Training Frequency for Mass Gains
In recent years, bodybuilding/hypertrophy training has divided itself into a number of different ‘camps’ with quite a bit of argument and debate going on over what the optimal training frequency for muscle growth is.
In this article, I want to look at the three most common training frequencies (in terms of how often a given muscle group is hit each week, I’m not talking about overall training frequency) and some of their pros and cons. First I’m going to look at the two opposite extremes of training each muscle group before giving my own preferred training frequency.
I want to make it clear that I’m looking only at training frequency as it applies to explicit mass gains and hypertrophy type goals. I’m not talking about athletes or strength per se (although the recommendations end up being fairly similar) but focusing only on muscle growth as an explicit end goal of training.
Three Times Per Week for Each Muscle Group
It’s often claimed that historically, bodybuilders trained every bodypart three times per week and there is certainly some indication that that is the case (especially in the pre-steroid era). Training systems that look a lot like the heavy/light/medium systems first advocated by Bill Starr and re-popularized in recent years by coaches such as Mark Rippetoe and Glenn Pendlay (as discussed in my article The 5X5 Program) seem to crop up fairly commonly when you look at the workouts of old time lifters.
It’s worth noting that many lifters of that era trained primarily for strength with size gains being more of a ‘side-effect’ of the training, rather than being such an explicit goal. Still, there is a point to be made that training for strength gains (plus sufficient food) tends to result in size gains. Whether or not they are a ‘side-effect’ or however you want to look at it doesn’t change the overall success of that approach: grow stronger and eat and you will grow.
More modern training systems such as Bryan Haycock’s Hypertrophy Specific Training are also based around that type of higher training frequency. I’m sure there are others.
Typical arguments for a higher frequency of training revolve around gene expression and keeping the genes involved in hypertrophy running more constantly by training at a higher frequency and, again, there is certainly some truth to that idea; arguments about the type course of increased protein synthesis often crop up as well. Typically full body workouts ranging from as few as three exercises per workout to as many as perhaps 8-10 depending on the specific implementation are performed with this type of training.
An additional potential benefit to a higher frequency of training, and this is especially true for beginning training, is that performing movements more frequently tends to improve motor learning. And since a majority of the adaptations that occur initially to training are neural in nature, the faster you can get through them adaptation, the sooner you can get into real growth.
However, outside of that one situation, I find that there are some major drawbacks to the idea of training full body three times per week for optimal growth. One of these is that once trainees start handling heavy loads, full body workouts can become incredibly difficult to complete: the loading used in exercises done early in the workout tend to severely limit what can be done later in the workout and something invariably suffers.
This is especially true if heavy leg training is done at the front of the workout: this often leaves about zero energy for the rest of the workout. And performing leg training last often means that it suffers. Back squatting heavily with a tired shoudler girdle after upper body training is problematic at best and dangerous at worst.
Additionally, there is at least some indication that there is an optimal training volume per muscle group (a topic I’ll cover in a later article) and achieving that volume in the context of a full body workout tends to become nearly impossible without the workout being several hours long.
So under most circumstances, I don’t find that hitting each muscle group three times per week is optimal for most trainees. It can be accomplished with proper cycling of intensity for the different bodyparts but since, in my experience, bodybuilders like to train hard pretty much all of the time, suggestions to do that often fall on deaf ears.
Blast Every Muscle Group Once Per Week
At the other extreme of training is the idea, that seems to have primarily developed as steroids started to enter the picture, that a muscle group should be blasted into oblivion once per week and then allowed to rest before training again. Many critics of higher frequency training will point to successful elite (read: drug using) bodybuilders who train that way. Or who at least claim to train that way.
Typically in this approach, one or perhaps two muscle groups would be chosen for a single workout with a fairly large volume of training (often 15-20 sets of 3-4 different exercises) performed for each. Hitting all of the angles, blitzing and bombing were all ideas that came out of this type of approach and generally the body is split across 4 or more workouts which each muscle group getting blasted once every 7 days.
