I was never a proponent of high frequency, bodybuilding style training. Ask the top physiques in the game, however, and they’ll tell you to train 6-7 days a week, often twice per day, and here I go advocating a measly 2-4 workouts/ week.
Am I trying to keep you from reaching your full potential or am I just clueless? What about the research on training frequency? Is there a case to be made for training more than 4 days a week if you’re a drug-free athlete?
Should You Train Every Day?
Take two groups of athletes and put them on either a 3 or 6 workout per week program. Who gets the better results in terms of size and strength?
Raastad et al (2012) decided to find out. They had elite powerlifters spread their total weekly volume over 6 as opposed to 3 training sessions. The results? The higher frequency group experienced significantly better strength and muscular gains.
Don’t get too excited, though. You’ll find multiple studies claiming the exact opposite. In this meta-analysis (a study of studies) Shoenfeld et al compared 10 research trials on training frequency and muscular growth, concluding that:
“… the combined evidence does not support that manipulations in training session frequency promote differential hypertrophic responses when groups are matched for weekly training volume with an equivalent frequency of training per muscle group.” (Schoenfeld et al)
There’s no discernible difference between groups when the total amount of work is matched. But the biggest guys on the planet train 6-7 days a week with an obscene amount of volume. What works for them should work for you too, right?
Individual Recovery Capacity
I’ve had clients explode on a higher frequency routine, while others regressed training more than 3x/ week. Personally, I’ve made the greatest progress training no more than 3 days a week.
I’d rather be overtrained than undertrained. – Bruce Lee
I have to disagree with my man Bruce here. I’d rather be (slightly) undertrained than (slightly) overtrained for multiple reasons.
If you’re going to strength train 4+ days per week, you’ll automatically shift your focus from progression to training frequency. Simply doing more work for the mere sake of doing more work isn’t going to get you anywhere, however.
Once you trade in strength progression for volume or frequency, you’ll lose sight of what’s really important and soon enough the motivation to train altogether.
Gauge your individual recovery capacity before jumping on a high frequency training split.
- Can you lift more weight/ do more reps today than you could 2 weeks ago?
- How’s your sleep? Do you feel run down after waking?
- Are you still looking forward to your workouts?
- Do you frequently feel anxious/ stressed out for no apparent reason?
- Has your physique improved over the last couple weeks?
Strength vs. Hypertrophy
What is best for natural athletes? Lifting progressively heavier weights (aka getting superhuman strong) or lifting lighter weights to “feel the muscles working” and get a pump?
You know my stance on this.
I believe in getting stronger above all else for drug-free athletes.
The first book I ever read on strength training was Arnold’s Bodybuilding for Men. Arnold recommended beginners train with a 3-day per week split and as you got deeper into the program frequency increased to 5 sessions per week and eventually culminated in a full-blown 6 day, single-muscle bodybuilding split (2 sessions per day).
This was a book written by arguably the greatest bodybuilder of all time, and I was a young man determined to build a body. Motivation was not an issue.
I followed the program to a T and got noticeably bigger in a short amount of time (as a beginner you’ll gain muscle with any program), but soon found myself stagnating.
Looking back, the book failed to stress the importance of getting stronger for natural athletes. I was training every other day, but didn’t know where I was going with it. I was aimlessly pumping iron, trying to follow the path outlined by the king himself, but a lack of measurable progress (didn’t track my workouts back then… single biggest fitness mistake) ultimately lead to my demise.
Control Your Enthusiasm
You cannot train all-out every single day. I don’t care who you are or what you’re taking.
If you choose to train with a higher frequency, you have to control your enthusiasm. Dial in your total training volume and training intensity to fit your individual recovery capacity.
Spread the volume you’d use for your 3-4 WOs across 5 WOs (max) and prioritize inter-workout recovery. Your diet and rest schedule must be on point. Also, consider periodizing your training by scheduling phases of decreased workload and intensity, and periods of all-out iron warfare.
Intensity will make and break your body.
You must train intensely. There is no other way. But intensity must not exceed individual recoverability.
Don’t Train Like a Bodybuilder: What Arnold Didn’t Tell You
Single-muscle bodybuilding splits are suboptimal for drug-free lifters. Full-body training has shown to elicit greater hypertrophic gains. Training a muscle group 2-3 times per week as opposed to 1x is far superior for natural lifters. I prefer full-body workouts or push/ pull splits performed 3x per week. None of my clients will ever perform single-muscle splits.
You’re free to experiment with different programs, but keep your focus lasered-in on making consistent strength gains. At the end of the day, this is where your results are made.
Nobody told me this when I was starting out, so consider yourself lucky.
Thank you for reading
Schoenfeld BJ, et al. Influence of Resistance Training Frequency on Muscular Adaptations in Well-Trained Men.J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Jul;29(7):1821-9.
Schoenfeld BJ et al. Effects of Resistance Training Frequency on Measures of Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Sports Med. 2016 Nov;46(11):1689-1697.
Raastad T, Kirketeig A, Wolf D, et al. Powerlifters improved strength and muscular adaptations to a greater extent when equal total training volume was divided into 6 compared to 3 training sessions per week. 17th Annual Conference of the European College of Sport Science, Brugge, 2012.
Thomas MH, Burns SP. Increasing Lean Mass and Strength: A Comparison of High Frequency Strength Training to Lower Frequency Strength Training. International Journal of Exercise Science. 2016;9(2):159-167.