In this post, I’m going to show you a highly effective 2-day full-body workout routine that you can use to build muscle.
First, I want to answer a very common question:
Is working out twice a week enough? Or is it just a complete waste of time?
Any amount of time spent lifting weights, be it once a week, twice a week or whatever, is never a waste of time. It’s not time spent, it’s time invested.
A 2-day workout split might not represent the optimal approach to building muscle.
However, it can be a very effective way to accomplish a number of different goals, including:
1. Gaining muscle and getting stronger, particularly if you’re in the beginner/intermediate stages of training.
2. Preserving muscle size and strength while you strip away the fat. When it comes to getting lean, your diet is more important than what you do in the gym.
3. Holding on to the muscle mass you’ve gained while you focus on improving something else, like your cardiovascular fitness or a sport-specific skill.
4. Maintaining the muscle you already have, either because a) you’re happy with the amount you have at the moment and don’t want to gain any more, or b) you don’t have the time or the inclination to train more often, and just want to do the bare minimum to hold on to what you’ve got.
What is a Full Body Workout?
As the name suggests, a full-body workout involves training your whole body – chest, back, shoulders, arms and legs – in a single training session.
One of the more popular ways of setting up a full-body workout is to base it on movement patterns.
What exactly do I mean by that?
Most of the compound exercises you do can be put into one of these categories:
- Pushing Exercises (e.g. bench press, overhead press)
- Pulling Exercises (e.g. pull-up, dumbbell row)
- Leg Exercises (e.g. squat, deadlift)
All you do is take one exercise from each category, and do 4-6 sets of each one. Here’s an example of how a simple full-body workout might look:
- Bench Press
Even with just those three exercises, you’re covering a surprisingly large number of muscles.
- The bench press hits the chest, shoulders and triceps.
- The pull-up is working your lats, biceps and rear delts.
- The squats take care of your quads, glutes and lower back.
This minimalist approach to training does have its benefits. The workout itself is relatively short and simple to follow. What’s more, you don’t need a lot of equipment to get it done, making it ideal if you’re training at home with a barbell, bench and squat rack.
However, there are some downsides.
For one, exercise selection is limited, so there are various muscles that are missing out on the stimulation required to make them grow. And we know that maximizing the development of a muscle requires the use of several exercises, rather than just one.
Doing the same exercises all the time, especially if you’re lifting heavy weights, can also take a toll on your joints. Throwing some different exercises into the mix will often make things a lot easier on your knees, elbows, wrists and shoulders.
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The obvious solution is to choose a different exercise from each category.
Rather than use the bench press as your only pushing exercise, for example, you’d alternate between the overhead press and bench press. The chin-up would be alternated with some kind of rowing movement, like dumbbell rows, T-bar rows or cable rows.
Here’s an example of how it might look:
- Overhead Press
- Seated Cable Row
Again, this type of training program is very simple, and can work well for a lot of people.
However, while you’re now getting more variety in terms of exercise selection, one problem has been replaced with another.
The main limitation here is that the training frequency for some muscle groups has now dropped from twice to once a week.
The chest, for example, is now being trained directly just once a week. And the quads, while they are worked to a degree during the deadlift, aren’t getting the same level of stimulation they were when you were squatting twice a week.
Why is that a problem?
Hitting a muscle group just once a week can and will make that muscle grow. But most people are going to see better results (and by better results, I mean a faster rate of muscle growth) training each muscle group at least twice every seven days.
The solution is to go with something along the lines of the routine I’ve outlined below. If I only had the time, or the inclination, to go to the gym twice a week, this is what I’d do.
The 2-Day Workout Split
Full Body Workout: Day 1
- Bench Press 4 sets x 5-8 reps
- Wide Grip Front Lat Pulldown 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Squat 4 sets x 5-8 reps
- Seated Leg Curl 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Dumbbell Shoulder Press 3 sets x 5-8 reps
Sets 4 Reps 5-8
Exercise number one is the bench press, which is a highly effective way to build size in your chest, shoulders and triceps. You’ll be lifting a weight that limits you to between 5 and 8 reps per set. Because this is your first exercise, and you’re using a heavy weight, make sure to do several progressively heavier warm-up sets before your first work set.