Now, there is no denying that this approach seems to work at the elite level of bodybuilding. However, there are often a lot of other factors involved that people tend to ignore. The main one, of course, is drugs especially steroids (it’s no coincidence that this approach to training developed primarily as steroid use was starting to increase among bodybuilders).
People don’t like to hear it but anabolic steroids will generate muscle growth without training at all and, to a great degree, many elite bodybuilders seem to succeed in spite of their training rather than because of it. In that context, I know of several coaches who work with drug using bodybuilders and invariably growth is better with a higher frequency of training, even in the context of steroid use.
Another factor is that even if top level bodybuilders only hit every bodypart once per week after they have been training for 10 or more years, that’s usually not how they built the majority of their muscle mass (if their reports of what they did earlier in their career are accurate).
Basically, looking at the elite level of any sport and how they train after 15 years of training is usually a losing proposition, what they might be doing at the peak of their career and what they did to get there are often very different things indeed.
But of perhaps more relevance, outside of a small percentage of folks, I simply haven’t seen the majority of natural trainees grow optimally training in this fashion. Basically, it just doesn’t work for the majority in my experience (and in the experience of a lot of coaches I know). Sure, we can always look at the ‘big guys’ in the gym who are doing fine hitting everything once per week but the fact is that the majority of folks training that way aren’t usually growing well at all.
As well, for naturals, the lower frequency of training tends to lead people to do far too much volume at any given workout. As I mentioned above, there appears to be an optimal volume of training for each bodypart with both too little and too much volume being a problem. Naturals who do endless sets in a given workout (which is not only allowed but usually mandated by low frequency training) not only aren’t stimulating better growth, they end up cutting into their recovery with excessive volume.
Few bodyparts in my experience need more than two exercises (back is possibly an exception) in the first place and being able to do a zillion overlapping and redundant exercises is usually pointless for most trainees anyhow.
For the most part, I can’t think of any situation where I’d recommend only hitting a bodypart once per week for growth unless the goal was to simply maintain a given muscle group. And that’s usually in the context of a specialization cycle (a topic for another day) when other bodyparts are being trained more frequently.
One that I might mention (in a sarcastic way) would be for people who are addicted to being sore or exhausted from training. At least one of the reasons that I think people stick with low frequency training in the absence of good results is that they always get to walk out of the gym feeling like they have completely exhausted a given muscle group. As well, low frequency training tends to get people sore more consistently than a higher training frequency.
People who are more concerned with acute exhaustion or crippling soreness rather than actual progress may want to just keep on doing what they are doing….like I said, just a bit sarcastic.
Hit Each Muscle Group Between Every 5th Day and Twice Per Week
Which brings us to my preferred training frequency. Which, given my tendency to middle of the road types of recommendations for most things probably won’t surprise anybody at all. For most applications, for the average trainee, I think hitting each muscle group somewhere between twice per week or a minimum of every 5th day yields about optimal results. Which is best for a given individual depends on individual recovery and how often they can be in the gym.
Again, here I’m talking about an optimal training frequency for the majority of natural trainees. Again, as I noted above, I know of several coaches who work with steroid using bodybuilders who report better results with this type of training frequency.
Generally speaking, you might see this frequency of training implemented as some type of upper/lower split routine (which is the basis of my generic bulking routine) although there are many other workable options to achieve this training frequency per bodypart.
And it’s worth noting that a lot of successful training systems (whether strength or hypertrophy oriented) use this type of training frequency. Most powerlifting programs use a generic template with two upper body and two lower body workouts per week; although the exercises may differ on each day, there is generally sufficient overlap that each muscle group is being hit about twice per week.
Doggcrapp training, for example, uses a split of chest/shoulders/triceps/back for one workout and legs/arms for the other. The workouts are alternated on a three days per week program which means that each muscle group is being hit every 5 days.
