed and that’s it – work them hard enough and that should be all you can need for great legs.

Push – Chest, Delts, Tris

  • Bench Press
  • Incline Press
  • Overhead Press
  • Lying Extensions – combine pullovers and close grip benches with this – keep your elbows tight to your head with pullovers, it’s a triceps exercise, not a lat exercise. Do close-grips last when your triceps are fatigued.

Pull – Back and Biceps

  • Deadlift
  • Chins (or Pulldowns)
  • Bent Rows
  • EZ Curls – super set into Drag Curls
  • Ab work (optional)

This routine is an example and the days can be switched – but separate back from legs, don’t do them too close together since both days hit the lower back and you want to avoid muscle overlap.

I advocate the use of compound work with some intensity on arm work on this routine but again, this is to be tailored to your preference.

So what was the other point?

There’s a trend that I’ve seen that advocates full-body routines and this approach, if done correctly, changes things.

Those of you that have read my articles know I have a very hesitant outlook on full body routines. In my library I have a book that advocates nothing but this type of training and, when you get to the “advanced” stage, you are doing 90 sets a workout, 3 days a week (you guessed it, M-W-F).

Are you serious?

You want me to do 90 sets on a full body that often? You’re supposed to be hitting it hard on your last, oh, I don’t know, 20-30 sets?

…please

There is no way you’re going to be standing up let alone hitting set #90 hard. Even more, there is no way – no way! – you can possibly recover in just 1 day from this type of insanity.

If you are natural, you’re doomed with a full body workout like this!

My approach to a full body has always been to do 4-6 carefully chosen exercises and do 3-4 sets each. In fact, the classic 5X5 routine would work with the full body approach.

A full-body done this way – low sets, well-chosen compound exercises and hard training should mean you’re looking at 2-3 days between workouts. So in this case you’d train Monday, Thursday and Sunday but the next week your first workout would fall on Wednesday.

In my opinion full body workouts should be reserved as “filler” workouts when you’re strapped for time. Your main workout routine should consist for 3 – 5 hard workouts with a variety of exercises.

Here’s an example of a full body workout routine;

Mike Mentzer dumbbell curl

Day One

  • Squats
  • Chins
  • Bench Press
  • Overhead Press

Day Two

  • Deads (deadlifts)
  • Bent Rows
  • Incline Press
  • Wide Grip Upright Rows – this is a very short range of motion exercise that really hits the traps and delts. Use a wide – really wide grip, you’re lifting the bar maybe 4-5 inches.
  • Arm work/ab work optional.

So far, I’ve only talked about routines. I have not mentioned rep/set performance. For years I did a lot of high-intensity work, drops (drop-sets), rest-pause sets, static holds. I always did a strength set or two but jumped right into the intense stuff.

More recently, I feel workouts should be progressive in the sense of consistently (yet gradually) adding weight to the bar which creates measurable progress because it translates to strength and size gains. In fact, my most advanced routines utilize a core strength program and then allow for the use of extended set techniques that change – constant variety yet measurable progression.

As for rep tempo, I have always advocated explosive up, slow and controlled down. This type of training can be severely taxing and again, it’s about recovery.

Bottom line

If your goal is to build muscle optimally, anywhere from 3 – 5 hard, properly structured weight training workouts per week – performed constantly and progressively – will produce best gains.

To maximize muscle growth and strength gains most people should perform four intense weight training sessions per week.

An absolute minimum of three weight training workouts can be effective, but if you really want to experience the greatest gains as quickly as possible then you must do what you can to accommodate for a minimum of four workouts per week.

By training four times a week, you’re able to focus your attention on training specific muscle groups on a given day and allows for optimal recovery before training that muscle group again.

The most effective and intelligently designed workout programs followed by professional bodybuilders and amateurs alike are based around 3 – 5 day splits per week.

Training four times per week appears to be the sweet spot in terms of allowing for optimal growth stimulus and recovery between workouts. Intense weight training stimulates muscle growth, but this training puts heavy demands on the body.

Transforming the stimulation from training into muscle growth requires a recovery period.

It is not just the contractile system (muscle cells) that requires a recovery period after an intense weight training session, but also the nervous system, endocrine system, energy stores, joint capsules and tendons.

It is essential for optimum muscular development and injury prevention that recovery becomes a major part of your overall training program.

Muscle Group Frequency

The question of “how many times should I train a muscle group per week?” is a topic of much debate.

You will find many differences of opinion on this question.

Some people recommend training each muscle group twice per week, while others say just once per week is more than enough to induce the greatest hypertrophy response.

But who is right?

Well, they’re both right, but I’ll tell you which one is best is just a minute.

It’s true that you can train a muscle once per week or twice per week and get great results.

But if you’re anything like me then you don’t just want to know what works, you want to know what works best.

…and I can tell you right now that training a muscle just once per week is not optimal.

I trained like this for years, following the classic bodybuilder muscle annihilation style workouts, and I did get good results.

But I’ve now learned that lower volume, more frequent workouts are far better at building muscle faster.

Why?

The goal of everything that you do inside and outside of the gym is to stimulate protein synthesis. Increasing protein synthesis as high and as often as possible is how you build muscle.

Now, weight training stimulates muscle protein synthesis for 24 – 48 hours, some studies show stimulation lasting as long as 72 hours, before returning to baseline.

If you train a specific muscle, let’s say chest, with an intense weight training session then protein synthesis levels in your chest muscles will be elevated for around 3 days, before returning to baseline. It doesn’t make much sense to leave your chest a whole 7 days before training it again.

With rest and good nutrition the muscle will be ready for another bout of exercise in around 3 days.

With that said, I would give a trained muscle at least 4 – 5 days rest between each workout. Even though protein synthesis levels may have fallen to baseline after 3 days, give the muscle a further day or two to fully recover. This will give your tendons some extra recovery time, allow any inflammation to subside, muscle energy stores to replenish, your central nervous system to recover and allow for full recovery of the muscle before hitting it again.

Training each muscle group just once per week is not enough to maximize growth, and training each muscle group twice per week is just a bit too much.

For optimal muscle growth its best to work each muscle group once every 4 – 5 days.

Training each muscle group every seven days gives you just 52 growth simulating workouts in a year, while training each muscle every four or five days gives you around 90 growth stimulating workouts in a year.

Which do you think will yield the most result over 12 months?

Last Updated: 20/08/2019

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