Most guys assume that training more often stimulates more muscle growth. If that were true, then to build muscle faster, you’d train as often as possible—maybe as many as 5 or even 6 days per week. To do any less would be to miss out on muscle gains.
That’s the wrong way to think about it.
- How Often Should You Train Each Muscle?
- How Many Sets Should You Do Per Muscle Per Week?
- Newbie Gains and the Repeated Bout Effect
- The Best Workout Splits
How Often Should You Train Each Muscle?
The most popular 5-day workout routine is the Bro Split, with a Chest Day, Back Day, Leg Day, Shoulder Day, and Arm Day. Each workout trains a specific area hard, but the training frequency is quite low. Most of these guys are only training each muscle once per week. They only train their chests on Chest Day.
The most popular 3-day workout routine is the Full-Body Split, with 3 full-body workouts each week. This routine has you training each muscle 3 times per week. That means if you want to build a bigger chest, you could train it every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Most research shows that training your muscles at least twice per week stimulates the most muscle growth, so you’d expect the 3-day routine to help people build muscle faster, and it often will (meta-analysis).
That’s because a vigorous workout can stimulate 2–4 days of muscle growth. That means as long as you train your muscles every few days, you can keep them growing all week long.
There’s some nuance to it, though. People who train more days per week tend to do more total exercises and sets. That matters. If the guy doing a 5-day Bro Split puts in more work—more volume—that might shift the muscle-building advantage his way (systematic review).
However, there’s a point of diminishing returns with volume. In fact, doing too much can even hinder muscle growth. So let’s look at training volume.
How Many Sets Should You Do Per Muscle Per Week?
Every set stimulates muscle growth, so doing more sets tends to stimulate more growth—at least at first. At a certain point, the muscle-building stimulus is maximized. Go too far beyond that, and the extra work can impair recovery, interfering with subsequent workouts.
That’s why guys doing Bro Splits wait a full week before training their muscles again. They cause so much damage that it takes them a full week to recover. That isn’t the end of the world, but it isn’t quite ideal, either.
There are a few factors to consider:
- When you bring your sets closer to failure, you need fewer of them.
- When you rest longer between sets, you don’t need as many sets.
- When you choose better exercises, you stimulate more growth per set.
- When you train more often, you can handle more sets per week.
If you’re clever about it, you can maximize your rate of muscle growth with as few as 9 sets per muscle per week. That could be as few as 3–4 sets per muscle per workout. And some exercises train many different muscles at once.
If you’re training vigorously, doing much more than 12 sets per muscle per week might even be counterproductive (study). It probably won’t be—this study is somewhat of an outlier—but it might. More isn’t always better.
Newbie Gains and the Repeated Bout Effect
There’s a phenomenon known as “newbie gains,” where new lifters can build muscle incredibly quickly. This is especially true with skinny beginners. With a good bulking program, they can build fearsome amounts of muscle in just a few months. Here’s what one of our b2B members was able to accomplish with 3 full-body workouts per week:
Beginners have a few things going for them:
- They’re further away from their genetic potential. Their bodies are eager for muscle growth. The nuclei inside their muscle fibres can easily support their growing muscles.
- They’re sensitive to the stimulus of lifting weights. Doing just a few sets per muscle per workout can maximize their rate of muscle growth. Going overboard can cause crippling muscle soreness, interfering with subsequent workouts.
- They’re weaker. When I first started lifting, I was deadlifting less than 135 pounds. It was hard, and I could only get a few reps, but it wasn’t that demanding on my body overall. I was ready for my next set within a couple of minutes. When I finished my deadlifts, I had plenty of energy for other exercises. Full-body workouts were relatively easy to get through.
As you get more experience lifting weights, your muscles grow tougher. This is called the Repeated Bout Effect (RBE). It allows you to handle higher training volumes. And because stimulating muscle growth is harder, you can benefit from those higher training volumes.
For example, there are studies showing that intermediates build muscle faster by adding more sets to their workout routines (study). It didn’t matter how much volume they were doing before, just that they gradually increased their workload.
Finally, lifters get stronger. When I was a beginner, deadlifting 135 pounds for 5 reps was hard on my muscles. Now, deadlifting 405 pounds for 8 reps is hard on my soul, and I fear it may flee my body. After 2–3 sets, I don’t have much energy left for squats, bench presses, chin-ups, and overhead presses. I would rather spread those exercises out over more training days.
The Best Workout Splits
3-Day Full-Body Routine (Beginner to Intermediate)
Most beginners should train 3 days per week, doing full-body workouts every 2–3 days. That’s enough to keep your muscles growing at full speed all week long. It will give you plenty of practice with the big lifts. And you’ll have plenty of rest days to help you recover from the strenuous training.
You could split those workouts up, doing shorter workouts more often. Some people prefer that. But you’ll build the same amount of muscle either way. So, I recommend doing some easy cardio on your rest days. That way, you’ll get extra results from your extra efforts.
If you want help, we recommend our Bony to Beastly Program. It uses a 3-day full-body workout routine that’s perfect for beginners and intermediates, especially if you’re still somewhat thin. We can walk you through the entire process of gaining your first 20–40 pounds of muscle.
4-Day Workout Split (Intermediate to Advanced)
Most intermediate lifters will eventually benefit from adding a 4th workout day. The extra day moves some of the bigger exercises out of each workout, making them easier to get through. It also allows you to add in smaller exercises, bulking up the muscles you’re most eager to grow.
You don’t have to add a fourth day. Intermediates can do great with 3 workouts per week, especially if they aren’t adamant about bulking up every single muscle at the same time. But adding a fourth day can often help you build more muscle overall.
If you want a fully optimized 4-day workout routine, I recommend our Outlift 4-Day Program. It has an easier and harder 4-day workout split. Both are heavily customizable. We can guide you through it, too, helping you track your progress, answering any questions you have, and giving you feedback.
5-Day Workout Split (Intermediate to Advanced)
Some people prefer training 5 days per week. Adding a 5th day allows you to pile your volume even higher, focusing on bulking up even more muscles at once.
A 5th day can also let you spread your volume thinner, doing shorter, easier workouts. I’m quite fond of this second approach. You can build an impressive amount of muscle while training just 30 minutes per day. That means I can squeeze a quick workout in before work or during lunch.
If you want a 5-day hypertrophy training routine, I recommend our Outlift 5-Day Program. It has an easier and harder 5-day workout split. I used the easy version to help me bulk up to 205 pounds. The harder version is perfect for guys who want to go all-in on muscle growth for a few months. It’s an incredibly powerful routine.
3-Day Specialization Routines (Intermediate to Advanced)
Instead of adding extra training days to train more muscles, you could focus your efforts on fewer muscle groups. For example, if you wanted to focus on building bigger arms, you could train the rest of your muscles just enough to maintain their size and strength. That will free up more time, energy, and recovery for your arms.
Maybe that means doing Arm Day on Monday and Friday, with a full-body workout every Wednesday. That way, you can train your arms hard twice per week while casually maintaining the rest of your muscles.
2-Day Maintenance Routines
Once you’ve succeeded at building muscle, most health organizations recommend training at least twice per week. Two workouts per week aren’t enough to build muscle at full speed, but it’s more than enough to keep you big, strong, and healthy.
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