When It's Okay to Work the Same Muscles Back to Back

Can you squat one day and then cycle the next, or should you skip legs altogether? Here, the expert verdict.

person in the gym lifting weights
Photo: Caiaimage/Sam Edwards/Getty Images

You may know it's not best to bench on back-to-back days, but how bad is it really to squat then cycle, or HIIT it hard every day? If you're not doing the same workout every day, is it fine to work the same muscles a couple of days in a row?

Generally speaking, yes, it's fine to work out the same muscles on back-to-back days — as long as you're not going to failure on either of those days, says Lindsay Ogden, a certified personal trainer and nutrition coach at Life Time Athletic in Chanhassen, Minnesota. By "going to failure," she means getting to a point where you literally can't execute the move because your muscles are so tired. While this most commonly happens when you're strength training (you know the "I can't even do one more rep" feeling), your legs probably feel the same type of way after a weekly long run or an especially brutal HIIT class.

And, actually, there are some perks to training the same muscle group two days in a row, if you follow the right protocol: "It can facilitate recovery and lengthen the duration of protein synthesis — meaning it increases the window of time your body (spends) building muscle," says Ogden. The idea is to hit a muscle group hard one day with heavy weight and fewer reps (a range of three to eight reps), then hit that same muscle group the next day with lighter weight and higher reps (a range of eight to 12 reps), she says.

"The goal is to activate the cells that promote hypertrophy (aka muscle growth) and get nutrients to the muscles," adds Ogden. But you don't have to hit the gym two days in a row to get those muscle-building benefits: "Proper sleep, stress management, and nutrition also (aid) in this," she says.

What to Know About Working the Same Muscles Multiple Days In a Row

Want the full run-down? Here's what you need to know about doing the same workouts and training the same muscles on back-to-back days, depending on the type of routine.

Strength Training

The most important aspect when it comes to strength training? Recovery. Building strong muscles takes time — and not just time in the gym. "You don't get better during strength workouts — you get better between them," says Neal Pire, C.S.C.S., an exercise physiologist based in Englewood, New Jersey.

Muscles take a beating during training, then over a day or two they recuperate and rebuild stronger than before. Many variables affect how quickly your muscle fibers recover after weight training (i.e., your level of fitness, how much weight you're lifting, and how many reps you complete). But for the average person, aim to train the same muscle group no more than twice a week, leaving at least 48 hours between each, recommends Pire. So, no, you probably shouldn't strength train the same muscle group two days in a row.

Instead, try hitting larger muscle groups (such as the chest, back, shoulders, quads, and hamstrings) with heavier weights earlier in the week, suggests Jen Hoehl, an exercise physiologist based in New York City. Then later in the week, when you're more likely to feel tired, work on smaller muscle groups (such as the arms and calves) with lighter weights and higher reps. Doing this allows you to be fresh when you're going hard and heavy, while building endurance later.

Cardio

Doing cardio — whether it's running or cycling — multiple days in a row usually isn't that risky, as long as you're not going zero to 60 with your training intensity and frequency, Jacqueline Crockford, an exercise physiologist at the American Council on Exercise, previously told Shape. Slowly increase your training and listen to your body to avoid any overuse injuries and keep from plateauing.

But is it bad to lift those three-pound dumbbells in cycling class every day? Not really — since those cycle and barre class exercises aren't exactly considered strength training. "Spinning and the light upper-body dumbbells some classes call for don't add enough resistance to break down the muscle — the high-rep, low-weight movements are designed to add some variety and increase intensity and heart rate," says Hoehl. So feel free to cycle and lift daily — but if you want to truly get strong biceps, unclip from those pedals and try barbell weight training at least twice a week.

HIIT Training

"High-intensity, total-body workouts (like burpees) don't provide the same muscular stress as classic strength workouts, so it's okay to do them on back-to-back days," says Pire. However, "if you're doing compound or multi-joint movements, you're hitting multiple (muscle) groups at one time — which can also be taxing and require more recovery," says Ogden.

That's why, if you do too much HIIT training, you may experience overtraining syndrome. To prevent that, rotate HIIT days and strength days — with low-intensity active recovery days, of course. "A mix of HIIT and heavy weight lifting will help you look lean," adds Hoehl. (See: Here's What a Perfectly Balanced Weekly Workout Schedule Looks Like)

Abs Workouts

"Ab work is generally about conditioning, or endurance, more than strength, so feel free to tack it on to your workouts daily," says Pire. Just make sure to mix things up: "Your core is always keeping you stable, so ab muscle recovery happens fast," says Hoehl. Abs quickly acclimate to stress, so do a different abs exercise every day, he adds.

The One Rule to Follow — No Matter What Kind of Workout

While it's technically fine to do the same type of workout on the daily, there's something to be said about switching things up. Overworking your body or hammering one muscle group, in particular, will likely sacrifice your form and put you at a higher risk of injury. "If you're training total body day after day or trying to work your glutes, for example, each session, it can become difficult to manage the intensity and focus," says Ogden. "That, in turn, will cause more stress, calling for more recovery time," she adds.

Regardless of your workout or which muscle group you're training, there's one rule of thumb: Let your body be your guide, note both Pire and Ogden. "If you're too sore from the previous weight workout, push today's back and do cardio instead," says Pire.

Updated by
Karla Walsh
author Karla Walsh

Karla Walsh (she/her) is a Des Moines, Iowa-based freelance writer, editor, and former fitness instructor. She holds a double major in magazine journalism and kinesiology from Iowa State University. Karla received her personal trainer certification through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and group fitness instructor certification through the Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). She also passed her level one sommelier exam with the Court of Master Sommeliers. She's covered health, food, fitness, psychology, beauty, and beyond for more than 12 years. In addition to Shape, her writing has been published in AllRecipes, Runner's World, Shape and Fitness Magazines, as well as on EatingWell.com, BHG.com, ReadersDigest.com, TheHealthy.com, Prevention.com, WomensHealthMag.com, and more. In 2021, her work was given an honorable mention in Folio's Eddie and Ozzie Awards in the Single Article—Consumer, Health/Fitness category.

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