Wide Grip Front Lat Pulldown
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
Next up is a vertical pulling exercise, the wide grip front lat pulldown. If you prefer pull-ups, and you’re able to do 5-10 pull-ups across four sets using good form, go with pull-ups instead. Don’t have access to a lat pulldown machine? Check out these lat pulldown alternatives.
Sets 4 Reps 5-8
The squat is a great exercise for building your lower body. Don’t worry if you can’t perform full squats. A parallel squat (or even slightly higher than parallel) is still deep enough to make your legs grow. If you can’t do squats, there are several squat substitutes listed here.
Seated Leg Curl
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
While hip extension moves like the Romanian deadlift do hit the hamstrings hard, you need some kind of hamstring curl to fully develop the hamstrings. And studies show that the seated leg curl works better than the lying leg curl for hamstring hypertrophy. If you don’t have access to a seated leg curl machine, the alternatives are listed here.
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Sets 3 Reps 5-8
Next up is a vertical pressing movement, which you can do with a barbells or dumbbells. The overhead press targets the triceps and shoulders, with most of the work being done by the anterior, or front deltoid.
Full Body Workout: Day 2
- Incline Dumbbell Press 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Wide Grip Seated Cable Row 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Leg Press 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Romanian Deadlift 4 sets x 10-15 reps
- Lateral Raise 3 sets x 15-20 reps
Incline Dumbbell Press
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
The first exercise in the second full body workout is the incline dumbbell press, using a bench angle of around 30 degrees. Like the bench press, this exercise also targets the chest, shoulders and triceps, but shifts the emphasis to the upper part of the chest.
Wide Grip Seated Cable Row
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
Next, it’s a horizontal pulling exercise, in this case the wide grip cable row. Do this exercise with a wide(wish) grip, flare the elbows out to the side (rather than keeping them tucked closed to your body) and row the bar closer to the chest. This helps to emphasize the muscles in the upper back. You can also replace this exercise with the barbell row.
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
The leg press is a great exercise for targeting the quads and glutes. If you don’t have access to a leg press machine, there are some alternative exercises for working your quads covered here.
Sets 4 Reps 10-15
Because the hamstrings cross two joints, you can train them with exercises like the Romanian deadlift (which involves hip extension) and the leg curl (which involves knee flexion). Combining the leg curl with an exercise that emphasizes hip extension helps to stimulate growth across the whole of the hamstrings.
Sets 3 Reps 15-20
Next, you’ll move to the lateral raise, which targets the side delts, helping to widen your shoulders. The anterior delts have already been worked during the incline dumbbell press, and the rear delts were hit with the wide grip rows, so the lateral raise ensures that your side delts don’t miss out.
The number of sets listed are the actual work sets only, and don’t include warm-up sets.
It’s always a good idea, especially if you’re using heavy weights, to do several progressively heavier warm-up sets. This will prepare the joints, the muscles and the nervous system that controls those muscles for the heavy work to come.
To keep each workout down to a reasonable length, there’s no direct arm work. However, the biceps and triceps are worked indirectly during all the pushing and pulling exercises included in both workouts.
Exercises like the bench press and incline dumbbell press, for example, will hit the triceps, while the lat pulldown and seated cable row will work the biceps. But if you’ve got time, there’s no reason why you can’t throw in some direct arm work at the end of each workout.
