This is both a common and important question. If you weight train too infrequently, you will get little to no results. If you train too often, or work body parts in the wrong order, you will not get maximum results from your efforts. If there is one thing I hate to see it is someone who is earnest about their training but who is getting poor results simply due to a lack of knowledge, so we’ll try to not let that happen to you.
To get any measurable results at all, you will need to weight train at least twice per week. If you train only one day a week, no matter how great that workout is, seven days of rest will essentially undo all you have accomplished and you will not progress.
If you choose to work out two days per week, you can either train your whole body each time, which is pretty daunting, or do half your body one workout and half your body the next. A good way to split up the body into halves is to train chest, back, and shoulders one day and arms and legs the other day. Try to work abs both days if you have the time and energy. Since you are only weight training two days, don’t do it on successive days, or you won’t get optimal results. You should schedule 2 – 3 days of rest between these training sessions.
The next step in your progression is a three day per week routine. There are two possibilities here. You can either split your body into three parts and do one section each workout, or split it into halves, as with a two day a week routine, and use the third workout to target the areas you most want to improve. In the first case, you might want to break down your three workouts as follows: chest/back, legs, and shoulders/arms. There are many other possible variations that are also fine, but this is a standard way to do a three day per week routine. Otherwise, you can choose to work your body in halves with your first two workouts, and then target “problem” or “priority” areas of your body in your third workout, to give them extra attention. It is best to schedule a day of rest between each of your three training sessions.
A four day per week routine can either consist of doing your two day per week routine twice, which means you are working each body part twice per week, or splitting your body into four sections and having that be your four workouts. I recommend that if you are training more for general health, toning/conditioning, and cardio benefit, then do your two day a week routine twice. You will be more likely to achieve those goals with this system. If you are training for increased muscle mass, strength, and/or power, then break up your body into four parts and train each muscle group super hard just once per week. A good four day per week routine is chest/triceps, back/biceps, legs, and shoulders/forearms.
If you are willing to put in the work, a five or even six day per week routine will get you into incredible muscular shape. This volume of weight training, in addition to whatever cardio work and stretching you are doing, will be very physically and mentally taxing, so keep that in mind in terms of how it would fit into your overall schedule.
I have found that as I age, a six day routine might actually do more harm than good, since I feel completely exhausted at the end of the week after my five workouts. It seems like my body is better off with two full days of rest and recovery time—physically, mentally, and for my nervous system.
An excellent five day per week routine is chest, back, legs, shoulders, and arms. You can do abs two to four times per week as part of this routine. If your body can handle it and you are motivated enough, then add a sixth workout day and do compound strength and power movements like deadlifts, or focus on the areas for which you most want to add muscle and strength.
I know what all of you are thinking right now (I’m pretty perceptive that way): “Tim, I am champing at the bit, so I want to do a seven day a week weight training routine. How should I structure it?”
I have such an ambitious and fitness-conscious group of readers, I am simply in awe!