How frequently should you train? How frequently should you train a specific lift?
Beginners see regular progress even just training a lift once per week. But as we improve, greater and greater volumes of training are required to progress.
We typically can’t perform much more than 3-6 effective sets of an exercise within a training session (with additional sets, muscles are fatigued enough that volume is compromised and further progress is minimal). However, on a weekly basis we can tolerate much more than this, typically between 6 and 18 sets total, depending on our individual recovery abilities. It's clear that it would be impossible to complete all of this training in just 1 workout, so how do we manage to get to an optimal volume of training?
The answer is by increasing frequency. If you train the bench press twice per week instead of just once, this means that you’re getting in up to twice the volume as you were before, and should expect to see better results. What about three times a week? Four times? Five times?
There’s a limit to how many times per week you can get in an effective workout for a movement or muscle group because it takes time for the muscles in question to recover. This is about 2-3 days. In the meantime, performance is compromised, limiting your ability to get in good work. So, training heavy before you’re fully recovered is going to be inefficient and lead to poor growth.
Since it takes about 2-3 days to recover, this limits the frequency per week - typically, no more than 2-3 times per week is doable. We can crank up frequency above this (training a lift 4-5x/week, for example) but this requires either splitting the volume up more than is necessary (getting in less than the full 3-6 effective sets per workout, meaning wasted time) or compromising volume.
While it's possible for some quick recovering lifters to train some quick recovering lifts even 3-4x/week effectively, most of us fall for most lifts somewhere in the 2-3x/week range. For the slowest recovering lift (the deadlift) it may even just be 1-2x/week. For the quicker recovering lifts (upper body work) it may be 2-4x/week. Squats are right in the middle, probably in the standard 2-3x/week range.
These rules aren’t perfect, and some personal testing is required to find a frequency and volume that works well for you for each lift. Once you’ve found an ideal volume for yourself in terms of sets you can effectively recover from, you can split those up however you’d like. So let’s say that you start off at 1 set per week with the bench press - this is easy to recover from, and not very challenging at all. Next week you do 2 sets with the bench press - a little more challenging, but not much. We repeat this process until you find yourself starting to miss sets and reps, going backwards - at which point you’ve found your limit. Let’s say it’s 10 sets. Now you can split those 10 sets up however you like - 3 one day, 3 another, 4 another, for example.
Higher frequencies with the same volume are better. If in the above example you took those 10 sets of bench press per week and split them up into 2 sets/day for 5 days, this is superior to doing 10 sets in one day. This is simply because there’s more recovery time between each, and you can attack your sets fresh and fully recovered more frequently.
However, there’s diminishing returns to additional frequency, so training 5-6x/week is probably not much better than training 2-3x/week with the same volume. Obviously 1x/week wouldn’t be ideal since you can only handle about 3-6 sets per workout (well below the 10 which you can handle in the bench press) - so, naturally, this helps explain why the 2-3x/week frequency is ideal for most people.
Another consideration is undulation. Linear periodization is the use of linear volume - steadily increasing reps, sets, weight, or some combination of the three. Undulating periodization, in contrast, involves changes in volume that make it non-linear. This typically means alternating between two or more rep ranges/intensities and then progressing them each linearly as normal.
So if the goal is the bench press from above, and you can do 10 effective sets per week, you might split it up into 5 sets at 75-80% (for strength) and 5 sets at 60% (for size). So long as these sets are sufficiently challenging (both sets taken to near failure), we can count these two kinds of volume as roughly equivalent in terms of their effects on our overall volume even though they’re working at very different intensities and very different rep ranges.
Undulation can occur at various levels within a program. In daily undulating periodization, intensities are varied from day to day - meaning that you would train at two or more different intensities per primary lift per week. In weekly undulating periodization, intensities are varied from week to week - so you might train at 75% one week, 85% another, 80% the week after, and 90% the week after that. Weekly undulation seems to violate the principle of progressive overload, so it seems unlikely to be a good idea - but daily undulating periodization is commonly used in many modern programs and doesn't violate this principle.
What is the benefit of daily undulating periodization? Well, there’s diminishing returns to training within the same rep range constantly. If all ten of your weekly bench sets are performed at 80%/5 reps or so, your body would get really good at training within that 80% - but not so much with other intensity ranges. Since there’s diminishing returns, the benefit of 10 sets at 80% wouldn’t be much higher than something like 3-5 sets at 80% - so it's more profitable to train at other intensities, right?
By training at other intensities, we can more easily reap the benefits of training within those intensities (more muscle, endurance, or energy systems training) that would carry over to our other work. Basically, you'll be a far more well-rounded lifter and see much better long term results.
