It’s time to bust a gym myth. I remember being taught, explicitly, as if it were a fact that my life might someday depend on, that you should never strength train the same muscle two days in a row. There is, it turns out, no such law of nature. You can train whatever you want, whenever you want.
The version that I heard went something like this: After you use a muscle, it needs to recover. Exercise breaks down muscle tissue and recovery time repairs it, so you need to alternate the two. Either you would fail to build muscle, or perhaps you would get injured, or maybe both. The fact that I was sometimes sore the day after a workout would seem to corroborate the idea. It’s best to skip if you’re still sore, right? (It’s not.)
I believed this for years without ever having any particular reason to believe it, besides that it’s what everybody always said. This led to a number of questionable choices, like planning on a Monday-Wednesday-Friday workout schedule and then throwing it all out the window if I missed Monday’s workout. I couldn’t do it on Tuesday, because then I’d be working out Tuesday and Wednesday! Which would ruin everything.
But I should have seen through it. After all, we use our muscles every day just for activities of daily life. You don’t lie in bed on Tuesday just because you went for a walk on Monday. And even when you think about heavier work, what about people whose jobs involve manual labour? Does every farm worker, every member of a construction crew, every carpenter schedule a rest day after every day of work? Of course not, and that should tell us something.
Meanwhile, the process of muscle breakdown and repair doesn’t happen on a 24-hour clock. Some of the body’s adaptations to exercise take multiple days or even weeks, and we don’t have to wait for them to finish before we can lift again.
What actually happens if you train the same muscle two days in a row?
Nothing much. You get two days of training in. Sometimes you may feel a bit weaker the second day, which is fine, since training days are not test days. You lift what you can, and you still get stronger.
So what options do I really have?
First of all, if you only have two or three days a week available to strength train, you should do a full-body program so that you’re hitting all your muscle groups more than once a week. And it makes sense to space those days out as much as your schedule allows. Having a rest day in between your training days isn’t necessary, but it is convenient, so you can start each workout feeling relatively fresh.
Or perhaps you prefer the idea of splitting up your workout by body part. This is an idea that became popular around the time that bodybuilding and weightlifting branched into different sports. The Olympic lifts all work your full body, but if your goal is just to sculpt your body parts for their appearance, you can give each body part its own special day in the gym. Today, it’s common to do a 5-day split focusing on a different set of muscles each day (chest on Monday, back on Tuesday, and so on) or to split workouts into upper and lower body days, or pushing and pulling days. These are all fine ways to spread out the work that you do during the week.
But you can also do full-body workouts on as many days each week as you like. Taking a long weekend for a vacation? Go ahead and stack your three full-body days next to each other so you can take four days off.
Or let’s say you want to switch from a 3-day workout plan (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) to a 4-day one (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday). As long as you’re careful about where you put your heaviest days of the week, this will most likely be fine.
For the past few years I’ve been lifting five or six days each week, and I don’t separate my lifts by muscle group, so pretty much every workout is full body. It’s absolutely fine. I can’t believe I used to be afraid of this.
What rules do you have to follow?
To work out your full body on a daily basis, you only need to keep a few things in mind.
The main one is whether your total workload is appropriate for what your body is used to. If you’re used to doing two full-body workouts each week, and you think you might like to do six, making that switch overnight is likely to be pretty miserable. But if you do three, you’ll probably be fine with four. And once you’re used to four, you can easily make the jump to five.
Another thing to remember is that while you don’t have to avoid fatigue, you can plan around it intelligently. I do deadlifts on my last heavy day of the week, either Friday or Saturday. And then snatches, the lift where I most need my coordination and reaction time intact, happen on Monday after I’ve had the weekend to recover. I also keep in mind that fatigue tends to build during the week, so I put an easy day somewhere in the middle to give myself a break.
In other words, your body is resilient. You need to make sure you’re not working it too hard, but it can adapt to greater levels of work over time. It’s not bound strictly by calendar days, so feel free to play around with your schedule to figure out what works best for you.