The first part of this article discussed the theory behind the frequency variable in workout design. Let’s now look at some practical and real world applications for it.
Frequency In The Real World
I contemplated a lot on how to write the second part of this article. The first part gave the necessary introduction and rules which apply to frequency alone, as well as those regarding general training which place additional limitations onto manipulating it. The second part is to be the practical one, thus I decided to cover the topic by looking at a number of real-world training examples, and how does the frequency variable, whose value is different among all the examples, affect their unique aspects and properties.
The downside of this approach is the possibility of missing the take-home points of the article, which would’ve been displayed more clearly had I decided to write the article in the format “Optimal frequency”, “Common frequencies”, “Special frequencies”, but, again, I wanted this to be more of a collection of practical examples rather than a theoretical analysis like the first part. All the things which I had mentioned in Part I will be elaborated, but inside these frequency examples.
A note – these frequency designations (high, moderate, low…) are my own, and not universal. There is inherent logic in these namings, but what I consider moderate frequency, some people might consider a higher one, etc.
What Exactly Do We Measure With Frequency?
In bodybuilding circles, the most common answer “the number of times you train a muscle group in a week.” This definition is actually fine, as long as we clear up some confusions which might arise.
First of all, the correct end of the statement would be “in a microcycle”, since one does not necessarily group his training according to the length of a week and its distribution (work days vs. weekend). Not necessarily, but a vast majority of people do so, and for a good reason. You might be working shifts, or have a day which is always busier than others, or you’re spending every Saturday at country, etc, etc. All of these are perfectly fine reason for amateur bodybuilders to base their workouts around standard, 7 day weeks. For this reason, I’ll assume this one week microcycle when discussing practical examples of training frequency in the following sections.
Another thing which has to be made clear is what we mean by training a particular muscle group. I noted in the first part that the mainstream idea of doing just chest, or just shoulders, or just legs, is wrong and impossible to implement into a sound training regime for a natural bodybuilder, the reason being the fact that productive training is based around compound exercises. Dips, for example, are a terrific exercise, but a lot of people (mainly those who never did them with half their bodyweight hanging from a belt) dare to name them “triceps exercise”, even though all your pushing muscles in the upper body will work hard on them – chest, shoulders and triceps. Besides, you’ll use upper back to maintain correct posture, abs to stabilize yourself especially if you use additional weight, and, if you add weight by holding a DB between your thighs instead of using a belt, your hips will work as well.
You see, dips aren’t a “triceps exercise”, bench press is not a “chest exercise”, squats aren’t for quads and deadlifts, god save us from such blasphemy, aren’t solely a lower back exercise. All the good exercises involve the lot of your body while training, and this is a good and desirable thing to have in your training. I’m saying this because, when I say “trained your chest twice a week”, you might have done it with incline bench press on one session, and V-bar dips on the next, and it’s important to remember that this has hit your triceps and front shoulders hard as well.
Another, somewhat latent use of word frequency implies counting the number of training sessions done in a microcycle (week). We’ll check that out as well in our examples.
Ultra-high frequency has you training more times in a microcycle than is it its length in days. Translated – if you train 7 or more times a week, it’s ultra-high (training) frequency.
UHF is a very special frequency, used exclusively for achieving highly specialized tasks (or achieving regular tasks in a very uncommon way). Regular training methodologies don’t apply on it – neither can you use your major compounds, nor can you use proper volume on them, and, most of all, you can’t apply the progressive overload principle on it. In other words, you can’t train hard in the traditional sense of the it while pursuing UHF. Forget the stories of Olympic weightlifters who hit a squatting maximum twice a day every day of the week – everything said on professional bodybuilders applies to them as well (drugs, experience, that being the only thing they do in life), plus they aren’t bodybuilders, they’re athletes.
Athletes train to become profound at their respective sports, and this implies a combination of strength and skill work (with the latter being dominant almost all the time). We, on the other hand, apply strength training in a specific way so that it maximizes hypertrophy, and this doesn’t have you squatting 12 times a week. It’s just too much – not only on the muscles and CNS, but the joints and soft tissues especially. It’s also impractical.
