I was recently asked, "What's the deal with training specific body parts each day, like 'arms day' or 'back day'? If I workout 30 minutes a day, should I be working out that way?" This question led into a discussion about the ideal workout schedule. Here is my response:
Frequency Is All-Important
When planning your workout schedule, focus on frequency. This means not just how frequent you are exercising, but more importantly, how frequent you are exercising each muscle group.
Here's an example of a poor workout schedule:
This schedule only trains each body part once/week. That's not enough frequency to send a strong signal to the body to build muscle or get stronger in each of those areas. You'll see improvement if you're going from no training to this plan, but we can do better.
Here's an example of a decent workout schedule:
This schedule trains each body part twice/week. That's pretty good! There are a few problems with this plan though:
1) This schedule assumes you will be able to exercise at a pretty high intensity each workout (you need to if you want to build muscle and/or improve strength). Unfortunately, most people can't bring high enough intensity six days/week for this to be very effective unless they're taking steroids, so most likely your intensity will suffer.
2) There isn't a lot of wiggle room with this plan. If you miss a day or two, it throws your schedule off for the whole week because each workout is crucial to maintaining a decent frequency per muscle group.
3) Two quality workouts per week is good, but if you're exercising six days/week then you should be aiming for three quality workouts per week. You'll see much better results!
Here's the schedule I prefer:
Monday- Total Body (High Intensity)
Tuesday- Total Body (Low Intensity)
Wednesday- Total Body (High Intensity)
Thursday- Total Body (Low Intensity)
Friday- Total Body (High Intensity)
Saturday- Total Body (Low Intensity)
This schedule trains each body part six days/week (three of which are high quality)! The high intensity days are meant to be HARD and the low intensity days are meant to be EASY. How hard and how easy you push depends on a number of things. They usually take some trial and error, too.
When to Ease Up/When to Push Harder
The main question to consider when adjusting your effort level on your easy days is this: Have I been recovering enough to push myself in my hard workouts? When in doubt: Make it easier—pivot to stretching, or a light cardio workout, or take the day off.
The main question to consider when pushing yourself on your hard days is this: Is my technique still good? When in doubt: Don't keep pushing.
If You Need to Take a Day Off It’s important to make sure you don't end up with a consistent medium intensity workout every day. You'll get most of your progress from your high intensity days, so if you ever need to skip a day or take a rest day, make it one of your low intensity days.
You will find that a total body workout that alternates in intensity and allows you to adjust according to your needs will be the most effective—not only in building muscle and increasing strength, but also in avoiding injury.