Health

Here's How Many Days a Week You Should Work Out

Fitness TikTok says you have to do six-day-a-week workouts to get big muscles and/or a giant ass. Here's how seriously you need to take that advice.
February 3, 2021, 7:46pm
illustration of people doing various weightlifting movements on various days of the week
Illustration by Elnora Turner
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Hi, Swole Woman!

I am so happy to have found you on the internet! I have a question about how many days you recommend training. I see a lot of people on TikTok posting their six-day-a-week workout splits and am wondering if it’s necessary to lift that many times a week to see progress. While I enjoy working out, that seems like a hard schedule to stick to. Is it as effective to do 3–4 days a week, but longer, full-body lifting sessions? Any insight would be very helpful!

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Best,

Audrey

So as best I can tell, what you are seeing is people on TikTok explaining their weekly schedule of working out, usually something like this:

Monday: Quads and calves

Tuesday: Shoulders

Wednesday: Glutes

Thursday: Back and biceps

Friday: Glutes again

Saturday: Chest

Sunday: Rest

Here are some examples of what I mean, if you’re not familiar: 

In the fitness world, what you are seeing here is called a “bro split.” Bro splits are workouts that are broken up pretty granularly by body part, and are often used by people who are focused on “aesthetics,” or the way that working out affects how you look. Usually, but not always, they are meant for people trying to get physically bigger. Not only are they popular on, apparently, TikTok, but they are the basis for many wildly popular workouts. The fitness industry also loves to argue over whether they are “dead” or “not dead,” but as you can see, they remain a pretty dominant way that people who love to go to the gym break up their workouts.

Now that we know what we are looking at, is this necessary for you to do? No, for a couple of reasons.

An additional thing to know about “bro splits” is that they are designed so you are not working out various body parts too much week to week. The theory is that going too hard too frequently can actually work against you, because lifting weights is pretty intense and tears up your muscles, so you want to give them time to rebuild before working them again. Bro splits are often trying to hit a sweet spot of working muscles regularly, but not too frequently; most aim to not train various muscles or groups of muscles more than once a week. (I imagine, but don’t know, that possibly people who want to lift but NOT get bigger do bro splits because they think that’s what they have to do in order to stay the same size. This is also not true.)

However. According to experts, many bro splits work the various kinds of muscles too infrequently to be the most effective way to make you stronger or bigger, ~unless~ you are taking steroids. If you’re taking steroids, working your shoulders once a week is probably fine.

It is actually bad, when you are strength training, to work out a lot every day, so bro splits are right about that. If your muscles don’t get a chance to recover and absorb some carbs and protein and rest time, they won’t get stronger, which will make it harder for you to rebuild your precious muscle or physical strength after years of dieting, or meaningfully change your body composition (whether that’s muscle or body fat), or whatever your goals may be.

But those of us who are new don’t need to be quite so careful about this: When you are newer to lifting, you can work all your muscles two or three or even four times a week easily, way more than a bro split would have you doing, because you can recover a little faster than someone who has been lifting for years and years. Most beginning strength programs have people working their whole body three times a week, because that’s a sweet spot for progressing but also not being too challenging or taxing. For people who are new at this, blasting the shit out of one muscle group at a time once a week would be kind of a waste of time; both too much and not enough.

The best time to use a bro split is after you’ve spent time doing some basic strength training (sometimes this is called “building a strength base”). This is because if you’re trying to get huge, or super lean, or really strong, you can do that more effectively by building your capacity for lifting more weight in general.

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Picture this: If you hop into a bro split, and it involves doing hip thrusts because the program is promising to build you some big honking glutes to get the butt of your dreams, you might only be able to hip thrust like 20 pounds, because you are weak, because you have never strength trained before. But, if you do some strength training first for a few months with functional movements like squats and deadlifts, now when you hop into doing a bro split, you might be able to hip thrust 135 or even 200 pounds, because your muscles are not only stronger, but your body is also overall more activated and ready to to receive that beautiful stimulus. 

With that larger amount of weight, you’ve built your capacity for muscle damage and thus growth, which means you can challenge your muscles more, whether you’re doing it once or thrice a week. Your glutes will be much larger and more honking from doing your hip thrusts with 135 pounds, or 200 pounds, than with 20 pounds. I promise you this. There may be people on social media who seem to have big honking glutes and only lift 20 pounds; these people are either juicing or have lifted lots of weight before, and can maintain their muscles with overall less stimulus than you, a person who has never lifted before. Or, frankly, they have butt injections. It’s far more common than you think. 

