It’s the first question on many people’s minds when they’re considering starting an exercise routine: How often should you work out? And what should you do during each workout to make the most out of it?
Like most things in the fitness world, there is no one answer to that question: It all depends on your fitness background, the time you have available, and your personal goals. The best exercise routine for you—and how many days you work out—might look pretty different from a solid routine for someone else. It’s not super-helpful, for instance, to model your weekly workout routine after someone who’s training to run a marathon if you’re interested in learning how to strength train.
But if you don’t have super-specific fitness goals—say, you’re looking for a bit of everything to increase strength and endurance so you can move better and feel better—there are some guidelines that can help you figure out a doable workout program. Here, what you need to know about how often you should work out, what to focus on, and how to make it a habit that sticks.
How often should you work out each week?
Like we said, there’s no simple formula that’s right for everyone. If you’re looking to amp up your fitness level, your magic number of days depends on how active you already are.
For example, you’ll probably see physical (and mental) results from one day a week if you don’t already work out at all, Noam Tamir, C.S.C.S., founder and CEO of TS Fitness in New York City, tells SELF. But if you’re used to multiple workout days a week, one day probably won’t challenge your body enough to maintain your fitness or make progress.
The breakdown varies depending on your specific goals, but in general, four to five days a week will do the trick if you’re aiming to improve or maintain your fitness.
Of course, if you’re just getting started and don’t exercise currently, that might be too big of a jump at first, says ACE-certified trainer Sivan Fagan, owner of Strong With Sivan in Baltimore. And that can turn you off completely from working out. Instead, try starting with two workouts a week, which you can increase gradually.
How can you build working out into a habit?
Setting a doable goal for how many times you’ll start working out each week can be helpful by making sure you don’t get burned out, says Fagan.
But shooting for a bit of movement each day, even if you’re not doing an actual workout, can also help you make working out a habit that will stick, she says. This might mean a 10-minute walk or a series of gentle stretches.
Another important consideration is determining when you’ll work out. Again, there’s no right answer to this, but it helps to take a careful look at your schedule when figuring out when you should pencil in your workout. For instance, if your mornings are super-hectic with lots of last-minute changes, it could be self-defeating to plan on morning workouts, says Fagan. In that case, an afternoon or evening workout may be more likely to happen as scheduled.
And pay attention to your body too: Some people feel more energized in the morning, while others are dragging. Matching up your workout time to when you feel the best can make you more likely to want to stick with it, Fagan says.
What should each day of working out look like?
If you want to work out five days per week and are working on both strength and cardiovascular fitness, try three days of strength training, two days of cardio, and two days of active rest. If you want to work out four days a week, think about your goals: If you want to add muscle, cut a cardio day. If you want to improve endurance, skip a strength day. Or switch it each week, says Tamir.
Remember, it’s important to be realistic about your own schedule when you’re asking yourself, How many times a week should I work out? If four days makes more sense for you than five days, do that. But if five days is reasonable, great!
Either way, here’s how (and when and why) to crush it at each one.
Strength Training: 2–3 Times Each Week
Why: Strength training is a super important way to keep your body functional for the long haul, says Fagan: It helps prevent the bone loss and muscle loss that comes with aging. It also strengthens your joints too, says Tamir.
How: To build muscle mass, you should try to work each muscle group two to three times a week, says Tamir. So in a two- to three-day strength plan, this means you should aim to do full-body workouts—you’ll want to hit the major muscle groups of your upper and lower body, including your glutes, quads, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, back, arms, and core. That might sound like a lot, but that’s where compound exercises come in. Moves like squats, lunges, rows, and chest presses work more than one muscle group at a time, so you get more bang for your buck.
You also want to have a balance between pushing movements (like an overhead press or chest press) and pulling movements (like with a row). Remember, strength training is not just about free weights or machines—mastering bodyweight moves will challenge your muscles too.
Shoot for 12-15 reps per set when you are just getting started, says Fagan. Once you’ve become more comfortable with the moves, you can decrease the reps as you add more weight. One to two sets of each exercise is enough for your first month, after which you may want to increase it to three, she says.
You should do different moves in each of the three strength sessions, but repeat those same moves every week.
“I would stay with a program for four to six weeks and progressively increase the weight,” says Tamir. “[The week before your last week] I would have a little bit of a drop-off to give your body a little bit of a recovery, and the last week, really push it hard.”
How Long: A strength-training session should last 40 to 60 minutes, plus foam rolling and a quick warm-up beforehand.
Cardio: 2–3 Times Each Week
Why: As important as it is to strength train, cardio has its place in a balanced workout routine too. “Doing cardio keeps your circulatory system working optimally, helping you to recover faster…[and it] keeps your endurance up,” says Tamir. “It also increases your VO2 max, which helps your body utilize oxygen.”
How: You’ve got a ton of options: an outdoor jog, a bike ride, the good old elliptical machine if your gym is open and you feel comfortable going—the list goes on. Functional movements, like kettlebell swings, and agility work can also count as cardio, as long as you’re doing enough reps during a certain time frame to keep your heart rate elevated.
“Whether something is cardiovascular depends on where your heart rate is at and how long you’re doing it for,” says Tamir. Target heart rates are different for everyone, but Tamir suggests that a good baseline to aim for during your cardio routines is between 120 and 150 beats per minute for 45 to 60 minutes.
Another option is interval training, where you work hard for a short amount of time and alternate that with recovery periods, says Tamir. The best part? You can do this with pretty much anything—indoor row machine, bike, running, functional movements, you name it.
There are also plenty of cardio classes out there that you can try virtually (many of which will work your muscles a bit too). Heart-pumping examples include indoor cycling, kickboxing, HIIT classes, dance cardio, running classes, rowing classes, and more.
How Long: The American College of Sports Medicine recommends logging 150 minutes of moderate-to-intense activity per week. How you split that up will depend on what type of training you’re doing (longer, steady-state sessions versus shorter HIIT workouts).
Rest Days: 2 Times Each Week
Why: Taking a break lets your body recover and rebuild so you can get back to your workouts refreshed and ready to rock it. A rest day should actually be considered active recovery, meaning you don’t have to hit the gym or break a serious sweat, but you should do something.
“It’s not just about the physical recovery—it’s also the mental,” says Tamir. “Doing something that you enjoy that’s active is great for the mind…and it assists in residual fatigue.” Plus, it keeps up your conditioning.
How: Whether you do some stretching or just take a walk, active recovery shouldn’t require a ton of effort like a workout day, but it should get you moving. You can also try a virtual restorative class, like gentle yoga or a relaxed mat Pilates class.
Where you place these rest days is up to you—if you do your workouts Monday through Friday, feel free to take the whole weekend off, says Tamir. Or you could break them up by doing a strength day, a cardio day, then a rest day before getting back to weight training. Although the order doesn’t really matter, Tamir recommends not working on strength two days in a row. “You want to give your body 48 hours to recover,” he says.
How Long: Aim for 30–60 minutes of active recovery.