There are, however, situations where training as often can be applicable. Special training protocols exist that have you doing bodyweight exercises several times a day, every day. For one, it’s important to note the bodyweight part. This eliminates the lot of strain on joints and connective tissues which comes from dealing with weights. Second, it implies working away from the max. Normally, unweighted bodyweight work isn’t challenging – if you can stack a lot of weight on your weighted pullups, than doing them unweighted is most likely well below 60% of your max, which, as we’ve stated in Part I, is too low an intensity to do any good.
This lack of intensity is kind of circumvented by ushering a lot of volume over the week, but distributing it into lots of training sessions to make all the reps done (almost) equally good. Example: let’s say your program has you doing 1000 pushups a week. If you do it everyday, it comes down to about 145 reps a day. If you can do a maximum of 40 pushups with perfect form, it would take you at least 5 sets to get all the reps done, and by the time you got to the third one, your reps would most likely become sloppy and unproductive. Because of this, you decide to do two sets of pushups, one of 30, and one of 20 reps, three times a day. Therefore, the vast amount of volume which needs to be done is divided into over 20 weekly sessions to make all of it as productive as possible.
Do note that you can’t substitute intensity with volume, and that this approach strays from the tested, sustainable training paradigm that I preach. Doing tons of reps will only get you so big, and if you’re starting out small, it’ll most likely leave you such. A high volume approach is good for:
- changing up a routine and doing a week of bodyweight-only volume work as opposed to previous 6 months of weight training,
- training while not being able to weight train for some reason (gym being closed for renovation, travel, etc.)
- special training technique called greasing the groove (GTG), which relies on numerous submaximal, attempts at an exercise in order to improve neuromuscular connections and allow for being stronger and more productive at an exercise.
This was UHF when discussing repeating same exercises/bodyparts. As noted earlier, ultra high frequency might refer only to having a high number of weekly sessions, without specifying what is done on each of them. Therefore, having 2 sessions a day might mean only that you’ve split your one, big session in two smaller. So, if you’re training upper body pressing and calves, you might opt to do calves separately to remain fresh and keep up the same focus and intensity. This, basically, is a great idea, but can be extremely impractical. Almost nobody has time to go to the gym twice a day, even if you train at a home gym. Each workout session implies watching your peri-workout nutrition, getting warmed up, cooling down, taking a shower, etc, all of which is much easier to do just once in a day instead of two or more times.
Lastly, any sort of ultra high frequency training requires extremely cautious programming and is always on the brink of not being able to recuperate (if challenging, that is – doing 5 pullups every day isn’t exactly “training”). It can be very productive, but is highly impractical and requires a lot more devotion to lifting than I have the right to ask.
High frequency has you training a bodypart more often than twice a week. In all the practical applications, this means training it thrice a week (above that is always excessive for standard bodybuilding training). This is usually done in two ways, the common one, and the not-so-common one.
The common way is to do a full body routine on three non-consecutive days (i.e., Mon-Wed-Fri, Tue-Thu-Sat, etc.) If you’re a beginner, this is absolutely the best way to train. Frequent workouts encourage rapid progress which newcomers to weightlifting can make by improving the efficiency at which their CNS recruits motor units when executing a movement. This learning specific of movements leads to fastest strength and muscle gains you’ll ever experience, and training as often as thrice a week (but not more often) is the way to milk those gains as fast as possible. Full body workouts are also satisfying (there’s a special sense of delight following a session which used your entire body), and, if coupled with a good choice of compound exercise, give you a feeling that you really are training, instead of just sitting and moving some dumbbells or playing on a machine.
It also has a historical importance, as it is known/said that bodybuilders of the pre-steroid era (Reg Park, Steve Reeves…) trained almost exclusively on the format of three weekly full body workouts (their respective writings offer examples of those program). This is not as relevant, but it gives you the idea how the successful bodybuilders were made before drugs were introduced – it wasn’t by supersetting cable crossovers with incline flys for two hours once a week.
