When it comes to exercise, more isn't always better — and that's especially true when it comes to lifting weights. Yes, you do need to continue to challenge yourself to improve; but no, you don't need to lift weights with the same muscle group every day. In fact, you shouldn't — because your body gets stronger during the rest periods between workouts, not during the workout itself.
For beginners, start by lifting weights twice a week, doing a full-body workout with one to three sets of eight to 12 reps of each exercise.
Start From the Beginning
If you're new to weightlifting or coming back after a hiatus, the physical activity guidelines laid out by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) are a good place to start. They advise doing at least two days a week of strength training that targets all your major muscle groups. That means choosing exercises that target your chest, back, arms and shoulders, abs and legs.
Don't schedule those weight-training days back-to-back. Your body actually gets stronger in the rest periods between workouts, as opposed to during the workouts themselves; so if you don't give it some time to rest, you're actually counteracting the benefits of your own hard work.
It's also normal to have a certain amount of delayed-onset muscle soreness (DOMS) when you take on any new fitness program, and a certain amount of mild soreness isn't unusual when you do challenging workouts; but you should let any marked soreness fade before you hit the weights again.
DOMS usually comes on within 12 to 24 hours of a workout and fades after about 72 hours, so giving yourself two to three days of rest between strength-training workouts strikes a good balance between exercise benefits and avoiding overtraining.
Did you know? How often you do an exercise is known as its frequency. So according to the HHS physical activity guidelines, your ideal exercise frequency is at least twice a week.
Sets, Reps and Weights
How many sets and reps should you do? That depends on your goal in the weight room. But it's hard to go wrong when you aim for eight to 12 repetitions per set, doing one to three sets of each exercise.
Having that target number of repetitions also helps you zero in on the right weight: Start with a weight you know you can handle, then gradually increase it until it's a challenge to hit your target reps with good form. As you make strength training a habit, your body will get stronger, which means you can gradually increase the amount of weight you lift.
Choose Your Exercises
Just showing up in the weight room twice a week isn't enough to make you stronger; if you want to see results, you have to put in the effort. To get a full-body strength-training workout that targets every major muscle group, choose at least one exercise from each of the following lists:
- Bench press
- Dumbbell chest press
- Lat pulldowns
- Dumbbell rows
Arms and Shoulders
- Overhead press
- Upright rows
- Reverse/rear delt flyes
- Leg press
- Bicycle/oblique crunches
- Front and side planks
As a general rule, your body gets better at what you practice doing — an exercise science principle known as specificity. So it's worth sticking with strength-training exercises until you've mastered them. But don't be shy about shaking things up by introducing new exercises every couple of months, or switching to more challenging versions of your favorite exercises as you get stronger.
Gyms Are Optional
You may have noticed that some of the exercises listed don't require special weightlifting equipment at all. That's because, even though you should be strength-training at least twice a week, you don't have to go to the gym for it to count. You can use your own body weight as resistance for exercises like pushups, pullups and lunges.
Other gym-free options include working out in a home gym, or participating in boot camp or circuit-training classes that emphasize resistance training as part of a full-body workout.
Should You Do More?
But wait, isn't more exercise better? That's usually the rule for cardio, as long as you're not overtraining or otherwise overstressing your body. But scientists say that adage doesn't necessarily apply to resistance training.
In a 2016 systematic review and meta-analysis published in the journal Sports Medicine, scientists found that resistance training twice a week offered far superior benefits to resistance training once a week, but they haven't been able to find conclusive proof that three times a week is better. So strength training three times a week won't hurt you, as long as you continue using appropriate technique, amounts of weight and rest periods between workout days. But it won't necessarily help you, either.
Splits for Lifting Heavy Weights
That doesn't mean you have to avoid the weight room like the plague if you're already in the gym more than twice a week. But you do need to split up your weight routine so you don't work the same muscle group on back-to-back days.
The "split" is a technique used by bodybuilders and others who focus on lifting heavy weights for maximum hypertrophy (muscle growth) or strength gains; they work just one or two muscle groups per day so they can maximize time under tension for those muscles while other muscle groups are recovering.
For example, if you're in the gym working out six days a week, you might use the following split:
- Day 1: Chest
- Day 2: Back
- Day 3: Legs
- Day 4: Chest
- Day 5: Back
- Day 6: Legs
- Day 7: Rest
Exactly where you put your arm, shoulder and core exercises in the rotation will depend somewhat on which exercises you're choosing to work each muscle group. If you focus on chest day as an opportunity to work your pushing muscles (chest, shoulders, triceps), that automatically recruits some muscles in your arms and shoulders, while treating back day as "day of the pulling muscles" (back, biceps) will recruit the others.
As you no doubt notice, the above six-day split gives you only one day of rest; so it's not for a beginner, and even an advanced weightlifter needs to pay close attention to rest, nutrition and recovery on a schedule like that. A five-day split is a little easier to maintain, because it gives you two rest days during the week:
- Day 1: Upper body (chest, back, shoulders and arms)
- Day 2: Lower body (legs) and abs
- Day 3: Rest
- Day 4: Upper body
- Day 5: Lower body and abs
- Day 6: Arms and shoulders
- Day 7: Rest
The Best Workouts Become Habit
Ultimately, the very best weightlifting program is one that you can keep up in the long term. So if your ideal training regimen is hitting the gym twice a week for a full-body workout, or doing twice-weekly circuit-training classes, you can and should feel good about the time you're investing in your own health.
If you want to spend more time in the weight room, you also have all the flexibility in the world to set up your own custom splits; just keep in mind that each muscle group needs a solid day of rest before you work it again.
- Prescription to Get Active: Resistance Training for Health and Fitness
- ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal: Sore and More
- Health.gov: Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020
- Encyclopaedia Britannica: Specificity
- Sports Medicine: Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy