For many, frequency is the pariah of training variables – they need it to get some work done, but hardly anyone ever mentions it anywhere, and even less people dare to touch and tweak it.
One Size Fits It All… Or Not?
Messing with other variables and thus abominating training routines is considered perfectly fine and acceptable: Going from extremely low volume to extremely high volume, while attempting to maintain the same intensity (used 1 RM %), or even boost it as well? Sure, why not, gotta try something new. Stacking exercise the way one pleases and wondering why the routine doesn’t yield any results, well, that’s fine too.
But a bodybuilding newbie, while being perfectly comfortable with making such modifications to his routine, never messes with his training frequency. If it stemmed from good reasons, this would actually be a great thing, since the desire to train efficiently makes routine design an extremely profound skill which newcomers don’t and can’t understand and are hence better off not messing with it. This, however, is not the case, and people don’t modify the frequency variable because modern fitness industry has made it appear a constant.
I’d place a lot of money on the bet that over 90% of training routines which can be found on the Internet and in bodybuilding-related publications use a single frequency scheme, and that is – “train a single muscle group” only once a week (the first part is in quotation marks since it’s an absurd concept which I’ll try to debunk during the course of the article). And that’s all they have to say on matters of training frequency – if you trained your chest on Monday, don’t train it again for the next 7 days, “because it needs to rest or recuperate or <insert random broscientific reason for such a low and inefficient training frequency>“.
As we will see later in the article, frequency is indeed a variable, which can be modified in a number of ways to achieve various fitness goals, and how do these modifications mirror onto the other variables of workout routine design. We’ll also take a look at what does research say regarding optimal frequency of training for non-beginners, which is, naturally, of most interest to those whose fitness goals are “limited” to natural bodybuilding and who therefore need solid numbers on which to base their long-term routines.
The Engine Of Your Training
A good analogy is to picture your entire training like a steam engine, whose successful operation drives your gains forwards. In this scenario, training frequency might be imagined as the guy who shovels coals into the combustion chamber. If he’s lazy and throws in a shovel of coal once every couple of hours, the fire will extinguish itself and the engine will come to a halt (or it will, in a less drastic example, move far too slow). On the other hand, if he keeps throwing it in rapidly, shovel after shovel, the coal will pile up, thus smothering the fire once again, and to restart the engine, the excess coal would have to be removed manually.
If that analogy wasn’t all-too-clear to you, I’ll rephrase it in bodybuilding terms: You need to train to drive your bodybuilding efforts closer to your goal. Frequency determines how often do you train (we’ll get to details of what do I mean by “training” and which time spans to use later on). Training seldom will make your gains either very slow, or nonexistent, since the very distance between two training sessions would negate the positive effects the former had on your strength and protein synthesis (you’d basically be sitting at the same level all the time).
On the other hand, training thrice a day 6 days a week will, sooner or later, exceed your recovery capabilities and, besides halting gains, initiate the dangerous and unhealthy state of being overtrained which has to be countered with various methods of resting and de-training, all of which prolong your bodybuilding journey even further.
Manipulating frequency is delicate and complex, but understanding it is necessary for being able to construct good training routines.
Specifics Of Bodybuilding Training For Natural Trainees
This section will briefly summarize the most important points which make the difference between effective training for people who decide to stay natural, and effective training for those who abuse drugs. There’s no need to play blind and deaf regarding these things – people who thrive on low frequency, high-volume isolation-dominant routines seen in a vast majority of both Internet and printed bodybuilding publications are either on steroids, or genetically favored, and people in the latter category usually experience the gains at a slower rate than they could. The rest of people don’t gain at all, or they gains come extremely slow, or they get only to a certain point where most bodybuilding/fitness enthusiasts still aren’t satisfied with their physiques.
This is basically the truth behind it – everyone like to show a massive guy who’s in the gym 6 days a week for 2 hours a day and grows like crazy, but they also like to keep their mouths shut on the amount of drugs he abuses, and the countless masses of people who visit the gym, but don’t achieve 1% of those gains. Another thing worth mentioning is the fact that, besides the possible drug abusage, most big bodybuilders have a training career which has spanned for decades, and such an advanced level of training does indeed favor less frequent workouts (but still doesn’t nearly justify the content of mainstream split routines). However, this isn’t, most likely, how they trained from the beginning – always remember, the program a big guy is doing right now almost certainly isn’t the one that got him the bulk of that mass (pun intended).
