Updated: Sep 22, 2021
We've added several new clients to our coaching roster recently and this is a very popular question that gets discussed during the initial consultation. The answer like virtually everything else related to health, fitness, and nutrition is "it depends". There are two ways to look at training frequency (and ultimately volume). One is looking at what is the maximal amount you can recover from. At the end of the day training is a stress to the body that must be recovered from. The adaptations we are seeking will only happen when we are resting (not training). So the question with this approach is how much can we train, yet still recover. The second way to look at this questions is what is the minimum effective dose. In other words how little can we do and still make progress. This approach is slower, and maybe not optimal, but it comes with lower risk of injury, less time constraints, and is easier for most to manage.
If we looked at it like medications the maximal recoverable dose approach would be taking as much medication as possible without having to deal with too many unwanted side effects. The minimum effective dose approach would be taking the smallest amount of medication while still seeing some level of benefit. I find that the maximal approach can work well for younger individuals who don't have the stress or competing time demands of a spouse, kids, serious job, etc. This could be a high school or college athlete, or a highly motivated individual in their 20s. The irony is that this population often doesn't have the discipline to sleep and eat to maximize recovery. So ultimately each individuals maximal recoverable dose of training will vary.
Minimum effective dose training is far more manageable. We basically are looking for the threshold of how little can we do and still make some measurable progress. This makes injury rates lower, is easier to manage with work, family, and other life stressors, and is easier to jump into if you haven't yet established a regular training routine. Maybe your a new parent, going through a challenging work transition, big home renovation project, etc. It's good to know that you can do significantly less and either maintain previous progress or still improve just at a slower pace. Just like with the maximal recoverable approach there is a range for what that minimum effective dose will look like for different individuals.
In general I find most people aged 30-60 do best on 3-4 days of training per week. Once we start getting over the age of 60 2-3 days tends to be better on average. As the frequency of training goes down the intensity/effort must go up in order to maintain or progress. As the frequency goes up then the intensity/effort can decrease a bit and still see significant progress. Maintaining or progressing on only 1 day per week will require an incredible amount of effort and intensity to hold on to progress or improve. If we start approaching the 5-6 days per week of training then sleep, nutrition, and overall stress management will be incredibly important. If you're not sure where to start, assess your goals, and how much of a hurry you're in to get there. Start somewhere between 2-4 days, see how you do, and adjust from there. Making progress, and feeling good? Great stay right there. Feeling tired, beat up, and under recovered? Scale it back or improve sleep and nutrition. Not making progress and not feeling run down? Add a day of training in.