In general, training should look like this:
Strength: 50-75% of volume within the 75-90% range, remaining either above or below this intensity.
Size: 50-75% of volume within the 60-75% range, remaining either above or below this intensity.
So, while we should spend most of our volume within the intensity range most appropriate to our goals, there’s still plenty of space to train outside those intensities. Daily undulating periodization serves this goal. In the example of the bench press above, and training for strength, let’s say we spend 3 sets training at 60% for size, 4 sets training at 75% for strength, and 3 sets training at 85% for strength. This creates an easy 3 day undulating periodization format.
Another concern is how to organize the structure of your lifts within the training session itself. Within a week, we want to hit an ideal volume of work for all major muscle groups/lifts - this is what provides the most effective results. For the sake of argument, let’s say that our recovery for all of our lifts is the same as in the example of the bench press above - 10 sets. This is unlikely to be true, but should help you understand how we split things up. You can of course modify all the numbers in the programs given below depending on the actual volume you train per week, if known.
Since we can only perform about 3-6 sets within a single session before we get exhausted, it’s clear that a single training day isn’t ideal, as we've already discussed. This would mean 10 sets each of the bench press, deadlift, squat, overhead press, and row, for 50 total sets - many can barely do effective workouts with just 20 total sets! We’d be doing about twice as much per lift as we could actually recover from, and it would be a long and exhausting workout - probably upwards of three or four hours. In all likelihood, we’d have to take a break in the middle and effectively split it up into two workouts with minimal rest instead.
Example: 1 Day/Week, Optimal Volume
Bench 10 sets
Squat 10 sets
Deadlift 10 sets
Overhead Press 10 sets
Row 10 sets
Accessory work as desired, cardio as desired
Issues: Way too much workload in one day, impossible to recover from for most, workout probably takes upwards of 4 hours to do right.
Now let’s examine the exact opposite. Say we train five days per week with just 2 sets of each lift per day. Workouts would be much shorter (⅕ of the length) and easier to recover from. At the same time, it would violate the issue of requiring 2-3 days to fully recover from a serious workout - limiting our ability to go heavy, work hard, and see results over time. It would also require a lot more time spent going to and from the gym, which means it would take more overall time and be less desirable.
Example: 5 Day/Week, Optimal Volume
Bench 2 sets
Squat 2 sets
Deadlift 2 sets
Overhead Press 2 sets
Row 2 sets
Accessory work as desired, cardio as desired
Issues: High degree of variety within the day requires unnecessary warmups, high frequency means lots of time spent going to and from gym, workouts very short/feel easy but violate principle of waiting 2-3 days before training body part or movement again.
To counter this issue, the concept of "splits" was developed. Splits are ways of dividing up workouts so that we don't hit muscles too frequently. We can simply rotate the muscles being used from workout to workout, meaning that we’re always able to push hard on our workouts because we’ve had plenty of time to recover. There are two major variants on the split that are most commonly seen for strength and size - a weekly split and a 3 day split.
The weekly split has one obvious and glaring flaw: while volume is appropriately distributed across 5 days in such a way that it doesn’t violate the problem of training the same big muscle groups more than once every 2-3 days, it also still only maintains a low frequency per lift - just 1x/week. Because of this, the volume of training (10 sets for each main lift per day) is well above the 3-6 sets most can recover from effectively, and you would see a great benefit from upping frequency.
Another issue with this split is that it frequently omits any training for the deadlift since this program is often used by beginners picking up a bodybuilding program for the first time. These beginners often overemphasize the value of direct arm training and isolation work as compared to heavy compound work, which is responsible for most of the muscle building you’ll be doing. As such, they frequently avoid good training for the hips and lower back, or spend too much time focusing on core work to get abs. This program would be more useful if the arm day was swapped out for the deadlift.
Example: Weekly Split, Optimal Volume
Day 1 (Bench Day):
Bench Press 10 sets
Accessory work for arms, shoulders, chest.
Day 2 (Leg Day):
Squat 10 sets
Accessory work for quads, calves, glutes, back.
Day 3 (Back Day):
Row 10 sets
Accessory work for arms, back, shoulders, traps.
Day 4 (Arm Day):
Accessory work for arms.
Day 5 (Shoulder Day):
Overhead Press 10 sets
Accessory work for arms, back, shoulders.
Issues: Way too much work in one day, lack of deadlift training, overemphasis on smaller muscle groups (arms, abs) that aren’t as useful, 5 days/week may be hard for some.
The 3 day split is generally much more useful. This split recognizes that a weekly split is superfluous - since you can recover in about three days, extending the split too much further just wastes time. The most common 3 day split is the push/pull/legs split.
