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How many days a week should I work out to lose weight and build muscle?

Exercise guidelines recommend five, 30-minute moderate-intensity workouts per week. Here's how to structure your weekly workout plan.

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Whether your goal is to lose weight, build muscle or improve your health and reduce your risk of disease and injury, exercise is a key piece of the puzzle. But there are a lot of variables to consider when it comes to designing a workout routine, which can make starting and sticking with exercise difficult.

One of the first things you may wonder is: How often do I need to work out to see results? Here’s what you need to know about exercise frequency, including how often to do strength training and cardio workouts.

How many times should you work out a week to build muscle?

While just one strength-training workout per week can help you start building muscle, as a personal trainer I recommend doing strength exercise at least 3 times a week. When designing a workout schedule, I like to include strength training every other day to see the most muscle gains without overdoing it. Giving a rest day in between each strength workout will allow your muscles to repair, rebuild and recover.

Because strength training generally focuses on large muscle groups, like the glutes, legs, back and arms, those muscles require a recovery day. However, if you’re strength training your abs or core, which consist of smaller muscles, you can technically work them every single day. However, unless you really enjoy exercising every day, I recommend tacking these core and ab exercises on to your regular strength training and thus performing them every other day for a total of 3 times per week.

Doing cardio exercise, like walking, biking, swimming or aerobics, can also help to build muscle, but the focus is more on cardiovascular fitness (unless you’re climbing hills or holding weights). If weight loss is also one of your goals, I recommend adding a cardio element to your strength-training routines to burn more calories, speed up your metabolism, and get the biggest bang for your workout buck! For example, bodyweight exercises like mountain climbers and burpees, or adding light hand weights to jumping jacks or lunges.

How many times a week should you work out to lose weight?

As a weight-loss coach, I recommend working out five days per week in order to lose weight. This is in line with general exercise guidelines.

The World Health Organization recommends that adults age 18-64 perform 75 minutes of intense exercise or 150 minutes of moderate exercise per week. That translates to five, 30-minute moderate-intensity workouts per week.

According to their Physical Activity Guidelines the CDC recommends vigorous exercise for 20 minutes, three times a week. If intense exercising is too much for you, the CDC also recommends moderate exercise sessions with a minimum of 30 minutes, five days a week for weight loss.

However, if you’re new to exercise, I recommend starting with three days a week to focus on first making exercise a habit and then steadily increasing to five workouts per week.

Sample workout routine

For each workout, whether it’s focused on upper body, lower body or full body, I recommend a circuit of five exercises followed by 10 minutes of cardio — or you can choose to incorporate cardio exercises throughout your strength routine.

For example, for an upper-body strength workout plus cardio, I’d recommend either of the following:

  • 10 bicep curls
  • 1 minute of walking in place (or any cardio!)
  • 10 tricep kickbacks
  • 1 minute of walking in place
  • 10 modified pushups
  • 1 minute of walking in place
  • 10 overhead presses
  • 1 minute of walking in place
  • 10 side extensions
  • 1 minute of walking in place

Repeat for 3 total rounds

OR

  • 10 bicep curls
  • 10 tricep kickbacks
  • 10 modified pushups
  • 10 overhead presses
  • 10 side extensions

Repeat for 3 total rounds. Finish with 10 minutes of walking in place or cardio of choice.

Sample weekly workout plans

Here are some sample weekly workout plans for guidance:

Option 1 (3 days a week)

  • Day 1: Upper-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 2: Rest
  • Day 3: Lower-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 4: Rest
  • Day 5: Full-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 6: Rest
  • Day 7: Rest

Option 2 (4 days a week)

  • Day 1: Upper-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 2: Lower-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 4: Upper-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 5: Lower-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 6: Rest
  • Day 7: Rest

Option 3 (5 days a week)

  • Day 1: Upper-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 2: Lower-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 3: Rest
  • Day 3: Full-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 4: Rest
  • Day 5: Upper-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 6: Lower-body strength plus cardio
  • Day 7: Rest