We all know the “all show no go” character that trains seven days a week, but seems to go nowhere in terms of results and progression. Contrary, we all know the person that goes to the gym once a week and doesn’t see any progression. A common question that comes up during personal training sessions and Q&A sessions is:
“How many times per week should I train for maximum fat loss?”
The answer when it comes to exercise frequency is a lot more complicated that just pulling a single figure out of the air. There are a variety of factors that need to be considered.
Frequency factor #1 – Recovery ability
Exercise frequency is dependant on your total recovery ability. An individual with a fast recovery ability will be able to train more frequently than an individual with a slower recovery speed. Failure to respect this general rule could result in overtraining, regressed results, injury and illness. Most individuals should have 2-3 total days off from training per week.
Frequency factor #2 – Exercise selection
Exercises that use a small number of motor units, such as bicep curls, calf raises and wrist curls can be performed more frequently than exercises that use a larger amount of motor units such as squats, deadlifts and pull-ups. Exercises that use a large amount of motor units put greater demands on the central nervous system (CNS) and therefor need longer recovery times. We usually recommend compound, multi-joint exercises for fat loss, since they recruit lots of muscle mass and burn the most calories. Due to the extra demand on the CNS with these exercises it’s important we allow ample recovery times before performing the exercise again. A typical example you often see of people neglecting this factor is a female trainee looking to improve the lower body, bum and thighs. So she performs barbell squats every time she has a workout.
Frequency factor #3 – Muscle group selection
Large muscles groups like the back, hamstrings and quads will take longer to recover than small muscle groups like the calves and biceps. Since the larger muscles groups are the ones that burn the most calories it is recommended your fat loss workouts should be orientated around them.
Frequency factor #4 – Total volume
Workouts with a high amount of volume will need a longer recovery time than workouts with a lower amount of volume. Take a look at these workout split examples to see how you can implement this frequency factor:
Higher volume workouts (3-4 exercises per muscle group, 4 sets of 12-15 reps)
Day 1: lower body
Day 2: upper body
Day 3: lower body
Day 4: upper body
Lower volume workouts (1-2 exercises per muscle group, 3 sets of 12-15 reps)
Day 1: full body
Day 2: full body
Day 3: full body
Day 4: full body
Frequency factor #5 – Adrenal stress
Stress on the body from too much exercise or work and life problems can all trigger negative hormonal responses, such as chronically elevated cortisol levels. This in turn will effect your progress and the ability to recover at an optimal speed after workouts.
Frequency factor #6 – Nutritional status
A healthy diet containing plenty of lean proteins, greens and healthy fats will contribute to accelerating your bodies ability to recover after a workout. Numerous studies have shown one of the best ways to recovery optimally from a workout is to get your post-workout nutrition on point. The meal after your workout should contain a balance of lean protein and carbs. Carbs for fat loss are extremely important in the post-workout period as they can help develop insulin sensitivity, lower cortisol levels and replenish glycogen levels.
Establishing a frequency minimum
There needs to be a minimum amount of times to exercise per week in order to stimulate change. The answer to this number lies in excess post-exercise oxygen consumption or EPOC. Commonly referred to as the afterburn effect, EPOC is a measurably increased rate of oxygen intake following a workout. In other words it’s for how long after a workout are you burning calories at a higher rate. Different types of exercise will produce a varying afterburn effect. Take a look at these common types of exercise and the corresponding afterburn effect.
Steady state cardio: 2 hours
Intervals: 8 hours
Resistance and intervals: 48 hours
You should know from previous ABC fit posts, status updates or training manuals that a combination of resistance work and intervals are most effective for fat loss. If you’re still unsure, hopefully this diagram will sway your opinion. As you can see resistance and intervals combine to give a massive 48 hour afterburn effect. Given this information I’d recommend training at least three times per week for fat loss. The reason being – 3 X 48 hours basically has your EPOC levels elevated for the entire week!
In summary, it seems an ideal exercise frequency for fat loss will be somewhere around 3-5 times per week, provided you’re using a combination of resistance and intervals. Three as a minimum because you will be burning calories at an elevated rate all week and five as a maximum as it will allow at least two total days of recovery to maximise results and prevent overtraining.