We have all heard the guideline that you should wait at least 48 hours before training the same muscle group again.
In a full-body strength program with three weekly sessions, this recommendation leads to workouts falling on alternate days—for example, Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
This is a good rule of thumb to follow, and one I recommend sticking to in a perfect world.
But what if you don’t live in a perfect world?
Maybe you’re pulling 12-hour shifts at the office, leaving only the weekend open for the gym. Or perhaps you’re constantly on the road for work, making regular planned workout days impossible. Or you manage to get a lift in Tuesday through Thursday while the rest of the week is dedicated to taking care of your kids.
Whatever the reason, your hectic schedule forces you to train on consecutive days. Does that mean you can’t hit the same muscle groups two days in a row?
Many gym-goers would dismiss back-to-back lifting as a waste of time.
After all, training a muscle group before it has the chance to recover from a previous workout halts progress. And muscular recovery takes about 48 hours following a strength session.
At least, that’s how conventional thinking goes. But is that really the case?
Questioning the 48-Hour Rule
When I was training junior hockey players in a club setting, a dilemma would pop up when planning their in-season strength workouts.
A typical week would include two games between Friday and Sunday. If those games fell on Friday and Saturday, we’d take Sunday off and be back in the gym on Monday and Wednesday. No issues there. Lifting full-body twice per week on non-consecutive days during the competitive season had proven to work well for us over and over again.
But if the second game took place on Sunday, Monday was our rest day. This meant I was left with two alternatives. Either lift back to back on Tuesday and Wednesday, or drop one of the two sessions altogether.
Knowing that lifting once per week is inferior to more frequent workouts for strength gains, the latter was never a real option. So, I decided we’d train on consecutive days.
I was expecting a drop in strength and lifting volume in the second workout (Wednesday) due to the lingering fatigue from Tuesday’s session. To my surprise, no performance decrease occurred. Guys kept getting stronger. Personal bests were broken. Even though some players complained about muscle soreness at the start of the Wednesday workout, it all seemed to wash away once they got under the bar.
This is when I realized you can train the same muscle groups several days in a row and make progress—even though it runs against textbook wisdom.
Consider how Olympic weightlifters and male gymnasts train. These are arguably the strongest athletes, pound for pound, on the planet. What do they have in common? Daily resistance training.
Going to the gym on consecutive days doesn’t seem to hold these guys back. If anything, competitive weightlifters and gymnasts thrive on daily strength work that targets the same muscle groups several days in a row.
Later, I came across scientific research that validated what I had witnessed in practice. I didn’t find a ton of research on this topic, but the few studies I was able to locate all came to the same conclusion—lifting on consecutive days (~24 hours between sessions) produced similar strength and size adaptations as resting ~48-72 hours between workouts.
Granted, none of these studies lasted longer than 12 weeks, so it’s conceivable that differences in strength and hypertrophy between consecutive versus non-consecutive training would emerge over a longer time frame. In addition, study subjects were all untrained or recreationally trained individuals, meaning that these findings may not necessarily apply to high-level athletic populations.
To counter that last point, a study by Zourdos and others showed that daily 1RM squatting over 37 consecutive days produced robust strength gains in competitive power- and weightlifters, giving credence to back-to-back training even in highly trained individuals.
Anecdotal experience combined with limited research on the topic does indeed suggest that lifting back to back isn’t the disastrous idea it’s often made out to be. In fact, at least in the short term, consecutive day training seems to stack up equally against alternate day training.
How to Train Back-to-Back
If work/family obligations crunch your training schedule, it’s not the end of the world. It’s perfectly fine to train the same muscle group or perform the same exercise(s) multiple days in a row.
Just note that you’ll need to build up a tolerance for back-to-back training. Because your body is still unaccustomed to stressing the same muscle groups within 24 hours of the previous session, expect a slight dip in performance the first couple of times you lift on consecutive days.
This short-term decline in strength is no different from what would happen if you pre-exhausted your muscles with assistance exercises before a main lift. For example, individuals who experience knee pain during Barbell Squats are often able to squat pain-free if they warm-up their hamstrings first with exercises like Back extensions or Leg Curls.
By performing a few sets of direct hamstring work to kick off your session and then moving on to Barbell Squats, your Squat numbers will probably decrease a bit. If you’d normally squat 255 for 5 reps in a fresh state, expect to hit around 235-245 for 5 after warming up the hamstrings.
Same thing with consecutive-day lifting. Let’s say you Squat in session one and Trap Bar Deadlift in session two. Your Trap Bar Deadlift 3RM is 405 pounds, but since you squatted heavy the day before and still experience some fatigue, you can work up to just 385 for 3 today.
Nevertheless, as the weeks go by and your body gets used to training several days in a row, your poundages will increase. Within a few weeks, you should be up to 405×3 again. It all evens itself out over time.
Another thing to keep in mind when lifting on consecutive days? Stay away from training to failure.
Training to failure slows down recovery up to 24-48 hours post-exercise, so frequently taking sets to concentric failure will lead to lower strength and volume outputs the next day.
At the end of the day, any reasonable weight room plan will lead to progress. Getting so caught up in the minutiae that it prevents you from regularly training will not.
Even if your situation isn’t perfect, going to the gym three or four days in a row is still more effective than skipping workouts here and there because you’re not “supposed to” lift on consecutive days.
When in doubt—think less, lift more.
Photo Credit: Jun/iStock