To give you an idea of how this might be implemented weekly, I’ve shown how the two different training frequencies could be achieved in several different ways depending on the circumstances. Although, I’ve used an upper/lower body template in the example below, any type of approach that divided up the body into two different workouts would work just as well. I’ve also shown a higher weekly training frequency for people with that kind of flexibility and/or who want to be in the gym more often.
I’m also assuming that most people will train on the same days each week which I find is the most common pattern for people with a job, families, etc. Of course, people who can train different days each week can use other variations of the below approaches since they can vary the days of the week that they are in the gym.
Oh yeah, blank days would either be taken off or could be used for metabolic work (e.g. the type of thing I described in the article Cardio and Mass Gains).
|Day||Twice Per Week||Twice Per Week (No Weekend)||Higher Frequency*||Every 5th Day|
|Monday||Lower Body||Lower Body||Lower Body|
|Wednesday||Upper Body||Legs/Abs||Upper Body|
|Friday||Lower Body||Upper Body||Lower Body|
|Saturday||Upper Body||Upper Body|
|Monday||Lower Body||Lower Body||Upper Body|
|Wednesday||Upper Body||Legs/Abs||Lower Body|
|Friday||Lower Body||Upper Body||Upper Body|
|Saturday||Upper Body||Upper Body|
* On the higher training frequency option, it’s important to keep the volumes of the split workouts (on Tue/Wed/Thu) down. Trainees who are prone to overdo it (you know who you are) probably shouldn’t use that option.
As you can see, all three of the first options hit each muscle group twice per week in varying combinations depending on the specifics. The first one gives better recovery during the week (since there’s a day off between several of the workouts) but not everybody can train weekends. That’s option two which is for folks who can recover from four weekly training sessions per week but can’t get to the gym on weekends.
Option three might be for someone who works late during the week and wants to keep the weekly workouts a bit shorter by splitting things up, but who has time to train for longer on the weekends. The last option shows how a once every 5th day frequency would be achieved, while also avoiding weekends. This tends to be good for folks with poorer recovery and/or who simply need or want more recovery between workouts.
Again, the workouts don’t have to be upper/lower, that just tends to be my default choice for a variety of reasons I’m not going to go into here. Any reasonable split can be used effectively in the above types of templates.
As you might imagine, I find that this type of training frequency tends to strike a balance between the other two extremes of frequency which is why I prefer it.
Since the body is split up a bit more compare to three full body workouts per week, individual workouts tend not to be quite so daunting with exercises early in the session not impacting as badly on later exercises.
And, as noted above, compared to the typical ‘hit everything once and then let it rest a week’, while soreness and acute exhaustion is lower, growth is almost invariably better. At the same time, the frequency is low enough that trainees can go pretty hard in the gym while still being able to recover by the time the next workout rolls around so that they can do it again, allowing them to make progressive strength gains. Which isn’t to say that I suggest going all out all the time but intensity cycling is another topic for another day.
So that’s a quick look at optimal training frequencies for muscle growth. For the most part, I find that the cons of full body training three times per week tends to offset any potential benefits in terms of gene expression or what have you.
And while it’s still common to emulate the training pattern of elite (read: drug using) bodybuilders and bomb and blast everything once per week, my experience (and that of many others) is simply that the majority of natural trainees (and even many drug users) simply don’t get optimal growth that way. This is one of those cases where the athletes seem to be succeeding in spite of the training rather than due to it.
Which brings us to my preferred training frequency for the majority of folks seeking optimal size gains: somewhere between once every 5th day and twice per week. I find that this yields about optimal results for most people (and recent research supports that recommendation anyhow), offsetting the cons of both the higher and lower training frequencies.
Update: A while back I reviewed Brad Schoenfeld’s study on frequency. In it he compared training 3X/week to 1X/week at a matched volume per week and he pushed the guys hard (rather than the typical one time per week pissing around with endless sets and no progression most do) and growth was similar. I do wish 2Xweek training had been tested but so be it. I still think a higher frequency may be better for most (strength gains are certainly typically better) but clearly 1X/week can work IF you do it right. Keep volume reasonable and focus on progression.