One of the greatest mysteries in personal training for weight and fat loss is optimal training frequency for fat loss.
If your clients have all the free time in the world, are they better off training six days per week or three days per week?
Or, since six days per week is probably impossible for most of your clients, can they still get maximum fat loss results training just two or three days per week?
And finally, if your clients are extremely pressed for time on workout days, would they be better off splitting three 45-minute workouts into six 20-minute workouts?
The debate is on. Furthermore, while some clients find going to the gym to be like pulling teeth, other clients have to be reigned in and advised not to train too much because if they had their way, they’d be in the gym twice a day, seven days a week.
To determine the best training frequency, both research and experience must be taken into account. At the end of the day, you can decide for yourself whether you will encourage a three-day or six-day per week program.
Unfortunately, scientific research studies don’t address the issue entirely. That’s because scientists are still trying to identify the best method of fat loss exercise.
In one research study, participants performed six days per week of cardio for one year results in an average of only 6 pounds (2.7 kg) of weight loss for men and women (McTiernan et al., 2008). Subjects aged 40 to 75 were instructed to do 60 minutes of aerobic exercise per day for 6 days per week for an entire year. You would think that with such a high volume of aerobic exercise, the subjects would have lost twenty or thirty pounds. Instead, weight loss was a disappointing 6 pounds (2.7 kg) for men and less than 5 pounds (2.2 kg) for women. That’s over 50 hours of exercise per pound (.45 kg) lost. Not a number that is going to keep a lot of clients bring you their business.
In contrast, recent research from Australia supports the notion that training with intervals only three times per week results in significant fat loss (Trapp et al., 2008). For this study, two groups of women trained three times per week for 15 weeks. One group performed 20 minutes of high-intensity interval training, while the other group performed 40 minutes of steady-state cardio. Only the interval training group had a significant reduction in fat stores.
Given these results, it’s tempting to call off the argument, give the trophy to the three days per week camp, and move on to a more important debate, such as, “Are Zubaz pants still fashionable?” However, there’s more research to cover.
The benefits of resistance training for building a better body can’t be overlooked. Fortunately, a couple of recent studies in surprising populations show that resistance training can build lean mass and help with fat loss at the same time.
In one of the studies, 36 healthy men and women performed strength training three times per week for 12 weeks while consuming a 2000 calorie per day diet (Iglay et al., 2007). The workouts consisted of basic exercises that can be performed at any health club, including leg presses, chest presses, and seated rows. Each workout consisted of 3 sets per exercise and 8-12 repetitions per set.
While the average bodyweight of the men and women didn't change over the 12 week program, they did gain an average of four pounds of lean mass and lost over four pounds of fat. They gained muscle and lost fat at the same time, which most scientists will tell is impossible, but when beginners start a program, it does seem possible - at any age.
In addition, strength training also improved blood sugar control by 25% (as measured by an oral glucose tolerance test), helping to protect against diabetes. The researchers believed the gains in muscle mass contributed to improved blood sugar control.
This new research suggests three resistance training and three interval training workouts per week result in significant changes in body composition – with resistance training showing results even over the age of 60.
However, many clients see this as, “If three workouts is good, then more must be better.” That unfortunately leads to the biggest problem with increased fat loss training frequency: the risk of overuse injury.
A recent study performed in young women demonstrates the impact of training frequency on the risk of overuse injury (Josse, 2010). In this study, 20 young women trained with machine resistance training exercises five days per week for 12 weeks. Three subjects in the study reported overuse injury. Imagine if those were your clients. If you had a 15% rate of overuse injury due to your training programs, you’d likely be going out of business soon. Clearly, five days of resistance training per week is too much.
So what do the best three-day and six-day per week fat loss workout schedules look like?
Let’s start with the three-day schedule. Together, the Purdue and Australian research studies suggest that three resistance training and three interval training workouts need to be completed. Fortunately, by choosing the right exercises, it’s simple to identify a total body resistance training workout that can be completed in 20 minutes followed by interval training of 20 minutes. This allows your client to complete everything they need for fat loss – and even simultaneous muscle gain – in less than three hours per week.
On the opposite end of the extreme is a six-day program. To make it easy, you could simply separate the resistance training and interval training sessions from one another, creating six 20-minute workouts. The downfalls are that you’ll end up with much more warm-up and cool-down time over the course of the week, plus more dirty laundry, but there isn’t any research to prove that you’ll get more results and you will have greater risk of illness or injury using this program.
By focusing on quality over quantity with interval training in less than three hours of training per week, your clients can gain muscle and lose fat at the same time, while staying injury-free. Of course, diet is more important than any exercise program, and no trainer should reasonably expect any clients to get great results without proper nutrition. But if your clients combine the right training plan with a balanced diet, results should follow.
- Iglay, H.B., Thyfault, J.P., Apolzan, J.W. & Campbell W.W. (2007, Apr). Resistance training and dietary protein: effects on glucose tolerance and contents of skeletal muscle insulin signaling proteins in older persons. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 85(4):1005-13.
- Josse, A.R., Tang, J.E., Tarnopolsky, M.A., Phillips, S.M. (2010, Jun). Body Composition and Strength Changes in Women with Milk and Resistance Exercise. Med Science Sports Exercise.
- McTiernan, A., Sorensen, B., Irwin, M.L., Morgan, A., Yasui, Y., Rudolph, R.E., Surawicz, C., Lampe, J.W., Lampe, P.D., Ayub, K., Potter, J.D. (2007 Jun). Exercise Effect on Weight and Body Fat in Men and Women. Obesity 15: 1496-1512.
- Trapp, E. G., Chisholm, D. J., Freund, J. & Boutcher, S. H. (2008). The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. International Journal of Obesity 32(4): 684–691.