Again, this is just a small set of rules which briefly points out the fundamental principles of muscle building for natural trainees:
1. Strength Is Muscle
Getting stronger while obeying some basic rules of weight training for hypertrophy (adhering to volume and intensity thresholds, providing adequate frequency, etc.) is the best way to build muscle. By “best”, I that it’s both the fastest and only one certain to produce gains. Tweaking variables and playing with high volume or high frequency can yield hypertrophy gains, but it usually works for very short periods of time (compared to one’s entire lifting career) and is both time-consuming and hard on one’s recovery.
Adding weight to the bar is safe, steady and ALWAYS gives results. The funny things is that even the biggest, steroid-using bodybuilders acknowledge that fact (e.g., Dante Trudel a.k.a. Doggcrapp in his intro on DC training method), but the majority of bodybuilders have forgotten it. The reasons for this aren’t hard to come by – people always look for shortcuts, excuses and the easy way out, so the industry supplies them exactly with that. On the other hand, getting seriously big via getting seriously strong is hard work, which is something most people don’t want to hear.
Simply put, progressive overload principle is the king – if you work hard to bring your bench from 50 kg to 100 kg, you’ll grow big time, and pushing that further to 150 kg will leave your pressing complex with little to be desired. Do note that I’m talking about strength gains – there are people who are naturally strong and can go up to a 150 kg squat in no time without adding much muscle. It’s struggle and progress to reach a certain weight that builds muscle.
I have no idea where does the reluctance to accept this fact come from, but it’s a fundamental truth which underlies all of bodybuilding training. You aspire for Steve Reeves’ measurements? Well, chances are that he was two to three times stronger than you are right now on most big exercises. Please, bear this in mind.
2. Almost All Your Gains Will Come From Compound Movements
I really have no desire to particularly explain this one. Somehow, every time I point out the advantages compound movements have over isolations, people tend to come up with reasons which they read in mainstream media, and accuse me of bigotry when I say that most of those reasons hold true only for drug abusers and/or very advanced lifters. However, I have yet to run into a lifter who has made serious progress naturally who would have anything to say against compounds being vastly superior to isolations.
This is just how things are – proper gains come from compound movements, and people telling otherwise have, most likely, gained less than 5 kg of muscle altogether in their lifting career, and they’ll gain about as much during their entire life. Progressing on isolations is so slow that it can’t even me compared to progressing on compounds, and we’ve seen in the first point that strength gains are the basis of muscle building. They’re also inefficient, time-consuming, and lead to medical problems such as joint and tendon issues, stemming both from the fact that isolations are much harder on the two than compounds are (more people get elbow tendinitis from a 40 preacher curls than 120 kg chinups), and that isolation-based routines simply can’t lead to a proportionate and balanced physiques (and muscular imbalances are, save mechanical injuries, the foremost cause of joint problems).
I don’t care whether you’ll believe me or not – people who train seriously eventually get tired of not seeing the gains they seek and turn to compound work, to their own subsequent delight, and, by doing so, save their time and health to develop a physique that looks as strong as it is.
3. Lower Thresholds Of volume And Intensity Are Known
This basically comes down to the fact that there are lower limits to how much work you have to do in order to grow. For intensity (defined as used percentage of 1 RM on a given lift), this is usually set to 60-65% (the number usually increases as a lifter gets more advanced). This means that, if you can bench 100 kg, and do sets with 40 kg, you’re wasting your time.
Volume, on the other hand, is defined as total number of reps done on a particular exercise/muscle group/session/cycle etc. It’s not only necessary to use enough weight (defined by intensity), but it’s also important to do sufficiently many reps with it (in total). These two numbers closely correlate, and the higher an intensity is on a particular exercise, the less total reps is needed on it, but I’ll most likely be doing a separate article on this so don’t bother for now. Suffice it to say, 15-30 reps per exercise is a good range, and 50-150 reps a training microcycle a good target to promote hypertrophy.
