Are 3 Workouts a Week Enough for Weight-Loss Results?

by Macaela Mackenzie
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Are 3 Workouts a Week Enough for Weight-Loss Results?

We’re busier than ever. That makes it feel impossible to fit in even a quick trip to the gym, let alone commit to the type of daily exercise needed to stick to a trainer-approved weight-loss routine. Take your pick of gym-going saboteurs: juggling late nights at the office; a packed social calendar full of happy hours, family time and networking events; and, oh yeah, sleep. The list goes on.

Rather than beat ourselves up over not being able to be devoted to a daily gym regimen, it’s more productive to find a way to squeeze at least some kind of workout into our busy schedules.

“Aim to work out at least three days per week with at least two full-body strength training days and one day of cardio,” says Alissa Rumsey, a registered dietitian and certified strength and conditioning specialist. While you might not reach Olympic-levels of fitness this way, it is the most efficient — and more importantly, the most effective — way to reach your weight-loss goals.

When you do get to the gym, follow these four tips to make the most of your workout.

1. START EARLY

When it comes to working out, the early bird burns the calories, says Noam Tamir, certified strength and conditioning specialist and founder of TS Fitness in New York. Most of the time what prevents us from fitting in three sweat sessions a week is simply the fact that life happens. You may start out with every intention of going to spin class after work, but by the time 6 p.m. rolls around, you find yourself still chained to the computer or too drained to follow through.

Make an effort to schedule at least three workouts a week for the morning. Firstly, no matter what happens with your day, you’ll already be one gym session closer to your weight-loss goals. And secondly, you might actually be getting a better workout. “Most people’s energy levels get lower as the day goes on,” says Tamir. “When you schedule workouts for the morning, you are getting your workout in when you energy storage is high, provided you have had a good night of rest.”

2. INTERVALS

When you are at the gym, interval exercises are your best, most efficient friend. “Intervals allow you to burn more calories in a shorter period of time, and your calorie burn is increased for up to 24 hours afterwards,” says Rumsey. In general, interval training — or even better, high-intensity interval training (HIIT) — is much more effective for losing weight than steady-state cardio. Rather than sticking to a steady pace on your prework run, challenge yourself to some 30-second sprints.

3. START WITH STRENGTH

Even if the main focus of your gym time is to crush some cardio, research has shown that starting with a quick strength training session can actually help you more efficiently tap into your fat stores when you hit the bike or the treadmill within 20 minutes of lifting. And order does matter. If you hit the treadmill first, you’ll likely be too tired to really fire up your muscles with strength training. Start fresh in the weight room before gearing up for cardio to make the most of your workout.

4. DON’T DISCOUNT YOUR DESK

On days where you really are too busy to make it to the gym, don’t throw in the towel entirely. Make a rule for yourself that if you snooze through your morning workout, you’ll take a break from sitting every hour to do a set of 10 squats, climb stairs two at a time or make at least one of your meetings a walking conversation.

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  • chuck cloutier

    what can a 66 year old to lose and build upper body

    • robinbishop34

      It is really not possible to gain muscle while losing fat (which requires a calorie deficit). In order to build muscle you have to regularly perform a “progressive overload” workout whereby you (eventually) lift weight heavy enough for you to only be able to complete 3 sets of 6-8, and continually increase weight on a steady regular basis. Using light weights and doing a million reps won’t do it. In addition you must be in a high protein, calorie surplus in order to build mass.

      What is usually done, is a person will “cut” to the point where they are at a reasonably low body fat %, then begin a bodybuilding routine and calorie surplus.

      The most common and effective routine is a full body split. It would go like this…

      Workout A)

      1. Deadlifts
      2. Overhead press
      3. Pull ups (not chin ups)

      Workout B)

      1. Squats
      2. Bench Press
      3. Bent Over Rows

      3 days a week, every other day, two day rest at end of week. So it would be like this…

      Monday: A
      Tuesday: Rest
      Wednesday: B
      Thursday Rest
      Friday A
      Saturday/Sunday: Rest

      Monday B
      Tuesday: Rest
      Wednesday: A
      Thursday: Rest
      Friday: B
      Saturday/Sunday: Rest

      What you see is a complete compound, push/pull, whole body workout that will hit every muscle group. You could maybe add weighted crunches and calf raises once a week if you’d like but forget about the isolation routines like arm curls or lateral raises. If you continuously add weight and consume at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight, you will build.