(Can you build up the amount of weight you are hip thrusting just by doing hip thrusts? Yes. The “then why not” answer gets a little complex here, and you don’t need to know that unless you’re really fixing to argue with me about your hip-thrust-based program, but I will try to summarize it anyway: A hip thrust is an accessory movement that is less “complete” than movements like squats or deadlifts, so making it the centerpiece of a “complete breakfast” of a program will be less straightforward and possibly not worth it for the overall balance of your physical functionality than, at least at the beginning of an overall physical fitness journey, sticking to a few basic movements that maximally compliment each other. Put another way, you won’t get stronger at hip thrusts doing hip thrusts alone as quickly as you will using more functional movements as your building blocks of strength. Whew.) 

There are also people doing bro splits on TikTok whose fitness history you don’t know; maybe those people have only ever done bro splits. But if they’re lifting significant amounts of weight, they very likely did regular old strength training at some point and transitioned to a bro split later on, possibly out of boredom or to work out more for their looks, or because it works for their schedules or available equipment. (Our brains do a thing when we see someone doing a workout that makes us think that in order to look like that person, we need to do the exact workout they are doing. This is not how things work, and I know you know that logically, but I’m just reminding you gently of it now.)

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So when do you ever need to even think about doing a bro split? 

It’s not terribly clear to me why anyone still thinks bro splits work or are appropriate for people no matter what kind of training they have done before. My two best guesses are that, doing anything works instead of doing nothing, so we falsely attribute optimal success to the one bro split we tried (we also see this with any trendy diet); and the fact that these workouts are what, like, Arnold Schwarzenegger and his brethren used to do. (Arnold took steroids.)

In the event that your schedule somehow accommodates going to the gym frequently but for less time, bro splits can be a time saver; while full-body movements can save time by working lots of muscles at the same time (like doing deadlifts, which works all the backs of your legs, butt, upper and lower back), they might require waiting for all different kinds of equipment. In a crowded gym, it can take less time to get ahold of just the “shoulder day” equipment than the “deadlifts, bench, and rows” equipment.

For someone who is strong and doing pretty involved workouts, thrice-a-week strength-focused full body days could take 90 minutes (warming up to a 405-lb. squat takes time), while they can do one body part split a day in 20–30 minutes or so. But if you’re new to strength training, you can speed through those three full-body days in 30-40 minutes. That means a bro split can also just be more volume than you need, of types you also don’t need. Neither kind of program is going to DRASTICALLY change what you look like in the short term, but the full-body kind is focused on helping you move better and be stronger; bro splits are really more focused on pumpin’ up big muscles.

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Secondly, in the event that you build up your strength for a while and then get bored with it, are pretty advanced, and/or decide you want to work on getting bigger or leaner instead of stronger, you can switch to a bro split later. This is probably not you, so that’s all there is to say on that. (Well, maybe one more thing: There ARE splits that are somewhere between “full body a few times a week” and granular “body part splits,” like upper body/lower body splits, push/pull/legs splits, power/hypertrophy/upper/lower splits; it goes on. If you don’t want a complicated program, I am saying, absolutely do not worry about all of this for now.)

Why might you not want to do a bro split? Well, as you mentioned, they involve going to the gym more days; not many people want that. They are also more complex, involving potentially dozens of different movements across more days of working out.

For instance, here is a “chest day” from Men’s Journal:

Directions: Complete 4 sets taking 1:30 minutes rest between rounds.

Alternating Dumbbell Press to Full Press x 8

Kettlebell Flyes on Med Ball x 12

Decline Dumbbell Bench x 8 (weight should be 75% one rep max)

Pulsing Cable Flyes x 20 seconds

Lying Overhead Pullover x 10

Here is one day of a beginner strength program:

Squat 5x5

Bench 5x5

Barbell row 5x5

The first workout is really blasting the shit out of your chest muscles; the second one is working your whole body. I vastly prefer the second kind of workout, because it’s simple.

You might love an absurdly high learning curve, but you will probably benefit from starting a little slower with a few basic movements before you go nuts with your “shoulder day” of hundreds of reps across five different shoulder movements.  

Can you just hop into doing bro splits if it seems exciting to you, and you don’t believe me that it might not be optimal if you’ve never really lifted before? Sure; at the end of the day, everyone should work out in the way that they enjoy, and I am least of all here to stop anyone from doing that. But if your goals are not aligned with what bro splits do, or they seem overly complex to you, or if you’re trying to understand more about how your body works and change how well it functions, you can do workouts that are both less complicated and less time-consuming than a six-day-a-week bro split. 

Disclaimer: Casey Johnston is not a doctor, nutritionist, dietitian, personal trainer, physiotherapist, psychotherapist, doctor, or lawyer; she is simply someone who has done a lot of, and read a lot about, lifting weights.

You can read past Ask A Swole Woman columns at The Hairpin and at SELF and follow A Swole Woman on Instagram. Got a question for her? Email swole.woman@vice.com.