Training frequency is currently a hot topic - how frequently should you train a specific body part or lift for maximum results?
Recent research suggests that more frequency is better, but this isn't the entire story.
Frequency is just a tool - and one that you should use intelligently when planning your training schedule.
Training frequency is a hot topic these days.
The essential question is very simple - how often should you train a specific body part, or lift, per week?
Old school bodybuilding programs would feature something like a 5 day split - doing 5 different workouts per week, and only training each major body part once per week. This method, while popular, is becoming more and more antiquated thanks to research that supports the use of full body workouts with higher frequency.
For example, a study on Norwegian powerlifters found that doubling the number of training sessions per week but doing the same amount of work greatly enhanced the results. When this came out, it immediately spurred a lot of further interest into research on the topic, and many lifters (myself included) began to dabble with higher frequency, to great success.
One group trained 3x/week, and the other trained 6x/week. But they did the exact same volume of total training - so, the 6x/week group did half as much work, per workout, as the 3x/week group did.
There are many reasons that this could have helped improve results. One theory is often referred to as “greasing the wheel” - when you train more frequently, this allows you to take more advantage of the temporary positive effects you get from training, and means that you can see more consistent results over time.
Another has to do with recovery - if you’re doing the same amount of work spread out over 6 days instead of 3, you effectively get a lot more time to recover in between individual sets. This means that theoretically, you can do more total work (or do existing work with greater speed or control) versus training fewer times per week. Think of it like this - provided you could get the same or better results, would you rather do one rough, long workout, or two shorter, easier ones with a day in between?
High frequency is also a feature of programs like the Bulgarian system, which rely on high frequency to make up for the low volume of individual training sessions. For a long time, the Bulgarian system has been legendary for having helped to propel the relatively tiny country of Bulgaria to world prominence with their excellent performance in Olympic weightlifting.
At the same time, further research has revealed that frequency isn’t magic - you can’t just endlessly increase frequency to increase results.
Research suggests that a training volume of 2x/week per muscle group or lift is preferable to 1x/week, across the board.
However, this isn't the whole story. It's clear that there are cases when more isn't better. Even in the study on Norwegian powerlifters above, they found no advantage for the deadlift when training more frequently.
This implies that it may be lift or body part dependent - with the harder-to-recover-from lifts benefiting less from higher frequency.
If you’re hitting the same muscle group again before it’s fully recovered (typically 2-3 days, but potentially more), then you're compromising the amount of work you can do, and the results you can get from that workout.
Other studies have since found no benefit to training more than 2x/week/muscle group.
In this study, those who trained 4x/week/muscle group saw no benefit over those who trained 2x/week/muscle group.
A more recent meta analysis (study of studies) found that frequency only matters when it means that we can do more total work. What this means is that frequency is great when it means we do more total reps, sets, or weight on our lifts per week - but if we just crank up frequency without increasing those numbers, this won’t have too much of an additional effect. 2x/week per body part seems to be ideal because it balances recovery time (2-3 days, on average) with the number of days in a week (2x2-3 = 4-6 days, about the length of a week).
What this also means is that this general rule may not hold, depending on your recovery rates.
Some people may recover a bit faster or slower than other people, and this means that their frequency of training should be changed to fit. When we’re dealing with particularly slow-recovering lifts (the deadlift) it may even be useful to train just 1x/week, or to train 1.5x/week by alternating frequency (training 1x the first week and then 2x the second). When we’re dealing with faster-recovering lifts like the bench press, overhead press, or row, (or very-quickly-recovering isolation exercises like training for the arms or calves) we may even be able to get away with 3-4x/week frequency.
It's all very dependent on how quickly you can recover and how much total work you can do - and this will be different from person to person and from lift to lift.
Again, the primary use of frequency should be to drive additional training volume. While there may be some tiny positive benefit to splitting the same amount of work over more time (as seen in the Norwegian frequency study), the main way to use frequency is as a tool to manage our recovery within a weekly program structure.
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