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FAQS: How Often Should I Train?

Episode two of “Ask the Trainer” brings up this very basic and fundamental question:

How often should I train?

As with most of our answers, it depends. It depends on your goals, on your schedule, on how quickly you recover, and what else you’re doing outside of Hard Pressed. That said, we’ll stick to goal-setting as our metric for answering “How Often” to achieve our two most common goals: How to get strong and how to lose weight.

These goals often coincide, but for the sake of argument we will assume they are mutually exclusive.

if strength is my priority, how often do i train?

We don’t get stronger if we don’t progressively overload our muscles, correct? While true, this leads some people to think more is more, which is not always the case. Training 7 days a week the Hard Pressed way would most definitely lead to overtraining. You will hurt, your performance will dramatically drop, and you will be sick.

Many people who have done traditional bodybuilding-style workouts have never felt overtrained because you train different body parts on different days, and you get plenty of rest between sets. Despite having trained 5+ days in a given week, it’s entirely possible to only train legs on 1 or 2 of those days. The same can be said for every muscle group.

Since we at Hard Pressed understand that you have other things to do, we stress the importance of full-body, high-intensity workouts. By training this way, we achieve in 60-90 minutes per week what bodybuilders spend hours doing. Because of its intensity, it is not uncommon to see a sharp decline in benefits at just 3 sessions per week. Yes, some of our clients come and excel in the weight room 3 days a week, but they are not the norm.

Thus, we typically suggest that new clients start with 2 sessions per week – whether they are currently doing any other training or are coming in completely untrained. Because we train the full body to failure we often see central nervous system fatigue alongside muscular fatigue. If you ever want to feel what it’s like to overtrain, just head to the gym for a fourth day of weights after 3 of our workouts. You’ll get the idea.

From 2 sessions you can see if 3 might be appropriate. It might not. Instead, you might want to do a day or two of High-Intensity Intervals (Tabatas, anyone?) or choose some other, non-strength-related modality to get your blood flowing. Or just rest – it’s when we actually build muscle. It boggles my mind that people forget that.

if weight loss is my priority, how often do I train?

First off, let’s dispel the myth that you burn tons and tons of calories during training. Folks, your treadmills are misleading you:

“Frankly, the results are pretty dismal; you don’t even get to a one pound fat loss per week until you reach 6 days/week of an hour of fairly challenging exercise every day.  Certainly the folks who think that brisk walking for 30 minutes a few times per week is going to have a major impact on much of anything without a complete overhaul in diet are incorrect; the impact is simply negligible.”

Removing calories is far, far easier than burning more. And it is important to keep in mind that one major side effect of burning more calories is CRAVING MORE CALORIES!!! Exercise makes you hungrier, go figure.

“That is to say, if you compensate for the activity by eating more (an issue I’ll talk about later), nothing really happens.”

 But there’s good news!

“For the most part, exercise is found to have a protein sparing effect of some sort; that is less muscle and more fat is lost in response to the same caloric deficit.  It’s not universal with not all studies finding an impact (depending on the, type, frequency, duration and intensity of activity) but certainly the trend is for that.”

“…if there’s a single type of exercise to do while dieting, it’s proper resistance training.  Coupled with an adequate protein intake, that alone tends to limit (or eliminate) lean body mass losses such that the weight which is lost (in response to the caloric deficit) comes predominantly from fat mass.

So this is a place where even if exercise doesn’t increase the quantity of total weight loss per se (i.e. how much the scale actually changes), it can impact on the quality of weight lost; with proper exercise causing more fat and less muscle loss than would otherwise occur.  Here again, proper resistance exercise, especially coupled with adequate protein, seems to be superior to aerobic activity or diets with insufficient protein.”

Metabolically and psychologically, exercise most definitely does have an effect on fat loss and long-term goal achievements related to weight, health, and overall wellness. And yes, you can carry a few extra pounds and be healthy, but if it’s six-pack abs and vascular arms that you want, you have to burn more than you consume to get there. There is no way around it.

So. How often should you train? You should train as often as you can/want with these caveats:

  • You can maintain a caloric deficit.
  • You are getting adequate protein to fend off the loss of any and all lean tissue.
  • You sleep like a champ. (Adequate recovery.)
  • You aren’t miserable.

It’s important to remember that although we’re biologically very similar, we’re individually dissimilar. I eat differently, sleep differently, work differently, and have different goals than you. Or anyone else. As a rule, I take principles outlined by other (smarter, more experienced) people and apply them to myself as they help me meet or keep me from my goals.

This is where most people fail.

We want pills, blueprints, easy-to-follow pre-made recipes for success. Very few people want to work hard at understanding the process, the mechanism, or how to apply it to themselves. There is no one right way to diet. There are more effective and less effective ways. There are drastic, unsustainable ways and there are long-term plans that require patience and hard work.

I promised no more block quotes, but there is one more to sum up the answer to this question:

“In terms of hunger and appetite, exercise seems to have an overall beneficial impact but interactions with the individual psychology of the dieter can affect this greatly; some people will rationalize the consumption of food based on a misunderstanding of their actual calorie burn.  This can completely overcome any benefit of the exercise in terms of energy expenditure.

Finally, exercise appears to have the greatest potential benefit in terms of long-term weight loss maintenance; here studies have shown that regular exercise improves long-term weight loss maintenance.  However, it takes quite a bit with upwards of an hour or more of daily activity required to completely offset post-diet weight gains.”

If you want to lose weight, you have to eat right. Proper nutrition has to be your first priority. Did you hear that? The trainer just said exercise is secondary to nutrition when it comes to weight loss. More exercise does not necessarily mean more weight loss. And constricting calories too much can cause other problems. 

In conclusion:

Please understand that you can’t out-train a crap diet, and although bootcamp may help you lose a 5, 10, or 50 pounds, you won’t keep that weight off unless you make drastic lifestyle changes. Nor will you be gaining significant amounts of muscle – to do that you must, after all, progressively overload with weight. So if weight-loss is your #1 priority, get thee to a farmer’s market.

And although you can use weights to speed along the process of losing weight (or improving “Quality of Weight”), strength training is good in its own right.

Get Strong? Lose weight? Just do both. But understand that one involves hard work in the weight room, the other involves hard work in the kitchen.






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