I’ll explain it. Let’s say that you’re doing your thighs/hips training twice a week. You might use 4 exercises to get it done – squat, Romanian deadlift, split squat and leg curl. On the first session, you do 5×5 (5 sets of 5 reps) on squats and 4×6 on leg curls, and on other, you use 3×10 on both RDLs and split squats. This gives you 25, 24, 30 and 30 reps per exercise, respectively, 49 and 60 reps for these muscle groups per session, respectively, and a total microcycle of 109 reps, meaning that this setup satisfies the volume criterion.
4. Importance Of Rest
This could make a separate article as well so I’ll keep it short. Train thrice a week, four times at very most. For a natural trainee, more rest is better than more training. Serious trainees actually know this, since their sessions, based on compound movements and focusing on progressive overload, are already brutally hard, and coming into the gym day after day is plainly impossible. I’ll be clear on this – if someone claims to train 2 hrs a day 5 days a week, he’s most likely socializing in the gym, reading newspaper or curling and doing flys with pink dumbbells, none of which eventually lead to growth.
Naturally, this gives a constraint on training frequency, but we’ll see later on how exactly does this fit into the big picture.
Rules Of Frequency
Here are some rules that generally apply to the variable of training frequency, as described by Coach Charles Poliquin in the “Poliquin Principles”. First we’ll list them, and then focus on sorting the ones important to general training.
All of your training depends on your ability to recover from it, and frequency is, of all the variables, most affected by the lack of it. As I’ve noted earlier, volume and intensity are fairly normalized, and there are limits which, most of the time, have to be surpassed in order to make continuous gains. Frequency basically structures your training. Let’s say that you know that doing a total of about a hundred reps of back work a week is good for you. Now, will you train back on three full body sessions, and do 20-30 reps on each one + deadlifts, or will you train the back twice a week or every fourth or fifth day, with about two exercises each time, or trash it once a week – it clearly depends on your training frequency. And what affects training frequency the most is your recovery ability.
It’s important to note that we aren’t limiting these examinations to perfect training conditions – indeed, we have already noted that the articles focuses on amateur natural bodybuilders who pursue the activity alongside their everyday lives, and everyday lives can occasionally take over. Moving the house, having issues at home or work, your child being sick and hospitalized, and similar issues greatly impair your ability to recover from strenuous training sessions. These issues don’t have to be as rare nor extreme – working 12 hour shifts 5 days a week is quite similar, as it allows the trainee less recovery time, thus leading to lower exercise frequency (and less overall work done in a week’s time as well).
So, your lifestyle might interfere with your training and drift you farther away from the nearly-optimal training we’ll be discussing later in the article(s). As we will see later on, there’s still a limit as to how often (and how much) a person should train, but this limit can easily go up, and give you two sessions a week at most, or even maybe three in two weeks, from which you can adequately recover to progress. Recovery isn’t affected by outside factors alone – it’s highly individualized. Different people have different work capacities and recover quicker or slower from training sessions of various magnitudes. Two people having nearly the same lifestyle factors might not recover at the same rate from their respective workouts.
2. Muscle Groups Being Trained
Things are simple here. Smaller muscles recover faster than large ones, and can be trained more often – e.g., your forearms don’t have a problem taking a beating on each of your training sessions, but your lats would. Also, muscles which are predominantly slow-twitch recover faster than those which are predominantly fast-twitch – e.g., calves can be trained more often than hamstrings (this is a compilation of both the rules, with calves being small and slow-twitch, and hamstrings being large and fast-twitch).
Similarly to the previous rule, we can note that larger exercises, involving a higher number of motor units, take longer to recover from than smaller ones, both because of demands on the musculature and the central nervous system. Because of this, you can (theoretically) curl thrice a week, but are better of deadlifting just once, if not even less often.
Basically, the higher percentage of 1 RM you’re using, the less often you can train. However, since intensity defines the set-rep bracket, and therefore volume, it’s not as easy to apply this rule as you’d think. For example, using intensity of 85%+ means you’re basically doing 5 reps per set, which means that you have to usher more sets to get the needed volume, but also need more volume per session since you’re able to train less often due to higher intensity used. You see, all the training variables are entangled to the level which might seem horrifying to a newcomer to routine design. 😛
Don’t Miss Part II!
In Part II, we take a look at optimal training frequencies for trainees of various levels, what research and anecdote is there to support these claims and how can frequency be manipulated in respect to other training variables.