If you’re trying to put on muscle, then lifting more often means more gains, right? Especially when your gym is right there at home, the temptation to just get in one more session is infectious.
Thing is, doing this could actually be hurting your progress in the long term, and making you much more susceptible to short term injury.
The science is in. If you’re interested in the best way to exercise for massive growth, read on.
How many days a week should you lift weights?
The answer is; it’s complicated.
How often you lift depends on you, your goals, your body, your age, and a hundred other modifiers.
However, what is clear is that there’s a sweet spot, and that sweet spot is simple.
Two to three times a week, with one or two day rest periods in between.
Your Home Gym – how many times a week is too much?
The science of muscle recovery
The science is pretty clear.
Exercising only once a week, but absolutely burning out your muscles, isn’t an effective way of training.
Aggregated studies show that the same amount of work spread out over two or three sessions was vastly more effective at growing muscle than trying to pack it all into a single day.
The reason for this is simple. Whether you’re lifting dumbbells, or working in your home multigym, after you exercise, you put your body into a state where it’s primed to grow muscle. But that muscle building state only lasts for around 48 hours at maximum.
That means, if you work out on Monday, by Wednesday your body’s done building itself up, and it’s ready to go again. Which is why you need to stick to the frequency we mentioned earlier; 1 day on, 1-2 days off.
So if you lift Monday, you rest Tuesday, then lift again Wednesday. After that, take two rest days, and lift again on Saturday.
Doing this, you keep yourself in that muscle building window for almost all of the week, naturally boosting your body’s natural muscle building systems and maximising possible gains.
But the above only matters if you’re training your entire body in every session, for example with the popular Stronglifts 5×5 workout routines.
If you instead split train, as lots of people do, you can do something a little different.
When you split, you’re going to want to train each part of your body hard, then give it the same two days rest. But the reason this matters is because if you only trained legs, then only your legs need to rest. So you can get back in the gym the day after, as long as you only train your upper body.
A 7 day split workout program for maximum growth would look like this:
Following a pattern like this lets you hit each part twice a week, optimal for muscle growth, while still getting in those all important rest days.
Why do you need to rest from weight training?
When you first get started in your home gym, you’re probably excited to get on it. The prospect of a rest day might feel indulgent. Even lazy. But rest days are as important, if not more important, than the days you actually lift. Here’s why:
When you rest, your body rebuilds
Every time you work out, you’re breaking your muscle fibres down. You’re not getting stronger when you pick up the weight, you’re getting stronger afterwards, as your body builds itself back up again and undoes the damage you do when you lift. (That’s the aches afterwards, by the way.)
You’re not going to fatigue yourself
Muscles need glycogen, (basically glucose sugar) to work. Your body can only hold so much. Every time you work out, you’re burning through your glycogen stores, which is one of the reasons you get weaker as you go and can only lift so much.
And your body needs time to rebuild these glycogen stocks. Rest days are when you do that.
It lowers your risk of injury
We’ve all seen it. People get overworked, push themselves, and suddenly they’re struggling to lift a weight and having sloppy, ineffective workouts.
Paradoxically, rest days make your performance better. That sounds good to us. Maximising the time spent under the bar by strategic laziness is something we can all agree on.
I hate rest days! Can I do anything on my days off?
Absolutely. If you’re itching to do something physical on your rest days, you can.
Rest days are perfect for cardio work. Even just a walk gets the blood flowing in your muscles again. Rest days are also a great opportunity to get in some time with something that we all need to do more of, but so few of us do.
Cardio is the perfect companion to strength training and, unless you’re specifically avoiding cardio for some reason, such as training for a body building competition, or some health reason, you need to find some cardio you don’t mind doing, and work it into your training life.
Stretching and mobility work.
Lifting, especially lifting heavy, can actively limit your mobility, which isn’t great both in daily lift, and when you’re working out, because studies show that having a greater range of motion makes you much stronger.
What happens to your muscles when you lift weights?
As we’ve already mentioned, when you’re lifting, you’re actually breaking down the muscles; making them weaker.
Are rest days important for building muscle?
When you lift, the fibres that make up your muscles break down in a series of microscopic tears. It’s in the following days that the body is rebuilt, and your muscles are made stronger to cope with the increased stress you’re putting it through.
What happens to your muscles when you rest?
This is why rest is so heavily stressed, in this article and elsewhere, because without that rest, you’re never giving your body time to rebuild.
It’s also why you’ve probably heard things like ‘muscle is built in the kitchen’ or ‘you can’t outlift your fork.’ Because without the raw materials (protein, basically) to rebuild your poor, sore muscles, you’re just breaking them down for nothing.
What is deloading and should I do it?
Deloading is a term that means taking a week out of your schedule to lift light, or lift less volume.
Essentially, it’s a week that you’re still exercising, but giving your body time to recover fully.
If you’re brand new to lifting, or lifting light, you can probably deload every 8 to 12 weeks.
However, if you’re lifting heavy, or if you’re starting to get a little older, it can be good to deload for one week out of every four.
How does age affect rest delays?
Age does affect your need to rest, but you’ve probably got longer than you think before you need to worry about it.
People start losing significant muscle mass at around the fifty mark, and the body starts to take longer to synthesize proteins, which stops it recovering as fast. But before this, as long as you’re keeping yourself fit and healthy, you shouldn’t need to rest any more than this.
What’s the latest science behind resting?
Unlike a lot of exercise tips, this one isn’t just bro science. It’s hard science.
Three consecutive days of exercise leads to muscle weakness that lasts for up to three more days.
Over-training results from training without adequate rest, and affects neurological, endocrinological and immunological systems, as well as mood.
Training more than three times per week, or at high volumes, doesn’t increase your long term strength gains over regular training plans.
The science is clear cut here. Make sure you’re resting enough. If you don’t, you could be undoing all that hard work you put in on your home gym.
References & Further Reading
- There’s an excellent study on NCBI about over training syndrome
- PubMed – Does over training exist?
- Science Daily – Extended rest between weight-lifting sets could help muscle growth
- HSS – Preventing Injuries While Working Out at Home
- Harvard has some great tips on avoiding common injuries when you’re working out at home