How often should you work out?

How often should you workout? Image shows woman looking at smartwatch
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Regular exercise is important for our health, but just how often should you workout? 

Understanding the role that workout frequency plays in structuring the order, intensity and number of workouts is key to your fitness progress — regardless of whether you’re looking to build muscle with the best adjustable dumbbells or improve your 5K run time.

We grilled an expert to get in-depth advice on how many times a week you should really be working out. 

How often should you workout?

Government guidance suggests that all adults should engage in somewhere between 150-300 minutes of moderate physical activity per week, with that amount halved if workouts are more intense. You can split this anyway you like; some people may prefer to do five 30-minute sessions, while others might prefer three bouts of hour-length exercise a week. 

According to Professor Richard Davison, President of the European College of Sport Sciences 2024 Glasgow Congress and an internationally-acclaimed exercise physiologist, optimal training frequency differs from person to person. 

”I could take a group of ten individuals of a similar age, with similar physical ability, give them exactly the same training programme in terms of the number of sessions and the intensity of sessions,” he explains. “And if we measured the change in their fitness, there would be a very wide range of responses, simply due to the genetic differences in how we respond to training.”

Professor Richard Davison
Professor Richard Davison

Professor Richard Davison is a professor of Exercise Physiology and Head of TNE and Mobility at the University f the West of Scotland. He is also the President of the European College of Sport Sciences 2024 Glasgow Congress. He is an internationally-recognised exercise physiologist with 30 years experience. He has his own podcast ‘Cycling Science Podcast’ which explores all aspects of science and technology to improve cycling performance.

So given that we all react uniquely to training, how do you figure out what the right frequency is for you? Happily, there are general approaches which tend to work well as a rule of thumb:

“If you are a beginner and not fit then you may not need many workouts, say three per week,” outlines Davison. “An elite athlete will regularly do more than one workout per day. But you have to remember that by definition, elite athletes are not normal, they are special and can withstand many workouts per week and even they need to build up to that level. They also have the rest of the day to recover. For normal mortals, three to five workouts per week are likely to be the norm.” 

How often should you work out? Image of two women running in snow

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Can you workout too much?

In short, yes. The grounds for not over-training your body are just as compelling as the reasons to not neglect workouts. Compulsive exercising can lead to physical injury, negatively affect your mental well-being and lead to social isolation. 

As Davison puts it: “Too many sessions just do not allow the body to recover and adapt, and you end up in a downward spiral of fatigue and over-training.”

As such, listening to the demands of your body should be paramount. The balance between overtraining and waiting too long to workout again (and thus allowing your body to detrain) is delicate indeed. Unusual muscle soreness, noticeable and protracted dips in performance and fatigue are all symptoms of over-training and should be avoided in order to protect yourself.

How often should you work out? Image of woman riding exercise bike in spin class gym

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How does workout style affect exercise frequency?

We’re all individuals and as such, everybody works out differently. In turn, it makes sense that different approaches in intensity and duration will affect workout frequency. Davison asserts that your ultimate objective should be the deciding factor in structuring the duration and frequency of your workouts. 

“All training should be designed around an objective,” he explains. “Training to complete a 100-mile sportive will be different from aiming to do well in your local cycling club’s 10-mile time trial. One may last up to 30 minutes and the other one, several hours. So, trying to decide the optimal volume and the frequency or the intensity and the frequency of workouts will be determined by your overall goal or objective.”

Of course, as you train, should you experience any of the symptoms mentioned in the section above then it is important to tweak your routine accordingly to avoid the pitfalls of over-training. While it is important to stick to any routine to progress, don’t do so at the cost of over-exertion. 

Are you varying your workouts enough?

It’s important to vary the type of your workouts as well as ensuring that you rest appropriately. Even if you are working towards a very specific set of goals, holistic training should be the foundation that underpins any training regimen. “It is important to vary the type of workout,” adds Davison, “so even if your goal is a 100 mile sportive, then you should still do intense workouts.”

However you vary the intensity and makeup of your workouts, it is vital that you follow the progressive overload principle and put your body under just enough stress and challenges, so that you see improvements. 

Ultimately, alongside being aware of one’s own body, personal research is important in understanding how training frequency applies to you as an individual. Even better though, is coaching.

“A good coach will have experience of prescribing appropriate training programmes which work for the majority of people,” explains Davison. “They will use your feedback in conjunction with objective measurements of improvement in fitness to adapt and change the training programme to ensure that you individually would improve towards the goal that you have set.” 

Dan Cooper

Dan Cooper is an experienced fitness writer who firmly believes in the power of running. The hardest race he has completed so far was Tough Guy, the world’s oldest and most demanding OCR event. There he learned that you may be able to outpace opponents, but outrunning hypothermia? That's a different race entirely.