That’s a question that doesn’t have a single, clean answer. It’s a very individual thing, so let me give you the criteria to determine for yourself the best workout frequency for you.
Below are the factors you will want to consider when making your decision.
Perhaps the most obvious limitation, you cannot workout more than however much time you have available.
It’s important here to be both honest, and realistic.
Honest in how much time you actually have. Everybody thinks they don’t have time for things they don’t want to do, but it is usually just a question of priorities.
Don’t kid yourself that 3 hours of TV in the evening is something you can fit in your schedule, but working out is not. You might prefer that, and that is fine, but be honest with yourself.
Be realistic in how often you will actually work out. Maybe you could work out every day, but are you actually going to do that?
If not, don’t set the expectation that you will. Assess how much time you have, and then determine how often you will work out.
Most people will get best results with 3-5 sessions per week. 2 will suffice if you’re genuinely time strapped, while more is fine if you enjoy working out.
If you love working out, then you should probably do it more than someone who hates it.
If you don’t enjoy it, then do enough to see the results you’re looking for, and focus on trying to find ways to enjoy your workout.
Forcing yourself to do more if you don’t like it is going to make you resentful and much more likely to give up all together, at some point soon.
Channel that energy into finding a way to enjoy working out, instead of being frustrated by it, and you will be much better off in the short and long term.
I know some people who genuinely enjoy working out, and don’t feel the same if they don’t. They’re addicted to the rush, love the extra energy it gives them, or need it as stress relief.
If you fall in this category, then have as much time working out as your schedule will allow, provided you are not over training.
You don’t want to exceed your capacity to recover from a workout. At this point another workout will be counter-productive.
You don’t grow stronger or fitter when you are working out. You’re actually breaking the body down by challenging it. When you subsequently recover from the workout, the body will adapt through a process called super-compensation, where it grows back a little stronger or fitter than it was before, to cope with the increased demand it faces.
This is how you progress, and why your workout needs to be consistently more challenging than previous workouts.
However, running yourself into the ground means you haven’t allowed the body to super-compensate, and another training sessions is further breaking down an already broken-down body.
Your capacity for recovery will depend on various factors such as genetics, existing fitness, age, general health, training experience, sleep quality, food amount and quality, hydration levels, hormonal balance, nutrient levels, etc.
You will know you’re pushing too hard when you wake up in the morning, feeling more tired than you did before going to sleep, or when you notice your strength dropping off.
As you get older, your capacity to recover will diminish. It will be inhibited in times of high stress, ill health, or if you’re not getting enough sleep. Likewise, if you are undereating, under hydrated, or not eating sufficiently healthy food to cover all the nutrients you need.
Goal & urgency
Your goals will somewhat determine how often you should train. If you want to run a marathon, you will need to train a lot, to get the sheer mileage in that is required in training for a marathon. If you’re a triathlete it is even worse, having to put the mileage in, across 3 disciplines.
If you have a holiday coming up soon and desperately want to bulk up and drop a few pounds, then training more for a short period of time because you have an urgent goal is probably a good idea.
Just be careful not to overwhelm your capacity to recover for extended periods of time.
Training programs are progressive, so you can start off doing just a little more challenging of a workout than you could comfortably do, and then make incremental progress from there. If you try and hammer yourself from day 1, you’re not going to be able to come back and do it again a day or two later.
Habit & practicality
I’m a big fan of habit. We have enough decisions to make, far too many distractions calling for our attention.
Having a daily question of “should I work out today?” is just adding further things to worry about, and making it less likely you will get your workout done.
Instead, create a habitual routine that you can do on autopilot, without any questions asked. This means the same time, on the same days, at the same place, with the same people; as much as that is possible.
Some of those variables might not be possible, but the more, the better.
The morning is often the easiest time to get it done, before whatever happens in the day can get in the way. While you might have to stay late at work, or rush home to pick the kids up in the evening, there are rarely such distractions in the morning.
Is more better?
More is generally going to be more effective in terms of getting results, so long as you don’t exceed your capacity to recover.
That said, you need to manage your schedule so working out isn’t negatively impacting other parts of your life, which will cause conflict and problems down the road.
If you cannot maintain the routine for the long term, it will not be very effective. The workout that you do is always better than the ‘perfect’ workout on paper, which doesn’t get done.