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How Training Frequency Can Help or Hurt Your Muscle Growth

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How frequently do you have to train your muscles to make gains in the gym? Read on to find out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Optimal training frequency is a hotly debated subject.

Some people believe that you must train your entire body 2 to 3 times per week to make gains, whereas others believe that such an approach will only lead to overtraining. Further complicating the matter is the fact that people have made all kinds of crazy training routines “work” in terms of building muscle and strength.

Recommendations run the gamut from extremely low workout volumes (1 or 2 sets per muscle group) repeated several times per week to extremely high volumes (20 to 25 sets per muscle group) done more infrequently.

Well, the truth is optimal training frequency as a natural weightlifter depends on what you’re doing in each workout, both in terms of volume and intensity. 

Finding scientific help on the matter of optimal training volume is tough due to the number of variables involved, but something of an answer can be found in a large review conducted by researchers at Goteborg University.

I’ll get straight to the point and quote the research:

“Overall, moderate volumes (~30 to 60 repetitions per session for [Dynamic External Resistance] training) appear to yield the largest responses.” 

While advanced lifters seem to be able to stretch this range a bit, it has a lot of anecdotal support and is commonly recommended by educated, experienced weightlifters and bodybuilders. If you look at many of the popular, tried-and-true routines out there, the weekly workout volume generally falls in there somewhere (30 to 60 repetitions performed per major muscle group per week).

For example, my Bigger Leaner Stronger program has you do 9 to 12 sets of 4 to 6 reps per major muscle group. You move up in weight once you get 6 reps (which usually knocks your next set down to 4 reps), so the workouts range between 45 and 60 high-intensity reps. And people make fantastic strength and size gains on the program

My program for advanced weightlifters, Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, entails doing about 60 to 75 reps per workout, with a combination of very high-intensity, high-intensity, and moderate-intensity work. This workout volume—both the number of reps and the intensities used—has both scientific and anecdotal evidence on its side. It works, period.

So, if that’s the workout volume, let’s get back to the matter of training frequency.

In Bigger Leaner Stronger, for instance, I recommend people lift weights 5 times per week and take 2 days off weightlifting. Each body part gets its own day (chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs), and thus each body part gets directly trained once per week. (Keep in mind, however, that due to the amount of compound lifting you’re doing in the program, you’re training a lot more than the primary muscle groups each day. For instance, the Deadlift and Squat trains a lot more than just your back and legs.)

Well, some people believe that such an approach is doomed—that each muscle group needs at least two full workouts per week to grow bigger and stronger. Both anecdotal evidence and clinical research says otherwise, though.

I have scores of success stories to prove that training each major muscle group once per 5 to 7 days produces phenomenal results, and research shows that proper workout volume and intensity appear to be more important than frequency.

That is, your muscles can only take so much of a beating every week and whether you accomplish that in one workout or 3, the results will be more or less the same.

The bad rap that “one-muscle-group-per-day” splits get is mainly due to poor program design: poor exercise choice, rep range emphasis, and workout volume. Most one-a-day  splits involve too much isolation work with low weight for high reps, which results in low workout intensity with volumes that are far too high.

“But what about protein synthesis rates?” you might be thinking. “Aren’t muscles fully recovered in 2 to 3 days, ready to get hit again?”

Well, research has shown that muscle protein synthesis rates spike at about 24 hours after a workout and return to normal by about 36 hours. This means that theoretically you should train each muscle group once every 2 to 3 days to stimulate maximum muscle growth, and there are weightlifting programs built around this principle.

These types of programs can work, but a common problem people run into with them is related to recovery. As training volume and intensity increases, so does the amount of time it takes for your muscles to fully recover, as measured by performance capacity.

Research has shown that even in resistance-trained, college-aged men, full muscle recovery can take anywhere from 48 to 96 hours depending on how they trained, ate, and slept, as well as other physiological factors like hormones and genetics.

If we look at other recovery-related studies, we see that most people’s muscles take closer to 72 – 96 hours to fully recover from an intense weightlifting session, that older men need more time to recover than young, and that larger muscles need more time to recover than smaller.

Furthermore, muscular recovery is only part of the picture.

Intense weightlifting places a lot of stress on the nervous system, and research has shown that this fatigue can “accumulate” from workout to workout. If it becomes too great, overtraining symptoms set in, which includes a dramatic reduction in performance, depression, sleep disturbances, and more.

The bottom line is the combination of proper training volume and high workout intensity using a once-per-week split works incredibly well when done properly.  For example, here’s a very standard Monday to Friday approach:

Day 1:

Chest & Abs

Day 2:

Back & Calves

Day 3:

Shoulders

Day 4:

Arms & Abs

Day 5:

Legs

Day 6:

Cardio or Rest

Day 7:

Cardio or Rest

Rest days can be interspersed:

Day 1:

Chest & Abs

Day 2:

Back & Calves

Day 3:

Rest

Day 4:

Arms & Abs

Day 5:

Shoulders

Day 6:

Legs

Day 7:

Rest

The order of muscle groups trained can be tweaked as well:

Day 1:

Legs

Day 2:

Chest & Abs

Day 3:

Arms

Day 4:

Back & Calves

Day 5:

Shoulders & Abs

Day 6:

Cardio

Day 7:

Rest

If weak point training, which I talk about in Beyond Bigger Leaner Stronger, were included, it might look like this:

Day 1:

Chest & Abs

Day 2:

Back & Calves

Day 3:

Shoulders

Day 4:

Arms & Abs

Day 5:

Legs

Day 6:

Shoulders & Back (weak points)

Day 7:

Rest

So,  in the end, finding the right training frequency for your body is going to involve simply trying different splits and seeing how your body responds.

That said, whatever your split, if you’re emphasizing heavy weightlifting in your workouts (and you should be), I recommend that you limit your weekly reps to the 50 to 75 range.

 

What’s your take on training frequency? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!

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I'm Mike and I'm the creator of Muscle for Life and Legion Athletics, and I believe that EVERYONE can achieve the body of their dreams.

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