      As you are losing it is best to begin doing these routines with lighter weights as to learn form and prepare the muscles for the shock they will eventually experience. It’s very important to build core strength (that isn’t a gimmick) so I would advise proper pushups, crunches, and planks until you feel like you can begin lifting.

      Look up Mark Rippetoe on youTube for detailed videos demonstrating proper technique for all these. Start off slow, warm up, do warm up set(s), do your routine, consume high protein meal immediately after workout and throughout the day (even on off days… this is vital as your body is repairing itself), and REST.

      • Salvador Zavala

        Awesome. I’m doing something similar – Stronglifts 5×5. 2nd week so far. No visible results, yet, but I feel good and find myself looking forward to the next workout.

        • robinbishop34

          Excellent!

      • JES2014 ✓ᵛᵉʳᶦᶠᶦᵉᵈ ᵀʳᵘᵐᵖ

        I second the advice to look up Mark Rippetoe. He’s pretty much the authority on weight lifting and has published several books that are very good, such as ‘Starting Strength’.

    • davedave12

      you can go to a gym and get some classes or personal trainer sessions (watch the cost) or you can google build upper body strength — I have gained muscle while losing fat, so it is possible

      • robinbishop34

        The loss of fat has revealed existing muscle, not likely that any new muscle tissue synthesized while in a deficit… it simply doesn’t work that way. There is the “newbie gains” phenomenon that will yield some quick gains in the beginning but require a high protein, moderate calorie surplus that is then burned off to a deficit through exercise.

        • Alex Eidenier

          If it is impossible to gain muscle while losing fat then why have my arms, shoulders, and other parts of my body increased in size, weight gone down, and body mass index gone down all that the exact same time?

    • MikeofTexas

      Chuck:
      I truly enjoy walking up to 6-7 miles a day lift 2, 10 pound dumbells 201times in the morning & again before I go to bed. I truly love the walking- – -I meet many new people

  • Gee

    What type of training track should I be on? I never use to work before. I started two years ago. I am a person who likes the treadmill; I try to workout on it a least 3 time a week, for at least 30min (Monday,Wednesday,and Friday). I have a step counter and i try to get my 10K step in per day. Some days i make it some i don’t. I need to drop at least 20 pounds for health reasons being over 40. What track should I be doing in terms of strength training? Should I lift weights first then work the treadmill?

    • Sdconditioning

      I offer affordable programs to teach, assist and guide people in reaching their fitness goals. Email me sdconditioning@gmail.com or on instagram @sdconditioning

    • Dstrickl

      Have you tried doing any HITT exercises? If that is a little too extreme for you try doing higher reps (15 – 20) less weights and decrease the rest time to about 30 sec or less. By all means, hit the weights first then do your cardio afterwards, but HITT will accomplish both at the same time. Good Luck!!!!

  • John

    It takes zero workouts a week to lose weight if you are in a calorie deficit, which you need to be to lose weight. Get your nutrition right to lose weight, the gym is for getting fit and maintaining/building muscle, cardio health etc…..

    • David Claude Warlick

      John, your advice is mathematically correct, but it does not work for me. The only days that the bathroom scale gives me compliments are the days following more intense cardio.

      • John

        Then you are eating more calories than you think, more than your body needs etc….. There is no other way unless you have some kind of very rare medical issue. If you are in a calorie deficit from food alone, you will lose weight guaranteed. Nothing wrong with only putting yourself in a deficit through exercise alone if that is what works for you, but you still need to have proper calories in in order for the exercise to put you in a deficit etc….

