how often should you really work out?

One of the questions I get asked a lot from you guys is, “how often do I really need to work out to meet my goals?”

The first answer that always comes to my mind is that depends on your body—and your own personal goals. Someone trying to lose 20 pounds is probably going to need to work out more than someone trying to just maintain, just as an athlete looking to boost their strength and conditioning will want to work out more often than someone just looking to look better in a bathing suit.

But, since that answer doesn’t really satisfy anyone (I wonder why…), I’m going to do my best to give you some guidelines on how often to work out based on your goals:

If you’re looking to lose weight:

This probably won’t come as a big surprise to you, but (for the most part) the more often you’re able to fit a workout in, the quicker you’ll see results.

If you’re just starting out, I’d suggest aiming for around 2-3 HIIT workouts a week, trying to get in something active on most other days—go for a long walk, take a bike ride, go for a hike, go rock climbing with a friend, etc. Ideally, you’ll find something fun and active that you actually look forward to on your non-workout days to reinforce the idea that being fit and healthy is part of a lifestyle, not just torture sessions in a gym.

If you’re more advanced or have been working out consistently for a while, you can aim for 4-5+ days a week of HIIT.

One thing to keep in mind: although establishing a consistent workout schedule is incredibly important when you’re trying to lose weight and keep it off, nutrition can’t be ignored. If you’re working hard consistently and still not losing weight, it’s time to reevaluate your diet.

If you want to build strength:

When you’re trying to get stronger, the key is less about frequency and more about intensity. If you only work out two days a week but work really, really hard during those workouts and push yourself to the max, you will be noticeably stronger in just a few short months. Some people will even see significant strength gains within just a few weeks, especially if you’re starting closer to a beginner level (it’s harder to gain strength quickly once you get to a certain more advanced level).

Of course, if you want to supercharge your strength gains, working out more often is only going to help you get stronger faster. Most people do well on a 3-5 day workout schedule with a few rest days a week.

And if you want to put on muscle, you’ll have to boost the intensity even more, doing the hardest version of the exercise you can manage, even if that means you have to switch to a modified version partway through the set in order to be able to complete it. For example, a good way to build leg muscle and get strong quickly is to do as many full pistols as you can and immediately switch to a modified version (such as holding onto a door frame) as soon as you can no longer do the full version.

If you want to be more athletically fit:

Those looking to get fitter for a sport are a special breed, because often the hardest thing is not making sure you get enough workouts in, but making sure you get enough rest. For a lot of people (including myself) it’s a tough to figure out the right balance, and often depends on your own body and how quickly you recover.

For those trying to get more fit for a sport or some sort of race, usually the more training, the better—especially if you’re looking to gain endurance. That probably means that you not only work out six days a week, but you also try and fit two a days in at least some of the time, as well as including necessary recovery (such as foam rolling, stretching, even yoga).

And as long as you’re feeling good in your workouts and look forward to them for the most part (why do something if you hate it?), you should be just fine working out this often.

However, if you’re starting to lose motivation, are getting sick all the time or keep getting injured, you’re most likely overtraining and need to figure a way to cut back on your workouts, whether it’s working out less often or just lowering the intensity of your workouts a few days a week to give your body more rest.

Have fun with your fitness

Although it may not be this way at first, some of you, like me, will find that you just feel better when you’re active on a daily basis.

I work out six days a week, and it’s actually tough for me to take a day off because I just get so antsy (I never used to be this way). If this sounds like you, working out this often is fine, just make sure to take at least one day off of intense training a week (active rest days are fine) to give your body some time to repair itself.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling burnt out from working out so much or you’re feeling overly fatigued (rather than energized, like you should feel), that’s probably a good sign that it’s time to take a break. Some athletes make a point of taking a week off of training every couple of months to give their bodies an extended break. Although I’ve never tried this (maybe because I’m scared I’d get too used to not working out again…), I can see how it might be useful every once in a while, especially if it’s for something fun like a vacation (ideally an active one).

And remember, the key is to listen to your body and keep track of your progress so you know when something you’re doing is working or not.

If your goal is to get leaner, you may want to measure your body fat levels every few weeks or so, just as if your goal is to get more athletically fit you may want to take the 100 burpees test every month in order to test how your conditioning is going and see if you need to make any changes to your routine.

Ultimately, you’ll have to figure out what the right workout schedule is for you—keeping in mind that being fit and healthy isn’t a race, but a lifestyle to embrace for the long-term.