Whether you’ve been out of the gym for a few months and want to get back into a structured routine or are just getting started with an exercise program, planning your overall routine properly is crucial for long-term success. Of course, your individual workouts are important—but without a solid overall plan, you’re destined to plateau or burn out. There are four major areas I see people make mistakes when creating their training programs. Here, I’ll break down the most common workout schedule mistakes and help you adjust your game plan so you can reap the most benefits possible.
1. Rest Days
No matter how pumped you are to train, you always need to ensure you’re giving your body enough rest to recover from that training.
This is especially important if you’re getting back to the gym after time off, since your muscles haven’t dealt with that stimulus in a while and will feel pretty beat up from your first few workouts back.
Rest Days vs. Active Recovery Days
How many rest days should you take, though? There’s no definitive answer. How much rest you need depends on factors like your age, experience, and goals. However, I do think everyone should take at least one full rest day per week. I mean, don’t even walk into the gym on that day.
Read More: 8 Things To Do On An Active Recovery Day
The average person is probably best off with two or three non-gym days per week. In this case, though, I recommend still doing some sort of activity. Consider these days “active recovery days” and swap the gym for activities like hiking, biking, or yoga. You want to move and get your heart rate up without worsening your muscle soreness. I recommend scheduling these after two or three tough workouts.
Muscle Recovery Time
In addition to full rest days, you’ll also need to make sure you give particular muscle groups ample recovery time between training sessions. Remember, a muscle grows during recovery. Training is when you stress that muscle. If you constantly stress a muscle without sufficient recovery, you’ll never see growth or strength improvements.
Though it may be tempting to do full-body workouts every day or bench press multiple days in a row, give every muscle group 48 to 72 hours of rest before you hit it again.
Training is a marathon, not a sprint!
If you’re still stumped, I’d plan on four good, hard workouts, two active recovery days, and one true rest day per week. This schedule should help optimize your recovery and gains, especially when you haven’t been in the gym for a while. If this feels like no sweat, swap an active recovery day for another hard workout or simply train harder during your four tough workouts each week.
2. Training Frequency
Now that you understand the importance of recovery, you’re probably wondering how often you should train each muscle group each week.
The old (and still relevant) adage is to train each muscle group twice per week. It’s a decent rule of thumb, but it overlooks some nuances and the individual physiology of each muscle group.
Fast-Twitch vs. Slow-Twitch Muscles
First of all, muscles that are primarily fast twitch-dominant should probably be trained less frequently than slow twitch-dominant muscles. Fast twitch-dominant muscles include the pectorals, biceps, and triceps. (The slowest twitch-dominant muscles include the calves and traps.)
The reason fast-twitch fibers need more recovery time is that they’re typically damaged more seriously from training than slow-twitch fibers. This is because these muscle fibers produce more force and undergo greater biochemical stress (since they can’t rely on oxygen like slow-twitch fibers).
Large vs. Small Muscle Groups
The size of the muscle group also influences how often it can be trained. Larger muscles are typically more difficult to activate, so they won’t be damaged to as significant a degree by training. The largest muscles in the body are the gluteus maximus and the quadriceps group—and both of them can be trained rather frequently. (In fact, the quads recover the quickest from training of all the muscle groups, according to research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports.)
If you want to get further into the weeds on all of this, there’s an entire article on my website dedicated to it.
All of this is to say, though, that you can train most upper-body muscles about twice a week. Meanwhile, you may be able to push your quads, calves, and glutes three or even four days a week. (I’d keep hamstring training closer to two days per week.) To accomplish this, add lower-body isolation exercises to other workouts throughout the week. For example, add leg extensions to your chest day to increase the training frequency of your quads.
One huge mistake that people often make in the gym is that they perform the same exact workout every single time.
Here’s why that’s an issue: When you exercise, you impose a stressful stimulus on the body. This stimulus can be mechanical, chemical, or both—but your body senses this stress and signals for change. When you lift weights, your body signals that you need more proteins to repair and build damaged muscle fibers. When you perform cardio, your body signals that you need more proteins to create mitochondria or aerobic enzymes.
But what happens when you impose the same stress day-in and day-out? Nothing.
This is known as the law of accommodation; if you continue to induce the same stress, you stop adapting to that stress. Basically, you are no longer giving your body a reason to change! For some, this process can take a few months—but for more experienced lifters, it takes as little as two weeks (or even less).
With this in mind, ensure you’re adding some sort of variation to your training program.
Variation can consist of the following:
- Changing the weight
- Adjusting the repetition range (usually done along with changing the weight)
- Changing the speed or tempo of the exercise
- Swapping the exercise itself (either by picking an entirely new exercise or adopting a different stance or grip)
- Focusing on a specific range of motion (ex: floor press instead of bench press)
- Focusing on a specific portion of the movement (ex: eccentric training)
A good rule of thumb is to apply one of these variations to every exercise in your program every two to four weeks. Though the first two strategies are the most commonly used, I’m a big proponent of changing exercises, too; doing so can keep training fresh and interesting. (Again, we have a super-long article on exercise variation on my website here if you’re interested in a more in-depth discussion.)
4. Nutrition and Sleep
One last mistake people often make is forgetting about the non-gym components of a gains-filled lifestyle. While training hard is obviously necessary, you can do all of the training in the world and still make only minimal gains if your diet or sleep schedule is suboptimal.
Remember what I said earlier: A muscle grows during its recovery period—a period both sleep and nutrition influence heavily.
Nutrition is one of the most important components of recovery. The food you eat is literally what helps repair and build your muscle tissue. Protein is obviously a necessity, but calories from carbs and fat can also supply the calories needed for muscle repair and building.
If you’re looking to gain serious muscle, you have to eat a surplus of calories. Regardless of your body weight goals, though, always consume at least 0.8 grams of protein per pound of body weight per day.
Sleep is the other major piece of recovery. Falling short on sleep actually impairs fat loss efforts and even reduces your metabolism, according to research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Sleep is also when many anabolic hormones that can help facilitate muscle repair and strength gains are released. If you miss out on sleep, you miss out on recovery, so shoot for at least seven hours per night.
As many professionals in the field say, “you can only train as hard as you can recover.” If your recovery plan is lacking, your gains are going to be lacking, too!
The Bottom Line
Though there are certainly other mistakes gym-goers make, these are the most common and have the biggest impact on your long-term goals.
Make sure you’re adding rest days, training each muscle group with the appropriate frequency, adding plenty of variation, and optimizing your diet and sleep schedule for best results. If you have serious goals, you need to get serious about the process, too.
Known as ‘The Muscle Ph.D.,’ Dr. Jacob Wilson has a knack for transforming challenging, complex concepts into understandable lessons that can support your body composition and health goals. A skeletal muscle physiologist and sports nutrition expert, Wilson is a leader in muscle sports nutrition. As the CEO of The Applied Science & Performance Institute and researches supplementation, nutrition, and their impact on muscle size, strength, and power.