Often when we start a new workout program, we do it with a big head of steam, filled with enthusiasm.
Which is awesome.
Unfortunately, a lot of times we hit it a little too hard and go overboard, working out every day.
And then something happens – we get depressed, injured, sick, or tired – and we wonder: Is working out every day a smart idea?
You might have already guessed the answer to that question.
Working Out Every Day is Counterproductive
Yes, elite-level athletes train six or even seven days out of the week but their bodies have been conditioned for that level of stress and performance.
And frankly, they typically aren’t able to keep that up for very long (1).
For most sports, the average age of retirement is 33, while high-impact athletes like American football players wrap things up at 28, on average.
But here’s the thing: chances are you aren’t in the same position as a full-time elite athlete.
You have other responsibilities, plus you don’t have access to the experts athletes use for workout recovery and training.
So why should you train like you have nothing else going on?
Recovery Time is Everything
It’s important to realize the dangers associated with working out every day extend beyond the risk of injury.
For one thing, your body is very good at making adaptations. This means, especially if you’re doing the same workout every day, your body is going to quickly adjust.
Usually this only takes about two weeks.
Before long you’re going to hit a plateau – meaning that your workout won’t work anymore.
Really, though, that’s the least of the problems you might encounter from working out every day.
Generally, overtraining syndrome (and yes, it is a syndrome) occurs when people make fast, drastic changes to their workout routine and demand too much from their bodies too soon.
Depression and chronic fatigue usually show up before any physical symptoms manifest themselves.
Eventually, however, overtraining’s physical symptoms show up with a rapid drop in energy and performance.
You may also experience weight gain, headaches, insomnia, digestive problems, and even altered cardiovascular function.
Again, this can happen when you force your body to work beyond its capacity.
Occasionally, people ask me how to keep working out every day, because they’ve started to experience these symptoms.
My answer is simple: Don’t.
A (Much) Better Way
Okay, so if working out every day is so detrimental to your overall health and performance, what should you do instead?
Before we get into what constitutes a proper workout, let’s look at what happens to your body when you exercise.
When you work out, you challenge your muscles to do something that they have either never done before or that they find difficult.
Let’s say this involves doing a biceps curl holding a dumbbell. You may have performed this exercise before, but this time you’re using a heavier weight than normal.
Since it’s new and difficult, your muscle fibers get damaged, just a little.
Perceiving that something’s wrong, your brain goes to work to fix the situation. Hormones like adrenaline are released to help you deal with the stress (the damage) and, afterward, your body works to repair the muscles.
But so that you’ll be prepared better in the future, your brain sends orders that those damaged muscle fibers should be made stronger than they were before. Now, remember, this only happens after you’re done exercising.
That’s right. Your muscles grow when you’re resting, not working. Your workout provides the stimulus that causes the growth, not the growth itself.
Without proper rest between your workouts, these adaptations can’t happen. Instead, you’re damaging your muscles again and again without ever letting them recover.
Fortunately, the fix is pretty simple. Give them time to rest.
This means taking days off instead of working out every single day. Generally, I recommend working out three time each week for about 30 minutes each session.
Two Workouts That Work
While the exact workouts you do will vary based on a number of different factors, if you’re trying to burn fat, there are two basic styles of workout I recommend.
When it comes to cardio, for example, you’ve likely heard that you need to run at a steady pace for long periods to get rid of any excess calories.
Don’t do that.
Your body will adapt to that kind of workout quickly, requiring you to make your workouts longer to get the same effect, committing you to spending way too much time exercising.
Even worse, those long workouts will spike your cortisol levels and cause your body to start destroying muscle for fuel.
Instead, use High Intensity Interval Trainer (HIIT). Again, there are many workouts that fall under this umbrella but a basic example would look like this:
- Sprint for 5 seconds
- Jog for 20 seconds
- Repeat 10 times
[Related: How to Do Interval Training – The Right Way]
In terms of strength training, the standard technique requires people to use light weights and crank out tons of reps.
Essentially, once your body adapts, this amounts to cardio. So, while it’s not useless it’s also not entirely effective.
Not if you’re trying to burn fat, anyway.
To effectively reduce body fat, you’re going to have to lift heavy weights.
Don’t worry: You won’t get bulky. Instead, you will get lean.
It takes years of following a specifically designed diet and workout routine to develop huge muscles.
Lifting heavy weights stimulates muscle fibers to burn lots of calories – even when you aren’t working out.
And the bigger the muscle, the more fuel it’s going to need. So, challenging lots of big muscle groups all at once is the key to jumpstarting your metabolism.
Both styles of workouts – strength and cardio – are challenging.
That’s why rest is so important.
Why You Should Change it Up
It’s also important to keep switching up your workouts.
Your body adapts pretty quickly, which is a good thing/bad thing. It’s the adaptations that make you stronger and fitter.
But you have to make sure that the adaptations keep happening.
That means if you’re always doing the same workout, your body will stop progressing simply because it’s not being challenged properly.
To avoid this, I usually recommend switching things up every four weeks or so.
Trainers often use a technique called periodization – breaking the year down into individual periods wherein the workouts shift in style and focus. There’s no reason you can’t use this same approach.
The idea is that, every so often, you change your workouts to emphasize a different aspect of your fitness.
This could be something as simple as changing the set and rep scheme you use to takin a break from weights and doing only bodyweight workouts for a while.
Even on a smaller scale, some trainers even recommend changing small things, like the grip you use on your deadlift every two weeks or so.
These frequent changes will keep your body guessing so that you don’t plateau. They also can help you avoid overuse injuries.
Workout Regularly, Just Not Every Day
Rather than going on an occasional month-long workout blitz and crushing it every day in the gym to lose fat or get lean, you’ll get better results more safely if you exercise less often but more consistently.
You’ll feel better, make quicker progress, and you’ll actually have energy left over after your workouts.
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Yuri Elkaim is one of the world’s most trusted health and fitness experts. A former pro soccer player turned NYT bestselling author of The All-Day Energy Diet and The All-Day Fat Burning Diet, his clear, science-backed advice has transformed the lives of more than 500,000 men and women and he’s on a mission to help 100 million people by 2040. Read his inspiring story, “From Soccer to Bed to No Hair on My Head” that started it all.