This split is much more manageable, and doesn’t violate any of the principles established above. This program can also be undulated - for example, training the bench press and overhead press within the 75% intensity on day 1 and within the 60% intensity on day 4. However, this results in a bit of an imbalance - we’re getting about 2 days of upper body work for every 1 day of lower body work. Over time, this overvalues the upper body, when the reality is that the lower boy should be getting roughly equal volume. This can be alleviated by making the pull day a bit more lower body oriented. Some people move the deadlift to the pull day, or do additional accessory work for the lower body on the pull day, which helps make it more lower body oriented.
Another problem is that this divides our volume out a little bit too much - effectively, we have to train 3 days out of every four, or about 5-6 days per week. This is a lot, and it seems like it would be easier to split it up a bit further so we have more rest days. This split is used a lot for size training and works well for this purpose, if not so much for strength.
Example: 3 Day Split, Optimal Volume
Day 1&4 (Push):
Bench Press 5 sets
Overhead Press 5 sets
Accessory work for arms, back, shoulders
Day 2&5 (Legs):
Squat 5 sets
Deadlift 5 sets
Accessory work for glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves, low back
Day 3&6 (Pull):
Row 5 sets
Accessory work for back, arms, shoulders
Issues: 5-6x/week may be hard to complete, may be unbalanced towards upper body work.
The most common solution is the 4 day split. This split allows full recovery with a bit more training per day while still hitting all the optimal volume. The four day split is often called the “upper/lower” split. This evens out the amount of time spent on both upper and lower, and cuts frequency a bit lower (4 days/week) so it’s much more generally manageable.
Daily undulating periodization is commonly applied by rotating the primary lift. Thus, you might do bench heavy (80%) on day 1 and overhead press heavy on day 3, with overhead press light (60%) on day 1 and bench press light on day 3. This is similar to the way that most general strength programs work.
Since strength is often applied to powerlifting and olympic lifting, this means that strength programs for these specific sports will often look very different from this template simply because of their specific needs. A powerlifter, for example, doesn’t need to train overhead press much, so they might clear out overhead press volume so that they can make a split that allows them to train the other lifts 3x/week instead of 2x/week. An olympic lifter has to train with the variants of the front squat, push press, snatch, and clean and jerk, which necessitate slightly different splits.
Example: 4 Day Split, Optimal Volume
Day 1&3 (Upper):
Bench 5 sets
Overhead Press 5 sets
Row 2-5 sets (whatever it takes to get to 10 total throughout the week)
Accessory work for back, arms, shoulders
Day 2&4 (Lower):
Squat 5 sets
Deadlift 5 sets
Row 0-5 sets (whatever it takes to get to 10 total throughout the week)
Accessory work for glutes, hamstrings, quads, lower back
Issues: Minimal emphasis on upper back work - may be ideal for strength but require some variation for size.
Many effective programs on the market today revolve around the 4 day split, which is generally the most widely applicable. Some people modify this by adding a 5th day to focus on lagging elements, like targeted accessory work or cardio.
Ultimately, it’s up to you to pick a weekly setup that works well for you. The most effective programs enable a frequency of 2-3x per lift per week, for a total volume of typically somewhere between 6-18 total sets per muscle group (measured in heavy compound sets, not counting lighter or isolation work), and with a split that makes it easy to get in this volume and frequency while allowing adequate overall recovery (2-3 days between heavy workouts for the same muscle group/lift). It should be clear that these variables are related, so changes in one often necessitate changes in others.
As you can probably see, there’s a great deal of possibility for individual variation here. If you have exceptionally high recovery such that you can handle 18 sets in a certain lift per week, you may need to train more frequently or harder per workout than someone who can only handle 10 sets in a certain lift per week. If you recover more slowly, you may thrive on lower frequency and more recovery time. Without knowing your individual recovery levels, the best you can do is try out a variety of different volumes and see what works best.
It’s also clear that there’s no “perfect” training structure. If you can only train 3x/week due to a busy career, you may need to select a more intense 3x/week split or admit that you won’t be able to get optimal results if you choose a split requiring more frequent training days. Your own time needs will dictate how frequently you can work out, and thus how much work you can do. Some people may need to focus on different lifts than others, whether because of the needs of their competition or the needs of their own physiology. These variations should not violate the general principles outlined above, but should help alleviate personal weaknesses or focus on strengths required to perform well in your training goals.
While beginners see progress with just basic overload, intermediates require more carefully structured training programs on a week to week basis. This adds additional degrees of complexity, which also leads to the possibility for additional degrees of confusion. Thus, while beginners likely don’t need to worry too much about carefully structuring their training weeks, intermediates need to accept that this added complexity is a part of the cost of improvement.
This is part 2 of a series on periodization. If you're more of a beginner, check out Part 1. More on the way!
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