The 2-Day Full-Body Workout Routine: Weekly Schedule
The default version of the 2-day full-body workout routine involves training on Monday and Thursday. This gives your muscles 2-3 days to recover and grow before you train them again. Here’s an example of how it might look:
- Monday: Full Body Workout 1
- Tuesday: Off
- Wednesday: Off
- Thursday: Full Body Workout 2
- Friday: Off
- Saturday: Off
- Sunday: Off
However, the days of the week that you train aren’t set in stone. If you can’t make it to the gym on Monday and Thursday, you could always train on Tuesday and Thursday, Monday and Wednesday, or Thursday and Saturday.
That’s one of the major benefits of lifting weights twice a week. If you miss a workout, you can just push it back to the following day.
The only caveat I would add is that you want to keep each workout separated by at least one day.
While there are solid arguments in favour of doing full-body workouts on consecutive days (AKA high-frequency training), you will need a training program that’s designed specifically for that purpose.
That is, taking a workout that’s designed to be separated by 2-3 days of rest and doing it on consecutive days isn’t a great idea.
Training Twice a Week: The Research
If you’re willing to work hard and push yourself, you can build muscle with a full body workout performed twice a week.
In fact, research shows very similar gains in size and strength whether you train a muscle group twice or three times a week.
In one study, subjects training a muscle group twice per week made around 70% of the strength gains (measured by maximal strength in the squat) compared to subjects training three times per week.
In another, training twice per week led to around 80% of the isometric strength gains achieved by those training three days per week.
Scientists from the University of Memphis compared the effects of a strength-training program performed either twice or three days per week in a group of adults aged over 60. The rate of progress in both groups was almost identical.
A 2018 study shows that distributing the same amount of training across two or four weekly workouts led to roughly the same amount of muscle being gained. Although the group training twice a week spent longer in the gym, they didn’t have to go there as often.
When a team of scientists compared studies that investigated training muscle groups once, twice or three times a week, they concluded that “the major muscle groups should be trained at least twice a week to maximize muscle growth.”
Training Twice a Week: Pros and Cons
To be clear, you are making compromises with just two workouts a week.
If you’ve got several years of serious training behind you, and want to carry on making gains, chances are you’ll see better results with a training program that involves lifting weights 4-6 days a week, rather than twice.
There’s an upper limit on the amount of stimulation your muscles can respond to in any given training session. Even if you could cram all your training for the week into a couple of workouts, you’re not going to see the same gains had that training been spread across 4-6 sessions.
And the longer your workouts last, the more likely it is that you’ll run out of steam towards the end of a session. The muscles being trained towards the end of the workout aren’t going to receive the same level of effort as the ones trained at the start.
Those are the main downsides. But what about the benefits?
1. The first is obvious. Lifting weights twice a week won’t take up much more than a couple of hours, which is less than 2% of the time available to you over the course of a week.
That gives you plenty of time to get other stuff done.
2. If you’re into a particular sport (e.g. cycling, running, or martial arts) and want to incorporate some strength work in your program, lifting weights twice a week will allow you to do so without interfering with your other training.
3. If you’re in your 40’s, 50’s or beyond, you’ll know that it takes longer for your body, especially your joints, to recover from a hard workout.
Cutting your training frequency back to twice a week is an ideal way to gain size and strength while still giving your body the recovery time it needs.
From best-selling author Dan John:
“What has always amazed me about training twice a week is how good my joints feel and how much energy I seem to have to do all the other important things in life.”
So, there you have it.
If you you want more muscle than you have right now, but you’re busy, and you don’t have much time available to go to the gym and lift weights, a couple of full-body workouts twice a week is still enough to get the job done.
Lifting Weights Twice a Week: Popular Questions
If I only want to go to the gym twice a week to lift weights does the amount of time spent need to be at least 2-3 hours each session?
The length of time it takes to get a decent workout in will depend a lot on the lifter, what that workout consists of, and how much work they need to continue making progress.
In most cases, a 2-3 hour workout is going to be too much. If someone needs to be in the gym lifting weights for 2-3 hours to fit everything in, they’d be better off lifting weights more often. For most people, a workout lasting 45-90 minutes is plenty. That’s more than enough to get the job done.
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