Eventually, a trainee gets strong enough for full body workouts to become simply too difficult to pull off. It’s not only the fact that you can’t train the same movements as often (unless you have some sort of weekly periodization, but that’s mostly used for strength specific training), it’s just that training your entire body in a single session becomes nearly impossible, for several reasons. First is that each exercise on its own becomes more fatiguing and taxing for the body. E.g., there’s no problem with starting off with deadlifting half your bodyweight, and then proceed to the rest of your routine almost as fresh as you started it.
But try deadlifting twice your bodyweight, and tell me that you didn’t want to die afterwards, let alone go on with a routine. The stronger you are on an exercise, the greater its impact on both the session it’s done in and your overall recovery. And not only that – sets start requiring more rest between, you need more warmups to get to working weight (which becomes a problem if every exercise you do needs a warmup), plus you’re most likely unable to get enough weekly volume which is needed for a more advanced trainee.
The not-so-common solution is dividing your full body workout into two separate sessions, and do each of them thrice a week. This leads either to training 6 days a week (consecutively), or three DAW but with AM/PM sessions. The latter approach is naturally better, as it gives a day’s worth of rest between workouts, but it still suffers from same problem of being impractical as all other training methods which utilize a very high number of weekly training sessions. It does, however, cure a lot of problems associated with full body routines for more advanced trainees, namely those which relate to their length and fatigue build-up. This is the reason why a FBW oriented training method called Hypertrophy Specific Training (HST) has its more advanced trainees do many sessions to keep up with the (needed) high frequency.
There is another usage for the 6 DAW approach, and that is when a trainee has very little time to train in a single day (has an hour to spare for everything workout-related at most), but can train everyday. It’s less than a perfect circumstance, and in this case, I personally favor alternating such high-frequency phases with minimalistic approach infra low frequency phases (more on that later). So, if you only have time for a 20 min workout, but can train every day, this is the way to go.
For regular, more advanced trainees, full body routines can be used to try something new, as an accumulation phase (there’s a neat trick with using first two blocks in HST as accumulation, and then switching to a more traditional intensification program), or simply when you wish to revert to the basics of training. I sometimes too feel sick with all the exercises I’m doing and elaborate planning which stands behind my workouts, and think how nice it would be only to do two or three movements a session and hit my entire body multiple times a week. It really can be a refreshing experience. (I won’t start with arguments regarding improved gene expression resulting from frequent workouts as the article will get way too long.)
If switching to a higher frequency, remember to drop your overall volume per session, but keep the total weekly volume the same as before. Rest times might decrease as no bodypart will be fatigued by preceding exercises, but, again, everything ha to be observed in context of entire program, and not be based on general guidelines such as these.
Moderate frequency implies training a muscle group twice a week, or once every 4, or even 5 days (with the last being known as moderate-to-low frequency). This is the optimal training frequency for a majority of trainees above beginner level.
Let’s see what research has to say about that. Firstly, you have to know that 72 hours after a workout protein synthesis levels are pretty much back to normal. This basically throws out the “once a week for full recovery” trash argument – a 20 set workout might leave your CNS and joints in a need for full week’s worth of recovery, but in regard to muscle growth, you’re basically wasting your time. Classical 5 day split routines are not optimal for hypertrophy, as they don’t exploit the fact that hypertrophy-oriented training favors chronic over acute overload.
Two meta- analyses done by Peterson, Rhea et al. (2003, 2004, 2005), and Wernbom and his group (2007) also show that muscle grows more favorably with two to three weekly workouts (more advanced trainees favor training less often than less advanced ones).
It’s also worth noting that a lot of successful training approaches are based on this frequency – ranging from Westside method and its derivatives, DC training, Layne Norton’s PHAT, and so on. Even the nominally split routines, such as Dave Goodin’s offseason routine, train each muscle group twice a week. Coach Poliquin has said in Brink’s Bodybuilding revealed that he’d recommend this frequency for 60% of trainees, i.e., those with adequate experience and average recovery (and having a job and a family makes your recovery average at best).
