Kicking off a regular workout routine requires figuring out both what to do and when to do it—and the latter often means answering the common question: How many days a week should I work out?
According to the American Heart Association, the ideal workout plan includes a mix of strength training and aerobic exercise spread throughout the week. That said, the right amount for you depends on your fitness goals, activity level, age, and more.
At the end of the day, the best weekly workout schedule for you is one you can be consistent with. This article explains how many days a week you should work out, when to take rest days, and how to choose a workout schedule that suits you.
Ideally, if you want to boost your general health and fitness, you want to aim to exercise about five days a week, King Hancock, ACSM-CPT, Sweat 2 Success instructor on NEOU, a fitness streaming service, told Health. That might sound like a lot, but not every day should be intense, and your workouts can last for as little as 30 minutes.
How often you work out depends on your experience with fitness and the time you have available, too. If you're new to exercise, for example, start with a smaller goal, like walking 10,000 steps a day at least five days a week. Or, if your schedule just doesn't allow for five workout days a week, aim for three days and see if you can make those sessions a little more intense.
You'll also want to switch up which types of workouts you do on those five days. If you can, aim for two or three days of cardio and spend the other two or three days on strength training.
If you're doing fewer workouts during the week, you can mix strength and cardio on those days (think: a 20-minute jog followed by 25 minutes of weight training). High-intensity interval training (HIIT) or circuit workouts can also help cut back on time while still giving your body a good sweat session, Kristian Flores, CSCS, an NYC-based strength and conditioning coach, told Health.
And while it's tempting to believe that different fitness goals depend on different workouts, keep this in mind: Whether you have a goal of weight loss or strength-building, it's key to incorporate both cardio and weight or strength training into your workout regimen.
Ultimately, though, how you schedule your workouts and what you do for those workouts comes down to what you enjoy the most, Flores said. If you hate HIIT, skip it. If you love dancing and biking, go for it. Finding pleasure in your workout will keep you coming back for more sweat and lead to results.
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What To Do for Cardio Workouts
The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity per week (that's five 30-minute workouts), or 75 minutes of vigorous activity per week. Working out at this level helps keep your heart healthy while helping you prevent or manage other conditions like diabetes. Plus, it helps boost your brain function and mood and betters your bone health.
If you're working out three days a week, aim for your cardio workouts to be more intense, Hancock said. "If you want to work for longer, go at a lower intensity."
Exactly what you do for cardio again comes down to what you like doing, Hancock said. Whether that's dancing, biking, running, climbing, or walking up and down the stairs in your apartment building—if it raises your heart rate, then it counts as cardio.
Hancock and Flores agreed that the most efficient and effective workouts are HIIT and Tabata. Tabata is a more intense version of HIIT that can be done with or without weights. It entails working out for 20 seconds, resting for 10, and repeating for eight total rounds.
Elite athletes have used interval training for decades to improve their performance and with good reason. Interval training does what walking can't: It provides both aerobic and anaerobic exercise, according to a 2019 review published in The Journal of Physiological Sciences. In other words, Tabata and HIIT can burn fat, improve heart and lung function, and build muscle all at once.
Because you're working so hard through HIIT workouts, you can easily work up a solid sweat in 25 to 30 minutes. "Most importantly, you want to think about HIIT as working in spikes of effort that take you to that [uncomfortable] feeling and then giving yourself enough recovery to repeat those efforts," Hancock said.
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You can do an upper, lower, or total-body focus on your strength training days. To get the most out of your strength workouts, Flores suggested two 30-minute workouts that target the entire body and include compound movements—those exercises that work multiple muscles at one time. Push-ups, bench presses, and seated cable rowing are just a few compound exercises you can try.
"As you get fitter, aim to increase the volume of your session, which means increasing the weight used and the total reps per exercise," Flores said. Continuously progressing in this way will lead to better strength gains and lean muscle building.
If you have more days for strength and want to break it up (particularly if you're looking to build muscle), you can do an upper body day and a lower body day, which Hancock suggested.
On those upper body days, think about push and pull exercises, Hancock said. Push moves include push-ups, chest presses, or chest flies. Pull exercises include rows, pull-ups, lat pull-downs, and swimmers or supermen. You can also mix in bicep and tricep moves on these days, Hancock said. For lower body days, think about doing squats, lunges, and hinge exercises, like deadlifts, Hancock suggested.
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When To Take Rest Days
Allowing for at least one or two days of rest is crucial to let your body recover and rebuild. Hancock recommended getting to know your resting heart rate (RHR) so you can see when you're fully recovered and ready to take on the next round of exercise.
Most fitness trackers and smartwatches will track heart rate and give you insights into your resting rate. Your RHR is the number of times your heart beats when you're at rest. A low RHR means that your heart is pumping more blood with less effort. This is a great sign that you are getting fitter and your heart is getting stronger.
A normal RHR is typically between 60 to 100 beats per minute, according to the American Heart Association. If you are monitoring your RHR regularly, you may notice that it stays elevated for hours or even days after a vigorous workout. As a general rule, it's best to wait until your RHR returns to its normal rate before heading back to the gym.
Rest days are, more than anything, a chance to listen to your body's needs so that you can be more prepared for your next workout. There is no shame in using a rest day to focus on hydrating, healthy meal-prepping, and getting extra sleep if that's what you need. Rest days are also a great time to take a stroll around the block or do some light stretches and foam rolling.
"It's about actively taking care of your body so you can produce efforts that support your goals, whether that's getting strong, building lean muscles, getting fit, or losing weight," Hancock said. "It's important that people listen to their bodies, and it's important that you are mixing it up and adding variety."
If you love running, you still want to add in some cross-training. If you love lifting heavy weights, you still want to get your heart rate up with more cardio. "Our bodies are meant to adapt to stressors," Hancock said, "so it's important to mix up those stressors to keep the body transforming."
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