By Brandon Roberts, PhD

Life gets hectic. Not everyone has time to train five or six days a week. Even if you can train that much it’s difficult to recover from all those workouts.

An important thing to remember is that we generally adapt to our training on the days we don’t exercise, so recovery is essential.

Furthermore, if your goal is to be healthy then you may only need to exercise a few times a week per some guidelines (NIH). The ACSM calls for 2 days of resistance training in addition to 150 minutes of cardiovascular exercise per week, which can certainly be completed in two or three longer training sessions.

However, the first question we should ask when deciding the number of workouts per week is – what’s your goal?

Is it to lose fat?
Is it to gain muscle?
Is it to do both?
Is it to maintain your current body?

Well, in people new to training we can do both, which is called a recomposition, but it won’t last forever. This doesn’t mean you turn fat into muscle, rather your body adapts to the increased stress of training by adding muscle while also using energy stores from fat to fuel the body. If on a small caloric deficit with careful nutritional tracking it can be accomplished.

Once you complete your first year or two of training it becomes much more difficult and is more efficient to choose one goal at a time. We know nutrition plays as big, if not bigger, of a role in body composition but I’ll leave that for another time.

Let’s get into the details for arranging your 2-, 3- or 4-day program.

2 Days Per Week

I often see trainers go for an upper/lower split when doing two days a week, which works well for retaining strength but not muscle mass over long periods of time. In fact, our lab completed a study where we measured the amount of exercise volume (sets) to retain strength after 16 weeks of resistance training. We found that with just 1/3 the total volume (1 set versus 9 sets) we could retain the strength from training even though the amount of muscle mass would decrease back to baseline (Bickel et al., 2011). Therefore, it’s possible to retain strength when exercising at a lower frequency per movement but making improvements may not be possible.

A better approach for 2-day a week training program is to do full body on both days. This allows more stimulus for each body part while allowing plenty of recovery. If you did an upper/lower split for your 2-day a week program then we are allowing seven full days of recovery for each muscle group, which is far too much.

3 Days Per Week

The next training split is probably the most frequent. I’ve had dozens of clients who want to invest time in their body, but are busy people. Some may not even enjoy exercise, yet they know it’s important. This split also fits very nicely into most schedules. For example, you can train Monday/Wednesday/Friday and still have the weekends off.

With this split you can’t push too hard because clients may not be able to recover between sessions. My favorite way to program this is to have one focus for each day where we do 6-9 sets for a given body part, then rotate 3-5 sets for the other areas. To give an example – we could train a squat variation with additional leg movements like lunge for the focus of the session, but also add in some rows, pressing, and core work so that they also have a stimulus.

For the other two days, you would change the focus, but keep the relative amount of volume and intensity the same. This is set up for a more traditional style client, but we’ll get to a more progressive style soon.

4 Days Per Week

Next up is the 4-day per week training. This is by far my favorite because people who can commit to this split are bound to improve. When we get to this frequency it can be difficult to recover from four total body days, so we need to make an adjustment. Enter: the upper/lower split. A classic for those of us in the fitness world. Generally done on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday. It permits for sufficient recovery over the weekend while allowing clients to still have plenty of time for life outside the gym.

For this split you could do one of two things: you could do the same exercises on each upper/lower day which would make them twice a week OR you can choose different exercises for each day. The benefit of choosing the same exercise is that your clients will inevitably get better at them faster. Strength is very specific, so doubling down on these movements will help your clients get comfortable and allow an increase in load over a shorter amount of time. One of the fundamental tenants of exercise science is progressive overload – meaning that to adapt the muscle needs an increasing stimulus (i.e. more weight, sets, or reps). It also gives you a chance to improve their form if it needs work.

The disadvantage of doing the same exercise is boredom. For progressive style clients, you may lose their interest quickly after they master a movement or exercise. That’s where you can get creative and think of different ways to load each movement. For example, you can add in a distractor or additional challenge to help them stay motivated.

Now that I’ve covered the basics of how to arrange different programs, let’s dive deeper:

What should my exercise selection look like?

As trainers, we all have preferred exercises. One of my favorite aspects of PTA Global is their program design tool. It can help you discover new ideas if you get in a rut or offer innovative ways to pair exercises.

Here’s an example of a program I created for one of my new clients using the PTA Global program design tool:

If you need an overview of how to manipulate the program design tool watch this video.

One thing you’ll notice from the sample program above is no wasted time. Your clients are always moving, which can be beneficial for those who want to feel like they worked out hard. This program was designed for a progressive type of client who enjoys total body movements with more variety compared to a traditional client who may be intimidated by the multiplicity of exercises in quick succession.

Ultimately, programming is very customizable, but the most important part about creating a program is that your clients follow it. We can write the best program in the world that will efficiently accomplish goals yet if it calls for 5 days a week of exercise and you can only do 3 days, then it doesn’t matter how great the program is; the client won’t complete it.

You want to find the sweet spot where we can achieve their goals while not overwhelming them. It could mean reducing the number of workouts which may slow progress and that is perfectly fine. Some progress is better than none. Furthermore, creating a personalized program can help clients adhere more. It’s part of getting them to buy-in. We know some people are built better for certain movements and helping them find these then show progress is the most rewarding part. Every client is unique so their program should be too.

Brandon RobertsBrandon Roberts is a strength & physique coach, scientist, and fitness writer. He works with The Strength Guys to help athletes perform better using an evidence-based approach. He contributes to numerous fitness websites while also publishing in peer-reviewed academic journals.