Help! How Often Should I Train?

Camp Taji obstacle course

In continuing with my ‘Help!’ series (1,2,3), one other frequently fielded question I get is ‘how often’ or when in the week should I train?

Most people want me to write them out a detailed weekly calendar, explaining exactly what to do on each day.

In my experience though, this is the equivalent of catching a fish for someone, rather than teaching them how to fish.

Sure it ties into the human need for certainty, even if you never fully plan to do what I tell you, and I honestly hate telling people what to do, I’d rather help you figure it out for yourself.

I’m much more inclined now to work through the process I’m about to describe with clientele, and coach them through figuring out a schedule that works for them.

First I have to mention the two basic types of training sessions you’ll find in my recommendations:

  1. Neuromuscular System Development (NMSD – Resistance Training/Strength Training/Weight Training/Plyometrics/Shock Training/Mobility Work, etc…)
  2. Energy System Development (ESD – Training of the 3 energy systems – ATP-CP, Glycolytic, Aerobic; many people may refer to this as ‘cardio’ or ‘conditioning’)

I would also like the mention Mobility Development (MD) as something I encourage people to do before (sometimes during) and after workouts — static or quasi-isometric work 3 hours after is best, but not always practical.

A fourth one in the athletic world would be ‘Technical Training,’ but from a strength and conditioning or weight loss point of view, it is essentially these two types of training, the technical training is the NMSD or the ESD itself.

The Minimums

Before I go any further…“Anything is Better Than Nothing.” [toc]

You can quote me on that, in fact tweet it right now.

Will you see a ton of physical change by terms of weight loss heading to the gym once a week and sitting on the couch the other 6?

Probably not, but it’s better than sitting on the couch 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, and it often leads to good vibrations ala Marky Mark.

It’s been my experience that the process of long-term weight loss is almost always a snowball effect, in that the changes might seem small at first, but eventually you have this big freakin’ ball of snow at the end.

Start small and add time as you free it up, prioritize and drop a few less important commitments.

This 2011 cohort study, showed that as little as 92 minutes of moderate-exercise (what’s moderate right? haha) yielded 3 more years in lifespan on average, and there were small increments of improvement in every 15 minutes you add further — though no upper limit is discussed…

150 Minutes per week is a common minimum recommendation — roughly 2.5 hours, or to me 3 training sessions.

Keep in mind, most ‘minimum exercise’ research seems to be applied to longevity, health markers, and disease rehabilitation, NOT (unfortunately) weight loss scenarios. 

Though I’m hopeful that the work of Dr. Steven Boutcher will shed some more light on this…

What Experience Tells Me

If you want to see noticeable results in weight loss, there is an inverse relationship to the number of hours you are willing to dedicate to the process, and the results you will see.

In my own experience I would determine that an upper limit for healthful weight loss exercise is 6 days a week (which I hope you find surprising), or about 6 hours of training for non-competitive athletes, and about 12 if you’re training for something semi-serious, but still want to have a life.

Proportionately this is only about 3.5-7% of the time available to you in the week, and I’ve seen people get great results with 1.75% of their time per week.

Seems reasonable right?

However, time dedicated, does not always translate to results.

The method matters.

How long is the absolute minimum amount of time you can spend training and still see great results?

The jury is still out on it, but in my experience it depends first on the quality of the program.

A high quality program delivered to somebody with a high level consistency — shorter training sessions done in regular intervals — and a high level of ability — i.e. someone who can squat, lunge, deadlift, press, pull, stabilize, and carry with good form, which leads to greater demands on the system, and thus greater adaptation — can probably account for as little as 2 hours a week of total work effort.

If you’re not in that ball-park I try to encourage 3-4 hours per week, to accelerate those results, think 5-6.

The more experience you have, the closer you are to maintenance phase you are, the less you can probably escape with while maintaining your body weight.

Personally I like to first get the weight loss clientele people that I work with up to at least 3 hours per week of quality training, and I’ve seen moderate to good results at that level.

Great results seems lurk closer to the 5 hour mark per week, but again that depends on ability, and ability is something I can teach, and you can learn.

Next question!

How Much Time Do You Honestly Have?

Most people love an all-or-nothing-approach. They would love for me to tell them that they need to work out 5 times a week to see results, end-of-story.
Meaning, they want to put their head down and mow through the obstacles you put in front of them, at least for a a little while, or until reality kicks in.
Is it really effective for me to tell you, you need to work out 5 times a week to see great results, if you feel you can only reasonably free up 2 or 3?
I know you’re excited about getting fit, but take a minute to have an honest conversation with yourself.
How much time can you legitimately free up right now between the half dozen committees you sit on, your 50-hr work-week job, your loving wife or husband, hanging with your friends and looking after the ankle biters?
Ya six times a week at the gym doesn’t look so appealing now, does it?
I still bet you can free up 2-3 hours though.

My Recommendations

If you’re new to fitness start with two NMSD training sessions per week, focus on quality.

When done appropriately it yields better weight loss results, but it also cascades into the aerobic energy system, better than vice versa.

You’ll need at least a day’s active rest and recovery between bouts of NMSD training.

So a schedule might look like Monday and Thursday at this point.

From there, I would typically add another NMSD session for simplicity sake, but it depends on when you can train.

This might end up looking like Monday, Thursday and Saturday, or Monday/Wednesday/Friday even.

The Rationale?

ESD can easily be added at the end of NMSD sessions depending on the amount of time you have, without a significant drop off in quality, sadly the reverse is not true.

Shorten a NMSD day, and add ESD work for 10-20 minutes near the end of a NMSD day.

You can make considerable cardiovascular improvements in this amount of time, and burn a considerable amount of calories if you employ an interval training protocol.

Want More?

Separate NMSD from ESD and do them on alternate days.

For instance if you’re up to 4 times a week, it may be beneficial to do the following:

NMSD – Monday and Thursday

ESD – Tuesday and Friday

OR Five Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Saturday

OR Six Times a Week:

NMSD – Monday/Wednesday/Friday

ESD – Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday

Just make sure you take a day off for a light swim, walk the dog, or a leisurely bike ride.

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