by Mike Robertson – 4/27/2011
Training frequency is a hotly debated topic.
Some say that if you train more often than once a fortnight, you’ll overtrain and your nervous system will explode. Others say that if you aren’t training six, eight, or even ten or more times per week, there’s no way you’re going to see progress.
For most, the best approach lies somewhere in the middle. Let’s start off with an example to help illustrate my point.
Off The Grid
A few weeks back, one of my online training clients went “off the grid,” and decided he would pull on a Monday. It wasn’t ridiculously heavy, but the work sets ended up somewhere around 80% of his 1-RM. The next day (the day he was supposed to deadlift), his workout absolutely sucked.
Other than failing to adhere to my program, what was the biggest issue here?
Here’s the first rule of training frequency: Your body is amazingly adept at recovering from whatever training load it’s used to. If you’re used to training once every five days, your body gets used to that. It likes training once every five days.
On the contrary, if you’re an elite athlete, you may train twice per day, six days per week. If you’re used to training 12 times per week, your body gets used to that as well.
Now let’s break this down a bit further.
The Frequency Question
At the end of the day, it’s not a question of how often you can train. The real question is how much training can you recover from? There are two key components to training: Stimulating the muscle/nervous system to elicit an adaptation (fat loss, muscle gain, strength gain, etc.), and being able to recover from it.
Before we talk training, let’s focus on the other side of the equation that no one wants to discuss – recovery.
Too many people assume that stress is solely relegated to what they do in the gym. In other words, they think the only stress that influences their recovery is the masochist workouts they put themselves through.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Here’s a short list of things that can positively (or negatively) influence recovery:
Quality and quantity of sleep
Family stress (wife, girlfriend, children, friends, etc.)
Diet and nutrition
Supplementation (both of the legal and illegal variety)
As you can see, there are a ton of things that determine how well we recover from a single workout. If you’re not recovering from your training, you’re not maximizing your progress.
Common Sense Recommendations
Now that we’ve covered the topic of stress and recovery, let’s begin with a dose of common sense concerning training frequency.
Training once every seven to ten days probably isn’t going to cut it, regardless of your goals. Even strength maintenance is going to be tough when you’re training that infrequently. Unless you have the Testosterone levels of an 80-year old grandmother, or the most stressful job on the planet, chances are you can recover enough to train more frequently than this.
On the other hand, some are quick to espouse training multiple training sessions per day. They’ll cite that Olympic caliber athletes often train this way, and that you should be able to as well.
This argument is seriously flawed. First off, Olympic caliber athletes are 100% committed to their sport. They don’t have jobs and usually have structured their lives to have minimal stress outside of training.
They’ve also taken years, if not decades, to increase their work capacity to a point where they can train multiple times per day. Even for some of the elite guys that may be reading this, chances are you can get more than sufficient gains sticking with a more manageable split.
For most, hitting the weights between two and four times per week is probably more than enough to reach your goals. But before I give you my specific recommendations, let’s examine how some extreme examples can work.
Practical Examples of Training Frequency
Bubba loves HIT, and thinks it’s the only way to go for size gains. Sergei says that Sheiko is what really took his squat through the roof.
While I respect everyone’s opinion, I also understand that in most cases N=1. Everyone assumes that if it works for them, it should work for everyone. The old saying definitely rings true: “Everything works – but nothing works forever!”
Lower frequency training methods (such as HIT) can work, especially if someone has pushed their recovery envelope in the weeks/months leading up to its introduction.
Imagine this, you’ve just come off the hardest training cycle of your life. You pushed every rep of every set, and you’re absolutely gassed. You trained four days per week and no session was half-assed.
This could be a time where your body needs that extra recovery. Some of the biggest proponents of HIT-style training were bodybuilders who were notorious for killing themselves in the gym six days per week.
Is it any wonder why HIT worked for them? They pushed and pushed, so when they finally took extra time to back off, their gains went through the roof!
On the other hand, high frequency programs can elicit serious progress as well. Look at guys that use the introductory Sheiko programs, the Smolov squat routine, or attempt some of the Bulgarian weightlifting programs.
These programs offer a unique blend of volume, intensity, and perhaps most importantly, work on the specific lifts (motor learning). After all if you squat two, three, or even four times per week, chances are you’ll get pretty darn good at squatting!
IF they can survive, the results they get are astounding. But that’s a big if. The Bulgarian system is known for its meat-grinding effects; throw in a couple thousand lifters, and the ones that survive the training programs comprise their Olympic team!
Again, the key is figuring out what will work best for you. What training frequency is best given your goals, your recovery abilities, etc.? Once we’ve determined your goals, we can determine how many times per week is probably best to maximize your performance.
How Your Goals Influence Your Training Frequency
Goal #1 – Building size
Building mass may be the program that allows you to train the least frequently. Unfortunately, these need to be seriously kick-ass sessions while you’re in the gym!
For example, in his new book Mass Made Simple, Dan John would have you train one day and then take two days off before training again. However, he also dishes out complexes and high rep squats, so these workouts are far from a walk in the park!
John McCallum, in his book Keys to Progress, cites three days per week as the optimal training frequency if your goal is to pack on size. At most, I wouldn’t recommend more than three times per week.
If you’re training twice per week, you need two total-body workouts. If you’re training three days per week, you choose either total or split-body workouts.
Goal #2 – Strength gain
Strength gain may be the goal with the most variability. Some programs have you squatting four times per week, while others may only have you squat once per week.
For most trainees who are serious about getting stronger, three to four workouts per week is probably ideal. If you’re training four days, an upper-lower split with two workouts apiece is a great start.
If you’re training three times per week, you could probably get away with total body workouts, but you’re likely better served with an upper-lower split.
Goal #3 – Shedding body fat
Body fat reduction is on the opposite end of the training spectrum from mass gain. If your goal is to gain mass, you want to minimize calorie expenditure outside of training and focus your efforts on building those gunz.
On the contrary, if your goal is to shed body fat, you want to burn as many calories as possible. Duh!
For fat loss clients, I often recommend a minimum of three workouts per week. However, depending on the client, their schedule, and their recovery capacity, that could be bumped up to six training sessions per week.
Three sessions would include strength training and some form of higher intensity cardio, while they could do longer duration/lower intensity cardio on their off days for both recovery and additional calorie burning purposes.
Here’s a handy summary:
Training Goal Training Frequency Type of Routine
Mass gain 2x / week
3x / week Total Body
Total or Upper / Lower Split
Strength gain 3x / week
4x / week Total or Upper / Lower Split
Upper / Lower Split
Fat Loss 3-6x / week Total / Cardio on off Days
My Philosophy on Training
My philosophy on training for strength and size is simple. I want to do as little as possible to continue making gains. If anything, I’d rather under train than over train.
This goes hand-in-hand with another key priority: I always focus on quality of training and movement. For fat loss, clients often need a total lifestyle overhaul. I like to get them doing something, anything, as often as their schedule will afford.
I’d love to have them come in and strength train 3x/week, but I’d love it even more if they’d take a walk on their off days, or ride the Airdyne bike.
When they move more frequently, not only are they more in tune with their bodies, but they tend to “get it” much faster.
Losing weight and/or body fat isn’t a goal that’s achieved overnight; it’s something that takes hard work and dedication. Perhaps most importantly, it requires a shift to a more healthy lifestyle overall.
Before I encourage you to post your questions on the LiveSpill, I know someone is going to say I still haven’t told you the exact frequency you need to follow.
Nope, I sure haven’t. Like everything in training, you need to figure out what works best for you and your body. I can’t tell you exactly what to do, because I don’t know you.