Many people scour the internet, looking for an answer to one question, “How often should I lift weights to gain muscle?” And if you do a little bit of research, you’ll find that there are thousands of opinion on the matter.
Some people recommend training a muscle group just once per week. Others think that two to three times is needed. And there are those who recommend up to five or even six days per week for certain muscle groups.
It’s clear that there are lots of mixed opinions on the matter. Today, we’ll take a deeper look into the literature and come up with a science-backed answer. Let’s go.
The Role of Training Volume for Muscle Growth
Before we can give frequency recommendations for optimal muscle growth, we first need to take a look at how training volume impacts our results.
For those of you unfamiliar, training volume refers to the total amount of work you do within a given training session, week, or cycle. There are many ways to track your volume, but for the sake of simplicity, we’ll be talking about the total number of sets you do.
Of course, for a set to count, it needs to be sufficiently difficult (with 1-4 repetitions left in the tank) and sufficiently heavy (at least 60% of your one repetition max). Warm-up sets don’t count.
It’s generally been suggested that training volume is the key driver for muscle growth. If some is good, more is better. To a point, of course. Don’t start doing 40 sets for chest every week.
A recent meta-analysis examined the effects of higher versus lower training volumes on muscle growth and found a direct correlation between doing more work and eliciting a better hypertrophic response.
They recommend at least ten working sets per week for muscle growth. They also recommend:
Consistent with an evidence-based approach, practitioners should carefully monitor client progression and adjust training dosages based on the individual’s response.
Now, where the upper ‘threshold’ for training volume lies is yet to be understood, but the researchers recommend somewhere between 10 and 20 working sets for each muscle group per week.
This is pretty much in line with most recommendations out there.
Of course, individual factors such as your age, your stress outside the gym, and the type of work you do (physical vs. sedentary) are all important when considering how much stress you can handle in the gym.
A Small Caveat With Training Volume
Before we move on, it’s worth noting that not all sets are created equal. How demanding a given set is depends on two main factors:
- How demanding the exercise is (you can’t expect a set of deadlifts to be as easy as a set of bicep curls).
- How much effort you put into that set.
First, when accounting for your weekly volume, understand that your training should be a combination of both compound and isolation movements.
Doing 20 sets of bench press is going to be significantly more difficult and stressful when compared to doing the same number of sets, but spread across multiple exercises such as the bench press, the push-up, and the chest flyes.
Second, a majority of the working sets you do should be near failure, with 2-4 repetitions left in the tank. Not only is training to muscular failure not more effective for muscle growth, but it can also dramatically increase levels of fatigue and lead to overtraining (study, study, study, study).
So, how often should I lift weights to gain muscle?
A lot of fitness experts out there recommend higher training frequencies when looking to maximize your results in the gym. But, many do so for the wrong reasons.
You see, many people are under the impression that training a muscle twice or three times per week is superior due to the spike and drop of muscle protein synthesis post-training.
And while that may turn out to be a factor, we don’t have research that supports the idea that spiking MPS more often leads to more growth. A meta-analysis I referenced above looked at the relationship between frequency and volume. The researchers concluded:
The results of the present systematic review and meta-analysis suggest a significant effect of RT frequency as higher training frequencies are translated into greater muscular strength gains. However, these effects seem to be primarily driven by training volume because when the volume is equated, there was no significant effect of RT frequency on muscular strength gains.
Another reason is thanks to the controversial Norwegian experiment study from 2012. In it, elite-level powerlifters were split into two groups: 3 or 6 training sessions per week with the volume equated.
After 15 weeks, the high-frequency group had managed to gain nearly twice as much strength on the bench press and squat when compared to the group that trained three days per week. And these guys were pretty strong, to begin with:
- Squat was between 275 and 451 lbs.
- Bench was between 187 and 364 lbs.
- Deadlift was between 342 and 540 lbs.
This led many people to believe that training more often resulted in getting more progress. However, it’s worth pointing out that the study in question was never published in any peer-reviewed journal. I’ve always wondered why that is the case.
It would appear that if your goal is to increase your strength, training the major lifts more frequently will lead to faster progress. You would be able to practice each lift in a recovered state more often.
Also, since lifting weights is a skill like any other, practicing it more often can improve your efficiency faster.
To paraphrase Layne Norton:
“Think of it this way. If a crazy psychopath kidnapped your family and told you that he would kill them unless you add 100 pounds to your squat in three months, you wouldn’t just squat once per week, now would you?”
Where do we stand on training frequency and muscle growth?
Based on the literature, we can safely assume that a higher training frequency (or how often you train a given muscle) should primarily be used as a tool to increase your weekly training volume and hopefully stimulate more muscle growth.
As you probably guessed, this is a good reason in and of itself to train muscles more often. This would allow for better volume allocation, and each session should be somewhat easier.
Think of it this way:
Sure, you can train your chest once per week and do all of your 15-20 sets in that one session, but as the workout progresses, you would accumulate more and more fatigue. After some sets, your chest would be very fatigued, and your performance will start to suffer.
On the other hand, if you split your 15-20 sets across two or three sessions in the week, each one would be much less challenging, and you would be able to do most of your sets in a rested state. This would allow you to use heavier weights for more repetitions and, over time, that would translate to more growth.
Say, for example, that you are currently following a bro-split:
Monday: Chest & Triceps
Tuesday: Back & Biceps
After 15-20 sets for chest on Monday, you would still need to do 6-12 more for your triceps. At that point, you would be fatigued, and your triceps wouldn’t be able to lift much weight. In essence, they would always come as a second priority and wouldn’t grow optimally.
On the other hand, if you were to switch to a split that allows you to train each muscle twice per week, such as this one:
Monday: Upper body
Tuesday: Lower body
Thursday: Upper body
Friday: Lower body
You would still meet your weekly volume requirements, but you wouldn’t exhaust any given muscle to the same extent in a single workout.
My Recommendations for Training Frequency
To answer your question, “How often should I lift weights to gain muscle?”, let’s do a recap:
- Training volume is the main driver for muscle growth. You can train your biceps six times per week, but if you only do one set per day, don’t expect much growth. On the other hand, you can train your biceps just once per week, but if you hammer them with 10+ sets, they won’t have a choice, but to grow.
- Your working sets should be a combination of both compound and isolation exercises.
- For maximum muscle growth, the majority of the sets should be done in the 60 to 85% of 1RM range (typically 6-20 repetitions for each set) (reference).
- Most sets should be taken near failure (with 2-4 repetitions left in the tank) because training to failure hasn’t been shown to elicit more growth, but it can greatly increase fatigue and decrease performance on subsequent sets and even training sessions.
- You should train each muscle two to three times per week to allow for better volume allocation. If your schedule allows you, training as many as five to six days per week would allow you to spread your weekly volume more evenly and avoid causing too much fatigue in each workout.
If you liked this article and want more gains, check out this related article: What is the Best Cardio for Bodybuilding?