One of the most common questions I get from athletes at CrossFit Impulse is, “How often should I train?” If you are considering CrossFit as your strength and conditioning program then you also may be wondering, “How often should I CrossFit?” CrossFit.com prescribes 3 days “on” followed by 1 day “off.” But is this the right CrossFit frequency for everyone? Certainly not. Read more for the full story.
The Short Answer
If you aren’t interested in reading the full explanation below then I recommend the following training frequency for the average CrossFit Impulse athlete: Train 4 or 5 days per week. Generally, don’t train more than 3 days consecutively or less than 2 days consecutively. Above all, listen to your body, but be aware that you must work through soreness and fatigue. However, never work through pain, especially acute pain. With that guidance, check out the four simple examples below and see if one fits your lifestyle:
The Long Answer
The intent of your individual training frequency is to train often enough to reach your fitness goals, but not often enough to overtrain or develop overuse injuries. Training frequency is dependent upon many factors, the most important of which are goals, intensity, rest, nutrition, and existing level of fitness. The remainder of your daily/weekly schedule is also a relevant factor. Let’s examine how each one affects your training.
If you simply want to maintain an adequate level of fitness for daily life and ward off obesity then your training frequency will differ substantially from an elite athlete seeking to compete in the national CrossFit Games. Training more frequently will advance your fitness faster, to a point. You can’t just keep adding workouts until you’ve gone 11 days without rest, as that will lead to overtraining, which is counterproductive for any athlete of any fitness level. However, there is simply a substantial difference in fitness goals between those who train twice per week and those who train 5 times per week.
If you train more intensely then you will require more rest than if you train less intensely. If CrossFit is your workout regimen then we can probably summarize your workout intensity as either intense or very intense, assuming you are putting 100% effort into your workouts. You may need to alter your training frequency to rest more during periods of multiple, very intense workouts and increase your frequency during periods of short or otherwise less intense workouts.
Quality and quantity of rest are a huge factor in training frequency. Quality rest increases your ability to train more frequently. I’m defining quality and quantity in two principal ways: your level of activity on your rest days, and hours of sleep per night. If you shovel tar for half a day on your rest day then it wasn’t especially effective rest. Similarly, if you sleep only 5-6 hours per night then you also didn’t rest very effectively. The most effective rest is lack of prolonged or intense physical activity during the day plus 8.5-9 consecutive hours of sleep per night. Yes, that’s asking a lot of the typical American schedule. Guess what, your body doesn’t give a damn. Less/low quality rest means training less often. More/high quality rest means you can train more often without overtraining or incurring overuse injuries.
This is pretty simple. If your body is getting the nutrients it needs to perform tissue repair and fuel your workouts then you can train more often. If you eat poorly then you will inevitably train less often or with less intensity, and will require more rest when you are done. Your body also won’t get as full a benefit from the workout because you haven’t supplied it with the tools to fully adapt to the stress you provided during the workout. Sure, you may get 90% of the adaptation, and that may be fine with you, so judge accordingly. Proper nutrition can be simply expressed as Zone or Paleo eating. Our resources section has ample information on nutrition if you are interested.
Existing Level of Fitness
This is also quite simple. Novices train less often than elite athletes. They require less stress to disrupt homeostasis and may require more recovery time for the disruption to be fully synthesized into an adaptation. Elite athletes, however, require quite a shock to disrupt homeostasis. In fact, they may require several workouts on consecutive days (or multiple workouts per day) to greatly disrupt homeostasis and trigger an adaptation. This means they must train more often, simply in order to provide the necessary shock to keep advancing their fitness. Life is tough at the top…or so I’m told.
We don’t live to workout; we workout to live. Therefore, our training schedule must coexist with the rest of our life. But don’t be confused, you must make time in your life for workouts if you wish to advance your fitness. The time will not free itself, and if fitness is a priority in your life then you must allocate your time as such. However, you may not be able to workout at the perfect time or on the perfect days, but you must find a balance between reaching your fitness goals and your other goals (holding a job, parenting children, cultivating artichokes, etc).
Considering all of those factors, what is right for you? While only you can fully answer that, here are some general tips and examples:
- Start with the crossfit.com 3-on/1-off standard and adjust from there.
- If you go more than 3 days on then realize your intensity will suffer. More than 4 days on is probably not a good idea. However, some people go 5 days on during the work week and then take the weekend off. I think you would actually get better results by inserting a rest day in the middle of the work week to allow for recovery and then more effective work thereafter.
- If you don’t get adequate rest or if you have poor nutrition, think about reducing your load to 2-on/1-off. However, reducing your frequency means you must keep the intensity high during each workout for optimal effect.
- 1-on/1-off is only very effective for the complete novice. If that’s you, that’s OK. Nobody emerged from the womb with a 3-minute Fran. If you’re new to exercise, very deconditioned, or overweight then you may want to go 1-on/1-off for 2-10 weeks until you build the capacity to go 2-on/1-off without debilitating soreness.
- Advanced athletes may want to add skill, strength, or sport-specific workouts to their regular CrossFit regimen. This is best done by adding the additional workout at the opposite time of day as an existing workout, which allows for some recovery during the day. Many athletes have had great success with morning and afternoon workouts with work/school/daily life inbetween. Rest is still important when programming with this model, but an advanced athlete might sometimes reduce his rest day to an “active rest” day. This means that instead of complete rest the athlete would participate in a short and/or light workout that does not substantially tax his body. This maintains neuro-muscular pathways. However, for life-long fitness I recommend everyone take at least one day of complete rest each week. Lofty ambitions and competitive goals are good, but not if you irreparably break yourself trying to achieve them.
Finally, check out some of the more specific examples below. They range from the deconditioned novice to the advanced athlete.
Overweight Orville is 50+ pounds overweight, but he is serious about losing it. He has difficulty pushing his intensity. Right now 8 rounds of Tabata squats leave him unable to walk the next day.
Average Alvin wants to improve his fitness while eating reasonably well. He gets 7-8 hours of sleep and pushes himself pretty hard. Sometimes he trains 3 days in a row, sometimes two.
Firebreathing Frank is training for the CrossFit Games. He sleeps 9 hours each night after reading any new articles on the CrossFit Journal and finishing a 5-block Zone meal. Some training days he doubles up with a morning and afternoon WOD. Some rest days he may run/row 5k at a slow pace or do 8 rounds of Cindy (not for time) just to stay loose. He pisses excellence and eats babies, but only if they’re Paleo.
Insomniac Irene is a dedicated athlete, and definitely pushes her intensity, but she lets her hectic schedule deprive her of rest and sleeps only 5-6 hours per night. Some mornings she pops in to do a quick strength WOD before doing a metcon with her afternoon class, but this is rare.