        My point is that when it comes to weight loss, it is about calories in vs calories out, not how many times you go to the gym every week. Exercise is not needed, but a calorie deficit is.

        I work with so many people that tell me all kinds of tales about how they hardly eat anything, can’t lose weight, talk about how they must be in starvation mode (which isn’t true), I must be building more muscle than fat loss (which isn’t happening) etc… and once you break out the gram scale and actually weigh everything, the truth is revealed. Measuring cups are not accurate enough and it is very easy to over eat with them. In every case they are eating more calories than they think. Once they eat the proper amount of calories, the weight comes off.

        The calories in vs calories out theory has been proven over and over by many scientific studies.

        When it comes to how you feel while losing weight, the types of foods and your macros can make a huge difference, but a calorie deficit, wether by food or exercise or both, is absolutely needed and the only way to lose weight.

        • David Claude Warlick

          John, clearly you have done the research to back up your statements. I agree with everything you say about deficits. Perhaps what happens to me is the more time I spend on a treadmill, the less time I have to eat. I do great with calorie deficits when the family is out of town, but “friends” and “family” in town always encourage overeating. My normal pattern would be one meal a day, but that doesn’t happen when the friends and family are around.

          • Mac Duff

            John is right. Before 2017, I worked out WAY more than I do in 2017. In 2016 and before, I worked out a ton and ate a ton of garbage food like pop, cookies and crackers. But then I went vegan in January 2017 and lost 50 lbs by May 2017. I have kept off the weight since then. I still exercise regularly but not nearly as much as I did before 2017. Prior to 2017, I consumed 150-200 grams of sugar/day. Now it is more like 30-40 grams of sugar/day. The average American is consuming 5-10x as much sugar as they need in a given day. Processed foods including dairy contain massive amounts of sugar. Sugar sugar sugar. Naughty sugar!

    • Coby Pfaff

      I have done a food and fitness challenge twice a year for the past two years. It’s one month long and it’s no alcohol, no added sugar, no soy, and no gluten. I had to INCREASE my calorie intake to 2400 calories per day and I needed to WAY up my protein intake to about 180 grams per day. I weighed about 200 lbs. At the end, I am down to 185 lbs, with a 3% body fat loss. There was no change in my exercise level (Crossfit 3x/week). So somehow by eating MORE I have less body fat. Doesn’t make sense to me, except that the TYPE of foods one eats must have an impact on metabolism?

      • John

        When you eat less, your BMR does adapt and slow down SOME, but not too much. Of course when you lose weight and get smaller you burn less, but I am talking about what everyone calls starvation mode, your body adapting etc.. When they have done studies where they basically starve people (50% calorie deficits), at the worst (end of the experiment), BMR slows about 10-15% compared to the beginning so your body does adapt some, but it isn’t extreme. Definitely not enough so you can’t lose weight. TDEE slows a lot because the subjects have zero energy to do anything. Under a normal diet deficit your BMR wouldn’t drop too much, probably about 5%. So the whole starvation mode is pretty over blown. But what happens is in a calorie deficit over time you maybe don’t feel as good, or your energy levels go down, your brain doesn’t like it etc… and because of that people don’t move as much during their normal day, workout intensity goes down i.e. they burn less calories so their TDEE goes down and their calorie deficit is diminished. It happens subconsciously. This is one reason why people believe in a cheat meal a week or refeeds and eating at maintenance level for the day and/or going back on maintenance for a week or two every so many weeks of dieting to kickstart their bodies back to feeling normal.

        Then when people eat more, they move more, exercise more, more intensity….. basically their output increases and the overall deficit is more if they are still eating clean, they lose more weight, so in a round about way eating more can lead to more weight loss if you have a greater output to counter act it. I am not saying this is what happened in your case, but it does happen. Eat more to move more basically. Somewhat like the difference between getting fit and being skinny fat while dieting down.

        The trick is eating enough to feel good so you can do the extra work, but not eating so much you take in too many calories vs what you work off. I find people who eat clean and workout a lot have no problem with this.