The specific implementation of a routine is, as always, less important. The usual way of implementing moderate frequency is by using an upper/lower split, with two upper and two lower body sessions done each week, or alternating upper and lower workouts on three weekly sessions if a moderate-to-low frequency is to be used. Of course, you don’t have to divide your body in such a way. A workout approach popularized by Martin Berkhan (although I have, myself, used the same system back in 2009) has distinct A and B workouts – on A workouts you train your upper body pushing muscles and calves, and on B workout, upper body pulling muscles and thighs/hips. DC training is also an example of a slightly tweaked upper/lower split.
I really don’t have a lot to say regarding this training frequency, as it’s the most basic one I base the lot of my routines on. Suffice it to say, it works the best at creating a positive environment for muscular growth. It also leans onto traditional full body method by staying clear of trashing a muscle by countless sets and exercises just once a week, which seems more like annihilating than stimulating.
Low training frequency implies working out a muscle group once during a microcycle. As we have seen, research shows that this frequency is inferior to both moderate and high frequency in a majority of trainees, with the only exception being people with really poor recovery and those who became sufficiently advanced to favor such less frequent workouts.
Note that usual split routines you see around are actually not low frequency routines. Take an example of a classical 5 day shit, sorry, split routine going something like Chest-Back-Legs-Delts-Arms done Monday through Friday. Tell me, how many times do you train your triceps on such a routine? Once? Nope, three times. Your chest? Twice, unless you’ve abominated the shoulder day by doing some sort of overhead lockouts instead of regular overhead pressing. If you’re dipping or doing close-grip bench press on your arms day, that makes it thrice. Your shoulders get some sort of work every single day except the leg one. So, the only thing that’s actually getting done once a week are the legs, which is a big mistake (I’m not coming at this from a meathead/macho point of view – splitting the leg day up into two sessions is probably the best thing you can do for your training).
You see, the only way to actually do a split routine with a low frequency is to do a Push/Pull/Legs routine. I don’t like them, but if you think that low frequency is the best for you, go for it.
As I had noted just a moment ago, low frequency training is adequate for people with poor recovery. Some explanations are in order here. First, people with poor recovery aren’t just those who are born such, it’s everyone who does a lot of work or is under a lot of stress, which prevent him/her from recuperating properly between his workouts. And for these people, it’s not only a matter of low frequency, but of abbreviating training to bare minimums as well. Now, this is yet another example when we can see the double meaning of the term “low frequency” – it can both mean training a muscle just once in a week, but also having only 2 workouts a week, or even less, only 3 in 2 weeks’ time. I’ll probably do an article on abbreviating one’s training in near future.
Do note that all low frequency routines require doing a lot of volume in a single session, which can be counterproductive for lots of reasons, the primary one being the fatigue build up which prevents you both from using compound to get the job done (Flat bench press, dips and overhead press in a single session? – I don’t think so.) and maintaining adequate intensity and focus throughout the workout. Again, the point of training is to stimulate the muscle to grow, and not trash it.
The bitter truth is that, while these people think that doing 20 sets a bodypart (at least half of those being isolations, and another quarter poorly done compounds) is hard work because they can’t move their arms at the end of a workout, it’s actually the easy way out – building your deadlift to over 2.5x BW takes devotion, patience and determination. Any fool can curl for an hour and hope to grow.
This article gave a brief overview of the importance of the frequency training variable, the rule it obeys and how to use it both for short term and long term progress. It takes a lot more knowledge than presented here to construct good workout routines, but observing a large number of well constructed routines (and those with a lot of variety among them, too), while returning to comments given in this article, will help you understand how does the frequency variable reflect onto entire training process.
Always remember to stay firm on the ground – theoretically, we can construct a myriad routines to do specific tasks, but only a handful of them offer sustainable, long-term progress for the majority of natural trainees. Probably the most important thing to remember from this article is the fact that the usual training frequency we see stamped onto every routine is actually quite inefficient for all but the most advanced trainees (and steroid users, of course). Doing a fair amount of work twice a week, while focusing on the progressive overload principle, will bring on the fastest muscle growth. As always, train, don’t trash the muscle. See you soon!