Let’s talk about recovery. If you were to do a google search right now on how often you should work a muscle group, you’re going to get results which range from every 48 hours to only once per week!
This is bound to be incredibly confusing to a novice lifter who isn’t sure how often to train, or how to structure their weekly program. My goal here is to clear up some of this confusion and help readers optimise their time in the gym, and during recovery periods.
We break down our muscles when we work out. Muscle growth and strength gains are a result of the body’s attempt to adapt to a stimulus – in this case, the demand to become bigger and stronger in order to accommodate the new stress of a weighted barbell on your chest, back, or in your hands.
This break down means that recovery is key to achieving your goals in the gym. If you don’t allow enough recovery, you won’t get stronger and vice versa. It’s a balancing act, but one that can be optimized for best results. It’s important to know that being “hardcore” and trying to work out a muscle every day can reverse the anabolic process and cause more harm than good – So... don't do it.
Your recovery period will depend on the intensity of your workout, but let’s assume moderate intensity here – The response of muscle protein metabolism to moderate intensity exercise can last anywhere from 24-48 hours. This 24-48 hour window is where your nutrition and rest time is most important. The incremental gains you experience during this period will be largely dependent on what you do during this time. Make smart decisions!
So what does this mean for you? It means that you should absolutely not work a muscle at moderate or higher intensity more than once every 48 hours – But rejoice my bodybuilding bros! You can work the same muscle group more than once in the same week! In fact, almost every well-established program that I am aware of has trainees doing this. What you’ll notice though, is that most programs out there will have days of light intensity, and days of high intensity, alternating between one another. This is intentional.
Low-intensity exercise on rest days is great for stimulating blood flow to an area and facilitating recovery. My personal recommendation (and what I do myself) is to alternate between moderate-high intensity days and a day where you still burn some calories and get blood moving without causing a massive breakdown in muscle tissue. This will help to avoid overtraining as well as facilitate recovery. This is much more preferable than just sitting on your couch because “it’s a rest day”.
At a high level, a program which allows for proper recovery could look something like this:
Monday: High intensity Lower body, Medium intensity Upper Body
Tuesday: Low intensity cardio/chin ups
Wednesday: Medium intensity Lower Body, High intensity Upper Body
Thursday: HIIT Cardio/Pull-ups
Friday: Tear the gym down doing the most compound heavy lifts you can.
Weekend: Go for a brisk walk for about 30 minutes, get some blood moving, rest up. You’re doing this all over again next week!
This general set up will allow you to mostly recover from your workouts during the week so that you can still get a good workout 48 hours later – while also giving you the entire weekend to fully recuperate from the stress of your Friday workout. It’s certainly not the only way to do things, but it’s a great framework on how to work a muscle group multiple times per week while avoiding the dreaded state of Overtraining!
Joe Nagy is a strength training and bodybuilding enthusiast who has been lifting for most of his life. His content on Quora receives over a million views per month and he is available for further assistance through his Instagram at Joe.Lifts.Bro