        Just another tidbit, from reading lots of studies, people’s metabolisms for the same size, height, sex etc.. don’t differ too much, 200-400 calories a day. Basically lots of people say they have slow metabolisms but that isn’t really that true. Of course there are always genetic freaks, anomalies and there definitely are some people with hormonal problems, thyroid issues, low testosterone in men etc…. so some people really do go against the grain and should seek out medical help.

        Another issue is it is very easy to monitor and track calories in, but the body is very finicky with the calories out part and likes to store water at times. Usually this happens in the beginning of any major change. First start of diet, exercise program change, diet change, increase in stress, something major changes in life etc….. I run across people all the time who think they have hit a plateau since the scale hasn’t moved in 4-5 days, but it is just the body thinking about what to do, storing water in fat cells that have emptied out etc…. Losing weight is about being patient, making small changes, making evaluations over 3-4 weeks not 3-4 days, being consistent over those 3-4 weeks etc…. People want immediate feed back but it doesn’t work like that. In the end everything maths out but your body takes the scenic route to get there.

        They have done tons of studies comparing low carb, high carb, intermittent fasting, high fat, low fat etc….. and over the long run, with the same calorie deficits, everyone loses about the same amount of weight. Now, it doesn’t mean they all feel the same or have the same experience, but the calories in vs out has been proven over and over many times.

        Your body does burn some calories to process each type of macro, and they are different, but what your body burns to process all your macros every day only accounts for about 5% of daily calories burned so not much difference depending on the types of macros you eat.

        The big issues I see when people aren’t losing weight are either miscalculating how many calories they are eating and eating way more calories than they think (almost always), or they are starving themselves and then they binge and eat back everything they worked for every week.

        People like to measure their food out in measuring cups, but you really have to weigh it on a gram scale to be accurate. The measuring cup or size on the label is just an approximation, the weight is the exact amount. i.e. 40g of peanut butter is 1 tablespoon. All the tablespoon is is something that is big enough but not too big to hold the 40 grams. I always advocate counting calories by weight in the beginning to learn about portion size. Once you do it for a few weeks you can eyeball things much better.

        Last, people gain back the weight because they don’t ever really make a life long change in nutrition. They diet, and then once the weight is off they go right back to how things where before. i.e. they go back to what made them fat in the beginning. It has nothing to do with starvation mode, their metabolisms never recover etc….

        This is a life long change so the most important thing you need to do is come up with a nutrition plan that you ENJOY eating because once you lose the weight all that you should be doing is sticking to exactly the foods that got you there except only eating just a little more of the same. If you are on a diet where you can’t see yourself eating these types of foods in the long run consistently, you most likely are going to gain the weight back.

        wow, talk about rambling, lol.

        Weight loss, nutrition and diet is fascinating, because the human mind muddles it up and over complicates it so much more than it really is. I think the fact that you can’t get exact instant results on a day by day basis really messes with people minds. Even when you have decades of studies proving something over and over, people just don’t want to believe it because some guru of the month has a new magical way to lose weight.

  • Anonymous Is A Woman

    This is mostly good fitness advice. But HIIT for calorie and fat burning is somewhat overrated. The afterburn effect will give you maybe an extra hundred calories a day. That is certainly a bit of a bonus, but not free license to gorge yourself on extra donuts. Or any donuts, which have considerably more than 100 calories anyway. To lose weight you need to be in calorie deficit, and theoretically you can do that without even working out. But exercising does give you a few more calories a day to play with, but not as many as most people think. The main benefit of working out is better health and fitness not weight loss.

  • nowthatithinkofit

    There’s other common sense to doing strength before cardio. You’re not a sweaty, sticky mess, getting that mess on machine seats and on hand held equipment.

  • Jasmine Verreen

    I like this article. It is simple advice that gets straight to the point. I also feel like it’s easy to apply. So many fitness articles just don’t seem that way lately. I feel like getting in shape should be straightforward, but instead magazines and websites write articles that give you “77 ways to get in shape.”