How Much Do I Need to Work Out?

Reckon the best way to bulk up is to pump iron 24/7? Here’s why you might want to check out of the pain cave at least once in a while…

When it comes to getting in a shape, the general rule goes something like this: eat the right stuff, pump hella iron, and do the occasional bit of cardio. Three gym sessions a week is good, four is better, and six better still, right? As long as you’re allowing yourself one day to recover, it’s all good.

Or, at least, that’s what bro science tells you. To offer a little more nuance to your training plan, we spoke to two strength and conditioning coaches at the top of their game with the aim of helping you  dial it in without overdoing it.

What are the benefits of working out?

“Exercising has almost an endless list of benefits, for both the body and the mind,” enthuses Mitch Raynsford, strength and conditioning coach at P3RFORM.

“Recreational exercise has never been more important as modern lifestyles are very sedentary which can lead to harmful yet reversible lifestyle diseases such as Type 2 Diabetes,” Raynsford continues. “Moving your body regularly prevents problems arising later in life. For example studies show, lifting weights increases bone density which can reduce your risk of osteoporosis.”

What do experts say?

We know exercise is good. But is there an agreed-upon level of how much exercise we need to be doing each week? “Various national bodies such as the CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention, based in the USA) and the NHS in the UK recommend at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity every week for adults,” explains Raynsford. “This is backed up by science, including a long-term study done over 10 years which found this amount of exercise increased longevity in the test subjects.”

 So why do people overdo it?

“There are a number of reasons why people overdo it, mostly because they want results quickly, they're impatient, or they simply have a lack of knowledge,” explains David Wiener, training and nutrition specialist at AI-based fitness and lifestyle coaching app Freeletics

Wiener goes on to explain that our body types and genetics often put a limit on what is possible, so overdoing it in order to try and look like a stranger on Instagram could well be a Sisyphean undertaking.

“Overdoing exercise with the aim to get fast results is counterproductive and can lead to mental health issues, body dysmorphia and eating disorders,” Wiener adds. “You should be aiming to create a healthy, sustainable relationship with exercise. Consulting a PT or professional before undertaking a new regime will help you to understand what’s achievable and realistic.” 

What are the dangers of working out too much?

Fitting in one too many gym sessions won’t just result in a pulled muscle, it can have serious and long-lasting health implications, including depression, as a study in the journal Sports Health found.

That’s not all. “Excessive training and inadequate recovery could cause ‘overtraining syndrome’ (OTS), which is characterised by underperformance and fatigue,” explains a study from the Universidade Federal de Sao Paulo.

“Unfortunately, the list of risks associated with working out too much is almost as long as the list of benefits,” says Raynsford. “Over-training can result in insomnia, disordered eating, reduced recovery times, and mental health defects. It’s important to note the difference between overtraining and overreaching: exercise leaves us sore and requires recovery, which is perfectly normal. But if you start to find that you are not able to recover properly after training or at all, this is a sign of overtraining.”

In short, overdoing it is false economy. Yes, you might be pumping more iron than ever, but you don’t build the body you want because your body will be over-stressed and not able to recover or build muscle to its best ability.

So how much do I actually need to work out?

Unfortunately, there is no hard and fast rule for exercise; whether you’re aiming to build muscle, burn fat, or build resistance, it all varies depending on you and other lifestyle factors. When it comes to hitting that sweet spot, the key is slowly building your resilience. In other words, learning to walk before you can run. “Depending on your fitness goals and levels, you can add in more exercise to your routine if you’re physically capable,” says Wiener. “However, it is essential you have a good nutritious well-balanced diet alongside it, with a good night’s sleep and rest days.”

For Raynsford, the key to not overdoing it is rethinking your approach to exercise in general. “Studies show that the best way to stay healthy is not to spend eight hours a day sitting for work and then one hour at the gym,” he says. “The best way is to figure out how to weave physical activity into your entire day so that your lifestyle is less sedentary.”

You’re likely to benefit from setting long-term goals, too. Don’t just aim to get a six pack in four weeks for a holiday, try to reduce your sugar and fat intake for good. This approach is backed up by a study published in the European Journal of Sport Science found that those with more motivation to stay in shape long term were less likely to suffer burnout.

Wiener advises that you take some time to understand that fitness is a process, and that there are professionals who can help you develop a specific, efficient plan to help you reach your goals (studies show PTs can help change your approach to fitness).Go in gung ho and you’ll likely enjoy a great week of gains, followed by a month of injury time. Your choice.

Recommended Reading

  • The Most Effective Exercises on Earth
  • The Home HIIT Workout That Builds Muscle
  • How to Do 100 Press-ups
  • The Six Best Exercises for Your Outdoor Workout
  • How to Do the Squat, Deadlift and Bench Press Perfectly
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